Dr. Charlie W. Starr
Among our favorite stories are some we call “mythological.” Our culture is currently fascinated with new myths about werewolves and vampires (Twilight), and with classical myths about ancient Western gods (Clash of the Titans, Thor, Immortals). Five Percy Jackson and the Olympians books followed by two spinoff series are currently best sellers in youth literature. Should Christians be concerned about this trend? I think we can both enjoy mythical stories and value them for lessons they may teach us.
The Bible and Myth
I found the Percy Jackson books entertaining, but should I have read them at all? Paul mentions myths in a letter to Timothy: “Instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines, nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration of God which is by faith” (1 Timothy 1:3, 4, NAS). On first looking at this and Paul’s two other references to myth (2 Timothy 4:4 and Titus 1:14), I wondered if Paul was telling us to have nothing to do with mythic stories. When I looked up the word myth in the original Greek, I found that it does not quite mean what it does to us today. The term originally refers to fictional stories rather than those stories of gods and supernatural creatures we today associate with mythology.
So is Paul telling us that fiction stories are bad? Not likely since Nathan the prophet created a story about a rich man stealing his poor neighbor’s lamb in order to confront David about his sin with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12), and Jesus himself told fictional stories in the form of parables. In 1 Timothy, Paul is not speaking out against fictional stories in general but against stories that do not further God’s kingdom. Can mythological stories, then, further God’s kingdom?
Christianity and Myth
The first thing to consider is something we normally don’t: why are the ancient myths still around? Once Christianity became the dominant cultural force in Europe, why didn’t the stories of Greek, Roman, and Norse gods disappear? The answer is that the earliest Christians preserved them. They valued the older stories of pagan gods because they saw that such stories could be used to teach truth. In more modern times, when naturalistic scientists were calling mythology “false stories” and showing how Christianity was just another one of these untrue mythologies, men like C. S. Lewis pointed out that these stories, though not factual, can still teach truth.
Learning Truth from Myth
Let me show how Christians can draw truth from myth with an example. I recently learned something about the word janitor (which we seldom use to describe maintenance workers anymore because it has negative connotations). Janitor comes from the same word as January. It refers to the Roman god, Janus, who had two faces—one looking forward, the other looking back. It occurred to me that this was a great explanation of what a janitor does. Just as the month of January looks back to the old year and forward to the new, so are people who work in maintenance charged with two important tasks: to maintain what is already there and to improve facilities into the future.
What a great metaphor for Christian stewardship. God calls us both to take care of what he’s given us and make use of it for growing his kingdom into the future (think about the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30, where one man was found lacking because he merely preserved his master’s money while doing nothing to make it grow).
In stewardship we preserve what’s been built in the past and use that to build into the future. Maintenance workers do more than just maintain. They maintain in order to carry us forward. Christians should do the same thing with the resources God has given us to manage. Ecclesiastes 7:18 says it this way: “It is good that you grasp one thing, and also not let go of the other; for the one who fears God comes forth with both of them.” I never would have realized this point about stewardship but for the lesson I learned from Roman mythology. We can enjoy mythic stories, and they can teach us truth.
Dr. Charlie W. Starr teaches English, humanities, and film at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson, Kentucky.