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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

C.S. Lewis, Mythology and Reality

The heart of man is not compound of lies,
But draws some wisdom from the only wise,

And still recalls Him.
-JRR Tolkien, Mythopoeia

The great 20th century Oxford Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature, Christian apologist, lay theologian and author, C.S. Lewis, was also (IMHO) the greatest modern mind to study and elucidate the unique qualities of the particular type of story commonly called myth. Not to be lumped in with legend, a type of story rooted in a true event that as ages pass by is embellished with fantastic details and impossibilities. Or fairy tales and folk tales that seek to impart moral lessons of virtue and vice. Myth is an imaginative story born from the poetic mind to impress on the senses the truth about reality. Myth results from man’s attempt to understand the phenomena of nature and the world he lives, in light of the eternity written on his heart. Whilst Mythology writer Edith Hamilton, and modern mythology scholar Joseph Campbell would claim that myth merely was an early form of science melded with art, C.S. Lewis would say it is much more than that; myth is the exercise of human imagination reaching for the Creator who transcends, yet is immanent in his creation.

Prof. Lewis describes six characteristics of literature that make a myth:

  1. It is extra-literary, or independent of the words used. Mythology is not a literary style; it is not a specific form of poem, book, or essay. It is an image that carries with it a meaning that touches human experience and longing.
  2. The pleasure of myth does not depend on literary devices such like suspense or surprise. The mere existence of the stories image is what one finds enjoyment in. Creative plot is not an important function. In some myths, it is clear from the beginning what is going to occur; in fact in many cases, the exact end of a character is revealed before the story is even underway.
  3. Our sympathy with the character is minimal. We do not identify specifically with the character. They are like shadows moving along a wall. We are not sad or joyful for the individual character, but their tragedy or triumph is something we understand and react to.
  4. Myth is always fantastic and deals with impossibilities and the preternatural. Myths reside in a world where the uncommon occurs. The natural order of the world and the universe are constantly subverted and changed by the powerful influences of its supernatural inhabitants.
  5. Though the experience may be sad or joyful, it always is grave and never comic. There is never humor for the sake of being funny. The experience of myth leaves the feeling that we have encountered something solemn.
  6. The experience is not only grave, but awe inspiring. We feel as if something of great importance has been communicated to us. We recognize that whatever it was, it was much greater than ourselves. We somehow know that the facts we believe to be true, though not wrong, are somehow incomplete to the way things actually are.

Secular mythologists would claim that mythology is the result of ancient man observing the facts and building up the story upon them. As time progressed, simple and crude myths became more elegant and complex, constantly reappearing in higher, more organized forms. Jesus Christ is immortalized in legend as a god that dies and comes back to life, because the concept was copied from less ordered myths about corn gods or gods of the harvest, who die in the fall and are reborn again in the spring. The secularist sees the search for religious significance as growth upward from the simple answers of mythology. C.S. Lewis says that this is the modernist assumption that higher things are always copies of lower things. Much like Darwinian evolution, where more complex life forms have evolved from lower life forms, the secularist claims that Christianity, along with other great religions, is simply myth evolved into a higher form.

On the contrary Lewis would demonstrate that lower things are copies of higher things. Mankind exists as the main example of this. We are made in God’s image. We are a copy of an infinitely higher being. Though the communicable attributes of God are present in mankind, mankind is not God and never will be. Likewise the pagan myths are true in as much as they are copies of the complete truth. The pagan myths though not true in historical reality, are nonetheless the distorted reflection of a higher reality.

We discover then, that the heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. “By becoming a fact it does not cease to be a myth. God is more than a god, not less. Jesus is more than Balder not less,” Lewis says. Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection, rather then being the enemy of the mythical heroes of paganism is actually the historically true fulfillment of what those myths were about. The pagan myths give us a glimpse into what was really meant to satisfy our longing as humans. Pagan myths do not disprove Christianity, but reveal that pagan people received a glimpse of truth and reality prior to it becoming fact. One finds truth expressed in pagan myths that are the echoes of God himself.

The human imagination is the receptor for the shadows and echoes of what God left for us to desire. We readily recognize in human stories the qualities of beauty and truth that we long for. The patterns of mythology originate in God and carry part of His truth, even though it is often distorted. Mankind longs for the beauty embodied in myth that cannot be complete in this world. The fulfillment of that longing is what Lewis calls joy. “If I find in myself a desire in which no experience in the world can satisfy, then the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it; that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures where never meant to satisfy it, but only arouse it, to suggest the real thing.” So then, says Lewis, if we are made in Gods image, and cannot exist apart from him, then it would make sense that we have a craving for this very joy that is beyond all earthly satisfactions. The imagination therefore reflects this truth. In its longing for fulfillment it creates an image that reflects the reality we were created for.

C.S. Lewis also claimed that it is right that other religions possess truth. The similarities or parallels that other religions contain should not alarm Christians. In fact, according to Lewis, we should be alarmed if they didn’t. It is the similarities that demonstrate the divine origin that humanity shares. All the great religions possess the truth to some extent, but they do not have the complete truth. The pagan myth contains some truth; that is why as humans we find momentary satisfaction in the images they present. But the Christian myth is a factually true myth. It contains the complete truth and provides lasting and complete fulfillment, or joy. Lewis says that “the story of Christ is a true myth: a myth working on us the same way as the others, but with a tremendous difference that it really happened”. Other religions are made up of men’s myths, generally revealed by God in the minds of poets. Christianity is God’s myth. God’s special revelation expressed through real things. Pagan myth seeks an answer, but God’s myth is the answer.

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