myth vs. Myth
I just finished listening to a CD set of the BBC Radio version of J. R. R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.” I’ve read the books, I’ve seen the movies (several times), and this was the second listening to the series. It is simply a great story, an amazingly well done myth of a fictional world.
It got me thinking again of the many things said by both Tolkien and Lewis about myth and stories, and what a pivotal role they played in Lewis’ conversion. It also reminded me of something over which I have puzzled deeply many times: how we can watch Star Wars, Superman, Star Trek, Narnia, Lord of the Rings and so many others on the big screen and it is amazing entertainment, cinematography, special effects, and we are taken away to new planes of thought and the amazing feats or magic don’t faze, but thrill us. Yet, we use those same moviemaking techniques to tell Biblical stories or projections of Revelation, they ring hollow, fake, cheesy—choose your own adjective. Why the dichotomy, even for believers, but especially for non-Christians?
It turns out, this was exactly C. S. Lewis’ issue when he read the Gospels as a young boy. They read like myths, but in a stilted, banal style that didn’t flow with the majesty, grace and power of the pagan myths. It was like reading a newspaper account of Scarlett O’Hara’s life instead of Margaret Mitchell’s telling in Gone With The Wind. How could anyone believe it? It was mythological like Zeus gestating Dionysus in his leg, but a myth told badly, by authors with no imagination.
Lewis explains the problem and its resolution thus:
“There was no such historical claim (in Hindu mythology) as in Christianity. I was by now too experienced in literary criticism to regard the Gospels as myths. They had not the mythical taste. And yet the very matter which they set down in their artless, historical fashion – those narrow, unattractive Jews, too blind to the mythical wealth of the pagan world around them – was precisely the matter of the great myths. If ever a myth had become fact, had been incarnated, it would be just like this.”
“Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: and again, that if I met the idea of god sacrificing himself to himself… I liked that very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of a dying and reviving God (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meaning beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose ‘what it meant.’”
“Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things.’”
“The gospel is myth become fact –a moment in actual history, yet also the perfect mythological story. It is a dream that has really come true. The story of Jesus is the pinnacle where two God-shaped slopes reach together – mythology and history, fiction and fact. All previous history and mythology served to prepare the way for the story of Jesus. Pagan myths were like the star in the East, guiding non-Jewish wise men and woman [sic] to the child Jesus, just as the messianic prophecies had guided Jewish believers to Jesus.”
(Thanks to James Hogan for the Lewis quotes. It is quite an excellent article.)
We are so busy today that we think we don’t have time for story and myth, but our hearts cry out for the transcendent, and somewhere inside, we time to time long for it to appear in this world. It has. And there are two mistakes we can make: we can miss it and we can dismiss it. Both are fatal folly. Just as our bodies tell us when we thirst for water, so our souls tell us when we thirst for God.