The Laughter of the Gods

The Ancient Greeks told the story of a man who had lost the ability to laugh.

Diana, Goddess of the Hunt

“And Parmeniscus… a man of the highest consideration both as to family and in respect of his riches, having gone down to the cave of Trophonius, after he had come up again, was not able to laugh at all. And when he consulted the oracle on this subject, the Pythian priestess replied to him,

‘You’re asking me, you laugh-less man, about the power to laugh again. Your mother will give it you at home, if you with reverence to her come.’

So, on this, he hoped that when he returned to his country he should be able to laugh again; but when he found that he could laugh no more now than he could before, he considered that he had been deceived; till, by some chance, he came to Delos; and as he was admiring everything he saw in the island, he came into the temple… expecting to see some very superb statue of the mother [goddess] but when he saw only a wooden shapeless figure, he unexpectedly burst out laughing. And then, comparing what had happened with the oracle… and being cured of his infirmity, he honoured the goddess greatly.”[1]

The deity Parmeniscus hoped to see was Diana, goddess of the hunt, of beauty and fierce womanhood. Known as Artemis by turns, she was cunning, beautiful, and brutal in her ways.[2] It was said she had come down from heaven in a fiery affair. (See Acts 19:35). Thus a city sprang up around the site, her image duly trademarked, and a temple erected to house the goddess who had fallen from the sky.

(Commercialism, it would seem, is a thing to which humans are constant.)

Oddly, the goddess that lodged at the heart of the temple bore no resemblance to the gorgeous statues that portrayed her. Smallish and black with ash, the true goddess featured a more robust physique than the lithe carvings might suggest. Thus, as in the case of Parmeniscus, the legendary beauty of the goddess became an issue to test the most imaginative faith.

In John 4:22, Jesus confronted a woman with her own brand of illusion. “You worship what you do not know,” He told her. Paul encountered something of the same illusion when, passing through Athens he “found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’” (Acts 17:23)

It’s true of the best religious folk too (Luke 13:25–27).

Still, I think something of that illusion can hang around believers—not that we don’t know Him; rather we do not know Him as we ought. Sometimes the God we know is not the one we worship. Sometimes He is altogether different than we had anticipated.

Naaman did not expect salvation’s promise to fall from the lips of a slave child (2 Kings 5:2). Mary did not expect delay (John 11:32), and no one expected a King covered in sawdust, soot, and the clay of a local carpenter. The disciples did not recognize Him in the swirl of adversity (Matthew 14:27), neither did the Magdalene see Him in her grief (John 20:11-18). Even John the Baptist had his moment (Luke 7:20). And when at last He died and was buried, people shook their heads and muttered, “… we had hoped that He was the one…” (Luke 24:21)

How many misconceptions have we—have I—cultivated in the seedbed of the heart? How many times have I misconstrued His Word, His work or character? Make no mistake—the fault lies all on the human side, with the pride that isn’t satisfied with mystery (Deuteronomy 29:29; Isaiah 40:13; Romans 11:33; 1 Corinthians 2:16; Job 15:8). The trouble with us is that we keep trying to fashion Him in our image, according to our likeness.

But “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:24). We must worship Him as He is and not as we imagine Him to be. Immediately illusion has been lifted from our eyes, Jesus comes with His Word to reorient us to the truth (Luke 24:27), bringing the words that heal, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” (Matthew 14:27)


[1] Attalus: Sources for Greek and Roman History, “Athenaeus: The Deipnosophists,” http://www.attalus.org/old/athenaeus14.html#614 (accessed October 19, 2010).

[2] Diana was also the patron goddess of childbirth and pregnant women. Disturbing.

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