In the general Christian American society that I grew up in, the word “myth” had general, deprecatory meanings relative to the context of its use. When referring to a literary genre, it refered to the stories of ancient peoples. A subspecies of fables teach a moral lesson. Other myths, such as Greek myth were recognized as the basis of certain psychological truths, such as the story of Narcissus and nothing more. Beyond that, myths were simply stories of ancient people, often associated with superstitions of those people or otherwise having sacred meaning to them, generally primitive and having little if any meaning for us today.
Myths may have at times referred to primitive religions, most specifically, identified with idolatry. This was not associated with our Bible because our Bible was literally true. To associate any ancient myth with stories in our Bible, other than its mere references to pagan idolatry, would have the necessary implication that our Bible was false. It would be an attack on the very foundation of our faith, and therefore intolerable.
My background is similar to that of Bill Moyers (each of us coming from a Baptist background). In his interviews of Joseph Cambell I note that many times Moyers refers to myths as a means of explaining where certain human experiences “came from.” In each case, Campbell corrects: it is a state of being rather than a state of knowing or understanding.
Joseph Campbell tells us in his public television series with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth:
Myth reveals that which is common to all humanity.
It reveals the rapture of being alive.
They are the world’s dreams.
Mythology is poetry, and the poetic language is very flexible.
Myths inspire the realization of the possibility of your perfection, the fullness of your strength, and the bringing of solar light into the world.
Every mythology has to do with the wisdom of life . . . It integrates the individual into his society and the society and to the field of nature.… It’s a harmonizing force.”
Slaying monsters is slaying the dark things. Myths grabbed you somewhere down inside.
“The myths tell me where I am,” Campbell tells us, and reveals the beauty that surrounds me; that there is something beyond that which my eyes can reveal. Mythology is the song “of the imagination inspired by the energies of the body.” Myths concern more serious matters of living within a society, of living in harmony with nature.
Mythological Truths as Inherited and “Subverted” by Biblical Writers
Brian Godawa borrows the phrase of CS Lewis’ essay for his book, Myth Became Fact. In his preface, Godawa notes that the majority of the Bible is not theological or logical construct. Rather, it is poetry, storytelling, metaphor and allegory in celebratory. He quotes CS Lewis,
We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about “parallels” and “pagan Christ’s” – they ought to be there – it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t.
Godawa notes that in common usage “myth” means “false,” and since the word of God can never be false, the category of myth is anathema in relation to the Bible.
The problem, he notes, is when Christians interpret their scriptures as “historical” or “factually accurate.” The Bible was written by human beings with a particular cultural, geographical, and historical orientation. It is error to insist that biblical writers meet modern standards for worldview, scientific understanding and cultural orientation. To do so is, in his words, would be “cultural imperialism.” Biblical writers, both in the Old Testament and the New, viewed the world as viewed by unsophisticated people, with sky above, both above and below which was more water, as described in the creation story of Genesis 1. The roots of our modern scientific mind were laid 1500 years later in the Renaissance, with the birth of the scientific method, a dramatic departure from Middle East worldviews of biblical writers. Indeed, Godawa states,
For us to demand that the biblical text be scientifically or historically “accurate” as we define those terms is not a high view of Scripture, it is a low view of Scripture.
In lay language, Godawa holds that the mythical resources in the societies that surrounded Israel were adopted by the biblical writers and subverted to God’s purposes. He rejects both the Liberals position that the Bible is merely a product of human activity, or anthropocentric, and the conservative – literal position that Bible is literally the words of God, or theocentric.
It appears to me that Godawa, taking the position that God subverted myths of the time and area to “His purposes,” is as anthropomorphic as is the liberal position to which he objects. I do believe that the mythological sources were subverted, that being a practice of the time; but I do not accept that the writers of the Bible accurately stated “God’s intentions,” as though the “mind of God” could be known. No man has seen God and lived, the Bible tells us; nor can anyone mine below the surface of forbidden deific appearances to know the mind of God. Godawa notes that the subverted stories transcended the sources, and with that I agree. I do not go so far as to limit that transcendence, nor unreasonably elevate it, then or now. Our challenge when we read the Bible, is to allow it to resonate and inspire us, and to respond.
The divine, the transcendent is revealed throughout the world.
Would you please share your own faith story?