Monday, October 10, 2011

Book review - The Parthenon Code

I love mythology.  These are the stories that have inspired and delighted for hundreds of generations, and they are nowhere near tapped out, as anyone who likes the Percy Jackson books will tell you.  I must have been about 9 when my grandparents let me take Myths of Greece and Rome, by H.A. Guerber, from their library.  I read and reread it, and now am using it as the basis of my mythology unit for my 8th graders.  You're never too old to have these stories read to you... of course, you can't expect 13-year-olds to take them seriously (Cronos wearing "world's best dad" t-shirt while eating his kids... Juno, transformed into a cow, asking Jupiter "does this transformation make me look fat?"... Cupid and Psyche relationship status on Facebook: it's complicated.)

Which is why The Parthenon Code: Mankind's History in Marble, by Robert Bowie Johnson, was such a disappointment. I wanted to like this book: saw a blurb about it years ago and thought, "Oh cool, a Christian view of mythology."  It's kind of a special interest of mine... I believe that most of the myths originated in the time before Moses, perhaps even before Noah, and that many of them contain garbled but recognizable variations of Biblical truth.  Other fascinating books I've read that touch on the subject include Jonathan Edwards Confronts the Gods by Gerald McDermott and The Real Meaning of the Zodiac by the late D. James Kennedy - I recommend the Kennedy book as an approachable introduction; it's based on a sermon series he gave.

I had to get Johnson's book through inter-library loan; it's a vanity press publication, and has effusive praise on the back cover ("The most original book of the decade, if not the last fifty years") and overleaf ("...presents nothing less than a thoroughly substantiated unified theory of human history.")  But when I checked the bibliography, there was not one single reference from earlier than 1900.  This would seem to me to be a problem in a work touching on classical culture.  He also made the very puzzling choice of using the Concordant translation of the Bible for his Biblical quotes.  The extreme literalism of this translation is disastrous for anyone looking for clear English.  As a teacher of an ancient language, I spend a disproportionate amount of time trying to coax young students to form translations in good English.  This translation takes them in the opposite direction.  Rather than "the earth was formless and void" he insists "the earth became a Chaos," after God created it.  There are some serious theological problems there.

Johnson is interested in using analysis of the art on the Parthenon and ancient vases to prove his pet theory that Greek mythology stems from the line of Kain (he insists on this spelling, and also "Kentaurs") and is diametrically opposed to the true Biblical religion.  He claims that Hera represents the "primal Eve," Athena  or a-thanatos, the deathless one, represents "the deified serpent's Eve," and the little-studied old sea-god Nereus is actually Noah, who gets no respect from the line of Kain.  There is no mention of Deucalion, the Noah-equivalent most mythologists mention.  Art history helped make Dan Brown's The Davinci Code a huge phenomenon; Johnson probably hoped for some of that action.  I did enjoy the analysis of the art on the vases, and I'm not unsympathetic to Johnson's interpretation, but I think his labored writing style and preachy tone spoil any worthwhile point he was trying to make.  I get the impression he wants to market his books to Christian homeschoolers; but their money would be better spent downloading the Kindle version of Guerber's Myths book.

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