In the last few centuries the cacophony of voices suggesting Christianity (and religion in general) is a tale on par with the tooth fairy continues to deepen. The story may well have beautiful components, some add charitably, but the story functions as a psychological crutch to comfort us through the uglier realities of real life. Often couched in the objection is the notion that time has moved forward such that we have outgrown the superstition, and along with it, the need to explain life and comfort ourselves with archaic religious myth. And though by equating Christianity with “myth” critics mean to suggest that religion is fanciful and untrue, the comparison between Christianity and the genre of myth is absolutely fascinating. In fact, it is a comparison C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and G.K. Chesterton found altogether relevant and revelatory.
A scholar of ancient and medieval literature, Lewis came to recognize the great Greek, Roman, and Nordic myths as being a genre of narrative that wrestled as fiercely as the human heart can wrestle with its yearning to know the gods. In this, he reasoned that what we glean from the myth is not truth but reality, for myths concern themselves with questions of ultimate reality and theological inquiry. Through the story of Sisyphus, for instance, we ask profoundly, does life have meaning? As he endlessly rolls the great rock up the hill, only to have it tumble down the hill before he reaches the top, we ask: Do the gods hate us? Are they indifferent? Do they care? Is life worth living in acknowledgment of their presence? Is life worth living at all? The genre of myth has concerned itself with the great and impenetrable questions of life, questions that every worldview must answer. As G.K. Chesterton comments in Everlasting Man, “Myth has at least an imaginative outline of truth.”
The modern mind argues that Jesus is just one more attempt at explaining what we merely wish were true. While I know where such a statement is usually going (and disagree), perhaps it is also right. There are elements in myth that we do want to believe—namely, that the gods do reveal themselves to us, that heavenly mysteries can be known on some real level, and that life really is saturated with purpose and meaning. Such qualities undeniably reach the deepest thirsts and longings of humankind; they are things many of us want to be true. But Christianity takes this one step further. It would argue that these are actually the stories that we knew on some real level had to be true. The want is an indication of something beyond the myth. For God has set eternity in our hearts; yet we cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.
Within the great myths, life is lived under that which is bigger than us and that which is beyond us. There is an understanding that there is something to which we must bow, that there is someone present, someone who walks beside us. There is an awareness that our own stories are inhabited beside, maybe even within, stories of the transcendent and of the ultimate. In the myths created by humanity, we reveal what has been engraved deeply on our hearts by the divine: that reality is not always clear like glass but it is sometimes thick like blood, that God somehow had to show up, and that in some way death and suffering was certain. There is darkness, to be sure; but so there is light, and the darkness does not master it. And we were right. What humanity has somehow always known has, in fact, happened. For in the Christian story, God did reveal himself, stepping into the depths of human reality as one of us. God stepped through the unseen and came to dwell within the seen. Said Lewis, “Myth became Fact.”
In the oldest Christian creed, Christians profess to believe in God the Father and Jesus Christ his only Son “who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” What humanity has longed for most has happened: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Reaching into time and touching real history, Jesus came to us; he came to the Cross. But it did not master him.
“This is the marriage of heaven and earth,” writes Lewis. “Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact, claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the child, and the poet in each one of us no less than to the moralist, the scholar, and the philosopher.”(1) There is a great light shining in the darkness, and the darkness has not mastered it. He is the one who was, and is, and is to come.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 67.