I have a confession to make. One that is particularly awkward for a pastor.
The current success of the recent films about the Norse god of thunder have reminded me of one of the “errors” of my youth.
As a young boy I discovered great delight in reading comic books. And among all of the countless Marvel and DC titles I read during my youth, none was more precious to me than Thor. I never really “worshiped” him, of course, but I was enraptured by his saga.
I loved the comic, and it was difficult to wait each long, long month for the next issue to be published. I followed Thor’s adventures with intense devotion. An intense loyalty that was probably inappropriate since it was directed towards a pagan deity.
To make matters worse, the part of the magazine that appealed most to me was not the contemporary escapades of the otherworldly hero. The feature that most captivated my imagination was a smaller story included in each issue and entitled “Tales of Asgard.”
These stories were terribly brief, only five short pages, and didn’t introduce contemporary terrestrial or interstellar villains. Instead, they recounted the historic tales of Norse myth and religion. Their very earthiness—their historical authenticity—impressed me far more profoundly than did the 1960s superhero fare so commonplace during that era.
In fact, in Thor’s two cinematic blockbusters, I find the same to hold true. I find the mythological elements, the portions of the story set in Asgard far more captivating than the familiar, run of the mill heroic landscape of Midgard (Earth).*
I doubt I am alone in my appreciation of the mythical over the scientific or magical elements. In the preface to The Pilgrim’s Regress, C.S. Lewis wrote, “When allegory is at its best, it approaches myth, which must be grasped with the imagination, not with the intellect.”
C.S. Lewis wrote a great deal about the power of myth. Like his close friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings, Lewis brought myth to life in The Chronicles of Narnia. In 1944, Lewis wrote an essay entitled “Myth Became Fact.” In it he explores the notion that in a sense Christianity too, is a myth—with one distinction from all of the rest.
Now as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences.
We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.
I began by saying I was making a confession of sorts. In truth, fascination with myth is nothing to be ashamed of. Lewis describes how it was precisely his own interest in such matters that played a primary role in his conversion to Christianity. In a 1931 letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, he describes the incipient process. These words foreshadow the message of the essay referred to above.
Now what [Hugo] Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself . . . I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels.
The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose “what it meant.” 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: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call “real things.”
Therefore it is true, not in the sense of being a “description” of God (that no finite mind could take in) but in the sense of being the way in which God chooses to (or can) appear to our faculties. The “doctrines” we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are translations into our concepts and ideas of that which God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.
Does this amount to a belief in Christianity? At any rate I am now certain (a) That this Christian story is to be approached, in a sense, as I approach the other myths. (b) That it is the most important and full of meaning. I am also nearly certain that it really happened.
The awareness that a mind so brilliant (and sanctified) as Lewis’ recognized the value of myth comforts me. I guess, in retrospect, that my youth was not entirely misspent reading those amazing stories. Thor still occupies a special place in my life journey, albeit not in a pantheon.
* There are nine worlds in Norse cosmology. Midgard lies between the noble worlds of Asgard, Vanaheim and Alfheim . . . and Jotunheim, home of the frost giants, Svartalfheim, realm of the Dark Elves, and Muspelheim, abode of the Fire Giants and demons.
21 thoughts on “Worshiping Thor”
I find it comforting too. Ancient mythology always fascinated me, and while I never believed it to be “true” in the way I believe the gospels to be true, I think it has done something to inform my imagination and my faith. :)
Like you, I never sensed any sort of “truth” in mythology–as much as I enjoyed reading it. Lewis aptly describes what I encountered: “the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there…”
Well, that speaks to traditional mythologies. I imagine that there are some darker myths out there that had other, malignant sources of inspiration.
There’s some pretty dark stuff in the old ones, too. The good sometimes made it in, but the bad did, too.
Yes, and there’s pretty dark stuff in the Scriptures too. Guess that’s a requirement when you are honestly recording the actions of evil people…
Always loved all sorts of ancient myths
Ancient myths are quite intriguing. I remember in elementary school requesting, and receiving as a birthday gift, a copy of Bullfinch’s Mythology.
Ah, now that’s a classic to keep forever!
I especially enjoyed d’Aulaire’s Greek Myths as a kid. I didn’t worship them in any way, but loved them for the stories. I’m not sure there’s that much “redemptive” in them, but there sure are some negative lessons! I’m glad C. S. Lewis included some mythological creatures in Narnia!
They are entertaining. I think a lot of the more intelligent people in ancient times regarded them in that same light.
This is true. There’s a difference, though, between honestly regarding evil and glorifying it. Sometimes, though, it’s hard to tell one from the other.
Sometimes that is a challenge, to be sure. Likewise it amazes me when people are exposed to something truly good… and then choose to take from it some negative lesson.
A cost of freewill, I suppose, and also perhaps the easily confused state of fallen mankind.
Several years ago I stumbled onto an online community made up of people who seriously claimed they worshiped the Norse gods. They kind of struck me as over-educated, Scandinavian-Americans with too much time on their hands, who really never out grew their comic books. This was on my mind the other day. When I discussed idolatry with my Confirmation class, all they could think of was worshiping Zeus, etc. That sex. money, drugs, power, etc. could be gods was a new idea to them.
Idolatry is an interesting subject. I doubt there’s a human alive who isn’t subject to the temptation to make some created thing their obsession and thing of ultimate value. Yes, there are neo-pagans who worship Norse deities and Egyptian gods as well. I think many due it “for the experience,” like historical reenactors or people who role-play. Some, though, I assume are serious in their religious devotions.
Perhaps those comic books did us a favor by preserving and presenting those myths to new generations who may otherwise have never known of them, much as Disney kept alive many of the old folk and fairy tales in his films.
That’s a great point… and on behalf of the comic book industry, thanks for your justification of their value!
In the poem Mythopeia, a poem wrote around the time of Lewis’ conversion, and addressed to him, he lays out the idea that all myths, no mater how far fallen, contain an element of truth, from the “true myth” that inspired them.
Interesting post. I agree, the mythical part of movies or books tends to be far more fascinating than the worldly part of it.
Thanks for adding the reference… Yes, Tolkien wrote “Mythopoeia,” and dedicated it to Lewis. Here is an excellent analysis of that poem: http://www.polyoinos.de/tolk_stuff/mythopiea_engl.html
Mythology is fascinating, as long as one remembers that it is fantasy and not fact. It can be used to marry truth with error which is why we should be careful. I used to love reading Norse mythology , but it always struck me as unutterably sad.
Quite true. And, speaking of the Norse, the saddest part of all is that it ends, ultimately, without hope. Ragnarök marks a tragic end with the heroes of Valhalla, and even the gods themselves, crushed.
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