Monday, June 2, 2008

Follow-Up

Some of you know that in my day job I'm an archaeologist. Field season has begun, and that means long hours for me, with the unfortunate side effect of giving me less time to post. Let me reassure you, however, that book reviews are coming: we have Space Vulture in the near future, and Snuffles and I have just finished reading and watching for a joint project we think you'll enjoy.

In the meantime, I will present a brief follow-up to yesterday's post, which included a lengthy quote from J. F. Bierlein's Parallel Myths. This quote, I believe, nicely captures the two major Christian viewpoints on mythology, which parallel the two major Christian viewpoints on fantasy literature. As Bierlein correctly notes, the divide here is not between liberal and conservative Christians. Both views are held by conservatives.

Readers might expect me to side entirely with the second viewpoint and to condemn the first one, but I don't intend to do so. It is my opinion, rather, that the two seemingly incompatible viewpoints need to be wedded. The first view is too fearful; it finds refuge in ignorance, and it cannot withstand close scrutiny of scripture, which reveals mythological borrowing. However, the second viewpoint is, at least potentially, too naïve. Comparative mythology and comparative religion have their uses, but they often stress similarity while ignoring important differences. In the realm of comparative mythology, for example, we have Joseph Campbell, who in The Hero with a Thousand Faces tries to cram everything into his Jungian interpretive scheme, including some things that won't fit.

The great sin of pluralism, which sometimes underlies comparative religious studies, is that it will not allow the religions to be the religions. It will not allow them to stand on their own as unique institutions with distinctive theologies. The problem with Jungians like Campbell is that they will not allow the myths to be the myths, which stand on their own with their distinctive characters, narratives, and meanings.

I think many Christians are guilty of something similar. It has become fashionable among Christians to imagine every hero in every story as an image of Christ, so every story, no matter what it's about, becomes a story about Jesus. This may be exciting at first, but eventually it will run into the same problem every other such interpretive scheme has; I once met a professor who expressed it something like this: "It's really exciting to read every story as a tale about men oppressing women or the rich oppressing the poor--for about five years. After that, you begin to wonder why you bother to read stories at all." If we read every story as a messianic parable, we may eventually begin to wonder the same thing. A well-rounded Christian way of interpreting stories, whatever it looks like, must be able not only to recognize parallels, but also differences. It must be able to point out good elements as well as deficiencies in a myth. It must be able to use the myths to show how Christianity fulfills universal human needs, but must also allow the myths to stand on their own as important stories in and of themselves. In must incorporate the positive aspects of the second viewpoint described by Bierlein, but must also recognize, as does the first viewpoint, that pagan myths are pagan.
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