Christians and Mythology (Part 7: Sub-creation, Escape, and Eucatastrophe)

The rest of the series.

In this final post I want to focus further on Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-stories,” which I referenced several times in Part 6. We looked at Recovery in the previous post, and I’d like to conclude this series with a look at Sub-creation, Escape, and Eucatastrophe.


Before C.S. Lewis’s conversion to Christianity, he viewed myths as being worthless lies, despite their being “breathed through silver.” To persuade him otherwise, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a poem titled “Mythopoeia,” in which he mentions the defaced image of God in man. Tolkien writes about the original mandate for man to exercise dominion over creation. Man is a “Sub-creator, the refracted light / through whom is splintered from a single White / to many hues … . / We make still by the law in which we’re made.”1 In other words, since we bear God’s image, though imperfectly, we create because God creates. We imitate and glorify the ultimate Creator as we engage in sub-creation. Tolkien puts it more clearly in “On Fairy-stories” when he writes about creating fantasy: “[W]e make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”2 Of course, Lewis eventually came to agree with Tolkien, and they both used mythology to create their own myths.

On the contemporary scene, one Christian who I believe is excelling in the sub-creation of myths is Young Adult author N.D. Wilson, whom I mentioned in Part 1. Wilson’s second book in the Ashtown series (with characters such as Gilgamesh, Arachne, and Ponce de León) was released on September 11, 2012. Christians have lots of practice complaining about fiction they don’t like, but here is a Christian who is lighting a candle in the fiction world, rather than simply cursing that bespectacled Potter boy.


Christians and Mythology (Part 4: More Benefits)

Read the series.

This essay continues the previous post in which I began a list of benefits of studying mythology.

4. Learning to supplant

Not everyone will agree with my argument in Part 2 that redemptive analogies help pagan cultures adjust to the message of the gospel. James Davidson Hunter’s recent book To Change the World is just one example of how Christians have developed allergies to “redeeming culture” terminology. And speaking of Paul at Mars Hill, Russell Moore of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary writes,

Yes, Paul takes note of the altar to the unknown god, and yes, he quotes pagan poets. But in neither case is he “building a bridge”…. Paul does not find in the [Greek] poets some form of “redemptive analogy” he can use among a people who don’t acknowledge the authority of Scripture. He uses them to demonstrate that Athenian philosophy and culture are self-contradictory…. The poets lead him not to finding “common ground” with his hearers but to calling them to repentance on the basis of a scripturally revealed storyline of humanity.1

But this sounds like an either/or distinction that I think gives an incomplete picture. Yes, Paul preached the resurrection of Jesus. But he also used recognizable cultural mentifacts2 that the Greeks could relate to. This both/and construction is simply acknowledging that Paul called the Greeks to repentance by means of a language with which they were familiar.


Christians and Mythology (Part 3: Benefits)


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.


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