The world is full of stories that deal with pain and suffering, and in many ways they all offer their various solutions to it. As a classics student, I have come to learn to read the various stories of different traditions and different cultures in light of the way in which they respond to suffering in unique and different ways.
These stories are remarkably relevant to today's cultures, and I offer here two examples from Greek tragedies which exemplify two impulses which we often feel when experiencing pain, I then want to share how I think we can use the same impulses behind these stories in our own lives, in light of Christ.
In Euripides "Bacchae" Dionysius provides a solution for the problem of pain in his wine and Bacchic rites. For example near the start the Chorus sing of '… how happy the one who knows of the rites divine, and is pure in his life, who in the mountains joins, soulmate, with the thiasos … serving the lord, Dionysus.' This solution is ultimately expressed in the prophet Teiresias' words about Dionysus who ' … discovered wine and gave to men to drink the grape's moist draught, which ends life's toil and pain for men …'
This view is an obvious choice to escape pain by means of drunkenness, and taking part in the Dionysian rites as shown by the chorus' words in line 71. This escapism, so evident in any student culture around the world, is finally expressed by a depressed Cadmus after his grandson is killed by his daughter, Agave, and he laments about her future recognition unless '…you (Agave) remain forever in your present state, until your death, although accursed, you will not be unfortunate.'
This lament of pain by Cadmus shows his obvious recognition of the sweet ignorance in drunkenness and Bacchic bliss. This particular masterpiece by Euripides clearly shows the paradox through Pentheus' rejection of Dionysius' cult, and how his death ultimately reveals Dionysius' cult as the answer to this problem of pain, a solution often chosen by many people today.
In Sophocles masterpiece "Oedipus the King" we see the opposite approach to pain. In this approach pain is not avoided but instead attributed to the gods as their prerogative. This can be seen in Oedipus' lament as he attributed his pain to the god Apollo, '…Apollo it was that accomplished my fate, a fate compounded of pain and of crime.'
This sovereignty over the dishing out of pain obviously leads to the conclusion that the gods control ones fate also, and can be shown by Oedipus lack of appeal after discovering his guilt. This leads to conclusions about predestination, and we can find embedded in play the idea that Oedipus' terrible fate is not indicative of some form of tragic flaw, but instead as being an ignorant pawn.
It actually ultimately points to the gods as having perfect knowledge outside of the world, which they finally reveal to Oedipus who undergoes a significant turn about of events around him and a recognition of his own implicit guilt all at the same time. This recognition points us then in the direction of all fates being known by the gods and ultimately completely out of our control.
This brilliant play that so clearly presents the frailty of the human condition, also shows the paradox in a way that is most interesting, in that Apollo speaks to Oedipus to find the truth in the matter of the death of Laius, however at the same time pointing the finger at Oedipus himself. How can a god both administer the good and the bad upon one person (Oedipus) and how can pain be attributed to the arbiter of Justice, without the justice Apollo administers being tainted.
This paradox of where is pain from is but one aspect of the Apollonian/Dionysian divide so evident throughout Greek tragedy, and ultimately is reflected in many of today's spiritualities, as we try and minimise pain through turning it into something divine.
Today we deal more with abstract questions of good and evil, considering them as reified topics about which we can speculate, and forget that for most people evil is not an abstract idea, but a concrete reality. We are used to arguing and defending God on the idea of the 'problem of evil' when really we have very concrete stories that we too can look at, just as those who grew up with Greek tragedy had their plays.
However our story is the story of God entering our world, not as Dionysius did to exalt himself, but rather to humble himself. It is also not the story of a man like Oedipus coming up against the mighty edifice of fate, and encountering his own doom, but rather the story of God as man, suffering every injustice of man, not blindly but fully.
It is to this story that all of the consolations that the prophets announced, bore witness, from Isaiah's 'prince of peace' and 'man of sorrows' right through to the resurrected Jesus who Paul reminded the Thessalonians about as they grieved the deaths of their friends.
We have the best and truest story that will be there for us whenever we need it, let's not forget to talk about it.
First published May 5, 2014
Dale Wang (23) is completing an MA in Classical Studies at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch while making slightly passable coffee at Starbucks. He has been heavily involved in the Christian Union on campus, being their communications officer and leading bible studies.
Dale Wang's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/dale-wang.html