By Joshua Penduck
Last time I talked about how we cannot see that the Bible is divinely written unless God opens our eyes to it, and that in many places the Bible is like historical fiction (as opposed to fictional history). However, this is not the only kind of literary genre that the Bible uses. There’s also poetry, prophecy, law, eye witness testimony, essays, and letters, and much, much more. But there is one genre that people often recoil at when I say that it’s in the Bible. And the genre is simply this: myth. There are parts of the Bible that are ‘mythical’. Anyone who knows a bit about subjects such as anthropology or sociology or even literary theory know what a myth is (or rather, what it’s not). When most people think of the word ‘myth’ they think it means that something is ‘false’. For instance: ‘Senator Peters says that raising taxes on the rich will solve all our economic problems, but that’s just a myth’. When I say that part of the Bible (such as the opening eleven chapters of Genesis) are mythological, I’m not saying that they are false. For one thing, it’s in the Bible, so from my perspective it can’t be false. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s historical either. Whereas the genre of historical fiction we looked at last week tended to embellish history, mythology is ahistorical. It’s got nothing to do about what happened in the past. So if it’s not simply something that is false, is not embellished history, and has got nothing to do with the past, what then is myth?
A myth was a typical story form in the period that the Bible was written in. Everyone wrote in mythological form. This is a complicated area which I’ll try to be as simple as I can. A myth is a story that gives us a glimpse into how the world is what it is. It’s an explanation in narrative (not scientific) form (we’ll get on to that in a bit). Human beings are story making animals, so we cannot escape from stories. Even the most abstract science has got a narrative reason why the scientific research is being done (the philosopher Mary Midgley is wonderful at pointing out many of the myths that lie behind scientific thinking). A myth gives us an idea of what reality is really like. For instance, in the Greek Myth of Sisyphus, a king is condemned to endlessly roll a boulder up a hill, only to see it roll back down again when it reaches the top. The next day he has to start again. The myth has been interpreted by many thinkers, including the atheist philosopher Albert Camus, who used it as a way of explaining to absurdity of existence. Myths can be used to create or fortify political claims, religious rituals, or simply traditions. We all do it, often without thinking about it. The important thing about a myth is that it cannot be ‘translated’ into a more ‘pure’ form. That was the problem with the followers of philosophers like Hegel in the 19th Century, who tried to take a myth and turn it into a more ‘reasonable’ or scientific form. It lost what the myth was about.
Not all the Bible is mythological. Most of it isn’t. The Gospels certainly aren’t (despite the claims of a few undereducated critics!). But there are parts that certainly are. Genesis I is the most obvious example. Once again, this doesn’t mean it’s not true: the story of the tortoise and the hare never happened, but that doesn’t make it false. But why didn’t God simply give the Biblical writers a scientific account of the universe?
As we’ve said before, God speaks through the writers of the Bible; he doesn’t override them. God doesn’t speak in ways that the writers of the Bible couldn’t understand. This means that Genesis I is not a scientific account of the creation of the world, because science (in the way we understand it today) simply didn’t exist. Think this is some modern form of heresy? The great African thinker Augustine was saying the same in the 5th Century. John Calvin said that we should not look to the Bible for scientific research, as God didn’t give us the Bible for that reason. In fact, for John Calvin, God lisped the Bible. You know when a mother begins lisping to her child to help the child learn to speak? The mother doesn’t actually lisp normally, but it helps the child learn. For Calvin it was the same with the Bible. Like a mother speaks on the child’s level, so God speaks to us on our level. After all, isn’t this what happened when Jesus became one of us, God speaking to us on our level? God speaks like this. He ‘lisps’ to us.
This is why there’s not much conversation about microbes and quarks and supernovas in the Bible. People didn’t have the scientific capacity to understand that yet, and God wasn’t about to blow their minds with all that information. He had a bigger task: redemption.
Once we stop trying to read Genesis I in our own modern scientific ways and start trying to read it in the way the original writers – and thus God – intended, things get much clearer. We can read Genesis I alongside other ancient mythological accounts of creation, and see what God was trying to tell humanity. Next week, we’ll look at one of those other accounts.