Faith and Mythology

Continuing on from the Faith and Science class in Sunday school, these are my notes on Faith and Mythology:

Coming soon--Faith and Magic (the plagues of Egypt and the Red Sea Crossing)!

Faith and Mythology
Myths and legends do seem to underly a lot of different faiths...
  • Greek and Roman gods
  • Babylonian legends
  • Norse sagas
  • Native American tales
  • Stories of Hindu gods and goddesses
Of course, there's a sense in which we insult our neighbor's faith by calling their stories myths, especially if we're going to complain that our own tales aren't mythological. Even claiming to know what gods, or how many gods, our neighbors believe in can say more about what we don't know than about what they do. A Hindu friend explained online that she believed, just as I do, in only one god; she added that since god is beyond human comprehension, the best way to explain god's relationship with mere mortals is through stories. I don't know if this is common Hindu belief. I do know it means I can't go round claiming to know what other people believe.

Christian Mythology?
Assuming for the moment that we don’t think the Bible is a myth, are there any Christian or Jewish myths out there?
  • Three kings, or an unspecified number of wise men?
  • Dank dark stable, or the stable area of a house of hospitable relatives? (I’ve seen things written by Messianic Jews suggesting that no-one would try to find room in an inn unless the houses were full. If inns and houses were both full, you’d be invited to live in the stable area—like a very clean garage with no wall between it and the house.)
  • Paul doesn’t like women, even though he frequently praises women with authority?
  • Jewish myths—midrashim (These were written down later that the earliest Bible books, but they include a list of miracles that the Messiah would perform; a story about the angel of death coming to talk with Moses; and the gradual change of Satan from God’s chancellor, to the accuser of men in God’s court, to the tormentor of men as we see him today.)
Basic Human Mythology
I’ve read that all cultures have a “basic human need” to “make sense” of things, and we do it through story—I suspect C.S. Lewis might call it an example of our “God-shaped hole” and remind us that in God, the stories are true and make sense. So we end up with myths covering all the obvious questions and human needs:
  • Creation myths—how did we get here? We’ve got to write a story about that.
  • Flood myths—natural disasters, earth-shattering changes: we want them not to be pointless.
  • Hero myths—give us hope in the face of feeling powerless.
  • God as man myths—answer our need to feel we matter… And we have the ultimate God-as-man story in Jesus.
Where does Christianity fit in?
What makes Christians so sure Christianity’s not a myth? How do we answer someone who says the Bible’s just the cultural myth you grew up with?
  • People convert to Christianity? Yes, but they convert from it too.
  • There’s got to be a reason Christianity spread round the world. Okay, but Islam's spreading.
  • Jesus is a real historical person. But that doesn’t prove he’s God.
  • I know the Bible’s true. But my non-Christian neighbor is just as convinced it’s not.
  • The stories don’t sound like myths. That’s because I’m looking for evidence that they’re not. Other people’s stories may not sound like myths if they interpret them right either.
What makes something "sound like a myth" anyway?
  • Unbelievable monsters? What about Nephilim and giants in the Bible?
  • Gods that look "weird". Maybe they only look “weird” because God is beyond our comprehension. And our God seems to do some pretty weird things when non-believesr read the stories.
  • Human beings that become Gods, like divine emperors or demi-god heroes. But ancient religions didn’t pretend the emperors were inherently divine. They just became divine as a reward of office—and the Bible says we all inherit eternal life, so we’re all “divine” in that sense.
  • Things that can't be explained by science? You probably know by now, I think the Bible stands up pretty well to modern science, but not all Christians do.
  • Something that's provably false? But there are inconsistencies in the Bible, names that change, lists that have names repeated in a different book... Are they probably false?
  • Things that are deceptively false? Not that anyone expects us to believe in the gods of Mount Olympus these days, but people who spread the original story were trying to convey it as true. And people who talk about the Bible also hope to convey it's true.
  • Events that are too convenient? Too unlikely? Or else we explain them by saying "God did it."
  • Things that don't ring true to someone who has the right sort of knowledge--that seem less true the more we find out about them. Personally, I think the Bible rings more true the more I learn. But you have to ready to ask lots of questions and "test" it to come to that belief.
Testing the Bible against myths

Tthere are people who've done lots of serious studies of myths and legends (and the Bible). They look for similarities between myths then track how tribes and peoples travelled through the stories they left behind. If they find similar stories in different places, they can deduce that one culture “borrowed” the story from another and built on it. They might say, for example, that the Bible builds on Babylonian myths because it includes stories that are paralleled in much older records of Babylonian legends. A logical conclusion might be that the Bible was "invented" and written during the exile in Babylon. Of course, the Babylonian records might be older just because the Babylonians learned to write long before the Hebrew shepherds did. But how might we "prove" (or at least justify believing) that.

Reading lots of mythology as a kid (I'd discovered the mythology section of the library was labelled non-fiction), I soon came to the conclusion that Bible stories are boring. Why didn’t God hire better writers? Of course, what I was missing was that most of these stories I was reading were retellings, not translations of the original. As language gets richer, the retelling becomes more colorful. If I “retell” a Bible story (and I do—Genesis People, Exodus Tales, Storyteller Psalms…), I’ll give you details that aren’t really there. I try to make readers relate and ask questions and make the story their own—that’s the way I write. But what if people don’t write—what if, like the Hebrew shepherds of old, they’re keeping sacred traditions alive with stories round the campfire? There are basically two ways they might have used to tell those tales:
  • My way, with lots of imagination and extra details—the story grows with the telling, or
  • The religious way, with lots of recitation and nobody dares change a thing.
Which way do you think the ancient Hebrews would have passed on their stories? And the Babylonians? Hence the rather boring Bible, and the exciting chronicles of Gilgamesh.

Testing the Bible against Creation Myths
I said the Bible story of creation stood up pretty well to science. What about other creation stories? How do they stand up?

For a start, there are a lot of similarities between creation stories. Have you ever wondered why 7-day weeks are so prevalent? Can it really because of the Biblical creation story, even though the names of the days are quite consistently non-Jewish? In fact, many (but not all) cultures made seven a symbolic number—it divides the lunar 28-day month into four manageable units; it accounts for the seven “visible” heavenly wanderers among the stars (sun, moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter), hence Greek and Roman gods, etc… So there’s going to be lots of sevens in creation myths. But what other things will we find?
  • World parent myths: God as father, or two gods as father and mother: The Bible tells us we are God’s children. Other stories tell of the earth and sky as two parents, or of a divine midwife overseeing creation. Sometimes an "oldest" god is born from an egg, or golden womb; the eggs breaks in two, half becoming earth, the other half sky; then the god's body parts become the different living things of the earth. Sometimes two gods are born. Sometimes god's children and demi-gods and they each create and procreate.
  • Creation out of nothing / out of chaos: This isn't just a Judeo-Christian idea. In Ancient Egypt, the world was believed to come out of a lifeless sea of chaos when the first sun rose; first to appear was a pyramid. Different versions accentuated different gods. (Of course, the Bible often uses a sea to represent chaos, see Revelation). Indian scriptures include a creation hymn that sounds very similar to the Bible—“not the non-existent existed, not did the existent exist…” is one translation. Existence grows from heat, and desire is the primal seed. Animist faiths have similar tales.
  • A Built world: The Bible incorporates this idea in man formed out of dust. Scandinavian mythology builds things from a pre-existing world egg or world tree. Other myths have the broken parts of god forming the parts of the world--examples of God’s sacrificial love perhaps?
Noah's Flood
The Bible's story of Noah's flood is one of those stories repeated in many world mythologies that non-Christians declare just can't be true. Of course, many of our assumptions about the story are based more on tradition than on reading the Bible--perhaps examples of Christian mythology--but how does the real Bible story stand up to the world's objections?
  • There’s not and never has been enough water to cover the whole earth. True, but typically, whole earth means whole of the known earth, and that can and does become flooded.
  • Rain wouldn’t cause the water-level to rise so fast. True, but the Bible doesn’t say the rain came first; if you read it, it might even be saying the floods rose up first.
  • You couldn’t fit two of every animal on one ship. True, but you could, and probably would, do everything you could to save breeding pairs of whatever flocks you kept. And all animals of the earth might be just as "local" a term as "the whole world."
  • If there were only two of each animal, what if one died? The Bible story reads like two combined accounts, one of which says seven pairs of clean animals, rather than one, were taken—it’s easy to imagine the original injunction might have been to take "enough."
  • There must have been rainbows before the flood. The Bible doesn’t say God made the rainbow then; it says he set it in the sky—i.e. he pointed to one particular rainbow and said “Look at it,” and made rainbows a sign.
  • A good God wouldn’t kill people: But perhaps the wonder is more that anyone survived—the Bible says Noah was the only one still listening to God’s warnings, so perhaps it's a story of man refusing to let God save him, rather than of God destroying man.
There are actually some surprisingly rich details in the Bible story. After the ark lands, Noah is told not to eat flesh with its blood in it—an invaluable warning not to eat floodkill. And the first record of drunkenness occurs soon after the ark comes to land—it’s not impossible that grapes stored in barrels on the ark were the first fruit to naturally ferment instead of going off

The Babylonian Flood

Of course, the Babylonians had a flood story too. In fact, just like in Genesis, the flood and creation are told in the same book. Here's some highlights.
  • A snake steals a magical plant that can restore health--Tree of Life perhaps?
  • Innocence is associated with nakedness, lost when wisdom is attained. In Gilgamesh, unlike the Bible, this is an achievement rather than a failure.
  • The Flood is caused by divine anger.
  • A god gives warnings that the flood is coming and tells the hero how to build a boat. (This happens in the Hindu story too—Vishnu becomes a fish and tells Manu to build a boat.)
  • The Hero carries hisfamily and animals on the boat.
  • Three birds are released to check if the flood’s subsiding. (Three, like the sides of a triangle, represents divine certainty.)
  • After the flood, the boat is left on top of a mountain--a logical place
  • A Rainbow appears in the sky (in this case as a result of a goddess throwing her diamond necklace there).
Which story sounds more “mythological,” and which has the unexpected details that make it sound true?

A Scientific Flood
For me, it would all be more convincing if we could find some evidence for the flood. And, of course, we can.
  • Civilization is thought to have centered around the Black Sea plain in pre-history—a warm place, cut off from the Mediterranean as it froze (during a mini-ice age), with a river flowing eastwards away from the Mediterranean. Farming could well have spread through many cultures from here.
  • Global climate change (warming) at the end of the mini-ice age would cause the Med to rise till it flooded over the Straits of Bosporus. There’s evidence of farming below the Black Sea--farms taht were completely flooded in the space of less than a year (around 5600BC). The straits still have a sub-current flowing away from the Med at the bottom, lingering evidence that the river used to flow in the opposite direction.
Sodom and Gomorrah
The Bible stories get more “interesting” or more complex at time goes on. Have you ever noticed how much more detail there is in the stories of Abraham, and even more when we get up to Joseph. It could be symptomatic of language becoming richer. But the next story I want to look at is another “angry God” story—Sodom and Gomorrah. It's another favorite of those who want to prove the Bible false, or imply that God is evil. Here's a few details to ground the story:
  • A simple reading says God destroys the people because they were bad. Allowing for more complex emotions than simple language can convey, perhaps the destruction was inevitable--a natural disaster in the making--and God stopped protecting the people because they won’t listen, just like Noah’s compatriots.
  • Lot doesn’t sound like a very nice guy, offering his daughters to rapists and sort-of raping them minself later. But maybe God’s not saving him for being a nice guy. Maybe he’s saving him because Abram prayed, and prayer makes a difference. Maybe even those who don't listen to God can be saved.
  • The Sodomites sound very unpleasant, but rather similar cultural un-niceties are described in the time of the Judges (honest, they are!). It wasn’t such unlikely behavior at the time.
  • Where did the fire come from? In an earlier passage where Abram rescues Lot and the five kings, the Bible says there are bitumen pits nearby. And bitumen pits means possible volcanic activity. In fact, archeologists have found a string of five city ruins along the Dead Sea--cities that were destroyed by fire landing on the rooftops. There’s even a small city that might have almost survived, just as Lot requested.
  • What about pillars of salt? The Bible doesn’t say Lot watched his wife changed. As an account of what happened, written by human beings, maybe the writer's just saying that when Lot went back to look, all he could find that looked like his wife was a pillar of salt. The plain, after the volcanic eruption, was and still is dotted with salt pillars, which do indeed look like people.
Beyond Genesis
It all gets even more exciting when you look at Exodus and the history and science behind it, but I’ll deal with that when I give my next talk, on Faith and Magic. Meanwhile...

The Bible says we should have an answer when someone challenges our belief. It doesn’t say we should expect to convince them we’re right—only God can do that. But I do think it’s important to be willing to look for answers, to know the Bible can take whatever questions we throw at it, and to recognize that learning more won’t put our faith in danger. That way we can point our neighbors confidently towards God's Word in the Bible (instead of defensively). We can invite them to read for themselves in the hopes that sometime, somehow, God will make them listen. And, most importantly, we can avoid pointing them away from God’s word by making it sound weak and meaningless. Meanwhile let’s remember, God saved Lot in answer to prayer; he saved Noah’s family even though only Noah trusted Him. So, even though we can't convince anyone, we can and do pray.

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