Most people do not like being told that they are wrong. This is especially true when it comes to politics or religious faith. Interestingly, a number of pundits and scholars have taken to calling religious faith “myth” in recent years, especially religious faith that for many adherents hinges upon certain events that claim to be historical. The work of Joseph Campbell springs to mind, as do more contemporary perspectives such as those espoused by Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins. For perspectives such as these (most admittedly devoted to philosophical naturalism) and others (one thinks of certain Historical Jesus scholars over the years), Christian claims about the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth cannot be categorized as anything but “myth,” the stuff of legend, or theological story-telling. And, as one might expect, most Christians do not appreciate being told that their deeply held religious convictions are, in a word, myth. While for many the term “myth” connotes feelings of falsehood or story, Christian thinkers such as C.S Lewis conceived of myth in other terms. In the essay that follows, we examine Lewis’ conception of “myth,” as well as his understanding of the relationship between “myth” and “fact” in the Christian narrative.
The idea of myth was an important one for C.S. Lewis, especially with regard to his conversions to theism and Christianity, and his later apologies for the Christian faith. Lewis came to define myth in perhaps a non-traditional manner, writing that “Myth in general is not merely misunderstood history… nor diabolical illusion… not priestly lying… but at its best, a real unfocused gleam of divine truth on human imagination” (Miracles, 138). Thus, one must understand that what Lewis refers to as myth is not some cleverly narrated story but truth wrapped in narrative which can, when properly understood, convey great truths to its readers.
Early in his life, Lewis enjoyed the idea of myth, especially the mythology of the Norse gods. Yet as his theological journey brought him closer to theism, he expressed reluctance to fully embrace the myths of theism and (eventually) Christianity. In a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, Lewis expressed that he was not reluctant to profess faith in God because of historical considerations. It was instead his hesitancy concerning the propitiation and sacrifice of Christ (To Arthur Greeves, 976) that he wrestled with. He pens that the idea of a god dying for man moved him except when he found it in the Gospels, for he felt that he could not understand the event there; he “could not in cold prose say ‘what it meant'” (Greeves, 977). Yet even then Lewis viewed the myth of Christianity as holding certain historical accuracy. He writes “Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened” (Greeves, 977). At this point Lewis believed that while the Christian story was true, that “The ‘doctrines’ we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are translations into our concepts and ideas of wh. God has already expressed in language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection” (Greeves, 977). Lewis believed that Christianity ought to be approached in a manner similar to other meaningful myths and that the story of Christianity almost certainly happened.
In An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis approached ‘myth’ in several ways, most importantly as a story which has “a value in itself –a value independent of its embodiment in any literary work” (Experiment in Criticism, 41). Here Lewis defined myth in several ways. First, myth is ‘extra-literary’ as it has value outside its manifestation within a literary context. Second, myth elicits pleasure from the reader, but not pleasure based upon any specific literary device such as surprise or suspense (Experiment, 43). Third, human sympathy is minimal –the reader generally does not project himself into the myth (Experiment, 44). Fourth, myth is fantastic and deals with the seemingly impossible (Experiment, 44). Fifth, the experience of the myth, while possibly joyful or sad, is always serious and grave (Experiment, 44). Finally, even within the midst of the seriousness, the myth is awe-inspiring, portraying the communication of some great truth to the reader (Experiment, 44). From this literary perspective, the importance of myth to Lewis was the experience: “When I talk of myths I mean myths as we experience them: that is, myths contemplated but not believed, dissociated from ritual, held up before the fully waking imagination of a logical mind” (Experiment, 45). Myth is to be thought-provoking, awe-inspiring, and contemplated. Yet, the appreciation of myth does not necessarily have to be literary and scholarly. While any man can read myth, only the truly literary will be impacted by both the literature for its own sake as well as the delight that accompanies the meaning behind the myth (Experiment, 46-47). Having viewed Lewis’ literary approach, we now turn to examining his perspective on myths in terms of their historicity.
In The Pilgrim’s Regress, Lewis’ characters, John and the Hermit, talk of the history of the Landlord and the Island, during which the history of the ‘myth’ arises. John asks the Hermit if it is “really true that all men, all nations, have had this vision of the Island?” an indication of John’s own experience with myth (The Pilgrim’s Regress, 197). The Hermit responds that “it does not always come in the form of an Island: and to some men, if they inherit particular diseases, it may not come at all… It comes from the Landlord…It has brought you to where you now are: and nothing leads to him which did not first proceed from him” (Regress, 167-168). Here we see Lewis espousing the idea that while most men are given an opportunity to experience the joy of myth and respond to it, others are not. However, when the experience of a myth that points towards God comes, it can only be from God, since all things that lead to God come from Him. Later, the Hermit speaks of the battle between the Landlord and the Enemy, and how the Landlord communicated with the pagans. “The pagans couldn’t read, because the Enemy shut up all the schools… But they had pictures… Those pictures woke desire” (Regress, 169). The Hermit goes on to explain that as hard as the pagans tried to copy the images they had seen, they would always fail because the Landlord would send a new picture to awake fresh desire in them. Lewis here seems to be speaking of the various religions of the pre-Christ world, which seemed to possess elements of the truth, but ultimately failed to fully grasp the plan of God. Furthermore in The Pilgrim’s Regress, there were the ‘Shepherd People’; those who had the written rules from the Landlord, but who were perhaps a bit ‘narrow’ in their working of the rules (Regress, 170). However, they found a way to the Island by the help of the Landlord, marked the way for others, and kept it for others for some time (Regress, 170). This seems to be Lewis referring to the Children of Israel, who were given the law of God in order to bless all the nations of the world. It appears that Lewis’ view concerning the Israelites was that they had come to prepare the way for Christ, introducing the world to the laws and belief in the one true God, whom the pagans could not find on their own. For Lewis, the Israelites were the preparation for the revelation of the Myth becoming Fact.
In Miracles, Lewis reflects on the importance of myth in regards to the Old Testament and Israel. Lewis writes that “The Hebrews, like other people, had mythology: but as they were the chosen people so their mythology was the chosen mythology –the mythology chosen by God to be the vehicle of the earliest sacred truths, the first step in that process which ends in the New Testament where truth has become completely historical” (Miracles, 218). For Lewis, myth is historically important in creating the context of beliefs for the truly factual, the person and work of Jesus Christ. He writes that “Just as God is none the less God by being Man, so the Myth remains Myth even when it becomes Fact. The story of Christ demands us, and repays, not only a religious and historical but also an imaginative response” (Miracles, 218). The Christian should accept the Bible, not based purely on the factual, but based upon the myth as well. To understand Lewis as a Christian, one must realize that his “view of Scripture is inseparable from his view of myth” (Vanhoozer, 76). Lewis distinguished himself from both theological liberals and theological fundamentalists by professing the Biblical importance of both myth, that is, imagination, and historical fact (Vanhoozer, 76-77). For Lewis books like Jonah and Job were clearly myth, whereas books such as Acts should be accepted as historical fact (Vanhoozer, 78). Furthermore, as Kevin Vanhoozer writes, “Scriptural interpretation is for Lewis a matter of reading the whole Bible with one’s whole being” (85). An integral part of this reading is the importance of myth, the imaginative side of God’s work among men. Transformation was an important part of the Christian life in Lewis’ understanding and the transforming power of myth is an important part of God’s Word. Where then does this transforming power of myth come from?
In Reflections on the Psalms, Lewis discusses the topic of interpretation of ‘second meanings’, with respect to Christianity. He writes “We are merely considering how we should regard those second meanings which things said or written sometimes take on in the light of fuller knowledge than the author possessed. And I am suggesting that different instances demand that we should regard them in different ways. Sometimes we may regard this overtone as the result of simple coincidence, however striking. But there are other cases in which the later truth (which the speaker did not know) is intimately related to the truth that he did know; so that, in hitting on something like it, he was in touch with that very same reality in which the fuller truth is rooted” (Reflections on the Psalms, 364-365). Lewis indicates that there are differences within texts than can be interpreted in a ‘Christian’ manner. For example, Virgil’s ‘Christian’ prophecy, “The great procession of the ages begins anew. Now the Virgin returns, the reign of Saturn returns, and the new child is sent down from the heavens” (Psalms, 364) is to be interpreted differently than the writings of Plato in The Republic, such as where he asks the reader to “imagine a perfectly righteous man treated by all around him as a monster of wickedness. We must picture him, still perfect, as he is bound, scourged, and finally impaled (the Persian equivalent of crucifixion)” (Psalms, 365).
If we are to agree with Lewis’ historical account of myth, namely that God reveals Himself to all men through nature, stories, and myth itself, it seems to follow that even pagan philosophers may speak concerning the plan of God, if in some dimly lit way. For Lewis, Plato is not simply illustrating a point and using an image that we later come to see as reflecting upon the death of Christ. He is “talking, and he knows he is talking, about the fate of goodness in a wicked and misunderstanding world” (Psalms, 366). In the same way that the imperfect goodness of Socrates was snuffed out by the world, so also the exemplar of perfection would be wiped out. As Lewis notes, Plato was saying this not “because he was lucky but because he was wise” (Psalms, 366). This reading is in contrast to that of Virgil, which Lewis says may be read in such a reflective manner, but must be understood to be “wholly irrelevant to all he was” (Psalms, 367). Lewis wrote that “There is a real connection between what Plato and the myth-makers most deeply were and meant and what I believe to be the truth…One can, without any absurdity, imagine Plato or the myth-makers if they learned the truth, saying, ‘I see… so that was what I really talking about. Of course. That is what my words really meant, and I never knew it'” (Psalms, 367). In same view, other writers, such as Virgil, may not see the connection between what they had said and later events (Psalms, 368). In reading Plato and Virgil as ‘myth’, Lewis makes a connection between those writings and the ultimate Myth, saying that even the pagan myths may reflect some truths of ultimate significance. But we must take care not to superimpose our later knowledge unnecessarily onto all such writings. As Lewis concludes, “there are good reasons for not throwing away all second meanings as rubbish” (Psalms, 368). For Lewis then, the Old Testament of the Christian Bible, while not written for the precisely Christo-centric purpose for which they are sometimes used, nevertheless portray Christian values within the myth.
Lewis gives perhaps his clearest exposition on myth in his essay entitled “Myth Became Fact“. Lewis begins this essay with the idea that he is going to refute his friend Corineus and his assertion that no one who calls themselves a Christian is actually a Christian in any meaningful sense. To Corineus, Christianity is something horrible that no modern man could accept in its totality, and thus those who confess Christianity are really confessing modernism using Christian jargon. Lewis seeks to dispel the idea that Christianity is a “system of names, rituals, formulae, and metaphors which persist although the thoughts behind it have changed” (Myth Became Fact, 138). Lewis asks Corineus, and those like him, “Why, on his view, do all these educated and enlightened pseudo-Christians insist on expressing their deepest thoughts in terms of an archaic mythology which must hamper and embarrass them at every turn?” (Myth, 138) This concern addresses Christians to this day, especially as academic Christians are still asked why they profess belief in such an outdated religion as Christianity. Lewis counters this claim by stating that “Even assuming… that the doctrines of historic Christianity are merely mythical, it is the myth which is the vital and nourishing element in the whole concern” (Myth, 139). The Myth is itself part of the draw for the Christian faith. While Corineus postulates man should move with the times, Lewis responds that times move on without us, but that in religion we find something that does not pass away, something that abides even as the world shifts: Myth. A quick glance at history proves Lewis correct; He cites examples of Julian the Apostate, the Gnostics, Voltaire, and the Victorians –all who professed ideas that found wide acceptance in their time, but have passed to the wayside even as the myth of Christianity has expanded. Furthermore, Lewis argues that “those elements even in modernist Christianity which Corineus regards as vestigial are the substance: what he takes for the ‘real modern belief’ is the shadow” (Myth, 140). To substantiate this, one must look closer at the idea of myth. Lewis delves into the difference between contemplation and enjoyment of an experience. “Human intellect is incurably abstract” (Myth 140) he says, but the reality we experience is concrete. Thus in experience, we are faced with a dilemma, “either to taste and not to know or to know and not to taste… You cannot study Pleasure in the moment of nuptial embrace… nor analyze humor while roaring with laughter” (Myth, 140). We are incapable of both enjoying an experience and contemplating it at the same time; we may do one or the other, but not both. This perplexity presents us with a dilemma: How do we know real pain or pleasure? If we’re unable to conceptualize ideas concerning an experience until after the fact, do we not lose much of the integrity of our argument?
To this difficulty Lewis presents the solution of myth: “In the enjoyment of a great myth we come nearest to experiencing as a concrete what can otherwise be understood only as an abstraction” (Myth, 140). But this is often not what one looks for in a myth; frequently one reads a myth for the experience of ‘tasting’, not knowing a principle, “but what you were tasting turns out to be a universal principle. The moment that we state this principle, we are admittedly back in the world of abstraction. It is only while receiving the myth as a story that you experience the principle concretely” (Myth, 141). While we cannot truly experience both contemplation and enjoyment at the same time, the event which brings us closest to that experience is myth. Furthermore, our acquaintance with myth brings us closer to the truth of reality. Lewis writes that myth is “the mountain whence all the different streams arise which become truths down here in the valley” (Myth, 141). Myth transcends human thought; it is something that is so wonderful and deep that it at once provides a sense of joy and conveys upon us some great truth. Additionally, “as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth” (Myth, 141). The myth of God coming to earth actually happened, without ceasing to be myth and transcend human thought.
“By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle” (Myth, 141); to Lewis, it is belief in this miracle that makes Christianity exceptional. “To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact thought it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths. The one is hardly more necessary than the other” (Myth, 141). Christian faith then is both holding to the facts of Christianity as well as the mythical aspects, those things which are perhaps too great to comprehend cognitively but are incredible, joyful experiences. Lewis is encouraging the Christian faith to neither rely wholly upon ‘scientific and explainable’ fact nor solely upon the puzzle and experience of myth. Lewis indicates that the mystery of faith is perhaps more important than the facts in saying, “A man who disbelieved the Christian story as fact but continually fed on it as myth would, perhaps, be more spiritually alive than one who assented and did not think much about it” (Myth, 141). This should not be viewed as a defense of those who disbelieve that facts of Christianity but accept the myth, but as a challenge to contemplate and experience both the facts and the myth of the Christian faith.
Lewis concludes his essay with a reminder to not forget that, “What became fact was a myth, that it carries with it into the world of fact all of the properties of myth” (Myth, 142). As Christians, we can assent to the facts of Christianity, but we must never minimize the myth and mystery behind our faith. “We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about ‘parallels’ and ‘Pagan Christs’: they ought to be there –it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t” (Myth, 142). As Christians, we should be glad for the way in which God speaks to man through myth. For in this way God reveals Himself to all men that they may find Him; proof of His love is evident in the parallels and similarities in morality and myth across the world. To Lewis then, the myth of Christianity is of the utmost importance. This myth allows us to experience and enjoy truth in reality while simultaneously conveying upon us principles of truth. Myth is the way God communicates with man, the medium by which truth is given to mankind. Myth speaks to man where he is, allowing him to enjoy and be fed, speaking as no other form of communication can. The Myth that Became Fact, the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Christ for the redemption of those who believe in Him, is the unsurpassable myth which gives life to all men who believe. This fact embodied in the truth of myth allows all men to come to God. “For this is the marriage of heaven and earth: Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact: claiming not only our love and 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” (Myth, 142).
Lewis, C.S. An Experiment in Criticism. Canto ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 40-49. Print.
–. Miracles. New York: HarperOne, 1996. 218. Print.
–. “Myth Became Fact.” C.S. Lewis Essay Collection: Faith, Christianity and the Church. Ed. Lesley Walmsley. London: HarperCollins, 2002. 138-42. Print.
–. “Reflections on the Psalms.” C.S. Lewis Selected Books. London: HarperCollins, 2002. 363-68. Print.
–. “The Pilgrim’s Regress.” C.S. Lewis Selected Books. Third ed. London: HarperCollins, 2002. 167-71. Print.
–. “To Arthur Greeves October 18th 1931.” C.S. Lewis Collected Letters, Volume I: Family Letters 1905-1931. Ed. Walter Hooper. London: HarperCollins, 2000. 975-77. Print.
Vanhoozer, Kevin J. “On Scripture.” The Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis. Ed. Robert MacSwain and Michael Ward. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 75-88. Print.
This essay was originally written at Peters College, Oxford University for Dr. Michael Ward.