Welcome to the sixth post in the series that I am doing about mythology and the bible.
I am not attempting to read the stories of the bible in their theological, historical, scientific, or literary contexts. I am interested in the way they function for particular audiences, making this a rhetorical project.
Let’s recap where we have been thus far:
The first week I introduced the series, explained my caveats and intentions, and justified my theoretical approach. I explained that I didn’t care about the historical and scientific locations of the texts we would read and that I would probably turn this series into a paper. I also said I would rely on the work of Bettleheim, Tolkien, and Campbell.
The second week I backtracked a bit and explained my perspective on the bible, myth, and truth. I attempted to place myself in a specific historical, social, religious, and academic space from which to discuss mythology and the bible.
The third week I explained how the story of Samson—while a legend for Ancient Israel—has become a fairytale for our children. I then applied Tolkien’s fairystory canons to the text and determined that the story of Samson has all of the elements of a fairytale.
The fourth week I explained that while the parables of Jesus are actually parables for his original audience, they have been ripped from a specific culture and historical location, passed through a theological and moral grid, and come out as fables for our children.
The fifth week I branched out from my assumed audience of twenty-first century children to a discussion of many post-biblical audiences. I argued that much of the bible has functioned as legend (stories that justify/explain the status quo), often in cruel and oppressive ways. I focused on the crusades, Manifest Destiny, and zionism.
This series has proved fruitful. I have drafted an abstract for a paper I am going to write based on the ideas advanced in this series. I intend that paper to become an article I can submit for publication somewhere, but for now it is going to be my term paper for my Mythology class. Additionally, I changed the topic that I am leading my Mythology class in from incest motifs and The Children of Hurin to fairytales and the bible. Our focus will be on Samson, so that’s pretty cool.
Thus, after today, I am going to write one more post for the series. This week will be a sketch of the way that aspects of the bible can function as myth (concerned with origins and endings) for a modern audience. My last post, next week, will sketch some implications for turning the bible into a contemporary mythology replete with fairytales and fables, legends, and myths.
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For anyone who has been around Christianity for very long, it becomes readily apparent that there is something of a fixation on what happens after people die. Salvation, in a lot of circles, is billed as a post-mortem salvation—that if one believes one can live forever after death with God. But, if one does not believe, then one will live forever after death in Hell. And Hell is not a very nice place. Thus, in such systems, the last thing that happens before either eternal bliss or eternal suffering is the judgement of God on all people. Matthew 25 and assorted scenes in Revelation (esp. Rev 20) are frequently invoked to describe this phenomenon. Now, of course, this is only possible if the Christian account of creation is accurate: if a pre-existent God imbued matter with eternal souls. Thus, central to the primary aim of much Christianity (post-mortem salvation of souls) are origin and ending myths. We shall discuss each.
Myths always function within a specific culture and historical location even though their subject matter is universal in nature. For example, in the Greek myth of Prometheus (who made humanity from clay and stole fire from the gods for human use) the actions taken by Prometheus are viewed as universal (he didn’t just make Greeks; the Greeks aren’t the only ones with fire) but his name is Greek, was worshipped in Athens, and was punished by being chained to a rock in the mountain range between the Black and Caspian seas. Moreover, myths assume the worldview of the myth-telling culture. Thus, in a pre-scientific Greek society, the idea of a titan like Prometheus stealing fire from Mount Olympus—the home of the gods—is not all that strange. Things like it may not happen everyday, but they are certainly possible.
Now, given that my focus for this series is not literary or historical, I am not going to explicate the original context for Genesis (or of Revelation and Ezekiel). I will say, however, that there is an abundance of scholarly work done on understanding the beginning and ending myths in the bible in their historical, literary, and cultural contexts—work that is accessible for popular audiences. My focus is on the way the creation and ending myths of the bible are appropriated by a twenty-first century audience, specifically contemporary conservative/evangelical Christians (in a general sense).
Contemporary Christians exist in a modern world that has been given a challenge by postmodernity, but nevertheless holds to an essential trust in the ability of science to discover truth. This modernist paradigm assumes that truth and facts are the same thing—and that we have an essentially unlimited ability to discover its contents. Nevertheless, Christianity retains its counter-narrative. That is, Christianity views itself as essentially hostile to the ruling paradigms of the world. Thus, many conservative Christians insist on the biblical creation myth over and against the scientific big-bang myth.
Moreover, because contemporary Christians breathe the air of the modern world, they believe that for the biblical creation myth to be true it must be factual in the scientific sense. Thus, a contemporary American conservative Christian creation myth—ripped from the bible—rejects Evolution, insists on a young earth, and insists on a literal Adam and Eve. The need for the creation myth to be literally true in all that is described reflects the modern paradigm shared by secular scientists and conservative Christians alike. The reason contemporary Christians hold as tightly as they do to a literal creation account is because, as I mentioned above, its necessity for the central claim of post-mortem salvation to be true.
The same basic idea is true of some contemporary Christian myths of the end. We discussed last week the connection between a valorized idea of Israel—with the legends justifying its existence and describing its founding—and the reification of the oppressive modern state of Israel. I mentioned that the Left Behind series was an example of accessing this sort of legend. The Left Behind series is also a good example of the way a contemporary Christian audience has received the apocalyptic texts in the bible. To most people, the word “apocalypse” has to do with the end of the world. This is because the book of Revelation used to be called—and is stilled called by some—John’s Apocalypse, and it looked to the normal reader like Revelation was recounting the end of the world.
However, the word “apocalypse” really means “revelation,” which is how we have that name for the book now. In any case, Revelation (and Daniel and Ezekiel) are so weird—filled with monsters, dragons, falling stars, and blood-red moons—that most assume it describes the End (partially because a judgement is recounted in them). If you’re interested, you may want to read up on the ancient genre of apocalyptic literature. The writers of the Left Behind series—and the pastors and preachers who promulgate Dispensationalist theology—have created a story that takes place in roughly contemporary times in which all of the weird things in those books of the bible are literally true. Again, this indicates the basic assumption shared across the modern world that truth and scientific/historical facts are the same category.
These are but a few examples of the way the bible has been appropriated by post-biblical audiences to construct myths.
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Thus far in this series we have discovered ways in which modern audiences have received the biblical text as fairytale, legend, and myth. These three together—working in concert—constitute for a particular segment of contemporary American Christianity a mythology.
Next week, my final post will narrate a way in which this mythology works as a whole. I will also discuss some of the implications of holding to such a mythology.