Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Myth Versus Theology!

For the immediately preceding post in this series, click here.

In this post, I want to try to talk in general about the nature of myth. Indeed, I want to attempt some theological talk about myth as a category of interpretation of the Bible. (This will be tough going, but bear with me---it's important.)

Why does a theological exegesis of the Bible almost instinctively step back from interpreting the Bible as myth? There are two common but wrong answers. (1) Many say that it is just because lay definitions of myth are not critical enough. All would be well with using the term "myth" if we could simply avoid defining myths as misguided explanations about reality. Simply using a more critical definition would clear the way for acceptable talk about the Bible as myth. (2) Others (e.g., Robert Oden) often say that most all the nervousness about myth comes from a misguided assumption that the importance of the Bible lies in its uniqueness. To avoid speaking of myth in Bible for that reason is silly, because it's impossible and naive to think of Bible and its cultural surroundings as discontinuous with each other. I am willing to grant that there is some truth to these two common apologies for myth. However, they have nothing to do with my qualms about granting that the Bible presents us with myths.

Neither of these points, I hold, really gets to the bottom of the theological problem with myth. I would be fine if Myth just meant "truth in poetic form," but Myth is much more pernicious than that! Myth, at least as Rudolf Bultmann understood it, is a culture's projection of itself. Myth is the way that a human culture objectifies and symbolizes its (outdated!; primitive?) worldview as a whole. Since our modern worldview is radically different from the ancient Israelite one, myth is what has to be deconstructed before anything in Bible becomes applicable for the here and now. If this is what myth is (and I believe Bultmann is simply accepting what modern secular anthropology is telling him), then we need to pause and consider if we really want to characterize key parts of Bible as mythic in essence.


This definition subsumes "myth" within the category of culture and history-of-religions, not the category of kerygma and theology. Myth is what is human, cultural, and anthropological. It is not that which conveys kerygma / Word / witness. In fact, myth is what must be demythologized in order to get theological truth from the Bible, since it is not itself a possible bearer of God's word. I see Bible having theological force to temper and critique the religion and culture around it. Thus, I do not identify Bible with simple cultural expression. Rather, I perceive that it has (relative) "critical distance"; it does not merely offer us the symbols that support the culture of its milieu.

It is too widespread an assumption, I assert, that Bible and Israelite religious culture are one and the same.


Blogger Tyler F. Williams said...

I have quite liked your posts on myth.

Mon Oct 30, 02:31:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

Tyler, Thanks! Any further thoughts on the matter are most welcome. ---S.

Mon Oct 30, 07:43:00 AM GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Prof. Cook,
I read this 3-part series after following the "Carnival" over here (by way of Tyler's blog) and I am more than a little disappointed in the perpetuation of a treatment of the concept of "myth" that is drastically out of step with how mythologists and folkorists understand it.

May I humbly suggest the following collection of articles: "Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth" (Ed. Alan Dundes; U of Calif. Press, 1984).

Even if in the end you still don't incorporate myth into your study of the Hebrew Bible, I think that these studies will demonstrate the mythologists disdain Bultmann's understanding just as you (and I) do, and that the most common working definitions of myth, legend, and folktale could in fact be quite valuable in the study of many passages in the Hebrew Bible. In particular, the introduction of "mythologeme" as distinct from "myth" at the end of the essay by L. Honko has allowed my students to appreciate mythic elements within a given text even if that text as a whole does not appear to be a myth.

Robert Holmstedt

Fri Nov 03, 08:18:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

Hi Robert,
Thank you for your comment and the helpful references. These posts have interacted with a concept of myth that is alive and well among many of my students and have been an attempt to grapple with some issues raised along these lines in a book by Dr Enns. If you'll read essays of mine such as the recent one in my book _Ezekiel's Hierarchical World_ you will be relieved to see that I fully concur that Bible certainly takes up and makes us of mythological images and archetypes in fascinating ways. My study to which I am refering deals with the mythological elements in Ezek 28, including the archetype of Mercurius. Peace, ---SLC

Fri Nov 03, 10:40:00 PM GMT-5  

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