Isn’t Christianity a myth?
God himself is the best poet
And the real is His song
—Elizabeth Barrett Browning
“It is remarkable that such ideas should arise from a study of the behavior or the most elementary systems. That such systems point to a world beyond themselves is a fact that will be loved by all who believe that there are truths of which we know little, that there are mysteries seen only by mystics, and that there are phenomena inexplicable within our normal view of what is possible. There is no harm in this—physics indeed points to the unknown. The emphasis, however, must be on the unknown, on the mystery, on the truths dimly glimpsed, on the things inexpressible except in the language of poetry, or religion, or metaphor.”
—Physicist Euan Squires discussing the role of consciousness in physics
Considering the nature of this website, it may shock many readers to learn that the answer we provide to the question posed in the title of this essay is an unqualified “yes.” But it may also shock the reader to learn that Christianity’s existence as a myth does not undercut, but rather bolsters, its veracity.
To resolve any confusion the above statements may create, one needs to gain a full understanding of just what “myth” is: Commonly understood, “myth” is synonymous with “falsehood.” Everyday language is full of such expressions as “the myth of the rational voter” and “the myth of the paperless office,” etc… And ancient myths (such as those of ancient Greece), though rewarding to read and of great cultural value, are often viewed by the average westerner as of little value beyond entertainment and literary enrichment. This is understandable considering that they were often fanciful and clearly not based on actual events.
But to grasp the deeper value and relevance of myth—and in particular—Christian myth, we turn to two individuals uniquely qualified in this subject matter: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien:
Few, if any, individuals who ever lived have enjoyed a broader and richer understanding of myth than C.S. Lewis. At one point a Professor of Medieval and Renaissance studies at Cambridge University, and at another point a lecturer in philosophy and fellow in English at Magdalen College at Oxford University, Lewis was a particularly gifted scholar. But it was Lewis’ nearly encyclopedic recall of ancient writings that was perhaps his most astonishing gift. In his book C.S. Lewis’ Case for Christ, Art Lindsley reveals that:
“Sometimes in his rooms at Oxford, Lewis would play a parlor game, asking a visitor to pull a book out of his extensive library and read aloud a few lines. Lewis would then proceed to quote the rest of the poetry or prose verbatim for pages. For instance, Kenneth Tynan, who became a well-known English dramatist and critic, told of an encounter with Lewis during a tutorial at Oxford.”
Tynan said…”‘He had the most astonishing memory of any man I have ever known. In conversation I might have said to him ‘I read a marvelous medieval poem this morning and I particularly liked this line.’ I would then quote the line. Lewis would usually go on to quote the rest of the page. It was astonishing.”
At first an atheist, Lewis was torn by the rift between the impoverished and empty rationalism of his atheist beliefs on the one hand, and the great richness and beauty he perceived in mythology, on the other. Despite being haunted by this conflict whenever he read or recalled myths, his atheist views compelled him to view myths as “lies.”
But it was the insights provided to Lewis by his close friend J.R.R. Tolkien (author of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford) that enabled him to bridge this rift. When Lewis said to Tolkien that myths were “lies and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver,” Tolkien’s reply radically transformed Lewis. Joseph Pearce recounts:
“‘No. They [myths] are not lies.’ Far from being lies they were the best way—sometimes the only way—of conveying truths that would otherwise remain inexpressible. We have come from God, Tolkien argued, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily toward the true harbor, whereas materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to the abyss and the power of evil.”
“Building on this philosophy of myth, Tolkien explained to Lewis that the story of Christ was the true myth at the very heart of history and at the very root of reality. Whereas the pagan myths were manifestations of God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using the images of their ‘mythopoeia’ to reveal fragments of His eternal truth, the true myth of Christ was a manifestation of God expressing Himself through Himself, with Himself, and in Himself. God, in the Incarnation, had revealed Himself as the ultimate poet who was creating reality, the true poem or true myth, in His own image. Thus, in a divinely inspired paradox, myth was revealed as the ultimate realism.”*
The late 18th and early 19th century English poet William Blake expressed a view similar to Tolkien when he referred to the imagination as “the body of God” or “human existence itself.” And he was himself arguably an excellent example of, as Tolkien said, “God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using the images of their ‘mythopoeia’ to reveal fragments of His eternal truth.” Blake, for example, wonderfully expressed the otherwise inexpressible nature of a higher-dimensional, non-material (a.k.a: spiritual) reality** (occupied by God in Christian scripture) when he wrote:
To see a world in a grain of sand
And heaven in a wild flower
To behold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour
It is instructive to observe the radical transformation of perspective that occurred in C.S. Lewis when he was exposed to the true nature of myth as revealed to him by Tolkien (and also understood by Blake). Lewis began to perceive the Gospel of Christ as “myth become fact” or “true myth.”
Art Lindsley recalls that:
“When Lewis examined the Gospel narratives, having already become an expert in mythology, he was surprised to find that his literary judgment told him that they were more than myths:”
“[Lewis wrote] ‘I was now too experienced in literary criticism to regard the Gospels as myths. They had not the mythical taste. And yet the very matter that they set down in their artless, historical fashion…was precisely the matter of the great myths. If ever a myth had become fact, had been incarnated, it would be just like this. Here and here only in all time the myth must have become fact; the Word, flesh: God, Man.’”
Viewed correctly, our lives are stories (myths)…smaller stories that are pieces of a larger cosmic drama. Brent Curtis and John Eldredge make this point in their book The Sacred Romance:
“Life…is a series of dramatic scenes. As Eugene Peterson said, ‘We live in narrative, we live in story. Existence has a story shape to it. We have a beginning and an end, we have plot, we have characters.’ Story is the language of the heart. Our souls speak not in the naked facts of mathematics or the abstract propositions of systematic theology, they speak the images of emotions of story. Elie Wiesel suggests that ‘God created man because he loves stories.’ So if we’re going to find the answer to the riddle of the earth—and of our own existence—we’ll find it in a story.”
Such a concept, however, is entirely foreign–even bizarre–to the average modern person. This is due to the undercurrent of unspoken assumptions present in our culture that shape our perception of the world, but which lie largely outside our awareness. Foremost of these is the assumption that logic and reason provide the only pathways to understanding the riddle of our existence. This assumption, however, was not always prevalent. Curtis and Eldredge continue:
“For hundreds of years, our culture has been losing its story. The Enlightenment dismissed the idea that there is an Author but tried to hang on to the idea that we could still have a larger story, life could make sense, and everything was headed in a good direction. Western culture rejected the mystery and transcendence of the Middle Ages and placed its confidence in pragmatism and progress, the pillars of the Modern Era, the Age of Reason. But once we had rid ourselves of the Author, it didn’t take long to lose the larger story.”
Simply put, in modern times, our fixation with reason has caused us to lose touch with another vehicle to truth…that of the imagination. The nature of our universe and the meaning of our existence are subjects far too complex and nuanced to be comprehended through reason alone. Imagination, through myth and poetry, can give us insights into reality, spiritual reality, that lie beyond the grasp of the logical, reasoning faculties of the human mind. These insights may be at times metaphorical in nature, but only because it would be impossible to express them in a more literal fashion. John Polkinghorne, an Anglican priest and former Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University, makes this point in his book Science and Theology when he says “a particularly potent form of symbol is myth, understood as meaning a story expressing a truth too deep to be conveyed adequately in any more literal way (and certainly not understood in the modern debased sense that equates myth with untruth).”
And viewing the world through a distorted modern lens, critics of Christianity often allege that the story of Christ’s resurrection is nothing more than a plagiarized story. This is because it resembles the recurring theme of a god dying and rising again found in mythological stories that predate Christ (such as the Egyptian god Osiris).
This allegation, however, arises from the impoverished, strict rationalist concept of mythology that Lewis held before his exposure to Tolkien’s thinking. After Lewis’ views were reshaped, he began to see that the existence of these pre-Christian mythologies only reinforced the veracity of the Christian Gospel.*** Here, we return to Art Lindsley:
“Pagan myths, what Lewis sometimes called ‘good dreams,’ are found in many places. Characters such as Adonis, Balder, Bacchus, Osiris emerge. Sometimes these ‘gods’ die and rise again. Lewis says, ‘From a certain point of view Christ is the same sort of thing as Adonis or Osiris. Yet Christ is the only one of these who might be historical. Perhaps if Plato or the myth-makers were to have heard about Christ, they would have said, ‘I see…so that is what I was really talking about.’”
Plato and the myth-makers, in other words, were another example of “God expressing himself through the minds of poets, using the images of their ‘mythopoeia’ to reveal fragments of His eternal truth”. They, in effect, inadvertently articulated a God-breathed foretaste of the myth that was to become fact two thousand years ago in Bethlehem.
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** Readers who have read the article entitled Why Death Is Not the End? on this website will recall that physicist Lisa Randall said “We are in this three-dimensional flatland…Our world is stuck in this three-dimensional universe, although extra dimensions exist. So we live in a three-dimensional slice of a higher-dimensional world.”
***For an in-depth review of the historical evidence supporting the historical truth of the story of Christ, please refer to Lee Stroebel’s The Case for Christ and former Oxford University Templeton Scholar Dean Overman’s A Case for the Divinity of Jesus. Readers are also referred to Who Moved the Stone by English journalist Frank Morison. When Morison set out to write this book, he was a skeptic determined to disprove the biblical account of Christ’s resurrection. As a result of his research, however, he underwent a “revolution of thought” and wound up confirming what he set out to disprove.