(Originally published in 2010 elsewhere) Most people know the genre of “parable” because they’re in the Gospels, but “myth” is poorly understood and the term carries a lot of negative baggage. Like “literal” you have to be very careful throwing around the term without defining it. One simple definition of myth is that myth is worldview in narrative form. That is, it’s a way of explaining one’s conception of how the world works in everyday language or story form.
John Walton, an Evangelical Old Testament professor who’s earned my respect, elaborates on myth this way.
“Mythology by its nature seeks to explain how the world works and how it came to work that way, and therefore includes a culture’s ‘theory of origins.’ We sometimes label certain literature as ‘myth’ because we do not believe that the world works that way. The label is a way of holding it at arm’s length so as to clarify that we do not share that belief – particularly as it refers to involvement and activities of the gods. But for the people to whom the mythology belonged, it was a real description of deep beliefs. Their “mythology” expressed their beliefs concerning what made the world what it was; it expressed their theories of origins and how their world worked. By this definition, our modern mythology is represented by science – our own theories of origins and operations. Science provides what is generally viewed as the consensus concerning what the world is, how it works and how it came to be. Today, science makes no room for deity (although neither does it disprove deity), in contrast to the ancient explanations, which were filled with deity.”
NPR once provided a perfect example of modern myth. Radiolab featured a discussion with Dr. Fred Coolidge about the hypnic jerk. That’s not a certain kind of internet troll, but the thing you do when you’re 90% asleep, and suddenly… your legs kick and you’re wide awake. That’s a hypnic jerk. No one really knows why it happens.
Coolidge suggests that way back in the past, primates underwent a transitional period between living on the ground and living in the trees. They returned to the trees at night because it was safer, but lived primarily on the ground. Falling out of the tree at night would likely cause injury and expose you to predators on the ground. A monitoring-and-correction system or a subconscious “am I falling out of the tree?” reflex could conceivably be an evolutionary advantage, one passed down to us as a vestigial sleep habit. In other words, evolutionary biology may explain the hypnic jerk and why so many people dream about falling.
The whole series (of which the hypnic jerk is part six) is interesting and worth listening to, but here’s a rough transcript of the relevant part between the two hosts and the sleep professor.
Prof: “If some of those primates had that behavior, they may have been just slightly more likely over millions of years to adapt and survive.”
Host1: “We haven’t gotten rid of it yet, is what you’re saying.”
Host2: “So that’s my jerk, is basically so I don’t get eaten by a lion, all these many years?
Host1: Yeah, that’s what he’s saying. Sort of like a Lucy echo.
Host1: ‘Do we know this, or are we just imagining…?
Host2: “NO, how are we gonna know this? It’s just a story!” (laughter)
In the last statement, Host 2 recognizes that what they’re telling is a myth, a story (albeit a scientific one) that explains how the world works, as well as the fact that said story can’t be empirically demonstrated. Indeed, science has much more in common with such myth-making and story-telling, as BYU geologist Barry Bickmore explains.
Science is the modern art of creating stories that explain observations of the natural world and that could be useful for predicting, and possibly even controlling, nature.
It may bother some readers that we used the word “stories” instead of “explanations,” “theories,” or “hypotheses” in our definition. It might be a bit shocking to think of science as a kind of “storytelling,” because we are accustomed to thinking about science as factual, whereas storytelling sounds so fictional.
It’s a view shared by a number of other scientists; Randy Olson got a PhD in marine biology from Harvard, got tenured, but then went to film school because he was convinced science had a framing and communication problem. He wrote Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story and directed the documentary Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus.(We showed this in the class I TA’d “God, Darwin, and Design in America.)
If you’ve ever gotten an email from me, you know my tagline comes from Robert Alter, a professor of literature and Hebrew Bible. He writes in Art of Biblical Narrative that
history is far more intimately related to fiction than we have been accustomed to assume.
“Fiction” comes from fictio, something made, fashioned, or shaped. In that limited sense, all history is fiction, because all history is the conscious attempt by someone to shape a selection of data into a coherent story.
John S. Tanner, who went from BYU English professor to Counselor in the General Sunday School Presidency, and now President of BYU Hawaii, similarly wrote that
Historical narratives thus require fashioning…. In this sense, factual writing is not unlike the writing of fiction. Similarly, “story” and “history” derive from [the same] root….
Can scripture include fiction and myth? Or put differently, did ancient prophets share the worldview of their culture and the world around them and represent that worldview in narrative? I think it’s absolutely clear they did, and that God’s revelations to them accommodated and were expressed through that worldview. Scripture, history, and science are all trying to tell stories that make sense of what happens around us, how, and why. The label “myth,” then, says nothing about whether a particular story actually happened.
For more on this as it applies to scripture, beyond the works cited above (Alter, etc.) I suggest
- Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament
- Long, Art of Biblical History (very accessible)
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