I’ve always been drawn to mythology, and it continues to be an interest, whether it’s novelizations such as C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces or plays such as Owen Barfield’s Orpheus. One of the first books I owned as a child was a collection of myths by Inkling Roger Lancelyn Green, and I believe that mythology first made me aware of spiritual things. While many people across the religious spectrum seem to reject all mythology as misguided, in fact myth has important uses, both for writers and for readers.
Part of the problem is that there is no agreement about what mythology is or how it evolved. By myth, I am talking specifically about a fictional story involving supernatural beings or events. Psychologist Carl Jung described myth as a representation of a collective consciousness, our fears and hopes as a society. Moralist Reinhold Niebuhr believed myth a symbolic representation of nonhistorical truth. Greek writer Euhemerus of Messene argued it originated in historical events or natural processes retold and changed over time. Most Christian writers argue myth is merely a demonic lie. Modern writers seem to view myth as children’s stories to be swiftly rejected as an adult. My own experience matches that of C.S. Lewis, who argued myth was an “unfocussed gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination.” I had an experience similar to his, in which reading mythology first drew me to a belief in the supernatural and then later to the gospel itself. In his view, divine truth came to the imaginations and consciousness of man as he looked to the heavens, but they were often warped or mixed with other images. They continued to contain historical elements mixed with true religion. Later, with the gospel, they became history as “the myth must have become fact: the Word, flesh; God, Man.” Always God was drawing people toward Himself, though many became sidetracked or deceived.
In a similar way, the uses of mythology have also evolved, as Inkling scholar R.J. Reilly described in Romantic Religion. For pagan priests, myths are true representations of divinity. They accept myths as received and rarely seek truth beyond them. Others use mythology as an example. Greek philosophers such as Socrates saw myths as symbols of divine qualities – Athena represented wisdom; Zeus, power; Aphrodite, beauty, etc. We find similar uses of mythology by Niebuhr, Alexander Pope, and Racine. Myths are merely parables or morality plays, which have little to do with God. Some modern writers use myth to explain what they perceive as the chaos of the modern age. We see something similar in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, or James Joyce’s Ulysses. In essence, because of familiarity with myth, these writers used it as a figure that is easily understood by everyone. Most of them, however, find no value in myth beyond this. Once everyone understands their illustrations, myth is no longer necessary. Finally, there are some who seem to use mythology to express something they can’t describe, as an approximation of something that is unsayable any other way. This is the approach taken by the Romantic poets, such as Percy Shelly in Prometheus Unbound or Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Kubla Khan. Myth for them demonstrates something spiritual and divine that is inexpressible.
The Christian writer, in recognizing that Christ is a myth that became fact, approaches myth from a higher perspective. Sometimes writers continue to use myth or fiction as a way of explaining truth in what some call allegory. Thus, Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe represents Christ, as do Harry Potter and Frodo Baggins, who both sacrifice themselves to defeat evil. These writers use their stories as tools to reach those who are drawn to the wonder of myth. Why, then, do so many Christians continue to read fiction even after they believe, and why do writers continue to write fiction once they fully understand the truth? Probably because they also recognize that there are many aspects of their faith that they cannot adequately describe. Fiction remains the best way to say what they want to say. This is the same reason that Jesus told parables, though He explained His stories to His disciples. Sometimes a story, a comparison, best tells us about God, and what we get out of myth depends on what we bring to it. Thus, fiction not only leads us to God, it becomes the servant of God by helping us to know the unknowable Creator. Finally, we must remember that Christ not only exists in the past, but is forever revealing Himself in the present. Thus, myth not only became fact, it’s constantly becoming fact. He is both man and God, both historical and wonderful. He lives as a historical man but also as a wonderful God. The unseen God becomes real to us as Christ is revealed through stories of wonder. Only by writers continually combining both wonder and truth in their stories is Christ revealed.
Those who are perceptive may have already noticed the progressive expansion of these uses of myth – each builds on and includes the next. The Romantic still uses myth as a symbol even while revealing inexpressible truths about God. Christians use stories both as symbols and to express what cannot be expressed, but they also recognize that fact and myth perfectly combine to reveal Christ. Each of these appeals to readers of different interests and ultimately draws them into deeper understanding of the truth. This is why myth, and indeed all fiction, continues to be compelling.
© 2022 J.D. Manders