It’s been said that evolutionary atheists and evangelical creationists alike read the Genesis creation story with a crude literal-mindedness that fails to acknowledge the literary riches embedded in the text. Instead of interpreting it as the factual exposition of historical events, the reader should regard the creation narrative as a “true myth.” What could it possibly mean to say that Genesis 1 is a “true myth”? Here are the possibilities I can think of:
1. Genesis 1 fits within a literary genre of creation myths, but only Genesis 1 gets the story right.
Many cultures have myths about gods who created the universe. These myths are types: approximations to a truth that is revealed in its fullness in the Jewish Scripture. Presumably the reader can distinguish the True Myth from the other myths that get it only partially right. A True Myth that still contains elements that aren’t factually true presumably points toward its own future fulfillment in a “true” True Myth.
2. Genesis 1 is a myth that eventually proves to be verifiable as truth.
The writer of Genesis 1 didn’t know how the universe began; he wrote a story to serve as a placeholder for the truth. However, the author’s imagination was moved in the right direction by the Holy Spirit. When the empirical facts about the origin of the universe finally become known, they will confirm the mythic narrative. Until all the data are in, the Holy Spirit testifies to the reader’s spirit that the narrative is factually true even if empirical evidence is absent or seemingly conflicts with the story as written.
3. Genesis 1 is a myth whose truth is to be found in the moral and metaphysical lessons it teaches.
A Biblical myth should be interpreted as an allegory or parable. The writer of Genesis 1 tells a story to illustrate a general truth; e.g., that God can do anything, that everything depends on God, that man is similar to God, etc. The details of an allegory are largely metaphorical; they are important to the extent that they illustrate, dramatically and poetically, the “moral of the story.” The author may have chosen the mythic form in order to enhance the emotional and imaginative impact of the message on the reader. If the writer doesn’t explicitly distinguish the moral truth of the story from the allegorical details, then presumably it’s up to the reader to make the distinction. It also becomes necessary to interpret what the myth is a metaphor for. For example, Jesus’ parable of the sower isn’t really about sowing seeds; it’s about the Kingdom of God. If Genesis 1 is a kind of parable then maybe it isn’t really about creating the universe. Also, if the writer doesn’t explicitly state whether a text is to be interpreted literally or mythically, then presumably it’s up to the reader to decide.
4. Genesis 1 is a myth written by God.
The Creation story isn’t meant to be taken as factually true. It’s true in the same way that a short story is true: it contains elements of character and setting and story that hang together inside the story itself, but the story has no factual reference to the “real world.” God is the storyteller of Genesis 1. The story doesn’t purport to explain how he “really” created the universe; it’s a story intended for our edification rather than our scientific enlightenment. The story is “true” in the sense that those who read it enter into a sort of literary communion with the Author who is the source of all truth. Meanwhile, what “really” happened in the beginning remains unrevealed.
5. Genesis 1 is part of an all-encompassing myth created by God that includes not just the Biblical text but also the “real world.”
Genesis 1 isn’t to be interpreted in light of the real world; rather, the real world is to be interpreted in light of Genesis 1 and the rest of the revealed Canon. We live our lives inside a mythic reality outlined in the Scriptures. Our experiences can be interpreted only in light of the ongoing Judeo-Christian saga in which we too are characters. Empirical evidence is irrelevant because the divine saga and its truths are self-contained. Or, more strongly, even empirical evidence can be understood only within the interpretive context established by the myth.
Are there more interpretations of what “true myth” might mean? Do any of these interpretive frameworks seem particularly strong?