Opinion Columns & Blogs

The wonderful world of myth

Do you ever watch the mythical Hallmark shows on TV? Larry Levinson wrote hundreds of them. They’re not historical. They’re myths. All of them are professionally acted and produced and all of them have the same five parts: The theme, the conflict, the failure, the success and the promise of hope.

Have you ever looked at our four gospels in this way? For example, walk through Mark’s gospel with me and you will see these same five elements. Wait a minute! I’m not saying that Jesus never existed, and I’m not saying the gospel stories are fables. All I’m saying is that they follow the same mythical story format.

The theme is stated clearly in the very beginning of the gospel where Mark has the sky open and the voice calls out “You are my beloved son; I take delight in you” (1:11). Jesus has been given a job to do and he sets out to do it with healings and parables and supernatural signs. The conflict begins in chapter eight. “Get behind me, Satan” (8:33). Jesus feel the stupidity of his own disciples as well as the hatred and jealousy of the Scribes and Pharisees.

The failure can’t be more serious. “They crucified him” (15:24). Apparently, all is lost. Jesus has died and his comrades have all run away. The success element comes immediately (even though it was added later to Mark’s gospel) “He appeared first to Mary Magdalene.” Miraculously, Jesus survives the destruction, and the promise of hope is given as his disciples continue his mission. “They went out and preached everywhere” (16:20).

This is a mythical story format.

Many Christians think “myth” is a dirty word when applied to the gospels. They think it’s OK to talk about myths if we’re discussing Darth Vader but don’t mention myth and Jesus in the same sentence. I understand that. I never want to think that the historical Jesus didn’t exist, that there never was a Galilean peasant who walked the dusty roads of Galilee pumping new life and enthusiasm into the discouraged hearts of his fellow Jewish followers.

But there is no doubt that the gospel stories are formatted exactly like typical mythical stories complete with the same five elements. Now it could be that the historical facts happened in exactly this fashion and were recorded with infallible precision many decades later.

Or, it could be that our gospel writers took the many different memories of the many different Christian communities and wove them into a mythical format which their contemporary readers would immediately recognize and appreciate and understand. This is possible, because for them — myth was not a four-letter word.

Dr. Kirby Godsey talks about myth much better than I can:

“We are all creatures of reason and logic as well as music and myth. Reason often seems the more respectable path, but reason alone leaves us in the dark. So, we are all myth makers. Our lives require it if we are to live well.’

Dr. Godsey goes on to say, “And the most special moments of our lives cannot be expressed well simply by the language of logic. Myth consoles and inspires. It does not seek to explain but it can make us whole.”

I think the gospels make us whole. They are mythical accounts of the faith of the early Christians. Reading a gospel all the way through is like watching a Hallmark movie or listening to a Beethoven symphony. It’s a special moment. When the music stops, I don’t ask “Was it logical?” When I put down the gospel I walk away knowing that something has been added to my life. Something special.

Bill Cummings, Ph.D., blog is www.progressiveheretic.com.