Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
April 16th, 2015 by Joel Watts

When I say “myth”

Myth…

This came up recently… When I say myth, I do not mean fiction. Rather, I mean taking our words and talking about things we do not understand. We do this via stories or analogies or whatsoever poetic form this may take. The book to the left has helped convince me of the use of myth in explaining a lot of things.

Most peoples of the ancient world, including Canaanites (and the Romans of New Testament time), viewed the world from the perspective of myth. Contrary to what I have often heard from the pulpit, the term “myth” as used here does not mean “false” or “fiction.” Even in my old and yellowed Webster’s, “fiction” is the third meaning of the word. In its primary and more technical meaning “myth” refers to a story or group of stories that serve to explain how a particular society views their world. The stories of myth often deal with phenomena of the physical world for which the culture does not have an adequate explanation. Or they may deal with human actions and emotions that are potentially valuable or destructive for the community. Myth is a means by which a society can express its collective experience of the world, with the fear, frustration, anxiety, and promise that it holds.- Dennis Bratcher

Speaking the Language of Canaan: The OT and the Israelite Perception of the Physical World.

Prometheus, by Gustave Moreau, tortured on Mou...

Prometheus, by Gustave Moreau, tortured on Mount Caucasus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This guy? Mythic, but maybe not mythic like other things but then again, maybe so. Thoughts?

Joel Watts
Watts holds a MA in Theological Studies from United Theological Seminary. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians, as well as seeking an MA in Clinical Mental Health at Adams State University. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Comments

9 Responses to “When I say “myth””
  1. Agreed. My paper I submitted yesterday included a section on myth and I fall back on Friesen and Caird for understanding conceptions of myth. Mythical/mythological language is a lens that helps makes sense of the world in which the author and audience live (G. B. Caird, The Language and Imagery of the Bible [London: Duckworth Publishing, 1988], 224). Steven Friesen suggests that the reason that myths are familiar is because “they express a particular value or insight that group finds relevant across time” (Friesen, “Myth and Symbolic Resistance in Revelation 13,” JBL 123 [2004]: 285). Myth doesn’t equal fiction, though I would say many myths of antiquity aren’t “true” in terms of certain people/creatures/locales/events/etc existing historically.

  2. “the term “myth” as used here does not mean “false” or “fiction”…
    How appropriate for something I wanted to include on my rant on Masada.
    Of course, this is speculation on my part. But Josephus’ long speech by Eleazar is many pages. Too long for Josephus to get it word-for-word from the two survivors of Masada who hid in the caverns. So it might actually be what Josephus would have liked to hear from Eleazar if he could have recorded it. It may reflect the thoughts of a Jewish aristocrat and general, who surrendered to the Romans and ended up being unsuccessful in getting the rebels to surrender in the temple, thus getting the entire temple destroyed. Then projecting his thoughts on the Masada event a few years later.
    Even more speculation…all of this talk in Eleazar’s speech about “it is this soul which hath one nature, and that an incorruptible one also”, make me wonder if the translator is right in Josephus. I find it hard to believe a throat slitting murderer (Eleazar), or a Jewish ex-Pharisee General (Josephus), were so eloquent that they border on Christian theology here.
    PERHAPS William Whiston in “The Life of Flavius Josephus” is right when he adds in his notes “I take it that Josephus, having been now for many years an Ebionite Christian…”
    Or, Josephus was heavily redacted by Christians after his death.
    So Masada clearly occurred. But heroic, or James Jones wacko slaughter by Sicarii, or a hybrid (Roman/Jewish) story of heroic suicide by a guilt-ridden Josephus sitting in Rome enjoying the good life – who knows? Myth and fiction and reality are hard to separate.

  3. Know More Than I Should says

    While both mythology and science can be wrong in their understanding, only science is equipped to deal with errors in explanations. On the other hand, myth tends to remain unchanged until thoroughly discredited.

    One hidden danger in relying on old dictionaries is meanings of words change as ideas and usage evolve. An obvious example is the word gay. Its definition began changing in the late 19th century.

    Hence, given some of the really stupid notions religious leaders have foisted on the gullible, myth may have fiction — even lies — as its primary definition by the end of the 21st century.

    • Fortunately, while words change, we do not have to allow the continued abuse of the language.

      And, myth doesn’t really remain unchanged. While some are discredited, I cannot think of many that have remained unchanged.

      • Know More Than I Should says

        One person’s abuse is another person’s change. As in other things, this usually occurs when the verbal usage of a younger generation displaces that of their elders. In time, the new meanings make their way into dictionaries; and the world moves on.

  4. Know More Than I Should says

    Another possibility is that mything — as in myth-ing — may become a euphemism for telling tall tales. An example, after hearing one of those big fish stories, the hearer might exclaim, “Oh, you’re just mything me!”

    • Or the guy really likes you, and he just has a lisp.

    • I should be transported to hell for this:
      “An example, after hearing one of those big fish stories,”

      Lucky Jonah didn’t have a lisp. Who knows where he would have ended up?

      “3But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of Jehovah; and he went down to Joppa, and found a ship going to Tarshish: so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it, to go with them unto Tarshish from the presence of Jehovah.”

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