Heroism and the Christian Life: Reclaiming Excellence

By Danford, John W. | Anglican Theological Review, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Heroism and the Christian Life: Reclaiming Excellence


Danford, John W., Anglican Theological Review


Heroism and the Christian Life: Reclaiming Excellence. By Brian S. Hook and R. R. Reno. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000. viii + 253 pp. $23.95 (paper).

The very word "hero" comes from the ancient Greek, and brings to mind Achilles and Odysseus rather than Jesus of Nazareth. We associate the great heroes of Western literature with pride, even hubris, and nothing seems further from the qualities we admire in a Christian life. The authors of this study thus quite sensibly begin with the question, "can the Christian life be heroic?" and the first answer they offer is "of course." "Certainly there are Christians who have lived, and died, heroically" (p. 1). But Hook and Reno immediately problematize the issue and deepen it using Nietzsche's attack on Christianity, Nietzsche's antipathy to Christianity, as the authors acknowledge, was rooted in his conviction that Christian renunciation of self, ambition, pride and the desire to rule is life-destroying. But the historical success of Christianity proves-as Nietzsche believed-that "in spite of its self-denying form, Christianity makes a claim upon our heroic aspiration" (p. 9).

Thus the authors share something with Nietzsche: the real target of the study is, in a surprising way, the same phenomenon scorned by Zarathustra in one of Nietzsche's most celebrated works, in the speech about the "last man," the complacent modern man who is satisfied with his small comforts and extended lifespan. According to Hook and Reno (and Nietzsche), the small souls of democratic, egalitarian men and women are incapable of even understanding heroism, whether pagan or Christian. The notion of heroism is now so degraded that modern men think anyone can be a hero: "democratic heroes, then, are well-adjusted middle-class folks who are committed to their social roles" (p. 11). Hook and Reno thus undertake the (heroic?) task of resuscitating a genuine understanding of heroic life, by going back to the roots, the most powerful presentations of different forms of heroism in the Western tradition. They sum up their hopes near the end of the introductory chapter: "Our readers may still reject [the] Christian claim upon their souls. But if they understand the nature of Christian heroism, at least they will, with Nietzsche, reject it as incredible because it is fearlessly ambitious, not because it is childish and easy" (p. 13).

The body of the study begins with chapters devoted, first, to three figures in the classical tradition: Achilles, Socrates, and Aeneas. …

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