The Christmas Myth
Every year around this time when Christians (and many non-Christians as well) celebrate the joy of Christmas, some seek to remind us the event it is based on is simply not true. There was no virgin birth. There was no Star of Bethlehem or three wise men. Christ was not born in a manger. He probably never even existed. It’s all a myth.
These are the types of thoughts and assertions you can easily encounter in any of the myriad Christmas specials run on the cable channels this time of year. You can also find them in many popular magazines as well. These shows and articles always seem to appear around Christmas or Easter giving, from a Christian point of view, the naysayers a forum to call our faith a lie.
These so called experts (e.g., authors, historians, scientists, and even some disillusioned clergy) will point to many “facts” to support their position. For example, they will say or write that in the ancient world a virgin birth was considered a sign of a person’s divinity. They will remind us that central figures from other religions pre-dating Jesus supposedly involved virgin births such as Zoroaster from the ancient religion Zoroastrianism that is still practiced today; Horus from the Egyptian pantheon; Dionysus from Greek mythology; and Mithras from the one-time religion in the Roman Empire called Mithraism (all of these are debatable “facts.”) They will tell us the reverence and honor to the Virgin Mary was in part a carry-over in Christianity from the earth-goddesses of ancient paganism (e.g., Greek, Roman, Norse, and other mythologies all had some sort of mother earth figure that the people worshipped). They will also remind us that there are flood stories that pre-date the story of Noah such as the Babylonian story of Ut-Napishtim who also built an ark and saved animals. They may even point out that the ancient Babylonian king Sargon was placed in a basket in the Euphrates River to save his life and that he pre-dates Moses.
As Christians should this disturb us? Should it cause doubts in us about the validity of Jesus’ birth, Christmas and our faith in general? The answer is no. For me personally, this type of information and the thoughts I wrestled with turned out to be a good thing because it led me to a healthy creative examination of my faith that included lengthy investigation, research, and prayerful consideration from which I drew some important conclusions.
First, I came to understand that we often conceive of something before it exists and it is not until it finally does exist that what we conceived is considered true. For example, storytellers and inventors conceived of submarines and spaceships long before they became a reality. Prior to their invention, they didn’t exist except in their thoughts. Once they existed, they were reality. Virgin birth stories, for example, could be conceived in thought before one actually became a reality.
Secondly, I never forgot a conversation I read about between two of my favorite authors, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.a[i] Before C.S. Lewis became a famous Christian writer and apologist, he was skeptical about God. He believed God existed and was fairly certain the events in the Gospels were likely true. He just didn’t see how God and the events of a crucified man, or being, nearly two thousand years ago was relevant to his or anybody else’s life. J.R.R Tolkien was a devout Christian and held to a strong unwavering Christian worldview. It came through in his famous works, The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion and others, which dealt with the Christian themes of sacrifice, incarnation, suffering, death and resurrection, redemption, salvation and belief in God. Both men loved to read and study mythologies, stories, and pagan myths. The difference between them at the time was that Lewis believed myths to be lies whereas Tolkien had an opposite point of view, believing myths to embody elements of truth.
Tolkien was an expert philologist who understood languages and their origins and meanings better than most (he wrote his stories and mythologies based on the languages he himself invented). As Professors Matthew Dickerson and David O’Hara point out[ii], Tolkien understood that the word “myth” comes from the Greek word "muthos" which originally meant “word” or “speech,” not legend or fable, and was a near synonym for “logos,” the word used in the Gospel of John to describe Jesus. Both words were used in antiquity to mean “account” or “story” of what was true. The verb “muthologeuo,” from which we get our word “mythologize,” meant simply to “relate word for word,” that is to give an accurate or verbatim account of an event or speech. Eventually the only difference between the word muthos and logos was that muthos came to mean an account “through story” while logos came to mean an account “through reason or proposition.” Muthos and the Greek word “phantasia,” from which we get the word fantasy, originally meant “accurate representation” or “accounts of real things.” Even when the words began to mean fictionalized account they still were understood to be communicating something that is true. It is only in more recent times, whether due to an impoverished sense of the worth of stories, or an inflated sense of the ability of modern science to help us know the world accurately, or both, that myth and fantasy have come to mean something not true. This is unfortunate since good fantasy like Tolkien’s and Lewis’s deal so much with truth though not facts.
Lewis had bought into the common thinking about myth until Tolkien explained to him that man, because he is created in the image and likeness of God, “is not ultimately a liar.” Though man may pervert his thoughts into lies, he comes from God and it is from God that he draws his ultimate ideals. Lewis agreed with this statement and Tolkien pointed out that even what we invent in our imaginations, though off base and distorted at times, must then ultimately come from the ability to create given to us by God. Therefore our myths can show us glimpses of the truth.
Lewis was convinced by Tolkien’s argument but Tolkien took it one step further, using Lewis’ own love of the Norse myth of Balder, the dying god, to illustrate his ultimate point. According to Norse mythology, Balder was the god of light, joy, purity, beauty, innocence, and reconciliation. Loki, the trickster god who was evil, found out that Balder could only be killed by mistletoe and tricked Balder’s brother into throwing a mistletoe dart at Balder that pierced his heart and killed him.
Tolkien explained that just as pagan and other myths were God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using the images of their myths to express fragments of eternal truth, Christianity is the same thing but with one huge difference. The poet who invented Christianity was God Himself, not a pagan or any other human being, and the images He used were real people in history. In other words, the Gospels, the Christmas story and all other aspects, are the myth come true, or “true myth” and Christianity is the full expression of truth for real. Christ was the real version of the dying god Balder of myth that Lewis loved. In Christ, His virgin birth, and all other aspects of His life, the truths expressed subtly in myth, became real. The story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is an enacted myth, a story that is not only true symbolically but also true historically, as the central component to God’s revelatory disclosure within history of the divine nature and divine purposes.[iii]
This resonated deeply with Lewis. He eventually transferred all of the love and appreciation he had for the myths and stories that taught him what abstract theories and philosophies could not, to the truth of Christ and Christianity and truth of Christ’s life and parables. He saw the relevance of God through Christ, allowed the truth of God to penetrate his heart, and went on to produce some great works that all Christians love.
The late Father Alexander Schmemann echoes the same truth Tolkien expressed to Lewis when he writes about how the early Church kept as its own the Hebrew festivals of Passover and Pentecost. He says these feasts were reminders, before Christ, of Christ’s resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit. He goes on to make a point of how many religious celebrations prior to Christ that celebrated the world coming back to life again after the death of winter were all echoes of Christ and were consummated in Christ Himself when He came in the flesh.[iv]
The next time you read a book you love or a see a movie or show that really moves you, you should ask yourself why you love it. You should ask yourself what about it touches you. I think you will find that deep down, it is because it echoes a truth. The movie The Titanic is one of the highest grossing movies of all time. In my opinion, it is because of Jack’s sacrificial, unconditional and redemptive love of Rose. He dies to save her. His death saved not only her life but gave her redemption and freedom from the bondage of the society in which she lived. She even states that he saved her in every way a person could be saved. This echoes the ultimate truth of the love Christ taught to us in the Gospels and communicated in myriad stories throughout time. Whether we are Christians or not, this truth resonates within us deeply because it is truth.
Myth and stories are necessary because reality is so much larger than rationality. Not that myth is irrational, it just easily accommodates the rational while rising above it.[v] All deep and lasting stories are echoes or reflections of the true story which is the life of Christ, as once termed in a famous movie, is indeed the greatest story ever told.
This article as original published in The National Herald Religion and Spirituality Special Issue December 20, 2015.
[i] Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings, Houghton Mifflin, 1979, pp. 42-45.
[ii] Matthew Dickerson & David O’Hara, From Homer to Harry Potter, Brazo Press, 2006, pp. 32-33, 50-51
[iii] John Polkinghorne, Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship, Yale University, 2007, p. 63
[iv] Father Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, SVS Press, 1963, pp. 56-57.
[v] Rolland Hein, Christian Mythmakers (foreword by Clyde Kilby), Cornerstone Press, 2002, p. x-xi