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True Myth and the Aesthetics of Belonging

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a little harder, a little cleverer


An excellent piece. I’d like to address a few of your observations in more detail.

Myth is not primarily for historical veracity… the ‘why’ of myth is arguably as important than the ‘what’ of myth but not in the rather binary way that modernism has us believe. (That if you prove an error in a fact then the myth is, by this act, ‘disproved’.) This is to misunderstand something fundamental about mythology; its veracity is not in some supposed invulnerability to critique from external forms of thought, in fact it does not often fare well against such. Myth is narratively applied belief.

I too understand myth in these terms. The question is whether post-evangelicals are prepared to read portions of the Bible as myth, as narrative expressions of belief without regard for historical veracity. This sort of mythologizing of Biblical stories seems to make a lot of people uncomfortable. At the same time, however, the literal reading of the text also seems hard to sustain in a scientific age, or perhaps even in a pre-scientific one. In the “True Myth” post we explored various options for construing a myth as being “true” without necessarily being factual. For example, a myth can represent truths about God, the world, and mankind in metaphorical or allegorical form. Participants in the ensuing discussion seemed reluctant to recategorize the Genesis 1 creation narrative as mythic, based largely on the structure of the text itself and on the way it has historically been interpreted. As a consequence we began exploring alternative literal exegeses rather than allegorical meanings. I think it would be worthwhile to reopen the mythic possibilities of these texts.

This brings me up against a barrier that I find so often it is becoming tiresome. Our mainstream western education has left us aesthetically illiterate. Talk about aesthetics now and people assume that you are talking about something superficial or even trivial, about style or fashion. The domination of technology, and the industrialised and consumerist forms of modern education lead us to define each other by what we do and what we consume, by our utility. The arts are optional, a form of leisure or something to be enjoyed outside of real life. Personally, I blame Mammon, but it was not always like this.

Western modernity precipitated a burgeoning of artistic expression, though it got off to a slow start in the iconoclastic Protestant countries. The novel is an almost exclusively modern literary form. I surmise that most fiction writers believe that they are telling some kind of truth and also that they are creating art. Still, I don’t believe that writers and readers regard fiction as mythic. A good novel may offer insights into everyday reality, but the writer isn’t consciously attempting to wrap eternal truths or beliefs or gods in stories. I doubt whether even those binary banal scientists or evangelical exegetes have much difficulty recognizing that Sherlock Holmes wasn’t a real inspector, or even that the Scotland Yard of the books wasn’t quite the real Scotland Yard. I bet Richard Dawkins could read Genesis 1 as a myth without a lot of special instruction.

The creation story is not and never was a speech against Darwin. It isn’t even a story about six days or seven days as much as it is a defining story for the eighth day.

This opens up an important question: if the creation story is a myth, what is the myth about? In reading the story, does the text itself tell us that it’s really about the eighth day rather than the seventh or the first six? Is it about God’s omnipotence or about man’s similarity to God? Does it tell us that God is one or that God is multiple? How do we ascertain that the text is really a “doxology of resistance”? And what does it mean mythically for the trees to appear before the sun in this story? In short, how do we exegete a myth?Then there’s the more fundamental question: how are we to decide that a Biblical narrative is mythical rather than historical? Does the text itself suggest that it should be read as a myth, or does this discernment depend on a kind of sensus aestheticus in the sensitive reader? By what criteria do we decide that the Creation narrative is mythic, whereas God’s detailed instructions for decorating the tabernacle are historical? Does Genesis 1 automatically get recategorized as mythic because it can’t possibly be true historically? Then there’s the question of mythic truth. If some of these stories are mythic, are they any truer an aesthetic expression of eternal mysteries than, say, the Greek myths, or the Babylonian ones, or the exilic fable you’ve written?

I like a good story as much as the next guy. Why not just call it fiction and be done with it?

Re: a little harder, a little cleverer

John, thanks for this.

I think I can see a few pressure points in this (one never knows how a piece sounds until it is read back like this).

Yes, I am using the term myth loosely, not very technically, and obviously not pejoratively. I’m thinking of the matter in terms of ‘the stories we tell each other’, narrative perceptions of the world we live in. That’s why I dodged around between the creation story, the arguments today about creation, and the way we tell stories today about the world of today.

In terms of exegesis I would broadly agree with you. I wouldn’t want to mythologise the creation account in principle and would not expect any attempt to do so, in a strictly categorical way, to be very convincing. If Genesis 1-3 were pure myth in the technical sense it would have smoothed over the internal and structural issues that have been so well explored on the True Myth thread. Clearly, then, in the minds of the redactors, they were dealing with a real and beloved account of something, but an account of what, and why?

One thing I must stress is that I meant this piece to add to the richness of interpretation, not to take away from those forms of thinking on the TM thread. Where I did and do have questions is to do with what the exegetical tools we have available might be expected to achieve with a story of this antiquity. There are, clearly from the Orthodox link, rich and lovely ways the story can be nuanced and, to my ears, refreshed. But this might touch the poetry of the narration more than adding anything to the truthfulness of it.

Incidentally, I don’t think I wrote anything that allegorized the account, and wouldn’t see allegory as essential. In short, when the account says ‘In the beginning God created’ what I read is ‘In the beginning God created’.

Your point on the arts and Western Modernity, yes of course modernity has a colossal artistic heritage. (Although we could have another conversation entirely about the ways in which modernist art views and treats the human. What would have happened, perhaps, if Speer had ever built Hitler’s Berlin, would Laing be seen now as a prophet in his resistance to that through Metropolis? What of the brutalist architecture of the sixties? What if we reconsidered the Bauhaus and ceased to regard the built environment as a ‘machine to live in’?) My point, however, was about the paucity of aesthetic understanding in our ways of being a society and, inevitably, in our education system. It is the effect of modernism in the last hundred years that has been particularly devastating, when the industrial revolution began to determine our relationships with objects, places and so on, the concept of the product and consequently of the consumer. Our value as humans in this system is to a large extent in relation to the high street or the mall, and I would regard this diminishment, this learned dependency or at least the terrifying depth and scope of it, to be something that the creation story could speak to, again as a doxology of resistance.

Of course the text itself is not going to give us the right to call the creation story a doxology of resistance. That isn’t the point I was making. When we look at mythic ideas the focus is as much on the telling and retelling of the story, and why we do that, why we own stories so as to be owned by them. But we can, easily and with great support, see the telling of the story in Genesis as an act of worship and this worship as resisting the oppression of Babylon. Just as Paul’s doxology of Jesus is a resistance to Rome when he declares ‘Jesus is Lord’.

It’s fairly clear that we are using the term myth in slightly different ways. You seem to be meaning something quite technical and rigorous, either it is myth or it is history. I’m not convinced that this is necessary. You think I am saying the story is a myth, I am only saying it is mythic, mythic within its history and that the qualities of mythic narrative add to rather than detracting from the value of the passages. I do not believe that myth is entirely subjective, that it sits above, or beneath, history, that it is unrelated to events, and certainly not that it is essentially ahistorical. Our difficulty is with that region of history that borders pre-history and the lack of tools to reach back to trace the development.

But you press much further than I would go when you link mythic writing with fiction. Of course one could argue that the Genesis account is fictive in the sense that it is not exactly an eye-witness account, but this would miss entirely the role of Inspiration in the development of the story. When I say that the creation story is for (rather than about) the eighth day, and taking human history, broadly, as what I mean by the eighth day, of course the story of the previous seven days is for that. And it’s why these threads are developing.

My position, and it is a faith position, is that this text is an inspired story about who we are and whose and that in the way that it is constructed it also tells us about the significance of the world as our environment as a trust from God. More theologically I would also want to explore the idea that this story, no matter what I feel about metanarrative, is one that speaks over or contextualises the historical quest in terms of Abraham, Israel, covenant, and eschatology, to link back in to ‘all things’ in the renewal of resurrection. In other words, while so much on OST repositions us with regard to the application of scripture, the creation story resonates with us and we with it simply because of our humanity.

I have to wonder, though, if both these threads might not be rather different if we were all working without the legacy, the mumble in the background, of inerrancy. Or, more precisely, the shift in the balance where Warfield put so much weight on inerrancy that he lightened the import of Inspiration. What I mean by this is that we are often engaged (the broad we of evangelical thought) in defending the derivative inerrancy rather than in exploring the wonder of inspiration. In company with Goldingay, I wish Warfield had never put the word ‘therefore’ into his statement that the scriptures are inspired therefore they are inerrant. But this would take me somewhere I’m not ready to go just now.

John, thanks again for the response, it’s good to be here with you all.

PS, You have really given me pause, come to think about it, I really wouldn’t want to make Genesis less offensive to Dawkins, that would really take the fun out of it all.

Oh for the romance of the intrepid explorer

The modern era was partly birthed with the larger exploration of the world. New vistas, strange continents and peoples, unimagined cultures and histories, not to mention new diseases, new species, and just mountains of raw data!

Worlds to be explored and conquered seems to have been a guiding theme of the Royal Society. Vespucci, DaGama, and Collumbus with their later counterparts of Livingstone, Stanley and Park were very much the forerunners of Darwin. The olde myths were rapidly replaced by new ones.

Mystery was both created and destroyed by these explorations. In the background was a scattering of old beliefs that now became labeled as myths in a negative sense, the shells of discarded belief systems which had been questioned and came crashing down in quick succession. Worldviews adapted and changed or disappeared forever. The upheavals were massive and one of the institutions worst affected was undoubtedly the church. The response at a deeper level was to bury what was left of the mythology and hide it in layers of protective mystery.

The hangover of the fear of the death of whole systems of belief (and the authorities that these beliefs had supported) brought renewed vigor to the defense of doctrine but to little avail for a surprising feature of the continuing reformation was the rebuttal of the rest of the renaissance. The dichotomies that modernity inherited from the fact that the rebels were after all churchmen are still with us today. We still fear myth or rather the labeling of something as myth not because it is irrational, not because it is unscientific but because it points to the very thin thread on which our doctrine is made to hang. C.S. Lewis is perhaps the only apologist that has taken this bull by the horns and helped to rehabilitate true myth.

I don’t see our present efforts at understanding the creation accounts in Genesis to be that more rigorous exegesis might yield understandings that can soften or even unify the internal conflicts of the first three chapters of Genesis, and perhaps even help us develop a hermeneutic that eases the story’s relationship with other types of thinking. but rather an attempt to see, without overly defensive postures, into what the text meant and the boundaries that have to be explored are our own limitations of language, knowledge and insight.

If only we too could venture into the unknown with the confidence that what we will see will be the truth of discovery, that God has made us a whole world to explore together, sources of great rivers of truth to be found with wonder - and so to know what true myth God has hidden for us to discover behind such mundane physical existences and seemingly simple words.

Live to serve : Serve to live

Re: Oh for the romance of the intrepid explorer

Samicarr, Hi.

This is nice, really nice.

I don’t see our present efforts at understanding the creation accounts in Genesis to be that more rigorous exegesis might yield understandings that can soften or even unify the internal conflicts of the first three chapters of Genesis, and perhaps even help us develop a hermeneutic that eases the story’s relationship with other types of thinking. but rather an attempt to see, without overly defensive postures, into what the text meant and the boundaries that have to be explored are our own limitations of language, knowledge and insight.”

I know I was being a little provocative with this bit. But it wasn’t provocation from without, I would regard myself as being part of exactly what you describe here, neither was I saying that the exegetical issues should not be undertaken, merely that with this sort of story (whatever sort it is, but delightfully ancient) the mythic has to be considered because it had become mythic within the period of scripture and has suffered in our history since then and especially through modernism.

My intention, of course, is slightly peripheral to the True Myth thread in the sense that I wanted to raise the fact that analysis is a favoured tool today but that evocation and alusive language, including myth, and including what we would today call aesthetics should be a field for restoration and part of that exploration.

The untrue myth

Sorry, Chris,

first, i started working on a response to your post and then got called away and later did not refresh to see your rejoinder to John Doyle before finishing and posting my own comment. I quite enjoyed your thesis and agreed with you on many of your points.

Do we still have the ability to create a reality, a worldview, a myth, that is not imposed critically from without? Is the modern imagination capable of leaps into the unknown?

Perhaps true myth (in one of the older senses of the term) seems to be a dead art form not only because we have stopped telling each other stories but also because we have found that style  can take over and do the bulk of the hard work of getting a good response from an audience. Does that not mean that in the modern world we have been losing our basic ability to imagine for ourselves?  The great blockbuster myths of our time from Harry Potter to Lord of the Rings, Star Trek (newer TV series and the films), and Star Wars, while great tales on their own, have been rendered into film with such a surfeit of believable special fx, and that trend is perhaps best captured in the Matrix series. First, the virtual  became realistic enough to effectively substitute for reality and now we find that the virtual is even better than reality.

I seem to recall (I may be mistaken) that C.S. Lewis was somewhat disgruntled at the illustration of his Narnia Chronicles. Great tales have to be enhanced in some way or the other to satisfy the modern imagination! 

There is no longer any need to suspend one’s disbelief, all our fantasies can become reality. So, who needs their imagination?

The myth of science (and that is the dominantly believed modern and insidiously even postmodern) is the only myth that we are able to tolerate. Our assumption is that science is progress and as all of science is testable and all scientific hypotheses inherently falsifiable therefore science is the new truth, the new road to salvation. We accept that we are an odd mixture of good and evil but there is a childishly naive assumption that sciense will ultimately ‘win’.

When thinking about hermeneutics, the implications are not very encouraging. Is there great excitement at the trend to do narrative theology? Are we excited by the insights afforded by rhetorical analyses and the new perspectives that have been afforded to some very old debates? On the popular level, even though this theology is intuitively more understandable, yet the resistance factor has been high. Amongst the scholars we see even more resistance, partly (imo) because they are being asked to be less ‘scientific’, less reductive, and more accepting of a text as it stands.

Perhaps I’m just in one of those negative moods, but somehow, today, the future of true myth does not look very bright! 


Live to serve : Serve to live

Re: The untrue myth

Samicarr, this is interesting. I’m happy to follow this line a little, in the light of your earlier post, and in the bit of John’s response that seemed concerned that myth and fiction meant much the same, I think there is something here that is quite real as an issue. I hope this doesn’t disappoint.

But I need to keep one foot on the bottom here, my overriding interest in this, and perhaps my reason for writing the original, is the nature of story and our relationship with narrative modes today. Just as I wouldn’t conflate myth and fiction, with the slightly pejorative inference that brings, neither would I merge myth and story, largely because story is too generic a term. I think we would lose something important if we took up with the syllogism that all myths are stories therefore all stories are myths.

I agree; it is not going to be easy to discover or rediscover those worldview type narratives that we really need now. And I agree that this is, in part, because we have, as a society, become mere consumers of the short-lived fictions of a hyperactive media and, indeed, that in recent years these are frequently triumphs of form over content. But neither is it going to be easy in the light of the work that Andrew and others are doing which, as suggested before, is not so much changing the claims of scripture but is repositioning us in relation to more historically sensitive readings of the texts.

New-myth is an oxymoron, just as a new-legend would be. To be mythic, perhaps, a story has to have lost contact with its author, to have lived-on in the hands of a community that desires to be true to the story. Perhaps myth never has a single author but arises, maybe over very long periods within the conversation of a society as it wonders about life or crops or enemies or land or the weather. And just maybe, with some mythic stories, throughout their formative period, this conversation is also a process of inspired dialogue with the Spirit of God.

The reason why I haven’t studied deeply myth as a literary form is that I am not sure it is best understood in literary terms. Myth is a different order of story. Myth is important, I think, because it is distinguished by being a lived story. (One could wish the same for theology and dogmatics as well I suppose) Its truthfulness relies less upon verifiable history than upon the coherence of the perceptions of those who live it. And although the stories we live in today are predominantly modernist, are still hopeful of science, still lived technologically and adored in the marketplace, there remains the sobering fact that we are still so very hungry for understanding and meaning. In another thread Andrew explored the notion of restoring Wonder and I think this catches the pulse of something profound and something common in mythic narrative. The dissatisfaction with modernism and with scientism is that their cultural effects are often to reduce wonder, that analysis, and, sometimes, mere categorisation are enough to tick our boxes. This might not be true of science, but it is certainly the effect of popular scientism. (Perhaps better called the Public Misunderstanding of Science). Modern myth, then, becomes ironic as well. The mythology of scientism abandons science in order to make faith statements about science. (But I really don’t want to get on at Dawkins again!) Similarly, unfortunately, the high view of scripture espoused by those who regard themselves as literalists often forbids critical engagement with scripture in order to demonstrate inerrancy.

Obviously we cannot accord the same weight to all mythic stories. A story that has stood throughout the whole history of writing, and from long retelling prior to written language has to have particular worth and import regardless of faith or views on authority and cannon. But if, as you say, contemporary story making can be carried purely on visual and virtual characteristics, then these stories rest on nothing more than the imagination of the individual. And what a poor thing that often turns out to be. These stories don’t last more than a few months unless they gain ‘cult’ status (a rather interesting term in this context!)

You are right, I think. This is myth as style, as a palette of icons and movements, colours and music. We, wrongly, call this mythic because it rests on nothing and looks and sounds like what we currently imagine myth to look and sound like. I think this a categorical error, this is fantasy not myth, and fantasy, I would argue, is myth’s opposite. We can tell that it is such partly because it lacks that other signature of real myth, it has no implication for us; it does not call to us and invite our engagement. This is not about something being imposed ‘critically from without’ (and I admit that this particular tenet of PM has rather lost its lustre for me), but about something inherent in the story, in its resonance and in its provenance.

But where do people go when, as you say, the resistance to myth is because modernism exposes a severing of the ties, and when the mystique of science begins to lose currency and people hunger for more than the narrative that science has brought… fantasy seems to be the genre of choice. If we look simply at the expenditure of production houses selling to BSky, the dominant genre is science as fantasy, and in the spiritual, mystical or occult. The reaction, so heavily drawn from marketing data, is that when the voice of science becomes monotonous, (and when religious themes only appear in comedies) the other-worldly legacy of a neo-platonic worldview resurfaces.

I realise this is not exactly what you meant with your question about whether or not anyone is excited by the potential of narrative but this is where I can and do get excited about it.

If myth cannot deliberately be remade but only be the fruit of our communal endeavour, and if we have become derelict in our communal imagination, preferring a role as consumers of the stories of the others and if, as I suggested earlier, this is likely to get worse because we actually teach our children these ways, as much by what we don’t teach in schools as what we do, where then now?

I believe the field is fertile and that it is open to us. I’m not convinced it is religious conservatism or modernist scientism that stand in our way; more that it might be the legacy of a misunderstood or at least misapplied creation story. The mythic task, which is to say the narrative task that can connect a beginning with an end or a new beginning, is the task of connecting Genesis 1-3 and what follows with the people of God today. Again I agree with the implication of what you said. This requires a revival of inspired and sanctified imagination, a passionate commitment to a conjecture of faith, the capacity to receive from the biblical narrative and to imagine ways of living that express its hope, even if, at present we are at sea in a storm of tall tales and our old ways of remembrance have failed. (Oh, I forgot to mention myth as communal remembrance! But enough already!!)

But the conjecture and the adventure are not merely imaginary, the sanctification and the inspiration are essential if what we produce and live out are not to be entirely subjective. I guess this is why so many are intent upon the delicate task of extracting Christianity from Christendom, and why people respond so deeply to Breuggemann’s plea for the rise of the poets or, more mischievously, to Hauerwass’ manifesto to confiscate all the Bibles in America. But this is also a hunger that can drive us to positions of rank stupidity, what is the point, for example, of grabbing a headline by calling Penal Substitution child abuse when it costs you your voice?

If there is to be a revival of wonder and a renewed capacity to astonish western society it is, surely, in the way in which we form storied communities, the way we resolve conflict, the way we relate to power, the way we deal economically, all of these, and more, and all of them astonishing because of the creativity that drives us on. For me it has to work out like this. I have little interest in rehabilitating the idea of myth, but a deep interest in investing in communities that are intent upon imagining and becoming colonies of heaven.

true myth is an essential truth

One of the reasons for the blurring of the lines between myth and story is that our generation believes itself to not need myth at all. Modernity has tried very hard to demythologise us completely and perhaps has to a large extent succeeded. Myth is equated with superstition on the one hand, and with fantasy on the other, leaving no space at all for myth to meaningfully continue to occupy our imagination.

While New Myth may be an oxymoron, if one wishes to continue to communicate via myth or even to see our existence in part through mythic eyes, one has to start pretty much from scratch.

In the discussion on Genesis one of the greatest challenges is to again be able to recover the mythic meaning of these texts. Modern exegesis has done us the disservice of leaving us with ‘just’ stories while that essential link between our undatable and uncontextualisable roots has been excised. We are now much more inclined to ascribe our actions and psychological states to our monkey roots than to take seriously the idea that we were created to be God’s gardeners and that we failed and fell to become our present potential but miserable selves.

How again can biblical myth take its rightful place as one of the foundations of our identity and worldview? We can clearly see that Genesis was a living mythic story for the authors of the NT, yet such is considered a part of primitive naivety and certainly not thought of as any sort of viable option for our present oh-so-sophisticatedly scientific selves.

Live to serve : Serve to live

Re: true myth is an essential truth

OK, I think I am getting you. I don’t tend to experience this reluctance as much as you, perhaps because I work predominantly in the arts and with artists. In fact, that German film I mentioned earlier is likely to be called Mythmaker!

Whatever happened to the never ending story?

Re: true myth is an essential truth

…where do people go when, as you say, the resistance to myth is because modernism exposes a severing of the ties, and when the mystique of science begins to lose currency and people hunger for more than the narrative that science has brought…”“…How again can biblical myth take its rightful place as one of the foundations of our identity and worldview? We can clearly see that Genesis was a living mythic story for the authors of the NT, yet such is considered a part of primitive naivety and certainly not thought of as any sort of viable option for our present oh-so-sophisticatedly scientific selves….”I’ve been out of the running for a bit (down with the flu), and so am jumping into this in midstream as it were.First, a come clean. The two quotes above echo much of my own journey, in that behind my question of what Genesis meant for it’s original audience, is simply the desire to find out if it still can mean something to me, today.Genesis I know has an important place to play within the various hermeneutical contructs used within the Scriptures, with the apex perhaps in Paul. But I am out to discover if it has meaning for me. So I applaud Chris’s point about the mythic. It is certainly wonderful to have stories that feed us meaning and focus, and we certainly can use good stories.But as one who’s left / trying to leave, one old story that fell to pieces, I am hesitant to pick up a new story. That’s where the questioning, analysis and search for the literary nature of the Genesis accounts comes from. It’s not enough to have a story simply “say” something to me regardless of its origins; an intergral part of the “say” is what the story first was meant to mean (it’s historical significance, if not its historicity). In this sense the meaning of the myth today is connected to the story of the story itself.Example: If the creation narrative in Genesis was a doxology of resistance to the Jews in Babylon (an attractive idea, and applicable in a lesser way to Moses having just left Egypt, for those preferring a traditional dating), would we be justified in saying things like?:

Genesis teaches us that God, not man, made the earth. No man can finally the land from you (I see 17th century English Sectarians jumping for joy at this idea).

Since God makes the beginning, only He makes the end. Our destinties are bound up with that of creation, not simply that of one country.

No matter how much a man shines and makes a claim to power, he remains a created thing, and not God. He is therefore not to be feared or worshipped.

How would you translate the original myth to today?

Re: true myth is an essential truth

Russ, nice to hear from you. I want to try a relatively short response that might feed back into Samicarr’s line as well.

First a reminder- I began with thoughts about aesthetics as an arena for meaning and identity, within this comes myth. That’s still where I am, although I appreciate deeply what is happening here since, and on the true myth thread, John’s efforts to read the genesis story forward are fascinating, if a little beyond me. Here I’ll pretty much stick to a single point, something that I value particularly.

Standing in century 21, with the past in front of us and the future behind us. The story around us is lost in caterwauling disputes that will not settle until one or both parties is seriously wounded. Will the empire or the rebel alliance win? I have no idea. But I do know that the story is in some way at stake not because it is contested but because it has become a weapon. The story in the story is already lost and no one seems to remember where or when they last heard it in a way that sounded like home, like us. For me, I confess, it still does, shorn of some of its hardness perhaps, and with a very different sort of voice, but I do still feel that this is where I belong.

Now, taking a giant leap, going back to Paul and John’s Patmos and bypassing Christendom entirely (I wish) we arrive at perhaps the last period when the telling of the story made complete sense, a world in the entropy of frustration, in a futility that awaits something from the sons of God, and finding its salvation prophesied in a new heaven and a new earth, the renewal of all things.

With these prophecies in our ears it is natural to look up, to peer at the distant horizon, to seek the original story to which these promises refer. All we can see is a line that disappears over the horizon, a line that, strangely, seems immune to perspective, which does not diminish with distance.

Except, perhaps, for one other thing - a gospel that speaks with a different voice and claims to be a new story of creation or a story of new creation. En arche en ho logos. John seems to be taking the most ancient description of existence, and saying ‘what you read here is that story, at its climax, taken to completion’ – a ‘this is that’ statement. Nothing new in this, of course, but I am not talking merely about John’s opening structure, I’m talking about the nature of his gospel. Even the form in which we have it seems, to me, to be of a different type to the synoptics. John’s voice is distinct. His is less like an account of record, more the remembrance of a relationship, pushing it; it is the story of a great love worked out at a pivotal point in history. If John’s narration were written for screen, the genre would have to be the epic. The disciple whom Jesus loved tells the story of the messiah he adored. If the difference were merely a matter of structure or gearing for a particular audience, we could note the fact and use it to nuance our exegesis. But I don’t think it is just that. Yes John’s interests are different. Major thematic teaching passages are minimised or left out entirely (the sermon on the mount etc). His witness to events seems different too, things remembered, possibly, as much for the effect they had on the writer as on the community. It takes five chapters for John to describe the last supper. But there are themes in John’s gospel that not only carry a different emphasis but are of a different order, and I guess the clearest of these is the Fatherhood of God.

When it comes to the superficial analysis of passages and then declaring a narrative significance because of a statistical one, I am generally with Tom Wright, who, when faced with a particularly peculiar example is said to have responded, ‘Well, if you will use a concordance then you are bound to think that’.

But… Matthew speaks of God as Father about 45 times, always quoting Jesus’ words. Luke does this only 18 times, again always in direct quotation. Mark, apparently, just didn’t get it; only three times does he use the term. John however speaks of God as Father more than a hundred times, not only this, he does so on his own account frequently and uniquely. John got it. But what is it? John got the relational core of the revolutionised kingdom. Perhaps more pertinently, he saw the essential motif that could carry forward into the furthest reaches of Jesus’ eschatology, beyond the judgement, beyond the end of the age. And the flow, the simple dynamic of the writing suggests that this was neither an affectation nor a ploy, he spoke like this in utterly organic ways because it was what he noted and was most affected by in his journey with his messiah.

And John developed this relational theme in perhaps the nearest thing to a Trinitarian form in the gospels, as the development of his inaugural statement about the new creation. I have to wonder, then, if this is not the way this particular Jew read the original account, as the story of an initiated but damaged relationship, fulfilled and reopened to creation via God as Father. Perhaps, for John, the function of the story was, in the context of the primal beginning, to describe the primal human relationship, and this, in terms of the Adam, was with one who created like a Father.

‘Well, if you will use a concordance then you are bound to think that’.

Russ, I realise this goes nowhere near your questions, at least not in terms of contested land. In terms of the story of the story, as distinct from the story in the story, then a worshipful resistance does not in any way use up the possibilities, perhaps it just demonstrates one.

Re: true myth is an essential truth


 Thanksfor the reply. I realized when i wrote the previous post, i was in some ways departing from your original intent. And the question of an aesthetic response is obviously very important.

I have to admit struggling to get my head around (or in) it, though. I can see the way John and others use the concept of the Father as a driving motif in the story of men and God. Obviously we need to ask what “Father” meant to John. But I’m hesitant to view John’s as the highest or best. By that I don’t mean to set another storyline as larger, but rather that many storylines converge within the story of the NT. We have not one, but a number of Christologies. Depending on the story we’re leaning on, this determines how we, in some ways, view God and our relationship to him. Peter’s much wilder construct has elements of incredible intimacy bound up into it, but uses different language than John. So I tend to think that the various “approaches”, if that’s the way to say it, are meant to complement each other. Just as we can speak of various Judaisms in the time of and after Jesus, so we can speak of various “Christianities”. Together they give us the total matrix, but each can feed us in it’s own unique way. It’s like a diamond with different facets. If you look through a facet, you see part of the beauty of the diamand, but not all. And perhaps it’s impossible to look through all the facets at once. But perhaps we can carry them in our hearts and minds, to inform as life makes that necessary.

Am I even getting close to what you’re aiming at, or am I totally missing the point? 

Re: true myth is an essential truth

Hi Russ.

Not missing a thing by the look of it. I had this reluctance, still do actually, to joinging in with OST, partly because of what I saw as the tendency of such debates to treat every post as if it were trying to be definitive. That’s my cultural divide, nearly everything I’ve done here is trying to be evocative. I’m not saying, and it would go against the grain perhaps to say ‘this is it’ when what I mean is ‘here’s one’.

I was trying to give an example of how, by standing very closely alongside one writer, we can get to a point of view which can affect access to earlier texts. And yes, if you stand closely beside Peter there is a different view, especially from the roof of Simon’s tannery, but that’s a very different story.

I am wondering how singular the creation story was. And consequently if the task of analytical thinking through deep history might not give us an ‘it’ that turns out to be just ‘one’. The story of the story, I admit, is as interesting as the story in the story. Partly because I suspect that the story of the story is the most likely way we are going to be able to embrace and live from that story today.

Some examples might help, all pretty practical. It is from the story as we have it that I take much that I need to work with artists in exploring their creativity, and especially creativity as a process of engaging with God spiritually and practically. From the story as it stands I can also explore with ex evangelicals in particular what it means to love the world. In the same way, as a creative, I can stand within the story that I have received and question the various relationships with the world demonstrated by industry, by technology. And from this that I can, with others, wonder if God will permit us to bring death to it through poison. With this I can explore, perhaps in company with Brian Walsh, the connection with the Native American experience of creation.

There are many more examples. All of them rather distinct from the task set in the True Myth thread (which is why I started a separate one).

That’s why, when it comes down to it, I think we can push the pendulum away from its extreme position on inerrancy and start to explore inspiration again. For me it is that ‘all scripture is inspired and is useful’, so very useful, so strong, such a centre of gravity, such a marker. I have in mind a model whose source I cannot remember. It was a study on orthodoxy and its nature. In one model orthodoxy was drawn as a circle, within the perimeter of the circle was all that was orthodox or correct, outside was all that was error. In the second model was a large dot, from this dot came dozens of wiggly lines. The point being that in the second model, anything that lay in direct connection with the core, contained the core and was faithful to it. It was a model of orthodoxy as a series of journeys, not as a territory.

And it looks much as I would imagine OST to look!

If I could find out how to attach images to a message it would make it much easier, for me to explain.

Re: true myth is an essential truth


 Absolute agreement that we need to give ourselves room to reexplore the inspiration and, I would add, the authority of the scriptures. Can a community aesthetic with respect for the history of the story, help us here? It’s an intriguing idea, in any case, to place the locus of inspiration elsewhere.

I like the image of lines rather than circles to describe ways of expressing “orthodoxy”. If the various lines can be various ways to look at text, spirituality and community, then these can help a lot, I think. But at the center one still needs some kind of image/story of what “orthodoxy” is, and how that’s defined. I am not arguing for a particular interpretation of orthodoxy here, but merely stating that something cohesive is needed there. The Apostoles’ Creed, perhaps? But then I shy away from defining orthodoxy as solely doctrinal.

I remember reading somewhere that the early Methodists held Scripture, the Church (historical and acutal) and experience as the three grids for interpreting and giving meaning to spirituality. Behind them all was a sense of respect for all.

In any case, I welcome discussion on this. Maybe we only getting a few squiggly lines ourselves, but it’s better than no lines at all. 

Genesis 1 as creatorly praxis


I sympathize with your frustration at how inerrantists and creationists have taken Genesis 1 hostage in ideological warfare. I also resonate with your idea of looking to the Biblical creation story as creative inspiration. A good beginning corrupted by evil, a protagonist setting out on the long road to redemption – many a story owes a debt to Genesis. These narratives so deeply shape our outlook on life that it’s often hard to imagine stories not following the Scriptural trajectories. The influence extends beyond our literature to our entire culture, as the narrator in Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being observes:

Behind all European faiths, religious and political, we find the first chapter of Genesis, which tells us that the world was created properly, that human existence is good, and that we are therefore entitled to multiply. Let us call this basic faith a categorical agreement with being.

Like you, I’ve found myself drawn to Genesis 1 for its connections with contemporary life – what you’ve called “eighth day” considerations. During the active phase of the “True Myth” thread I put forward an alternative exegesis of the text. Implicit in that exegesis is an emphasis on the “creatorly praxis” that God exercised while creating the universe. Made in the image and likeness of the Genesis 1 Creator, we who share the Judeo-Christian heritage and the Western tradition of innovation owe a large debt to the Biblical Creator’s “artistic technique”:

The creative interval. A work of creation doesn’t take shape instantaneously (as the Greeks would have it), nor is it a continuous unfolding without beginning or end (as in Eastern traditions). In Genesis 1 the work begins on day one and ends on day six – a delimited duration in time set aside specifically for creating.The formless void. It’s not a chaos to be avoided (as in Greek and pagan traditions), but rather an opening, a place of pure potential. The creator immerses himself in the void and shapes a creation from inside it. Postmodernists like Derrida and Badiou and Zizek have been rehabilitating the void as a creative space.In the midst. The Genesis 1 Creator doesn’t stand apart from the creation like some perfect Deist. Neither does he give birth to a creation that is essentially an emanation of himself, like a pagan sky father or earth mother. Instead he jumps into the void, rolls his sleeves up, and sets to work.

Separate and name. Repeatedly the Creator speaks the name of something (light, seas, heavens, etc.) and separates it from that which it is not (light from darkness, waters above from waters below, etc.). This systematic conceptual-linguistic method has always guided Western thought, even if it is presently derided as the result of the modern mind’s overdeveloped left hemisphere.

Goodness. Repeatedly the Creator looks at what he’s just made and sees that it’s good. He isn’t satisfied merely to adapt, or to express his inner passion, or to satisfy the customer. The emphasis on excellence as its own reward – not just morally but also aesthetically – is another hallmark of Biblical creative praxis.

Creating wholes. The Creator doesn’t just crank out a string of artifacts; he creates a whole universe. Every work of art and literature, every theological system and scientific theory, every farm and village – the universe is riddled with man-made mini-universes that make sense of and impose order on a whole array of things.

Creation as a real possibility. The idea of consciously shaping something that wouldn’t have come into being without intelligence and imagination and will, something that wouldn’t have evolved on its own: this is a distinctly Biblical idea. It’s been with us from the beginning, and it’s served us well over the millennia.

Image and likeness. It’s certainly consistent with the flow of Genesis 1 to assert that man too is a creator, that the “image and likeness” manifests itself in our ability (both genetic and learned) to emulate God’s creative ethos as demonstrated in Genesis 1.

In extracting elements of creative process from Genesis 1 is it necessary to invoke a mythical hermeneutic? I don’t believe so, at least not in the usual sense of the term; in fact, identifying the praxis depends on preserving a literal reading of the particulars. Still, insights into creativity are the sort of “eighth day” truths that mythic readers seek to uncover. Elements of the creatorly praxis emerge not by pulling allegorically on the main narrative thread but by unraveling a cross-weave in the fabric of the story. I’d warrant that even your nemesis Dr. Dawkins follows the creatorly praxis of Genesis 1 in his own work, fallen and depraved though it may or may not be.

Though this reading of Genesis 1 doesn’t directly address cosmogony or theology, it does refocus the Creation narrative away from the results and toward the process – from creation as a noun to create as a verb. Perhaps also the eschatological thrust is redirected, from restoring the Creation as a physical place to restoring the creatorly ethos, which is God’s image and likeness, in man.

I’ve taken to calling it a “ktismatic” reading – ktismatics, from the Greek ktisma meaning “creation.” Ktismatics: the theory and practice of creation. It’s an awkward word, unlikely to pass into popular usage. Still, its very obscurity means that anyone who “googles” it will, for better or worse, find a link to my blog.In reading your posts I see a strong commitment to creativity, to aesthetics, and to Scriptural narrative as a source of inspiration. At the same time you seem to share with many postmoderns a Romantic resistance the Enlightenment’s influence on modernity: science and technology, rational analysis, grammatical-historical exegesis, propositional truth. Galileo, Descartes, Kepler, Huyghens: many of the seminal figures of the Enlightement were accomplished musicians, just as many of the Renaissance artists were also engineers and mathematicians. Science and art, technology and craftsmanship: the work of creating takes many forms. Every creator’s work can be diverted by greed and the desire to please. Perhaps a renewed commitment to “good” creation is part of what redemption is intended to accomplish.

Re: Genesis 1 as creatorly praxis

John, you got me, bang to rights guv… or nearly.

I’m not quite as resistant to “science and technology, rational analysis, grammatical-historical exegesis, propositional truth” as it appears; it’s just that this is not what I wanted to bring forward in this thread, at least at the beginning. That and the fact that I have no theological training! But what a perceptive and kind response, I appreciate it.

It is going to take me a while to really get to grips with all that you have here, it is very rich. Perhaps a few appreciative and immediate comments.

The creative interval: An emphatic yes… and an implication that artists understand so well, the expression of a process. Real creativity requires a particular form almost of vulnerability to your subject, and here not just a singular or linear process but one that is internally iterative and interactive. As you say, a process described as a progression through time in Genesis 1, but as a composite process in Genesis 2 “in the day that the Lord made the earth and the heavens”.

The formless void: ‘a place of pure potential’ – now that’s just plain lovely! And in narrative terms something that I’ve used with colleagues to express the intimacy of God’s involvement with us as a never-ending creative act, the phrase, as I recall, a somewhat risky, ‘God is pregnant with our potential as his image bearer’.

In the midst: An emanation or an expression? As an artist I am comfortable with emanation because I know the sense of fathering my own work, although some would find the idea disturbing theologically.

Separate and name: your model of facilitated sentience on the other thread is fascinating and this is, presumably, of that. And I note the dynamic, which we have not explored here yet, of the creation mandate (however that is described) and its first expression in Adam’s role as the namer of God’s things. In this I could see something of the primal form, which in its later, fallen, state becomes religion.

Goodness: gracious me! And so deeply at odds with the neo-platonic value system behind so much of our history and modernism’s. At root, of course, our mandate for loving the world, loving what God loves.

Creating wholes: Yes, and also in the mandate to rule, which I often translate as a commission that, in contemporary terms, would be ‘go forth and civilize’.

Creation as real possibility: at so many levels, as the story of the beginnings of possibility. And to ‘intelligence, imagination and will’, from the story itself, we can add joy, wit, energy, integration and differentiation, interdependency, extravagance and, of course, wonder. There is something quite astonishing in the repeated celebration of the stages. And God looked, and saw that it was good. Why would he do this? I do it all the time… write a page, read it back, read it aloud… in order to find out if it is any good. Does God not presume the goodness of his works? Or is he, perhaps, looking to see what becomes when he has spoken of it. God sees his own creation for the first time, and loves it!

Image and likeness: yes to both ‘genetic’ and learned, but also in the impulse, the drive if not the compulsion towards creativity.

To your other points. It wasn’t my intention to impose a mythic hermeneutic to the technical task of interpretation (the story in the story), rather to acknowledge that there is something very rich in working with the depth and breadth of the mythic status of Genesis’ place in the history of human thought (the story of the story). You are right that I haven’t given much weight to the technical modes of internal verification and have been rather dismissive, perhaps too much so, on matters of external verification. I can see why you say that where we have gone here might refocus attention on the ‘creation as verb’ aspect of eschatology, but for me that is only really meaningful under the greater rubric of God’s restoration of creation as a whole.

On your final paragraph, no argument there, and clearly while all the arts are creative, not all creativity is artistic.

But you have me intrigued now, in the responses above, about the internal narrative structure in the early Genesis chapters. It has come as no surprise that the thread has gone off towards the nature of myth because that would always be a trigger-word on a site like this. But whether or not this has run its course for now (just how much narrower is the column width going to get!) there are other implications of the original piece that might appeal more to the Genesis 1 True Myth thread, even when staying within the field of broad narrative reading -although this might require a slight change of voice.

How do you feel about this?

Genesis 1 – a phenomenological narrative, as if someone had sat down and noted everything he could see and hear and touch and smell and wondered, ‘how is this so?’

Genesis 2 into 3 – an anthropological narrative where the phenomena are described only in terms of the Adam’s relationship with them – humanity in physical context. ‘How are we so?’ with more than a hint of ‘Why are we so?’

Genesis 3 from 2 – an ontological or metaphysical narrative – the most difficult form so far, perhaps framed in a genre with which we are no longer familiar, a story that works with our sentience, with awareness and with the numinous, including the awareness that, by having the first two narratives we imply a third that observes the first two, or sits behind or above them and is conscious of a longing beyond the field of view. Almost ‘who are we?’ - a question that can only arise in the context of the existence of another.

Genesis 4-12 – a proto-historical narrative – the phenomenon of the Adam in time. “What are we about?’ or ‘What have we been?’ or ‘What have we done’ – or ‘How did we get here?’ It could also be seen as a sociological narrative or a pre-covenantal narrative (notwithstanding the mandate that the Adam held).

Happy to go further if you like.

PS - I wouldn’t mind being a ktismatist, or even a kinaesthetic ktismatist, as long as I only had to Google it and not say it!

releasing the spirit of creation


Chris -

Thanks for your reply to my last comment and for outlining some intriguing themes linking together the first 12 chapters of Genesis. But now I’m looking again at your original post and what seems to be your central concern. The Temple artist was filled with the spirit, revealing the importance of aesthetics not just to the ancient Israelites but also to God. You then lament the cultural and aesthetic impoverishment of the church today, its monotonous banality reflecting the sorry state of the Western culture in which it is embedded.

I think it’s difficult to build a theology of aesthetics from the Bible. We can talk about the glorious literary style of various Biblical passages (offset, one has to acknowledge, by its fair share of monotony). We can identify the occasional passage after Genesis 2 that alludes to human creative endeavor (often as not in negative terms). For the most part, however, the Bible is about man’s moral relationship with God: sin and forgiveness, law and sacrifice, condemnation and repentance, punishment and reward. When man does create something commendable in Scriptures, it’s usually built to God’s specifications — like the Temple, as you noted in your post.

In Genesis 1 God’s creative project reaches its culmination in man, made in the image and likeness of the creator. Be fruitful and multiply, God tells man. Neither the Bible nor the church spends much time on how to fulfill that first commandment, but we seem to be pretty good at it anyway. Maybe creativity is the same sort of thing: it just comes naturally to us.

Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class, published a few years ago, says that some 30 percent of Americans work in what can be broadly construed as “the creative sector” of the economy, representing a tenfold increase from a century ago. Perhaps the church’s emerging sensitivity to aesthetics — in liturgy, in decorative arts, in narratives — reflects changing trends in the larger culture. Florida contends that the rise in creativity results from a transition in capitalist society from the Protestant ethic — hardworking, thrifty, mainstream, conformist — and the bohemian ethic — hedonistic, aesthetic, intuitive, individualistic. Of course Florida sees this transition as a good thing.I wonder whether the emerging church’s attempts to shake itself free from its “square” Protestant heritage reflects this broader cultural turn toward the bohemian ethic.

I also wonder whether the broad cultural upsurge in creative work is really generating much true aesthetic excellence. The marketplace doesn’t just shape culture; it reflects it, producing a lot of banal junk that people can’t wait to buy. Can the emerging church, newly infused with a bohemian aesthetic sensibility, free man’s innate and godlike capacity for creation, a capacity that has perhaps been stifled even more in the modern church than in the secular culture? Can there be an emerging Christian aesthetic that strives for aesthetic excellence without being shackled by excessive concern about its “good taste;” i.e, its Protestant conformist ethos, its insistence on overtly uplifting and moralistic themes that too often veer into kitsch, its insistence on focusing only on specifically “Christian” art, its valorization of the old (i.e., Biblical) stories at the expense of wholly new ones?

Re: releasing the spirit of creation

John, just read this before quitting for the night, and looked over my shoulder because I thought you must have been reading my notes!.

Taking a step back from your point here so that I can see some you made earlier, the deepest cultural and aesthetic impoverishmnet, in my experience, is in Evangelicalism and in the new churches in particular. The older traditions have much more richness. And it is this that is part of my journey at present. I’m not bemoaning any lack of creativity per se from modernism and agree with you that in the massively expanded arena of opportunity perceived from the enlightenment that artists and others have produced monumental works.

I agree too about the quality of much that happens today and that the dominant aesthetic industries are churning out products that are simple cosmetically differentiated versions of what the marketeers say works at a commercial level. It’s probably another outworking of McCluhan’s line that in the global village every town will become a suburb of every other town, a sort of global, or at least western homogenisation.

On the emergence of a meaningful aesthetic, the short answer is that I don’t see it happening yet. Which is no reason not to declare something about it. But I would suggest that at least in missiological terms, this might be about looking very seriously at the church as a cultural agency and as culturally prophetic and that if we leave out of that task the aesthetic toolkit, we will probably end up engineering something no less ugly than what exists.

If you haven’t seen my other main piece from Which Art in Heaven, it might be helpful because there I describe a few modal approaches to looking at the arts in more missional terms.

I partly suggest this, I admit, because I have just watched United 93 with a friend and am emotionally devastated, as well as slightly cream crackered.

More later.

Re: releasing the spirit of creation

John, still a rather rushed reply, I’m afraid, before I go out.

Not sure about a theology of aesthetics, or at least, not sure we are able to achieve such… perhaps a future generation. But we might get nearer if we were concerned about the aesthetics of theology, what I mean by this is if our theology were truly contextualised in terms of all the effects it has. It is too small and too romantic an example, but I recall the dramatisation of the work of Watson and Crick on the shape of the human genome, Watson, or was it Crick, repeatedly refused the models that emerged from their thinking because they were ugly, claiming that when the shape of the gene was discovered that it would, of necessity, have to be beautiful… and voila, the double helix.

But on the contemporary aesthetic… modernism, of course, not only created a boundless arena for aesthetics, it almost created art as Art. Art as not being politics, as not religion, as not science. And, as Woodrow Wilson was prone to remind us, the foundation of everything in the modern world, religion included, is economic. So art enters the public domain, in terms of how it is perceived and valued, in the context of a free-market-economy of ways of thinking.

Artists, however, do not, if they are any good, accept modernist categorisation, even if they work deeply in modernist ways. The arts can be deeply political, religious, and recently even inform and inspire in science. But the free market still operates. And, every November, I begin an experience of depression that deepens towards the middle of December, because Christmas has become one of the ugliest things in the western calendar. And the sound of it, in the hands of the market place, is hideous, brutal. The voice of Mammon, perhaps, shrieks at us, demands that we lay all upon the altar. And proves to us that in the market today, the consumer is not the powerful choice maker, the consumer is the raw material ground in the machine. Christmas is Soylent Green. (Just an example)

In another arena, and perhaps going much deeper, what if the people of God in the US were to seek to declare their allegiance to another King, what more aesthetic an act, and prophetic, could they make than to refuse to raise the flag on their front porches. What would happen to that gaudy pattern of confused identity, the conflation of God and the American Way?

Or even the invisible aesthetic act of novelist Iain Banks, when he cut up his passport and sent it to Tony Blair after our entry into the Gulf War?

I don’t mean this only in terms of resistance, such is often short lived and not widely affective, but if we believe that our modeling of another kingdom is communally expressed, and is expressed in our ‘other’ way of doing things, it is here that I think we have opportunity to express aesthetically what we hold morally. For those who work in the creative professions, of course, the act happens through a negotiation with the market place, with clients and focus groups. For me, the experience of evangelism in more propositional forms actually happens most often in client meetings, over issues of values and meanings of what I write or design or advocate.

Re: true myth is an essential truth

Samicarr, a short but not a small point. And forgive the prophetic aura if this comes across…

But it occurs to me, in the historical shape of things, that if we have spent so many centuries in thrall to the mindsets that have dissipated myth, and have left our thread of connection so thin…

Then maybe our task includes the risk of an oxymoron. Perhaps our job is to help begin a new mythic stream for the sake of new generations who cannot afford to become any more cut off from the present because they are cut off from the past. In other words - can we sow seeds of new myth now, for the ones as yet unknown?

Oh, and PS, why, every time I click the cursor in replying to you, does a new window open to the blogspot?? At least, it does on my Mac.

Re: true myth is an essential truth


You are absolutely right as to the task. Those, like yourself, who are actively involved with the arts will have to figure out how. Seems like a bit of a tough task for older folks like myself as the scientific myths look to have effectively stolen that space in my mind. There’s hope though that our youth will be better disposed towards new and truer myth because of their being less corrupted by the modern.

I would love to have some life-integrating ‘true myth’ embed itself in my mind! 

The problem with the new page opening seems to be a result of my linking my blog to the sign off. OST perhaps has a default that links should be opened in new pages. Thanks for pointing it out and I just edited out the offending code …

Live to serve : Serve to live

Re: True Myth and the Aesthetics of Belonging

Why not call it fiction and be done with it?”

The short answer to this question is because it is not fiction.  If that were the case then it seems to me that every book of history that is not 100% accurate is to be labeled as fiction.  The Bible is history because it is an attempt of people to understand historical events, including the beginning the the universe, the beginning of the humanity, the foundation of Jewish people. etc. 

People can agree or disagree with the accounts given in the Bible, even though many of them appear to be based on eyewitness accounts.  One can agree or disagree on the interpretations of the events found in the Bible, to dismiss them as fiction seems to me as denying the experience of a whole people. 

Does history have meaning?  Does the experience of human being down through the ages have significance today or are we so sophisicated, so advanced, so wise and smart, that we don’t need to learn from the past.  Some people seem to think that this is the case, but I don’t see them in the war zones of today’s world bringing peace where there was conflict. 

We cannot really separate history from ”myth,” what happened from the interpretation of what happened.  God has acted in history to liberate the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, to send Jesus the Messiah to liberate the World from bondage to sin and evil, to liberate slaves from bondage in the United States, and to free the USSR and eastern Europe from Communist oppression.  If some do not accept this understanding of history, that is their loss. 


Peace and Joy,


Re: True Myth and the Aesthetics of Belonging

Relates -

Inasmuch as you quoted me at the beginning of your comment, I thought I’d drop in a few small points of clarification. When I asked why not call Genesis 1 fiction, I was trying to clarify the meaning of myth — a project several of us on this site pursued in the “Genesis 1 as True Myth” post. There are many fine works of fiction that offer valuable insights and interpretations into the human condition, but the stories the fiction-writers tell don’t purport to be historically accurate. I was asking whether mythic tales about the ancient past might not be construed as a genre of fiction.

I don’t think anyone wants to assert that accurate narratives about past events are “history” whereas inaccurate ones are “fiction.” Historical narratives have varying degrees of accuracy and error; works of fiction are judged on standards of aesthetics and insight rather than fact. Nor do I think we want to define history as “what happened” versus myth as “the interpretation of what happened.” We can try to interpret the causes and consequences and meaning of the Iraq war, but these interpretations aren’t myths, nor (sadly) do they transform the war itself from a historic event into a fictional one. There are historical events and fictional events; there are varying interpretations of both kinds of events.

Re: True Myth and the Aesthetics of Belonging

Bro. John,

I believe I understand what you are saying, but the question is, “Did the universe have a beginning?”  The Greeks and many others as I understand it said, “No. The universe is eternal.”  Many scientists until recently agreed.  This is called the “steady state” theory of the universe.  Thus we have different ideas of the origin of the universe.

Genesis l describes it as an historical event that takes place at the beginning of time and space and creates time and space.  Therefore in that way it is history (natural history if you will) rather than what we think of as science.  It is not myth in the classical sense in that it goes beyond time and space to determine the origin of things.  It is not fiction in that it is not pure invention. 

It is history in that it is provable, so that science has found proof of the beginning of the universe in what is called the “big bang.”           

Peace and Joy,


Re: True Myth and the Aesthetics of Belonging

Relates; John’s response says much that I would have said.

I probably wouldn’t frame it quite this way, preferring to look at all these as forms of story, accepting that by capturing an account we are also expressing the process of seeing or hearing or remembering as well as the event. And I have also had it in mind to try to avoid the modern exclusions, where the truth of the scientist is somehow truer that the truth of the poet.

Even the idea of ‘eye-witness’ accounts is probably misleading, as if this implied objectivity. But in the context of this thread, arising from John’s thread on Genesis and True Myth, there have been some who even approach the creation stories as if they described a witnessed event rather than reflections or revelation upon the event. I suspect that much in scripture that reads as an account is anything but a witnesses account but is a narrative, and frequently an interpreted, probably communal narrative memory.

The same would hold true, I suppose, of even NT accounts. We can assume that Jesus might have told the disciples of how he came to embrace is role, but were there really witnesses to his time in the wilderness? Of course, there were, if your name is Jim Crace and you are writing Quarantine.

Re: True Myth and the Aesthetics of Belonging

Dear Chris,

What is history except a narrative that is pieced together in order to determine as best as possible what happened in the past and its significance.  We can and should ask the question, “How did the narrator know what happened concerning any particular event?”  One such situation that comes to mind is the long prayer in the Garden that John narrates.  In this type of situation I would say that you just have to examine it on its own value, and not accept it as true just because it is in the Bible.  I would say that it does ring true logically and theologically.

Looking at Genesis 1 we certainly cannot say where the information about the Creation came from.  The problem with arguing about the details is that the basic meaning of the text can be lost.  If the details bring important light to the present, that is a bonus.  Let us not forget then forest because we don’t unstand the trees.   

No doubt that is why we call it revelation.  None the less it is revelation about a historical event, the beginning of the universe and thus is history.  Part of the confusion could be that other non-Biblical religions are based on ahistorical myths, so people think that the Bible must be mythological too.

The problem with this is that the myths depict a static universe and a closed static society, while history is the story of movement and change.  While many are still attracted to a traditional order that favors them, history seems to attest to the need to change, to develope and to grow toward the future, rather than cling to the past.  Some may still be attracted by the classical Greek and Roman tradition which was built on myth, rather than change.          

Now it is true that some want to treat the Bible as mythos which in its classical form means a story written in stone, accepted as truth based on authority and tradition.  Socrates was put to death because he was accused of undermining the social order because he allegedly encouraged people to question the myths.  The religions that were based on the myths died because people did begin to question the myths and decided that a religion based on the historical events, the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, made more sense.    

Again, while like anything else history can be abused, but for me it makes sense.  The reason I think that I can say this from a Christian point of view is because the Christian standard for history is the historical person, Jesus the Messiah.  Some may say that this is circular reasoning, but if history does not attest to the meaning of Jesus, Who was historical as well as transhistorical, then something is very wrong with our faith, while we need to do our best to make His kingdom into a reality.     

Peace and Joy,


True Myth and the status quo


Not so easy to respond to, I admit, because I don’t think I understand where you are going with this, but I’ll have a go.

Remember that my point was not to debate historicity, or the Genesis account. I wanted to celebrate mythic ways of thinking, and more widely, aesthetic ways of acting, as part of our interpretive and expressive role. I’m not doing dogmatics here!

When it comes to understanding stories, especially ancient stories where we don’t have the tools to get at historicity, the nature of the story in its subjective adoption is much more open to us. When I suggested that Genesis 1 is a phenomenological account I mean to emphasize exactly this subjective element. Genesis 1 is a perfect response, in structure and scope, to a man sitting on a hill and staring up at the night sky. (How else could he see the sky but as a great vault above him?) He wonders about the rhythm of day and night, of seasons, of birth and death. He sees the sea in the distance and the forests to the west, he wonders at the distinctions between creatures that fly, creatures that die out of water, that die in water. How can this be?

In other words, I wouldn’t agree with you about myth being static over against history’s dynamism. That seems rather binary. But I would agree that one function of myth is as a stabilizing story in the context of shifting events.

Samicarr’s contribution here was much appreciated. His contention that myth is dead under the weight of modernist scientism is well made. But I would also want to say that in the overwhelming, and rapidly changing world of fantasies and propaganda within which we live, mythic narrative is more appropriate and potentially more potent than ever. Myth is not dead, it is just never allowed to mature, and it can only mature by being lived.

Where you lose me, rather, is in statements like “the Christian standard for history is the historical person, Jesus the Messiah.” I don’t understand what you mean. If you are suggesting that we can exercise critical judgment on texts like Genesis but not on texts about Jesus because ‘Christian’ historicity somehow starts in the New Testament, I wouldn’t agree. Separate Jesus from his Jewish history and Jesus makes no sense. To disconnect Jesus not only from his nation’s history, but from the stories, no matter how mythic, that were formative and normalising in that history, is to make Jesus himself mythic, and our place in his narrative quite imaginary.

Just to be really smart-assed, and with the usual smile, I’d like to agree with your final sentence, but I suspect that what I am really after is for the Kingdom of God to make us a reality!

Re: True Myth and the status quo

Dear Chris,

Thank you for responding to my comment.  It could well be that we are talking about the same thing, but from different perspectives.  If we agree on the Kingdom of God, we can’t be too far apart.

However as you must have sensed I am very concerned and dismayed by the contemporary revival of the myth.  I understand that people are looking for Meaning and Community these days, as am I, but I think that  there is a better way.  I will explain my understanding of Jesus and history after I tell you my problems with myth.

First of all the false religions which opposed Judaism and Christianity were all based on myth, which is a static revelation of the nature of the universe.  Judaism and Christianity are based on covenant, which is a dynamic relational historical concept.  In fact some  have  identified several covenants in the Old Testament (or Covenant.) 

Tradditionally if not exclusively, myth deals with the nature of the universe, while covanent is about relationships between humans.  I would not deride the importance of scientific problems, I believe problems of human relationships, justice, peace, and freedom are more pressing.   

Second, philosophy is based on speculation as you suggested and myth  and it has led us to believe that truth is Absolute.  Since science (the theory of relativity) has undermined this view, people seem to be left with the Hobson’s choice of clinging to a discredited absolutist position or justifying an absurd relativistic view which claims that since no view is true, all views have equal standing.  The only real solution that I can see is the relational position which is based on history. 

Third, if one is to look to the danger of myth, look at Adolph Hitler who was the master of myth and used the old Nordic myths to revive the Germanic nation and give it new purpose and spirit.  I don’t want to compare you or anyone else to Hitler, but as the saying goes, those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

Now to Jesus and history.  I see the gospels as a debate between Jesus and His advesaries as to whether Jesus was the Messiah or not.  They did not believe that He was the Messiah because they did not agree with Him concerning the interpretation of the Law and because He did not lead the Rebellion against the Romans.  Jesus defended His Messiahship by His words, His actions, and His life.  In a real sense everyone must make that determination, Is Jesus the Messiah, yes or no?

Please note that Psalm 2 states that the Messiah is the Son of YHWH.  We Christians usually think that Jesus was the Savior (Messiah) because He was the Son of God, but as I read the Bible, it is the other way around.  

Okay. We believe that Jesus is the Messiah because He fulfilled the Old Covenant Law and the office of the Messiah, as we see with the help of 20/20 hindsight.  Also as the Messiah Jesus set up a New Covenant as the basis of His community or Kingdom, based not on ethnicity or rules, but on faith, forgiveness, love, and the Spirit, right relationship to God and others. 

If the old covenant was to be fulfilled in the Messiah, then we must judge Jesus by this standard.  If He meets this standard, which is the judgment of the New Testament and the Church through the ages, then we need to look at the Old Testament to see how He fulfills this standard.  Does it make any difference whether the universe was created in 6 days, 600 days, or 6 trillion years as to whether Jesus is the Messiah?  No.  Does it make a difference whether humans are created in the image of God?  Yes. 

We can best understand Jesus the Messiah by understanding the Old Testament and vica versa.  If you want to label the New Covenant of Jesus Christ as the True Myth that makes some sense, but the New Covenant is not mythic.  It is based on a historical person, on historical events, and on the OT history of  Israel.  

Genesis lays the framework of meaning for the Bible, which is usually done by myth or speculation.  The genius of Genesis is that this framework of meaning is based on history, the history of God calling humans to be partners in creating a better universe.  The Biblical faith stands or falls on this basic premise.                  

Peace and Joy,


Re: True Myth and the status quo

Whoah there!

I’m only able to give a very quick response now, I’m up to my peepers in a project that has a fixed deadline and is running very late, so only a cursory reply for now.

I tend to write carefully, it is my job. Have a go at reading this thread a little more slowly and you might get a better grip on what I am actually talking about. It doesn’t really have much to do with fitting in with your model (if I am understanding that at all). It might be that your perception of mythic narrative will not allow for an easy understanding of what I am saying - if so we can leave it at that because it’s OK.

You said “philosophy is based on speculation as you suggested and myth and it has led us to believe that truth is Absolute. Since science (the theory of relativity) has undermined this view” Actually, I said nothing like this, and I don’t think these statements bear much scrutiny. Philosophy, based on speculation and myth leads to absolutism? Science leads to relativism? What can I say… this is quite a distinctive approach!

But I do agree with you on the dominant issues of justice and relationship and, presumably, community. These I share.

Relates: you can’t have read me very carefully if you think you are introducing something by mentioning Hitler and myth, take another look above.

I realise that you don’t like myth, and if you feel the need to react like this you must dislike it a lot. But on a quick reading of your post I’d have to say that I’m not sure how well you understand its role as a common form of human narrative that is as present in scripture as anywhere and is nothing to be afraid of.

If I understand you, you seem to be saying that there is only covenantal truth, all else is ‘speculation’. Is this a fair description? This would be, to put it mildly, a rather individual epistemology. But not an uninteresting one.

A more considered response when I get time.

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