A New Mythology?

[This is one part of a multi-part series. Please start at the beginning: https://randallfcurtis.com/2016/01/02/the-dangers-of-fantasy/).

                It has now become common knowledge that Tolkien explained a major motivation for his forays into Middle Earth. He loved the mythologies of other cultures, and he believed that England was lacking in a mythology of its own. He was exploring the possibility of providing England with a mythology of his creation.

                I am far from being an expert on English culture in Tolkien’s lifetime, but I wonder if Tolkien’s assessment was entirely accurate. The British Isles were home to a collage of various mythologies from its various constituent peoples, and the British Isles were the incubator for the great myth of King Arthur. However, even more foundational than these was the prevalence of Greco-Roman mythology and the Bible – as was the case in the much of the Western world. Any casual student of Shakespeare knows that it is impossible to understand much of the allusions of the Bard without an extensive knowledge of Greco-Roman mythology. Especially after the translation of the King James Bible, allusions to the Bible also become commonplace in English literature.

                It is hard for many Christians to see the Bible as mythology. Tolkien himself said that the story of Jesus is the greatest True Myth. However, the mythology of the Bible extends beyond the overarching story of Jesus. I suggest to anyone that they read the Prose Edda and some of the Viking Sagas as well as Tolkien’s Silmarillion, and then go back and read the Old Testament. There are broad similarities between such mythologies and the content of the Old Testament. The Old Testament has a creation story, and it has sagas of heroes (the patriarchs, the exodus, the judges, Saul, David, Solomon, and the other kings).

                It is odd to me that Tolkien, a self-professed Christian, would suggest that England needed a mythology when the Bible was so readily available and generally familiar. What role was a mythology supposed to play that the Bible could not?  I would challenge anyone to come up with some benefit of mythology that is not properly the role of Scripture. As believers we are grafted onto the tree of a Jewish faith sprung from a Jewish mythology, and we just have to be OK with that. According to Paul, we are to be cultural chameleons who find our true core identity in the truth of Scripture and the person of Christ. We need no other mythology.

                What worries me most is that Tolkien’s project has succeeded too well. It is beyond my knowledge and wisdom to weigh how much of the blame to lay at the feet of Tolkien, but Tolkien’s end goal has been achieved to an extent that he would probably find distasteful. Not only is Tolkien credited with spawning a revival of the fantasy genre, but much of fantasy borrows heavily from Tolkien’s creations. It is difficult to escape elves, halflings (the non-copyrighted term for hobbits), etc. when reading fantasy, and I do not think Tolkien would approve of much of the contemporary fantasy that steals his ideas.

Beyond just the fantasy genre, our culture has taken the creation of mythology very seriously. Now most people base their cultural identity and worldviews on TV shows and movies. Instead of quoting the King James Bible or alluding to the labors of Hercules, we now quote Star Wars and Monty Python. Our heroes are not just Aragorn and Faramir, but also Batman, James Bond, William Wallace, etc. We even take the myths of the past and continuously rework them (incidentally, this is how mythology has always developed). Think of how Little Red Riding Hood is now generally told as a story about a werewolf. We have taken on the project of creating our own mythology and have carried it to the extreme. And we have made it one of the essential components of our culture.

Is this cultural situation what Tolkien wanted? Doubtful. Is it the logical outcome of Tolkien’s project to create a mythology? I think so. Is it healthy or beneficial? I think not. Is creating a mythology a properly Christian endeavor? Again, I don’t think so. We have our mythology. We have our heroes. With the help of the Spirit we need to take hold of the mythology of Scripture, rather than inventing a mythology that is more to our liking.

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10 Responses to A New Mythology?

  1. Hero_and_the_villian says:

    Hi, ok, I’m just going to respond to the paragraphs that made me roll my eyes and laugh the most and respond to those. I will say this in the beginning. You really need to let it go. Like seriously. It seems to be the thing that bothers you the most is you can’t comprehend the fact that people are not like you. This might be repetitive. Let’s begin.

    “Any casual student of Shakespeare knows that it is impossible to understand much of the allusions of the Bard without an extensive knowledge of Greco-Roman mythology. Especially after the translation of the King James Bible, allusions to the Bible also become commonplace in English literature.” –

    –What? no. What does the Shakespeare have to so with “extensive knowledge of Greco-Roman mythology??”

    It is hard for many Christians to see the Bible as mythology. Tolkien himself said that the story of Jesus is the greatest True Myth. However, the mythology of the Bible extends beyond the overarching story of Jesus. I suggest to anyone that they read the Prose Edda and some of the Viking Sagas as well as Tolkien’s Silmarillion, and then go back and read the Old Testament. There are broad similarities between such mythologies and the content of the Old Testament. The Old Testament has a creation story, and it has sagas of heroes (the patriarchs, the exodus, the judges, Saul, David, Solomon, and the other kings).

    –“True Myth” seems like a contradiction to me. Ok, maybe tolkien borrowed some stories. The bible has also borrowed many stories from history.

    It is odd to me that Tolkien, a self-professed Christian, would suggest that England needed a mythology when the Bible was so readily available and generally familiar. What role was a mythology supposed to play that the Bible could not? I would challenge anyone to come up with some benefit of mythology that is not properly the role of Scripture. As believers we are grafted onto the tree of a Jewish faith sprung from a Jewish mythology, and we just have to be OK with that. According to Paul, we are to be cultural chameleons who find our true core identity in the truth of Scripture and the person of Christ. We need no other mythology. –

    –dude, Its mythical..only a story..why does it have to go back to the bible??? which mind you is also mythology and a collection of stories.

    What worries me most is that Tolkien’s project has succeeded too well. It is beyond my knowledge and wisdom to weigh how much of the blame to lay at the feet of Tolkien, but Tolkien’s end goal has been achieved to an extent that he would probably find distasteful. Not only is Tolkien credited with spawning a revival of the fantasy genre, but much of fantasy borrows heavily from Tolkien’s creations. It is difficult to escape elves, halflings (the non-copyrighted term for hobbits), etc. when reading fantasy, and I do not think Tolkien would approve of much of the contemporary fantasy that steals his ideas.

    –On that note, many movies and books have borrowed ideas. You know how much of today’s entertainment has used stories and themes from Hitchcock and Serling??? A lot. How would the Buddha, Ra, Mithra, Krishna feel that the story of Jesus was stolen from them???

    Beyond just the fantasy genre, our culture has taken the creation of mythology very seriously. Now most people base their cultural identity and worldviews on TV shows and movies.

    –WHAT?? Wheres the proof in that??

    Instead of quoting the King James Bible or alluding to the labors of Hercules, we now quote Star Wars and Monty Python. Our heroes are not just Aragorn and Faramir, but also Batman, James Bond, William Wallace, etc. We even take the myths of the past and continuously rework them (incidentally, this is how mythology has always developed). Think of how Little Red Riding Hood is now generally told as a story about a werewolf. We have taken on the project of creating our own mythology and have carried it to the extreme. And we have made it one of the essential components of our culture.

    –You’re comparing comics, comedies, and children’s stories and taking it to the “extreme??” How does someone who has barely any access to anything, even make such a statement?? People quote movies all the time. Especially comedies. Its fun.

    Is this cultural situation what Tolkien wanted? Doubtful. Is it the logical outcome of Tolkien’s project to create a mythology? I think so. Is it healthy or beneficial? I think not. Is creating a mythology a properly Christian endeavor? Again, I don’t think so. We have our mythology. We have our heroes. With the help of the Spirit we need to take hold of the mythology of Scripture, rather than inventing a mythology that is more to our liking.

    –Why all the Tolkien?? Do you know anything else??
    What i gathered from this post:
    -You can’t have fantasy stories, because in the end, it doesn’t relate in some way to the bible. Because of this, its destroying us. Little dramatic and irrational, don’t you think?? Again, people are not like you or share your world views. That’s OK, i promise.

    • I’d first like to answer the question “Why all the Tolkien?” In my first post introducing the series I explained that I would be referencing Tolkien more than anyone else. Tolkien is the “father of modern fantasy.” His understanding of the fantasy genre has been more influential than anyone else’s. This is even more true in Christian circles, since Tolkien as a self-professing Christian sought to embed his love of fantasy within his Christian faith. Second, I am using the terms “myth” and “mythology” in the sense given them by people like Tolkien and Lewis. It seems you understand “myth” in the contemporary sense of “a made-up story,” but Tolkien and Lewis would understand a myth to be a story that seeks to explain reality or to express some truth about reality. Their ideas are more complex than that, but the idea is that mythology is an explanatory system of thought in story form. Third, Shakespeare alludes often to Greco-Roman mythology with little explanation. In order to understand many of his statements you have to know the characters and situations to which he alludes. A famous example (not from Greco-Roman mythology, but from Celtic mythology) is his lengthy allusion to Queen Mab in Romeo and Juliet: http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/romeoandjuliet/romeoqueenmab.html. Fourth, the comparison between the Bible and other mythologies was not to say that stories were borrowed back and forth, but rather that the Bible is an explanatory system of thought in story form like those other mythologies.

  2. Bill says:

    Here I think you are making a number of mistakes. First, I think you are mixing up Tolkien’s religious and nationalist/cultural motivations. Now it may or may not be a basic mistake to separate the two, but Tolkien did, and in trying/hoping to create a mythology for England he wasn’t trying to replace the True Myth, he was hoping to create a mythology which was essentially English in character which could inform and enrich English culture and (to at least some extent) national identity. – As a side note, both Lewis and Tolkien appreciate the Arthur legends but would have told you that they were not quite mythic in genre, and that they were not quite English in flavor (there are significant culturally French influences in most iterations of Arthurian legend) If you did around a bit, Lewis recorded some reflections on the unsuitability of the Arthurian legends to this purpose.
    Second (though related) I think you may be missing the point of myth entirely, at least as the inklings generally understood it. Myth, particularly culturally and nationally particular myth, whether the Icelandic Sagas and Norse mythology, the Greco/Roman, the Egyptian, the Mahabharata, or any other set, all serve as reflections of the True Myth. Evangelical thinkers have focused on this idea as a sort of pre-evangelistic grace to various cultures but that misses at least half of the Inklings reason for valuing it. If you go re-read “Surprised by Joy” or any of the essays/sermons/papers where Lewis discusses joy, you will find that Lewis particularly valued myth for it’s capacity to evoke sehnsucht. But that capacity is limited by culture, that is to say that the Mahabharata is far more likely to evoke sehnsucht in an Indian than it is in a Frenchman, (though it may do so in both on the basis of it’s narrative or mythopoeic power). Furthermore, the Inklings valued myth as magnifying some one or another aspect of the True Myth in a way that made that aspect more readily visible to a particular culture. So while Christians are indeed grafted into Abraham, we do not mystically gain the cultural understanding of an ancient Hebrew. As a result, there are certain things we will see more readily through the myths of our own culture than we will through the (albeit true) Myth of a culture more foreign to us. Finally, the Inklings (not all of them by the way, I am speaking mostly of Lewis, Tokien, Barfield, and Williams and the literary school which has grown up around their writing and criticism, much of this would likely have been lost on Hugo Dyson or possibly even W. Lewis though I am not at all confident of the latter) valued Myth (both primary and secondary) for its intrinsic beauty. Even more, they valued story for that purpose. So I think they would have been shocked and somewhat appalled at the suggestion that a Christian needs no other mythology than the Bible. But this begins to get into the question of subcreation which you addressed in the next post so I will keep my thoughts on the intrinsic value of created beauty for that combox.
    Third, while I think that Tolkien would have been unhappy with what has been done with his mythos, I think his reasons would have had a lot more to do with a sense of it as vulgar and as poor literature than some religious or spiritual conviction. I suspect that he would object to our popular myths more on the grounds that they are poor mythology than on the grounds that they are particularly sinful. Remember that his motivation in writing The Hobbit and LOTR for publication (as well as his work on The Silmarillian and the rest of the Middle Earth tales and details) was that of a tale teller wanting to write a really good story. He was not interested in propaganda, but in telling good story and (if pushed) generally wouldn’t go much farther than granting that since an author’s worldview is present in that author’s writing, if that worldview is grounded in truth, goodness and beauty, those will shine through the work.

    • Thank you for taking the time to give a thoughtful response! I really appreciate it.
      I understand that Tolkien was not trying to replace the True Myth. I guess my point was that in a sense he misunderstood the place of mythology in cultures. Mythologies have explanatory power. They are the basis for a people’s understanding of reality and morality. Mythologies are serious business, and most of the serious business of mythology is rightly the territory of Scripture and Scripture alone.

      I understand that Tolkien was concerned with an English national cultural identity. I am questioning Tolkien’s assessment of his culture. I think they had/have a cultural identity. Just like every other Western culture of Tolkien’s day (and today) the English national cultural identity was something of a melting pot. The Arthurian legends are a great example. Certainly they have French elements, but hadn’t the Normans invaded in 1066? Certainly the Arthurian legends have Celtic elements, but how long had the Celts been on the island? I am not an expert on the culture of Tolkien’s day, but I think Tolkien was chasing an unnecessary pipe dream. His culture had its mythologies.

      As to whether or not the Arthurian legends are mythic in genre, I wonder if they are for the English what the Iliad and the Odyssey were for the ancient Greeks or the Viking sagas were for the Norse. Heroic sagas are an essential element of mythology. Tolkien and Lewis may not have liked the Arthurian legends, but I have a feeling that even in their day, the stories of Arthur were an essential part of the warp and woof of English culture. But whether or not the legends of Arthur are truly mythology is neither here nor there. I think it that the idea that the English were lacking for mythologies is at least strongly debatable.

      Even if it is true that the English were lacking a mythology, why do they need one? What benefit does it provide that the Bible cannot provide?

      I believe that seeing mythologies as pre-evangelistic grace is counter to Scripture. This really hit home to me when a coworker told me that he was a priest of the Norse pagan religion. He actually believed in the teachings of the Prose and Poetic Eddas, etc. At first I was shocked, and then I realized that the Eddas began as religious mythology. They are not fun stories. They are the scriptures of a pagan religion. This is true of all of the mythologies you mention. The Bible does not see these mythologies as originating from grace, but rather from sin (see Romans 1). According to Romans 1, mythologies are not a step up from ignorance, but rather a shameful fall from knowledge into self-inflicted, sinful, idolatrous ignorance.

      However, as with all non-biblical worldviews, mythologies trade in stolen property. They cannot completely reinvent the wheel. In order to be successful, they have to borrow significantly from the truth. In that sense, they “reflect” the True Myth — as corrupted counterfeits. When speaking to someone in the grip of a mythology, it may be possible to use the truthful elements of the mythology as a bridge to share the gospel (although it is interesting how little Paul actually used mythology on Mars Hill), but that doesn’t mean we should create more counterfeits in order to interest people in the real currency. And, yes, I know that Tolkien and Lewis were not trying to create a pagan religion, but that is my point. Why would English culture need a unique pagan mythological past? If it were missing, maybe they should rejoice! “Yay! Our culture has no history of pagan idolatry!”

      There are two elements of the response evoked by a good story/myth. One is joy, and the other is longing. As to the question of joy, can true joy be evoked by a fiction? There is a lot to that question, and I do not think the proper answer is “Yes, because I FELT joy when reading such and such a story.” I am not sure that our hearts always know joy when we “feel” it. Jesus promises his disciples fullness of joy, and it is very interesting to study the biblical sources of joy.

      As to the question of longing, this I would agree is evoked by fantasy. There are at least two reasons for this. One is what I mentioned in my post on secondary worlds — that fantasy succeeds by tapping into the innate human longing for a better world. The other reason is related. I believe fiction (in all of its genres and media) is very good at highlighting the deepest human needs (love, redemption, defeat of evil, etc.) without providing the biblical solution. This is helpful to know when speaking to someone who has read/watched fiction as it can provide bridges for sharing the gospel, but is it enough to justify the writing of fantasy? I think at this point I must refer to my post on stories as communicating truth. If you want to communicate the truth of a deep human need, would Paul or Jesus have used the method of a fantasy novel?

      I agree that we might find it easier to see truths from the mythology of our own culture, but Tolkien himself was trying to create a mythology wholesale. If he was already having to impose a mythology upon his culture, why not use the Bible instead? And I actually think that the difficulty of understanding the Jewish character of the Bible is not a good excuse. It is how God chose to act and to reveal himself. We must come to God on his terms. Furthermore, the Bible is our only guaranteed inspired, inerrant, and infallible source of truth. We must seek to understand it on its own terms and use it to interpret all other things. Ultimately, our concept of redemption must be the Bible’s concept of redemption, not a concept borrowed from our cultural past. We are primarily citizens of the kingdom of heaven and members of the chosen race and holy nation (1 Peter 2:9). That becomes our primary cultural identity.

      I did not directly deal with the writing of stories as an end in itself, i.e., the story for story’s sake. And here is one place where I would diverge from the philosophy of the Inklings. It is one thing to speak of writing good stories. It is another thing entirely to speak of writing mythologies — even as they redefined “myth” and “mythology.” This is why I said in my first post that Christians like to talk from both sides of their mouths. They like to justify fantasy by giving it great weight and excuse fantasy by saying it is just a story. I do not find calling what is “just a good story” a “myth” is not helpful. It assigns too much weight to something that is not fit to bear it.

      Think of it this way. I am a Christian. I believe the Bible is inspired, etc. When I read Tolkien, I see a lot of truth there. But how do I filter through what is truth and what isn’t? I use Scripture as my filter. So in the end, the Lord of the Rings is a good story that obtains deep meaning for me insofar as its themes, morals, etc. line up with Scripture. In other words, Scripture is my only myth. As a Christian, I have only one truth-defining metanarrative. All else obtains that kind of value only insofar as it matches Scripture. This is not too far off from what Tolkien would say, but I am raising the question as to whether or not the writing of fantasy is justified by saying it is a good story that partly reflects the truth of Scripture.

      My point about Tolkien’s reaction to where things have gone is several-fold. I agree that he would be disappointed with the quality of fantasy writing that has followed him (and I think he would be utterly outraged by the movies made of his books). But I also think that he would be disappointed in the failure of his myth-making endeavor. In a sense, he succeeded in creating a common fantasy mythos, but he did more than that. He spawned a massive multi-billion dollar myth-making movement/industry. This movement has largely moved beyond and replaced the Tolkien mythos. There are a lot of fantasy fans today who have not read Tolkien. Instead of gaining a sense of cultural identity and history, Tolkien inspired generations of people to keep reinventing their cultural mythos. What stuck of Tolkien was not the myth itself as much as the myth-making mania. In a sense Tolkien would be happy to see people making an attempt at new myths, but he would be disappointed in the obsession with the “new” and the lack of respect for the old. Some of what I was thinking was that this result is exactly what Tolkien might have expected. Once you give people the power to write their own mythology, they will, and they will keep on rewriting it to conform it to what they want.

      • Bill says:

        Hmmm, you have put a lot into that and there is much that will likely come down to some really basic disagreements. Let me try to follow your line of response in rough order and see how far I get before I run out of time 🙂
        It strikes me that in saying “I guess my point was that in a sense he misunderstood the place of mythology in cultures. Mythologies have explanatory power.” you are missing a good deal of what is actually happening with myth. You allude to a somewhat fuller understanding in the next sentence though, saying that “They [myths] are the basis for a people’s understanding of reality and morality.” I think the mistake you are making is that in your further comments you don’t really seem to acknowledge the role that myth plays in people’s “understanding of reality and morality”. The view that myths are simple supernatural, narrative explanations for physical events (the moonrise, hurricanes, spring etc…) is overly simplistic, and really only applies to a limited range of myths. Myths are generally far more poetic in the effect on the individual’s imagination. In fact there is significant doubt as to whether many people who followed the religions attendant on many historic mythological systems, actually believed the mythic stories to be historical or whether they saw them as far more allegorical or maybe better, metaphorical.

        So I would want to make the distinction (and it is shot through the Inklings) between myth as the substance of a religion in the way that, say, Paul’s epistles contribute to the doctrine of Christianity, and myth as attendant to religion (stories which whether historical or not, are thought to reveal the character and nature of the supernatural). Christians are generally (Islam and Judaism excepted) far more committed to the historicity of our mythology (and I affirm it is the True Myth) than, say, Roman or Norse pagans. For them it wasn’t especially interesting whether Zeus or Odin did such-and-such, the salient point was that Zeus or Odin was the sort who would do such-and-such. And to this point, Tolkien clearly never intended that his myth would be believed as historic, but I suspect he believed nearly every word of it as truth about the kind of world in which we live.

        I would agree that the English have a cultural identity. I think what Tolkien hoped to do, was to establish a mythology which represented what he (rightly or wrongly) saw as quintessential Englishness. Whether the task was unnecessary or not is a separate discussion, but it was his project and I think it is important to recognize that his motivations were cultural and, to an extent, nationalistic. The existing mythological material did not satisfy him.

        Actually, as I said, Tolkien (and particularly Lewis) did like the Arthurian legends (Charles Williams was an even bigger fan) they just didn’t think they amounted to a Mythology, or maybe more properly, they don’t amount to a Mythological System. Certainly they supply epic hero stories, but they don’t supply anything like the complete system which Tolkien in particular would have insisted on. (Lewis’ own foray into this arena did try to incorporate some of the Arthurian Legendarium in his Space Trilogy, and that was largely under the influence of Charles Williams).

        I am not especially wed to the idea that mythologies are pre-evangelistic grace, I mentioned it as the more popular-among-evangelicals position which I, myself, think is overstated. I think you are closer to the mark in seeing all systems as necessarily dependent on what is fundamentally true and therefore necessarily reflecting that truth. Lewis’ own view of human actual myths is nicely summed up in the quote from Perelandra: “When they told him this, Ransom at last understood why mythology was what it was — gleams of celestial strength and beauty falling on a jungle of filth and imbecility.” Thus (and this to your points about joy and longing) the spiritual value of myth (beyond the intrinsic value of beauty) is that it excites sehnsucht, which must lead to Christ.

        Along that line, I notice that you broke sehnsucht “the yearning for a joy brought on by we-know-not-what” into it’s parts (joy and longing) and I don’t think that form of reductionism is warranted. Sehnsucht, is greater than the sum of its parts in the same way that many emotions or passions are.

        I’m not at all sure where you are going with the claim that we need to meet God on His own terms. I don’t disagree with that claim, but your application is confusing to me. God has poured the truth of Himself into the world. Certainly the Truth is most fully present in the Christian Myth and perfectly revealed in the Person of Jesus Christ, but when we come to truth in any form we are coming to Him on His own terms. We may see more or less of Him in various places due to our own limitations but the idea (if this is what you were trying to say) that any legitimate discovery of Truth must take place in the context of a Hebrew (or GrecoRoman) worldview is both untenable and bizarre.

        My final reaction for now is on your characterization of story as “just a story” I think this may be a lot of what makes you feel like folks are talking out both sides of their mouths. In so far as people characterize literature as “just a story” or “just a good story” (emphasis on the “just”) they certainly are contradicting all talk of myth as intrinsically valuable. But good story is never “just” story. Story is fundamentally art, or maybe more fundamentally some combination of the true, the good, and the beautiful. Your comments generally (in this post and the others) seem to betray a preference for the communication of truth over the communication of beauty. But I think the dichotomy (or trichotomy if we throw the good back into the mix) is a false one. Beauty cannot be beauty but that it carry some truth (though possibly in a form a computer could never recognize) and some goodness (though that goodness my be foreign to an ethics textbook). But the True also contains within it, Beauty and Goodness. So a “good story” is an act of Beauty, and is therefore incommensurate with “just a”. It does have its own fundamental value. Thus all myth is story (though not always good story) but all story is certainly not myth.

        In asking whether there is a need or call for the creation of any myth, in one way you are questioning the inevitable. Humans will make stories, some of those stories will be of sufficient universality and inevitability as to constitute myth. They will furthermore be imperfect and will delight. I suppose you could posit that God is displeased with counterfactual creation but it isn’t a proposition I find at all compelling.

      • I think you are arguing against something I did not say. I did not say that the ancient pagans believed their myths to be factually historical. I just said they believed in them and treated them as the core text/oral tradition for their religion. The more the pagans divorced their myths from historic fact, the closer their myths come to the efforts of Tolkien. And I think that reflects poorly on Tolkien. I stated that the pagans used myths as the basis for their understanding of morality, etc., and that is part of why those myths were so dangerous. People were defining their morality, etc. by stories other than Scripture.

        Can we agree we both don’t care whether or not England had a mythology? I still am not sure what cultural benefits Tolkien was seeking from a mythology that are not more properly found in Scripture.

        I broke sehnsucht down into biblical categories. I do not believe that sehnsucht as a whole is biblical. That does not make it a bad concept, just not biblical. In order to evaluate it biblically, I must break it down into biblical categories. It is important to note that Scripture talks about the possibility of experiencing true and full joy in this life. It also points forward to an even more abundant joy in the future. It also speaks of groanings and anticipations due to the corruption of this world. Anyway, I stick by my evaluation of sehnsucht.

        I believe I have stated that at the very least Scripture is the filter for judging truth. The book of Proverbs is evidence that truth can be discovered outside of Scripture. However, any such discovery must be evaluated against Scripture to obtain legitimacy. I recognize truth as truth because it lines up with Scripture. As such, my primary vehicle for perceiving truth in the world is the Old and New Testaments, whether I appreciate the culture and language or not.

        When I say “just a story,” I more mean a story for entertainment or fun (or even lowercase beauty), not Beauty. I agree that there is overlap between Beauty and Truth. In fact, I think that the things that are most Beautiful are all True. I do not believe the reverse. I do not think Beauty can create Truth. In other words, I think one of the most Beautiful moments in Lord of the Rings is when Sam carries Frodo up the slopes of Mount Doom. It is Beautiful because it is an act of friendship, service, love, etc. However, I think that moment would be far more Beautiful if it actually happened. If it actually happened, it would be even more True.

  3. billhoard says:

    So if the myths of the pagans are not read as historical fact claim but as narrative philosophical claims I am not sure what your grounds are for objecting to them en masse. Wouldn’t you have to take them as they come? And in that vein why would you throw Tolkien under the bus for his creation of myth? Tolkien’s worldview was informed by Scripture, by Truth, so far as he was able to comprehend it and through him, what he wrote was as well.
    I think it may have something to do with your view of the relationship between truth, Truth and Scripture (which you have been alluding to). But I am having a great deal of trouble parsing your position. Some of your statements sound like you wont’ accept a proposition as true unless you find it echoed in Scripture. But I don’t think you mean that since it would require you to reject the truth claims of nearly all modern science (which Scripture neither confirms nor denies) and all historical claims post 100 (ish) AD. The default American evangelical position (I believe) vis a vis truth and Scripture is that a truth claim must be rejected if if contradicts Scripture but not if Scripture is silent on the matter. But if that is your position then I have trouble seeing your objection to the claims of fantasy novelists. As you have pointed out elsewhere, they do not claim to be historically true. Of course neither is any book, perfectly true even on its own terms, and I suppose you could push to the extreme of forbidding all books, other than the Bible (even the best commentaries, which aim to magnify and clarify the truth being communicated in Scripture are ultimately subject to error and so would have to go by this dictum) but I am of the opinion that we ought to leave it to human persons, particularly those who have the Spirit, to sift the “wheat from the chaff” as it were, in the literary corpus.

    • The myths of the pagans are their version of a “scripture” for their religions. Of course that is objectionable. Pondering myths for the pagan was not the purely academic/philosophical exercise that it might be for a college student today. They believed the myths in some form or fashion. They used those myths as a grid for understanding their world, even if it was not a literal understanding. As a believer, I have the Bible for that.

      I believe it is a misunderstanding of the function of myth in ancient times to view it as merely a collection of meaningful stories that are drawn upon simply to provide allusions and imagery to express or illustrate a point. That’s how Elizabethan authors used mythology. That is how Americans treat culturally significant movies and novels.

      If Tolkien wanted a mythology with explanatory power, he had the Bible. If he wanted a collection of meaningful stories, his culture already had a vast stockpile — it was not lacking in mythology as he claimed.

      With Truth and Scripture, I think there may be a difference between Truth and truth. A lot of the book of Proverbs (and other wisdom literature) may represent truth and so may open the door for people to use their God-given wisdom to understand their world. However, even wisdom biblically-speaking is to flow from a fear of God. True wisdom begins with a submission to and worship of the biblical God. Even if the book of Proverbs includes sayings from pagan sages, it does so by completely rebranding them under the umbrella of the fear of God (e.g., the name YHWH is used in those sections).

      I think the comparison with science clouds the issue (especially since in science we have to distinguish between truth and theory). With fantasy, we are not talking about questions of physics. And we are not talking about questions of history — whether or not the story actually happened. We are most concerned with themes such as redemption, good vs. evil, the human condition, etc. These subjects are spoken to at great length by Scripture, and Scripture should be our guide in these matters.

      You have been arguing, and Tolkien, Lewis, and others would also argue, that fantasy novels have value because they speak Beauty/Goodness/Truth. My point is that in the very ways that we look to them for Beauty/Goodness/Truth, the Bible also speaks. In relationship to the post this comment attaches to, that means there is no “missing” mythology. In other words, Tolkien and other fantasy authors are not rescuing us from a mythological vacuum. We already have the big Truth that we need — and it even comes in story form.

      If you accept the premise that the Bible is our grand, over-arching, meaning-making, metanarrative mythology, then most of the remaining discussion in this vein would fall under the posts about themes and stories communicating truth.

  4. billhoard says:

    “I believe it is a misunderstanding of the function of myth in ancient times to view it as merely a collection of meaningful stories that are drawn upon simply to provide allusions and imagery to express or illustrate a point. That’s how Elizabethan authors used mythology. That is how Americans treat culturally significant movies and novels.”

    I agree that that would be a misunderstanding of the function of myth, though I would say it is also a misunderstanding of how myth works in contemporary American society as well. Certainly myths are a tremendous trove for allusion and imagery but they also contain a power to communicate what we might call poetic truth. That is Myth communicates truth in a way which is more than could be communicated in didactic lecture. If you are familiar with the story of TS Elliot being asked what “The Wasteland” meant, you will recall that his only answer was to begin quoting “The Wasteland”. Some things cannot be communicated in isolation from their form. In the same way that a human loses full humanness without a body (cuz the gnostics are wrong), a myth loses it’s full meaning when it is not clothed in story.

    I agree that there is a distinction between truth and Truth (I alluded to it myself in the previous post). I am still not clear on how you understand the relationship between the three though (truth, Truth and Scripture). I would say that the sum of truth is less than, but not separate from, Truth, which itself is greater than Scripture (which talks about Truth and also reveals much, but not all, Truth – John 16:13, 1 Cor 13:12). There is also overlap between truth (particularly facticity) and Scripture (the historical books being the easiest example), but certainly not complete overlap since there is much truth and many facts which are not in Scripture.

    So far as your historical claim that myths served as “scripture” for pagans. That is actually a rather historically problematic claim. Some of them may have, possibly even all, but I would need to know what you mean by pagan scripture when you make that claim if I were going to agree with it. Much paganism was far more based on orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy. Remember that confessional religion is a relative rarity outside of the Abrahamic faiths.

    “You have been arguing, and Tolkien, Lewis, and others would also argue, that fantasy novels have value because they speak Beauty/Goodness/Truth. My point is that in the very ways that we look to them for Beauty/Goodness/Truth, the Bible also speaks. In relationship to the post this comment attaches to, that means there is no “missing” mythology. In other words, Tolkien and other fantasy authors are not rescuing us from a mythological vacuum. We already have the big Truth that we need — and it even comes in story form.”

    Here again we may have reached an area of basic divergence. I think it is good for us to be productive and multiply, not just biologically (though that too) but also creatively. So while I certainly believe that the Scriptures contain essential truth and truly discuss Truth, I don’t think that either is limited to the Scriptures or that we should limit our creativity to the Scriptures. Out of curiosity, how do you make a distinction between which truths can profitably be explored outside of a Biblical context and which cannot? What is your rubric for that?

    • I am only saying that myths served as “scripture” for the pagans in the sense that the pagans themselves would have understood that. Of course there was no confessional theology. The worship of Aphrodite looked very different from place to place, as did the accepted mythology concerning Aphrodite. The pagans may have made little effort to reconcile contradictory myths and may not have cared. They still would have found such myths to be essential and foundational to their religion. Perhaps it would help you to understand that I am speaking of both the general overarching myths (e.g., there exists a pantheon of gods with Zeus at their head and Aphrodite being the specific goddess responsible for….) and specific stories about gods and heroes (Aphrodite when visiting our city took the form of a _____ and did ______). The religious authority of the former is historically indisputable. The religious authority of the latter is still historically supportable, although maybe at a more local level. Where it gets tricky is when people pay more attention to the writings of the cultural and intellectual elite minority than the worship of the masses — in other words, paying more attention to the philosophers on Mars Hill than the Artemis-loving mob in Ephesus (which tied their livelihoods, city identity, etc. to an actual belief in an actual Artemis whose actual image actually fell from the sky in a localized myth).

      I understand the category of poetic truth. In fact, I see its necessity. I find it interesting that Scripture typically tends more poetic as its theology gets more exalted.

      I have not yet in my thinking defined what is meant by Truth vs. truth. I know some things that qualify as each. For instance, common sense (A stitch in time save nine) would often be truth. Specific contextualized applications of Truth would often be truth (e.g., “love is not rude” would be heavily dependent upon a cultural definition of rudeness). Most scientific discoveries would be truth, especially due to the inherent provisional nature of scientific theory (Newton was right until Einstein who was right until…) The Bible is silent about much that could be said as to how our world works, and the Bible certainly leaves the door open for human beings to seek to understand their world better — and even encourages them to do so.

      The difference here is that I do not see Scripture as one testimony to the Truth among many. It is the only sure and certain source of Truth. It forms the foundation for all of our understanding of Truth, and acts as our guide in the exploration of our world. Certainly men find bits and pieces of the Truth apart from Scripture, in the same way that a man fumbling in his dresser drawer in a dark bedroom will sometimes manage to pull out a matching pair of socks (or just that he manages to pull out two socks at all). Whereas Scripture, regeneration, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, etc. turns the light on in the room. Our search goes best in that light.

      Furthermore, I believe in the sufficiency of Scripture in the sense that the most essential of all Truths/truths are revealed through Scripture — the nature of human beings and the nature of the human condition, the state of the world, the trends of history, love, goodness, evil, etc. The greatest poetic truths are merely retreads of the teachings of Scripture. In other words, the things that make for “great” literature are often the things that are already found in Scripture. I am not saying that as an insult to literature. I am saying that to make the point that Christians who “discover” Truth in literature could have found it in the Bible. In other words, again, in relationship to this post about new mythology, there is no mythological vacuum.

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