Moria Refugee Camp on Lesvos

Moria Refugee Camp on Lesvos
Moria Refugee Camp on Lesvos

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Logos, mythos or what?

Karen Armstrong's strong defence of myth in her Short History of Myth takes some reading. This is not because it isn't well written, it is as indeed you would expect of such a well acclaimed author. The reason is that she is putting her finger very close to the heart of the matter for Christian believers. She rightly points out that the inheritance of Greek philosophy has been damaging to western Christian thought, whereas the eastern church has benefited from its warmer embrace of the power of myth. At the very heart of her argument she suggests that St Paul created a myth out of the life of Jesus. This is seen in a very positive way in the Eucharist which both recalls what Jesus did and re-enacts it for present day believers. It does what myth should do. But I set this alongside Philip Pullman's wonderful book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ and I find myself impoverished both by Armstrong's myth and the Greek demand for logical proof. Here is a reality, a man who lived and who reflected as well as any human being ever could the mystery that is God.

The nature of myth

‘I was reading a fascinating book on how the Bible may be read as Myth.’

‘Ha! I always told you it wasn’t true!’

The first speaker was me and the response was from one of my oldest friends. We were watching cricket, although that isn’t relevant. My question is whether his response necessarily follows on from my comment.

If something is myth, does that mean it isn’t true? Before you say, of course, the book I was reading could well provide something of an answer. It is called A Short History of Myth and is by Karen Armstrong, who, for thirty years, has been writing some very readable books on all kinds of religious subjects. The book, which was published in 2005, takes the reader through man’s relationship with myth from Palaeolithic times onward and how the telling of myth helped to make sense of what seemed a strange and often inhospitable world. She makes a great deal of the distinction between logical thought, largely the gift of Ancient Greece, and myth which is a product of the imagination, that part of the mind of which we are not conscious. She suggest that a myth is a story that surrounds an historical event in such a way that event the can come fresh with meaning to later generations. Some of her examples rest quite gently, whilst others shock. She speaks of the myth of the Exodus, the crossing of the Red Sea, and how it is retold year after year and how God’s saving hand thus becomes a reality to Jews. She uses similar language to talk of the Eucharist. Initially this jars, since she suggests that St Paul ‘transformed Jesus into a timeless, mythical hero who dies and is raised to new life.’ There is no sense in which she doubts the historical Jesus, she simply points to the stories and the actions that make Him a reality for us today. We know that the myth is true because we experience it.

I reach up as a massive six is hit into the crowd.