The Bible and Myth
Can the Bible be read as myth and still inspire?
Today I’ve been thinking about Richard Rohr’s great line:
“Literalism is usually the lowest and least level of meaning.”
I think what he’s hinting at is what we all (deep down) wish for our world to be like. At least that’s what I hope he means. The most inspiring stories are those that transport us outside of our spatial and “literal” world— even when (or especially when) those stories are mythical.
That’s why we’re so drawn to writers like Tolkein (LOTR) and Lewis (Til We have Faces & Space Trilogy, and even MacDonald’s Fairy Tales (like Phantastes). When we read stories like the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, we find them to be “believable” in the sense that they show us what our world “could” be like or “should” be like.
I’m not sure if I can articulate this clearly, but the Bible comes to mind (or, maybe better — “should” come to mind) when we think about those mythical stories that draw us in — stories about war and peace, defeat and victory; death and resurrection, wonder and the miraculous… etc. Yet, I wonder why the Bible doesn’t inspire like those great myths? After all, the biblical theme of Redemption through Death and Defeat is much like the theme of Tolkein’s storytelling.
Of course, for the many who disagree with my on that last point, feel free to ignore the rest of this post… But if you’re still with me, here’s where I’m heading with that thought…
My question is, why doesn’t the Biblical story come across like the great myths? Why doesn’t it draw (some of) us in like those great myths. After all, much of the Bible reads like those captivating and inspiring stories.
Obviously, one reason is that the Bible doesn’t claim to be myth. It claims to be relating historical events, happening in historical time. So it demythologizes even the most fanciful stories, like Jonah and the Whale. Another reason the Bible wanes in its appeal might be because it is over-read. One of the habits I grew up with was the idea that one should develop the discipline of reading through the entire Bible once a year. I’ve personally plowed thorough it cover to cover more times than I can remember.
But aside from that, I wonder if another reason why the Bible doesn’t draw some of us in like the great myths might be because there’s a striking difference between the stories written by Tolkein and his kind, and the Biblical story — the difference is that Tolkein, while telling a captivating and inspiring story, doesn’t demand an outright moral response, whereas the Bible does.
What I mean is this — Tolkein and others (Lewis, MacDonald, Charles Williams, etc) tell their stories in a way that masks the spiritual lessons to be learned, so that they make us work for for and think more deeply through the moral dilemmas and implications. They make us draw on our imagination to arrive at sacred truth rather than spoon-feed us. They don’t ask us to believe the factuality of the story before accepting the moral truths that they present. They don’t claim to be based in actual history, so that they force us to reason through the moral issues brought on by historical events on our own; whereas the Bible requires a definitive response to the redemption story told as an historical event.
By merely demanding a response to the historical event, the Bible encourages us to minimize the moral struggle, or rushes us through the moral struggle that comes through the process of conviction of sin, because it eliminates the necessity for the sinner to deal with the consequences of his own sin by allowing the sinner to thrust himself on the mercy of the saving God without demanding a moral struggle, in fact, by eliminating the moral struggle.
In other words, the Bible offers an “easy way out” of the consequences of moral ruin that prevail in the heart of humanity. After all, Jesus did say “Come unto me… for my yoke is easy, my burden is light.”
That is not to claim that the message of the Bible isn’t one of Grace. I believe it is. But I’m simply asking a question that Rohr’s comment elicits (at least for me, although it might not be his intent). The question is this — What would it take (and what would it look like) for the Biblical stories be read as myth and still hold the authority, the beauty, the fascination that is sensed when we read the great “sacred” myths like Lord of the Rings?
Of course everyone must answer the question for himself. And for some, it’s not even a question… Like Peter Kreeft wrote: “you either see it or you don’t… If you don’t see it skip over it.”