Summary of Chapter Two
Houston begins his argument for a return to the “mentored life” by examining the “Heroic Myth of Odysseus.” In this myth, Houston suggests we see all the characteristics of individualism and narcissism that stand as obstacles to the mentored life. Just as Odysseus was required to overcome the hardships and challenges of life by “navigating against the primordial forces” so to the modern is encouraged the find meaning in life through a kind of Odysseus like self-fulfillment.
In contrast to Odysseus’ “heroic myth”, Houston describes the life of 17th century mystic Francis Fenelon and a series of essays he wrote based on the “Myth of Mentor” in which Fenelon was inspired to lead a life of obscurity without social or external recognition. Throughout Fenelon’s life, he exhibited a greater interest in selfless obscurity, and encouraged those he mentored to do likewise. And Houston suggests that this is exactly the approach that the Christian must consider if we are to overcome the hold that the heroic myth Odysseus continues to have on our culture.
I feel the tension about which Houston speaks in my ministry all the time. The challenge presented by our culture of individualism, narcissism, and superficiality is an obstacle to the higher virtues of selflessness, servanthood, and ministry in obscurity about which I preach on a routine basis. The challenge is not just to those who have put in long hours, sacrifice their families, and personal agenda for the sake of their worldly success.
The challenge addresses me as a pastor when every time I turn around, I’m invited to another mega-church that has the answers that will help lift my church out of ecclesiastical doldrums. The challenge of the “heroic myth” model of ministry addresses me every time I’m greeted by a handsome and smiling pastor proclaiming God’s faithfulness to them evidenced by the successful building campaign they have just completed.
In my most sober moments, I know that the “heroic myth” is false. The hard part is leading a life of obscurity and faithfulness when the prevailing church culture is telling me something different. To reach such a place can only be accomplished with the help of mentors and friends who can point out the landmines along the way.
An idea that struck me through reading this chapter comes from teaching Proverbs 1:1-7, where I work with the idea of “receptive reverence” — the wise person listens to the elders, to the wise, and receives what the wise have to say with reverence.
Another idea that Houston triggered for me is that what he is talking about in this chapter is meta-images we live by. Each of us lives by some image — who we want to be, whom we imitate, whom we admire, etc.. Houston calls into question the “images we live by.”
And, Houston’s study of the Myth of Mentor, the mentor for Telemachus, son of Odysseus, exposes the eagerness our society has for the narcissistic, self-made, individualistic person — who can go it alone, who can meet the challenge, who embodies the American dream of climbing every mountain that is seen. I was very impressed by this them in this chp.
Also, I was struck by Fenelon’s challenge to live by the image of Christ and how that image countered the image of the State with its ideology of power and success and elitism. I’ve not read lots of Fenelon, but Paraclete publishes a couple of his books and I have read one of them.