Read Part 1.
The ubiquity of mythology is undeniable, but to what degree should Christians interact with mythology? An answer in the third-century would most likely be in the negative if answered by the church father Tertullian, who famously asked, “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Tertullian didn’t have time for a “mottled Christianity,” mixed with Platonic philosophies or other heresies.
But what about an answer in the twenty-first century? What amount of involvement with pagan mythology is proper? Christians and non-Christians alike have had differing responses to this question.
Bradley Birzer writes,
To the modernist, “myth,” like religion, merely signifies a comfortable and entrenched lie. For the postmodernist, myth simply represents one story, one narrative among many; it is purely subjective, certainly signifying nothing of transcendent or any other kind of importance. For religious fundamentalists, myths also represent lies.1
Some fundamentalists may object to Birzer’s taxonomy, but I have witnessed a similar reaction by a fundamentalist leader. A few years ago, I presented this topic at a conference for educators, and at lunch, just before I held my workshop, I mentioned to an inquiring stranger2 that my workshop had to do with the benefits of mythology. He commented that it sounded like “benefits of paganism” and questioned whether there could be any benefits of paganism.3
This skepticism towards mythology is not completely unfounded. With plenty of Old Testament warnings against dabbling in the occult (e.g., Deut. 18:10-12), plus God’s constant commands to turn from false gods (e.g., Ex. 20:3), one could easily conclude that if we are not to fool around with the pagan occult, then we are not to fool around with pagan mythology either.
Likewise, the New Testament contains specific warnings against “myths” or “fables.” Of course, as John Oswalt points out, four of the five New Testament references to myths, if taken in context, are not really referring to mythology as it is commonly construed; rather, the references are to false teaching.4 But Peter is clear that there is a difference between false, constructed myths and the eyewitness accounts of Christ’s miracles (2 Pet. 1:16).
However, even with the warnings against false gods and the insistence that the Gospels are not myths manufactured by zealots, there are biblical reasons to believe that studying mythology—even a narrower version of mythology that does not include Christianity—is not off limits.
1. The Bible contains elements of other mythologies.
For sure, the mere inclusion of something is not an endorsement of it. But there are occasions in the Bible where mythology is used in neutral or even helpful ways. Apollos was a great help to the early church, notwithstanding his pagan name (Acts 18). Paul appropriated mythology in his preaching by quoting pagan poets and referring to Greek gods to connect with his audience (Acts 17). He even alluded to the Olympic Games to make a point.5
Missionary Don Richardson has used such appropriation tactics himself in his evangelistic endeavors among the Sawi tribe in the former Netherlands New Guinea.6 Richardson is convinced that God has used mythological traditions to prepare the hearts of pagans to hear the gospel:
Redemptive analogies, God’s keys to man’s cultures, are the New Testament-approved approach to cross-cultural evangelism. And only in the New Testament do we find the pattern for discerning and appropriating them, a pattern we must learn to use. Some redemptive analogies stand out in the legends and records of the past: Olenos the Sinbearer; Balder the Innocent, hounded to his death, yet destined to rule the new world; Socrates’ Righteous Man; the unknown god of the Athenians, an analogy appropriated by the apostle Paul; The Logos, appropriated by the apostle John; the sacrificial lamb of the Hebrews, appropriated by both John the Baptist and Paul. Other redemptive analogies have been found hidden away in the cultures of the present—dormant, residual, waiting: the Sawi tarop child and the words of remon; nabelan-kablelan, the Dani tribe’s deep-seated hope of immortality; the Asmat new birth ceremony. Still others are the places of refuge and the legends of the fall of man, of the Deluge [Flood], and of a “ladder” connecting earth and heaven. How many more are yet waiting to be found, waiting to be appropriated for the deliverance of the people who believe them, waiting to be supplanted by Christ, that they may then fade from sight behind the brilliance of His glory, having fulfilled their God-ordained purpose?7
Old Testament folks were connected to mythological elements as well. Even though Daniel and his friends rejected Chaldean food (Dan. 1:8), there is no indication that they rejected their pagan Chaldean names. And Moses “did magic” in a contest of one-upmanship with Egyptian sorcerers (Ex. 7).8
Furthermore, the Bible indirectly provides an apologia for liberal arts training in its disclosure of the secular training received by Moses, Daniel, and Paul—all at Pagan U. So intense study and immersion in pagan cultures can be beneficial.
2. The Bible itself displays mythic qualities.
Without question, the Bible is more than a myth. A narrower definition of myth than I used earlier excludes anything verifiable and is extra-scientific, or outside the realm of scientific truth. But Christians holding to biblical fundamentals believe that God is both transcendent and immanent. The Word became flesh (John 1:14), and Immanuel was a real Person Who lived with other real people. The same deity Who already existed at the beginning of time was also heard, seen, and touched by other humans (1 John 1:1). The claims of Christianity—including the miraculous ones, such as the resurrection—were verified in the first century by eyewitnesses (1 Cor. 15:5-7).
However, the Bible is just as mythic as other mythologies in that it includes interactions between deity and men, a creation story, a religion endorsed by a priesthood (including worshipers, sacrifices, and other rituals), miraculous or supernatural or “magical” events, etc.
An acknowledgement of “magical” elements in the Bible is important, because there is a danger of both over-mythologizing the Bible and under-mythologizing the Bible. Over-mythologizing occurs when atheists claim that belief in a god who magically created the world is an anti-intellectual copout that no science-respecting human should participate in. The new atheists such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens have over-mythologized Christianity by writing it off as just one mythology among many other misguided world mythologies.
Under-mythologizing occurs when intellectuals attempt to disconnect Jesus’ moral teachings from His miracles. For example, Thomas Jefferson wanted to extricate the mythological (or magical) elements from the actions of Jesus in the Gospels, so he created an expurgated version free of “corruptions.” About a century later, the German Lutheran theologian Rudolf Bultmann set out on a course to demythologize the Bible, stripping away the husk to get to the kernel.
But as I have already mentioned, the miraculous events of Christianity did not occur in a corner (Acts 26:26). This mythology was so stunningly real that men risked their lives to speak about it, and they turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6). We cannot demythologize the Bible any more than we can wish away gravity. So while the Bible is certainly more than mythology, it is not less.9
Parts 1 and 2 focused on the ubiquity and propriety of mythology, respectively. In Part 3 I will focus on actual benefits of studying mythology.
1 J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2003), xxiii.
2 I found out later that he was the executive director for a fundamentalist organization.
3 To be fair, as a graduate of a fundamentalist institution, I had plenty of professors who recognized the benefit of studying mythology. In fact, one of my favorite courses was Classical and Medieval Literature, and it focused almost exclusively on Western mythologies. So fundamentalists are not necessarily anti-mythology.
7 Peace Child (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 2005), 288.
9 Leland Ryken uses this syntax when he speaks of the Bible as literature: The Bible is more than great literature, but it is not less.