Who doesn’t like the stories of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table? Many of us grew up reading those adventures or watching cartoons and films based upon them. The literature buffs among us know full well that the medieval authors each brought something new to his version, but permeating them all is a set of medieval Christian values, hopes, and dreams. True, the themes and tropes often come from a sub-layer of pagan Celtic myth, but that myth was re-worked to say something new.
Those of you who enjoy reading the works of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien will not be surprised at this – their literary perspective on the Gospel as the Myth that is True is an interesting one. ‘Myth’ is a tricky word, and the best English equivalent I can think of is ‘story’. These words illustrate why context is so important for our understanding of language – and language is just a tool we use to help us understand and enjoy what is beyond it: concepts, reality, experience. Sorry, this is already sounding like waffle – at this stage I would say, ‘Endure or give up.’
In one context ‘myth’ is used as a means of dismissing the contents of an account as nonfactual. Thucydides criticized other historians (he probably had Herodotus in mind) for including ‘myths’ in their histories; he said he would stick to what we would now call ‘verifiable facts’ – he was keen on establishing his account by means of eye-witnesses and reliable records. In another context ‘myth’ is used to refer to the way an account is told, rather than its factual content.
Here is where my choice of the English word ‘story’ comes in. Father sits down with his son and says to him, ‘Listen up; I’m going to tell you a story.’ His story may turn out to be entirely factual, partially factual, or entirely nonfactual. He might be telling his son about something that happened to him in the past or he may be telling him a story he received from somebody else – a tradition. The point is that the purpose of this story is to communicate a message or moral, and the way that the story is told is unlike an academic article, a legal contract, a history book, or a government proclamation or any other non-mythic genre you care to name.
To return to King Arthur and the Bible, one can see from the perspective on myth as a literary genre that it is not incompatible with facts, but one needs a guide (i.e. the Holy Spirit) to understand what God is saying to you through a given passage. The classic example that theologians and literati like to discuss is Genesis. Clearly it isn’t a dry history that speaks of the past and nothing more – Genesis tells us where we come from and where we’re going; it reveals both the heart of God and the heart of Man. At the same time it would be wrong to say that is is nonfactual from beginning to end: I believe God literally made a Man out of the soil and breathed His Spirit into that man; I believe Joseph literally was Pharaoh’s regent in Egypt (at least as far as grain was concerned).
But what about prophecy, what about books like Revelation and Ezekiel – come on guys, give a man some brief relief on the apocalyptic/prophetic distinction – these books I’d like you to consider as future myth. They tell the story of where Man’s relationship with God is going. These books have a moral and spiritual message and a literal fulfillment.
I’d like to use the Gospels and Acts as proof of this assertion. Before Jesus came all the Jews had were the promises of His coming – what we now refer to as Old Testament prophecies and Jewish Messianic tradition. Those stories that they told had a moral message and spiritual truth behind them: they encouraged the Jews to withstand the persecution they faced at the hands of Satan and their enemies, to endure in righteous living before God because He would one day send a Redeemer. That day was not merely a concept – it came and it will come. Jesus literally walked the earth as a man from roughly 6 BC to 30 AD. He was nailed to a literal cross outside the walls of Jerusalem where He made atonement for the sins of mankind.
So it is with the coming ‘Day of the Lord’. We long to see evil purged from the earth and righteousness ushered in. To some extent we see it now in the good works of God He performs through His agents – but we will see at that time, ‘face to face’ (1 Corinthians 13:12). Revelation and Ezekiel may seem strange to us, but they shouldn’t when we set them alongside Genesis. E.W. Bullinger made a list of links between Genesis and Revelation that is worth studying.
I’d like to end this post by making us consider our non-believing friends. Myth is a common heritage of humanity and the works of Tolkien and Lewis are immensely popular. I’m not saying we can make our friends convert by means of these authors and our own efforts – only God can convict people of sin and show them His inner heart. But He chooses to use us as His agents at times, as the hands and feet of Jesus on Earth, His Body. If we can think a bit more about the Bible from a literary perspective, we can perhaps deepen our friendship with those who come from a literary background – and we may be blessed too.