Christianity, Science, and Other Myths

[In this essay, I explore the meaning of “myth”, particularly as it relates to Christianity. I explore how myth works, and a number of the unexpected places mythic motifs can be found. This leads up to an examination of C.S. Lewis’ claim that Christianity communicates the “myth become fact” – that Christianity works at the level of both imagination and reason.  The conclusion, in brief, is that any claim to deep truth cannot help appealing both to the reason *and* to the imagination simultaneously. We cannot therefore reject a truth claim because it has aspects which appeal primarily to the imaginative rather than the rational faculties.

The essay is serialised in a number of sections in audio, with the text in full below.] 

Is Christianity a myth?

No! say most sincere Christians.

Yes! say most atheists.

And – perhaps surprisingly – yes said C.S Lewis, one of the most prominent and sophisticated Christian thinkers of the 20th Century.

The realisation of ‘Christianity-as-myth’ is usually considered a stepping stone in atheist or agnostic ‘coming of age’ stories. According to these well-trodden accounts, a fragile and groundless childhood faith is shattered on the rough path into adulthood. Baseless convictions about the supernatural are dashed on the unsympathetic rocks of rationality. The so-called ‘myth’ of the Sunday-school stories gives way to a pragmatic and scientific rationalism.

All of which makes the issue sound very neatly tied up. However, if something looks like an oversimplification and sounds like an oversimplification, it’s quite possible that it is, in fact, an oversimplification.

Myth and Lewis’ Path into Faith

C.S. Lewis’ own life story turns the familiar “Christianity as myth” story on its head. For to Lewis, coming to sense mythic elements in Christianity was not a crucial staging post on the way out of belief. Rather, this realisation was a key waypoint on the way into a life of faith. What is more, for Lewis this was not faith as ‘blind hope’, or faith in ‘fairytales’, this was an intellectually fulfilled and reasonable conviction in the rational and imaginative meaningfulness of what the Bible says about God, the universe and everything. The sensing of mythic elements within the Bible was a kind of litmus indicator that Christianity had something profound to say about the human condition. And led through this door, the once godless Lewis would eventually arrive at an affirmation of the Biblical view of reality, the objective historicity of the Gospels, and the weighty significance of the physical death and resurrection of Christ.

Lewis was better qualified than most to grasp the significance of myth in understanding the human condition. As a first-rate classical scholar, he had a deep acquaintance with the mythic traditions of world literature. The tales of such figures as Odysseus, Osiris and Balder were well-worn paths in the wide expanses of his mind. But despite his intellectual prowess, Lewis was not simply ‘academic’ in this appreciation of mythic forms. On the contrary, he was a lifelong connoisseur of its primary imaginative appeal, not as detached critic but as passionate devotee. This was an imaginative heritage tracing back to the earliest annals of his memory. Lewis’ childhood had been frequently punctuated by vivid pangs of joy in when he contemplated mythic themes and settings. As an adult, he would come to apply his considerable intellect to analysing these insights, but a childhood remembrance of the elemental power of myths on the imagination never left him.

So we see that as both a sharp scholar and a sensitive lover of myths, Lewis was better placed than almost anyone to know the contours and significance of the form.

Yet, as a young man, Lewis had also known what it was to affirm a scientistic, rationalistic view of the world. As a person with intellectual aspirations, he had felt obliged to affirm the brand of glib scientism that was de rigeur in his Modernist age. But all the while, Lewis wrestled with an apparently forbidden world of imaginative power trying to push through in his consciousness. Though a self-professed skeptic throughout his formative years, Lewis had never been able to deny the luminous power and inexorable draw of the mythic. But even so, it appeared impossible to reconcile this so-called ‘beautiful lie’ with the apparently absolute authority of science over all claims to meaning and truth. An unhappy Lewis had felt resigned to consider myths as “lies breathed through silver1 – beautiful  indeed, but nonetheless deceitful.

This apparently irreconcilable breach between subjective and objective meaning became a source of considerable existential angst for Lewis. His inner life was fragmented, pressured on one side by the luminous power of myths he felt compelled to reject, and on the other by the drabness of a rationalism he felt obliged by reason to affirm. As he wrote, looking back on his early adulthood:

The two hemispheres of my mind were in the sharpest contrast. On the one side a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth; on the other a glib and shallow “rationalism.” Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless.” 2

But Lewis was no ideologue; unlike many of his peers at Oxford, he was not wilfully committed to rationalistic presuppositions against all contrary evidence. Rather, he had the common sense to entertain his strong intuition that a form as powerful as the mythic might just contain a spark of something true. However unscientific it might turn out to be, perhaps myths did indeed possess some kind of correspondence to reality that explained their evident imaginative power.

It is to this correspondence that we now turn.

Misdefinitions of the Mythic

It is important to realise how burdened the term ‘myth’ has become in our present age. As we encounter the question “what is myth”, we are far from neutral ground. For ‘myth’ has become a lazy catchword for a ‘made up story’, a ‘fairytale’: appealing perhaps, but lacking, almost by definition, anything we might call ‘truth’.

Yet, though myths are generally expressed through fictitious characters and scenarios, this does not appear to prevent them from resonating with the energy of something real. If nothing else impresses us about the mythic form, it is remarkable how persistent is is across time and place, across people groups and languages. It is striking how often similar themes have recurred across the mythologies of different cultures. There is a kind of universality at play, pointing to a deep connection between the mythic and the human condition. Myths seem to mine something shared by otherwise diverse people separated by vast distances of time and place; some shared seam of raw material we intuitively sense within our existential situations, without needing to be taught.

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 stories’, for the assertion that they have little relevance to the ‘real world’.

It was David Hume who famously said we should “consign to the flames” any truth claim lacking either abstract reasoning concerning number, or experimental reasoning concerning matters of fact.3 Of course, this kind of 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 – if even these – 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 ‘correct’ ways of grasping truth or meaning. After all, to place trust in either reason or imagination is to take a form of pre-rational wager: an initial assumption of intelligibility taken without evidence. Thus in the exercise of both reason and imagination, we seek meaning in the absence of hard proof that our faculties are trustworthy. The wager to trust reason is doubtless sweetened later by the impressive results of science and technology, but this should not obscure the cold epistemic reality: despite its pragmatic results, we can never prove that reason is a suitable tool for grasping truth. We can only assume it is, and work from there, to see where we end up.

This makes it problematic to take the common rationalist position that ‘only science speaks truth’. It is problematic, among other reasons, because the imaginative modes of insight – including the mythic – demonstrate their own different but similarly compelling set of results to those of science. There is profound power to great art, a coherence to reality which cannot explained away or reduced to a rational explanation. There is also exceptional universality to art. Few cultures across history have been deeply ordered around the rational principles of the natural sciences, but every culture has produced imaginative interpretations of reality – myths, art, and music. Art is existentially hugely powerful and virtually universal; features which point towards some deep degree of coherence between art and the 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, can marshal considerable post hoc evidence that they have some insights into reality that are worth taking seriously.

What are we to make of this?

The philosopher and essayist George Steiner puts the relationship between propositional and mythic insights this way:

Theories, crucial experiments, algebraic models aim at proof. Proof is, in essence, terminal… But the humblest of myths, on the contrary, is open-ended… Myth offers to our impatient questioning the most vivid perception of the neighbourhood to our everyday experience of the ‘otherness’ in life and in death.” 4

To Steiner, the entire shape and purpose of myths is aimed at a different purpose to that of the abstract ‘proofs’ or ‘demonstrations’ of science. Myths do not communicate in a way that tries to pin things firmly down. Yet, when engaged with on their own terms, it is this exact property which enables myths to operate as they do. It makes them unique contexts for ‘working out’ deeply human things that are almost impossible to define in objective terms. Because myths ’show’ rather than ‘tell’, they can make present to us something profound – the ‘otherness’, the strangeness, the longing and love, the beauty and tragedy, in life and death.

Yet, myths vanish like a mirage under the forensic glare of analytic probing. Like a star glimpsed out of the corner of an eye which vanishes when stared at directly, myths will either be accepted on their own terms, or not at all. Attempts to break myths apart, to ‘analyse’ them by inductive methods, are like an attempt to understand human personality through vivisection. Myths yield their meaning most fully when we dive into them with our imaginative faculties. When we try to study them analytically they play dead, their luminosity vanishes. Just as vibrant creatures of the deep, revealed in their alien glory from the window of submersible, become flaccid, dead and grey when hauled up to the cold light of day for inspection; myths only speak their meaning when we enter their world on their terms. Like a poem, a myth is not grasped by dissection, but by dwelling with it, by listening, by speaking it out loud, by imagining it. Whereas a rational proposition is closed, myth, in common with all Art, invites you in, to look around, to revel in it, and in so doing to explore yourself.

In a sense it is because of this subjectivity, and not despite of it, that myths can perform their potent existential functions. Roger Scruton identifies this feature of the mythic as a key function of “Art” in general. It enables us to dwell among the richly varied colours of the full emotional palette of the lived experience – grief, hope, joy, fear, love, melancholy, guilt and despair. Yet crucially for Scruton, it enables this encounter without our having to live through all the kinds of situations that might occasion these responses in our own lives. We can explore death without having to die, mourning without suffering loss, fear without physical threat. We gain a form of moral education that is nonetheless not moralising in its tone.5

Thus poetry, music, visual art and myth have moral significance, but not because they preach to us in moral propositions. This is because they can frame complex moral and existential realities for our imaginative faculties and not primarily the rational. Anyone who has used music or art or poetry to help them reflect on their existential condition knows this latent power. The subjective arts help us to contemplate and consider the realities of being in a way that is difficult when we are gripped by our own circumstances of grief, hope, joy, melancholy, guilt, or despair. Myth, like art in general, offers a kind of loose moral education; not a sermon, but a sandbox for exploring the human condition. There are, for instance, things Homer’s Iliad, Picasso’s Guernica or Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis can teach us about our personhood that  the sciences of psychology and neurology cannot touch. Art has a universal appeal, at least in part because it provides a context for ‘working through’ deeply felt truths of the human condition that are nonetheless almost impossible to define in objective terms. In this sense, the subjective arts allow us to speak things that cannot be spoken in any other way. True enough, science can help us understand and precisely describe the physical world, enabling impressive technological feats, but it is deathly silent on matters of morality, being, and purpose. In other words, on what matters most to human beings. 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 propositions.

Meaning in Myth – the Hidden Heart

But where does the ‘meaning’ reside in Art, and in the mythic in particular? Reason, with its propositional forms of communication, at least provides a certain clarity to where its meaning is situated. With the mythic, which speaks such a different language, the search for meaning demands a different approach.

The subjective nature of the mythic form makes it open to numerous expressions and re-expressions. A defining characteristic of the great mythic themes is their almost endless adaptability. The fictitious characters through which the greatest myths approach us are largely secondary to the meaning they carry within. The actors of the mythic world and the stage on which they play are figments of a particular author’s imagination, given shape by the cultural palette of that author’s specific context. However, this creative license is subsequent to the real heartbeat of a myth, the universal themes lying beneath the outer clothing of character and place. This means that in practice, we find the characters and contexts can be changed without fundamentally changing how the myth operates on the imagination. Myths are reworked down the ages, yet retain their distinctive power.

It is exactly this interchangeable nature of characters and contexts that points so powerfully to a universal significance lying at the heart of the great myths. This deeper seam of meaning fuelling the mythic can be taken up and transposed into virtually endless contexts by different authors whilst maintaining much the same luminous power and appeal. Different representations of a given mythic theme may vary on the surface, the specifics being functions of a given place and time, but the animating force driving the myth is discernibly conserved. 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 different cultures and ages – has produced different mythic tales, different interpretations of the same sensed beam of 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 veil6.” This exegesis – in other words, this ‘reading out’ of a form of universal meaning – is a fundamentally ‘poetic’ process defying rational categorisation; the poet channels significance sensed deep in the human condition, artfully transplanting this living heart into a new body of context and character. Over the ages, the great artists have mined the same mythic themes over and over again, reaching into the human condition and drawing forth handfuls of the same raw existential material which is then shaped by each artist into a new expression.

We find an analogy for this channeling function of myths in the way linguistic signs channel meaning. The actual signs used in language are mostly secondary to the cognitive content – we can translate a book into the distinct vocabulary and grammar of French, Arabic or Mandarin whilst barely changing the content. We see that the meaning is deeper than the form used to express it. There is after all little intrinsic meaning to words as mere vocabulary, but in the hands of a skilful wordsmith, language channels meaning that can raise armies, break hearts, and make the imagination soar. In the same way, myths use fictitious characters as a kind of channel to express universal themes. In myths we find a mapping of representations and narratives onto deep streams of coherence and meaning within the human condition. Hence the greatest mythic themes can be transposed into different contexts, sited in different ages, clothes in different characters, and yet their power and meaning remain undimmed. We recognise the same tang of truth and correspondence to human reality in all of them.

Over the centuries it has been a rite of passage among truly great poets in each generation to take up the gauntlet of transposing the great myths of antiquity into the key of their own age. This is why the accusation that Shakespeare ‘plagiarised’ the dramas of Greek antiquity is misplaced. Rather, in a process of profound homage and artistry, the bard breathed the animating spirit of the earlier works into a new home. As George Steiner points out, this reworking of myths is not an analytical process: “narratives and myths are poetic genres. They are not theories7.” To take another example, Dante did not analytically deconstruct the Aeneid in writing the Divine Comedy, but the luminous presence of the earlier work shines through nonetheless. The poet transposing the great mythic work carries out a profoundly sympathetic process of engaged interaction with the parent text, but it is not one that can be deconstructed to arrive at an algorithmic process. We cannot logically formulate a method to construct or transpose great myths. In fact, the ability to craft myth is generally extinguished by the kind of self-conscious analysis familiar to philosophy and the natural sciences. We cannot explain the enduring existential appeal of Shakespeare’s plays by dissecting his choice of words, or parsing phrasing of his stanzas. And crucially, it is unlikely that even Shakespeare himself could explain his plays’ meaning in such terms.

The artist is not an engineer, constructing a text formulaically: rather, they must descend to the deeps of the imagination and return with empty hands to relate what they have seen using only the poetic forms. As Claude Lévi-Strauss observed, “the practice and the use of mythological thought demand that its properties remain hidden8. To Lévi-Strauss, the process of trying to craft myths by focusing self-consciously on what myths are would be somewhat like concentrating intensely on the laws of phonetics and grammar whilst trying to speak. The result is, of course, to lose your thread almost instantly. It is virtually a definition of the subjective or ‘stochastic’ arts – poetry, music, visual art and myth included – that the artist channels something of which they are not in full rational control. In other words, myths cannot be theoretically constructed or deconstructed. Reason has a very limited ability to speak into what makes Art so potent.

The Universality of Mythic Communication

Though the almost prophetic ability to craft great mythic works is rare, a sensitivity to mythic themes is a near-universal human trait. Humans appear to have an innate responsiveness to mythic expressions which transcends what is rationally explicable or capable of propositional communication. It seems that we sense things in reality that cannot be named in clear statements. There are aspects of our existential condition that mostly elude objective categories, but are nonetheless among the most powerful forces in the human experience. It is these with which the mythic engages so powerfully. C.S. Lewis was not alone in having a childhood punctuated by vivid sensations of transcendence and longing – experiences that could not be explained away by a rationalistic account. Many people can identify with this – the early years are often a phase of great imaginative susceptibility, a time when it feels the veil is thin between the visible world of objects and facts, and an unseen world of dreams and apparitions, a world elusive and yet shimmering with meaning and suggestiveness. Though the pragmatic concerns of adulthood dull this sensitivity for most of us, great art is built upon exactly this sensitivity to unseen but potent streams of meaning flowing deep beneath the gaze of the rational faculties.

Whenever we find the same themes resurfacing over and over again in the poetic expressions of human cultures, we should rightly suspect that we have located a coordinate of weighty significance. We are, so to say, on holy ground, imaginatively speaking. And it is exactly these rich deposits of deep coherence to felt experience which myths mine so potently. In this way, we might say that myth is  a layer of poetic expression through which deep intuitions of our nature are given voice. Few mythic expressions fully correspond to tangible entities or historical events in their specific details, but whenever we stumble onto a vivid mythical theme, it is likely that something of existential important is buried not far beneath the ground. The urge to mythologise – so universal across cultures and ages – speaks to the reality of a unique and potent form of meaning. The need and ability to mythologise appears to be an emergent property of our ontology; something which is inseparable from what human beings are and what their purpose is. There is something of a necessity to the mythic form, as though it owes its enduring nature to its ability to channel and communicate things no other form can. 

Myths and Science – Strange Bedfellows

The highly subjective character of myth might lead us to expect an irresolvable conflict with the claims and methods of science. After all, it is one of the foundational tenets of science that propositions be clear, unambiguous, evidence based, and free from unacknowledged bias. Yet we find that science, the supposed bastion of the objective, actually has a close and complicated relationship to the subjective realm of the mythic.

This is particularly evident when it comes to the public popularisation of science. Consider a blockbuster nature documentary such as the BBC’s “Blue Planet”. Note the extensive use of narrative, which often pushes to the fringes the kind of ordered accounts we expect from science proper. See how hypotheses and evidence take second place to dramatic and symbolic priorities. Observe how the camerawork puts us in the midst of things, unable to gain the detached perspective science usually strives to attain.

In recent science documentaries, technical details (locations, temperatures, depths) seem to fade to a distant significance. We no longer know (or truly care) whether we are watching a real habitat or an artful reconstruction. Are these polar bears in Greenland or a zoo in London? But who cares – they are simply bears as a symbol, and we identify with their struggle because we also struggle.

Moreover, the phraseology of modern documentary voiceovers is dense with poetic connotation. As we descend in a submersible, we know nothing of precise depths and coordinates; we are merely ‘at the bottom of the sea, at the end of the world’. 9The images and subjects on the screen become a form of metaphor. The narrator embellishes the tales with anthropomorphising language, using them as characters through whom we see ourselves reflected. These documentaries are stories first and foremost, not ordered accounts of the facts. After all, facts can be alienating – but stories are universal – and it is foundational to the success of a story that we identify with the characters.

The entire effect of the modern nature blockbuster is a far cry from the cool, objective stance we usually associate with science. Rather than a logical and balanced survey of relevant data, the intended effect appears instead to be to overwhelm us with crashing waves of awe. These documentaries are not so much designed to make us understand things, but rather to induce a quasi-religious wonder at the natural world. This is not science as hypothesis, experimentation and induction. This is ‘science’ as myth, as worship, as a form of spiritual communion with the natural world.

Cosmologist Carl Sagan’s statements are a case study in this kind of appeal to the mythic. Take the mysticism of his 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.”10

As a brilliant science populariser it is no accident that many of Sagan’s pronouncements resonate with poetic power. The most canny scientific communicators have always understood the potent power of poetry and myth in advancing the popular appreciation of their disciplines. This makes abundant sense: perhaps one person in a few thousand truly has a head for advanced levels of abstract proof or rigorous scientific induction, but as we have seen, the appeal of the mythic is near-universal. To convince the masses of the appeal of science, why risk boring them with equations or inductive rigour: simply tell them a captivating story.

This muddying of the waters between the objective and the mythic by scientists was not lost on C.S. Lewis. Living as he did through the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, the so-called “Golden Age” of science fiction, he came to understand that much of the appeal of what he called the ‘scientific outlook’ did not come from its rational content. After all, the appeal of science fiction does not rest on any authority of science or its results. Rather, science fiction operates as a form of technological myth. In great science fiction of print and screen, from H.G. Wells to Black Mirror, science and technology serve as characters and contexts in a deeper exploration of the human condition. Science is conscripted as actor and stage, not as a method but as a channel, not as technique to derive objective truths but as a conduit between the human condition and the imagination. In this sense, science fiction is classic myth making, shining the light of our existential burdens through the lens of character and context to help us make sense of ourselves. This is why Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, ostensibly a dystopian anthology series about our relationship to technology, ends up being far more about us than the technologies around which each scenario revolves. 

However, this close relationship between science and the mythic extends far beyond documentaries and sci-fi. As Lewis realised, the luminous power of the mythic was just as present in the official narrative which the scientists of his age were developing about life, the universe and everything. A brief recounting of the scientific account of our origins reveals it to be freighted with great imaginative appeal.

At the opening of this great epic, all matter, space, energy and time leapt forth from the infinite void by infinitesimally slender chance. Then, after countless millennia of celestial churning had calmed, on a small rock, hanging weightless in the endless vacuum of space, vital life somehow sprang forth from inert matter. In a miracle of minute probability, the animate arose unbidden from the inanimate. Against all odds, life then complicated itself, rising from the single cell to the dragons; from the sludge to the dinosaurs of the mesozoic age. Then came proto-man, naked and shivering against all the odds in a world of reptilian monsters, frozen wastes and vast danger. Gradually, inch by gruelling inch, came Homo Sapiens’ mastery of the physical world. Through unimaginable struggle, Man was forged, ascending step by painful step to the throne of nature. And out of the unremitting violence of prehistory, humanity learned to attain wisdom and a measure of happiness in this cruel and cold universe of chance and entropy.11

It is an extraordinary narrative, and like all great myths, it is full of tension, twists and turns. But as Lewis noted, we must add the end of the story to find the narrative coup de grace, the mythic masterstroke. The denoument adds just enough bitter pathos to the tale to perfectly balance the sweetness of man’s vanishingly improbable ascent from the primordial sludge to nature’s throne. As Lewis writes:

If the myth stopped at that point [the ascent of humanity]… it would lack the highest grandeur of which human imagination is capable. The last scene reverses all. We have the Twilight of the Gods. All this time, silently, unceasingly, out of all reach of human power, Nature, the old enemy, has been steadily gnawing away. The sun will cool – all suns will cool – the whole universe will run down. Life (every form of life) will be banished, without hope of return, from every inch of infinite space. All ends in nothingness, and “universal darkness covers all.” The pattern of myth thus becomes one of the noblest we can conceive. It is the pattern of many Elizabethan tragedies, where the protagonist’s career can be represented by a slowly ascending and then rapidly falling curve… You see him climbing up and up, then blazing in his bright meridian, then finally overwhelmed in ruin. Such a world drama appeals to every part of us.” 12

Lewis recognised that the finely poised tragedy of the finale lends exquisite poetic balance to the grand tale. Its mythic power satisfies the imagination at a profound level. But this is very, very different to the logical satisfaction of an elegant mathematical proof. What Lewis called the “scientific outlook” has all the qualities of a story people will want to believe because of its mythic appeal, long before any supporting structure of evidence or reason is built underneath it. As in all myths, there is walloping subjective power that exists whether or not there is any objective correspondence in the details. The tale has a beauty whether one believes it is true or not. As Lewis himself confessed of the scientific outlook: “I, who believe less than half of what it tells me about the past, and less than nothing of what it tells me about the future, am deeply moved when I contemplate it.”13

Importantly, this intermingling with the mythic does not prevent many of science’s analytic and empirical claims being demonstrably true. Yet, there is something curious about the union, since myths defy the very kind of rational enquiry upon which science is built. The mythic is a kind of subjective tumour in the crystalline objectivity of science, an uneasy bedfellow for a discipline which usually demands hard evidence and dispassionate logic as the price of admission for any so-called ‘truth’. And yet, on one level, this union is entirely understandable. Science is a potent generator of myth because, as we have seen, anything with true correspondence to reality is bound to appeal deeply to the imagination as well as the reason. As Lewis himself memorably put it; Man “is a poetical animal and touches nothing which he does not adorn.14 No wonder Carl Sagan, David Attenborough, Stephen Hawking, and all other great science communicators cannot help breaking away from theory and fact into poetic doxology – outbursts of praise –at regular intervals. To cite Lewis again, “all world views yield poetry to those who believe them by the mere fact of being believed.”15 If the methods of science are consistently hitting coordinates of meaning in the fabric of reality, it is no surprise that the scientists involved, as human beings, find rich imaginative suggestiveness as well as rational facts when they break the ground. 

Yet, understandable though this doxological prompting of the natural order is, there is an uneasy tension at play. Though we could imagine a kind of broad understanding of what science is, a classical ‘Scienta’ which harmonises insights from natural science, philosophy, theology and the arts, this is not what science is in our day. Though modern science was not birthed in radical skeptical materialism, that is where we have ended up. Though the first great scientists were also theologians, philosophers and poets, men of reason and imagination who embraced ‘scienta’ – knowledge – wherever it may be found, science in our day has shrugged off everything except the narrowly rationalistic claim to meaning.  And this means the foundational tenets of our Modern brand of hard science cannot properly permit the kinds of subjective remainder of rationally unexaminable meaning characteristic of myth. To the extent that the gatekeepers of natural science demand that rationality alone shall lead the way to truth, the imaginative claims to meaning will always be a strange bedfellow to the methods and assumptions of rationalistic science. There is therefore a curious double standard, a hypocrisy even, in how much the popularisation of science today does draws on the power of the mythic. On the one hand, some of rationalism’s more hardline spokespeople demand that we reject anything we cannot demonstrate using reason alone. On the other hand, some of those same spokespeople unashamedly channel the inexplicable power of the mythic and poetic to supercharge their case for the widespread acceptance of scientism among non-scientists.

This cognitive dissonance makes it important to divide the powerful effect of the myth from the objective claims of science ‘proper’. There is what appears to be an element of power-play in some scientists’ appeal to poetic power, particularly among those who simultaneously decry ‘religion’ on the basis of its supposed subjectivity. Many advocates of secularism have ended up endorsing highly unscientific methods to plant a hardline rationalism in the minds of those who will never themselves be in a position to be able to critique scientific thinking and method ‘from the inside’. It is hard to see this as anything other than an appeal to authority: “you just enjoy the story – trust the clever people with the facts”.

At the limit, some scientists end up virtually asking us to worship science as a form of deity. Consider these musings of Carolyn Porco, planetary scientist and team leader of the imaging team for the Cassini probe:

“[The] same spiritual fulfillment and connection [usually found in religion] can be found in the revelations of science. From energy to matter, from fundamental particles to DNA, from microbes to Homo sapiens, from the singularity of the Big Bang to the immensity of the universe …. ours is the greatest story ever told. We scientists have the drama, the plot, the icons, the spectacles, the ‘miracles’, the magnificence, and even the special effects. We inspire awe. We evoke wonder. And we don’t have one god, we have many of them. We find gods in the nucleus of every atom, in the structure of space/time, in the counter-intuitive mechanisms of electromagneticsm. What richness! What consummate beauty!”16

This is simply one symptom among many, demonstrating a peculiar state of affairs in the popularisation and communication of science. In the name of science, many of the aggressive ‘bouncers’ of rationalism violently throw all traces of the religious, of myth, of connotation, subjectivism and the ‘spiritual’ out of the front door of the human experience, and then appear to welcome those very same guests in again through the back door in different clothes.

The Mythic in Religion

We have seen how mythic themes recur across cultures and ages, and how the familiar tang of the mythic can be discerned even in the way science is carried out and communicated. There is something mysteriously universal to myth, the way in which, across vast distances of time and space, the same foundational wellsprings of meaning are channeled forth through characters and narratives to quench the thirst of the imagination.

Of the various mythic themes which recur repeatedly throughout human history, the dying deity is a particularly potent example. Refracted through the windows of different cultures and places, the animating force of this myth has been clothed in 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. In other words, the dying god theme illustrates precisely the kind of imaginative recurrence which suggests that the same deep existential stream has being tapped in each case.

C.S. Lewis spoke of the poetic pungency of this dying god myth in his own experience. Writing in Surprised by Joy, he recalls his first encounter with the norse god Balder in these lines of 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. 17

Writing much later in his life, Lewis related being “mysteriously moved” by this account of Balder’s fate. Never mind the ahistoricity of the dying ‘god’; no matter Balder’s complete lack of correspondence to any actual time or place. There was nonetheless a great beauty and pathos to the tale; something about this fictional god which resonated deep in the imagination. It is not necessary tobelieve’ in Balder in order to feel this existential correspondence. It is irrelevant whether we could have touched or heard Balder had we been in the right place at the right time. The entire purpose of the myth is one of connotation, a full-bored appeal to the imagination without asking us to believe or do anything in particular. Importantly, the response is left up to us.

Andrew Fellows has pointed out this notable property of most myths; the vast majority 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. This is why, as Lewis himself observed, there is no identifiable theology accompanying the vast majority of myths. Greek ‘religion’, for example, was utterly mythological and yet virtually entirely un-theological. As Lewis put it; there was no systematic series of statements which the Greeks agreed in believing about Zeus18.” And yet, these myths still do something to people – they are tied up in how people think and behave. There is universality to their 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 in the lives of those who encounter it.

In common with the myth of the dying god, 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 same theme pushes 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 this well of significance. This is the wager of the imaginative; that there is meaning and truth in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Dante’s Inferno and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, even though that meaning and truth cannot be expressed in rational propositions.

The Demonic Side to Unconstrained Myth

Myths may usually be un-theological and clothed in fictitious forms, but this ‘looseness’ and ahistoricity does not prevent them being powerfully suggestive prompts to human behaviour. However, this is not the kind of action that is based on proposition. Unlike road signs, legal codes or technical manuals, myths do not say “do this” or “think that”. Instead, because they appeal to the imagination rather than to the analytic faculties, myths operate in a ‘liturgical’ way to shape us. That is, they mould us subconsciously over repeat exposure rather than objectively stating what we should believe or how we should act. They touch the heart and the emotions rather than the reason, en route to the centre of our decision-making faculties. They influence us, but the shape of the response is left open ended. We could put the difference in this way: after reading a can repair manual, you know exactly what to do to repair the car; but after reading The Aeneid, or watching King Lear, the way you carry its impact into your life is an open question.

Because myths combine a subjective lack of ‘theology’ combined with a potent appeal to the imagination, human responses to myth are generally unpredictable and unguided. Since there is no theological control to channel the effect of mythic themes on our actions, there is nothing to ‘correct’ potentially destructive and morally abhorrent responses to their imaginative power. As a result, myths can ‘go rogue’, a truth borne out repeatedly in the history of human civilisations.

One powerful locus of myths is the sensed reality of patterns of death and birth in reality, and specifically the sense that death is inextricably linked to new life. This sense flows from first hand experience of nature, of seeds buried in the ground bringing forth new seedlings, of wild animals dying to defend their young, of livestock slain to feed and nourish human beings. And, across numerous ages and cultures, different mythic expressions have clothed the powerful resonance of this theme in dramatic tales rich with symbolism and fictitious deities. In a sense, each of these mythic expressions represents an attempt to imaginatively ‘work through’, to ‘read out’ or exegete the powerful felt significance of the theme in human experience.

Over the ages, many of the mythic responses to the death / rebirth theme have been odd but largely harmless. Consider for example the historic abundance of bizarre fertility rituals. However, at times its evocative imaginative power has spawned some terribly warped mythic expressions and responses. In various places throughout history, cults of human sacrifice – and child sacrifice in particular – have given barbaric imaginative expression to some of our darkest human intuitions about life and death. In these expressions, a fictitious god often acts as a terrible personalisation of a felt need to engage with the birth / death dichotomy and seek to control it for our own ends. This is a dark and twisted poetry – the sensed theme of death and birth is shaped into concrete imaginative expressions of often terrible cruelty.

There is certainly mythic power to the idea of exquisitely costly sacrifice to secure blessing, but the concrete action to which it has driven people in many instances is reprehensible. Kronos of the Carthaginians, Moloch of the Caananites, and Shi of the Chimu may be fictitious deities, but the children sacrificed in their names were very real. In these cases, the lack of objective ‘theological’ control on the imaginative power of myth was an enabler of great wickedness. There was nothing rational to bound or to guide the way that powerfully sensed meanings were poetically acted out.

It is therefore naive to assume that every imaginative expression that pours forth from our existential condition is pure and healthy. As we have seen, there can indeed be a certain demonic power to myths. 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 of 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 in the realm of the imagination. The mythic can give powerful shape to our urges, for good and for ill, urges which unconstrained by the control of reason can veer into the ecstatic and sublime, or the bizarre and sadistic. 

Christianity – the “Myth Become Fact”

So – to arc around to the final point of our exploration –  what are we to make of the Bible, the text so often dismissed as just another set of myths. And what are we to make of Christianity, the pattern of beliefs and practices founded on the content of the Bible?

As we have already touched upon, C.S. Lewis came to recognise that the content of the Bible does indeed contain great mythic suggestiveness. It achieves the kind of existential resonance common to all great myths. Large tracts of the Bible operate at least partially on a poetic level, richly embroidered with imagery and symbolism. Indeed, the rituals and pronouncements of the Old Testament covenant positively gleam 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 walled city defeated by trumpet blasts, and on and on it goes. Thus on one level there is a distinctive mythic tang to the Old Testament, rich food for the imagination whether one ‘believes’ it or not.

Moreover, alongside these elements of myth-like saga bound up with the people of Israel, the Old Testament also shimmers with the most exquisite poetry and wisdom literature. In Ecclesiastes, Job and the Psalms, we find evocative passages which even avowed atheists recognise as among the most sublime literature ever written.

On one level then, the familiar luminous threads of the mythic appear to be woven richly throughout the Old Testament texts. Yet, for all this richly myth-like poeticism, the narrative is also shot through with historical correspondence. The story of Israel is the tale of a real people, in largely identifiable times and places. Their experience may be surrounded by evocatively mythic symbolism and poetry, but at the heart stands a real, tangible people. The imagery swirls with subjective beauty, but it does so around objective flesh and blood, bound to soil, fixed in historical coordinates.

Moreover, unlike virtually all myths, the richly poetic appeal of the Old Testament narratives never comes at the expense of objectivity. 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 by God, perhaps the ultimate expression of an objective, rational, non-mythic communication.

In this way then, there is a ‘both / and’ to the Old Testament text; the imaginative embraces the objective in striking ways. When God commands, for instance, that his people build a tent in which his presence among them will dwell, there is evocative symbolism in every last component. Yet the instructions for its manufacture are precise and objective, down to the last hook and post. In this, the poetic and propositional embrace. The purpose of the tent, 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 within this place of worship serves an objective purpose; they are not simply an end in themselves, to be ‘figured out’ as their devotees see fit. There are no wild ecstasies here, or reckless casting of children before the flames. Indeed, the God of Israel pronounces his animosity to the false Gods of child sacrifice, and to wild drunken ecstasies of false worship, no matter how ‘imaginative’ or mythically fulfilling they may be.

Thus, 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 within it to contextualise it and direct it. The planes of the subjective and objective intersect. The same people given the existential howls and sublime poetry of the Psalms are given the objective commands and rational guidance of Deuteronomy and Leviticus. 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 comes from, and what guardrails should be placed around our responses to it. There will be no flights of the unbridled imagination and intuition, none of the ecstatic orgies or rituals of child sacrifice common to other religions. In the worship of Yahweh, awe and understanding embrace, love and obedience kiss one another. 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 unique fabric. If the Old Testament has a distinctly mythic ingredient, the resulting meal is unlike any other myth before or since.

Yet, for Lewis, it was in the New Testament that this 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. This realisation, in the eyes of many, offers 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 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 Tegner’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.

What so struck Lewis about the Gospels was this disconnect between the exquisitely myth-like nature of their subject and the dispassionate form of their delivery. True enough, the Gospels set forth content that shimmers with all the power of a great myth, yet it is 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.”19 Or as Luke says, “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.20. In other words, 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 themselves, and to have recounted faithfully to us.

Thus, the myth-like power of the Bible, its potent existential weight and luminous appeal to the imagination, is inextricably interwoven with the verifiable objectivity of its historic claims. Jesus is the dying god par excellence, not a work of man’s imagination but the incarnate God-man who actually comes, and actually dies, and actually rises in a real place in real time. As Lewis put it:

The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens – at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified … under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.” 21

In the Bible, and supremely in the Gospels, history and myth intersect. As Lewis continues: “the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with the tremendous difference that it really happened.”22

Because the objective and subjective intersect, the Bible 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 to do in response. Lewis recognised that this made the narrative of the Bible, reaching its zenith in the Gospels, unlike any tale ever told. As he put it:

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.”23

Unlike all other myths, the entire Bible narrative was centred around objective fact. Unlike most accounts of objective fact, it shimmered with imaginative appeal. Here was a holistic vision 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 of all that is most real and meaningful and good and true could ever lop off one or the other. The only reasonable wager on meaning is to accept the insights of both reason and imagination together. 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, from cave paintings to memes suggest 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 Bible works on us in the sphere of the imagination and the reason. It works to inform us and guide us as only propositional statements can, and it works to liturgically shape and inform our vision of the good and the beautiful in a manner that only the poetic can. We are to read the texts of scripture with reason and imagination engaged, and to read them in all seasons, in all emotional states. We are to weigh and trust the evidence, to obey the objective commands, and be moved deeply by the poetic beauty, sometimes all at the same time. God’s story is at one and the same time the most luminous myth ever told and the most grounded, trustworthy, physically-connected foundation for life in the actual present and future.

The “True Myth” and the Others – Similarity and Difference

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? If Christianity is the ‘true myth’, what is its relation to the myriad fictitious myths which nonetheless appear to share part of its imaginative DNA.

To Lewis, the observation of Christianity’s convergence with pagan myth was not a troublesome remainder to be swept under the carpet, but an obvious outworking of our ontology – what we are oriented towards as human beings. After all, if myth mines intuitions of our existential condition, and if we are, as the Bible proclaims, creatures created by God to live in a world He made, then many of our imaginative intuitions will echo, however dimly, the pattern of God’s own creative work. As Lewis put it:

Myth in general is not merely misunderstood history . . . nor diabolical illusion . . . nor priestly lying . . . but, at its best, a real though unfocused gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination.”24

The preponderance of myth, poetry, music and art speaks 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 and not random, there is a form of order, purpose and meaning which inheres within all that 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 (in other words, not the kind of wilfully destructive ‘art’ so characteristic of the 20th Century…) there must be a partial channeling, an unguided reading out or exegesis of powerful patterns sensed in the created order. Even art and myth which reject the true God still cannot help but mine the resources of God’s universe, and in that sense these forms can still offer a refracted glimpse of truth which we sense when we see it.

Inevitably, these artistic readings of creation, being intuitive and imaginative in nature, lack full correspondence to the definiteness of God’s self-revelation, they lack the exegetical function which is alloyed to the imaginative content of the Bible. Moreover, refracted as they are through the shifting sands and imperfect cognitive faculties of finite human beings, our imaginative intuitions are warped and distorted from expressing the full weight and meaning of our existence here on earth. But we should expect at least some of the imaginative, artistic, poetic 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. And so, 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.”25

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 made by someone sensitively attending to reality will inevitably 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 some 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. As we have seen, myth-based religions have often veered to places of sadism and brutality. Without objective theological control, without the proper and proportional exercise of reason, the responses to the potent imaginative appeal of mythic themes is left to us, often with disastrous consequences.

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 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 does so using things he himself has freely made, things put into the world with the express design of freighting them with symbolism, poetry and narrative in order to reveal himself more fully.

By contrast, pagan myths are necessarily derivative upon the latent patterns of symbol and meaning 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 the world God has made and the existential condition of the humans 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.”

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 H. Carpenter. J.R.R. Tolkien: a Biography, Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. 146-147

2 C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy. London: HarperCollins, 2002, 197

3 D. Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, OUP, 1999, 211

4 G. Steiner, Real presences: is there anything in what we say?. Faber & Faber, 2010

5 R. Scruton, The Good the True and the Beautiful, (

6 G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, Hendrickson Publishers, 2007.

7 Steiner, George. Real presences: is there anything in what we say?. Faber & Faber, 2010

8 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, 11-12


10 C. Sagan, Cosmos, Episode 9, “Stars”, 1980, (

11 C.S. Lewis, Myth Became Fact, in Essay Collection: Faith Christianity and the Church, ed. Lesley Walmsley, London: HarperCollins, 2002, 138-142.

12 C.S. Lewis, Myth Became Fact, in Essay Collection: Faith Christianity and the Church, ed. Lesley Walmsley, London: HarperCollins, 2002, 138-142.

13 C.S. Lewis, Myth Became Fact, in Essay Collection: Faith Christianity and the Church, ed. Lesley Walmsley, London: HarperCollins, 2002, 138-142.

14 C.S. Lewis, Is Theology Poetry?, 7

15 C.S. Lewis, Myth Became Fact, in Essay Collection: Faith Christianity and the Church, ed. Lesley Walmsley, London: HarperCollins, 2002, 138-142.

17 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

18 C. S. Lewis, Is Theology Poetry?, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses,1945, 140

19 Gospel of John, 1:14

20 Gospel of Luke, 1:1-4

21 Lewis, C. S. “Myth Became Fact.”.” God in the Dock, 1970, 63-67.

22 C.S. Lewis, Excerpt from Letter to Arthur Greeves, October 18, 1931

23 C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, New York: Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovich, 1955, 88

24 C.S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study, New York: Macmillan, 1947, 161

25 C. S. Lewis, Is Theology Poetry?, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses,1945, 140