FAITH + IDEAS =: last updated 01/13/2009

Tragic Or Comic: Two Visions of Life and Leadership

November 12, 2008                                            Volume 1 Issue 4
 . . . an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College . . .

By Dan Russ

It's no secret we are in the midst of a cultural crisis, not merely a financial one. There are many causes for this, but perhaps none more pronounced as that of a faulty vision of life and leadership.  We see this not only in political leaders-whose influence, good or bad, is not nearly as profound as we think; we also see it in every arena of our culture. And it's been building for decades.

In the 1970s, Donald Cowan, then president of the University of Dallas, told parents of incoming freshmen, "We are here to educate students to be leaders at (age) 42 not merely to get jobs at 22." He said young people needed to be educated in a classical Christian tradition because that would equip them with the philosophical depth and historical perspective necessary for the coming years. They might come into powerful positions of leadership in the 1990s, Cowan said, at a time, "when we'd be facing huge upheavals in our culture, needing leaders with the moral imagination, grounded in the old verities, who could stand in the breach."

My own attempt to understand this has been to re-vision our culture (as well as our education of future leaders) in light of the twin lenses of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, those classics that founded our ideal of the epic enterprise and heroic leader.

The Iliad is a tragedy about the clash of two civilizations. I call it tragic because the story ends with one civilization destroying another and the Greek's champion Achilles killing the Trojan Prince Hector. Not only must Hector die, but Achilles is told by the gods that his life will be glorious but brief. While Achilles enjoys glory and the Greeks fight for ideals of hospitality and honor, their vision of life becomes one of war, their vision of a leader that of a warrior.

In contrast, the Odyssey is a comedy of a man who believes in relationships and ideals worth living for. I call it comic because, like the Bible and Shakespearean comedy, it ends in the restoration of a kingdom, the reuniting of the royal family, and the recovery of deeply held cultural values. While Odysseus engages in battles with men and monsters, deities and demigods, sometimes killing them but more often outwitting them, he does so as a means to an end: Penelope, Telemachos, his household, and his beloved Ithacans. In short, the Odyssey sees life not as a tragic conflict but as a comic journey where leaders became guides and shepherds.

Granted, war is sometimes necessary, but in too many cultures around the world, including our own, life has become war, and warriors the leaders. When people come to envision life as fundamentally warfare, the survival of the powerful, and leaders as warriors, we easily forget it is for the sake of peace, or shalom, the right order of things so that humans can flourish.

Leading in peacetime is far more complicated than warfare, because a culture at peace recognizes the complexities of life and the importance of giving all people honor and justice. Too much of our modern world, full of constant crises, reminds me of the Odyssey's Ithaca after twenty years of warfare: a wife without her husband, a son without his father, a people without their leaders, all because war took away a generation of brave men and left a gang of entitled hooligans to fill the vacuum. But Odysseus embodied a vision of life that never forgot what he stood for and by his wit, courage, and the aid of a motley crew of people and gods, he managed to restore the values for which so many had died.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., no stranger to conflict, stood in the Christian tradition of leaders like Augustine and held fast to his vision for racial harmony and peace, reminding us,  "The arc of history may be long, but it does bend toward justice." He did not embody a tragic vision of life as war, as a zero-sum game. Rather, he was a sojourner and a guide, on his way not to Armageddon but to a Marriage Feast.

Our culture is starved for such leaders who can bring us through this crisis…in peace.

Dr. Dan Russ is the director of the Center for Christian Studies at Gordon College. He and his wife Kathy live in Danvers, MA.


Copyright 2008 by Dan Russ @ Gordon College in Wenham, MA, U.S.A. Though forwarding of this e-column is permitted (and encouraged) NO part of this may be reprinted or reproduced without prior written consent from the editor of Faith + Ideas =
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Tragic or Comic: Two Visions of Life and Leadership