The necessity of myth

(Phil) #1

Much is said on these pages about myth, good and bad. Some embrace myth as telling the deeper truth, others are threatened and look at mythical concepts as being “just made up stories.”
Scott McKnight posted a book review on Luke Timothy Johnson’s book on miracles, Miracles: God’s Presence and Power in Creation, that explores these issues. The whole blog is worth reading, but will repost one segment here to start discussion:

His next claim is the big one: to embrace miracle is to embrace myth. Which will lead next to his definition of myth, on which this whole chapter and book hangs:

What do you think? Is myth necessary to proper interpretation of scripture?

Science and Faith in the Movies
(Randy) #2

This looks like a deep one. I will take time to absorb it tonight. Thanks; I like Scot McKnight’s work.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #3

This definition is not the one used by Christians. The Greek word mythos which is used on the NT meant an idea the truth of which is based on tradition and/or authority, rather than reason and fact. Logos the Greek word used in the NT to refer to Jesus Christ is defined as a concept the truth of which is based on fact and reason.

Although it is true that humans cannot completely understand the fullness of God, I think we can understand enough to know that God is, based on our own understanding, not based on second hand information.

(Phil) #4

Not all Christians perhaps, but I am quite sure the author is Christian. Language is fluid, and the word “myth” certainly has its baggage, but is a good word to use in the proper context for the expression of deeper truths.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #5

Please give an example.

Zeus is a myth, God is not. Why agree to a meaning of a word that confuses God with Zeus, as if some people don’t already do so.

In my opinion Evangelical make the mistake that language is absolute, while liberals make the mistake that language is relative. Both are wrong. This is a liberal mistake, which is to make faith subjective.

Language is relational. One does not trash a good word that has real meaning, particularly when these is no good word to replace it, it does not increase clarity, but instead causes much needless confusion. Myth is purely subjective. Logos is not. Logos is not myth.

(Phil) #6

True. If I use a word that fails to communicate with another, it is my failure to chose the right word, or we need to discuss its meaning in such a way as to achieve understanding. I think that is what is trying to be done here. Myth does not mean fiction, though it may not mean historical fact, either. Perhaps a better word would be “epic” or “saga” (def.: a long story of heroic achievement, especially a medieval prose narrative in Old Norse or Old Icelandic.) though myth is given as an alternative for both those words.


Our minds do operate on the level of narrative/myth. I know a bit of psychology and so I’ll try to articulate why – it’s certainly true that the idea of scientific truth rather than narrative truth is a product of the modern era. I think it was the great psychologist Jean Piaget that found out that if you take children and ask them what the rules of behavior and society are, they wouldn’t be able to answer (neither adults). But, in fact, if you put a group of children and let them play together, they suddenly are able to act out an essentially functioning household in a game like house. And this happens with adults as well – few adults could be taken aside and asked how the rules worked and answer them, but they act it out on a day to day level.

And so this is how it was in the ancient world as well, and the earliest days of our civilization and even species. We acted out our roles in the world, and this is how society originated. And people told stories about it, and these stories were preserved. Stories could encompass almost anything. A fantastic deed done by a member of ones family. An interesting thing you did the other day. And important stories stick, they become tradition (which is inseparable from transmission). And as we know, tradition develops and gets abrogated over time. Stories become narratives, and narratives are how we humans told the world about ourselves. Narratives were quickly mythical, but they did tell the story of how we act out in the world. So in Mesopotamia, the first creation stories and great cultural mythical founding ideas begin to get recorded. These stories have great heroes and great villains, and the idea is that you should act out in the way that the hero acts out (or the opposite of how the villain acts out). And these stories with their characters and events represent various archetypes, archetypes about anger and beauty and courage and coming to be. So although humans can’t systematically explain what the rules are, we act out these rules, and we can tell stories about how we act out in the world. Our myths tell us something true about ourselves. And our myths developed around this. Although the myths themselves are fiction in the literal sense, they are true in a different sense. In fact, you could say that they represent things more true than reality itself – a meta-truth if I can use that term. And that’s what our myths are. And they’re important in fundamental ways. In many of these stories, the hero is also a leader which often means a god (or has been chosen by God). And the reason why they’re leaders is because our societies are directed by leaders – we need people to organize common humans so our resentment and innumerable differences and divergences can be set aside. And so they also represent the archetypal heroes and villains in our stories.

On one level, these are what our stories represent. The hero is always characterized by two features – he’s a leader, and he tells the truth. And it’s the idea of telling the truth that corrects the world from its mischiefs. And this is also acted out truth, not merely spoken truth. I would argue that what someone believes is on one level irrelevant to what they say, or even believe they believe. In fact, someone’s belief is identical to how they act. Certainly in the Christian sense, since we’re called as Christians to act out the life of Christ, to put on Christ as a cloak. So these myths are fundamental to our society and civilization. We can’t forget about them, they remain important to how we act and behave in our everyday world, how we interact with each other and hierarchically order our values. They may not tell you how to fix an engine, but they teach us how to tell the truth.

(Christy Hemphill) #8

Since when did all Christians sign on to THE meaning of the word myth? Speak for yourself, not every English-speaking Christian on the planet.

Thank God for evolution?
(Christy Hemphill) #9

People often appropriate C.S. Lewis’ use of the word myth in talking about Genesis. This use is just as relational as yours because it is building on the common ground shared by the many Christians who read Lewis and are edified by his reflections. Many people who participate in origins discussions are quite familiar with what you mean if you say, “true myth, like in the C.S. Lewis sense.” Here is a good blog post summarizing Lewis’ take on myth that so many people appropriate.

(Randy) #10

He’s a great wordsmith–maybe as good as you. “Myths are true not if what they narrate happened, but if what they narrate happens all the time. The truth of Genesis 1 and 2-3, then, lies not with their historicity or scientific accuracy, but with their ability to help us to taste the bittersweet human condition as both akin to and estranged from God and to see the world as it is, as God’s good handiwork and cosmic cathedral. So, then, for Lewis, one need not assess or defend the historicity of these stories, but only to receive them as they are and to taste and see that the Word of God is, indeed, good.”

Reminds me of Tolkien’s quote (not to sound trite) about the Riders of Rohan, and how their songs were “filled with the sadness of mortal men.”

I heard a quote once (attributed to Lewis) that myth is that story that, once you hear it, you realize you knew it all along. I can’t find the source, though.

(Christy Hemphill) #11

Aw, shucks. :blush:
I especially liked that part too.

(Randy) #12

Has anyone enjoyed “Till We Have Faces,” by C S Lewis, a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche? It’s pretty terrific. @Korvexius, @jpm and @Christy probably are quite familiar with it. I get something out of it every time I read it. Peaceful Science had a discussion on it. too.@swamidass and @jongarvey had good points on it that taught me things I wasn’t aware of first.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #13

Yes and No. We do not have to guess as to what “myth” means. It comes directly from the Greek, who used it in their discussion of two disciplines, Philosophy and Theology. In theology a myth is a story about the gods, no one now believes to be true, so this type of myth is a fiction.

In philosophy they distinguished between two kinds of meaning or truth, Logos and Mythos. Mythos truth is based tradition and/ or authority. The myths were true because everyone said it was true. Logos is truth based on rational examination and discussion. Because it is based on shared experience, it is objective truth. Myth is unexamined reality and thus apt to be subjective.

Christianity makes the shocking claim that Jesus Christ is the Logos, the Way the Truth, and the Life. The contract of Jesus with the gods of the myths is also shocking and led to the conversion of the ancient pagans from their traditional beliefs to Christianity.

Now people want to say that Christianity is not Logos, but Mythos, which is false. Presumably they want to say that mythos is about spiritual Truth, which is very different from Logos which is rational Truth, which is false.

@Christy and @Randy, thank you for helping me understand the origin of this use of myth. While this is helpful, this does not change the facts as I see them.

John 1:1 says, “In the Beginning was the Logos.” Lewis is saying, “In the Beginning was the true Myth.” Jesus did not go around telling people that He w3as the Messiah sent by YHWH to save God’s People.

Jesus want around doing the work of the Messiah so everyone could see for themselves Who He was. That is how He announced Himself by reading from the book of Isiah. That is what He told the disciples of John. When He revealed Himself to His disciples, He asked them, “Who do you say I am?” Then He spoke about His death because He knew that this was part of His mission as the Messiah. Thus Jesus was the not Messiah because He descended from David, was born of a virgin, or sent by God. He is the Messiah because He died for our sins and saved God’s people.

@Randy, please do not use the Word if God to refer to the Bible. The Bible capitalizes Word only in one place John 1:1 to refer to Jesus Christ as the Logos, therefore we should use the term Word of God to refer to Jesus Christ and not the Bible.

This is important because Fundamentalists when they refer to the Bible as the Word of God mean that it is absolutely true or inerrant and therefore must be treated as Mythos. That is true because God says it is, not because humans created in the Image of God can use their God given mind to verify the truth of the Bible. The fact that Genesis communicates spiritual facts that we can readily experience indicates the truth of the Bible is Logos, verifiable, not Mythos, which cannot.

The big question at the time of C.S. Lewis was the question of the Beginning. Both philosophy and science said that the universe does not have a Beginning. The Genesis clearly says that it does. Now it is clear based on verifiable scientific information that Genesis is right, although many scientists are denying this. This is evidence that Genesis is Logos, not Mythos. It is true spiritually, philosophically, and scientifically, but not a textbook for any of these.

John 1:1 is the controlling text for the Christian understanding of the Creation, not Genesis.

(Christy Hemphill) #14

That is an English translation convention, not something in the original manuscripts, which had no capitals. The Word of God, when capitalized in English is synonymous with the Bible and refers to the canon. This is also a standard convention in the English speaking world, don’t try to impose your idiosyncratic pet peeves on everyone else. It has nothing to do with claiming the Bible is inerrant.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #15

Conventions have meaning and purpose. The capital letter is because it is clear that the Word refers to Jesus Christ the Second Person of the Trinity. The Bible clearly says that Jesus is the Word of God as opposed the word of God.

Are you saying that Jesus is not the Word of God?

Only God is perfect. Jesus is perfect. The Bible is not God and is not perfect, which is why we must not confuse the Word of God with the word of God. That is Theology 101.

(Christy Hemphill) #16

Where? Where in the Greek text does it make that distinction? It doesn’t. There are no captial letters. There was no canon at the time of the writing of John so the Bible couldn’t possibly have made a distinction between the Bible and Jesus.

Yes we capitalize Word in English translations because it is clearly referring to Jesus and is being used as a proper noun. Some people use The Word of God in reference to the Bible as an alternate title of the book. Names and book titles are conventionally capitalized in English.

If someone referred to the Word of God, I would assume they were talking about the Bible unless it was very clear from the context they were referring to Jesus. John refers to Jesus as the Word, not the Word of God. Λόγος Θεοῦ (Word + God in the genitive) does not occur in John 1.

Capitalizing the letters in the phrase “word of God” does not lead to the implication the Bible is perfect or lead to the confusion that Jesus and the Bible are one and the same. That is English 101.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #17

The Word of God is not an alternative title of the Bible. It is a characterization of the Bible as Word of God which is the title of Jesus, not the Bible.

Elsewhere on this form Evangelicals are defined by their characteristics, one of them being their “high” view of the Bible. This has resulted in Creationism and other problems, because they confuse the Word of God (Jesus) with the word of God (the Bible.) If you think that this does not happen, you entitled to your opinion. .