C. S. Lewis on Myth (Part III)

This post is part of an ongoing series examining C. S. Lewis’s view of “myth.”

Lewis on MiraclesIn 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” (Ibid., 218)

Thus, 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 (Ibid., 76-77). For Lewis books like Jonah and Job were clearly myth, whereas books such as Acts should be accepted as historical fact (Ibid., 78). Furthermore, as Kevin Vanhoozer writes, “Scriptural interpretation is for Lewis a matter of reading the whole Bible with one’s whole being” (Ibid., 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?

Bust of the Roman Poet Virgil

Bust of the Roman Poet Virgil

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” (Ibid., 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” (Ibid., 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)” (Ibid., 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” (Ibid., 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” (Ibid., 366).

Catacombs Image of ChristThis 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” (Ibid., 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’” (Ibid., 367). In same view, other writers, such as Virgil, may not see the connection between what they had said and later events (Ibid., 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” (Ibid., 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.

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