07 January 2008

The Truth of Myth

When I said in my last post that Genesis 3 has the truth of myth, I did not use that word in the dismissive sense that most people use it. I understand the word myth in the sense that the late Joseph Campbell used it.

A myth is a narrative literary form that expresses meaning that is otherwise inexpressible. A myth tells one or more truths that cannot be told any other way. A myth reaches not only our intellect, but also our emotions. It can be spoken or written, poetry or prose, said or sung or acted out, or any combination of these.

A myth need not be factually or historically true for its core meaning to be true. Indeed, sometimes the more a myth is like a dream, the more it speaks to what we our unconscious knows, but our conscious mind does not. As such, myths can help to make us into more whole persons, regardless to the facts they do or do not contain. Indeed, one of the sermons in VCBC's chapel is a minor myth which says something true about humanity's relationship with Jesus, even though it was simply made up by a modern science fiction writer.

It is only when we make the mistake of insisting that the imagery of our myths must trump obvious fact that we get into trouble. First, by making the myth literal, we allow ourselves to evade the truth the myth might convey to us. If the myth is really fact, then there is no need to look any deeper into its meaning. Or into ourselves. Second, by making the myth literal, we block the actual facts from reaching us. The old fashioned term for disconnecting yourself from facts was neurosis. In other words, by pretending that myths are necessarily facts, we don't merely make ourselves ignorant, we drive ourselves crazy.

So, back to Genesis 3. My take on it is in the pieces On Time and Reviving a Dead Language. It says some very sobering things about our relationship with each other, the natural world, and God, regardless of its historical truth. On the other hand, isn't it a bit much to proclaim that God became incarnate as the man Jesus because of what a myth says about us?

So, in order to make the meaning of the Genesis myth more immediate, I try to show how the Crucifixion stands on its own as a shocking indictment of humanity in That Old Time Religion. We are so twisted that, given the choice between our  theology and our God, we choose our theology and kill our God, over and over again.

The communities around John the Baptist and Jesus understood Sin in terms of spiritual pollution or uncleanness, and required that Sin be washed away. This is a much more gut-wrenching view of Sin than my alluding to it as being twisted or screwed up. The latter might make it easier to face one's Sin, and to talk about it,  i.e., to confess. But it also makes it easier to just live with one's Sin. The former conception of Sin as uncleanness or filthiness, is much more likely to compel one to do something about it.

I may disconcert some people when I remind them (in the closing paragraph of God's Reasons Reconsidered) that modern experimental psychology shows that "there is a little bit of Eichmann in us all," but I don't make them feel scummy because of it.

Maybe that's what I'm missing.

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