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Genesis 1 as "True Myth": 5 Possibilities
It’s been said that evolutionary atheists and evangelical creationists alike read the Bible with a crude literal-mindedness that fails to acknowledge the literary riches embedded in the text. The creation narrative of Genesis 1 is perhaps the prototypical case. Instead of interpreting it either as the purportedly factual exposition of events as they unfolded or as a primitive legend that’s simply not true, the reader is encouraged to regard the creation narrative as a “true myth.” What could it possibly mean, this seemingly oxymoronic notion of a “true myth”? Here are some possibilities; there may be more:
1. Genesis 1 fits within a literary genre of creation myths, but only Genesis 1 gets the story right.
Many cultures have myths about gods who created the universe. These myths are types: approximations to a truth revealed in its fullness in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures. Tolkein and Lewis espouse True Myth interpretation 1 with respect to the Gospel, in which Jesus fulfills the widespread mythos of an incarnate God who dies and is resurrected. Presumably the reader can distinguish the True Myth from the other myths that get it only partially right. A True Myth that still contains elements that aren’t factually true presumably points toward its own future fulfillment in a “true” True Myth.
To claim that the Biblical version of the Creation myth “gets it right” would seem to require independent verification; i.e., that there is some definitive standard of truth against which myths can be evaluated and compared for accuracy. What should be the source of mythic verification? If it’s historical and empirical evidence, then the Genesis 1 story doesn’t stack up very well. So far, science has not provided empirical evidence in support of a God-created material universe. Empirical verification of God’s involvement in the origins of the universe or of life is at best debatable. It seems that only those who already see the world theistically interpret the empirical evidence as consistent with God’s participation in the origins of things.
Other Biblical texts affirm God as creator of the material world. Verification also comes through the community of believers in the Old Testament God. While Gnostics were skeptical about attributing the imperfect world to a perfect God, the Judeo-Christian mainstream has consistently affirmed God’s creatorliness. If consensus within the Judeo-Christian tradition is the arbiter, then how can we know whether the collective opinion is accurate? If God confirms the truth of Genesis 1 via what Calvin called sensus divinitatus – a kind of spiritual insight into truth bestowed by the Holy Spirit – then how are we to confirm that the source of this confirmatory insight really is God and not some other source of inspiration? So far Genesis 1 receives support as True Myth of type #1 only among those who already believe that God created the material world, and the origins of this theistic belief stem in no small part from Genesis 1 itself. There’s a kind of circularity or overdetermination at work here.
2. Genesis 1 is a myth that eventually proves to be verifiable as truth.
The writer of Genesis 1 didn’t know how the universe began; he wrote a story to serve as a placeholder for the truth. However, the author’s imagination was moved in the right direction by the Holy Spirit. When the empirical facts about the origin of the universe finally become known, they will confirm the mythic narrative. Until all the data are in, the Holy Spirit testifies to the reader’s spirit that the narrative is factually true even if empirical evidence is incomplete or seemingly conflicts with the story as written.
Interpretation 2 is probably best regarded as a subcategory of interpretation 1. It more explicitly demands empirical confirmation, which is perhaps the least persuasive argument in support of the accuracy of Genesis 1.
3. Genesis 1 is a myth whose truth is to be found in the moral and metaphysical lessons it teaches.
A myth should be interpreted as an allegory or parable. The details of an allegory are largely metaphorical; they are important to the extent that they illustrate, dramatically and poetically, the “moral of the story.”
The author may have chosen the mythic form in order to enhance the emotional and imaginative impact of the message on the reader. If the writer doesn’t explicitly distinguish the moral truth of the story from the allegorical details, then presumably it’s up to the reader to make the distinction. It also becomes necessary to interpret what the myth is a metaphor for. For example, Jesus’ parable of the sower isn’t really about sowing seeds; it’s about the Kingdom of God. If Genesis 1 is a kind of parable then maybe it isn’t really about creating the universe; it’s about, say, the power of elohim compared with other gods, or about man being similar to God. Also, if the writer doesn’t explicitly state whether a text is to be interpreted literally or mythically, then presumably it’s up to the reader to decide.
The moral of a story is what the story means; it’s the interpretive framework for making sense of the facts of the story. The events in The Lord of the Rings aren’t true of our world; the characters don’t exist here. Within the story, the characters and events fit together in a meaningful way – evil can be seductive; you can delude yourself into thinking you’re saving the world when you’re really on a power trip; and so on. These lessons might generally hold true in our world as well, but it’s necessary to evaluate whether the lesson applies to particular instances. A moral or metaphysical lesson derived from a story is true interpretively, not factually; it’s a schema for making sense of facts. But even a robust, generally-applicable moral derived from a story doesn’t make the facts of the story any truer outside of the story. Evil can be seductive, and not just in Middle Earth, but that doesn’t mean that the One Ring exists in our world.
Mythic truths are interpretations that make sense not just in the mythical world but also in our everyday world. “Frodo Baggins saved the world” isn’t a mythic truth. It’s a broad statement of fact about the mythical world of Middle Earth, but it’s not true at all in our world (as far as I’m aware). There may be interpretive truths that cross the threshold from the mythic world of Middle Earth into our world: good eventually triumphs over evil, even an insignificant individual who perseveres can accomplish heroic deeds, and so on. Similarly, if Genesis 1 is a mythic allegory, then “God created the heavens and the earth” is a broad statement of fact about the mythical world of Genesis 1, but it’s not necessarily a fact about our world. Still, there may be interpretive lessons that cross the threshold from the mythic world Genesis 1 into our world: try to create things that are “good” in and of themselves rather than just trying to please yourself or your customer; separating things from one another and naming them is a good way to organize one’s environment; etc. “‘Let there be light,’ says elohim; and there was light” – let’s say this verse from the Creation narrative illustrates the creative power of language. And it’s true: language often is powerful in our world. But just because the lesson derived from the myth is true doesn’t mean that the facts in the mythic story are true. The “real” elohim may never have said these words; light may not have come about through an act of elohimic creation; elohim might not even exist in our world. The interpretive truths derived from the creation of the mythic universe in Genesis 1 might have no implications whatever about how our particular universe came into existence.
In conclusion regarding “True Myth” version #3, the Genesis 1 story might contain lessons, morals, and interpretations that are true of actual events in our world. The task of the exegete is to identify the lessons embedded in the text; the task of the person living in the world is to evaluate life situations in light of the lessons derived from Genesis 1. But if the narrative is a True Myth of type #3, then the factual events of the mythical world of Genesis 1 shouldn’t be expected to bear any more relationship to the events of the world we live in than do the factual events of Middle Earth.
4. Genesis 1 is a myth written by God.
The Creation story isn’t meant to be taken as factually true. It’s true in the same way that a short story is true: it contains elements of character and setting and story that hang together inside the story itself, but the story has no factual reference to the “real world.” God is the storyteller of Genesis 1. The story doesn’t purport to explain how he “really” created the universe; it’s a story intended for our edification rather than our scientific enlightenment. The story is “true” in the sense that those who read it enter into a sort of literary communion with the Author who is the source of all truth. Meanwhile, what “really” happened in the beginning remains unrevealed.
Perhaps God really did write Genesis 1, either directly or through inspiration. If so it would lend weight to the lessons the story conveys. But as in #3, even a really profound and robust lesson doesn’t make the details of the story factually true. So True Myth #4 is a kind of intensified version of #3.
5. Genesis 1 is part of an all-encompassing myth created by God that includes not just the Biblical text but also the “real world.”
Genesis 1 isn’t to be interpreted in light of the real world; rather, the real world is to be interpreted in light of Genesis 1 and the rest of the revealed Canon. We live our lives inside a mythic reality outlined in the Scriptures. Our experiences can be interpreted only in light of the ongoing Judeo-Christian saga in which we too are characters. Empirical evidence is irrelevant because the divine saga and its truths are self-contained. Or, more strongly, even empirical evidence can be understood only within the interpretive context established by the mythic reality of the Bible. Karl Barth and Hans Frei espouse this position with respect to the “Jesus Myth.” There is no need to confirm the historic facts of Jesus’ life because the reality of Christ’s resurrection defines the truth of history itself. Empirical-historical reality isn’t the standard against which True Myth is evaluated; rather, the mythic reality is a standard that transcends or contains or gives shape to the material reality of facts and dates. The mythic truth receives its guarantee by the reality of the risen Christ, who in essence has absorbed the everyday world into his own mythic world.
To apply True Myth version #5 to Genesis 1 it would be necessary to assert that Christ’s mythic reality extends all the way back through the Old Testament. The historical facts and empirical data aren’t important; what’s important is to live inside the mythic reality that includes the Creation, the Fall, the Flood, and so on all the way through the New Testament. Christ and the disciples seem to do just that, embedding themselves and their culture inside the Biblical reality rather than the other way around.
The challenge isn’t to verify the facts of the Genesis 1 story against the evidence. Genesis 1 is true by definition, as confirmed by the reality of the risen Christ who lives inside a Biblical reality that includes Genesis 1. The believer’s task is to understand the larger Biblical reality and to live with the risen Christ inside that overarching mythic truth. If material evidence seems to belie the textual evidence of Genesis 1, presumably the first recourse is to re-evaluate the material evidence in light of the text. True Myth #5 is a kind of holistic inerrancy position: the Bible describes a whole reality that isn’t to be picked apart and evaluated verse by verse.
I find it hard to evaluate True Myth #5. I can imagine God writing a True Myth, and then writing me in as a character who lives inside that mythic world. For me to step outside the myth is to turn myself into a fantasy. I can imagine what it might be like to live inside a mythic reality, where everything makes sense relative to the facts of the mythic world rather than those of the everyday material world, which isn’t “really” the real world at all but an illusion. Once you make this mythic plunge then truth takes care of itself, because all truths, including empirical and historical ones, are subsumed in the overarching mythic reality. If you can find yourself entering inside this whole Biblical reality, there’s no longer any point of contact with people on the outside. They think they live in the real world, whereas in fact it’s a ghost world. What’s real and true for them is entirely different from what’s real and true for you. There is no basis for an independent evaluation of version #5 from the outside. Either you accept it and live it, or you don’t.
Is this a clear and fair treatment of what a True Myth might be? Which of these interpretations makes the most sense in reading Scripture? Are there other, better interpretations of True Myth?