The Bible is myth. Let me explain.
The word “myth” has several different connotations in the current expression of the English language. The most common popular usage of the word connotes falsehood. You might say something like, “It’s a myth that the Cincinnati Reds have a good bullpen.” That means it’s not true. This usage of the word evolved because most classic myths were deemed less than historical. Most myths are fantastical stories. Because us modern people deem them impossible to have literally happened, they are false. In the modern world truth equals fact. In the pre-modern world, and increasingly in the post-modern world, truth equals worthiness. Truth may or may not be factual/historical.
Here’s a common dictionary definition for the word myth:
“A traditional or recurrent narrative theme or plot structure; a set of beliefs or assumptions about something, with or without a determinable basis of fact or a natural explanation.”
In short, myths are the stories that we believe to be true (factual and/or worthy) which shape us into the people we are. By this working definition, the Bible is clearly myth. It is a collection of stories that shape all of us who follow Jesus. Growing up as an evangelical, we would never call the Bible myth for fear that it would connote falsehood. The Bible is simply too foundational, worthy and meaningful to not be myth.
So is it factual? Historical? Good questions. The first thing to note is that it purports to be—sometimes. Not all the time. To confuse the matter, sometimes it isn’t entirely clear when it does and doesn’t purport to be historical.
I understand why this is important to many people. We are modernized to not trust stories that aren’t historical. We say they aren’t “real.” We value history over myth, forgetting that all history gets mythologized over time. George Washington didn’t cut down a cherry tree, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t honest. Frodo and Gandalf never existed, but that doesn’t mean that the lure of the one ring isn’t real.
On the flip side, Rosa Parks actually refused to get off of a bus. Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address. Rudy really got into the game. More myths that made us who we are—all historically accurate. All true, just as true as the apple tree and Middle Earth—no more, no less.
I’d like to propose that a Narrative Christianity leads with myth. Let’s start with believing that all of our stories are true (worthy), whether or not they happened. Let’s have goodhearted sparring matches if we want as to whether stories like the Tower of Babel, Daniel, Jonah and Lazarus are historical/factual or not. That’s fine—maybe even fun at times, but let us begin these debates having agreed that these are our stories full of truth.
As for me, I will just say this. I don’t think, historically speaking, that a snake struck up a conversation with a naked woman in front of a magic tree. I used to. That story meant very little to me when I believed (or tried to force myself to believe) that it was history. Now that I’ve let it be myth regardless of its historicity, it’s full of truth. I’m that woman. I’m the man beside her. And, horror upon horror, I’m that snake more than I’d like to admit. I’ve been banished from Paradise. I’m on a journey to get back. That fruit was forbidden, but the taste ever lingers. That other magic tree is the one I really want to taste. The one that lets you live forever. That’s what we really want. And I strongly believe that only the totality our myths will lead us back to it.
Photo (Flickr CC) by Jan Smith