The word “myth” has a bit of a negative connotation today. Myths are what our backwards ancestors believed in because they hadn’t yet discovered tectonic plates, electricity, or gravity. Not us! Scientific enlightenment has allowed us to throw off the shackles of these foolish traditions and step into the sunlight of objective fact.
I’m thankful for the day we live in. I quite enjoy having clean water, on-demand (hot or cold!). I am really fond of my air conditioning this time of year, when I’m looking at two- or three-week strings of 100+ degree weather. I get to worry about popping my ears on long trips because – get this – I can travel so quickly in a car or a plane that my body can’t keep up with changes in atmospheric pressure; something my forebearers could not have imagined, let alone experienced, with the technology available to them.
That’s really neat!
But in our progress, we’ve come to condescend to our simpleton predecessors who hadn’t achieved what we have achieved today. We consider their beliefs, their “myths,” little more than fanciful stories, perhaps on the same level as comic books or Harry Potter today – largely childish, and for childish people.
(I’m gonna catch some flack for knocking Harry Potter, aren’t I?)
Unfortunately, there’s not a great corollary today for what myths were back then. They weren’t childish, foolish, inventive yarns. They were stories, yes, but they were something special. The philosopher Mircea Eliade defined myth as “a ‘true story’ and, beyond that, a story that is a most precious possession because it is sacred, exemplary, significant” (emphasis added).
Excuse my heretical suggestion that those who we believe to be historical figures may not be exactly who we think them to be – Eos no longer brings dawn with rose-red fingers that creep across the sky, and we certainly don’t believe hippos were once jealous creatures with manes that rivaled those of lions – but I wonder if we haven’t lost something as we’ve moved away from Eliade’s more traditional understanding of myth.
Someone who suggests,
…will be wryly countered by some tawdry attempt at sarcasm:
As a people, we’ve lost our grasp of myth, of symbolism. We now resort to ridicule and bigotry toward anyone who dare believe in something greater than tectonic plates, electricity, or gravity.
The book of Genesis is a fantastic case for this deeper understanding of “myth.” Regardless of what we believe about the historicity of the Garden of Eden – and there’s absolutely room for believing in a historical Garden – we can see there’s purpose in how God presents us with the Biblical creation story. Looking at Genesis the way the ancients looked at myths – as true stories, sacred stories, stories with something to teach us – we can appreciate more deeply who God is and what, exactly, is our relationship to Him.
The creation story in Genesis 1 gives us a glimpse of an all-powerful Creator who is to be respected and honored. Our God is a God of majesty and power.
The creation story in Genesis 2 and 3, on the other hand, shows us a personal and compassionate Father who wants us to approach Him. He is an involved Creator who is distinctly aware of the smallest and most individual details in the lives of His children.
There’s more to see there, of course. Do we see a God with a sense of humor, parading lovingly before Adam animal after animal after telling him it wasn’t good for him to be alone? Perhaps we do. Later, after the transgression in the garden, we’re told that God makes them clothing. Was there a needle and thread? Perhaps not, and yet there was certainly benevolent care. I’ll let you approach those chapters yourself and see what you might learn from the “myth” of Genesis.
Whatever you get will depend a great deal, though, on how you approach it. If you bring the science of modernity back with you, or the overarching reach of an aggressive state that wants to do everything from providing your checkups to issuing your marriage licenses, all you’ll have left is vacuous sarcasm about literal marriage certificates. If instead you read looking for a ‘true’ story, a ‘sacred story,’ I imagine you’ll find something more.
Bring more than derision, science, and historicity to the ‘myths’ you confront. There is more to the idea of “myth” than our modern connotations suggest, and much to learn from true “myths,” scriptural “myths,” if we come seeking the sacred.
“The Creation” – Elder Russell M. Nelson, April 2000
“The Eye of Faith” – Elder Neil L. Andersen, April 2019
“Faith – The Force of Life” – Elder Rex D. Pinegar, October 1982
You can follow Danny on Twitter @backfromthat.