Christianity - The Myth that Is True
I was recently reminded of the concept that JRR Tolkien (Lord of the Rings author) once articulated. Every religion, every myth, has a certain metaphorical beauty to it. The Roman gods controlled and ordained the seas (Neptune), poetry and music (Apollo), love (Venus), and fortune/luck (Fortuna). In each story of every god, the person looking for it can find parallels to Christ. The Babylonians and Egyptians had their myths as well. And these myths included some parallels to Christ. Gods that rose from the dead (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus). Gods that had miraculous signs. Gods that walked among men.
Now, these parallels are often exaggerated. Goofballs like Bill Maher have made whole movies claiming that this proves that Christ's story was simply made up. But given the Jewish context for the gospel narratives, the fact that no myth matches Jesus' story very well, and the fact that the gospels were all written within 60 years of his crucifixion, it is highly doubtful that Maher's conspiracy theory holds much water. Even the most secular academics tend to laugh at such talk.
But the truth remains that there is something that feels mythic about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Myths are stories that explain and give meaning to life. They are big stories that shape societies that hold to them. And Jesus's story has this feel. And it has very much had this effect. Our society has been shaped by his story.
The mythic quality of Jesus' story bothered C.S. Lewis. Lewis was a lover of old myths and once wondered why Jesus' story, for all its beauty and power, should not be classified as such. How his myth should be thought of any differently than that of Mithra or Bacchus. But Tolkien had the perfect answer for Lewis.
" 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." (Essential CS Lewis, pg 56)
The myth that really happened. What were they talking about? Well, think of this. The idea that all humans realize that there is something wrong with this world. We tell stories to try to explain it. We paint pictures with words to somehow try to capture the ineffable. Gods have always served that role. Humans knowing there is something more than themselves and explaining this something the the language of divine interactions with humans. But what if in these longings and hopes told through stories, there was a true object of hope? What if in all these fanciful ideas of what this world was about, there was a vein of truth?
Scripture says that somehow God is made known to all. What if in all these myths there was buried an imperfect and flawed - through a glass darkly - sort of image of the true God?
When Jesus stepped into the world, he stepped as the fulfillment of whatever hope was contained in those myths. What humans had long tried to capture in myth was made incarnate in Jesus. The Divine that formed each heart, stepped in as the Living Myth. A True Myth. Working in the same way as other myths (shaping societies, fascinating our religious sensibilities, and directing our hopes) but, as Lewis says, "with this tremendous difference.... that it really happened."
Jesus Christ, unlike all myths, was a real person in history. The gospels, whether you believe them or not, were not written as myths but as biographies. CS Lewis says that with all his reading of myths he recognizes a distinct difference in the gospels. One that is fixed in history. Jesus was born under Augustus Caesar. He lived under King Herod. He died under Pontius Pilate. His family was... he lived.... etc etc. All historical claims tied to real people in space and time. No myth is like this. It is like a history of a myth. A historical myth.
A myth that is true.