Preamble: I’m very aware that the past dozen or so theological posts I’ve made have been treading the same ground over and over. And over. These themes and ideas are being bounced around my skull, and their implications carefully examined. I’m a naturally careful person. Which in a lot of ways makes me boring. But that’s ok, as my goal with this blog is not to entertain. My goal is real-time testimony. And right now I’m testifying to a slow, methodical process of examination. I really only expect this to be interesting to Future Josh.
I expressed an idea about why so many myths are similar here: http://joshuaforeman.blogspot.com/2008/05/true-myth.html I’m exploring something else here.
George MacDonald’s Mythmaking
I started C.S. Lewis’ anthology of George MacDonald this morning. Half way through the preface I ran into this idea which encapsulates the spirit, or posture towards the Bible* that I have developed over the past year or so. Though Lewis was not applying this towards our scripture, his purpose was to express the nature of MacDonald’s work. He says that MacDonald was not a very good writer:
“The texture of his writing as a whole is undistinguished, at times fumbling. Bad pulpit traditions cling to it; there is sometimes a nonconformist verbosity, sometimes an old Scotch weakness for florid ornament, sometimes an over sweetness picked up from Novalis.”
Lewis goes on to say:
“What he does best is fantasy – fantasy that hovers between the allegorical and mythopoeic. And this, in my opinion, he does better than any man. The critical problem with which we are confronted is whether this art – the art of myth-making – is a species of the literary art. The objection to so classifying it is that the Myth does not essentially exist in words at all. We all agree that the story of Balder is a great myth, a thing of inexhaustible value. But of whose version – whose words – are we thinking when we say this?
For my own part, the answer is that I am not thinking of anyone’s words. No poet, as far as I know or can remember, has told this story supremely well. I am not thinking of any particular version of it. If the story is anywhere embodied in words, that is almost an accident. What really delights and nourishes me is a particular pattern of events, which would equally delight and nourish if it had reached me by some medium which involved no words at all – say by a mime, or a film. And I find this to be true of all such stories. When I think of the story of the Argonauts and praise it, I am not praising Apollonius Rhodius (whom I never finished) nor Kingsley (whom I have forgotten) nor even Morris, though I consider his version a very pleasant poem. In this respect stories of the mythical type are at the opposite pole from lyrical poetry. If you try to take the “theme” of Keat’s Nightingale apart from the very words in which he has embodied it, you find that you are talking about almost nothing. Form and content can there be separated only by a false abstraction. But in a myth – in a story where the mere pattern of events is all that matters – this is not so. Any means of communication whatever which succeeds in lodging those events in our imagination has, as we say, “done the trick.” After that you can throw the means of communication away. To be sure, if the means of communication are words, it is desirable that a letter which brings you important news should be fairly written. But this is only a minor convenience; for the letter will, in any case, go into the wastepaper basket as soon as you have mastered its contents, and the words (those of Lempriere would have done) are going to be forgotten as soon as you have mastered the Myth. In poetry the words are the body and the “theme” or “content” is the soul. But in myth the imagined events are the body and something inexpressible is the soul: the words, or mime, or film, or pictorial series are not even clothes – they are not much more than a telephone. Of this I had evidence some years ago when I first heard the story of Kafka’s Castle related in conversation and afterwards read the book for myself. The reading added nothing. I had already received the myth, which was all that mattered.”
Lewis as far as I know, never shied from using the word myth in relation to scripture. I don’t know if this is because the word had a different character than it does now. (He also uses the words ejaculate and queer in the same preface, and those words have certainly changed drastically in character.) (Double parenthetical off-topic aside: Do all words that change end up in the sphere of sexuality?) Hm… It turns out TWO parenthetical sentences destroy the flow of a paragraph. Who would have thought? I’ll start over…
The Mythic Nature of the Bible
Lewis as far as I know, never shied from using the word myth in relation to scripture. And he freely speaks of the other world myths out there that bare striking resemblances to the Christian myth.
“But Christians also need to be...reminded that what became Fact was a Myth, that it carries with it into the world of Fact all the properties of a myth. God is more than a god, not less; Christ is more than Balder, not less. We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting in our theology.”
Let me clarify: I’m not using the word myth in a way that precludes a factual basis. But rather, as Lewis says above, “a particular pattern of events”. A particular pattern of events can be based on reality. ‘I brushed my teeth and bought orange juice this morning’… Actually happened, but that is not the stuff of myth. A God manifesting as human and getting executed and coming back to life may or may not have happened. But regardless of it happening or not, it is mythic! If it didn’t happen it’s a myth. If it did happen it’s a myth.
My point here is to make sure we have disassociated the concept of the myth from words like tall-tale, lie, impossible, fabrication, etc. While these words can describe most myths, they should not be a necessary component. What fascinates me about Lewis’ description of myth is how he explains that the myth transcends all mediums. You can express a myth with song, poetry, film, opera or book. And what jumps out to me as part of the religion “of the book”, is how transfixed my religion is with our written words of scripture. I wonder if this focus is actually working against the purpose of our myth. Perhaps John’s description of Jesus AS the WORD should cause us to focus on His mythic personhood, rather than what words in a book give us. Words in a book give us structure, narrative, and details. The medium of writing orients our minds a particular way. The part of my religion that has been bothering me the most lately is the insistence that we can stitch these written details together into a complete systematic understanding of all things with a sense of certainty. Or call it doctrine if you will.
Can One Believe the Myth Without a Particular Medium?
It feels to me like we are putting our faith in a composite of details rather than a “particular pattern of events”. Maybe the distinction is entirely in my mind, but I feel one. I feel like the medium we have exalted is overwhelming the message we were supposed to absorb. It’s catching us up in jots and tittles, animating a legalism of thought. ‘If you don’t believe that these 38 proof texts lead to this or that conclusion than you are not faithful, you are of the world, you are being led astray, etc.’ But if we locate our myth in a Person rather than a book, we are free from all that. The Christ is a Living Word, carrying our myth to each of us individually. Transporting a new heart, creating a new kingdom. Our faith, I think, should lie in fact that we use the present tense when describing Christ’s action.
Christ (Rather Than Bible) As the Proper Medium for the Christian Myth
If Jesus IS the medium then we don’t need to revere a book or an institution and its particular slant on that book over and above Him. (No Christian would say they do, but their doctrine does define their Christ, and they view Him through that lens.) With the medium of the written word we interpret a kind of Jesus that is tied to the written word. Maybe if we stop reading Jesus through a collection of manuscripts He will be free, or rather, we will be free to interpret Him more accurately. As a Being, rather than a character from history in a book. Or more precisely: as the particular kind of character that our particular kind of doctrine has described. I’ve brought this up before but I find it an utterly fascinating enigma: as far as we know Jesus never WROTE anything. Perhaps He meant this as a witness to the fact that HE was the Word. Maybe the fact that we have four varied versions of His myth in our scriptures is an important indicator of how much weight we should assign to these texts. Surely, if Jesus HAD written down His story, His biography, His teachings, His meaning to humanity… no Gospels would exist. There would be no need for a higher authority on the subject, right? But that is not the case; instead we have four accounts, three of which probably have a single source, all of which contradict in some ways or another, all emphasizing different aspects of the Jesus myth. Maybe that is why John is my favorite. The author makes it clear how mythic the story is in his opening statement (as it has come down to us):
1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was with God in the beginning. 3Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4In him was life, and that life was the light of men. 5The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.
This is a poetic, powerful and mythic interpretation of the historic acts and sayings of a mysterious Man. Had Jesus written the same thing about Himself I doubt He would have had any staying power. Plenty of megalomaniacs write about themselves in such a lofty manner. But since we have all these words from all these people about Jesus, we are put in a position to recognize these words as interpretations. The words themselves do not carry the power of the myth. They can help to convey, they can telegraph the myth down through the millennia, and we can appreciate them for that. But I think we have a tendency to put the words above the myth, in that we confine our interpretation of the myth only through the text. (And the institutions that grow from this or that slant on the text: doctrine.) I guess we don’t have faith that God can actually, really guide us unless we are under the strictures of an institution.
One thing I would like to note is that before people started writing down Gospels and compiling epistles, there were other mediums that were conveying Christ’s story. Namely, painting, sculpture, oral story, and song. But after a cannon was established these medium took a back seat, and were forced to conform to the written word or become extinct. From a materialist perspective this makes perfect sense. After all, if one wants to keep an accurate record, the written word may be the best medium for this. (Although I would say that no written description could illustrate what Julius Caesar looked like better than the marble sculpture we have. But we Christians are far more concerned about the pattern of events than what a particular person or place looked like.) So, if you accept the premise that we humans are responsible for maintaining accuracy, then yeah, the written word is the superior medium for keeping things straight. If, on the other hand, you believe that Christ is a present-tense Being, working in individuals, then you could theoretically depend on Him to keep His myth alive through any medium. I think any Christian should be able to imagine an alternate dimension where they heard about Jesus not from any writing, but from songs and drama. But my impression is that our church institutions largely do not trust that Jesus is a present-tense Being in any truly important matters such as doctrine and finances.
This would be less severe if we regarded our scriptures as telephones, simply a device communicating, as Lewis puts it: “something inexpressible”… “the soul” of the Christian message. We can only have concrete doctrine if we have concrete words upon which to build. But if those words are not concrete than neither are our doctrines. This is why those who believe an institutional church is absolutely necessary cannot consider the Bible* to be fallible. I’m getting more and more uncomfortable with my perception of the attitude that thinks God needs us to have an organization in order for His plans to come about. Think about that… we are saying that an all-powerful, all-seeing God … needs … whatever, fill in the blank… it doesn’t compute. I don’t think He needs our churches, our buildings, our creedal statements, our boundaries that define who’s in and who’s out. Maybe Lewis’ Aslan has impressed too much upon my mind the idea of a Lion that is not tame. Maybe my God is too wild and free of our limited scope (or organizations), or our desire to be on the inside. If I’m going to err, let it be on the side of giving God too much credit, rather than not enough. My God does not limp through history with the crutches of Bible and Church as His only means of activity, desperately waiting for us to get things right before He can act. Both those crutches can go to hell and He will do as He will regardless! He raised up a Moses to lead people. He raised up a Paul, He can raise up 6 billion more if He so chooses; and our little attempts at boxing in His work with our theological definitions and claims of exclusive rights to His material be damned.
The Perfection Continuum
Here is an illustration that demonstrates my reasoning for rejecting the idea that the Bible* should be our sole medium for revelation.
This continuum shows four points at which various Christian groups claim the Bible* was perfect. The tradition I come from says that the original documents (which we no longer have) were perfect revelation. After than some scribal error may have crept in, but that does not interfere with a plain core of meaning that is available in our modern Bibles. But that is only half the equation, as there were probably thousands of various claimed revelations related to Christianity produced in the first hundred years or so after Jesus’ ministry. The other half of the equation is: which of those “scriptures” were collected into the officially accepted Bible. I’m not debating the process that went into these decisions, just pointing out that it’s a process that must be accepted by faith as having been directed by God.
But that’s not the end of the story either, unless you’re a Catholic. See, my protestant wing of Christianity rejects several of the books that were originally included in the first official cannon.
“Protestants reject the deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament as being not divinely inspired. Although Martin Luther and other Reformation leaders also rejected the New Testament deuterocanon, they ultimately retained these New Testament books in the Protestant version of the Bible.
Luther and other Protestant leaders rejected many Church teachings and Traditions. Their rejection of the deuterocanonical books allowed them to claim that the disputed doctrines had no basis in Scripture — their new canon of Scripture!” ~ Some guy on the internet ( http://www.blurtit.com/q348959.html )
So now we have a 3-part process being proposed as THE WAY GOD REALLY WANTED THE BIBLE TO BE. Now, even past that level, there is a small contingent of Christians who believe that only the KING JAMES version is perfect. What all of these positions have in common is that they exist on this continuum that has at its basis an assumption about the way God works in history. That God chose writing as the perfect medium for His revelation, then oversaw a production of these writings up to a specific point, and then stopped. My objection to this is simple. It assumes too much. Each of these positions involves a huge amount of human reason deducing a process based on unproven assumptions. Therefore I don’t want to be on that continuum at all. I don’t want to assume that God must have worked in that or that particular way. That’s risky business when you are talking about an omnipotent and wild God. I’d rather say I believe God IS this, that or the other, rather than God would do this, that, or the other. Unless that would-do is directly caused by how He is. For example, I’m comfortable with saying that God would not torture those who oppose Him forever, because that would contradict the kind of Being I believe Him to be. I am not comfortable saying that He would establish an organization and text to propagate His myth. There is no basic characteristic that could be proposed which would indicate that as His modus operandi. The best we can do is say, “If I were a loving God I would oversee the production of a perfect set of Scriptures to guide my faithful ones.” But one could just as easily say, “If I were a loving God, I would oversee the production of set of myths that will help to shape the lives of those who imbibe them.” One of those statements does not require a more loving or powerful God than the other. The determination as to whether I as God would produce a perfect cannon rather than a different type of body of Scriptures, could only be decided if one truly had all the facts about life and death, which none of us do. Our limited perspective should drastically curtail our assumptions about the nature revelation. That is why I choose to exit the perfection continuum.
An Imperfect Medium Does Not Disqualify a Myth from Being True
I want to return to Lewis’ telephone analogy. He compares the medium (whether it be book, movie, or mime) to the telephone that carries a message. Once the message is received the phone is no longer a valuable part of that message. It is disposable. Let me add onto the analogy. What if we receive a phone call from God. He gives us a bunch of gospel goodness, but alas, the connection is poor… maybe He’s driving through a tunnel, and parts of the message are garbled, distorted, mysterious gaps and static punctuate His message. The question is… does this negate the basic Truth He was communicating? This is how I see the Bible*. As an imperfect medium that carries Truth none-the-less. And the ramifications of this are severe. I can’t very well transcribe my broken-up phone conversation with God and make a bunch of rules about who’s in and who’s out, what’s right and what’s wrong, etc. because in some of those mysterious gaps there may have been qualifiers, or the tone that indicated irony would be missing, or a set-up line like, “This is what a moron would say:…”.
It appears to me that orthodox Christianity has invested so much into redefining the nature of the phone call, patching all the gaps, ignoring all the tones, pretending that there could never be a missed set-up, etc… that we can only see the end result of our efforts and do our best to stay blind to the imperfect process that brought our transcription about. Now, orthodox Christians are required to put faith in the process. They must put their faith in the thousands of people who were involved with transmitting the message to them with perfect clarity. Or to put it as I used to think: faith that God led all these people to do this process perfectly. But I think that idea hits a difficult theological snag. It purports to know how God would or should act. This might carry a bit of weight IF the Bible* quoted God as saying, “I will guide a perfect process of the creation of a cannon of scripture that will be perfect and complete!” Even then the logic would be circular, as you can’t prove the legitimacy of anything based on its own claim. And even then you would have to decide WHICH Bible would be THE Bible. And if translation would be a corrupting influence or not, etc. (And ALL translation is inherently corrupting because no two languages have a perfect set of matching corollary words. So every translation includes personal, doctrinal and cultural influences.)
At this point the orthodox Christian argument goes… “Well, the original documents were perfect, and what we have translated for us is close enough to make our nice rules.” … But then WHO’S rules are right? WHICH interpretation of the Bible* is the perfect one? WHY would a perfect document that is absolutely necessary for salvation be SO open to interpretation that we have literally thousands of denominations claiming that THEIR interpretation is the only one that really makes sense? Couldn’t a perfect God have made the message more clear?
Or is the fact that it is not clear another big indicator, pointing to the fact that the Bible* is not what we want it to be? Here’s my score:
1. Appearance: Anyone not previously committed to seeing the Bible* as a perfect document can clearly see the contradictions and varied perspectives with varied theological biases. Most scholars who are not previously committed to orthodox theology can see many points of redaction. (Sure, they have other previous commitments that probably fuel this, but as a mostly impartial witness I will say their work isn’t all bunk.)
2. Process: The sheer number of hands, mouths, and papyrus involved over several thousand years makes it ludicrous to assume that there is perfect accuracy in most of the Bible*, UNLESS the process was guided by God. Fair enough, and I’m not opposed at all to that theory. But it must be acknowledged that this is faith not “in God”, but in our idea about how God would or should act. And our theory could be wrong.
3. Interpretation: If the process (of inspiration, writing, copying, translating, canonization, etc.) was directed by God, why did He stop at the point of interpretation? Why would a perfect guidebook send people in so many different directions? Oh, I know, free-will and such. But the free-will argument still posits a god who finds the “real love” (that free-will supposedly makes possible) more important than billions of souls screaming in fiery agony for all eternity. If that’s justice than I want no part of that god’s morality. In fact, if we ground our morals on God as we must in order to avoid complete relativism than we are at an impasse because the free-will god demonstrates the qualities of love and justice in diametrical opposition to our understanding of the concepts. Which undermines our entire moral system. But this is getting way off on a tangent. The point is that free-will advocates will say that God kept just enough of the Bible* and it’s interpretation perfect to give everyone just enough to go on, requiring just enough faith to make a free-will decision for Him. But this math formula fails to explain the constant schisms in the organization based on the just enough perfection.
So Which Parts of the Christian Myth are “Factual”?
Hopefully this three part summation makes it clear why I no longer consider the Bible* to be perfect. I consider it to be a medium that transferred the most important myth in the world to you and me. But the difficult question then comes: How do I define the myth when I don’t know which elements are accurate, historical facts? Every myth has a core set of events and/or characters, that no matter what the medium is, if those are not present or changed substantially, the myth becomes something else. If Balder is recast from the Norse god of light and beauty into a balding janitor in New York it’s not the same myth at all. (Although clever modern updates HAVE been done to various myths, so I guess I couldn’t completely rule that out.)
So I want to find the core of the Christian myth. Let me try to see what is essential to it before it becomes something else entirely. (According to my view of God of course.) To represent one end of a continuum, here’s a summation of what the Jesus Seminar has concluded concerning the historic Jesus:
So essentially we are talking about the enlightenment Jesus of no miracles. We’ve got the great teacher motif. C.S. Lewis argues against this interpretation in his famous Lord, Liar, or Lunatic argument. However, this argument only works if you assume that no redaction could have occurred. (In which case a forth option is available: Legend.) We don’t KNOW that Jesus claimed to be God or that He said any of the things ascribed to Him. (Though even most of the skeptics agree that we DO have a pretty good essential message of Jesus in the gospels.) And the question I ask myself is this: Could God bring salvation to mankind through this Jesus-of-no-apparent-miracles? Were the miracles necessary? Does the myth still “work” without them? Well, I don’t see why God couldn’t do whatever He wants. I am in no way endorsing the Jesus Seminar’s views, only using this as one end of a continuum. If you’ve read much of me lately you know how much I love continuums! (The concept is essential and foundational to my epistemology and the reason that most people misinterpret me because they are so used to binary modes of thought.) The skeptical “higher critical” end of the continuum puts the burden of proof for biblical miraculous claims on the faithful. While the faithful orthodox end of the continuum puts the burden of proof on their own faith in the process of bible-making. I’m not on either end of that continuum. I’m thinking out loud that maybe it doesn’t matter to an all-powerful God how “accurate” our scriptures are.
The Mechanics of Salvation
Now of course Paul says that if Jesus was not raised from the dead we Christians are to be pitied for our futile faith. (1Cor. 15:14-19) Within the context of this blog, he’s saying that Jesus’ literal resurrection is an essential component of the Christian myth. Without it, our myth is broken or becomes something else entirely. I guess I just don’t see why God’s miracle HAD to be a bodily resurrection of Jesus, rather than a spiritual one, or a complete change in the way God relates to humanity. I mean, ultimately our hope as Christians is union with God, (Hopefully for everyone!) and whatever the mechanism for that union, well, it’s important, to be sure… the most pivotal event in history, yes… But is a literal bodily resurrection THE necessary mechanism? Maybe. Only God can know. If we hold God to be all-powerful and the author of morality we must accept that He could have authored almost any event as the redeeming event for mankind. He could have made it snow angel-glitter over the whole earth and THAT would be the saving miracle. He could have done nothing perceivable to humans, just adjusted some metaphysical dials and THAT could have been the saving miracle. Perhaps Jesus’ life was the gift of a perfect example rather than a mechanistic necessity as we law-oriented beings are so prone to see. Maybe what was necessary was exactly what DID happened in history, and our mythological interpretation of it is neither here nor there. Our ability to grasp it or KNOW exactly what happened is no hindrance to the mechanism of salvation for a God that rules life and death. And if our ability to grasp and KNOW what happened IS the mechanism (as orthodox Christianity claims) than there is no reason that this impartation of knowledge can’t happen for every individual ever created since we have a God that rules life and death and is more than capable of delivering that knowledge after death.
Personally, I want to believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus as that mechanism. (If such a mechanism is needed.) And my philosophy does not exclude the possibility at all. I don’t need some sanitized, rationalized, humanistic or neutered version of the Christian myth that Thomas Jefferson and the Jesus Seminar offer to make it palatable to me. These guys have boxed their version of God in just as much as the orthodox doctrine box-builders. But as my focus has shifted from a rules-based faith, (We are bad, God had to sacrifice to compensate, because, you know, those are the RULES!) to a character-based faith, (God is Just and omni-all-that-good-stuff) I’m losing my need to believe the particulars of our myth. The particulars that come from a written tradition that grows rules-based doctrine. Which is not the same thing at all as rejecting the particulars. To do so would be to betray what I think has been God’s greatest revelation to me: the completely humiliating realization that I Know nothing. So I don’t feel like I’m losing any faith at all. I feel like I’m shifting it. Off of my former ideas about what the Bible* must be and how historically accurate it is, and onto a perfect God, where it really belongs. Sure, this is a God of my own understanding. But I don’t see how that’s different than the God of other people’s or institution’s collective understanding. When it comes to particular events in the Christian myth, since I don’t have any controverting evidence, my inclination is to believe them in faith. This myth has been the single most powerful organizer and interpreter of my life, and I feel really, really good about the results. So I feel no need to take a skeptical approach to the specifics of it. I don’t default to the negative-until-proven state that biblical skeptics do. I feel that I truly am neutral, in that I am fully open to evidence for or against any particular article of faith or biblical account. So, without a time machine, I don’t see any way anyone will be able to prove that Jesus did not physically raise from the dead, therefore, since that is a vital component of a myth that has positively shaped me and my family, I accept it on faith. I just don’t think Christianity would be false if it didn’t happen as the orthodox think it did.
My Bible has Jesus saying “I am the way the truth and the life, No one comes to the Father except through me.” I think He said that, and I believe it’s True. What I no longer have faith in is my ability to know what the heck that means! I don’t feel like it’s my job to know that sort of stuff anymore. That does not mean that I throw up my hands in apathetic impotence and walk away from the statement. I still seek understanding and enlightenment from God because I love wisdom and seek Truth. I just trust that if I apply my best understanding and try my hardest to live in a way that is consistent with Christ’s teachings than everything is going to work out in the end because of Who God is and what His character is. I’m trusting in a Being, not a particular mechanism for salvation. I’m trusting that God will use the proper mechanism for salvation, whatever that is. I’m trusting that all the evil in this world and in our hearts serves an ultimate purpose that is good. I’m trusting that countless lives are not wasted due to some god’s overwhelming desire to be loved by “free will” beings. Now, all of these trust statements could easily be converted into my own personal doctrines, (Thus setting me at odds with my church family) but they are not because they are not carved in stone as Ultimate Truth. They are my HOPES. They express my BELIEFE about who God is, and how He will act in accordance with that character. The moment I abandon the epistemology of humility and declare my hopes and beliefs to be TRUE is the moment I’ve made my own doctrine, set myself apart from my brothers and sisters of the Christian faith, and determined my comprehension to be superior to theirs.
Doctrine, What is it Good For?
This is the error I see in the concept of doctrine. I think doctrine is bad fruit because it comes from a flawed root. Doctrine must ground its faith in something other than God’s character, otherwise one could not make absolute truth claims. (Since God isn’t floating over our shoulder speaking it directly to us.) Its foundation is faith in a historical process. A particular set of events not even mentioned in the Bible*. Therefore the process (by which the Bible* came about) must be declared perfect, therefore it must be defended with everything. So we ended up exalting written words that contradict our beliefs about who God is. We believe in a merciful, just, and loving God, but because our revered scripture seems to indicate otherwise we compromise our conception of His character. In our attempt to systematize and synthesize every scrap of scripture we try to cram the idea of eternal torture for a lack of faith into the word Justice and end up breaking the very meaning of the word. We synthesize contradictions and wall ourselves off because we are so obsessed with this particular medium for our beloved myth. Instead, we could drop the medium like we hang up a phone after we have processed the contents, and let our big organizations crumble, and just live our myth. Isn’t that the greatest medium of all? Life? Isn’t that better than words on a page and the countless contradicting creeds that it spawns? Do we really need big fancy buildings and programs in order to Do-Unto-Others…? Are we so insecure in our faith in God’s character or power that we think He can’t keep faith in Christ alive without a thousand denominations and central offices policing churches and making sure everyone agrees with their interpretation of the Christian myth?
“But what about all the heretical groups leading people astray?” the doctrinally pure will retort. “We need doctrine to keep the True Faith alive!” Wait a minute… did that whole heretical sect thing ever stop? NO! Our doctrines have done nothing to stop error. Even if they have, what is the cost? I’ll tell you what I think the cost is: the Kingdom of Heaven. We’ve traded Christ’s concept for a manmade organization, (Or thousands of them at this point.) So did “the church” stop heresies? No. Did it provide unity? No. Has it carried the Christian myth though the ages? Yes. Undoubtedly. Could God have ensured the transference of His Truth if our institutions did not exist? Yes. Undoubtedly. (To me.) Because I believe that everything that occurs is the perfect will of God I’m not going to sit here and say the church is evil or never should have been. Obviously, according to my theology, God brought about the institution and has used it as He willed. And I’m sure He will continue to do so as He did design humans to band together and form institutions. My only point is that God doesn’t need our institution to bring the Christian myth to whomever He pleases. He didn’t need holy scriptures to call forth Abraham or Moses or Paul. If He didn’t want the Gnostics or the Marcionites to exist He could have accomplished it without a human governing body anathematizing them. He could have killed them with a plague like He did to the Egyptians, or appeared to them in a vision like He did for Saul and set them straight.
I think I’m really drawn to this word, Myth, because of its ambiguity. (When understood properly.) It matches my humble epistemology. It simultaneously designates it as trans-genre and epic in scope. It separates it from mere history, because history only affects us invisibly (a cause-and-effect chain), while a myth can affect us in a visceral and real way. Motivating us, correcting our thinking, softening our hearts towards the Good. That sort of life affecting quality can be read into history, but once one starts doing that they are in a sense mythologizing it. To find meaning or a moral in a historical event is to order that history around a theme, to imbue it with your opinions and values, then to extract them from the other end.
This may sound contentious, as though I’m saying no truth from the past can be known or that all historic knowledge is constructed, blah, blah, power-structures, blah blah. But please remember I am speaking from the perspective of continuum. So the fact that historical lessons cause those historical facts to become mythological does not discount the process in the least, nor is the process an evenly distributed one. It’s not binary, where “History” stops being history and becomes “Myth”. What I mean is that the more details we know about a historical event the less it will be mythologized by our interpretive efforts. So on a continuum, some historical knowledge is more mythological, and some less. The more we know, the more I would consider it to be History, the less we know, the more I would consider it Myth, (Assuming it has the importance or character of a myth) and all of it is somewhat mythologized, even just the tiniest bit. I’m talking about big, epic historical events here like the Macedonian War or the life George Washington. And let me reiterate: when I say a historic event is mythologized, that does not mean the story is less True. It simply means that it is interpreted according to some framework. Not all details can be preserved in any historic account. Some are recorded and most are not. The number of trees on Bunker Hill, the smell of rotten fish in the Boston Harbor during the Tea Party, the exact hue of Napoleon’s teeth at Waterloo, or Voltaire’s breakfast on April 1st 1763 are all Truths that were deemed to be insignificant to be added to the recorded events. The person recording these things made these judgment calls, and any current historian who is writing on the subject will add their filter, and any reader of that modern historian’s work will apply their filter. So naturally the larger, more prominent events will be the most reliable, less prone to people’s often invisible psychological manipulation.
But the manipulation always occurs. That’s OK. That’s how we interpret life. We wrap it in narrative. We apply lessons. And when that happens details get lost, details get added, assumptions are made, and our minds can digest our history that way. Here’s a funny example that just came to mind. My pastor was telling someone about how cool my wedding was. He told them about the amazing silver tree I had built, the moon I painted, and the black cat that was on the tree. *insert sudden record scratch sound effect here* “WAIT A SECOND!” I protested… “I didn’t build a Halloween set for my wedding! We were going for Midsummer’s Night Dream… romantic theatrical… somehow in your memory you turned it into kitsch Halloween party décor!” Now, my pastor is not a dolt, he was doing what we all do, that is adding details that fit general impressions we have of our past. He couldn’t possibly remember every tiny detail, so his brain went into the prop department of his mind and filled out his memory with stuff in the “General Tim Burton Look” box. His brain redecorated the past based on assumptions and predispositions he had. I’m sure everyone has had a similar experience comparing stories with those who went through an event together and having conflicting details. My Continuum-based outlook says this means that our memory, and by extension, history, is all somewhat suspect for errors. Not completely WRONG, simply suspect. My pastor’s memory of our wedding isn’t 100% false. It’s maybe 2% false. I’m pretty sure that all historic accounts have this sort of error woven throughout, and it’s wise to be mindful of that.
Just as in science, there is plenty of room for bias to influence our historical data. In science, we try to isolate relevant factors affecting the thing we are studying. But what is relevant is up to the scientist to determine, and subject to her judgment calls which are shaped by her predilections and philosophical underpinnings. Of course it would be unreasonable for any scientist to detail literally every possible variable, and likewise it is unreasonable for any historian to record every detail. We would not be able to absorb every detail of a historical event or person if it were all presented to us anyway. The reason I’m making such pains to establish the mythological nature of history is so that I can have a sensible framework for interpreting and applying the Christian scriptures in my life. I can place them on a continuum with other ancient writings and examine their similarities and differences in a more objective manner. Well, more objectively than if I start with the a priori that the Bible* is a perfect document. All the Christian apologists love to point out that our scriptures are orders-of-magnitude closer to the events they describe than any other ancient writings that are extant. This is wonderful and certainly pushes our scripture to the less mythological end of the spectrum. But then that must be balanced by the intrinsic claims therein. The utterly mythological and metaphorical nature of so much of our scripture pushes it back down the continuum towards the more mythological end. Again (for the 3rd or 4th time) the continuum I’m placing these texts on is NOT one with Truth on one end and Falsehood on the other. It’s Total Myth on one end, and Perfect Representation of a Historic Reality on the other. To be closer to the mythological end is simply to be closer to mystery. Closer to a state where it is impossible for human minds to ascertain how much, or in what way (metaphorical, literal, emotional, etc.) the events or characters are tied into a physically manifested reality.
Kinds of Myth
Let’s examine some different mythological stories to compare and contrast to the Christian myth. First, there is the Myth of Particular Entities. These are generally Folktales. Like the myth of fairies: simply the idea that little people exist at the periphery of our experience. Flitting in and out of our apprehension. This notion is timeless and exists in most cultures. There are plenty of eyewitness accounts written in first-person, describing encounters and testifying that fairies are real. This myth is of a different kind than the Christian myth because it has no explanatory power. It doesn’t create a framework through which we can explain and interpret our world. It simply posits the existence of a highly elusive form of life. This is one of the reasons that the old atheist argument that believing in the Biblical miracles is the same as believing in Santa Clause or the Easter Bunny is invalid. Myths (or Folktales) about particular entities (Bigfoot, Chupacabra, Santa, etc.) are limited to the evidence of eyewitness or historical claims. Whereas many religious myths are explanatory devices that rely on evidence beyond eyewitness or historical claims. They make assertions that can be tested by experiencing reality. It’s not just a matter of choosing to believe a group of people who claim to have seen a furry man-shaped creature in the woods.
In a religious system of myth you can take their basic assertions such as “the Rain God demands sacrifice.” Or “God blesses the righteous.” And as you live within the myth you can find evidence for or against such claims. Notwithstanding man’s propensity for fooling themselves into reinterpreting reality to fit their preconceived notions, at least there IS a logical grid that you can apply to the claims of your religion. It is beyond just judging a witness’ truthiness, and thus accepting their claims. Unlike a Folktale, the Christian myth claims to apply to everyone with the greatest of consequences for us all. (Whether or not Bigfoot or fairies exist makes very little difference in our lives.)
Another kind of myth is tied to religion, but focuses on the explanatory side of things. I’ll call this kind of myth a Nature-Explaining Myth. Stuff like Thor making the thunder. The Greek gods playing with the fate of humans. The corn god that makes the seeds turn into crops. That sort of thing. This is an anthropomorphic God-of-the-gaps sort of myth. Filling in our ignorance of nature with colorful characters that explain why our world is the way it is. Our modern skeptics of religion almost always make an error of categories by misreading Monotheistic religion-myths as this type of myth. While the nature-explaining myth is related, and certainly on the continuum with the monotheistic faiths, it’s primary difference is in scope. They tend to explain natural phenomenon. They rarely deal with the deeper philosophical issues in life such as epistemology or ontology. They are compartmentalized, fragmented, and always end up with a pantheon of gods.
My Christian faith myth does indeed start with explaining natural phenomena, but due to its (primarily) monotheistic nature it sidesteps all the clearly fictional characters of the Greek, Norse and Indian myths. It does so by offloading the duties that these semi-deities fulfilled, (stuff like making thunder and dragging the sun across the sky) onto a completely OTHER type of entity. A God who can philosophically handle the job. The reason that the ancient nature-explaining myths are believed by so few today is because our knowledge of nature has evicted these gods from their posts. With a new, natural explanation for thunder, Thor’s existence is not only questionable, but philosophically untenable. But in a monotheistic myth, God is the actor who animates all of reality. Whether He creates physics to accommodate His will or miraculously breaks physics to do it, there is no way you can displace God from His place as creator and sustainer of all, no matter how much of nature you can explain with physical forces. (This is why my faith is not threatened by evolution.) So I’ll call the monotheistic faith myths Everything-Explaining Myths. To be fair, Buddhism should be in there too, since it is a philosophically sophisticated attempt at explaining everything despite its lack of a god. (And despite its various manifestations that have incorporated Nature-Explaining spirits.)
So this is how I approach my Christian faith. I see our myths on a continuum, with Nature-Explaining Myths on one side, and Everything-Explaining Myths on the other. We have a few of the Nature-Explaining stories in our Old Testament. For instance, the rainbow is explained. The existence of the earth, sky and heavens is explained. Men and animals, etc. To me, these are indications that the scriptural material in these stories is closer to the side of the continuum where Mystery obscures the historical physical facts the most. If these myths are True, it seems more likely to me that they are True in metaphorical or poetic ways than in a direct correlation to what actually, physically transpired in nature. I will remind the reader for the 200th time that I don’t believe that this makes the myths False, wrong, bad, misleading, or unholy. It simply makes them more Mysterious. And Mystery is not a bad thing. Mystery holds the possibility that these stories DID literally happen exactly as described. And anyone who is willing to embrace Mystery must be willing to entertain that possibility, as I do.
The Old Testament shows a clear philosophical progression from its antediluvian fanciful courts in the sky to its later refined approach to a God so OTHER that He simply describes Himself as I AM. An image of otherness that is shattered with our New Testament Christ, illustrating and correcting our misperceptions about God. Here, the nature-explaining character of the ancient Jewish scripture is almost completely non-existent. The New Testament shifts into a greater Everything-Explaining mode. Rather than reemphasizing how and why the natural world is the way it is, (Because for the authors of the New Testament, that was already established in the ancient Jewish scripture) the writers of the New Testament focus on the metaphysical world of thought, explaining human behavior and prescribing solutions to our age-old problems that the Old Testament prescriptions clearly hadn’t fixed. The New Testament, in other words, is less about the historical myth and more about the philosophical myth. It defines a problem that is not able to be assessed with scientific practices. Sin is not quantifiable or even rationally coherent apart from a monotheistic vision of God. Yet it is an obvious and constant force in everyone’s life. This is why James Frazer was wrong when he proposed that man progresses "from magic through religion to science" as though science can even begin to address what it is that humans value the most in life. And that is exactly what the Christian Myth does. It diagnoses a problem in the human condition and offers a radical solution that no science can match. This mythology has explanatory power beyond the natural world, and touches us in ways that the natural world cannot. This is what differentiates it from the Nature-Explaining Myths of the Egyptians, Greek, and Norse. Their explanatory power is very limited and science has completely obliterated whatever power they used to have. But since science cannot speak to what lays outside the bounds of nature, it can never usurp a God who is the origin of nature, or the explanatory power of a story that speaks to our escape from nature. Science is trapped between the narrow margins of life and death, it can’t poke its instruments much further than that.
I hope this is an adequate explanation for the kind of myth I believe the Christian myth is. But what separates a myth from a story or novel? That seems really hard to define. Here is one take on the question from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myth
“In the field of folkloristics, a myth is conventionally defined as a sacred narrative explaining how the world and humankind came to be in their present form. Many scholars in other academic fields use the term "myth" in somewhat different ways. In a very broad sense, the term can refer to any traditional story.
The main characters in myths are usually gods or supernatural heroes. As sacred stories, myths are often endorsed by rulers and priests and closely linked to religion. In the society in which it is told, a myth is usually regarded as a true account of the remote past. In fact, many societies have two categories of traditional narrative—(1) "true stories", or myths, and (2) "false stories", or fables. Myths generally take place in a primordial age, when the world had not yet achieved its current form. They explain how the world gained its current form and how customs, institutions, and taboos were established.
Closely related to myth are legend and folktale. Myths, legends, and folktales are different types of traditional story. Unlike myths, folktales can take place at any time and any place, and they are not considered true or sacred even by the societies that tell them. Like myths, legends are stories that are traditionally considered true; however, they are set in a more recent time, when the world was much as it is today. Also, legends generally feature humans as their main characters, whereas myths generally focus on superhuman characters.
The distinction between myth, legend, and folktale is meant simply as a useful tool for grouping traditional stories. In many cultures, it is hard to draw a sharp line between myths and legends. Instead of dividing their traditional stories into myths, legends, and folktales, some cultures divide them into two categories — one that roughly corresponds to folktales, and one that combines myths and legends. Even myths and folktales are not completely distinct: a story may be considered true — and therefore a myth — in one society, but considered fictional — and therefore a folktale — in another society. In fact, when a myth loses its status as part of a religious system, it often takes on traits more typical of folktales, with its formerly divine characters reinterpreted as human heroes, giants, or fairies.”
My first impulse is to say that a myth is more generally applicable to life due to its openness to metaphorical interpretation. But we have nursery rhymes and Folktales like Aesop’s fables that fit that requirement. Rather than promoting those to Myth status, I’ll say a proper myth has to deal with epic events as well as being generally applicable to life or offer some kind of explanatory power. Events like man’s discovery of fire, or the Great Flood. Legends like King Author and the Knights of the Round Table could be considered myth, but offers little in the way of explaining anything. This, I assume, is because it takes place in a particular time and place. So it can still relate and extol certain virtues and values, but it can’t explain their origin.
Here is C.S. Lewis’ characteristics that define a myth from his book An Experiment in Criticism: (http://www.geocities.com/athens/forum/3505/LewisJoy.html )
1. it is extra-literary , or independent of the form of the words used;
2. the pleasure of myth depends hardly at all on such unusual narrative attractions as suspense or surprise ;
3. our sympathy with the character is minimal;
4. myth is always fantastic and deals with impossibles and preternaturals ;
5. though the experience may be sad or joyful , it always is grave and never comic;
6. the experience is not only grave but awe inspiring. We feel it to be numinous. It is as if something of great moment has been communicated to us.
According to this definition is seems to me that stories like the voyages of Sinbad and the Odyssey might not qualify, as the protagonists are humans and surprise is an important element. Certainly the line between myth and legend is not clear. But it is clear that much of the Biblical cannon does contain mythical elements. I understand this to imply that the historical/physical facts that actually transpired should be considered not as absolute or concrete settled facts, but rather as mysterious and intriguing. I feel that I can respect the Christian scriptures more if I am open to its mysterious nature rather than an artificial, assumed modern historical nature. I can respect it by attempting to not impose my doctrine on my reading. I can interpret the contingency of historical accuracy as a reasonable measure for my faith in a specific claim. But unlike the Jesus Seminar, I recognize that the latest opinions or procedures for historic analysis may not be the best measures for gaining evidence regarding the claims. In other words, just because an event or statement recorded in the Bible* seems incredulous to me and my modernist mindset, does not mean it was less likely to happen. It just means I have less faith that it did.
As I previously stated, I don’t think this means I have less faith. I believe that I, like everyone else, choose where to put my faith. And I’d rather put it in the nature of God than in the historical process of Bible-making or a particular set of events recorded therein.
The issue boils down to this… Which dimension do we most value? This “physical” dimension we currently inhabit and perceive most clearly, or the more ultimate “spiritual” dimension we all long to go to. (I use quotes around these words because I don’t know that the “spiritual” world is any less physical or that the “physical” world is any less spiritual than we understand them to be.) I would never say that our physical world does not matter. Of course it matters or we wouldn’t be here! What I am getting at is that our expectation that God’s activities here must fulfill this or that particular physical detail seems a bit naïve… or presumptuous to me. To focus on the physical is to look through the lens of the Bible* at history. But to focus on the “spiritual” is to look through the lens of the Bible* at the Ultimate. To change the focus like that means that the historic becomes blurred and indistinct… kind of like a myth. When viewed like this, the details of the historic events are much less important. They can frame our perception of the Ultimate, but they cannot define it.
“What is with the treasure must fare as the treasure… The heart which haunts the treasure house where the moth and rust corrupt, will be exposed to the same ravages as the treasure… Many a man , many a woman, fair and flourishing to see, is going about with a rusty moth-eaten heart within that form of strength or beauty. “But this is only a figure.” True. But is the reality intended, less or more than the figure?” (emphasis mine)
This is what I’m trying to get at. Is the work of God about its physical manifestation, or the Reality that exists beyond our dimensions of apprehension? If it is about the physical manifestation then it is imperative that certain elements of our myth be literal truths. But if our faith resides in the God that transcends our physical world, then the literalness is not important at all. What is important is imbibing, living and transmitting the myth. We can argue all day about what parts are mythological and which are literal. In fact, this is what happens all day in conservative theological circles. No Christian that I’ve heard of takes the Bible* as 100% literal, and so no matter where you fall on the continuum of Biblical Literalness, there will always be someone who calls you a filthy liberal unbeliever. What I’m trying to do is to take my stake out of this continuum and leave the entire thing to myth and mystery. Perhaps this is folly. But it’s the only consistent view that I can find! I keep looking and looking for a conservative scholar to START from this view and build a solid case to literal interpretations of the Bible*. But everyone I’ve read so far STARTS from the assumption that the Bible* is perfect revelation. While there is lots of good evidence that many Biblical narratives have historically accurate roots, it does not therefore follow that every word is a perfect revelation. But that is the leap that all these conservative theologians take.
The Brass Tacks
As a careful and conservative person, I inch my way along this unfamiliar spiritual/philosophical terrain. I don’t have a particular destination or agenda for my journey, other than building the most consistent and logical epistemological foundation I can. Well, maybe that’s not true. To claim utter neutrality would of course be disingenuous. I AM working with an overwhelming desire to justify Love as the foundation for human existence and purpose. I desperately want there to be a Loving God that is in control. And I am of course aware of the humanist psychological interpretation of those desires; so it is with blatant honesty that I display them as my biases, as deeply entrenched in my motives as my desire for logic and consistency. I understand that these a priori foundations limit the conclusions that I am willing to accept, and filter data that might be imperative to gaining or comprehending Truth. My only solace is that every human suffers from some amount of bias directing their searching as well.
Having all my cards on the table, I will be trying to adjust from a dominantly Literal-Historic view of Christian Scriptures to a completely Mythical-Mysterious view of them. Since the Mythical view accommodates literal-historic interpretations as possible, this doesn’t seem like much of a shift. I think the biggest change comes with what evidence I’m willing to consider when making the judgment-calls about what I think really happened historically, and which could be fabrications, interpolations, redactions, spiritual hyperbole, theological interpretations or poetic retellings. Again: ALL CHRISTIANS DO THIS, whether they admit it or not. They may drop some of the afore-mentioned categories, but they still make these kinds of judgment-calls. So a lot of Christian theology is on this continuum with me. It’s just that the conservative branch picks and chooses a sub-set of Scripture to conceptually remove from that continuum and place it in a special category of Unquestionable Perfect Description of Historic Reality. That sort of cherry picking is what I want to avoid in order to consistently evaluate all our Scripture. And what that effectively does is to view all Scripture as myth.
The sad reality for me is that, as a spiritual/philosophical ‘researcher’, I really can’t tell anyone else if this approach is good or not. Because I was raised in a family and culture that so shaped my psyche according to Christian views, morals, tastes, etc. It may be that viewing Scripture mythologically is a mistaken endeavor, but I will still continue to bear good fruit in my life simply due to the Christian capitol that I have inherited. Whereas someone without my background might interpret Scripture mythologically and turn into a selfish beast. This is one of the reasons I stay in a conservative orthodox Christian church, so my children have a similar spiritual upbringing to mine.
*I’ve decided to replace my previous [“the” Bible] with a simple [the Bible*] to denote my rejection of those two words together. Since there are multiple cannons of Christian scripture I can’t keep using the term. But using [“the” Bible] just seems too snarky or rebellious for what I’m trying to communicate.
Labels: Bible, Interpretation, Lewis, MacDonald, Myth