My high school mythology course left a lot to be desired. Our teacher began the first class by announcing that we were studying myths only because next year we’d be reading the classic English poets like Shakespeare, Milton, Shelly and Keats. If we didn’t know who Zeus, Venus, Mars and Aphrodite were, we’d never understand their poetry. “Of course,” he assured us, “myths aren’t true. They were created by people who, unlike ourselves, didn’t know the truth.”
Obviously my teacher never read Karen Armstrong’s recent A Short History of Myth. Had he been able to jump 55 years into the future, he would certainly have changed his demeaning opinion of such stories.” “... From the very beginning,” the well-known author states, “we invented stories that enabled us to place our lives in a larger setting, that revealed an underlying pattern, and gave us a sense that, against all depressing and chaotic evidence to the contrary, life had meaning and value. . . . A myth is true because it is effective, not because it gives us factual information. . . . If it forces us to change our minds and hearts, gives us new hope, and compels us to live more fully, it is a valid myth.”
Many of those who composed our Hebrew and Christian Scriptures employed myths to help their readers go to the heart of their faith. In today’s first reading, for instance, the Genesis author depicts Yahweh as actually going through the familiar covenant making rituals which people of that time and culture used when they entered into formal, important contracts. Though this scene seems outlandish to us, such weird actions were normal in the culture which produced this narrative.
Unlike most of their contemporaries, the ancient Israelites were convinced they related to a God who agreed to carry out specific responsibilities toward them. Yahweh was just as obligated as they were to maintain the relationship. We, today, would say, “God signed on the dotted line.” They, of a different culture, said, “God appeared (as) a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch which passed between those pieces (of animals). . . God made a covenant with Abram, saying. . . .” They understood if either party reneged on their covenant responsibilities, the other could do to him/her what they had done to those animals.
One (among many) hints that Luke’s story of Jesus’ transfiguration is a myth is that we’re never given the mountain’s name. It’s just “the mountain:” the place on earth where important things happen with God.
Luke’s account seems to be a mythical representation of the statement Paul makes in our Philippians pericope. “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself.” We imitate Jesus’ dying and rising because it eventually brings about a basic transformation of who we are.
But it’s probably easier for most of us to remember how Luke states the same truth. “While Jesus was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.” Since the Hebrew Scriptures were originally referred to as “The Law and the Prophets,” Moses (the law) and Elijah (the prophet) convey the Christian belief that Jesus fulfills Scripture.
Of course, along with understanding ancient faith myths, we today should also be surfacing new myths to demonstrate different dimensions of that same faith. Have you come up with any effective ones lately?