Christians and Mythology (Part 2: Propriety)

JanusRead 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.

Notes

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.

4 http://www.studylight.org/dic/bed/view.cgi?number=T493

5 http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/how-to-watch-the-olympic-games

6 http://themundanemuse.blogspot.com/2012/04/redemptive-analogies-appropri…

7 Peace Child (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 2005), 288.

8 http://themundanemuse.blogspot.com/2012/01/two-kinds-of-magic.html

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.

[node:bio/jeremy-larson body]

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There are 12 Comments

Don Johnson's picture

All of this sounds very wise, but really, not much is being said. And what is being said is not really helpful or edifying. I will concede that it might be possible to redefine "mythology" in such a way that you can somehow sort of make it fit your thesis, but what is the point of using this kind of terminology?

Does it make the Bible clearer or more obscure?

Does it build the believer up in his most holy faith, or does it puff him up in his intellectual hubris?

 

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

DavidO's picture

Does it build the believer up in his most holy faith, or does it puff him up in his intellectual hubris?

False dichotomy.

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

I'm preparing a unit study for my kids on Joseph Campbell's monomyth, or "hero's journey" as it is reflected in literature, television, and movies. I see no harm in studying their origins and structure, and the way they are incorporated into our lives, our architecture, and modern culture/entertainment. It's just important to maintain the proper perspective. 

M. Osborne's picture

I'm going to have to re-read this article again to digest, but my first impression is that it's treating the Bible as one among many stories (and of course the Bible being the true story)....or that it's starting with the general idea of "story" or "myth" and then fitting the Bible into it.

But why not start with the Bible as THE story and all other stories as either good approximations, or bad approximations, of THE story?

I'm thinking of the story that Lucy reads on Coriakin's island (Voyage of the Dawn Treader): from that time forward, what she means by "a good story" is a story that reminds her of the story she read there.

I think what makes a good story a good story is its correspondence to real life, the life as God made it, the life given a story arc by the Bible.

Michael Osborne
Philadelphia, PA

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

While I've seen the life of Christ often referred to as the most popular example of the monomyth, I teach my kids that the typical "hero's journey" story is usually a pathetic substitute for the real thing. And I don't refer to the Bible in any way as 'mythical' or 'magical'. 

Mythologies just illustrate to me how much mankind knows they need a Savior. It is written somewhere in our conscience, on the tables of our hearts- it takes a lot of effort to reject Christ, IMO, because so much of what we see, write, read, and enjoy points us to Him. We can't seem to escape the fact that are some things hard-wired into the human mind, and it's interesting that so many myths and metaphors are patterned after the life of Christ, or some other Biblical example or principle. 

Jim's picture

I'm not sure that I buy the premise that "The ubiquity of mythology is undeniable"

OK the image with this article is the Roman god Janus.

I used to live in Denver where the Janus funds are HQ'd. I doubt many Janus Funds investors know that their asset management company is named after a Roman god! (or care!).  (see image below)

We used to have a massive computer database function in a company where I worked that we called Janus because it had a backward and forward looking aspect to it.

One time I used the word "fortuitous" in a message. Afterwards a deacon reminded me (I didn't actually need reminding!) that the word came from Fortuna, the Roman goddess of luck.

So here's my question (and I could throw in here that some people drive Mazdas the name of which goes back to pagan roots).

So my question is this ... is mythology ubiquitous? Or do we just have a lot of words that have their etymology rooted in mythological persons or concepts? If I have a near miss with the car, I might verbalize "I was fortunate to not have an accident" yet still know that my God is sovereign and I was protected by His providential care.

I could expand upon this: "Thursday I was riding in my son's Mazda to visit the Janus wealth advisor to discuss an investment article in Fortune magazine."  

 

 

 

 

 

Don Johnson's picture

Susan R wrote:
While I've seen the life of Christ often referred to as the most popular example of the monomyth, I teach my kids that the typical "hero's journey" story is usually a pathetic substitute for the real thing. And I don't refer to the Bible in any way as 'mythical' or 'magical'. 

Mythologies just illustrate to me how much mankind knows they need a Savior. It is written somewhere in our conscience, on the tables of our hearts- it takes a lot of effort to reject Christ, IMO, because so much of what we see, write, read, and enjoy points us to Him. We can't seem to escape the fact that are some things hard-wired into the human mind, and it's interesting that so many myths and metaphors are patterned after the life of Christ, or some other Biblical example or principle.

Then I wouldn't have an objection.

The problem is that he is equating the Bible with mythology, at least to some extent. There is a HUGE problem with liberal theologians trying to de-mythologize the Bible. I think it is a dangerous mistake to accept the liberal premise that there are mythologies in the Bible, or that the Bible is largely a true myth.

That kind of thinking leads in directions we don't want to go.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

Maybe the point is that the ubiquity of the myth is reflected in the storyline of every great fable, adventure tale, or romance. Good guy vs bad guy, or protagonist vs antagonist. Good guy questing, searching for something, protecting something- bad guy wants it for himself, or wants to destroy it. Good guy and bad guy go at it- dragon chase, foot chase, car chase, horse chase, helicopter chase, spaceship chase... good guy goes down, apparently for the last time, but has a miraculous comeback of some kind, bad guy is vanquished, good guy gets the girl. They live happily ever after.

Most stories are variations on this theme. They are not based on mythologies, however, but on Biblical truths. Mythology took those truths and reinvented them. This world is never going to willingly give God credit for anything until the time when every knee in Heaven and earth bows.

My dd found out the other day that the word 'tantalize' is from the story of Tantalus. Mythology is pervasive at the very least.

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

I totally agree. It's one thing to say that mythologies are a man-made counterfeit of Biblical events and people, and another thing to say the Bible is mythic in any way. It is prophetic, uses parables, metaphors, typologies, etc... but the word 'myth' is not one I'd be comfortable using to describe anything of Scripture. 

SBashoor's picture

Someone has made the distinction between the Bible's use of mytho-poetic language (poetic borrowing of mythological motiphs) and mytho-poeic literature which is just plain old pagan mythology. For instance, the Psalms refer to Yahweh riding on the clouds, shooting out lightening (Ps 18:6-18, 29), images which were very common in ANE pagan literature, particular with reference to Ba'al. And there's Job and Isaiah's discussion of Rahab, a great serpentine beast representative of evil. The Bible doesn't for a moment embrace the pagan theology behind mythic language, but it sometimes adapts it for its own purposes--often for polemical purposes, illustrating Yahweh's supremacy to the gods.

This issue is a hot topic in biblical studies nowadays, and the trend is to overplay (I think) the presence of these mytho-poetic elements. But I also think it's undeniable that biblical authors were familiar with ANE mythologies, and the Spirit inspired them to utilize some of that imagery.

M. Scott Bashoor Happy Slave of Christ

Ed Vasicek's picture

Don Johnson wrote:

Then I wouldn't have an objection.

The problem is that he is equating the Bible with mythology, at least to some extent. There is a HUGE problem with liberal theologians trying to de-mythologize the Bible. I think it is a dangerous mistake to accept the liberal premise that there are mythologies in the Bible, or that the Bible is largely a true myth.

That kind of thinking leads in directions we don't want to go.

 

This is sort of like talking about "worship." The meaning may change three or four times in a conversation, and it is frustrating.  What do we mean by "myth?" The same problem.  The technical, secular/philosophical definition is one thing, but theologians who "demythologize" are saying that the miracles are FALSE stories, not just stories.  When the skeptic on the street says the Bible is filled with myths, he doesn't mean unverifiable accounts of God reacting with man. He means lies, made-up stories.

This is precisely why vocabulary needs to adapt to the audience, and why we need to either add an adjective to a term or coin some new terms/phrases.  The word "myth" is forever colored as "UNTRUE story" no matter how often it is defined otherwise. To most Christians, the word "myth" will always feel wrong when applied to the Bible.

 

"The Midrash Detective"

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