I’m not certain when it hit me. I think it was after I read Joseph Campbell’s book, The Power of Myth. I know I was working on a sermon one very early morning and was re-reading the Genesis stories at the time. I had considered these stories myth for decades, but had given little consideration to how they had come to be or even why. Among other things, Campbell describes myth as stories that explain important things that do not otherwise have an explanation. He writes that lasting myth is more transformative and more true than history.
It is impossible for us today to fathom the world view that the ancients who created these stories must have had. We really cannot grasp what it was like to look out in the stars, to travel, to watch the days get shorter with no obvious reason, to deal with the seasons, watch babies be born without an understanding of basic biology, science, without airplanes, space ships, Hubble telescopes, physicists, calendars, let alone computers and GPS. These were people, after all, who believed that the earth was flat and covered with a dome that had holes in it. For them, the stars were God’s or the gods’ light shining through those holes.
As I sat there that morning, pondering these ancient stories that have been analyzed, dissected and repeatedly reanalyzed for maybe three thousand years, my mind flashed back in time, maybe four or even five thousand years back. I saw a nomadic tribe sitting around their fire pit cooking their meal and talking quietly, much like the Bedouin tribes I observed when I traveled to Israel. There was an old woman talking quietly to a little girl, maybe five years old, tucked into her side for warmth and comfort.
Savta, the little girl almost whispers, “why did Alaha make my Ima cry and scream so much when my little brother came out? Did she do something wrong?”
The old lady took a deep breath, looked off into the distance and said, “My Precious One, that is a long and strange story. It all started when our very first great ancestors disobeyed Alaha. You see they lived in a perfect garden and Alaha provided everything that they needed. They could play like children without worry about food, or illness or death. But Alaha told them never to eat a certain fruit that would make them aware of themselves. It came from a tree that was called the tree of knowledge. But the first couple could not resist the temptation to have knowledge that only Alaha should have, so they ate of it. Alaha was very upset and told the woman that she and all women would suffer when they had children.”
The little girl looked at her grandmother and said, “But why doesn’t Abba-leh have to suffer and cry like Sabba?”
Once again the old lady took a deep breath. She was considered the “Wise One” and she needed to make sense to the little one. She said, “Well my Precious One, your Abba has lost the perfect garden and he like the other Abbas must toil in the fields every day because our first ancestor disobeyed Alaha also.”
“Savta,” the little girl said looking at her grandmother with so much love. “Is that why Sabba had to die? Because our first ancestor disobeyed Alaha?
“Yes my Precious One. That is why we all have to die sometime. But Alaha gave the first ancestor many years to live before he had to die and it may Her wish that that you will have many, many years before you have to concern yourself with death.”
You see, this is the way if could have happened. The wise grandmother wanted to explain to this precious little girl things that did not make sense to her based on the information that she had. And so she told a story that helped the little girl hear certain things she might not have been able to grasp without the story. When we try and have the power and knowledge of God, we will fail. Birth is painful and life is not always fair.
And the little girl grew up and told the story to her children as did other who had heard the Wise Savta tell the story when they were young. The story became part of the culture, was told maybe millions of times around campfires, in community gatherings and eventually ended up in written form.
Joseph Campbell writes, “Read myths. They teach you that you can turn inward, and you begin to get the message of the symbols. Read other people’s myths, not those of your own religion, because you tend to interpret your own religion in terms of facts — but if you read the other ones, you begin to get the message.”
Lately I have come to wonder what would happen if we Progressive Christians started reading more myth from other traditions instead of just ignoring them. Maybe we would begin to see more of the beauty in our own traditions and keep them in the right perspective at the same time. What if we asked ourselves what was the original author of a particular myth trying to explain in their own time? What was the question they were trying to address? Is it a lasting myth and does it still have power? What does it tell us that is still true and transformative?
Tom Harpur in his book, The Pagan Christ. suggests that we do ourselves as Christians a great disservice by missing the powerful and repetitive myth in the entire Jesus story. Referring to such eminent scholars Godfrey Higgins, Gerald Massey, and Alvin Boyd Kuhn, Harpur posits that all three scholars “demonstrate that both the Jewish and Christian religions owe most of their origins to Egyptian roots.” We share common myth, according to Harpur which he demonstrates in his excellent book.
Burton Mack suggests in his book The Christian Myth that it is the responsibility of contemporary Christians to create new myth, new metaphors once we understand the intended dynamics and purpose of the ancient myth. This a challenging task that Harpur tries to help us with in his cited book with questions after each chapter. You do not have to agree with some of Harpur’s conclusions about the historical Jesus to benefit from such a reading. What he shows us is that the “scriptures” come alive when we start asking, “What is the message here that is still true?” Where is the transformative power in this myth?
I suspect that it is only when we do these thing that we can hope to experience the true power of the transformational myth in our own tradition.