With some insouciance the internet atheist pronounces that all religion is a “myth.” His bravado is understandable. He has been taught that a myth is a story that is fanciful and not factual. A myth, he has been told, is a fairy tale with plot lines and people that are pretend. For the atheist in the street, a myth is a story that features fairies, leprechauns, dragons, unicorns, mermaids and other marvelous and miraculous creatures. He finds it bemusing, maddening, and impossible that seemingly rational, educated people profess to believe in virgin births, angels, demons, miracles, and marvels when he knows such things cannot be any more real than satyrs, centaurs, wood nymphs, Zeus, Horus, Ganesh, or Thor.
The internet atheist’s arrogance in saying that religion is an untrue myth is equalled only by his ignorance, for he has not been taught the value of either myth or truth. He has not stopped to ask Pilate’s big question, nor worried himself about the mystery and marvel of myth.
To provide an answer we must first analyze what we mean by “truth.” Something is factual when it is scientifically verifiable. When there is evidence we say that this or that fact is “true.” If this is the only definition of truth, then religion is not true in that sense. Some aspects of religion may be historically verifiable, but the theological dimension to those claims go beyond verifiable proof and take us into a different dimension of truth.
Religion takes us across the threshold into the truths we all know while knowing that they are not subject to scientific proof. We affirm, for example, the existence of love, goodness, truth and beauty. These abstract qualities are “true” without being factual, and this is where myth becomes truth and truth is best expressed in myth.
A myth is a story that incarnates these abstract truths in such a way that the participant experiences them at a level of beyond verbal expression. A story that incarnates great values and eternal truths operates as myth. Whether they are stories about the gods of Olympus, comic book heroes, Inuit maidens or Incan warriors, Hindu deities, trolls, or hobbits in holes is secondary. Huge numbers of stories exist from every human culture in every age which operate at a deeply subconscious level to communicate abstract truth in a mythic fashion.
The internet atheist comes unstuck in that he has been taught to dismiss the ancient stories because they are not factual. This unpoetic point of view is not encouraging. This is the sort of mind that says, “I can see clearly that my love is not like a red, red rose. She does not have petals and thorns!” He has come up with the wrong answer because he did not ask the right question. He should not have asked whether the myth was factual, but whether it was true.
Because he believes all religious stories to be on the same fanciful level, when the internet atheist encounters the Judeo-Christian stories he puts them in the same category as the pagan myths because they are religious. While he sees similarities between pagan myths and the Judeo-Christian story, he misses the remarkable fact that the Judeo-Christian stories, from the beginning, are presented as history.
As in the other myths, the abstract truths and eternal themes are incarnated in the Judeo-Christian stories, with the startling difference that they are presented with a straight face as if they really happened. The great truths and eternal themes are acted out in the history of an obscure family of shepherds in the Arabian peninsula. The mythic truths once portrayed in legends and fanciful stories are lived out in the dust of the desert and the tragedies and triumphs of a tribe of nomads in no man’s land.
For insights into literature and legend, myth, and truth we do well to listen in on two experts in the field. J.R.R. Tolkien, in a conversation with C.S. Lewis, explained that the Christian stories work on us just like any other myth except they really happened. What he meant by this was that the Christian gospel stories incarnate the eternal truths in a way beyond words—just as the ancient myths, legends and fairy tales did, with the exception that they took place in history to real people in a real time and place.
Myth, therefore, does not need to be fictional. Factual stories can also work as myth, and a personal story illustrates my meaning.
My grandfather died in 1944. In snowy weather in Pennsylvania, a week before Christmas, he was walking to market with his two sons—my uncles—to visit with his wife and daughter (my mother). As they crossed the river bridge a coal truck came around the corner, hit the ice on the bridge and careened towards the two boys. Grandpa jumped forward, pushing the boys out of danger, but was himself crushed by the coal truck. As well-meaning passersby lifted him into a car to rush him to hospital his splintered ribs punctured his internal organs. There was nothing to be done. A few days later, with my grandmother at his side, he whispered the Lord’s Prayer then gazed up into the corner of the room, “Don’t you see them!” he said. “Don’t you see them! They’re so beautiful!”
This true story holds within itself truths that can be articulated: the self-sacrifice of love, the instant response to danger, the love of a father for his sons, the strange providence of God, a glimpse of heaven and the noble suffering of a family in the face of tragedy. While these truths and others can be voiced, they are truly experienced as the story is told and the heart is moved.
Myth, therefore, can be a fantasy tale full of whimsy and phantasmagorical characters, but true myth is much more than that. It is a tale that is true whether it is factual or not, and when it is both factual and true our eyes and hearts are opened to new realities and our quotidian lives are impressed with eternal significance.
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