I remember the slight sense of fear that accompanied my first biblical studies class in college -- the challenges to fundamental doctrines I had grown up hearing, the implicit critique that many of my pastors and Sunday school teachers were either ignorant or liars, and the demand that I must, somehow, restructure my worldview to either reject religion or find some way to allow it to co-exist with post-Enlightenment rationalism. In many ways, I went to college on more sure footing than many of my classmates. While I was conservative, I had long since shed the fundamentalism that informed many of my colleagues and, more importantly, had been raised in a household dedicated to belief in the Triune God and acceptance of scientific and historical inquiry.
The tension was still there, though.
And I saw this same tension resurface in my own life and the lives of those around me during seminary -- especially in my friends who had no background in religious or biblical studies. In a class (rather creatively) titled "Teaching the Bible," I was granted the opportunity to explore this large disconnect in what we, as leaders of the Church, teach our congregants, and what we are taught in seminary.
I've long joked about "stories that didn't make the felt board" -- the pericopes that are deemed too violent or controversial to be explored in Sunday Schools and reduced to flannelgraph illustrations. The disconnect between formal theological education as presented in the Academy and the informal devotional education used in the local congregation, though, goes beyond violence and sexuality. It is symbolic of a deeper rifts between our Church, its leadership, and inquiry.
Myth and Mythopoesis
A leading reason driving these rifts is a cultural perception of mythology. In the vernacular, mythology and myths are meant simply to be "not true" or false. In that regard, hoaxes and urban legends are granted the same status as the stories told by the ancient ones -- that Beowulf, Gilgamesh, Zeus, Odin, and Arjuna hold the same weight as stories of cockroach eggs in the glue on the back of postage stamps. This conflation simultaneously gives too much credit to urban legends and robs the ancient narratives of their power. The shared status of falsehood does great harm to mythology.
Myth does so much more, though. Myths, though not necessarily factual, are true (or at least contain a seed of the truth). Urban legends seek to disguise the truth, to make it more exciting, or to spread fear, but myth reveals the very essence of love, courage, evil, life, death, fear, of humanity itself.
In Tolkien's wonderful essay "On Fairy-Stories" (for those interested, the essay is currently available in Del Rey's compendium The Tolkien Reader), he outlines what he terms mythopoesis -- the creation of mythology. (In many ways, Tolkien is working to correct the over-zealous dismissal of myth encapsulated in Frazer's The Golden Bough). In making entire worlds -- or reflections of our own world -- humanity partakes in the divine act of poesis -- that is, bringing order out of chaos: art. Creation. Mythology, then, is one of the many ways that humanity can partake in the divine creative process and bring forth truth.
Myth and Scripture
Scripture has an undeniable mythological feel about it. One need only compare Genesis 1 to the Enuma Elish, compare Genesis 6:1-4 (and the further explanation of the Nephilim in 1 Enoch) to the accounts of giants and titans spread throughout the mythological landscape, or compare Daniel 7 to accounts of Baal, or compare Christ to the other dying-rising gods. There is no way around it. And so the Church stops short. These parallels rarely find their way into sermons, Bible studies, or Sunday schools. The curriculum denies, denies, denies.
In denying the mythological character of Scripture, Church leaders are relegating all of mythology to be "not true" and denying the power of mythopoesis. In doing so, not only are they forced to ignore the significant parallels between other mythologies and Scripture and the advances of biblical criticism in the modern era, but they also deny the power of myth testifying to the Truth.
For Tolkien, the most significant part of mythology was that all of human creation was pointing to one event: the Incarnation. He called this the Eucatastrophe: the point at which the story takes a sudden turn for the best. Myths end with this sudden turn; Tolkien calls it "the Great Escape: the Escape from Death." Just think of Campbell's outline of the Hero Journey: every hero must fall, but then comes back. That is the Eucatastrophe. "The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function." All myths point to Creation and the human role in shaping this world. And in doing so, they foreshadow the dying-rising god and ultimately point to the glory of the Incarnation and the Resurrection. Myth reveals truth which prepares the way for the Truth.
Madeleine L'Engle took Tolkien a step further, suggesting that all art is inherently Christian art. CS Lewis took Tolkien's understanding to be the key to believing in Christ in the modern era: that in Christ, mythology and history collided in a single eucatsrophic event.
Understanding myth in this way reveals something that comparative historical work can only hint at. It reveals the deeper meaning running throughout human history and God's work throughout all of humanity -- culminated in the person of Jesus the Christ. It provides a theological framework for the arts (perhaps why it is best expressed by artists and authors rather than theologians).