Archives For Mythology

Post-Apocalyptic Faith

April 12, 2017 — 10 Comments

shelter

In a post-apocalyptic world, would there be any room for Christianity? A variety of writers have addressed that in dramatically different ways, arguing for faith’s final dissipation or its ultimate triumph.

Post-apocalyptic literature being what it is, of course, most of the portrayals of Christianity either (1) reveal its idealistic collapse, (2) describe its survival as a crippled reflection of its former self, (3) depict its takeover by some persuasive power figure or mysterious cartel, or (4) ignore it altogether, as if it never existed.

In a recent essay on the subject, one of my favorite books was referenced. Canticle for Leibowitz was one of the first novels I read that awakened me to the fact reading could be enjoyable. A Canticle for Leibowitz struck a perfect chord in me, blending captivating science fiction with a consideration of the place of faith in the apocalyptic equation.

A cinematic masterpiece of this subject is 2010’s The Book of Eli. This amazing film which stars one of our generation’s finest actors, Denzel Washington, is set in a very desperate era. If you have never seen it, you are missing a unique examination of faith in a world where people turned away en masse because of the nuclear apocalypse.

C.S. Lewis explored the long-range future of Christianity. Barring the parousia (the second coming), history will continue its trajectory indefinitely. Spatially, this suggests humans may expand our presence beyond our present planetary home. In addition to his Space Trilogy, Lewis toyed with such concerns in a couple of short stories.

Included in the collection Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories, are two of these efforts. “Ministering Angels” begins:

The Monk, as they called him, settled himself on the camp chair beside his bunk and stared through the window at the harsh sand and black-blue sky of Mars. He did not mean to begin his ‘work’ for ten minutes yet. Not, of course, the work he had been brought there to do.

He was the meteorologist of the party, and his work in that capacity was largely done; he had found out whatever could be found out. There was nothing more, within the limited radius he could investigate, to be observed for at least twenty-five days. And meteorology had not been his real motive.

He had chosen three years on Mars as the nearest modern equivalent to a hermitage in the desert.

“Ministering Angels” was originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, volume XIII (January 1958). “Forms of Things Unknown,” an excerpt from which follows, was not published until the collection was released several years after Lewis’ death.

It is quintessential Lewis, blending reality and mythology in a creative fashion. It reads like what’s commonly called “hard scifi” (focusing on science and technology). But it hints at something more, in its opening quotation from Perelandra.

Likewise, the following passage indicates that not everything once deemed myth lacks foundation in fact. The exchange takes place between an astronaut preparing for a journey to the moon and one of his friends remaining behind.

“You’re surely not going to suggest life on the Moon at this time of day?”

“The word life always begs the question. Because, of course, it suggests organization as we know it on Earth—with all the chemistry which organization involves. Of course there could hardly be anything of that sort. But there might—I at any rate can’t say there couldn’t—be masses of matter capable of movements determined from within, determined, in fact, by intentions.”

“Oh Lord, Jenkin, that’s nonsense. Animated stones, no doubt! That’s mere science fiction or mythology.”

“Going to the Moon at all was once science fiction. And as for mythology, haven’t they found the Cretan labyrinth?”

What about the Real World?

Post-apocalyptic literature is riding the crest of popularity today. Nearly all of it is dystopian. There is little room in its pages for hope, let alone faith.

It mirrors the increasing secularization in the West and the increase in religious persecution in other parts of the world.

Atheists laud the increasing pace of the loss of faith in America and the rest of the Western world. They mistakenly think it will result in a more civil and happy world.

It will, in fact, cause the opposite.

I know nothing about Cardinal Francis George, former Roman Catholic archbishop of Chicago. However, when I read the following quotation, it stunned me. It is one of the most sobering assessments of the course of Western history I have seen.

Later in 2010, he further outlined the degree to which he believed religious freedoms in the United States and other Western societies were endangered. In a speech to a group of priests, he said, “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.

His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.”

It remains to be seen whether George’s words will prove prophetic. I fear they may. God have mercy.

barthOne wonders what sort of fireworks might have erupted if J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis had spent an evening with theologian Karl Barth. Although their lives overlapped, and all three were Christian academics, it is questionable how much they would have agreed upon.

And yet, there were several subjects where I think they would have enjoyed firm consensus.

Tolkien (1892-1973) was a devout Roman Catholic. Lewis (1898-1963) was a committed “low church” Anglican. Barth (1886-1968) was a Reformed theologian who rejected the liberalism that had become dominant in European academies. All three thus believed in the reality of the Christian gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ.

All three men hated war, and the two Brits had served in the trenches of WWI. All opposed Nazism and Barth was the primary author of the Barmen Declaration which challenged the Christian faith of all who supported the Nazi government.

And we’ll consider another shared attribute in just a moment.

First, though, we need to acknowledge that presumably the Inklings never met the Swiss clergyman. Their circles did not overlap. I have not been able to uncover any evidence of Tolkien referring to Barth, or of Barth mentioning either of the Inklings.

Lewis did, however mention Barth in his prolific correspondence. From his exposure to Barth it’s clear he did not share the opinion of Pope Pius XII that he was “the greatest theologian since Thomas Aquinas.” Heady praise . . . especially coming from a Roman Catholic.

In a 1940 letter to his brother Warren, Lewis reacted against what he perceived as legalism in some quarters of Protestantism that was alien to his understanding of the liberty of the Christian.

I am afraid the truth is . . . that the world, as it is now becoming and has partly become, is simply too much for people of the old square-rigged type like you and me. I don’t understand its economics, or its politics, or . . . Even its theology—for that is a most distressing discovery I have been making these last two terms as I have been getting to know more and more of the Christian element in Oxford.

Did you fondly believe—as I did—that where you got among Christians, there, at least, you would escape (as behind a wall from a keen wind) from the horrible ferocity and grimness of modern thought.

Not a bit of it. I blundered into it all, imagining that I was the upholder of the old, stern doctrines against modern quasi-Christian slush: only to find that my ‘sternness’ was their ‘slush.’ They’ve all been reading a dreadful man called Karl Barth, who seems the right opposite number to Karl Marx. ‘Under judgment’ is their great expression.

They all talk like Covenanters or Old Testament prophets. They don’t think human reason or human conscience of any value at all: they maintain, as stoutly as Calvin, that there’s no reason why God’s dealings should appear just (let alone, merciful) to us: and they maintain the doctrine that all our righteousness is filthy rags with a fierceness and sincerity which is like a blow in the face.

Sometimes the results are refreshing: as when Canon Raven (whom you and Dyson and I sat under at Ely) is sharply told in a review in Theology that ‘it is high time persons of this sort learned that the enjoyment of a chair of theology at Cambridge does not carry with it a right to criticise the Word of God’—that’s the kind of rap on the knuckles which has not been delivered for a hundred years!

Comparing Their Thoughts on the Nature of Myth

Many readers of Mere Inkling will know Tolkien and Lewis were deeply influenced by the significance of myth. They were also, in the creation of Middle Earth and Narnia, active in the act of mythopoeia, creating imaginary lands whose stories convey profound meaning.

But, despite the fact their literary products are fictional, that does not mean that all myth is “untrue,” in the sense of being unhistorical. Myth, for these great thinkers, is something far more complex and wonderful.

Without going into depth on this involved subject, I offer here the familiar story of how Lewis’ epiphany about true myth was key to his conversion.

I was by now too experienced in literary criticism to regard the Gospels as myths. They had not the mythical taste. And yet the very matter which they set down in their artless, historical fashion . . . was precisely the matter of the great myths. If ever a myth had become fact, had been incarnated, it would be just like this. And nothing else in all literature was just like this.

Myths were like it in one way. Histories were like it in another. But nothing was simply like it.

And no person was like the Person it depicted; as real, as recognizable, through all that depth of time, as Plato’s Socrates . . . yet also numinous, lit by a light from beyond the world, a god.

But if a god—we are no longer polytheists—then not a god, but God. Here and here only in all time the myth must have become fact; the Word, flesh; God, Man. This is not “a religion,” nor “a philosophy.” It is the summing up and actuality of them all. (Surprised by Joy)

This epiphany took place in 1931, during an all-night discussion (it lasted until 4:00 am) with Tolkien, and other Inkling, Hugo Dyson. Here’s how Lewis related the moment to his lifelong friend, Arthur Greeves.

It was really a memorable talk. We began (in Addison’s walk just after dinner) on metaphor and myth–interrupted by a rush of wind which came so suddenly on the still, warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining.

We all held our breath, the other two appreciating the ecstasy of such a thing almost as you would. We continued (in my room) on Christianity: a good long satisfying talk in which I learned a lot . . .

A month later he elaborated on how the insights gained that evening were gestating in his mind and heart.

Now what 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 (cf. the quotation opposite the title page of Dymer) 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.

In a different setting, Barth argued for the very same truth. His context was a theological environment greatly influenced by the liberal doctrines of Rudolf Bultmann, who dismissively regarded anything miraculous in the Scriptures as primitive and ignorant thinking.

The Christian Church confesses that [what the world calls] “myth” is history itself. She recognizes herself by this myth, she recognizes her life, her true reality. She is the witness of witnesses, she recognizes through the Holy Spirit that this is the one really interesting story.

Then she turns back the historians’ weapon: She says to them: What you call “myth,” that is history! She will also add: What you call history, that is a myth! A myth, a made-up history, that fancies the fate of man as depending on his earthly vicissitudes, a myth, a made-up history, that confuses the immediate success of a cause with its truth, and so on.

The only true history is the history of Christ, in which the Church participates, and which is already the secret reality of all history, since it is history itself. (The Faith of the Church)

Now, there’s an argument the Inklings could truly have appreciated.

A Bonus, for Fans of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Barth was not the only Christian seminary professor who rejected the heresies of Bultmann, who sought to “demythologize” the Scriptures. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a fellow German, repudiated Bultmann’s rejection of the supernatural in God’s Word. In a recent book, Taking Hold of the Real, Barry Harvey writes:

In a prison letter [Bonhoeffer] criticizes Rudolf Bultmann for excising the “mythological” elements in an attempt to reduce Christianity to its “essence.” “My view,” he writes, “is that the full content, including the ‘mythological’ concepts, must remain—the New Testament is not a mythological dressing up of a universal truth, but this mythology (resurrection and so forth) is the thing itself.”

Bonhoeffer thus acknowledges that describing a way of seeing the world as mythic thus does not summarily dismiss it either as deceptive or as an archaic and feeble attempt at doing “science.” Indeed, a truthful description of the world and especially of human existence ultimately requires mythic form.

The tales that women and men have fashioned and passed down through the centuries to discern the overall sense and significance of their existence are “never just ‘lies,’” says Tolkien, as “there is always something of the truth in them.”

Who is Your Muse?

August 8, 2015 — 18 Comments

reposeWhich Muse provides your inspiration? Poetry, history, music, dance, epic?

I’ve always been fascinated by the Greek & Roman concept of the Muse. While I don’t regard these personifications as true “beings,” they provide wonderful insight into the multifaceted nature of inspiration.

The Muses were personifications (representations of abstract concepts in human form). It’s not the same thing as believing in a “god,” although devotional exercises could be offered in “their” honor. (The simple people, in fact, may have regarded them as minor deities.)

The number of Muses—who represented the arts and fields of knowledge—varied in the ancient world. However, nine constituted the final Roman tabulation.

Possessing a historical nature, my “matron” Muse would necessarily be Clio (History).

Sadly, I’ve learned Muses don’t always fulfill their promises. At my suggestion, my wife agreed to name our puppy Calli, abbreviated from Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry. Unfortunately, at ten months her raucous barking sounds anything but poetic.

In his biography, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, C.S. Lewis includes an interesting reference to Muses. It relates to one of their secondary qualities, civility. In the following passage, Lewis had been sent to the Headmaster of his school for review due to “bad work” (i.e. inadequate academic performance).

The Headmaster misunderstood Smewgy’s report and thought there had been some complaint about my manners. Afterward Smewgy got wind of the Head’s actual words and at once corrected the mistake, drawing me aside and saying, “There has been some curious misunderstanding. I said nothing of the sort about you. You will have to be whipped if you don’t do better at your Greek Grammar next week, but naturally that has nothing to do with your manners or mine.”

The idea that the tone of conversation between one gentleman and another should be altered by a flogging (any more than by a duel) was ridiculous. His manner was perfect: no familiarity, no hostility, no threadbare humor; mutual respect; decorum. “Never let us live with amousia” was one of his favorite maxims: amousia, the absence of the Muses. And he knew, as Spenser knew, that courtesy was of the Muses.

For Lewis’ instructor, the concept of the Muse meant more than simply inspiring some form of art or literature. The influence of the Muses flowed into the broader culture. In a sense, it reflected the distinction the Greeks held between themselves and the barbarians. Surely the uncivilized savages had no Muses of their own!

Sources of Inspiration

It isn’t uncommon today for people to use muse (lower case) as a shorthand for a person who inspires them. Pablo Picasso, for example, considered his favorite model (and mistress) to be his muse. The portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter above, entitled “Repose,” surely conveys the profound vision she provided him.

In cinema, there was the 1999 movie aptly named The Muse, which posits a deflated screenwriter seeking the aid of the supposed “daughter of Zeus.”

Speaking of Christians . . . they too identify a source for their inspiration. In addition to other human beings, who may offer wisdom, insight or encouragement, the preeminent source of inspiration is the Holy Spirit.

There is a danger in considering God himself to be the source of one’s inspiration. When taken to an extreme, it results in God being blamed for a lot of maudlin prose and gross violations of grammar.

Fortunately, few Christians believe their own writing is infallible. That divine quality is reserved for the Scriptures themselves.

Editors at Christian publishing houses would probably argue with my statement that few Christian authors are so presumptuous as to claim God “breathed” into them every word found in their manuscripts.

So, who is your Muse? When I said Clio is mine, it is because History—the story of humanity and especially God’s hand in it—fascinates me more intensely than any other subject. For you, it could be music or poetry.

Even astronomy has its own Muse, Urania. And, gazing at the boundless heavens God spoke into existence, it is no wonder that many would find their inspiration there.

A Classical Lewisian Poem

C.S. Lewis wrote a number of poems that are satires of Greek and Roman poetry. Some of them are quite witty.

For those interested in reading one such poem, I am pleased to offer “A Cliche Came Out of Its Cage.” In C.S. Lewis: Fantasist, Mythmaker, and Poet, Bruce Edwards describes it as “a sharp attack upon moderns who believe they are heralds of a return to the ‘golden age’ of paganism.” Included in his critique are F.R. Leavis and Bertrand Russell whose philosophy he rejected.

A Cliche Came Out of Its Cage

You said ‘The world is going back to Paganism.’
Oh bright Vision! I saw our dynasty in the bar of the House
Spill from their tumblers a libation to the Erinyes,
And [F.R.] Leavis with Lord Russell wreathed in flowers,
heralded with flutes,
Leading white bulls to the cathedral of the solemn Muses
To pay where due the glory of their latest theorem.
Hestia’s fire in every flat, rekindled, burned before
The Lardergods. Unmarried daughters with obedient hands
Tended it. By the hearth the white-armed venerable mother
Domum servabat, lanam faciebat. At the hour
Of sacrifice their brothers came, silent, corrected, grave
Before their elders; on their downy cheeks easily the blush
Arose (it is the mark of freemen’s children) as they trooped,
Gleaming with oil, demurely home from the palaestra or the dance.
Walk carefully, do not wake the envy of the happy gods,
Shun Hubris. The middle of the road, the middle sort of men,
Are best. Aidos surpasses gold. Reverence for the aged
Is wholesome as seasonable rain, and for a man to die
Defending the city in battle is a harmonious thing.
Thus with magistral hand the Puritan Sophrosune
Cooled and schooled and tempered our uneasy motions;
Heathendom came again, the circumspection and the holy fears …
You said it. Did you mean it? Oh inordinate liar, stop.

Or did you mean another kind of heathenry?
Think, then, that under heaven-roof the little disc of the earth,
Fortified Midgard, lies encircled by the ravening Worm.
Over its icy bastions faces of giant and troll
Look in, ready to invade it. The Wolf, admittedly, is bound;
But the bond will break, the Beast run free. The weary gods,
Scarred with old wounds the one-eyed Odin, Tyr who has lost a hand,
Will limp to their stations for the Last Defence. Make it your hope
To be counted worthy on that day to stand beside them;
For the end of man is to partake of their defeat and die
His second, final death in good company. The stupid, strong
Unteachable monsters are certain to be victorious at last,
And every man of decent blood is on the losing side.
Take as your model the tall women with yellow hair in plaits
Who walked back into burning houses to die with men,
Or him who as the death spear entered into his vitals
Made critical comments on its workmanship and aim.
Are these the Pagans you spoke of? Know your betters and crouch, dogs;
You that have Vichy water in your veins and worship the event
Your goddess History (whom your fathers called the strumpet Fortune).

_____

You can read about my true Muse here.

 

Adopting a Puppy

December 23, 2014 — 12 Comments

calliI recently described Henri III’s torture of puppies during his reign. The clown actually wore them, as an adornment!

In that same column, I mentioned that we were adopting a new puppy . . . and she has arrived in our home!

Getting a puppy marks a departure from our normal pattern. Our last three border collies (including the mature lady who still graces our manse) were all “rescues.”

However, we did not feel that Foxy was up to adjusting to another mature dog, since she lost Lyric last winter and her other (long-lived) sister, Tanner.

In my post about Henri III, I shared comments from two letters that C.S. Lewis wrote a century ago to one of his closest friends. Arthur Greeves had gotten a puppy, and Lewis reminded him of the responsibilities of the human member of that relationship.

Lewis wrote that it was cruel, “Unless you are a person with plenty of spare time and real knowledge, it is a mistake to keep dogs . . .”

In a subsequent letter, Lewis advised Greeves on how to choose a name for his puppy.

How’s the poor, miserable, ill-fated, star-crossed, hapless, lonely, neglected, misunderstood puppy getting along? What are you going to call him, or rather, to speak properly, how hight he? Don’t give him any commonplace name, and above all let it suit his character & appearance. Something like Sigurd, Pelleas or Mars if he is brisk and warlike, or Mime, Bickernocker or Knutt if he is ugly and quaint.

We had already chosen the name for our puppy before I found this quotation. But I think Lewis would have approved.

We named our new little girl after one of the Greek Muses, who inspired literature and the arts. Her name is Calli.

If you’re knowledgeable in mythological matters, you will recognize that it’s our nickname for Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry.

Being more of a historian than a poet, I wanted to use the name Clio, who is the Muse of History. Calli fits her better though.

Calliope is a wonderful, musical name though, since she was the chief Muse, and her name literally means “beautiful-voiced.” What a lovely name. I hope Calli learns to sing, like our first border collie, Lady. Lady would accompany my wife as she played the piano. It was quite entertaining.

If you have read this far, you too are likely a pet lover. If you have a dog, cat, rabbit, lemur or whatever, of your own, may the Lord bless it with a long and healthy life . . . just as we pray for our own little Calli.

Abusing Puppies

December 2, 2014 — 25 Comments

henriPuppies are cute and cuddly, but leave it to a French king to carry that fact to absurd lengths.

One might think owning 2,000 lap dogs is a bit overmuch. Not so Henri III (1551-1589). It would seem that after the first thousand, it might become difficult to recall all of their names, but that didn’t deter Henri.

He so loved his puppies that he used them as a form of adornment, regularly wearing them in a small basket suspended around his neck.

And, amazingly, it appears none of his courtiers mentioned that it looked quite silly. Who knows, he may have established a temporary fad, not unlike the purse puppies used by some modern celebrities to increase attention to themselves.

Puppies are on my mind now, because my wife and I have “reserved” a border collie from a recent litter.

Some readers will recall the grief we experienced when a dog we rescued a year ago, died due to an onslaught of seizures, one after the other. Lyric’s tragic passing, at a young age, was so much more difficult than the loss of our previous three who had lived well into their geriatric years.

It’s taken us a year to be willing to consider adding another dog to our family. We still have Foxy, who we rescued about eight years ago, during our final military tour in California. We decided it would be much easier for her if we added a puppy to our family this time.

I’ll write more about our puppy in the future. For now I’ll end with the “teaser” that we’re naming her after one of the Greek Muses.

C.S. Lewis loved dogs, although apparently not enough to wear them like jewelry.

In 1916, he corresponded with his friend Arthur Greeves about adding a puppy to the latter’s family. His first mention, as Greeves was contemplating the decision, reveals Lewis’ emphasis on the wellbeing of the dog over its master’s preferences.

I think you are very wise not to take that puppy from K. Unless you are a person with plenty of spare time and real knowledge, it is a mistake to keep dogs–and cruel to them.

Greeves proceeded with the adoption, as Lewis appends a postscript to his next letter, written a week later.

Poor puppy!! What a life it’ll have! I shall poison it in kindness when I come home!

In a subsequent letter, the same month, Lewis offers advice about naming the puppy that I was delighted to read. It suggests that he would approve of our decision for the name of the new addition to our family.

In the meantime, whatever name we bestowed on our new puppy, she would never need to worry about being traipsed around on display like a fashion accessory. We’ll leave that to French kings and egocentric divas.

Worshiping Thor

November 25, 2013 — 20 Comments

thorI 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.

narcissusThere is a very important mental health tome that describes psychological disorders in detail. It’s called The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

Since the American Psychiatric Association is constantly discovering new mental ailments—and they occasionally recognize that previously unhealthy mindsets and behaviors have become so pervasive they can no longer be considered aberrations—the DSM requires periodic revision.

The current authoritative version is DSM-IV-TR, or DSM, fourth edition, text revision. That means that if you were diagnosed with a defect according to the third edition standards, you may now have a clean bill of health. And, for those of you whose diagnosis is still included in DSM IV, don’t despair; they are currently consulting about version five, and who knows what psychoses may soon become “normal.”

I had to study these things during my seminary training, for my counseling work as a chaplain and civilian pastor. I was thinking about the manual recently as I pondered the spirit of Narcissus that seems to hold sway in our age. Like C.S. Lewis, I understand there is value in studying Greek and Roman myths, as many contain seeds of Truth. (Lewis’ appreciation for myth is most evident in Till We Have Faces, which is a reworking of one ancient Greek tale.)

Narcissus, of course, is the mythological Greek who was so consumed by his own handsomeness that he perished because he was unable to tear himself away from gazing at his own likeness. (The image above was painted by Michelangelo Caravaggio in the sixteenth century.)

Narcissism, which echoes his name, describes the unbridled vanity and self-concern (i.e. selfishness) that motivates growing numbers in our individualistic and hedonistic world. Since narcissism has become so rampant, the DSM now concerns itself only with “pathological narcissism.” That distinction will probably remain, even if Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is eliminated from the fifth edition as a distinct illness, as many have recommended.

God Save Us from the Narcissists

Pathological narcissists are terrible indeed. Their characteristic arrogance, envy, sense of entitlement and lack of empathy make them unhealthy members of society. In fact, large numbers of sociopaths and psychopaths are also narcissists.

But here’s the problem. At the rotten core of the disorder we find a putrid seed that negatively affects many of us who appear otherwise to be so normal. The source of the corruption is, in part, sinful pride.

Let’s take a look at the “diagnostic criteria” for NPD which confronted me when I first studied DSM III. (Perhaps you may wish to skip this section, since modest hints of some of these traits may strike close to home.) I’ve added my own introspective comments in italics.

Diagnostic criteria for 301.81, Narcissistic Personality Disorder:

A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior) hypersensitivity to the evaluation of others, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by at least five of the following:

(1) Reacts to criticism with feelings of rage, shame, or humiliation (even if not expressed).

— I’ve never “raged,” but it’s embarrassing to be criticized in public

(2) Is interpersonally exploitive: takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends.

— Never. I won’t tolerate manipulation–either as the manipulator or the manipulatee.

(3) Has a grandiose sense of self-importance, e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be noticed as “special” without appropriate achievement.

— Have I told you lately about being Thespian of the Year when I graduated from high school . . ?

(4) Believes that his or her problems are unique and can be understood only by other special people.

— Not this trait, I’m aware everyone in this fallen world is faced with challenges . . . many of them worse than my own.

(5) Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, beauty, or ideal love.

— I do daydream about accomplishing special goals, although I never lusted after power and I accepted the facts about “beauty” long ago. I have, however, found ideal love, and we’ve been married 37 years!

(6) Has a sense of entitlement: unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment, e.g., assumes that he or she does not have to wait in line when others must do so.

— I’m the opposite. I always pick the longest and slowest line to stand in.

(7) Requires constant attention and admiration, e.g., keeps fishing for compliments.

— If people weren’t so frugal with compliments, I wouldn’t need to.

(8) Lack of empathy: inability to recognize and experience how others feel, e.g., annoyance and surprise when a friend who is seriously ill cancels a date.

— Nope. I really do care about others. That’s the reason good clergy and caregivers often suffer compassion fatigue.

(9) Is preoccupied with feelings of envy.

— Well, what about those cases where the person doesn’t deserve the honors they’ve received . . ?

There, I feel much better, having made a public confession of my almost-narcissistic human self-centeredness.

In his essay “Christianity and Culture,” C.S. Lewis warns that “A man is never so proud as when striking an attitude of humility.”

When we admit, instead, that there remains much in our soul that is base and prideful, we’re on the proper path. The course that leads to a rejection of Narcissus-in-us, and the embracing of what is precious in our neighbors and our world, is the road that leads to contentment.