Monday, June 19, 2006

Mommy, What's a Myth?

I'll go ahead and start this Bible blogging stuff with a doozy: are the first chapters of Genesis meant to be interpreted literally? It seems to me that it's hard for a modern reader to get to first base without wrestling with this, and I'm aware that this is a debate far beyond my ability and experience. I am no Old Testament scholar or an expert on literature of the time, and I'm sure any real professional will see me as blundering between several well labeled paths. My only defense is that I am compelled to read the Bible, and in reading it I must use the little knowledge and experience I have in engaging what I find.

Perhaps I can see my own path better by describing two flaming pits of lava I'll be steering around. On the one hand is the Creationist literalism that I grew up with in church and Christian schools, which (in some forms at least) pits Genesis against modern science and demands that a person choose between the two. Against this I insist that the "Book of Nature" is written by God, and a healthy faith involves loving God with all the mind. On the other hand is the "metaphorical" interpretations of modern liberal Christianity, which allegorizes everything tainted with the "supernatural". Against this I insist that if faith is not grounded in things that actually happened, then we really are just daydreaming and tailoring things to our whims.

So, for starters, what sort of literary genre is the first twelve chapters of Genesis? I think the answer is mythology. The creation story, the huge lifespans, the naming of all the animals, the worldwide flood and the Ark, the building of a tower to reach heaven - these are not the sorts of things you find in biographies or court histories, but are exactly the things you read in myths. The problem is we use the word "myth" today when we mean "lie", which means we're battling prejudice in our own minds before we've even read a single page.

OK, so I'm wading into deep waters here. Let me hop on the shoulders of a few giants and see what I see. G. K. Chesterton, in his friggin' awesome but rather dense book, The Everlasting Man, has a fantastic chapter on "Man and Mythologies". Here's how it starts:
All this mythological business belongs to the poetical part of men. It seems strangely forgotten nowadays that a myth is a work of imagination and therefore a work of art. ... But for some reason I have never heard explained, it is only the minority of unpoetical people who are allowed to write critical studies of these popular poems. We do not submit a sonnet to a mathematician or a song to a calculating boy; but we do indulge the equally fantastic idea that folk-lore can be treated as a science. Unless these things are appreciated artistically they are not appreciated at all. ... If any student tells me that the infant Hiawatha only laughed out of respect for tribal custom of sacrificing the aged to economical housekeeping, I say he did not. If any scholar tells me that the cow jumped over the moon only because a heifer was sacrificed to Diana, I answer that it did not. It happened because it is obviously the right thing for a cow to jump over the moon. Mythology is a lost art, one of the few arts that really are lost; but it is an art.
But we aren't the only ones who have had trouble reading mythology. St. Augustine, writing about Genesis, talked about the arguments of the Manachees who taunted the Christians
for believing that man was made to the image and likeness of God. They look at the shape of our body and ask so infelicitously whether God has a nose and teeth and a beard and also inner organs and the other things we need.
Augustine was initially swayed by their arguments, but then changed his mind:
It struck me that it was, after all, possible to vindicate Ambrose's arguments. I began to believe that the Catholic faith, which I had thought impossible to defend against the objections of the Manichees, might fairly be maintained, especially since I had heard one passage after another in the Old Testament figuratively explained. These passages had been death to me when I took them literally, but once I had heard them explained in their spiritual meaning I began to blame myself for my despair.
I actually think that Augustine sometimes overuses this type of reading - seeing only allegories in passages that are clearly meant by their author to be historical - but the point is that in Genesis we're faced with a type of literature that we don't write anymore. To interpret a myth with wooden literalism is to misinterpret it.

In Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis thinks about what it means to have divinely inspired mythology:
I have therefore no difficulty in accepting, say, the view of those scholars who tell us that the account of Creation in Genesis is derived from earlier Semitic stories which were Pagan and mythical. We must of course be quite clear what 'derived from' means. Stories do not reproduce their species like mice. They are told by men. Each re-teller either repeats exactly what his predecessor had told him or else changes it. He may change it unknowingly or deliberately.

Thus at every step in what is called—a little misleadingly—the 'evolution' of a story, a man, all he is and all his attitudes, are involved. And no good work is done anywhere without aid from the Father of Lights. When a series of such retellings turns a creation story which at first had almost no religious or metaphysical significance into a story which achieves the idea of true Creation and of a transcendent Creator (as Genesis does), then nothing will make me believe that some of the re-tellers, or some one of them, has not been guided by God.
And he writes in God in the Dock:
As to the fabulous element in the Old Testament, I very much doubt if you would be wise to chuck it out. What you get is something gradually coming into focus. If we could sort out all the fabulous elements in the earlier stages and separate them form the historical ones, I think we might lose an essential part of the whole process.
I totally agree. The opening chapters of the Bible are some of the most important passages in the whole thing - giving us priceless revelation of who we are and who God is. If we write it off as "just fairy tales", we lose some of the deepest insights about humanity, and will fail to understand later on the most important historical events the world has ever seen.

With all this swirling around in my head, I'm gunna dive into Genesis.

The discussion of myths in Genesis continues here.

So... you said a whole lot there. Let me see if I can summarize your answer to the dilema:

Are the fantastical-sounding parts of Genesis
A) Historical accounts,
B) Simple allegories written to teach us abstract principles, or
C) Lies crafted by those evil theists?

Your answer, as far as I can figure, is simply "No," though it leans closest to B. Maybe you add a choice D that you call "art," which is way cooler than A or B but contains elements of both. Is that a fair summary?

That says it really well, actually. I guess I need to learn more about mythology before I talk too much about it, but it doesn't seem to fit in our genres of fiction or history. There is a sense in which a mythmaker says "this really happened" but its not the same sense as the historian. It's rather elusive and I probably need to study this more. The category of art is probably the best one.

I don't want to say that people like Noah or Adam never lived, nor do I want to say that I don't think amazing stuff happened to them. Geneologies and stories don't come from nowhere. But I think the best desription is C. S. Lewis' notion of things "coming into focus". Mythology is beautiful and captivating, but it's also one of the darkest glasses to see through when looking for the sort of cold hard facts that moderns want to distil out of everything.

Basically, stuff happened. We don't really know what in any firm scientific sense. Yet these stories tell us almost what "ought" to have happened, in the sense that we understand both ourselves and our origins best by seeing them in terms of these stories.

Taking them at face value while listening to someone tell the stories by the fireside, and imagining the world coming together in seven days, of these giants of men living hundreds of years, of the animals piling into the ark, and the world covered with water, all very long long ago at the beginning of all things - this is a great way to read them. It breaks down when you then try to distil laws of architecture from castles in the clouds.

Again, not that it didn't happen, but that you're seeing through a glass darkly.

When it comes to a matter of argument, I don't care one way or the other how God created the universe. It is enough for me that He did and I haven't really ever seen a deeply respected man of God cite it as one of the central tenets of salvation.

As for my personal thoughts, I lean towards B, although I would replace the phrase "abstract principles" with "the nature of God". The Bible is, in many ways, a huge love letter, guiding us to know our God better and better. If the beginning of Genesis is indeed an allegory, I think that its allegorical purpose is to introduce us to our God, which I tend to believe is less of an abstract principle than a concrete one.

Fair enough, on the notion of abstract vs. concrete. Yet I'm not comfortable with the notion of the stories being allegories - at least not primarily so. I think myths can be used as allegories, and I think they can have allegorical elements to them, but myth and allegory are different animals.

I mean, an allegory might be the parable of the sower or something - with each item representing something else. In Genesis, God represents God. Man represents man. The animals represent the animals. It's not written to be an allegory, although I don't think it is innapropriate to then see additional allegorical meanings later (the ark being the church, or something).

I think we're on the same page, but I just don't think allegory is the right word.

(Regarding the post itself, not necessarily the comments)

I agree. We DO tend to say "is this blow by blow fact, or is it a lie?" and fail to see that literature (poetry and art as you say) can be both myth AND truth together, by being a vehicle FOR truth.

Besides not being aquainted with this kind of art form or communication, we also suffer from our failure to understand that the culture the Bible was written in was VERY different from our own; more often than not, we are not even able to realize that differences so extreme as these (cultural difference) exist at all.

(regarding the comments)

I wholeheartedly agree that allegory is NOT the correct word. In using it, we are still trying to make this foreign kind of truth verhicle fit into one of our catagories. Good explanation of why Genesis is certinaly not allegory, WFO (in my opinion, such as it is).

I know this is pretty late, but I have a few comments. First is that "myth" is a modern category. The most important thing to try to decipher is what the author/redactor of Genesis thought he was writing. Only then can we make any kind of genre distinctions. Second is really just a suggestion of some reading. I recommend C. John Collins, "Genesis 1-4; a Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary." It touches on many of these issues and is well done from a moderate, middle of the road kind of conservative.

Hi Jason,

I still read new comments, even if other folks don't find them.

If I get the chance I'll try to pick up the book you suggested. My reading list is a bit thick at the moment (I'm in the middle of The Brother's Karamozov). I freely admit that I'm only blundering the best I can.

I'm interested in your rejection of "myth" as a modern characterization. Do you have any concrete alternatives that you'd like to share?

Great blog, good thoughts, some important reminders. But I think it's very important to stop here for a second while I defend the essence of Tolkien's & Lewis's concept of the "True Myth." It's absolutely necessary to understand that when they said true myth, the operative word was TRUE. Now, they were primarily talking about the Incarnation and the details of Christ's earthly life. Like you, they (or at least Lewis; I'm not as sure about Tolkien) were content to let the scientists wrangle over the mode and chronology of creation. However, when they talked about the "true myth" of Christ's life, there was not one hint of anti-literalism in their thoughts and writings. The whole point was that the story of Jesus' virgin birth, life, teachings, miracles, death, and resurrection, with all its results of atonement, justification, etc., was true and actual fact, while maintaining the resonance and significance and poetry of myth. They would put their backs up and argue with anybody who tried to make Christ's passion into allegory or lesson or Aesop's fable.
So, therefore, I'm not sure it's fair for you to apply their method to Genesis in order to lean towards or hint at an Augustinian allegorical reading of Creation (in other words, possible more than 6 24-hr days, maybe millions of years, maybe God created using evolutionary processes, etc.) Maybe you should stick to Augustine for that and leave the Inklings out of it.
And then I can come back and argue with Augustine. :)
~ Admonit

Admonit -

I'm a little puzzled by your comment. Since I'm not yet talking about the Gospel accounts, but rather the Genesis creation stories, why do you infer that I have trouble with Lewis and Tolkien's notion of "true myth" and the historical trustworthiness of the Gospels? I doubt we disagree here. But surely we need to understand "myth" in the dawn of civilization, before we can understand "true myth" with regard to the Gospels?

I really am a bit confused here. Could you outline specifically the statements I make that you have trouble with?

Dear Wonders:

Good question. As I read over my comment, I think I may be mixing up my own creationist literalism with my readings of the Inklings. It should be noted that Lewis/Tolkien/et al lived in an age that had not yet wrestled with the question of the exact, inerrant literalism of the Bible. Lewis occasionally makes comments about the Scriptures which would not fly in, say, a Reformed Presbyterian church today. I venture to suggest that, had he been involved in the debate, Lewis (& JRRT) would have come down on the side of the literalists, but that’s just a guess. Meanwhile, we have to figure out how to best apply their thoughts to Scripture—no, that’s not right; how to weigh their ideas against Scripture. And, how to weight ideas of yours and mine against its infallibility! So, here goes.

I loved your statement that we must insist that faith is grounded in things that actually happened. Yes. Absolutely. And they happened the way they say they did. Then I got confused by your leaning towards thinking that Genesis is an allegory designed to teach us principles, that Genesis might be both myth and truth together, and that interpreting a myth with wooden literalism is to misinterpret it. The problem here is deciding, a priori, the Genesis is a myth, then interpreting it from that standpoint, rather than taking it in its given holism: the perfect and perfectly true and, I might add, perfectly factual Bible, and making it out to be what we might want it to be, because we might feel as if “Creationist literalism pits modern science against the Bible.” I know, it does feel that way. That’s unfortunate. But there are good scientists out there who don’t see it that way, who hold the Bible in one hand and science in the other and don’t fall over.

So I want to say that Genesis is not mythology, that it is science and history. The only way it is “true myth,” in the Lewis/Tolkien sense, is that it has all the emotional power and mythic symbolism and cyclical resonance of myth.

Does that make more sense?

I'd love to continue this discussion on another post... my time restraints are the only concern. How about you post it, and I'll see what I can do? And what do you think about others from my blog joining in?

I've continued the discussion here. Hope I wasn't too heavy-handed or dismissive - if so, let me have it!

If you're interested in seeing how science actually backs up the account of Creation, flood, etc., I'd recommend Answers In Genesis. Just as an example, they have a brief article (with lots of links for other related info at the bottom) about Noah's ark. Admittedly, most of AIG's online articles are maddeningly undetailed, but the books they sell (and which you can find elsewhere) have some great information and references. I think you'd be surprised at the scientific evidence for the Flood, and also how many animals had to fit on the ark (or rather, how many didn't have to). And yes, people most likely did live for hundreds of years back then; before the Flood, the world would likely have been like a hyperbaric chamber (with a LOT less solar radiation reaching the ground than today, back before "the floodgates of the heavens were opened"), and DNA wasn't so corrupted at that time (mutation and speciation lose genetic information, they don't add it, and I believe all life has suffered in progressively worse ways in an ongoing environment of death since the expulsion from Eden). There's nothing that says Bible stories can't be both literal and "symbolic" (as in "meaningful"), and modern science is finally getting to the point where it can probe and corroborate what the Bible has said all along.

That said, I need to bookmark your blog and dig all the way through it, because reading and responding to it--whether in my journal at home or in posts here--makes me get my Bible back out and look stuff up, something I need to do much more regularly and aggressively =)

Laerrigan -

Thanks for coming by, and for the high praise. I am indeed familiar with Answers in Genesis and Young Earth Creationism in general. I grew up on it, so to speak. Since then I've parted ways with such thinking - due in part by the influence of people like C. S. Lewis. I just don't think the first 11 chapters of Genesis are meant to be read in the same historically rigorous sense as, say, the Gospels.

Now, having said that, I do think it is a valid use of Genesis to critique modern myths of human origins - not in a scientific, but in an ideological sense. Man is not a mere animal, he is not the same sort of thing as a monkey - he bears the very image of God.

Anyway, I hope you continue to be challenged by my comments, and I hope you continue to swing by and challenge me as well.

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