[Note – this is a shortened version of a longer essay on the same theme, which is available here]
Is Christianity a myth?
No! shout most Christians.
Yes! shout most atheists.
Yes! shout most atheists.
And yes said C.S Lewis, one of the most prominent Christian thinkers of the 20th Century.
To most, the realisation of Christianity-as-myth is usually considered a stepping stone in the ‘coming of age’ stories of the godless. A fragile faith is shattered on the rough road to adulthood. A baseless belief in the supernatural is dashed on the rocks of rationality. Or so the story goes. It’s hardly surprising that Christians press back on the ‘myth’ label, whereas opponents of religion are quick to seize upon it.
But do either Christians, agnostics or atheists really know what ‘myth’ actually is?
The wager on imaginative insight
If nothing else impresses us about the mythic form, it is remarkably persistent across time and place. It is striking how often similar themes have recurred across the mythologies of different cultures. This kind of universality points to a deep connection between the mythic and the human condition. Myths seem to mine something shared by people separated by vast distances of time and place, some seam of shared raw material intuitively sensed within our existential situations.
Yet, if myths touch truth, they seem to do so by an indirect route. We generally equate ‘truth’ with evidence and argument, with the exercise of reason. But myths skirt round the rational faculties to drop their payloads directly onto the imagination. They come to us clothed in fictitious characters; they show rather than tell. This primary appeal of myth to imagination rather than reason probably accounts for the caricature of myths as ‘made up story’, the assertion that they have little relevance to the ‘real world’.
David Hume famously said we should ‘consign to the flames’ any truth claim lacking either abstract reasoning concerning number, or experimental reasoning concerning matters of fact1. Of course, this attitude wipes out any hope of ‘truth’ or ‘meaning’ residing in the mythic, and indeed in Art as a whole. It is a stance which, once taken, leaves us with only the hard sciences as conduits of ‘truth’. But it also presents a false choice, for we simply do not know how to rationally ground either imagination or reason as ways of grasping truth or meaning. To trust in either reason or imagination is to take a wager – in both we seek meaning in the absence of hard proof that our faculties are trustworthy. The wager to trust reason is doubtless sweetened by the impressive results of science and technology, but this should not obscure the cold epistemic reality: despite its impressively pragmatic results, we cannot prove that reason is a suitable tool for grasping truth.
This makes it problematic to take the common position that ‘only science speaks truth’, because the imaginative modes of insight – including the mythic – demonstrate a different but similarly compelling set of results. There is profound power to great art, a coherence to reality which cannot be reduced to a rational explanation. There is also exceptional universality to art. Few cultures across history have been deeply ordered around rational principles, but every culture has produced imaginative interpretations of reality – myths, art, music. Art is existentially hugely powerful and virtually universal, both of which point towards some deep coherence to our human condition. Admittedly, there is no more proof of the ‘trustworthiness’ of the imaginative claim to meaning than there is for the rational claim. However, both wagers, once taken, marshal considerable post hoc evidence that they have some insights worth listening to. What are we to make of this?
The universality of imaginative communication
Art has universal appeal, at least in part because it provides a context for ‘working through’ things that are almost impossible to define in objective terms. There seems to be an irreplaceable necessity to the poetic, the mythic, the artistic, as though it pushes through so consistently in culture because it performs functions no other form can. We apparently cannot ‘replace’ the function of myth with rational explanations. Even scientists understand this – witness how the popular communication of science overflows with appeals to the imagination, to narrative, to mystery, to poetry. Take the mysticism of Carl Sagan’s famous statement from the documentary series “Cosmos”:
“The cosmos is within us.
We are made of star-stuff.
We are a way for the universe to know itself.”2
This is not a scientific statement, but the most canny scientific communicators have always understood the potent power of poetry and myth in advancing the popular appreciation of their disciplines.
The subjective forms of what we might loosely call ‘Art’ allow us to speak things that cannot be spoken in any other way. True enough, science can help us understand the physical world and achieve impressive technological feats, but it is deathly silent on matters of morality, being, and purpose. Myth, on the other hand, in common with other forms of art, offers a kind of loose moral education; not a sermon, but a sandbox for exploring the human condition. The imaginative mode of insight appears utterly essential to our self-understanding. To put it another way, there are things Homer’s Iliad, Picasso’s Guernica or Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis can teach us about our personhood that psychology and neuroscience cannot touch.
The unique function of the mythic
But where does the ‘meaning’ reside in Art, and in the mythic in particular? Reason, with its propositional forms of communication, at least makes clear what its meaning is and where its lies. With the mythic, which speaks such a different language, the search for meaning demands a different approach.
A defining characteristic of the great mythic themes is their almost endless adaptability – the fictitious characters which clothe a myth are largely secondary to the meaning within. The actors and stage of a mythic world are shaped by the cultural palette of a given author, yet this creative license is subsequent to the real heartbeat of myth. The universality of myths is found in existential resonance, lying beneath the outer clothing of character, place and time.
Myths appear to channel deeper wells of significance in the human condition. In this sense, they function similarly to the way linguistic signs channel meaning. Just as we can translate the same book into the distinct vocabularies and grammars of French, Arabic or Mandarin whilst barely changing the communicated meaning, a myth can be clothed in new characters whilst discernibly conserving its deeper essence. Just as the symbols used in language are mostly secondary to the cognitive content, the characters in a myth are largely secondary to the work’s deeper coherence to reality. This means that to find the meaning in myth, we have to look deeper than a rational investigation of the surface details.
The great artists and poets have always transplanted the deeper significance of the great myths into new bodies of character and context. The ’symbols’ channeling the myth can be changed, and yet the same well of meaning can be channeled through these different expressions and re-expressions. This is why Dante can transpose Homer’s Iliad, or Shakespeare can transpose the great Greek tragedies, and nonetheless the discerning ear can sense the same deeper meaning resonating within the different texts. The characters and contexts can be changed without fundamentally changing how the myth operates on the imagination. Just as the same light shining through a stained glass window produces dancing colours in many hues, the weight of the human condition and the experience of reality – refracted through different cultures and ages – has produced different yet linked mythic expressions. We could call these different interpretations of the same sensed meaning. As G.K. Chesterton put it, “every true artist feels that he is touching transcendental truths; that his images are shadows of things seen through the veil.”3
Importantly, rational enquiry offers little help in understanding why this should be, why it is that myth offers a window onto the human condition that science seems unable to provide. Neither the crafting of myth nor the response to myth can be ‘deconstructed’, explained in rational proposition, any more than the power of language can simply be reduced to vocabulary and grammar. We cannot explain the enduring appeal of Shakespeare’s plays by examining his choice of words, or the phrasing of his stanzas. As Claude Lévi-Strauss observed, “the practice and the use of mythological thought demand that its properties remain hidden”4.
Myths only yield their full meaning when we dive into the whole with our imaginative faculties. When we study them analytically they play dead, their luminosity vanishes. Just as vibrant creatures of the deep sea reveal their alien glory when viewed from a submersible, yet become flaccid and grey when hauled up for scientific inspection, myths only speak their meaning when we enter their worlds on their terms. The poet must, in a sense, descend to the deeps of the imagination and return with empty hands to relate what has been seen using only words.
Myths and religious observance
So, if there is ‘truth’ and ‘meaning’ to myths, it does not lie primarily with the historicity of the surface characters. As Andrew Fellows points out, this is why the vast majority of myths are ‘non-creedal’ – they lack any recognisable statement of faith. The kind of statement that begins “We believe..” is completely tangential to the content and purpose of almost every myth across every age, there is no identifiable theology5. Greek ‘religion’, for example, was utterly mythological and yet virtually entirely un-theological: “there was no systematic series of statements which the Greeks agreed in believing about Zeus6.”
And yet most myths do not need to be ‘believed’ in order to perform their potent functions on the imagination. The fictitious characters of myths, their insusceptibility to rational deconstruction, do not make them meaningless.
C.S. Lewis relates this observation to his own encounter with the ‘dying god’ myth, a frequently recurring theme across the mythologies of different cultures and ages. Lewis was deeply moved the imaginative appeal of the dying god, particularly in the guise of the norse god Balder, as recited in H W Longfellow’s translation of Bishop Tegner’s norse ballad Drapa:
I heard a voice, that cried,
“Balder the Beautiful
Is dead, is dead!”
And through the misty air
Passed like the mournful cry
Of sunward sailing cranes.
I saw the pallid corpse
Of the dead sun
Borne through the Northern sky.
Blasts from Niffelheim
Lifted the sheeted mists
Around him as he passed. 7
Never mind the ahistoricity of this dying ‘god’, no matter his complete lack of correspondence to any actual time or place. There was nonetheless a great beauty and pathos to Balder’s fate; something which resonates deep in the imagination. It is not necessary to ‘believe’ in Balder in order to feel this existential correspondence. It it irrelevant whether we could have touched or heard him had we been in the right place at the right time. The dying god myth still does something to us. There is universality to the underlying meaning, both in the way it has ‘forced through’ again and again in the creative works of distinct cultures, and in its rich imaginative appeal to those who encounter it. Refracted through the windows of different cultures and places, the animating force of this myth has been clothed in fictitious characters as diverse as Osiris of the Egyptians, Balder of the Norsemen, Izanami of the Japanese, Quetzalcoatl of the Mesoamericans, Tammuz of the Mesopotamians, Attis of the Phrygians, and Adonis and Dionysus of the Greeks.
All the great mythic themes seem to recur in this way – they each give voice to a universal well of meaning deep in the human condition, and as such, they push through everywhere art and poetry have been made. Imaginative expressions seem to cluster around certain aspects of our existence, like palms round an oasis. Whenever we find a high density of mythic recurrence around a particular theme, we have a clue that we have touched one of the more universal and mysterious aspects of our existence. Universal because the themes push forth again and again into the imaginations of diverse people in diverse places. Mysterious because it seems in many instances that only the subjective arts are able to give voice to these wells of significance. This is the wager of the imaginative, that there is meaning in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Dante’s Inferno and Shakespeare’s Hamlet that cannot be put in rational propositions.
Christianity, the “myth become fact”
So what are we to make of the Bible, so often dismissed as ‘just another myth.’
Large tracts of the Bible certainly operate on a poetic level, at least in part. The text is richly embroidered with imagery and symbolism. Indeed, the poetry, prophecy, rituals and narratives of the Old Testament positively shimmer with imaginative appeal. There is blood painted on doorposts, a pillar of fire and smoke, a people fleeing through a parted sea, words spoken from a burning bush, a river turned to blood, a city defeated by trumpet blasts without a single arrow being shot, and on and on it goes. On one level there is a distinctive mythic tang to the Old Testament, rich food for the imagination that pushes through whether one ‘believes’ it or not.
Yet, unlike virtually all myths, the richly poetic appeal of the Old Testament narratives is never at the expense of objectivity. The poetic is never at the expense of theology. The Israelites follow a speaking God, a propositional God, a God about whom – unlike Zeus, Balder and the rest – definite theological statements can be made. Most strikingly in this sense, the story of the Israelites is one of a people given a law, perhaps the ultimate expression of an objective, rational, non-mythic communication. There is a ‘both / and’ situation: the imaginative embraces the objective in striking ways.
When God commands that his people build a tent, the tabernacle, in which his presence among them will dwell, there is evocative symbolism in every last component. And yet the instructions for the tent’s manufacture are precise and objective, down to the last hook and post. In this, the poetic and propositional embrace. The purpose of the tabernacle is not ‘left to the imagination’, it is a teaching tool, self-consciously designed to train the people about the character and priorities of God, and the moral realities of the created order. The powerful imaginative appeal of the rituals serves a purpose, it is not an end in itself.
In the Old Testament, the worship of God among the people is not short of imaginative potency, but it also follows an instituted order. The imaginative is interwoven with the rational. The theological exegetes the poetic, placing an interpretive framework around it. The planes of the subjective and objective intersect. The same people given the existential howls and sublime poetry of the Psalms are given objective commands and rational guidance. The God who called Moses up into the poetry of cloud and thunder of a bleak mountaintop at Sinai is the same God who sent him back down with objective ethical statements, legal propositions, engraved on physical tablets of stone.
Because the objective and subjective intersect, the Old Testament exegetes its own poetic content. We have all the imaginative appeal of the greatest myth, but we also know where this power comers from, and what guardrails should be placed around our responses. The most rigorous propositions and the most luminous poetry pull together in the same harness. The rough, reliable ropes of historical fact and the brightly shimmering gossamer of poetry and symbolism are woven into the same fabric. If the Old Testament has a mythic flavour, the whole meal is unlike any other myth before or since.
Yet, for Lewis, it was in the New Testament that the Biblical ‘both / and’ of imagination and reason reached its zenith.
The Gospel narratives – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – recount how Jesus Christ, God among us in human flesh, laid down his life at the hands of those he made. In other words, on one level, we find the familiar mythic theme of the dying god.
In the eyes of many, this realisation is a welcome opportunity to place Christ among the clearly fictitious characters of mythic tradition; to paint Him as just one more Osiris, one more Balder.
But C.S. Lewis, connoisseur of myth that he was, discerned something unusual in the Gospel narratives; namely, the huge disconnect between the exquisitely myth-like nature of their subject and the dispassionate form of their style. Compared to the exquisite poetry of Longfellow’s “Balder the beautiful is dead…”, the narratives of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are almost distastefully plain and matter of fact to the literary ear. True enough, the Gospels set forth content that shimmers with all the power of a great myth, but it is self-consciously grounded in the tangible, prosaic things of this-worldly life: real people, real places, real history. The entire thrust of the Gospel accounts hammer home that Jesus is not an apparition of the imagination. As John says of Jesus in the opening of his Gospel; “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”8 Jesus actually came, and had we been there we actually could have touched him, we actually could have heard him speak. This is precisely what the writers of the Gospel accounts claim to have done, and to have recounted to us.
To Lewis, this made the Bible unique in all of human history. Unlike all other myths, it was centred around objective fact. Unlike most objective facts, it shimmered with imaginative appeal:
“If ever a myth had become fact, had been incarnated, it would be just like this. And nothing else in all literature was just like this. Myths were like it in one way. Histories were like it in another. But nothing was simply like it. And no person was like the Person it depicted. . . . Here and here only in all time the myth must have become fact; the Word, flesh; God, Man. This is not “a religion,” nor “a philosophy.” It is the summing up and actuality of them all.”9
The Bible offers a holistic vision of reality that meets the whole person, satisfying both the reason and the imagination. It could hardly be otherwise. If the Biblical claims purport to articulate ultimate truth, ultimate correspondence to the deepest founts of meaning, then they must touch us at every conceivable level of significance. It would not be enough only to touch our reason (as many rationalists appear to demand), leaving our poetic faculties cold, nor enough to touch only the imagination, leaving us, as with most myths, drifting without a grounding for our response. The inextricable blending of the subjective and objective is exactly what we ought to expect of anything purporting to touch ultimate truth. We know in our bones that the objective and subjective both have a grasp of reality – no full account could ever lop off one or the other. The only reasonable wager on meaning is to accept both. And so, we would expect the Biblical claims to appeal to the whole person, to shimmer with poetry, to radiate beauty, to make the imagination soar; and yet to guide us in the ways we should go, to offer rugged, objective certainty to hold onto.
To find the Bible imaginatively satisfying is not a ‘guilty pleasure’, as if God only wishes to communicate through the analytic faculties. To reduce everything in the Bible to an easily digested take-home point, as some Christians try to do, is to miss the point. If we, made in the image of God, universally seek to appeal to each other through the imaginative, as millennia of art attest that we do, might not God appeal to us in this way? If God is as much poet and artist as He is architect, ruler, saviour and judge, are we to refuse His imaginative overtures simply because we might prefer the propositional? The Bible is unashamed to shimmer with exquisite imaginative appeal: either this is an unfortunate accident on God’s part, or God intends to appeal to the imagination alongside the intellect.
The true myth and the others
So if Christianity is the ‘myth become fact’, to use Lewis’ provocative phrase, what are we to make of the ‘other’ myths? In what sense might they speak ‘truth’ to us? If Jesus is the God who actually dies in time and space, what are we to make of the fictitious dying gods scattered through the mythologies of the world? To put it another way, where does a Balder or an Osiris come from, and why, at a squint, do they reflect a glimpse of the Gospel?
The preponderance of myth, poetry, music and art says something profound about the nature of our being. In making art, we instinctively produce imaginative readings of meanings half-glimpsed in nature and in ourselves. On the Biblical view, since the universe is created, there is order, purpose and meaning which inheres within what exists. As such we would expect at least some of the imaginative shape we give to sensed patterns and themes in our condition to have some correspondence to God’s ultimate patterns and purposes in the created order. In any art which listens to the shape and harmony of how things actually are (i.e. not the wilfully destructive ‘art’ so characteristic of the 20th Century) there must be a partial channeling, an unguided exegesis of powerful patterns in the created order. Even art and myth which reject the true God still mine the resources of God’s universe, and in that sense they can still offer a refracted glimpse of meaning. As Lewis puts it:
“We should… expect to find in the imagination of great pagan teachers and myth makers some glimpse of that theme which we believe to be the very plot of the whole cosmic story – the theme of incarnation, death, and rebirth. And the difference between the pagan Christs (Balder, Osiris, etc.) and the Christ Himself is very much what we should expect to find… It is not the difference between falsehood and truth. It is the difference between a real event on one hand and dim dreams or premonitions of that same event on the other.”10
If, as the Psalmist puts it, “The heavens declare the glory of God,” if “there is no speech or language where their voice is not heard,” then any imaginative work which listens will pick up snatches of the strain of real meaning. There appears to be a sense in which the imagination may listen to the true God, even as the reason rejects Him.
The key to understanding the divergence of the false myths and Christianity – despite points of similarity – is that the readings which reject the true God lack the theological control of God’s self-revelation in the created order. Refracted as they are through the shifting sands and imperfect noetic faculties of finite beings, our intuitions are always warped and distorted from expressing the full weight and meaning of our existence here on earth. Only with God’s self-revelation can we interpret and weigh our imaginative insights. This is why the Bible inextricably weaves the objective and imaginative together. Without the objective control, we have only connotation and emotional response. This can in some instances take human action to very dark places. Witness how the theme of death and rebirth, expressed in fictitious pagan gods, has acted as powerful imaginative prompt to great wickedness. Though Kronos of the Carthaginians, Moloch of the Caananites, and Shi of the Chimu are fictitious deities rooted in myth, the children sacrificed to them were very real. Without objective control, the responses to the potent imaginative appeal of mythic themes is left to us. Because a mythic expression is usually silent on a ‘correct’ interpretation or action, there is nothing to guarantee that responses to its imaginative influence will not verge towards the violent and sadistic. The gods ‘demanding’ child sacrifice were not ‘real’, but these fictions nonetheless acted as loci through which potent mythic themes were refracted in terrible ways. This is always a risk to our human attempts to ‘work out’ responses to our existential pressures.
Pagan myths mine the resources of the creator God without acknowledging the source of these resources. They are thus always bound to veer into falsehood, being unable to properly account for their evident imaginative power. But the richly poetic content of the Bible has this distinct difference: when the true God appeals to the imagination, he paints in imagery he himself created. Throughout the Biblical narrative, everything God uses to appeal to the created human imagination is a product of His own divine imagination. When God paints in metaphor, picking up concepts and pictures from the physical world, he uses things he himself has freely made, things put into the world with the express design of freighting them with symbolism, poetry, narrative.
By contrast, pagan myths are necessarily derivative upon the latent patterns of symbol and metaphor instilled by God within his creation. Being based upon God’s world, these derivative myths cannot help but bear some correspondence to God’s own patterns and purposes by virtue of the fact they channel through intuition both the world God has made and the existential condition of human beings made in His image. Indeed, in Romans 1 this very fact stands as evidence that we ought to discern God’s hand in the physical order, even without him speaking to us in anything resembling proposition: “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”11
The imaginative appeal of the created order pours forth from what has been made, testifying to the God who made it. Pagan myth-making grasps enough of this to realise that creation is deeply personal, but cannot make sense of how or why, and so these myths and their deities always twist away from grasping a true vision of the true God.
But when God speaks, when Christ and the prophets and apostles exegete the imaginative potentiality of God’s universe and his redemptive narrative, we hear the primary author, the primary poet, the primary artist giving the master reading of His own text.
1 D. Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, OUP, 1999, 211
2 C. Sagan, Cosmos, Episode 9, “Stars”, 1980, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tLPkpBN6bEI)
3 G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, Hendrickson Publishers, 2007.
4 Lévi-Strauss, Claude. “The Raw and the Cooked: Introduction to a Science of Mythology, vol. 1.” Trans. John and Doreen Weightman. New York: Harper and Row (1969). p11-12
5 C. S. Lewis, Is Theology Poetry?, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses,1945, 140
6 C. S. Lewis, Is Theology Poetry?, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses,1945, 140
7 A. Hilen, Longfellow and Scandinavia, A Study of the Poet’s Relationship with the Northern Languages and Literature,Yale Studies in English, Vol. 107, Archon Books, 1970, 47-51
8 Gospel of John, 1:14
9 C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, New York: Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovich, 1955, 88
10 C. S. Lewis, Is Theology Poetry?, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses,1945, 140
11 Romans 1:20