July 2017

Myth and History

In his late 20s, C. S. Lewis began talking to J. R. R. Tolkein about faith. Lewis was an atheist, Tolkien a Catholic. Lewis loved mythology, especially Norse mythology, with its great stories of Thor, Baldur and Loki. Tolkein also loved mythology, especially Christian mythology. It seems that Lewis’ moment of conversion happened during a long night’s conversation with Tolkein who explained that Christianity was indeed a mythology, but one with a historic core. Both realized that mythology and truth are not opposed.

From a historical point of view, some myths are fictions. The Santa Claus story communicate a profound truth—the giving of gifts is a good thing to do. There is also the story of two young monks who set out on a full day’s journey from their monastery to another. At noon, they meet a beautiful young woman standing at the edge of a shallow river. She wanted to cross the river but was afraid. One of the monks gathered her up in his arms and carried her across the river. The two monks then continued their journey in silence. At the end of the day, as they approached their destination, the one who did not pick up the young woman said to the other, “Brother, I don’t think it was prudent of you to pick up that woman and carry her across the river.” The other replied, “Brother, I put her down on the other side of the river; you are still carrying her.” Did this story ever happen? This question misses the point. The point is that it happens all the time. Myths convey profound truths.

Tolkien’s point was that the story of Jesus, the one who Christians believe forgives sins and conquers death, actually happened. Do Christians (and Jewish people, for that matter), believe that everything in the Bible actually happened? Many do not. The Book of Job is not the hard-luck story of a man named Job, but rather a story about why bad things happen to good people. Was there actually a good Samaritan? Well, no, but on the other hand, there are thousands, even millions of good Samaritans.

How do you know whether a story is to be taken literally, or understood as a myth with historical elements, or as fiction? It takes study. Religious traditions that recognize in the Bible different literary forms—legends, history, myths—help us to read the Bible intelligently. For a religious believer, however, study is not enough. It also takes faith, or at least a willingness to be open to more than can be proven. Everything that counts is not countable. Intelligence is no more an obstacle to faith than myth is to truth.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that both Lewis and Tolkein were students of literature and writers of stories. They knew that stories are more interesting than sermons, especially stories that illuminate the meaning of life. I am glad the two met when they did and took each other seriously. We have all benefited.

Recent Oxford Publications

Learned Ignorance: Intellectual Humility Among Jews, Christians and Muslims

“This explicitly theological and exceptionally engaging collection of scholarly essays represents trilateral dialogue in its most refined yet attractively challenging form.”
— John Borelli, Georgetown University