Bill Jenkins, Guest Blogger
Bill Jenkins is the 9th Grade Great Books tutor at Christiana Homeschool Academy and has been tutoring there for six years. He is a favorite tutor among our CHA students and faculty and, in addition to teaching the Great Books Course, he also tutors Latin and PreAlgebra.
Growing up in Pylesville, Maryland, he was homeschooled all the way through school. After his high school career, he attended Loyola College in Baltimore, where he studied Fine Arts and then graduated from the Reformed Episcopal Seminary with a Masters Degree in Divinity.
Mr. Jenkins was baptized as an infant in a branch of the Presbyterian Church and was later confirmed in the Anglican Faith when he was eight. He has faithfully followed Jesus for as long as he can remember. He and his family currently attend Faith Anglican Church in Baltimore.
Bill and his wife Allison are the proud parents of two sons and a new baby daughter. When he is not tutoring, teaching piano lessons at Joyful Sounds or giving lectures at Reformed Episcopal Seminary, he enjoys classical choral music and hymns, theological conversation, watching the Baltimore Orioles and Crunchy Con Politics.
While it would be incorrect to describe the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer as the Greek equivalent to the Bible or any other holy book, the retelling and eventual writing down of epic was clearly intended, in part, to provide guidance on how a Greek ought to behave. The exhortations are found in the narratives of the Iliad which portray Greek warriors as being able to lift and to throw boulders no two men in Homer’s time could. They are seen in the shaming of those who show any sign of cowardice in the face of battle and death. The rightful way of caring for the dead and its importance are also manifested in many passages.
But one virtue, which repeatedly leaps off the pages of Homer, particularly in the Odyssey, continually inspires conversation and questions among my Great Books students. It is the virtue of Xenia, that is Hospitality. Students are at once skeptical but also, in many instances, intrigued by this virtue’s practice in ancient times and how little of it you can find in our culture. This curiosity leads to fruitful conversation regarding the reasons for hospitality’s prevalence in that time and place and its absence now. My hope is, at one and the same time, to demonstrate the virtues of a Great Books education by sharing the findings of several different class discussions while also piquing the reader’s interest in a subject relevant to all, but particularly Christians.
In the Odyssey it is not uncommon to read about a guest arriving at someone’s home and being offered dinner, entertainment, lodging, various gifts, and ultimately, conveyance. In some cases, this is done without even asking for the name of the recipient. Why is such grace extended? Overall, it seems that levels of mutual trust were much higher. This leads naturally to a conversation on what has eroded trust. The overarching answer to this question is “fear”. Whereas the Homeric characters are seen welcoming the stranger into their midst (with several notable exceptions) the modern American shies away from the unfamiliar on the off chance they may encounter a serial murderer or rapist. Is this fear irrational? My students have had differing opinions on this question. However, they are unified in their identification of some of the causes of such fear.
The first source of fear is media, particularly news media. It is an interesting exercise to turn on the evening news and count the number of stories dedicated to man’s waywardness compared to those which tell the stories of man’s goodness. Print media is guilty as well, though perhaps to a lesser degree than what can be seen on television. The picture painted is bleak and grim. Our towns and cities are filled with drug addicts and gangs, killing for money and as a rite of passage. The violence is not limited to certain areas or certain types of people and we ought to feel grave fear because we are a random bullet away from becoming a statistic. This is, unfortunately, a way of gaining viewership. Bad news sells much better than good. But it not only attracts more viewers, it scares them. This fear manifests itself in many tangible ways, but allow me to summarize with one thought. It is nearly impossible to imagine asking the homeless man on the street to stay the night in your house. Why? We have been repeatedly told that we ought to be afraid of the worst possible scenario.
Of course, there is some reason for caution; a reason hosts in the Odyssey would not have had to contend with: concealed weapons. As a number of students have brought up over the years, you can’t really hide a sword or a spear on your person. A handgun, on the other hand, is quite easily hidden. Ancient Greek hosts could still be harmed by a knife or with the bare hands of an assailant. But it must be admitted, these pose a less immediate threat than guns. When combined with images of violence presented in the media, the threat of a concealed weapon pushes the modern American even farther away from real hospitality.
In the time the Odyssey was written, extending hospitality was not only expected by Zeus and the travelling stranger, but it was an opportunity for the host to sow goodwill. In an age where hotels were not as prevalent as they are today, any sort of trip required dependence on hospitality. Under this system, it is difficult to imagine a scenario where the pilgrim would be refused since the host would count on the reciprocation of his kindness at a later time. It is equally difficult to see why the guest would commit a crime knowing that he would not be welcomed on future trips, thus prohibiting said trips.
This is in no way an exhausting of the Homeric concept of Xenia or even on why it is absent in modern culture. (The inconvenience of hosting cannot be underestimated) However, It is an introduction and reasonable representation of discussions of the concept my class has had over the last few school years. What we see in the Odyssey is an intentional effort to build community. In our time and place, we build fences, porch chairs have been abandoned, and face to face contact has been replaced with cell phones, computers, and other gadgets. In other words, we have learned to live in the same vicinity with other people without existing in community. This isolation is ultimately dehumanizing. Homer speaks to us through the ages, calling us through vivid accounts of generosity by various hosts to communion with our neighbors. Christians do well to learn from the unfettered hospitality of the Ancient Greeks. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews echoes both the Old Testament and the wisdom of generous cultures worldwide when he writes “ be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” May the witness of pagans challenge us to open our hearts and homes to the wandering stranger and sojourners from all walks of life.