Friday, September 25, 2009

Myth and Reality in the Old Testament pt. 1

For the last few weeks we've been reading Peter Enns's Inspiration and Incarnation for my Old Testament class at DDS. I actually have really enjoyed Enns, and I think his work can be a great help to many people, but I'm not planning on spending much time on that here.
Instead, I thought I might blog through my reading of a book Enns recommends: Myth and Reality in the Old Testament, by Brevard S. Childs. Childs passed away in recent years, but he was in the 20th century an imminent Old Testament scholar. This little book is old (1960!), but Enns feels that it "may still be the best little book on the subject." The subject? Well, "myth and the Old Testament," as you might guess.

I decided to drag everyone reading wardrobe (so, so many of you...) along with me on this journey after I finished the short opening chapter of the book, which I found totally fascinating.
I also decided to drag the readership along because this is an important issue to think about. This is a time when it is not at all uncommon to hear much of our Old (and New) Testament described as 'myth'--and not just by skeptics or more harsh critics. Within the Church there are many people very comfortable with this terminology (myself included, to an extent). We need to be able to at least understand what they're saying, and how what they're saying may be useful and good, as well as how it misses the mark.
SO, if you can, unplug your ears, and let's listen to Brevard Childs a bit and see what he wants to tell us. We can obviously disagree, but let's give him a hearing.

Chapter 1 is about "The Problem of a Definition of Myth."
Childs lays out here what he feels the two most popular definitions of 'myth' on the market are, and why he feels neither will work when approaching the Old Testament texts.

First, is the "broad definition." Here, 'myth' is any kind of statement that concerns "miraculous or supernatural occurrences" and comes from a "pre-scientific and uncritical, naive" worldview. This extends to scripture or any other piece of writing with the right content.
This is, he argues, a philosophical definition. "It stems directly from the philosophical distinction between the supernatural and the natural", and this distinction "becomes the criterion for classifying all material."
This, Childs goes on, is precisely the problem with the definition.
"False categories, unsuitable to the subject, are forced upon it. It means approaching the myth through the eyes of the critical Western mind and restricting from the beginning the kind of reality which the myth can contain."
I added the italics... I love that part.

I think the problem he's describing is not unlike giving people numbers. This kind of designation might work well for the man running the concentration camp, but it is not at all adequate for really describing a person. A number doesn't begin to express anything about what people are or, even more, who the individual person bearing it is.
When modern, Western ideas about 'natural versus supernatural' are used to categorize Ancient texts that were written before these sorts of distinctions were ever made, we may be able to divide things up alright, but we do so at the expense of recognizing the meaning that the text had in its original environment. The meaning the authors intended, the meaning immediately recognized by the people who first received the text.
We can't really recognize and appreciate that meaning if the most important descriptions of the text in our mind are descriptions totally divorced from that meaning.

Second is the "narrow definition." This one originally came from, of all people, the Brothers Grimm. This basically calls 'myth' a "literary form concerning stories about gods", as opposed to other forms, like a fairy tale or a legend.
This isn't a philosophical definition, but, he suggests, just a practical one. It arose from the need to define different types of literature more precisely.
The problem with this definition, according to Childs, is that it is primarily "defining limits on the literary plane." Once we step outside the realm of literary studies, its usefulness is almost non-existent.
Again, even though it's a definition, it doesn't help us get to what a myth really is: "It is not helpful in understanding the function of the myth within the total thinking of a culture." This definition doesn't try to "penetrate to the essence of the myth." How myths operate, what they try to tell us.
He also complains that this second definition doesn't help us get at the big issue of 'myth and the Old Testament': "The problem of the basic understanding of reality contained in the myth and its relation to Biblical faith has not been adequately touched upon in this definition." Well said.
I'm hoping (and assuming) that this 'understanding of reality' and this 'relation' are exactly what Childs intends to touch on as the book gets rolling.

His next step, though, is to seek a third way of defining myth, one that is appropriate for using in Biblical studies.

Stop and consider what's already been said. Childs may have already rejected the definition of myth that you've always used. Do you think his criticisms are accurate? Important?
How are you going to proceed if they do seem consequential, and he just sunk your ship?
Another thing to notice and begin to think about: Childs obviously thinks that myths can speak about reality. For a lot of people on both sides of the question of myth in the Bible, that's going to be a red flag. It's interesting to see where 'conservatives' and 'liberals' line up. One side will say 'myth can't be true', and so 'the Bible is not true.' The other, 'myth can't be true' and so 'the Bible doesn't contain myth.' Here, again, Childs is taking a third way, already distinct because it begins with a totally different premise: myth can be true. I can't help pointing out that C. S. Lewis is in perfect agreement with Childs here (see his essay "Myth Became Fact").
These are issues you'll need to address as we go on, because they are already proving to be fundamental in what Childs wants to suggest.

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