Introduction to Post
I have recently even reading through Richard M. Weaver’s Visions Of Order: The Cultural Crisis of Our Time. It is an interesting book, as all of Weaver’s work tends to be. I am not going to comment on any of his specifically social or political ideas. What I am going to comment on is his discussion of myth, specifically his view on what myth is. This will serve as a foil to bring up a discussion on the Bible and myth. The main thesis of this post is that ancient writers took their myths as factual retellings of the past of national or religious history. I give present examples and ask for evidence (other than the falsity of myths) that give evidence for the idea that myths are not to be taken as history. Here is the quote from Weaver:
Myths are great symbolic structures which hold together the imaginations of a people and provide bassses of harmonious thought and action. They posit a supersensile world of meaning and value from which the least member of a culture can borrow something to dignify and give coherence to his life. Obviously the myth is not own of calculation, nor can its “function” ever be measured. As Ernst Casirer points out, myth defies the analytic process which is used with empirical data. Most important of all, mythical time has no definite structure; its always “eternal time”. From the point of view of the mythical consciousness, then, the past has never passed away; it is always here and now. Therefore myth is the greatest of all conservators of the significance of things against forces which would make signigance contingent upon a present, topical urgency. Whatever has become myth has acquired a status invulnerable to two thing: the positive point by point correspondence of empirical testing, and the likewise empirical testing of present function.The Mythopoeic faculty of man, like his ability to create symbols, is a distinctively human attribute, and its exercise is a satisfying of one of its deepest psychic hungers. Man creates myths because he feels that, in the language of Goethe, “all before us that is passing sign and symbol is alone.” His myths are the distillation of this meaning, a humanized quintessence of the great pageant. In myth, which is timeless, which expresses some idea of value, and which cannot be dealt with or destroyed by the method of analysis, man expresses a reality which is subjective it which is nevertheless part of the totality. It is his highest response to this insistent question of his own significance. Thus the truth of myth, like the quality of status, is something that must be seized intuitively. Either it is seen in its persuasiveness as one of humanity’s archetypal ideas or it is not grasped at all.
I am in agreement with Weaver on much of this. The idea that foundational stories function to give us meaning, harmony with our fellow man, and a basis for action are all true. However, I would say that is only part of the story. The portions that I highlighted are, to me the most problematic and false, though they are spouted by academics, theologians, and well meaning Christian believers. The idea is that if we can isolate myth from the “historical” without undermining of the power of “myth”. In the first bolder text above Weaver says that myth defies the analytic process which is used with empirical data. Rather, what I think he should have said here was “myth defies the analytic process which is used with historical data”, empirical data is too broad a term, because if myths do anything they tell stories about a human past, or a divine event. I do not think that myth stories were thought of as non-historical stories detached from reality because that doesn’t seem to comport with what we know. When I read a myth whether it be the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, or any biblical narrative it doesn’t seem to me the author is giving a wink and a nod that these events are meaningful but they didn’t happen. As I will show below we have no reason to think myths aren’t meant to be taken seriously from a historical viewpoint.
Take a modern example from American politics. America has certain foundations myths that the much despised hoi polloi takes as factual. For instance, various stories about George Washington, Lincoln, and the American founding. Some of these stories are false, but I would argue that there has to be atleast some foundation in historical fact that makes these stories have motivative power. When someone goes to college and becomes convinced that the whole of the American founding was a sham, they don’t respond with, “well, the stories are false but America is still a great place.” No, usually there is a complete rejection of the American narrative. Mind you I am not saying whether I think the American Narrative is true of false, it is just a useful example.
Another example that can be given of modern myth making and how these beliefs actually function outside of scholarly obfuscations is the whole modern obsession with UFOs and alien abductions. There are whole mythologies developing around these ideas, and they are believed to be true by the adherents of these belief systems. They will also argue that their world views are based on some form of evidence, whether that evidence is good or bad is immaterial. The point is people do creates systems of belief that explain the world (“myth”) but this never means the people don’t believe their myths to have a rooting in reality.
And this brings me to a related point. Academics tend to think that myths are created by some upper class group of people or people in power. This is often true, but it doesn’t seem to follow that these people do not believe the myths. It seems ancient myths are more akin to modern UFO narratives. The reason i say this is that we have a rapidly developing narrative of the cosmos with alien beings who,much like the polytheistic deities of yore, have unbelievable power and are responsible for our creation. This thesis seems to have more explanatory value than viewing myths as cobbled together stories that were never assumed to have any historical truth value to them. The very narrative structure of such stories and how they seek to explain the world would seem to be an indicator that ancient people thought these myths explained objective reality (creation ‘myths’ for example).
How this relates to the Bible
Often when discussing the Bible and science I am met with what I call the Mythical Polemic Defense of biblical stories. In short the MPD attempts to throw the truth value of biblical narratives to the side. I do not find this convincing, at all. It is one thing to say that the creation narratives in Genesis 1-3 are highly stylized representing creation as a cosmic temple, with Eden as the Holy of Holies, but it is quite another to simply dismiss the historical nature of the narratives. I can see no reason to think that Genesis is false in depicting creation as a cosmic temple, nor can I see any reason to reject the Eden narrative, since Eden is portrayed as a place that is “other” than the rest of the world, which is why Adam and Eve are barred from their after they are expelled. Just because we do not have empirical access to an event, and can prove it historically doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. For instance, in a 100 years the fact that I worked in Minneapolis last September will have left no historical evidence. Does that mean that it didn’t happen? No.
Another issue I take is the idea that the Bible is polemical against ancient myths, and that therefore they do not have to be historically true. The idea seems to be that if culture X has polytheistic gods and have stories about such beings, then all that is needed is for culture Y to have competing myths that contradict the narrative line of culture X. Neither of these cultural myths need to be grounded in fact, and indeed ancient people didn’t believe these silly stories anyway (so we are told), it was more like a football game in which fans say “yay, packers!” And the opposition says the opposite about another team. This simply seems false. The biblical narratives lose their power when they are severed from history. It is also contrary to the way later biblical writers use the earlier stories in Genesis. For instance Paul appeals to Adam in Romans 5 and seems to assume that he is as real as Jesus who is the second Adam.
Another issue I have with the MPD is that it seems to claim, as Weaver did above, that just because it serves as a foundation for human life (explanation of origins, purpose, and destiny) that it therefore doesn’t need to be true. It seems to me that a story about God creating the universe would need to be true for me to take it seriously, that sin had to really come into the world through our first parents and have affected the whole human race for Christ’s atonement to be intelligible, that God had to really speak to Abraham, and deliver Israel from Egypt in order for these stories to have any motivating power. If ancient myths are like Lord of the Rings or worse stories that were told with the intent to deceive, then we should simply abandon them. It does no good for Christian scholars to make things up, and violate common sense, which is what they do when they make many of the claims they do.
A note of clarification: I do not think that Genesis 1-3 needs to be taken in terms of a Young Earth understanding. I actually think many of the Young Earth exegetical arguments are weak. What I am saying is that there needs to be a foundation in history for ‘myths” (I would rather call them foundation stories).