Christians and Mythology (Part 3: Benefits)

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Mythology is everywhere (see Part 1), and there are biblical reasons that Christians should not necessarily break out in hives when they encounter mythology (see Part 2). The good news is that there can be much more to the Christianity-mythology relationship than narrow-eyed tolerance. There are numerous practical benefits to having a good understanding of mythology.

1. Meeting historical/cultural expectations

Knowing where we came from is just part of being an educated person. As one pastor has pointed out, we expect grade school students in Maryland to learn Maryland history—so as heirs of Hellenic and Latin civilizations, we owe it to ourselves to be somewhat knowledgeable about Greco-Roman culture.1 It’s simply our history.

We also have a Judeo-Christian history, but let us learn both instead of gravitating towards one over the other. Neither let us pretend that Christian history is pristine compared to the stories of polluted pagan mythology. Biblical history is nothing more than stories of God’s salvation of pagans.

One could argue that we are to be counter-cultural, and that is true in a certain sense. But being counter-cultural does not mean that we have to counter everything.2 At times, Paul argues from both creational and cultural norms.3 Creational norms are fixed, but there are also acceptable cultural reasons for acclimating ourselves to our surroundings. We may not like some aspects of our culture, but we should be educated in the culture that we find ourselves in.

2. Understanding other literature

In connection with being an educated citizen in the West, a knowledge of mythology aids our understanding of great literature. Like it or not, mythology has formed the base of virtually every civilization, and as each civilization has developed its own literature, that mythology is often at the core of its classics. Students of Western literature (pretty much all liberal arts students to various degrees) likely begin their studies with Homer. Greek drama follows, and Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton are among the other staples, all loaded to the gills with mythos.

Furthermore, as I noted in Part 2, the Bible itself is filled with references to mythology. As one blogger put it, “Paul had studied Greek mythology thoroughly, and he was therefore able to lead the people of Athens to Christ because he was an informed person, not an ignorant person. (The Greek gods are referred to in Scripture by name in the book of Acts, so your understanding of Scripture also hinges on your ability to understand the culture in which Scripture was written.)”4

3. Interpreting genres

As a book filled with God’s words, the Bible demands careful interpretation, and interpreting genre—an important skill, especially for Christians—doesn’t have to be an impossible task. For example, when we read in Revelation 5 that Christ is a slain lamb with seven horns and seven heads, we can assume that it’s a figurative description. And when similar descriptions appear throughout the entire book, it is safe to say that much of it is figurative as well. R.C. Sproul explains that consistency in this area means that if we want to claim that Revelation is essentially literal, we should not turn around and try to interpret the locusts in Chapter 9 as attack helicopters. A literal interpretation means that locusts are locusts.

However, even mentioning different kinds of interpretation makes some Christians nervous. One concern is that if we take parts of the Bible figuratively, there’s nothing to stop us from sliding down the slippery slope and questioning the literalness of the creation story, the parting of the Red Sea, Christ’s incarnation and resurrection, etc. Interestingly, this is where an understanding of mythology helps us guard against wrong interpretations. Knowing what mythology is helps us recognize what the Bible isn’t.

Rudolf Bultmann (mentioned in Part 2) was one of those who had a hard time distinguishing mythology from biblical history. Bultmann was “a German New Testament scholar who…developed a radical method of Biblical interpretation. For him, the gospel message has meaning only when it brings meaning as an event to the individual through a decision made in faith. When the Bible speaks in this way, it is kerygma [useful preaching]; when it speaks merely as history, it is mythos.”5

R.C. Sproul describes it this way: Bultmann’s “here and now” theology claimed that our relationship to God is not horizontal (in time/history), but vertical (existential).6 So the Bible is not historical, but merely a mythical way of expressing how we can relate to God personally. Bultmann wanted to shuck the mythical husk from the Bible to get to its core teaching, its “kerygma.” But the problem is that the husk that he wanted to rip away was the core. What he and other New Theologians failed to realize was that redemptive history is also redemptive history.

Ed Veith argues that the Bible is a historical book, and in certain stylistic ways it is very unlike all other myths, legends, fairy tales, etc. Without exception, ancient mythologies were written in poetry, and this distinguished them from historical accounts, which were written in prose. Even a cursory view of Genesis, the Gospels, and other historical books of the Bible reveal that these prose accounts were meant to be taken as actual history.7

Veith uses quotes from C.S. Lewis to discredit the critics on the basis that they were specialized in New Testament criticism, but not mythology itself. According to Lewis, “If [a critic] tells me something in a gospel is a legend or a romance, I want to know how many legends and romances he has read…. I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like [the Gospel of John].”

To Lewis, the choice was clear. If the historical accounts of the Bible cannot be taken as actual reporting, then “some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole universe of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative.” This is not really an option for Lewis, who adds, “The reader who doesn’t see this has simply not learned to read.”8

Lewis’s critique of the New Theology is helpful not only for laymen struggling to interpret the Bible’s different genres, but also for pastors, who often receive pressure to make the claims of the Bible more palatable. A pastor himself, Frederick Buechner put things very well when he criticized preachers who demythologize the Gospel:

The preacher exchanges the fairy-tale truth [of the Gospel] that is too good to be true for a truth that…is in some kind of harmony with [all the other truths in the world]. He secularizes and makes rational. He adapts and makes relevant. He demythologizes and makes credible. And what remains of the fairy tale of the Gospel becomes in his hands a fairy tale not unlike The Wizard of Oz.9

The stories and message of Bible may seem too good to be true, like a fairy tale in which all wrongs are righted. But that makes its truth all the more wonderful. The good news is that the mythical elements of Christianity are true. God really did become man, and the dead really do come back to life. As C.S. Lewis said elsewhere, “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact.”10

Part 3 began a list enumerating benefits that come from studying mythology. Part 4 will continue that list.

Notes

1 http://www.canonwired.com/ask-doug/mythology/

2 E.g., socks.

3 http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2012/05/14/debatable-should-cult…

4 http://susanevans.org/blog/?p=3981

5 Entry for “The New Theology” in The New Compact Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1967), p. 581.

6 http://www.ligonier.org/learn/series/god_in_space_and_time/god-in-space-…

7 http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/historical-book/

8 Veith is quoting from Lewis’s essay “Fern-seed and Elephants” (also called “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism”) in Lewis’s book Christian Reflections.

9 Telling the Truth (New York: HarperCollins, 1977), p. 92.

10 God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), p. 66.

[node:bio/jeremy-larson body]

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There are 15 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Appreciate the series and the thoughts here.

To me, the myths that have endured have done so because there is a veracity to them. They ring true--not in their reports of actual events but in their depictions of human nature (though their gods are just as human as the humans are, only more powerful). In the great myths humans are trying to do something that matters while being continually reminded that they are not in control, must continually wrestle with evil (their own, others' and that of beings greater than themselves) and only live a little while. 

It's because of the great western myths that we all know what the word epic​ means.

The Bible story (and its sub-stories) also has that quality but rings true on all levels.

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

A strange form of egalitarianism, many Christians seem to pride themselves on being illiterate, in the sense of remaining ignorant of the philosophical and literary underpinnings of modern culture, literature, and ideas. 

While I understand that we should be cautious about how and what we read and study, I don't understand the fear of mythology, or of its kissin' cousins- science fiction and fantasy literature- unless it is thoroughly Christian in tone and content. 

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I'm going to write an essay on why I love Sci Fi, even though so much of it is anti-religious, intellectually smug, and bows at the altar of evolutionary orthodoxy. (I've been appreciating fantasy a bit more the last few years, too, for almost all the same reasons... and at least fantasy writers are not scared to death of everything that cannot be quantified by direct observation. For them, the mysterious and unexplainable is bread and butter. But the better SciFi is full of the same kind of wonder. It just puts it in the jargon of chemistry and physics).

Ed Vasicek's picture

I think you Sci-Fi fans (and I am an old Dr. Who fan) and your literary folks have some good points.  However, I would like to add a thought about imagination. Let me ask some questions.

How good of an imagination do you have? How good is your long-term memory – do you remember details and what your life was like many years ago? How creative of a person are you? Are you able to trust God or do you fall apart in unusual circumstances?

The answer to these questions might be all the same way, positive or negative. Ramez Sasson writes, “Imagination is the ability to form a mental image of something that is not perceived through the senses. It is the ability of the mind to build mental scenes, objects or events that do not exist, are not present or have happened in the past.
“Memory is actually a manifestation of imagination. Everyone possesses some imagination ability. In some it may be highly developed and in others it may manifest in a weaker form...
“Imagination makes it possible to experience a whole world inside the mind. It gives the ability to look at any situation from a different point of view, and enables one to mentally explore the past and the future.”

I believe we develop the attribute of hope by focusing on our futures in heaven, the resurrection of our body, the Millennium, and in the New Jerusalem. To develop that hope, we must exercise imagination. No imagination, little interest in future details.

In Hebrews 11:27, the author is speaking of Moses: “By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible.”

How do you see the invisible? With your imagination. And that ability to imagine is a factor of faith and especially hope, which often accompanies endurance.

 Prophecy exercises our imagination and creativity. This, in turn, increases our ability to develop hope. Hope matters and it breeds endurance, therefore it does our soul good to imagine the millennium, and today, the new heaven and earth. Although R.C. Sproul is one of my very least favorite conservative evangelicals, he is right about us imaging the vision John saw first. 

"The Midrash Detective"

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

K Bauder did a series on it a while back in Nick. Quite interesting.

I vaguely remember reading some C.S. Lewis on the topic as well--and realizing that imagination is critical to all sorts of things including compassion (imagining others' suffering--you don't really feel it yourself), patience (imagining a future where you accomplish your goal), prayer (imagining the Invisible God is attentive).

It's huge. Adam must have employed a great deal of it in naming the animals. 

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

Aaron Blumer wrote:

I'm going to write an essay on why I love Sci Fi, even though so much of it is anti-religious, intellectually smug, and bows at the altar of evolutionary orthodoxy. (I've been appreciating fantasy a bit more the last few years, too, for almost all the same reasons... and at least fantasy writers are not scared to death of everything that cannot be quantified by direct observation. For them, the mysterious and unexplainable is bread and butter. But the better SciFi is full of the same kind of wonder. It just puts it in the jargon of chemistry and physics).

Looking forward to that essay, Aaron. Biggrin It also seems to me that much of scifi/fantasy is metaphorical, providing a way to address the controversial issues of our time in an indirect way, which I suppose may help folks think things over and not take it personally. 

I think it is also accurate to say that nearly all sci-fi/fantasy relies heavily on the monomyth for the storylines of its heroes/heroines. I just finished Robopocalypse (it's basically World War Z with robots instead of zombies). Just because it is tech gone wrong, as opposed to dragons or sorcerers doesn't mean it hasn't any mythical elements. I also recently found a website dedicated to studying Joss Whedon (creator/writer of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, The Avengers...). Now there's a writer that loves to weave the mythical with the metaphorical. 

 

Jeremy Larson's picture

I hope to get to imagination in one of the next couple of posts.

"There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!" ~Abraham Kuyper

TFeliz's picture

I get to teach a unit on mythology as an English teacher. I want my students to recognize mythological allusions when they come to them and to use allusions as they are appropriate. Of course, there is a preface to the unit which tries to do what you've done here--to give Christian purpose and perspective to the learning. I find myself comparing constantly the manufactured deity with God. The reward to me is when a student does that, and they reward me a few times with every class that goes through the unit.

So thanks for the well-written, organized entries. We start our unit on Monday (barring T.S. Isaac's interference). We'll peek in for your fourth entry on the subject.

Dave Gilbert's picture

...on Mars Hill. He was apparently aware of the mythology of the day, being a Roman citizen as well as a Hebrew and a Pharisee. Hailing from Tarsus, he was well-equipped to deal with the mission the Lord put him on later in his life as missionary to Asia Minor ( as we now call it ), present-day Turkey. Many "gods and goddesses" were in evidence, as we see at Ephesus with Diana. At Mars Hill, Paul referenced the "Unknown God" who the Greeks, well...DIDN'T KNOW, and it was this God to whom Paul referred to during his preaching. His knowledge of the other "religions" ( apart from the knowledge of the Lord ), appeared to prepare him better for his part as the Apostle to the Gentiles, but was it necessary? Hard to say.

In the final analysis, I believe it is helpful to know the culture around us, but not a necessary part of our lives as believers. All we really need is a very good understanding of the Bible itself and what we believe about facts of it:  The life, death, burial and resurrection of our Lord Jesus as pertaining to sinful mankind and how all of us are bound for Hell apart from it. Mythology is not a requirement for faithful service to the Lord, IMO, nor will it ever be.

 

1) Biblical history, unlike mythology, is a series of facts, not stories...yes, these things were written for our learning and can be considered "stories", but they are in reality history and should be treated differently than mythology. Perhaps I'm misunderstanding the author regarding this.

 

2) I don't read other literature much, other than the Bible; But in my younger days, even as a born-again believer, I did. Yes, looking back I compare and contrast what I've learned about Christ and what I learned about other religions and false doctrines through their literature, but I now feel that I skipped a lot of personal growth by delving into that realm too much. My understanding of Scripture is based on the Holy Spirit, but it's helpful to know who and what constitute false gods and goddesses...however, it's been said by several people I know that, apart from the Bible, anything else is false...so why get to know it? Wink I got my lessons in culture in public school and college; No more needed IMO.

 

3) This section I tended to like, especially the ending paragraph. However, I don't put any stock in C.S. Lewis or other fictional writers ( or even theologians ) out there. People who write about their conclusions on the Bible are interesting ( but not always correct, doctrinally ), but in recent years my focus has sharpened to the Bible and it alone, except for a few "reference tools" like books on the textual debate, bible versions / translations and heresies manifested down through the last 2000 years until now. Testimonies of people who were converted out of wicked lives of witchcraft and other gross sin I find refreshing and thank God for those brothers and sisters ( and glorify Him that He can and does still work miracles in anyone's life ), but I don't see the point in constantly referencing them, as they have no real authority in a believer's life. In addition, C.S. Lewis should have said," The heart of Christianity is it appears to be a myth, but is in reality a fact."

 

Mythology? Nice to know but not necessary.

 

Dave.

rrobinson's picture

@Dave,

"Mythology? Nice to know but not necessary."

 

I don't think it is something we have much choice about, so I find your sentiment interesting. I believe it is about as whimsical as if I were to say, "Politics? Nice to know but not necessary." It's like ignoring a large part of humanity and the culture around us. Politics could be one way we think about and impose order on the societies in which we live; "Mythology" could be a large part of the way in which we understand other cultures and empathize with the underlying truths (yes, truths) that we all hold in common, the truths which bind us as human beings. As others have implied -- mythology in its broadest sense encompasses imagination, hope, history and prehistory, analogy, tradition, the transmission of instruction over the ages, etc. 

 

Seriously, I would as soon do without "politics". I live in Europe, and the kind of endless political discussions I find US Christians seemingly preoccupied with just tends to leave me cold. Why can't we just get on and "live"? Aren't we all just citizens of heaven, no matter where we live? I mean, I just don't put any stock in politics. And I rather like the socialized medicine here. So what of it?

 

But I think you slightly misunderstand Lewis. He clearly said that all mythology, and any truth that mythologies have at their base, have their roots in the eternal character of God. He was trying to convey that the heart of the Gospel is part of a story that God has been unfolding since before he created the world. He did not merely say, as you seem to think, that "the center of the Gospel is a myth... which also happens to be true." There is a subtle difference. Also, he was writing in reaction to the rise of the rationalistic, materialistic thinkers who wanted to reduce everything to the empirical -- that which pays homage to a series of facts, but gets it, oh, so wrong. The fact is, mythology has some value and does reflect eternal truths because God has come down and intersected humanity at a real point in our very real history; there is some general remembrance of that despite the recorded facts being thin and few and far between.

 

The heart of the Gospel is Jesus, the God-man, dying and rising again to take the place of His creation under judgement: We don't merely honor that because an eye-witness account in the NT relates it to us factually and briefly in a few words. We are in complete awe and wonder of it, and will be for eternity, because God talks throughout the Bible of it in huge, epic terms. Our God is very "Romantic" and not "rationalistic". It is in God's character to have worked out salvation in Christ through eternity past; it is in God's character that it is prefigured in everything, such as the OT sacrificial system or the providing of the ram to Abraham; it is in God's character that it is reflected in the very physical nature of the world around us -- the burying and dying of the seed to bring to bring forth food; and on and on...

 

And it is therefore no surprise that it is reflected, however dimly, in every human tradition throughout every culture throughout every age throughout the whole earth; that every where we look, we find in good literature and fiction examples of the protagonist hero sacrificing himself for others... if we but only look for it. Mythology, like nature, shows God's stamp upon the world.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I don't see the point in constantly referencing them, as they have no real authority in a believer's life.

It's certainly possible to overvalue awareness of western culture as well as fiction in general. But there's a whole lot of space between being well informed and appreciating vs. "constantly referencing."

And the idea that the best conditions for Christian growth are to know as much Bible as possible and as little of anything else as possible is simplistic and untrue. There is a boatload of reasons why this is the case, but a couple of the biggest:

a. How growth happens: In part it involves applying what Scripture says to the world we live in. This requires knowledge of the world we live in. You can't apply​ perfect divine wisdom to nothing.

b. The nature of truth: "The Bible = 100% true and all else = 100% false" is not how God has made the world. Graciously, He has nested a great deal of truth, wisdom and beauty in places that are 'not authoritative.' Much of the value of stories is the way they can put truth in new settings, examine from different angles, express it beautifully in the acts of engineered characters. I can't count the number of times I've understood better how the Bible applies​ through some work of fiction by a lost writer.   Even the ugliness in the great western myths (and there is plenty of that) portrays truth if you know how to look at it... the exposing of folly and evil for what they are, and the exposing of human nature for what it is.

Dave Gilbert's picture

I'm reminded of Romans chapters 1-3, which clearly paint the picture of how man naturally views God, and how man also has replaced God with creations of his own mind, in addition to the creatures and creations of God's own universe. This is why, in a large part, I find it absolutely unnecessary ( but nice to know ) mythology and where it comes from, if only to know what we have been saved out of. Mythology doesn't show God's stamp upon the world, but mankind's divergence from His perfect will.

 

As for how God made the world, He made it "good", and mankind has corrupted it with both sin and pollution, maltreatment of the land and bad stewardship from nearly day one. It got so bad at one point, that God put Noah and his family on an ark and destroyed the rest of the world with a massive flood. Today, it's gradually getting to the point where God's next judgment will occur, so instead of reading more mythology, I'll just be reading God's word and looking for that blessed hope. Titus 2:13

 

A) How growth happens: Not just "applying" Scripture to the world we live in, but distancing ourselves from that world as much as possible and knowing and obeying God through that Scripture and the Holy Spirit within us. Applying perfect divine wisdom to our lives is essentially who and what we are, as genuine, born-again believers. Requiring knowledge of the world we live in isn't absolutely necessary, just ask people like the Mennonites, Amish and other separatist groups who have managed quite well down through the centuries. Granted, I believe they were once originally composed of believers and have since become traditional and not composed of them, but still...

 

Cool The nature of truth: " Thy word is truth" John 17:17, as well as Romans 3:4. While I happen to hold to the idea that there is truth in creation and there are truths outside of the Bible, I also believe that it is God who shows us these truths and that anything apart from God's truth is a lie. Works of fiction by an unbeliever are just that...works of fiction, and designed to entertain us. Some would even say "draw us away from the precious truths of Scripture", to which I agree. While valuable information has been gained by me personally of the things not to be involved in, I wouldn't go back and re-involve myself in them just to get that knowledge. What's done is done.

 

Politics ( I couldn't care less, since I no longer vote ) and other concerns of the world including mythology? Nice to know, but not entirely necessary to my walk with Christ.

 

This isn't my world, I'm just passing through. Wink

 

Dave.

 

PS: As a former Sci-Fi addict, I've come to realize...what God has waiting for those that love Him will beat the pants off anything Sci-Fi can come up with. 1 Corinthians 2:9

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Also absolutely "unnecessary". . .

  • Knowledge of algebra
  • Automobiles
  • Toasters
  • Poetry
  • Music
  • Color (what if everything you owned was gray?  ... it would all still "work")

My point: "necessity" is not really how we decide the value of things.

As a guy who still appreaciates better Sci Fi and Fantasy... there is actually no mutually exclusive relationship between enjoying fantasy (Sci Fi is just fantasy dressed up with technology) and believing passionately in the future God has in His plan. In my own experience, the former has fed the latter.

 

Dave Gilbert's picture

 Aaron, is what you are expressing, "rationalism"? Science fiction is just that...fiction...as opposed to the Bible, which for believers is not ( 1 Corinthians 1:18 ). My belief of God's word and what he's done in my life is based on what His word says, and His indwelling Holy Spirit; Not whether or not I "feel" saved that day, or even how other influences in my life relate to it. In my experience, as well as Scripturally, nothing trumps, replaces or "co-habitates" with Scripture to give me my view of God and His will for my life.

 

Mythology is just that: Myth, which by definition is a lie...and we know from Scripture that no lie is of the truth ( 1 John 2:21 ). Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars, Silent Running, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stargate Atlantis ( one of my favorites for years ) and all the rest are fiction. They are creations of man's warped and carnally corrupt minds, unlike the word of God. God's word is the final authority, not man's. Perhaps I misunderstand this subject as put forth here, but it appears that what you are saying is, that we can learn a lot about God's word through mythology and science fiction....why not just read God's word instead ( 1 John 2:27 )? Dwelling on and researching science fiction only takes away from time we could be learning about God, IMO...and believe me, I've wasted plenty of my time on other things besides the Lord in my life already.

 

My point is, I don't need mythology to dictate or even relate its details for me to know God's word...however, those brothers and sisters I may meet in the world who have come out of false religions will have these in their backgrounds, and to me, it would be interesting to know what they were converted from, and to show them the difference between that and who saved them for the rest of eternity.

 

You appear to view mythology as a necessity, while I view it as "nice to know"...I wonder what Abraham thought about mythology, or Moses ( who knew and was raised with the entire pantheon of false Egyptian gods at his disposal, but you never see or hear of him referencing it when dealing with God on Mt. Sinai or any other time ), or perhaps Noah...what about Paul, who knew of them, but didn't reference them past a general point when preaching from Mars Hill? None of these servants of God appeared to need any of it when carrying out their service to God, and I believe, neither should we.

 

In Scripture we see precious little of other gods mentioned, and these are always in the context of being false, and not pleasing to God in any way. Take a look at Molech, Ashtaroth, Diana of the Ephesians, and a host of others...I know of them because I did a comparative study...but compared to the Lord, they pale greatly. Was my effort necessary? No. Was it beneficial? Perhaps. In truth, I value most "beneficials" as luxuries,  some occasionally almost as much as necessities...but there's the difference: I value necessities first, and everything else is nice to know and nice to have. I don't need a car, I don't need a cell phone ( still don't really use one of those things ) and I don't need a college education to get by in the world ( but I have one, which God has used to get me a decent job ).

 

For me, living life based on necessity frees up other resources and time for serving my brothers and sisters in Christ.  My saying for the rest of my life? "Travel light, we're not staying all that long anyway."

 

Dave.

ScottS's picture

Aaron, did you ever write that essay and post it here on SI? If so, where is it (I could not find it in a search).

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16

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