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Hercules, N.T. Wright and the modern meta-narrative

Bishop Robert Barron

CHICAGO — On the first day of my vacation last week, I perused N.T. Wright’s latest book, a collection of essays on contemporary issues in light of the Bible. A point that Wright makes in a number of the articles is that modernity and Christianity propose fundamentally different meta-narratives in regard to the meaning and trajectory of history. Modernity — at least in its Western form — is predicated on the assumption that history came to its climax in the mid- to late-18th century, with the definitive victory of empirical science in the epistemological arena and liberal democracy in the political arena.

 Basic to this telling of the story is that modernity emerged victorious only after a long twilight struggle against the forces of obscurantism and tyranny and that the matrix for both of these negative states of affairs was none other than the Christian religion, which enforced a blind dogmatism on the one hand and an oppressive political arrangement on the other. For an extreme but very clear expression of this point of view, consider Diderot’s famous remark: “Men will not be free until the last king is strangled on the entrails of the last priest.”

For a more benign expression of the modern myth of origins, Wright suggests, take a dollar bill out of your wallet and turn it over. You will see a pyramid topped by a single human eye, and at the base of that structure, you will notice the motto novus ordo seclorum (the new order of the ages). This represents the founders’ extraordinary conviction that they were launching, not simply a new political arrangement, but an entirely new way of seeing the world.

Now Christianity proposes a completely different account of how history comes to a climax and what precisely constitutes the new order of the ages — which helps to explain why so many of modernity’s avatars, from Diderot to Christopher Hitchens, have specially targeted Christianity. On the Christian reading, history reached its highpoint when a young first century Jewish rabbi, having been put to death on a brutal Roman instrument of torture, was raised from the dead through the power of the God of Israel. The state-sponsored murder of Jesus, who had dared to speak and act in the name of Israel’s God, represented the world’s resistance to the Creator. It was the moment when cruelty, hatred, violence, and corruption — symbolized in the Bible as the watery chaos — spent itself on Jesus. The resurrection, therefore, showed forth the victory of the divine love over those dark powers. St. Paul can say, “I am certain that neither death nor life, neither angels nor principalities, nor any other creature can separate us from the love of God,” precisely because he lived on the far side of the resurrection.

This is also why Paul and so many of his Christian colleagues can speak of “new creation” and “a new heavens and a new earth.” For all of Paul’s spiritual descendants, therefore, the 18th century might indeed signify a leap forward in science and political arrangements, but it can be by no stretch of the imagination construed as the climax of history. I believe that Wright is correct when he maintains that this “battle of narratives” is far more crucial for the Church today than any of our particular arguments about sex and authority, but that’s an article for another day.

All of this was swimming in my mind when, on the evening of the first day of my vacation, I went to see the new cinematic iteration of the Hercules story, starring Dwayne Johnson (aka The Rock). Now don’t get me wrong: I don’t think that this summer popcorn entertainment is trading in grand ideas. However, it does represent in its own surprising way a telling of the modern meta-narrative. In classical mythology, of course, Hercules is the son of Zeus, and his grand exploits are a function of his supernatural status. But in the current film, Hercules is an ordinary man around whom a legend has been cynically built, and his “mythic” opponents are frauds and deceptions. Hence Cerberus the three-headed dog is just three rather fierce wolves that have been leashed together; the many-headed Hydra is just a group of soldiers with a clever disguise; the centaurs are ordinary mounted warriors who have been misperceived, etc. At the climax of the film, a “seer” tells Hercules that, though he is not divine, he will find sufficient strength to save the day if only he “believes in himself.” Moreover, as he utters his last “prediction,” the seer mutters with a shrug, “but what do I know?” In a word, everything has been flattened out, rendered mundane, any reference to the properly supernatural expunged or explained away. And the political part of the modern myth is not forgotten, for the kings over whom Hercules triumphs are tyrants, who have been using religion to cover up their own criminal machinations.

Again, I don’t think that makers of Hercules have particularly high intellectual ambitions, but their film joins a long line of recent movies— 300, Agora, the various reboots of Star Trek and Clash of the Titans — which tell the story of the triumph of “reason” over “mysticism” and the natural over the supernatural. If Wright is correct about the battle of narratives, we Christians should be sensitive to the many and very effective ways that the popular culture tends to out-narrate us.

The writer is the rector/president of Mundelein Seminary.

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