Friday, May 19, 2006

Myth-ing the Point

When I was in the fourth grade, I fell in love with a book entitled D'Aulaires Book of Greek Myths by Ingri and Edgar Parin D'Aulaire, two award-winning children's books illustrators. This book was (and remains) an excellent introduction to Greek mythology; it is simply told and beautifully illustrated. I soon also obtained the "sequel", D'Aulaires' Norse Gods and Giants, now published as D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths. Both books are classics, and began for me a lifelong love of mythology. I read voraciously on the subject in middle school, high school, and college. I considered pursuing the subject as a formal academic discipline, but the Lord had other plans for my life.

While a college student at IUP (Class of '96), I attended Trinity United Methodist Church in Indiana, PA with my wife and (then two) children. Under the leadership of the Rev. Dr. Deryl Larsen, we participated in DISCIPLE Bible Study, a wonderful formal course developed for United Methodists. There, I was first exposed to the notion of "myth" as applied to the Bible.

At first, I was shocked. How could the divinely-inspired Scriptures be compared to the mythological stories I loved so much, and knew so well? I soon calmed down as I became aware that the academic meaning of "myth" differs significantly from the common "lay" understanding. To recognize mythological elements in the Bible is not to call into question the Bible's inspiration, authority, or even veracity; instead, it shows us how the Bible is "fully human", even as it is, in its inspiration, "fully divine".

A myth is essentially a narrative in which the supernatural or fantastic is utilized to explain something. Given this definition, the Bible is filled with myth - gloriously so! Genesis 1-11 is rich with mythological imagery, perhaps moreso than any other section of the Bible. Myth is also apparent throughout the Pentateuch, the Psalter (Psalm 89 is a particularly good example), Daniel, and the New Testament book of Revelation.

United Methodist Bernhard Anderson, author of Creation Versus Chaos: The Reinterpretation of Mythical Symbolism in the Bible as well as Understanding the Old Testament (the best one volume OT commentary available), is one of the greatest Old Testament scholars of the last century. He is currently Professor of Old Testament Theology Emeritus at Princeton Theological Seminary. His work has greatly informed my understanding. He believes that (as theologian Diogenes Allen summarizes), "...one may read the Old Testament as indeed revealing saving truth, without ignoring the existence of myth and without sacrifice of the intellect."

And that's the point. We can affirm the mythological while still recognizing saving truth. This may mean a sacrifice of the Calvinist notion of "inerrancy", but, as a Wesleyan, that's not an issue for me. As a Wesleyan, I am most concerned with the soteriological message and authority of Scripture, not its linguistic accuracy (a view supported by Article V of the UM Articles of Religion).

This weekend sees the release of the film The DaVinci Code, a story which is drenched in myth. Does all myth point to truth? Not necessarily. But The DaVinci Code uses the mythological to point us toward Jesus...though it's unlikely this was the intention of the book's author or the talented filmmakers. As a friend said recently on her blog, "...it got us talking about Jesus."

Myth is good. It's as Biblical as the Sermon on the Mount or salvation by grace or sanctification. Myth has been a part of the extra-Biblical tradition for years, with wonderful stories such as the stations of the Cross, the assumption of Mary, Ragnarok, Beowulf, Prester John, the Arthurian cycle, Paradise Lost, Lord of the Rings, Narnia, Calvin Miller's Singer trilogy and the works of Stephen Lawhead. Few, if any, will see The DaVinci Code and walk away converted to its proposals. But many, I believe, will ask questions and seek answers in the Scriptures and in congregational settings. May we be ready to joyfully engage in this dialogue, and not miss out on what the Spirit is doing through this book and film...once again, through mythology!

1 comment:

DannyG said...

In the for what it's worth department, it was a unit on Greek/Roman mythology in 7th grade, about 1971 or so, which turned me from an indifferent student into an avid sholar (and reader). One of the things Mrs Simons, the teacher, had us do was to pick a "god" and dress up as him/her. I was Mercury. 35 years ago I still remember that vividly. It's wonderful what a good teacher can inspire.