In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Through Him were all things made. Welcome to His poem. His play. His novel. Skip the bowls of fruit and statues. Let the pages flick through your thumbs. This is His spoken world.
– N.D. Wilson1
This article series is an attempt to reclaim mythology—and with it metaphor—back from the rationalism that has stripped it of meaning and significance. Mythology is not only valuable, it is fundamental. Furthermore, there is a mythology that is not fictional at all, but is essential and very real: Christianity, as C.S. Lewis put it, is myth become fact.
What flows into you from the myth is not truth but reality (truth is always aboutsomething, but reality is that about which truth is), and, therefore, every myth becomes the father of innumerable truths on the abstract level. Myth is the mountain whence all the different streams arise which become truths down here in the valley…Or, if you prefer, myth is the isthmus which connects the peninsular world of thought with that vast continent we really belong to. It is not, like truth, abstract; nor is it, like direct experience, bound to the particular.
– C.S. Lewis2
In my earlier article, I argued that secularism’s philosophy of personal narrative—examined through the psychological theory of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs—cannot have its cake and eat it too: the so-called ‘scientific’ paradigm of Maslow’s pyramid is inconsistent; at the lower, materialistic levels, it acknowledges that real things exist to meet acknowledged human needs and desires, but at the higher levels, it suddenly wants to call all the things which meet the higher human needs (such as aesthetics, understanding, and transcendence), ‘relative’—that is, not based on any objective reality, but left up to the individual’s ‘personally created narrative.’
The reason secular relativism does this is because it wants to dismantle the idea of objective, transcendent reality. However, it cannot have it both ways. If the theory is to hold water, then it must admit that a real objective Beauty exists in order for our aesthetic needs to be met; a real objective Truth exists for us to come to comprehend; and a real Goodness exists in order for us to adhere to any transcendent axioms and to transcend our fallen human nature. The pyramid itself gives testimony to objective Truth, Goodness, and Beauty even while the philosophical worldview that embraces it denies their existence.
It is important to notice, at this point, that Truth, Beauty, and Goodness make up significant components (either as themselves or in antithesis) of most myths, no matter their sources. Unfortunately, these days myth seems to have become unquestionably equated with mere fiction—and therefore false narrative, because we postmoderns have accepted the claim that myth is never ‘real.’ This should give us serious pause, for if Truth, Beauty, and Goodness are so palpably present in most mythology, to dismiss mythology is also to put them at risk of dismissal.
For the secularist, whose worldview roots are generally composed of the ideas from rationalistic Greek philosophy, mythology is often interpreted as mankind’s childish attempt to explain the vicissitudes of existence, and to attribute divine power to natural elements; in other words, myths are simply societal coping mechanisms for dealing with an unpredictable, risky world. For Christians, mythologies are often viewed as imaginary and idolatrous heresies in the worst sense of the words. In either case, both interpretations tend to view mythology as purely fictitious: made up fantasy; at best, whimsically entertaining and at worst, fearful and dangerous (though it bears remembering that we ourselves are historically proven to be quite dangerous, and are ‘fearfully made’; see Psalm 139:14).
This skeptical approach to myth makes sense within the secular worldview, because any narrative that attributes meaning or purpose to the forces of existence, when viewed within the perspective of unadulterated evolutionary theory, must by necessity be pure concoction. In the strictly evolutionary worldview, there is no place for purpose or meaning; there is only room for random, coincidental material phenomena.
However, Christians would do well to approach the claim that all mythologies are mere false inventions with caution. First, doing this deals a blow to objective Truth, Goodness, and Beauty—since they are most often represented to us in mythological language. Second, doing so undermines the endeavor of imbuing any purpose or meaning to the existence of humanity. Third, such a claim seriously undercuts the possibility of the existence of any supernatural divinity, including the Christian God. Agreeing with the human secularist that all mythologies are simply ‘made up stories’ gives away the important first ground upon which Christianity must stand: the existence of a supernatural divinity who is true, good and beautiful, who created all reality along those lines with intentionality, who omnisciently and omnipresently governs all reality, and who became incarnate in order to redeem a corrupted reality.
I am not claiming that all mythologies express reality, or are equally valid (although I may be tempted to say that they all probably contain a kernel of truth or in some way implicitly suggest it either because they affirm it or they acknowledge it by pointedly denying it). Nor am I saying that all the divinities of various mythologies are real deities. What I am saying is that to agree with the secularist and dismiss all mythology as childish fantasy, and to describe it all as the vain attempts of mankind to explain nature and humanity’s existence within it through imaginary narratives, is in its own way pulling the ground out from beneath Christianity itself. This is because Christianity is based firmly upon factual evidence (such as—but by no means limited to—the witnesses for Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection), and the revelation of a supernatural divinity through whom the world was created and is redeemed; a divinity who has communicated to us consistently, through the Old Testament and through the words of Christ himself, in the patterns of mythological narrative: via story, metaphor, allegory, parable, and proverb.
The unintended consequence of acceptance of the postmodern worldview—that mythology, which then by extended secular definition (the one that reigns supreme in our postmodern culture) encompasses all religion and all faiths, including Christianity—is that the existence of God himself is morphed into a childish mirage (born of a thirst for explanation and meaning), having no viability whatsoever in the ‘real’ world. Furthermore, much of the content of the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament, is then rendered purely fantastical fiction with no basis in fact. I think it is very fair to say, that is not a place most Christians would want to go. That brings us to the unwanted destination in which we dismiss a vast degree of biblical content as fictional and incompatible with the ‘real world’ of ‘scientific evidence’ (as an aside here, it is worth noting how that ‘evidence’ is also constantly fluctuating, necessitating revision; an ironic characteristic in a realm that claims sole access to ‘reality’).
If we go to that place, then not only must we call all the narratives of the Old Testament—such as Adam and Eve, Jonah and the Whale, Daniel in the Lion’s Den ,and many more—pure ‘pretend,’ but what will we then do with verses like the following?
For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether [they be] thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him (Col. 1:16, KJV).
Would we not have to conclude that all this talk of things like invisible thrones, dominions, and principalities is equally fantastic nonsense? Clearly, that is not a conclusion most Christians want to reach. However, by agreeing with the underlying assumption of the secular worldview—that all myth is fiction—this is the logical deduction many make; and clearly, many Christians make it and ultimately appear to fall away from the faith because their rational conclusions tell them that the Christian ‘myth’ cannot, of course, be of more value than any other of the hundreds of available ‘myths’ of which they are made aware…because, after all, in the view they have been convinced of, myths are ‘mere’ inventions.
I therefore believe Christians need to seriously examine mythology, and what we mean by it. Rather than dismissing myth as something childishly fictional or as something dangerously fake and idolatrous, it is beneficial to take a deeper look at it and its implications for our understanding of not just stories and narratives, but of ourselves, and ultimately of our God (after all, it bears remembering that idolatry comes in many forms, not just the worship of false gods; we can idolize material things, other human beings…yes, even and perhaps most especially our loved ones, including our children…and of course, ourselves and the conclusions of our own minds. It is possible these forms of idolatry may be even more dangerous than worshiping carven idols, for they are harder to identify, and much harder to eradicate).
In defense of myth, I would like to explore three elements: an overview of the definition of the word, its universal occurrence, and its common origin.
The Definition of Myth
Merriam-Webster Unabridged online defines myth as “a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon.”
Notice that nothing in the definition suggests automatically that mythology is solely or purely fictitious (“ostensibly” simply means there is a claim being made to historic reality; just because a claim is made, it does not follow that the claim is false—although under the tyranny of relativism, many people jump to this erroneous conclusion; this definition is therefore fair: it points out that myths will make a claim to reality).
The wisdom of this definition becomes evident if you trace the etymology of ‘myth’ back to its ancient Greek origin, the word μῦθος (muthos). My Liddell and Scott Greek-English Lexicon3 defines μῦθος using the contexts of various ancient Greek sources (from Homer to the playwrights Euripides, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and the historian Herodotus). Originally, the word appears to have meant “anything delivered by mouth, word or speech.” For these ancients, μῦθος denoted speech in the public assembly, talk, conversation, counsel, advice, even a resolve, purpose, design, plan, or promise. Later, μῦθος takes on the meaning of a saying, proverb, or rumor (again, remember that while being a rumormonger is frowned upon, rumors can be either real or not real; they are not by logical necessity the former nor the latter). A secondary meaning of μῦθος was a report, tale, story, or narrative; parable, if you will.
How the meaning of μῦθος changed to automatically connote false narrative is no doubt a long and complex one. I would go so far as to opine that the change in meaning had much to do with the growing predominance of rationalistic Greek philosophy which idolized the value of the human capacity to reason, a philosophy that ultimately led precisely to the reductionist materialism which dominates our postmodern worldview.
That is a long story, and one for a different article. Suffice it to say here, that the word myth in and of itself does not carry with it an automatic seal of ‘falsehood.’ That is a characteristic that has come to be attached to it over time, and it is by very nature of that fact neither an inherent nor a consistently necessary characteristic. Based on this definition, we should be able to hold a definition of mythology that does not dismiss it out of hand as imaginary hogwash.
The Universality of Myth
Sophia Schliemann, the wife of the
archaeologist who excavated the site of Troy in Turkey,
wearing treasures recovered at Hisarlik.
Myths are universal to men. That is, all men in all times and from all places, cultures, and religions, engage in myth making. These myths were understood to be expressing reality—that is, the nature of the divine, of the creation, and of mankind. In many ways myths express truths about reality purely metaphorically, but they also often do so literally. For example, the mythological quality of the story about Troy, which appears in Homer’s epic poem The Iliad, was often regarded as simply a fictional fable until archaeologists actually discovered the ruins of Troy in modern-day Turkey. As a result, people had to adjust their thinking, and instead of treating the story of the war between the Trojans and the Greeks as simply a ‘tall’ tale, they began to understand that the Trojan War, and most likely much that was said about it and about the people Homer describes in it, actually occurred historically.
Not only are myths universal, but they are often astonishingly similar. For example, the story of a worldwide flood is told in the ancient text of The Epic of Gilgamesh (discovered upon clay tablets with cuneiform writing in the ancient library of the Assyrian king, Assurbanipal). The oldest versions of the story date back to circa 2000 BC. The flood narrative in Gilgamesh (one of the tablets is pictured to the left) is remarkably akin to that of The Flood told in the Bible, especially in that one man and his family survived a massive deluge of the earth. Added into the Gilgameshversion, as I recollect, is the idea that not only did this man, Utnapishtim, survive the Flood with the help of divinity, he was then given immortality.
Now, the postmodern, anthropological, approach might tend to interpret the story in the Bible in light of the story in theEpic of Gilgamesh. This view might conclude that the Hebrews perhaps heard this age-old tale born in the supposed birthplace of mankind, ancient Mesopotamia, and incorporated it into their ‘mythology’ as related in the Old Testament. However, it is important to note two things: just because the story is similar to the biblical account does not in the least by logical necessity mean that the biblical story was ‘borrowed’ or ‘plagiarized’ (if you will) from the Mesopotamian one; and there is no reason to claim that just because the story exists in more than one ancient extant text, its authenticity should automatically be doubted.
Actually, the fact that the flood story appears in more than one place would seem to bolster its reasonable likelihood of being true! Rather than dismiss this as a testimony to some kind of mass illusion embraced by all humanity (simply based on the wiring of the human nervous system which was accidentally constructed over the millennia of blind evolutionary processes), this would in fact appear to indicate that, like the story of The Iliad, at some point in human history such a flood did, in fact, occur. It wiped out all but one man and his family. Not only that, but this man had some important knowledge, imparted to him by divinity, about obtaining everlasting life (and interestingly, the hero of the story, Gilgamesh, is deprived of obtaining everlasting life through the wiles of a snake—yet another evocative parallel between Gilgamesh and the Bible).
While some elements of myth would, then, appear to be ‘literally real,’ we nevertheless might be tempted to dismiss other apparently purely more metaphorical elements. However, metaphorical elements in mythologies, though they are perhaps not ‘literally real’ as we would understand it, nevertheless express profound facts. We see this attribute of metaphor often exemplified in Scripture. For example, when Christ describes himself to us as a vine. He is using the metaphor of the vine to explain a deep reality about His nature and His relationship to us. We know Christ, when He walked the earth, was not a grape vine (to claim that would be ridiculous)…but the nature and characteristics of a vine were what Christ wanted us to understand. Thus the metaphor, though not ‘literally real’ in the sense we normally comprehend it, expresses a deep and profound actuality: Christ is the sustaining vine upon which we, His children, grow.
We have many examples of this use of story, proverb, parable, and metaphor in the Scriptures, and it is important to Christians to therefore counter the secularist dismantling of myth and metaphor—for in destroying a people’s understanding and trust in the ability of myth to express, communicate, and even be reality, the secular worldview thereby also destroys much of the ability of people to turn to the Bible as a reliable source for The Reality.
The Common Source of Myth
Another way Christians may approach myth is to remember that we claim to be descended from the first man, Adam—no matter our color, ethnicity, creed, or geographical location. If we are all descended from Adam, and then subsequently through Noah, then all stories about God, the creation, man, and so on…must have their roots in the True Story (which Adam knew about firsthand, of course, since he was there and he experienced it). This True Story, diluted through time and place and men scattered across the world, was converted…and yes, sometimes perverted…into various histories, usually told in a mythological manner (through poetry, with a high view and use of metaphor) and even into various religions and faiths. So basically all mythological stories that reach back into prehistory and worked their way through time until the Incarnation of Christ had some basis in reality, either as literal facts, or metaphorical realities, or as twists in those actualities.
Therefore, to claim that all myth is groundless, unreasonable, fantasy is to undermine Christian claims about pre-recorded history and biblically rendered history, and to dismiss a fundamental human characteristic and practice (that of telling mythological stories to convey historical and worldview realities) as sheer child’s play without inherent value or practical merit. That is not the same thing as to say that some myths consist of true elements, while other myths contain false components. The latter can be said with confidence. Therefore the task becomes, not to dismiss and demolish myth, but to learn to discern myth that is actual—that is, to develop the wisdom that understands which myth is perfectly accurate, perfectly real, and correlates perfectly with fact.
God is a narrator: He tells stories through His Word, and therefore through languages, all languages—through the language of art and architecture, through poetry and prose, through music, through science and mathematics. In fact, all of the Scriptures are a narrated story, often using metaphor, imagery, and parable to convey the deepest realities.
Not only did Jesus turn to metaphor repeatedly in communicating with the people, but those who observed Him understood that this in and of itself gave testimony to the fact that Jesus is true myth made true fact; that is, He is the fabled Messiah, God Incarnate:
All these things spake Jesus unto the multitude in parables; and without a parable spake he not unto them: That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world (Matt. 13:34-35, KJV; emphasis mine).
How fitting that the Word and Master Narrator should himself be known by His own tendency to tell stories! And how can we know that His stories correlate perfectly with fact? We need only examine the evidence—the plentiful data of history; from the very beginning of all time, His Word comes forth manifested through utter physical reality: through time, and in space and matter. God speaks, and it is so. The test of a prophet is the veracity of the subsequent coming to pass of his predictions. So, then, the test of myth is the reality of the coming into being of the tale it tells. The tale told in Christianity became Reality. Perfect myth, perfect fact…at the creation, at the Incarnation, in the Resurrection, and so it will be in all that is promised by Scripture in the fulfillment of time, when there will be no need for separating out myth, parable, proverb, story, or narrative, because all of those and all reality will be one. As Jesus promises, and His disciples acknowledge, in John 16:
These things have I spoken unto you in proverbs: but the time cometh, when I shall no more speak unto you in proverbs, but I shall shew you plainly of the Father…I came forth from the Father, and am come into the world: again, I leave the world, and go to the Father. His disciples said unto him, Lo, now speakest thou plainly, and speakest no proverb (John 16:25-29).
The original meaning of μῦθος included simply “speech.” Recall N.D. Wilson’s quote above: this is God’s spoken world! And He spoke himself into it in the Incarnation.
1Wilson, N.D., Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson. 2009. 7-8
2Lewis, C.S., God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 1970. 66
3An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon (founded upon the seventh edition of Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. 1980