We live in a world in which many people who are new to the Bible simply cannot get past the first page. Someone who picks up their first Bible and reads about a seven-day creation is likely to put down the book and not look back. Against this background, Joe aka Metacrock writes about the mythological view of the earlier parts of the Bible. I believe he does a good job of introducing the view and showing how the problem is generally understood by people who share his view. However, it would not successfully persuade people who did not already share the view. (This is not a criticism; I don't believe his linked post is meant to persuade that audience.)
I'm writing this post to see if it's possible to move the conversation forward. With that in mind, I've pulled a few quotes from Meta's post and organized them under different headings according to the way they're likely to be heard by people who do not share his view. The table below shows contrasting quotes from Meta's piece, emphasis added (and column headers added).
|Why "myth" doesn't mean what you think||Why "myth" means exactly what you think|
|This is a difficult concept for most Christians to grasp, because most of us are taught that "myth" means a lie, that it's a dirty word, an insult, and that it is really debunking the Bible or rejecting it as God's word.||The point of the myth is the point the story is making--not the literal historical events of the story. So the point of mythologizing creation is not to transmit historical events but to make a point.|
|"Myth" does not mean lie; it does not mean something that is necessarily untrue. It is a literary genre—a way of telling a story.||The mythological elements are more common in the early books of the Bible. The material becomes more historical as we go along.|
In the left column, there are some quotes in which Meta explains the problem as he sees it: to sum up, why "myth" doesn't mean what most people might think. In my experience, Meta's identification of the problem is mainstream for those who share his view: when it comes to Genesis' "page one" problem, any issue with the "myth" resolution is charged to faulty education about what "myth" means, which in turn causes many misinformed people to have difficulty in grasping the concept. We'll come back to that after a moment; we need a few more pieces on the table before that will be productive.
In the right column, there are some quotes in which Meta rolls out the solution from his point-of-view: as he explains why "myth" doesn't mean untrue, he consistently contrasts myth with "historical" as its rhetorical opposite. So the left column develops the theme "myth doesn't mean untrue", while the right column develops the theme "myth means non-historical". The word "myth" is not used simply to designate a literary genre or a way of telling a story, but to reclassify it as something that is designed "not to transmit historical events".
The most significant problem is unacknowledged: the other side of the discussion (argument, flame-war, call it what you will) sees "historical truth" as the category of truth that is in question. In that context, "non-historical" and "false" are functionally equivalent. So long as that point is left unaddressed, the discussion can go nowhere. As long as we stay there we're at an impasse, and what brought us to that point is likely to be seen as double-talk. Those in the historical-Genesis camp see whole "myth" line of argument as something of a bait-and-switch, where "truth" means something different at the end than it did at the start. In that context, calling it a difference in genre can come across as obfuscating the key point, and claiming that anyone who disagrees must not understand literary genres generally comes across as insulting and changing the subject, as well as a power play. At which point the flame war generally spirals, and the impasse remains. In the meantime, those underlying issues go unaddressed.
There is another unacknowledged problem that I mentioned before, and will return to now: in the "myth" resolution, the "myth" camp generally insists that the uneducated masses don't understand their point. The problem seems to me much the opposite: the other side of the debate understands exactly what the "myth" camp is saying, has said so repeatedly, and is tired of being insulted for it. The "myth" camp seems to think that the "historical" camp is holding out because they don't understand what's being said about "myth". In my experience they're holding out because they do understand. The "myth" resolution means ceding the historical reality of the parts in question. This is only half the perceived problem; the "myth" resolution also means the "myth" camp openly welcomes elements or narratives that they do not believe to be anchored in objective reality; it comes across as willingly adopting an element of make-believe into the faith of those who embrace "myth".
I typically see a certain red herring about this point in the conversation, so I'd like to mention it now. It's mistaken to assume that the "historical" camp consists entirely of the fundamentalist-literalist, ever-popular straw-man and scape-goat. The "historical" camp, like the "myth" camp, has people at different points along a spectrum, and includes people who believe some accounts may be historical in general outline, even with reservations about the accuracy on specific points. (For a case-in-point, see my previous post on the historicity of Abraham, re-posted here in 2006 and originally posted at Cadre Comments back in 2005.) Some people seem puzzled why there are those who follow Biblical archeology as if it's relevant; yet to many people it is relevant. I expect that most peoples' beliefs about history are informed by historical findings. So there are those who are interested in the question of whether Abraham's tomb actually contains the remains of a historical Abraham, or how goes the line of inquiry into whether the exodus was historical. The "myth" argument by definition has no loose ends and can never be proved or disproved, but that comes at a high price tag for whether there are human connections in the real world. I find myself wondering (speaking to Joe in particular here) whether Koester or others would make an argument that Abraham or the exodus were history-making, and what is the state of thinking on whether something non-historical can be history-making.
So within that spectrum of people who are interested in the history of it all, the "historical" camp sees a vast difference between believing a historical account in its general outline (allowing reservations on various details), and another thing to openly promote believing in a myth. The "historical" camp may see it more like this: to embrace believing in mythological material puts the whole premise of Christianity on questionable ground. It also risks Christianity's applicability to the non-mythical world. It's generally not the case that the "historical" camp doesn't understand what "myth" means or is somehow unaware of Genesis' "page one" problem; it's more of an awareness that the "myth" resolution is in some ways unsatisfying and problematic in its own right.
I believe it's important for Christians to keep moving the conversation forward rather than being stuck at an impasse. While for my own part I don't generally spend much time worrying about Genesis' "page one" problem, there are those who are deeply bothered by it. For my own part, I'm generally more bothered by the way we attack each other over it. But I'm hopeful for a quality conversation with Metacrock, and also would invite responses and thoughts from anyone who is mindful of the body of Christ.