Is Genesis a myth? Ever since George Smith discovered and published the ancient Babylonian creation story, Enuma Elish, in 1876, theologians, biblical scholars and informed laypeople have been aware of the fact that the book of Genesis was not written in a literary or cultural vacuum. As other ancient Near Eastern creation stories have been brought to light we have come to know a lot more about the intellectual, cultural, theological, and literary milieu within which Genesis was written, giving us an unprecedented opportunity to assess just what sort of text Genesis is. What is Genesis’s genre and how ought we to read it if we are to do so responsibly?
The majority report among mainline biblical scholars is that the ancient texts which Genesis 1-3 resembles most are ancient Near Eastern creation myths, an observation which suggests that that is probably the best way to read Genesis, as well. In fact, most mainstream biblical scholarship today would understand Genesis to be an Israelite revision or version of prior mythical creation stories. For many Christians this has been a tough pill to swallow, and it’s not hard to understand why.
In my last two posts I have been looking at the way C.S. Lewis thought about Scripture in general. First, I looked at how Lewis thought we should approach the whole question of just what sort of Book it is that God has given us. Second, I looked at the way Lewis thinks God has given His Book to us. The question I want to ask today is this: What did C.S. Lewis think specifically about the genre of Genesis? Is it myth or history or science or what? How should we read it? Is it inspired, and, if so, how so? Has the dean of modern Christian apologists any insight to offer us as we think through these nettlesome issues?
Lewis directly addresses these questions in chapter XI of his book Reflections on the Psalms. He begins by dispelling the mis-perception that he believes “that every sentence of the Old Testament has historical scientific truth.” On the contrary, says Lewis, “[This] I do not hold, any more than St. Jerome did when he said that Moses described Creation ‘after the manner of a popular poet’ (as we should say, mythically) or than Calvin did when he doubted whether the story of Job were history or fiction.” Lewis is doing two things here: First, he is staking out his own position as a critically informed interpreter of Scripture, and, second, pointing out precedents for his approach in the grand Christian tradition, namely Saint Jerome and John Calvin. Lewis is too well read to fall into the all too common misconception that all Christians were wholesale biblical literalists before the dawn of the Modern era. Figurative readings of Genesis are not always modern Christian capitulations to Darwin but are, in fact, well represented among the best of the Church’s historic interpretive traditions.
But there’s more. Lewis has also begun to tip his own hand on his view of the genre of Genesis’s Creation narratives here. Saint Jerome, he points out, sees them as composed “after the manner of a popular poet,” which according to Lewis translates into modern scholarly parlance as “mythically.” For Lewis, this presents no problem. Nor is it a problem if Genesis’s Creation story is “derived” in some sense from earlier accounts. I cannot help quoting him at length here:
I have therefore no difficulty in accepting, say, the view of those scholars who tell us that the account of Creation in Genesis is derived from earlier Semitic stories which were Pagan and mythical. We must of course be quite clear what “derived from” means. Stories do not reproduce their species like mice. They are told by men. each re-teller either repeats exactly what his predecessor had told him or else changes it. He may change it unknowingly or deliberately. If he changes it deliberately, his invention, his sense of form, his ethics, his ideas of what is fit, or edifying, or merely interesting, all come in. If unknowingly, then his unconscious (which is so largely responsible for our forgettings) has been at work. Thus at every step in what is called–a little misleadingly–the “evolution” of a story, a man, all he is and all his attitudes, are involved. And no good work is done anywhere without aid from the Father of Lights. When a series of such re-tellings turns a creation story which at first had almost no religious or metaphysical significance into a story which achieves the idea of true Creation and of a transcendent Creator (as Genesis does), then nothing will make me believe that some of the re-tellers, or some one of them, has not been guided by God.
For Lewis, “myth” is not a bad word. It does not necessarily carry connotations of falsehood or contrivance or deception or muddleheadedness. For Lewis myth is a highly imaginative way of speaking about the world that can speak truth at least as well as history or science can (and, indeed, can speak truths about which history and science must remain silent). For Lewis, “myth” does not automatically mean false.
This fits well with Lewis’s incarnational or sacramental understanding of Scripture wherein God “takes up” human literature, blessing, shaping, and sanctifying it for His own mysterious redemptive purposes. He writes:
Thus something originally merely natural–the kind of myth that is found among most nations–will have been raised by God above itself, qualified by Him and compelled by Him to serve purposes which of itself it would not have served.
It would be a mistake to think that Lewis had simply capitulated to the Spirit of the Age or to Darwin. He hadn’t. Lewis was, in fact, somewhat skeptical about Evolution, and was an ardent defender of traditional Christianity. But he was also a professor of literature, a man trained in the reading, understanding, and appreciation of texts, and his literary instincts, given the available evidence, led him to the conclusion not only that Genesis was myth but also that that was perfectly fine. He knew that figurative readings of Genesis were well represented in the grand tradition of the Church and took the deliverances of modern biblical scholarship to be not a betrayal but a refinement of that tradition.
This is not to say that Lewis is obviously right about these matters. But it is helpful to know not only that the 20th century’s brightest defender of the faith was undaunted by these questions, but also that there are more robust theological alternatives available to us than the tinny contemporary debates around Genesis and science and “Creationism” and the like would lead one to believe.