Scripture as Myth: A God Who Comes Alive Again
Myths and archetypes echo across the pages of scripture just as they echo across Hebrew and non-Hebrew cultures. C. S. Lewis has a great deal of wonderful things to say about this—ideas that come together most beautifully and most powerfully in his greatest novel, Till We Have Faces. For now, I will simply relate that, before his conversion, C. S. Lewis was an atheist who loved myth—who loved it because (among other reasons) it evoked in his soul what he calls “sweet longing.” His initial appreciation of Christianity was mythic—as yet another instance of the corn-God who dies and is resurrected in the Spring, bringing renewed life to his peoples. After he came to be persuaded that it was implausible for this powerful story to have been invented in that culture and in that way and in those words, he came to believe in the story of the dying and reviving God of the Bible as fact. But it was not as fact instead of myth—it was as the “myth that became fact.” And he continued to believe and teach that a man might obtain spiritual nourishment from the myth even if he does not believe in the historicity or the doctrine.
It seems to me that C. S. Lewis is right about this, as about most things. I do obtain spiritual nourishment from the myth. There is an energy and joy that I feel at Christmas and Easter that is non-doctrinal, non-rational, but mythic. Divine fingers pluck the same deep soul-strings that sound the keynotes of the stories of Balder, Osiris, and Orpheus.
There is a long tradition in Christianity that the great poets and philosophers of antiquity were inspired demi-prophets, because so many of their stories and teachings anticipate Christianity. This Spirit-as-muse theory is one way to account for the archetypes and myths that transcend cultures. For members of the church, another possibility is that the shadowlands of the mind retain certain memories from our pre-mortal existence—and although the veil of forgetfulness prevents them from rising as memories, the fine-tuned imaginative faculties of the world’s poets still find access to those shadowlands. This possibility, if true, is both exemplified and discussed in Wordsworth’s great Immortality Ode, where he sets forth the doctrine of the pre-mortal existence (in which he did not believe as doctrine) and explores how we still catch gleams and glints of a forgotten world in which the human spirit was more at home—a world that grows more distant as we are carried in the current of time away from the dayspring of birth.
The whole Ode is worth reading and re-reading, but this stanza is perhaps the most obviously pertinent:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting; The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star, Hath had elsewhere its setting And cometh from afar; Not in entire forgetfulness, And not in utter nakedness, But trailing clouds of glory do we come From God, who is our home: Heaven lies about us in our infancy! Shades of the prison-house begin to close Upon the growing Boy, But he beholds the light, and whence it flows, He sees it in his joy; The Youth, who daily farther from the east Must travel, still is Nature’s priest, And by the vision splendid Is on his way attended; At length the Man perceives it die away, And fade into the light of common day.