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C.S. Lewis on the Bible: Myth, Truth, Fact, and Genesis

If Genesis’s creation stories are mythological, does that mean that the whole Bible is just a myth?  And if Genesis’s early chapters are myth, doesn’t that mean that they are false?  As I showed in my last post in this series, C.S. Lewis thought that, strictly speaking, Genesis’s creation accounts were, in fact, ancient myths which God had “taken up” for His own mysterious, redemptive purposes.  (You can read about Lewis’s sacramental and incarnational view of Scripture here and here.)   As I said in that last post, for Lewis, “myth” was not a bad word, nor did it connote falsehood.  In fact, says Lewis, “Even assuming (which I most constantly deny) that the doctrines of historic Christianity are merely mythical, it is the myth which is the vital and nourishing element in the whole concern.”  What on earth can he mean by saying that?  Today I would like to take a look at just how Lewis saw myth, truth, and fact fitting together, both to avoid misunderstanding him and in order to better understand what is at issue when we ask whether Genesis might be “myth.”

Lewis addresses these issues in several places, but perhaps his clearest exposition of his view of myth is to be found in his short piece, “Myth Became Fact,” which you can find in his book of essays, God in the Dock.  Lewis argues that, far from being inevitably false, myth is uniquely able to articulate abstract truths in concrete terms.  “In the enjoyment of a great myth,” he writes, “we come nearest to experiencing as a concrete what can otherwise be understood only as an abstraction.”  In our usual experience, abstract truths and concrete experiences are quite opposed to one another:

Human intellect is incurably abstract.  Pure mathematics is the type of successful thought.   Yet the only realities we experience are concrete–this pain, this pleasure, this dog, this man.  While we are loving the mean, bearing the pain, enjoying the pleasure, we are not intellectually apprehending Pleasure, Pain, or Personality.  When we begin to do so, on the other hand, the concrete realities sink to the level of mere instances or examples: we are no longer dealing with them, but with that which they exemplify.  This is our dilemma–either to taste and not to know or to know and not to taste–or, more strictly, to lack one kind of knowledge because we are in an experience or to lack another kind because we are outside it.

Abstract truths are not true as historical truths are.  Two plus two did not equal four in a particular place and time, or because of a particular set of socio-political circumstances.  Two plus two equals four in all places and times.

Narcissus by Caravaggio (Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome)

But there are other abstract truths and concepts besides necessary logical and mathematical ones which similarly transcend space and time, like Personality, or Pain, or Justice, and these, according to Lewis, can often best be illuminated and communicated by means of mythology.  “In the enjoyment of a great myth,” says Lewis, “we come nearest to experiencing as a concrete what can otherwise be understood only as an abstraction.”  Take, for instance, the phenomenon or concept of Narcissism.  We may describe Narcissism in two basic ways, mythically or conceptually.  The myth of Narcissus, classically set out by Ovid in book III of his Metamorphoses, is well known.  A famously handsome hunter, Narcissus, is led by his enemy to a still pool of water where Narcissus catches sight of and falls deeply in love with his own reflection.  Unable to pull himself away from the beautiful countenance looking longingly up at him from the pool, eventually there Narcissus dies.  There is Narcissism in a nutshell.  Compare the myth of Narcissus, however, with the definition of Narcissism found in Webster’s Dictionary:

nar·cis·sism noun \ˈnär-sə-ˌsi-zəm\ 
1: egoismegocentrism
2: love of or sexual desire for one’s own body
 

Now, clearly, if one were to propose the above dictionary definition as the meaning of the myth of Narcissus, there would be a way in which such a proposal would not be completely off-base.  But, still, to flatten the myth into a dictionary definition is inevitably an impoverishment, and, clearly, if one wants to really get a handle on what Narcissism is, the myth beats the dictionary, hands down.  Lewis writes:

[When reading a myth you] are not looking for an abstract ‘meaning’ at all.  If that was what you were doing the myth would be for you no true myth but a mere allegory.  You were not knowing, but tasting; but what you were tasting turns out to be a universal principle.  The moment we state this principle, we are admittedly back in the world of abstraction.  It is only while receiving the myth as a story that you experience the principle concretely.

To really taste abstract realities, one needs myths, not definitions, abstract theological accounts, or philosophical expositions.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, "Adam and Eve" (1533)

So what follows from this for our understanding of what Lewis means when he says that Genesis 1-3 is myth? Two things are clear: First, Lewis is not using the word “myth” as a loose term of opprobrium, connoting falsehood or silliness or any such thing.  Rather, he means by “myth” a very specific literary genre, which he takes to be the genre of the stories of Orpheus and Eurydice, of Narcissus and the pool, of Icarus and Daedalus, and also of Adam and Eve.  He comes to this conclusion primarily on literary grounds, reading the texts in their contexts and on their own terms.  When he takes that same literary critical approach to the rest of Scripture, he finds not a book of nothing but mythology, but a book packed with a kaleidoscopic variety of genres: epics, chronicles, psalms, proverbs, hymns, poems, apocalyptic visions, Greco-Roman biographies, histories, epistles, and more.  So, to answer our initial question, no, there is no reason whatsoever to think that if Lewis takes Genesis to be myth, he is on a slippery slope towards taking the whole Bible to be myth as well.  That’s a stupid argument and people need to stop making it, whether they agree with Lewis or not.

Second, it is clear, too, that for Lewis  good myths put us in touch with abstract reality in a way that neither abstract definitions nor historical anecdotes can.  Good myths really do illuminate and convey realities and are, in that sense, true, even though that which they narrate never occurred in space and time; that which they narrate is not Fact, per se.  Myths are true not if what they narrate happened, but if what they narrate happens all the time.  The truth of Genesis 1 and 2-3, then, lies not with their historicity or scientific accuracy, but with their ability to help us to taste the bittersweet human condition as both akin to and estranged from God and to see the world as it is, as God’s good handiwork and cosmic cathedral. So, then, for Lewis, one need not assess or defend the historicity of these stories, but only to receive them as they are and to taste and see that the Word of God is, indeed, good.

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Discussion

11 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis on the Bible: Myth, Truth, Fact, and Genesis

  1. You are such a smarty! I love the way you really dug into it all.

    Posted by momentumofjoy | March 23, 2012, 3:45 pm
  2. Thanks for this Lewis reminder! I think it was Joseph Campbell who said, “A myth is something that never happened but is always true.”

    Posted by nanbush | March 23, 2012, 8:32 pm
    • You are most welcome, Nan! It’s always a pleasure to put a little more Lewis in everyone’s diet. And thanks for the Campbell quote. That is a very helpful way of putting it.

      Posted by dmwilliams83 | March 24, 2012, 1:36 am
  3. That slope seems pretty slippery to me because the people of Genesis 3 are referred to as factual people in the rest of the Bible and not as truthful ideas. It’s hard to deal with the 4th Commandment also. Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy … For in six days, the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea and all that in them is….

    Posted by David Mullins | April 11, 2012, 3:10 am
    • Thanks for commenting, David. We should always bear in mind that slippery slope arguments are fallacious. To your point on later references to Adam and Eve, I would heartily recommend to you Peter Enns’ book The Evolution of Adam.

      As to the fourth commandment reference to the days of creation, not all references have literalistic readings behind them. Hebrews 4 seems to speak of God’s seventh day as being an ongoing reality into which Christians enter (i.e., not a literal 24 hour period of time).

      Posted by dmwilliams83 | April 11, 2012, 12:09 pm
  4. so would an abstact theolgical idea of Jesus also lead to the idea of a histoical Jesus?

    Posted by thebiblereader | April 16, 2012, 3:09 am
  5. I ask only because of the statements…[When reading a myth you] are not looking for an abstract ‘meaning’ at all. If that was what you were doing the myth would be for you no true myth but a mere allegory. You were not knowing, but tasting; but what you were tasting turns out to be a universal principle. The moment we state this principle, we are admittedly back in the world of abstraction. It is only while receiving the myth as a story that you experience the principle concretely.

    To really taste abstract realities, one needs myths, not definitions, abstract theological accounts, or philosophical expositions.

    abstract truths are not true as historical truths are. Two plus two did not equal four in a particular place and time, or because of a particular set of socio-political circumstances. Two plus two equals four in all places and times.

    So is Jesus another abstact truth? Are the Gospels also considered an abstract truth?

    Posted by thebiblereader | April 16, 2012, 3:12 am
    • Hmmm….I think there are a lot of things tangled up in your question. Just in terms of literary genre, the Gospels are not myths, but are basically Greco-Roman biographies (Bioi/Vitae) and, as such, are designed to narrate the story of a historical personage, in this case Jesus of Nazareth. So the Gospels, like other Bioi/Vitae, were fundamentally about historical people, places, and events, and, as such, are not myths in the way that Gen 1-11 is. This is a pretty straightforward literary judgment. Now, there are abstract truths IN the Gospels (e.g., John 1:1-5; many of Jesus’ parables, etc.), but the Gospels themselves are designed to communicate more than just abstractions. And the “more” that they are designed to communicate is the historic person of Jesus Christ. Long story short, saying that Genesis 1-11 is “myth” does not in any way put one on a slippery slope towards denying the historicity of Jesus.

      Lewis says some more interesting things on this score in his essay, “Myth Became Fact,” but I had better leave that for another post.

      Blessings!

      Posted by dmwilliams83 | April 16, 2012, 12:36 pm

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NCSU Graduate Christian Fellowship

Hi! I'm David, the campus minister for InterVarsity's graduate and faculty ministries at NC State and Meredith College. I hope you'll join me as I learn to "practice resurrection" in the City of Oaks, in her universities, and in the wider world. You can contact me at dmwilliams83@gmail.com

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