When I was little, Scholastic had a program that would reward children with free pizza if they read a specific number of book in a month. (Perhaps I would have liked reading better as an adult if we had a similar reward!) One book I remember reading stuck with me all these years because it was just so colorful – it was a book about Native American myths. It was filled with talking animals that displayed very real human emotions and reactions to the events going on in their stories.
Myths explain why things are the way they are, why the world is as it is, why things happen the way they do – they exist to explain things that exist around us and yet are not understood. Myths were simply accepted as explanations and were not seen as capable of being wrong about anything. Science, on the other hand, theorizes why things are they way they are, why the world is as it is, and why things happen they way they do – and then it tests the theory against observable fact and measurable data to see if it holds. If it does not, then they create another theory and try again.
Greek myths are well-known for being quite extraordinary, but they tried to answer questions like: “Why is the day bright and the night dark?” “Why does it get cold around the same time every year?” “Why does it get warm around the same time every year?” “Why is it this race of people by nature are rulers and that race of people by nature are slaves?” Everywhere they looked they had questions that their sciences couldn’t answer, but their myths explained in a perfectly reasonable way. Once they realized that there were forces greater than themselves at work, why it was only reasonable to build temples and provide offerings to secure the blessings of these greater forces as they lived their lives. Each culture seemed to take the same approach, Egypt had it’s gods and goddesses, Greeks and Romans had their own gods and goddesses, and even in the Middle East there’s some evidence of a plethora of ancient gods and goddesses.
When it comes to reading the Bible, we’re crossing into a realm that does include myth-like elements. Perhaps they would be easier to see if there were more talking animals and not just the serpent in the Garden of Eden and Balaam’s donkey and more references to unicorns, leviathan, or other legendary creatures. Very human myths are probably the most difficult ones to separate fact from fiction. Culturally, we’re already predisposed to dislike the word ‘myth’ because of the connotation of falsehood. But we shouldn’t lose sight of how important myths were to the ancient world. Because many of the big questions are answered in a perfectly reasonable way to it’s audience back in the day. Likewise, it points people to something greater beyond themselves. Today churches the world offer take up offerings in order to secure the blessings of that something greater.
It’s just that when people recognize a myth as a myth, they don’t pattern their lifestyles after it. But when people see these stories as historical fact, they have much more respect for it and sometimes do just that. In the case of traditional marriage and gender roles teaching, it’s proponents point back to the story of Adam and Eve. It explains why things are the way they are, why the world is as it is, and why things happen the way they do. For all of it’s myth-like qualities, it explains why marriage is between a man and a woman, why women are subordinate to men, why men and women are different – and that made sense to the ancient world. It made so much sense that the New Testament writers occasionally referred to the story to prove their various points.
But thousands and thousands of years have passed. We’re not the same world that existed back then. Some of it just doesn’t make sense to us these days. We’re told not to question it, but to accept it as the truth. That because one woman was deceived, that no woman is to be permitted to teach or preach. No one would say that ‘just because grandma was swindled out of her retirement fund that her female descendant are forbidden from having access to their savings.’ We know that when one person commits an error, their descendants are innocent of the guilt. Our God used to “(He) punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” Not anymore though – and yet we pattern Christian teachings as if this guilt is still and will forever be a punishment for all women to bear. I suspect it will only become harder to maintain as society has accepted the truth that women and men are each other’s equals.
Then Christianity had a new story, one that explained things in light of Jesus’ death and Resurrection. He overcame the sting of death – the worst of the Genesis curses. But it seems that the reversal of the other curses are more or less undecided. Some say that he defeated all of them, that the guilt of the original sin is removed. Others say that they remain in effect in our cursed and fallen world. Perhaps this is the tension that we are caught up in between two worlds – an ancient world of myth and a modern world of science. We’re bound to these myths because we believe them to be essentially true but our science has a way of testing those beliefs in light of facts that we cannot deny. Our world has put people to the test and we’ve discovered that some ancient beliefs regarding men and women aren’t true and yet so many are willing to believe as if they are and that it is no myth, but an undeniable fact of life.
I guess the trick is recognizing that the Bible does contain myths and it contains truths. We might never be able to completely separate out the two (or tell the difference) but we do have to be careful that we choose to pattern our lives after truths more than often than myths because we know that between the two – truths withstand the test of time far better than myths do.