Under what (if any) circumstances is the making of a myth justified?

(Mervin Bitikofer) #1

I’ve recently listened to a “Great Courses” Lecture series on CDs titled “Science and Religion” by Professor Lawrence Principe of Johns Hopkins University. The little booklet that outlines the lectures comes with notes and “questions to consider”, and it is one of these that I put forward here in my own words, but definitely by drawing from this resource —which I would encourage anyone to find and use.

So to expand on this particular question which comes from his lecture two, “The Warfare Thesis” and its historical origins in people like Draper and White; I now ask here: Is there ever a time when what might be called smaller untruths or perhaps pious exaggerations are justified in the service of spreading a larger Truth? If one was really convinced that something is an evil scourge in the world, would it be so wrong to selectively marshal or exaggerate your facts in order to showcase this (as Draper and White did --even if poorly)? It’s easy to reject Draper’s and White’s work as still beyond the pale because their details as well as their “larger myth” is so demonstrably false, but the question in general still stands in regard to myth-makers. There are good, necessary, and true myths. Is it possible for any recently birthed ones to be in that category? And if so, what kind of license do they then come with?

(Henry Stoddard) #2

I like the Great Courses too, Mervin. I will have to read this tomorrow. I am just too tired now. Good Night!

(Jon Garvey) #3


If something’s that evil there’s hardly any need to misrepresent it, is there?
The thing about the warfare hypothesis is not that it took a slant on history, as any historian must inevitably, being human, but that it willfully re-wrote history. On a grand scale. And therefore debased the authority of science as well as bad-mouthing religion.

The motive seems to have been as much as anything to promote the new profession of “secular scientist” at the expense of the churchmen who had constituted a significant proportion of the natural philosophers up to that time. So a purely selfish vendetta, not a quest for truth. And maintained up to the present through such valiant-for-truth people as Carl Sagan. (And that completely evacuates his claim to bring reason to the world).

As a myth, it was “useful” to a worldview, but harmful to society. I guess I can imagine a false story erroneously held to be true that was nevertheless useful - for example some particularly heroic (but false) last words that encourage a beseiged population to fight for freedom. Were there no truly heroic examples to follow, though?

Many myths are true but slanted - for example, the British myth of cheeky prisoners of war (as per "The Great Escape - Americans like Steve McQueen weren’t involved, actually) covers over the stories of sheer depression, self-seeking and all the other things that hardship produces in real life. But it encouraged morale at a difficult time, and was based on truth, if simplified to make it a myth, rather than an academic treatise.

But I can’t really think of any recent false myths that weren’t simply pernicious. Can you?

(Mervin Bitikofer) #4

One of the things we’re always up against here is what it means for a myth to even be false or true which probably depends heavily on whatever working definition of ‘myth’ I’ve been assuming here. And on that latter question, I’m playing a bit fast and loose. I’m thinking of myths on perhaps a much smaller scale than perhaps a real academic definition would allow – e.g. on a personal scale a person may have ‘mythical’ memories of a long-gone beloved parent, with great memories celebrated/retained/even exaggerated and not-so-good memories are (whether consciously or not) left behind or repressed.

I do think that motivation is a vital key, and I would argue a myth’s truth/falsehood on the basis of just such overall motivations with an essential core of truth, even if some accretions of smaller technical falsehoods have also become attached.

So on that note – I can’t think of a larger history-making level myth (like Draper’s) that is false but good, unless it might be something like the myth of “us destroying our planet”. To the extent that such a myth helps in motivating us to take care of our environ with an eye to how we affect people far away geographically as well as generations into the future, I think it is a great and needed thing --despite the fact that it is patently false that we could destroy our planet. We may easily enough destroy ourselves and some other species of life, but the planet will continue to spin merrily along.
But exaggeration of responsibility is probably (though not in all cases) much better than the opposite fault.

(GJDS) #5

This subject matter can become difficult to discuss reasonably amongst scientists and like minded people, because amongst these, story telling is a foreign pursuit - we are comfortable with mathematical formulation, definitions, and exact measurements. Yet the rest of humanity cannot communicate meaningfully in this manner - instead we use words to convey a particular matter as an event that is easily comprehended by us. Than we have some of the most important means of communication, especially poetry (but also prose and other forms of art) which in most cases, would be rendered almost meaningless if reduced to some type of testable formula.

I am disinclined to use terms such as myth, simply because this is now most often equated with fiction. Yet if we were to take time to examine ancient texts from any area, we would see the genre they used was more descriptive, meaningful, and by any measure available regarding each culture, can be assessed for truth content or falsehood. It is this that we need to examine, that is the way truth can be separated from falsehood - and then we may consider the motivation for each of these aspects of any text. For example, saying the world is solid, like something held by four pillars, is not a falsehood, unless the person claimed to see and touch these pillars, and we ask these pillars are presented to us for inspection - if the latter, we would say we cannot see such pillars and the statement is false. If solidity and stability of an object were discussed, we would understand this as true.

I think it ironic and sad that nowadays, we are subjected to more propaganda and subtle ways of misinformation (especially from people with hang-ups and hidden agendas) than perhaps at any other point in human history (is this an exaggeration or a way to emphasise my point? :smiley:) . Falsehoods and ways of propagating them has become a professional area of expertise. In the final analysis, I try to look at the character of whoever is providing information (if this were possible) and then consider what is being said and proposed.

(Christy Hemphill) #6

@GJDS I like a lot of what you said. In our culture we like to reduce everything to objective truth values, but that is not how much of the world approaches a story or approaches truth.

I like “narrative” better for what it seems like Mervin is describing because that is the word people use when they are talking about a selective presentation or interpretation of reality motivated by a particular worldview or agenda. (As in “a controlling narrative.”) “Myth” is slippery because in one sense, it is a genre of literature that intentionally uses story to communicate truth of a different kind than the truth communicated by history. In another sense it is a pejorative designation for something presented as true that is false, a lie.


It is a myth that there are true myths. This is a myth that is designed to cover up the fact that every myth contains basic untruths and falsehoods, even while there may be some residual elements of truth still retained in the myth, or even acting as an impetus for the myth. The myth of the true myth has taken a mythical and mystical hold on several people on these discussion boards. It results in an inability to distinguish the significance of the truths and falsehoods in myths in general, and results in a lack of comprehension of the value or lack of value of a myth.

A myth used as propoganda, or as inspiration, or as a morale booster, is easily countered and destroyed by real facts. A myth that numerous people escaped from a concentration camp quickly loses its value, if the truth is that no one was actually able to escape from a concentration camp. And a myth that a camp is inescapable is countered by the fact that one or two did escape. While one escape can become a legend, and several escapes can generate a myth, the eventual value of the myth is equal to the reality behind the myth.

Historical narrative cannot be countered by facts in the same way, since the narrative contains actual facts. Whenever historical narrative becomes untrue because of bias, propoganda purpose, or lack of integrity, it becomes myth.

(GJDS) #8

Yes, nowadays this is the usual approach - however I think we are the poorer for loosing the poetic (metaphor, simile) when we speak of profound matters. The Truth, however, is often beyond us (particularly regarding the Divine and God), and I prefer to regard that as God’s truth, or The Truth is God Himself. Look at the Gospel, where Christ speaks of the vine, and growth of His disciples and Christians in general. If we restrict ourselves to each term in this as narrative, meaning a vine and tilling land, watering and other farming practices, we simply loose the entire meaning - we may regard it as a narrative, without being any the wiser.

I guess the end of all this is this - those who seek the truth will find it, no matter how it is communicated - those who do not, will find deceit.

(Jon Garvey) #9


Your example of “Destroying the planet” interests me, because in Christian theology (not mythology) there are several senses in which human sin already has destroyed the planet.

As you know, I don’t believe in “Fallen nature” - God’s natural Creation remains “very good”, according to the Bible. But for that very reason we ought to be motivated neither to damage it physically, nor to over-exploit its resources, nor to pervert it morally. In that theology mankind is the custodian of earth, placed here to bring it to perfection in Christ. No need for further motives to cherish it, surely?

On that theology, human corruption reaps a reward of environmental problems (at least in part) as a matter of judgement, not simply material cause and effect, the most direct fault being our determination to bend nature to our selfish use rather than cultivate wisdom in its use.

If, though, one believes nature is fundamentally flawed (either by the Fall or by “selfish” “indifferent” or even “hostile” nature) then (a) you won’t love it and care for it as you should and (b) you’re tempted to the hubristic idea that humans can improve on it by main force.

The problem with the “save the environment” myth is that it is essentially Promethean - “Only our own efforts can get us out of this mess.” There’s no place there for repentance or trust in the governor of Creation.

The myth also has a tendency to redirect responsibility for the problem itself: why is the world a mess? Too many people (because the unscientific Catholics won’t advise contraception), too much ignorance (because the proles won’t use GM crops or the latest technology) etc.

But the truth is that the main cause of greenhouse gases is the long-term effects of 19th century science and its dependent technology (both of which fuelled the myth of endless progress), and the rise in population is largely due to early 20th century science (the Haber-Bosch process, originated for high explosive production and now universal for artificial fertilizers, using more fossil fuel in a vicious circle).

So pitching the story in the old Draper-White manner - “only the knowledge of science can save the world from traditional ignorance” - is simply throwing another fix of the same thing at the problem. We do, of course, need scientific input, but the myth hides the facts of science’s inherent limitations and faults, making misdiagnosis far more likely and the solution more easily missed.

And, as I said, if the problem is at heart spiritual, then the false premises of the myth sends us entirely in the wrong direction. Therefore, the stories by which we live must be founded on truth.

Where I disagree with JohnZ is in the definition of “Myth” - I believe we all live by stories, and the stories we live by are, culturally speaking, our myths. And they can be true, false, or something in between. All stories, necessarily, are selective in order to stress what is significant.

In the case of the Great Escape, for example, it was a real event, with some real “mythic” significance for British morale. A historian will be interested in (for example) some revisionist sub-plot about people being cheated out of their chance to take part, or bottling out at the last minute. But it’s not biased to tell the story in the simple, mass-heroism sense of the “legend”, because it’s essentially true.

Of course, had the Nazis won the war, the story could have been told as an example of British perfidy and terrorism…

(Christy Hemphill) #10

This is basically taking one of the definitions of myth and saying its the only definition. Which is a myth.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #11

I agree with you @GJDS, about our losing something by dismissing some of those elements – poetry, metaphor, simile – that (I argue) may have similarities to myths if not themselves being some of the ingredients. I hear yours and @Christy advice about thinking of these things as narratives instead, and that is probably sound advice. My objection and stubborn attachment to the label, “myth”, comes from what I imagine might be in the spirit of C.S.Lewis: that myths can be good and true and should be rescued from its subjection to “enlightenment” assumptions that have demoted it into a simple insult. I would have phrased this in stronger words, but in deference to @johnZ, will refrain or soften my expressions here, if not my conviction. I do think, John, that GDJS, Christy, and Jon are right to make allowances for such thinking, even if suggesting that different labels may be more accurate/useful at this point. On that score, perhaps the well is too irreversibly poisoned to be useful. I can defer as needed.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #12

Jon wrote:

I do agree entirely Jon that the provided Christian narrative bequeathed to us is quite robust and sufficient enough to include within it all the motivation we should need to care for God’s good creation. Amen to that.

I am challenged by your statement quoted above, if the problematic “Promethean myth” is to be faulted for taking us in the wrong direction. Is it possible that a strong cultural sense of collective self-responsibility can be seen as a “sub-myth”, itself drawing its energy and sustenance from within the larger Christian narrative? I do agree that for us to imagine we are in charge with no agency above us, is to depart from all sound theology and wisdom. Yet, our response to the calling of that higher agency may have us doing to the best of our abilities all that we can as if it did depend on us, no? This is about God’s mediated action on earth which he often chooses to carry out through humans.

(Jon Garvey) #13

Yet, our response to the calling of that higher agency may have us doing to the best of our abilities all that we can as if it did depend on us, no? This is about God’s mediated action on earth which he often chooses to carry out through humans.

Quite so, Merv - quietism is scarcely a robust theology, methinks! But to be seeking the wisdom and will of a Lord who is intimately involved with the Creation he has entrusted to us is a very different kettle of fish from rushing around trying to fix something using the same tools you bust it with in the first place!

I notice in the newspaper today there’s a paper in Science in which a working group of 22 scientists conclude that, geologically, we really have have entered a new age, the Anthropocene, leaving the Holocene behind. They date the change to the mid 20th century, and the causes traced (nuclear fallout, deposits of synthetic minerals, sea-level rises from carbon emissions etc) are, without exception, the direct effects of the scientific advances of just the century leading up to that.

I find it devastatingly sobering that we have been able to trash a 4.5 billion year old world in just one century, in the name of Baconian progress. What was it that particle physicist said about “Science gets you to the moon - religion crashes you into buildings”. Hubris, or what?

(Nuno) #14


I tend to agree with you on the value of myth as defined and used by CS Lewis. However, this is not the commonly understood meaning of myth so it may be helpful to share how CS Lewis defined it:

For Lewis, myths are stories that awaken the human imagination, embody universal realities, and define the values of a culture. To use Lewis’s own terminology, myths are “numinous” and “awe-inspiring.” They make us feel “as if something of great moment had been communicated to us” (An Experiment in Criticism [Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1961], 44). In other words, they bridge the gap between the world of time and space and the eternal realms that lie beyond — much the way that the wardrobe in Professor Kirk’s house opened a portal between our own world and the kingdom of Narnia. In bridging this gap, myths allow us “to actually experience Reality and grasp eternal truths” (Christensen, C.S. Lewis on Scripture, 64).

Nothing in this definition rules out the possibility that mythology may also serve as history. When Lewis uses the word myth, he does not mean a story that is not historically true. Rather, he means a story that is rooted in ultimate reality — a story that explains the nature of things and may in fact be true. Some myths are, and some myths are not, grounded in history. So Lewis defined a myth as “an account of what may have been the historical fact,” which he carefully distinguished from “a symbolical representation of non-historical truth” (The Problem of Pain, 64).

The ambivalence in using the word “myth” to capture this meaning instead of the more common popular meaning ascribed to “myth” was also not lost on CS Lewis:

In using the term myth, Lewis recognized that he was susceptible to misunderstanding. “I must either use the word myth or coin a word,” he wrote, “and I think the former the lesser evil of the two” (Experiment in Criticism, 43).

I tend to prefer the original meanings whenever possible so I side with CS Lewis on this one, but I also understand that this may be as hopeless a cause as trying to rehabilitate “awesome” from its current everyday usage…

(Mervin Bitikofer) #15

Thanks for bringing the clarity of Lewis’ view in. If anybody is an authority on mythologies, it would be Lewis.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #16

One’s own hubris is one of the many things against which science is impotent --and ironically so, given how it is purported to have self-skepticism as one if its hallmark properties.

On another topic, Jon, I’m almost finished with Wright’s “How God Became King” and find it full of richly challenging material . Somewhat related on this topic but maybe worth it’s own topic here and/or at the Hump.

(Jon Garvey) #17

Sounds like one for *The Hump *, Merv - but then I would say that. :grinning:

I look forward to it in anticipation!

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #18

I prefer the definition of Myth (Mythos) as the antonym of another Greek word, Logos.

They both can be translated as “word,” but “logos” is a word the truth of which is based on logic and experience, while “mythos” is a word or meaning which is based on tradition and authority. Some maybe most people consider science based on logos, while religion is based on mythos, However Jesus is designated the Logos in the Bible, and Jesus criticized the Pharisees for their tradition based faith, while calling on His followers to have a faith based on experiential knowledge and logic. Therefore Christianity rejects Mythos, ideas not based experience and logic, out of hand.

I would say that the Birth of Jesus and His death and Resurrections may be miracles, but they are not myths, They are based on the experience of those who witnessed them and the Church at large and the theology of the Church.

On the other hand the Virgin Birth is based on a misread prophecy taken out of context. It also leads to unchristian dualism. I would not say that the Virgin Birth is wrong, I would not say that it is very important either. It might be important as a sign, but it is not important as a fact. It is a sign that Jesus is the Messiah, but not the only sign and not an important sign.

That is why I reject survival of the fittest as the basis of evolutionary theory. It is a myth in that it has not been verified by experiment or carefully designed field observations. That makes it unscientific, which is a real scandal for a two hundred year old theory.

Just because it is not verified does make something untrue, but ecological natural selection has been verified many times and so it is about time we replace survival of the fittest with ecological natural selection.

(nicolas andulsky allen) #19

a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.
synonyms: folk tale, folk story, legend, tale, story, fable, saga, mythos, lore, folklore, mythology
"ancient Greek myths"
a widely held but false belief or idea.
“he wants to dispel the myth that sea kayaking is too risky or too strenuous”

In answer to your question, in relation to the first definition, it is never justified to “create a myth” because traditional stories are found, not made. If you make one, then you have made a contemporary story, which is not traditional, and therefore not truly a myth.

In relation to the second definition, the making of a myth is never justified. It is never acceptable to create a widely held but false belief or idea. Even if you think that it is for the greater good, because it is inherently false, its creation and dissemination is bad (lying, bearing false witness, sin). Even if you think it is for the greater good, if we stray from actual truth, then we open ourselves and others to the dangers of inevitable unforseen consequence. And also it’s sinful. Which is bad. Adhering to the truth gives the best chance of forseeing future problems and preventing them.

Note that if there is full disclosure and all concerned understand that you are creating a work of fiction (ie. Tolkien’s fiction which was the creation of a fictional myth as background to his created elvish language), then it is perfectly fine; but what you have created is then not technically a myth, but a fictional story for entertainment purposes since it is not truly “widely held” by anyone.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #20


Your thoughts above, Roger, brought to mind this that I’ve just read recently (also from Wright: “Last Word”), which also is pertinent toward my reaction to @JohnZ as well, with some insight.

Wright speaks in early pages of different forms of truth that most readers have been able to navigate different styles of teaching and relating truth. Then in the modernist age people tried to restrict all valid truth claims to just being only of the literal historical or scientific sort, demoting or dismissing any truth claim that comes in more parabolic packaging. Little room was accorded for anything so vague or nebulous as “narrative” or “myth”. Then even later postmodernists push back on this modernist objectivity to question the notion of certainty or objectivity on anything at all. This is the current cultural air breathed by pretty much all of us today. Now I’ll quote Wright directly (p. 32 of American edition):

This uncertainty in turn, of course, begets a new and anxious eagerness for certainty: hence the appeal of fundamentalism, which in today’s world is not so much a return to a premodern worldview but precisely to one form of modernism (reading the Bible within a grid of a quasi- or pseudoscientific quest for “objective truth”). Every single aspect of this impinges on the reading of scripture in general and its use in church in particular. In this book I shall be arguing neither for a variety of modernism, nor for a return to premodernism, nor yet for a capitulation to postmodernism, but for what I hope is a way through this entire mess and muddle and forward into a way of living in and for God’s world, and within the community of God’s people, with Christian and biblical integrity.

My apologies if this extended quote pushes any copyright boundaries. I can only plead that it might spur other curious readers to search their own local libraries.

Having just finished another of Wright’s even more recent works, I think he has some important things to say to all believing Bible readers today, and I’m eager to read on in this work as well. This particular snippet I think has good insight