She came up to me after church and asked, “What part of the Bible is true and what part is myth?” My response was not what she was expecting. I told her it was all myth. Not what she expected from her pastor. My statement was not technically accurate. Not all of the Bible is myth. Some of it is human response to myth.
Now I suspect, dear reader, that I have some “splaining” to do. First, the literal/historical claim for the Bible does not hold up under logical inquiry as a historical document. Its context certainly is historical. There really was an Egyptian, Babylonian, and Roman Empire. There really was a man we call Jesus. The stories we read are mostly cast in one of, or in response to, one of these historical settings. But that is about as much as we can say about their historicity. For example in the Gospel of Luke the birth of Jesus, a seasonal topic, was born in Bethlehem while in Matthew he was born in Nazareth. From an historical sense, no child can be born in two different places so far apart. One might be true, but not both.
In both Luke and Matthew Jesus was born of a virgin, while in Mark and John, as well as in the writings of Paul there is no mention of a virgin birth. You would think that a virgin birth would be worth noting by the older writings of Paul or Mark, but they don’t bring it up. They don’t seem to have heard it. Not what you would expect.
Now you might think I am trying to debunk the Bible, but trust me, I am not. If I’m trying to do anything, it’s trying to get you to let go of your material understanding of the creation long enough to grasp a deeper and more spiritual understanding, one that has deep moral consequence as well.
Thus, the role of myth. Most people, when they think about it, believe myth is a story that is not true, because it is not literally true. But that is a very limited understanding. One of my favorite definitions of myth is that it “tells a story that cannot be told by mere facts alone.” Unlike history, which attempts to chronicle one event after another over a period of time, myth attempts to convey a community’s values that transcend time. Like poetry, myth uses language that conveys its message through metaphor, simile, and other devises to create image beyond the literal.
Let’s bring this down to earth for a moment. We have numerous stories about Jesus of Nazareth, most of which are based in the genuine experience of Jesus in the lives of believing communities long after his execution by the Roman Empire. They do not always agree with each other because they are telling different versions of personal or communal experiences. One of the things many of the stories have in common is that they are generally subversive of the dominant cultural view of the way the world should work. The dominant Roman culture said Caesar was “King of Kings,” while the Christians countered “Our Jesus is King of Kings.” The Romans said our Caesar was born under a special star and is the son of this or that god. The Christians claimed that “Our Jesus was born under a special star that draws the truly wise and that he was the only Son of the one true God. If you want to hack off the emperor and his minions and become a martyr keep talking that way in the face of power.
When the Romans claimed that peace could only be maintained through the projection of power throughout the world, Pax Romana, the Christians told stories about peace through justice. Thus, while the Romans forced a power system that excluded the majority from sharing in the wealth of the empire, the Christians countered with stories of Jesus healing and including everyone in full community. While the Romans maintained that some people should be kept down because they were inferior, the Christians proclaimed that the poor will be lifted up and the powerful brought low. While the Romans forced the lower classes to pay high taxed to support the Roman power structure, the Christians claimed God’s desire to relieve the poor using the wealth of God’s world equitably. In other words the Romans claimed that the way they had made the systems of the world were the way they should always be, the Christians responded with subversive stories and myth to proclaim that God wants the world to be different, that power does not make right, justice for all makes right, that excluding some from inclusion in community does not make right. God desires all to be included and equal in His eyes and in ours.
The myths about Jesus tell about the real experience of his message in response to events surrounding the community that told the story. The message of God’s desire for His creation has been preserved in myth and I believe is still alive today. It is also subversive today. And, the empire of our time has created its own counter myths to justify itself and maintain its power.
In this Christmas season we see the clash of two of these myths and have the choice of which one will inspire and guide our lives. The Christian story speaks of God giving the world a gift in the message of Jesus to elevate the marginalized and to treat them as children of God. It is a story of a God that loves all unconditionally, (agape) and shows no preference to the powerful of this world. To counter that vision of the Kingdom of God, the empire of today has created a counter myth. One of the characters in the myth is Santa Claus. Think about it. Santa Claus offers conditional love by having a list of naughty or nice, rewarding the nice and punishing the naughty. The Christian mythology says God loves both the nice and the naughty and His people do the same. The empire of today does not seem to have a problem with a Santa Claus that gives more abundantly to the wealthiest while ignoring the least of these. This demonstrates the empire’s practice of treating the marginalized and poor as lazy, indolent and deserving of their status. It demonstrates the notion that the poor and marginalized can be punished out of their plight. In the Christian mythology, the least of these is cared for and lifted up, using all the resources we have at our disposal in imitation of the God of agape love.
As I said above, we have a choice of which mythology will guide and inspire us. If we chose the mythology of the empire, we live by that myth. We justify oppressing those weaker than us. We defend those systems that deny adequate health care, food, clothing, education, justice, or freedom to love who we would, to those we have power over. If we choose the mythology of a just God, we live by that myth. We love without condition. We seek justice for the weak as well as the powerful. We include those Christ included. In that sense, our accepted or lived out mythology is our life.