The concept of biblical myths is one of the most difficult things for people of our culture to understand.
Brought up with the idea that a myth is a story that isn't true, the term seems to be an oxymoron. How can it not be true if it's in the Bible?
In her recent book, A short History of Myth, Karen Armstrong deals with this misconception. Though myths can't be taken literally, they were created to convey deep truths; ideas which lie at the very heart of our existence and experience. In the last chapter of her work, the British theologian admits that people rarely compose myths today as they did thousands of years ago. But they do compose myths. They simply employ the modern forms of novels and movies. When a few years ago, for instance, people voted Atticus Finch the most beloved movie character of all time, I presume they knew the courageous lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird wasn't an actual historical person. He was a fictional character created by Harper Lee and brilliantly brought to life by Gregory Peck. Yet whoever came into contact with this mythical person discovered dimensions in themselves they had never before surfaced. Atticus Finch challenges us to become what he is. Each of us knows we have the same longing for justice, the same opposition to prejudice and the same desire for equality that he embodies. Encountering him forces us to do a gut check on whether we have the courage to carry though on those parts of our personality.
The story of Atticus finch is a classic myth. Like all mythical persons, he resonates in all of us.
Today's Genesis passage accomplishes something parallel. We know enough about evolution not to take this Yahwistic myth literally. But the truths it conveys are as much a part of us as the environment we inhabit. We understand, for instance, how warped people become when they're "alone" for long periods of time. Nothing helps us better understand who we are than our relationships with other human beings. Though some seem to relate better with animals, we know from experience that's not what we were created to do.
Obviously the author composed this particular myth against the background of male prejudice against women. That's why Yahweh creates the woman out of the same "stuff" that makes up the man. No one can excuse his prejudice by claiming that women are made of a different material. They're one in their origins. And married couples demonstrate that unity whenever they engage in intercourse: an action which results in again becoming "one flesh."
Even a quick reading of the gospels shows Jesus passionately driven to bring people together into an oneness which few reflected on or believed they were able to accomplish. He stresses in Matthew 23, for instance, how there should be no distinctive titles in his community; how, as the author of today's Hebrews passage stresses, he simply regards all of us as "brothers and sisters."
In the same way, in our gospel pericope, Jesus emphasizes that when people commit themselves to be one in marriage, we shouldn't develop loopholes permitting us to destroy that unity. Nor, in the following passage, should we forget the oneness we share with other humans, even with those, like children, who can bug the daylights out of us.
Certainly not all married couples can stay together for life. Neither can we always sense the oneness with those who create problems for us. But unless we understand what God calls us to do, we'll never work toward creating a world in which God's plan can be carried out.
Perhaps someone should create a few more Atticus Finches to help us become the people we know God wants us to be.