Nature of Scripture: Part 2: Scripture as Myth

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.

The Inevitability and Potential Benefits of Gender Norms

The world turned upside down, by Israhel van Meckenem the Younger.

James Damore was fired from Google for saying that women are biologically less disposed towards engineering jobs than men. He then sued Google for discrimination against employees who were white, male, or conservative. Let’s take a moment to savor the craziness.

In a saner world, the layers of irony in the whole situation would prompt a serious discussion about gender norms across society. The question would be one of factual inquiry: are women in fact less predisposed to engineering jobs? If so, is the cause biological or something else?

Some (including the paid scientific experts) took the occasion to respectfully disagree with each other. But those phlegmatic conversations have been like the one remaining mobile home in the wake of a tornado. In general, the reactions were “hysterical” (CNN’s Kirsten Powers’ word). Various thoughtful persons across the spectrum deplored the ideological histrionics displayed by most the rest of us (see the excellent Wikipedia article).

A slight majority (55%) disagreed with Google’s decision to fire Damore, according to a Harvard-Harris poll. But that means that 45% did not disagree with it. Many in the 55% majority disagreed with Damore’s opinions about gender dynamics, but still felt he should not have been fired for expressing them at work. But to a full 45% of the polled population, the expression of such views is apparently so heinous that termination is the appropriate response.

Obviously, gender norms are rather unpopular nowadays. And not without reason. I admit that gender norms, mis-conceived or miscarried or related to in mal-adaptive ways, can and do injure people, whether because those people do not conform to the norm or because they do.

But I also submit that a society without gender norms is possible only in theory and that this theoretical society is not the one we should aspire to. Continue reading

The Inevitability of Masturbation and the Honesty of Sin, Featuring Tractors

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There are few topics that mainstream liberal and conservative minds will come to such clearly divergent opinions as masturbation. Most other disagreements between the liberal and the conservative tend to be like ships passing—both right about what they affirm, both passionate, both speaking right past the other. But with masturbation the argument seem to be more straightforward. As such, it is seldom actually argued. For once people have begun to argue they will almost immediately reach an impasse. From one perspective it is permissible, enjoyable, even healthy and from the other it is sinful, self-serving, and destructive.

The facts are straightforward and mostly agreed upon. Sexual impulses are natural for most people and mostly unavoidable. Sexual impulses, if followed, can lead to very positive results, minor results, and dramatically negative results. And so some of our sexual impulses must be restrained when they will damage ourselves or others. But the line between what is good and wholesome and what is destructive is drawn on opposite sides of masturbation by the traditionally liberal and the conservative opinions.

Whether or not masturbation has negative effects or positive effects is debated but the more fundamental question is whether or not it is avoidable. There may be negative effects of drinking unfiltered water from a river, but that becomes irrelevant when you are lost in the mountains and about to perish from thirst. You’re going to drink. And you should. If masturbation is avoidable, then we must debate whether it is constructive or destructive. But if it is unavoidable, the merits become mostly irrelevant. It will happen. Continue reading

In Defense of Dogmatism

Amazon’s “look inside” feature has preserved intact a perfect little essay from the book, “Things That Are,” by Amy Leach. I have met Amy Leach–I even hiked in Provo’s beautiful Rock Canyon with her, her husband, and my personal essay class, courtesy of Patrick McMadden, my essay teacher, who I think was involved in getting her to come out to BYU and read from her book during BYU’s Friday Reading Series. If you will follow the above link, use the “look inside” feature, and search the word “hoopoe,” you will find a complete, lovely, and very short essay titled “God.”

In this essay, Amy Leach points out that men take the name of God in their mouths, but they do not speak God’s words. “They say it pleases him, to say his name incessantly. They sing it in songs and chant it together and broadcast it loudly on the radio, on signs. Perhaps it pleases him. I do not know. It does not please me.”

These iterations of his name are totally different from his words. God’s words, according to this essay, are his creatures, who “mount up with wings or leap through brambles or swim blackly in ponds.”

I find this essay utterly charming, like the rest of the book, but I also find something lacking in the treatment of how men speak God’s name. Continue reading

The Delusions and the Truth of Romance

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photo credit: http://www.powerofpositivity.com/soulmate-relationship-signs/

Too many people seek lasting happiness and fulfillment in romantic love, where it is not to be found.

What romantic love offers is agitation, desire, a fevered preoccupation with the object of love, the blithe contemplation of an other. There is beauty and there is truth to be found in romantic love, but no lasting happiness or fulfillment. That “happily ever after” is to be found in romantic love is the first of its delusions.

Yet there is something undeniably beautiful about two souls waltzing in a private heaven, loving and being loved. But one falls when one waltzes in heaven. Romance either lands on the earth of daily life or it combusts in tragedy. By the “earth of daily life” I mean mainly marriage or the modern forms of pseudo-marriage. The only realistic alternative to these is some form of tragedy–breaking up or dying or in some other way being separated. These melancholy obstacles to consummation are the only way to prevent romance from descending into the soil. And that is why romantic novels and movies inevitably end shortly after consummation (traditionally, marriage). The last scene may be the wedding; or the story may play out just long enough to witness the tragic pre- or post-consummation death of one or both lovers (as, e.g., Tristan and Isolde or Romeo and Juliet). Continue reading

The Inconvenience of Belief

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Increasingly religious beliefs are being classified as self-deception or a means to justify prejudice. Not too long ago, a couple who had chosen to wait until marriage would have been respected even by those who did not share the religious conviction. But if you had the opportunity to listen to some of the professors at NC State talk about it, you would quickly realize that they believe anyone who advocates for abstinence until marriage must be misinformed, ignorant, or oppressed. In the minds of modern skeptics, religious conviction lacks the necessary conditions from which belief is justifiably built.

From their perspective, adequate proof must exist prior to belief and beliefs must always exist in proportion to the evidence. Religious belief in their minds does not fit this criteria. Instead, religious belief requires no experimentation, changes from person to person, and is made up by the imaginations of people who are picking out what things they’d want to be true. It is like children who play house with none of the inconvenience of actually collecting an income, paying taxes, or mowing the lawn.

And so it is no wonder that skeptics who see religious belief in this way would look upon it with some, if not a great deal, of disdain. Of course, they are right that religious belief is a very different thing from what I most commonly hear called “scientific belief.” But they get two things wrong by categorizing belief in this way. Continue reading