When I was a theology student at Oxford in the early 1980s, I came across a collection of essays that had come out a few years earlier. The book was called The Myth of God Incarnate. A number of the authors were Oxford theologians, some of whom I studied under.
The editor, John Hick, summed up their opinions in the preface. He quoted T. S. Eliot’s observation that “Christianity is always adapting itself into something which can be believed” and expressed their conviction that the faith was diverse and always changing.
Hick went on to say that their perception was that the study of Christian origins led them to conclude that Jesus was “a man approved by God for a special role within the divine purpose, but that later Christian conceptions of him as ‘God incarnate, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity’ were a mythological or poetic way of expressing his significance for us.”
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This was a riff on the modernism of Alfred Loisy, Albert Schweitzer and the New Testament critics like Rudolph Bultmann, who proposed that the supernatural elements of the Gospels were part of a primitive, superstitious worldview and that they had to be relegated to a theological museum. The task of the modern theologian was to “de-mythologize” the Gospel and cut out the primitive, superstitious elements, as one might cut rust out of an old jalopy.
The aim was to preserve the noble teachings of Jesus and the call to good works while quietly dismissing or re-interpreting the troublesome miraculous and mythical elements. They did not so much throw the baby out with the bathwater as they threw out the baby and drank the bathwater.
The essayists in The Myth of God Incarnate were taking a new approach. Rather than be embarrassed by the mythical elements of the Gospel, they embraced them. By the late 1970s, the modernist theologians were ready to re-interpret the “myth” of the Incarnation fully. If it was a myth, it was a beautiful myth. It was, after all, a charming fable, a delightful poem, and one that could be expounded upon in a tasteful way in Anglican churches and cathedrals. Embracing the myth as a beautiful poem had the advantage that clergymen could use all the traditional language of Christianity, without the distasteful task of informing their parishioners that they didn’t believe it to be historically true in any way.
This theological sleight of hand made the denials of the early modernists much more palatable. Rather than it being a disappointment that the Gospels were mostly mythical, it became a selling point. Who doesn’t like a good story, a lovely poem, or a charming fable?
I became more interested in the power of mythology when I was training as a screenwriter. I had by this time left the Anglican Church, and, being a married man, had no guarantee of ordination in the Catholic Church. I therefore began studying story structure in order to write screenplays. This led me to the work of the mythologist Joseph Campbell.
Campbell was much influenced by C.G. Jung’s ideas on myth, and their work was intriguing because they proposed that myth opens the door to the deepest parts of the human psyche. The symbols and storylines connect individuals with ancient universal truths and themes which are made explicit in theology and active in the practice of religion.
That the power of myth continues to impact the contemporary world is proven by the huge popularity of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings myth, the Harry Potter saga, as well as a flood of fantasy and science fiction films, novels, comic books, and games.
How does myth work its magic? Symbols, characters, and storylines communicate the truths through the channel of the imagination. As such, the communication through the imagination touches the mind, the heart, and the will all at the same time.
The advantage of this form of communication is that it circumvents political, social, and cultural divisions. Fantasy literature takes place outside the confines of our usual prejudices. It’s leveling. Suffice it to say that a college professor, a janitor, and his teenaged son will all watch Lord of the Rings at the same human level.
This is one of the reasons, in my own writing I have avoided theological jargon, ecclesiastical shop talk, and academic arcana. I have done so not only to write clearly and accessibly, but in conscious bias toward myth, symbol, and story.
Weaving in references and illustrations from classical myth, literature, film, and popular culture connects the audience with the ancient symbols and streams of our civilization and takes the conversation away from mere intellectual argument (via imagination) to the hardest part of the human being to access: the heart, which is the seat of emotion and will.
The other advantage to using myth in writing about religion is that it always has a supernatural dimension. In one way or another the gods are at work; there are other forces to be reckoned with, deeper powers and “more things than our philosophy hath dreamt of.” In a skeptical, materialistic age, myth provides an acceptable way to talk about the supernatural.
Myth is therefore the method, and this is nothing new. The Sacred Scriptures are not, after all, merely a compendium of theological proof texts or a divine law code. They are a collection of stories about God’s relationship with His human children. Likewise, Our Lord uses “mythos”-stories to communicate His message—parables that intrigue the mind, enliven the imagination, and thus touch the heart.
The problem with the authors of The Myth of God Incarnate is not that they thought myth was a good idea, but that they considered the Gospel myth to be no more than a good idea. They fell for, and fostered, the popular notion that a myth is never more than a fairy tale.
Some forty-five years earlier, also at Oxford, J.R.R. Tolkien, Hugo Dyson, and C.S. Lewis were having their famous late-night conversation as they strolled along Addison’s Walk outside Magdalen College. Lewis and Tolkien had been enchanted by ancient mythology, and Lewis explained later in a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves,
Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself… I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me, provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose “what it meant.”
Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth—a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference: that it really happened.
Evangelization in our post-Christian culture is in a dire state because so much of our church talk has become either bland therapeutic, moralistic Deism or it has become a dry abstract theological conversation. What is needed is to re-mythologize the mystery and re-enchant our presentation of the Gospel.
This can be accomplished through the production of new literature, stories, drama, and film of all kinds, but it is also done through actively drawing on existing tales. Most importantly for those who worship, it can be done through the re-enchantment of the Mass. A beautiful, traditional celebration of the Mass plumbs the same depths of imagination, beauty, and truth to bring alive and into the present moment the “myth that really happened.”
Father Longenecker’s latest
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Image: The Resurrection of Lazarus by Leon Bonnat