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by Ken Myers

Sound thinking

A myth which is also a fact

Holly Ordway on the existentially resonant power of myth

by Ken Myers

by Ken Myers

A myth which is also a fact

“What is a myth? The word comes from the Greek mythos, meaning ‘speech, discourse, story.’ In literary terms, myth is not simply a false or discredited belief, although that’s how it’s often used in everyday language, where we hear about ‘debunking’ or ‘busting’ myths. Rather, a myth is a story that deals with the biggest questions of human existence and the most fundamental human experiences. In the broadest sense, myths are narratives that give meaning and order to our lives.

“Taken as a whole, ‘myth’ understood in the literary sense has the following characteristics:

“• It is imaginatively rich, such that the mythic story is productive of further storytelling, drama, art, philosophy, and religious reflection.

“• It features characters whose actions resonate with fundamental human experiences (such as birth, death, sexuality, discovery of identity, journeying); the stories may also touch on big questions such as the creation of the earth and life after death.

“• It can be attributed to no specific original author, though it may be retold by named authors.

“• It is set in a non-historical past or ‘once upon a time’ and does not attempt to link to verifiable historical events.

“Narratives such as the hero’s journey, the descent to the underworld, quests for secret wisdom, or death and resurrection are potent myths, in this sense, because they are resonant with meaning that helps us understand what it means to be human. The meaning conveyed by these myths (or archetypes, as they are sometimes called in literary or psychological terms) is accessible to all readers regardless of whether they share the underlying religious or philosophical beliefs expressed in a particular myth. We need not be ancient Greek or Roman polytheists to find something deeply moving and resonant about Aeneas’s descent into Hades, or Phaeton’s ill-fated adventure.

“The Christian story is not a ‘myth’ in the full sense of the term here: the first two points apply, but the second two do not. However, we can rightly say that Christianity is myth-like (or mythopoeic): it is a story that is profoundly meaningful and imaginatively resonant, addressing the deepest questions of human life. At the same time, while having these mythic qualities, Christianity is also historically and metaphysically true. (It is worth noting that the fourth point does not apply to the book of Genesis, regardless of what view one takes of the timescale or chronology involved. The mode of expression is poetic, but the creation account in Genesis is explicitly connected to, and in context with, historical events recounted later in Genesis and in the rest of Scripture. The scriptural account of creation is presented as part of history, which is entirely different from the creation accounts found in other myths.)

“As C. S. Lewis put it, ‘The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be a myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens — at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences.’ J. R. R. Tolkien makes the same point: ‘The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. . . . But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation.’ We know from the Gospels, the epistles, and Church history that Christ’s life, death, and Resurrection are events that really happened; the fact that they also have mythic resonance comes from the fact that their author is God himself.”

— from Holly Ordway, Tales of Faith: A Guide to Sharing the Gospel Through Literature (Word on Fire Institute, 2022)

Holly Ordway talked about this book on Volume 157 of the Journal.