20 December 2006

Does Genesis 1 Qualify as “True Myth”?

Filed under: Genesis 1 — ktismatics @ 3:36 pm


Last post I offered five interpretations of what a “true myth” might be. This time I’ll see how well Genesis 1 meets the criteria for each of these interpretations.

1. Genesis 1 fits within a literary genre of creation myths, but only Genesis 1 gets the story right.

Tolkein and Lewis espouse True Myth version #1 with respect to Jesus as the one true version of the prevalent myth of an incarnate God who dies and is resurrected. To claim that the Biblical version of the Creation myth “gets it right” would seem to require independent verification; i.e., that there is some definitive standard of truth against which myths can be evaluated and compared for accuracy. What should be the source of mythic verification? If it’s historical and empirical evidence, then the Genesis 1 story doesn’t stack up very well. If consensus within the Judeo-Christian tradition is the arbiter, then how can we know whether the collective opinion is accurate? If God confirms the truth of Genesis 1 via sensus divinitatus, then how are we to confirm that the source of this confirmation really is God? As far as I can determine, declaring Genesis 1 to be “true myth” by interpretation 1 just begs the question.

2. Genesis 1 is a myth that eventually proves to be verifiable as truth.

Interpretation 2 is really part of interpretation 1, which I just evaluated and rejected as inadequate. #2 more explicitly demands empirical confirmation, which is perhaps the least persuasive argument in support of the accuracy of Genesis 1.

3. Genesis 1 is a myth whose truth is to be found in the moral and metaphysical lessons it teaches.

The moral of a story is what a story means. Stories, even fictional ones, make sense of the world by making sense of the truths of the world. The events in The Lord of the Rings aren’t true of our world; the characters don’t exist here. Within the story, the characters and events fit together in a meaningful way – evil can be seductive; you can delude yourself into thinking you’re saving the world when you’re really on a power trip; and so on. These lessons might generally hold true in our world as well, but it’s necessary to evaluate whether the lesson applies to particular instances. This chocolate chip cookie that attracts me: is it an instance of evil seduction, or not? The Newtonian theory of gravity is true not as a tangible fact in the world but as an interpretive schema for making sense of a whole host of facts. Similarly, a moral or metaphysical lesson derived from a story is true not factually but interpretively; it’s a schema for making sense of certain kinds of facts. But a robust, generally-applicable moral derived from a story doesn’t make the facts of the story any truer. Evil can be seductive, and not just in Middle Earth, but that doesn’t mean that the One Ring exists in our world.

What kinds of lessons are being taught in Genesis 1? “Frodo Baggins saved the world” isn’t a general truth; it’s a broad statement of fact about the mythical world of Middle Earth, but it’s not true at all in our world. Similarly, “God created the heavens and the earth” isn’t a general lesson taught by Genesis 1. It’s a broad statement of fact in the mythical world of Genesis 1, not a broad interpretation of facts that are true in our world. The mythical truths aren’t facts; the truths are interpretations that apply to facts both in the mythical world and in our everyday world.

“Let there be light,” says elohim; and there was light – let’s say this verse from the Creation narrative illustrates the creative power of language. And it’s true: language often is powerful in our world. But just because the lesson derived from the myth is true doesn’t mean that the facts in the mythic story are true. Elohim may never have said these words; light may not have come about through an act of elohimic creation; elohim might not exist in our world. Genesis 1 might be a “true myth” in the sense of offering generally true lessons and interpretations that we can apply to our world. But interpretive truth isn’t the same thing as factual truth. The interpretive truths derived from the creation of the mythic universe in Genesis 1 might have no implications whatever about how our particular universe came into existence.

In conclusion regarding “True Myth” version #3, the Genesis 1 story might contain lessons, morals, and interpretations that are true of actual events in our world. The task of the exegete is to identify the lessons embedded in the text; the task of the person living in the world is to evaluate life situations in light of the lessons derived from Genesis 1. But the factual events of the mythical world of Genesis 1 shouldn’t be expected to bear any more relationship to the events of the world we live in than do the factual events of Middle Earth.

4. Genesis 1 is a myth written by God.

Perhaps God really did write Genesis 1, either directly or through inspiration. If so it would lend weight to the lessons the story conveys. But as in #3, even a really profound and robust lesson doesn’t make the details of the story factually true. So True Myth #4 is a kind of intensified version of #3.

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.”

Karl Barth and Hans Frei espouse this position with respect to the “Jesus Myth.” There is no need for believers to confirm the historic facts of Jesus’ life because the reality of Christ’s resurrection defines the truth of history itself. Empirical-historical reality isn’t the standard against which True Myth is evaluated; rather, the mythic reality is a standard that transcends or contains or gives shape to the material reality of facts and dates. The mythic truth receives its guarantee by the reality of the risen Christ, who in essence has absorbed the everyday world into his own mythic world. To apply True Myth version #5 to Genesis 1 it would be necessary to assert that Christ’s mythic reality extends all the way back through the Old Testament. The historical facts and empirical data aren’t important; what’s important is to live inside the mythic reality that includes the Creation, the Fall, the Flood, and so on all the way through the New Testament. Christ and the disciples seem to do just that, embedding themselves and their culture inside the Biblical reality rather than the other way around.

The challenge isn’t to verify the facts of the Genesis 1 story against the evidence. Genesis 1 is true by definition, as confirmed by the reality of the risen Christ who lives inside a Biblical reality that includes Genesis 1. The believer’s task is to understand the larger Biblical reality and to live with the risen Christ inside that overarching mythic truth. If material evidence seems to belie the textual evidence of Genesis 1, presumably your first recourse is to re-evaluate the material evidence in light of the text. True Myth #5 is a kind of holistic inerrancy position: the Bible describes a whole reality that isn’t to be picked apart and evaluated verse by verse.

I find it hard to evaluate True Myth #5. I can imagine what it might be like to live inside a mythic reality, where everything makes sense relative to the facts of the mythic world rather than those of the everyday material world. Once you make that plunge then mythic truth takes care of itself, because all truths, including empirical and historical ones, are subsumed in the overarching mythic reality. If you can find yourself entering inside this whole Biblical reality, there’s no point of contact with people on the outside. What’s real and true for you is just different from what’s real and true for me. There is no basis for an independent evaluation of version #5 from the outside. Either you accept it and live it, or you don’t.


So, does anyone agree or disagree with this assessment of Genesis 1 as “true myth”? Where does that leave us?




  1. Ktismatics,

    Is it possible for the Genesis story just to be plain wrong? I mean that as someones understanding of what they thought might have been the truth, just that its not.. its maybe plain and simply incorrect?



    Comment by Ivan — 27 December 2006 @ 9:49 am

  2. Ivan,

    Certainly it’s possible. Some emerging post-evangelicals are proposing the idea of “true myth” as a way of preserving Scriptural inerrancy while acknowledging the scientific truth of evolution. The idea is that Genesis 1 wasn’t meant to be taken as a historical or scientific narrative. Instead it’s written in the ancient Near Eastern literary genre of myth. The creation stories of the neighboring tribes were similar in some ways to the Genesis account and different in others. It’s said that, of all these ancient creation myths, only the Biblical story is “true.”

    So I’m wondering what the idea of a “true myth” could possibly mean. I’m used to thinking of a “true myth” as something like “jumbo shrimp” or “military intelligence”: self-contradictory. But I’m willing to explore the concept a little, since it seems to be gaining in popularity.

    I propose a very different interpretation of Genesis 1. Instead of a story about the creation of the material universe, Genesis 1 might be a conversation about the first systematic description of the universe. If you’re curious you can link to the Pages about the “Genesis 1 Project” and “The Seven Creations,” both of which appear at the upper right part of this blog.



    Comment by ktismatics — 27 December 2006 @ 11:01 am

  3. Hey John,

    Yes I am very interested. I will read what you have proposed. Christians tell me, that some bits of the Bible are not so well regarded. I think its stuff from the OT. They seem really happy to do so and rightly so I guess. But for some reason, people cling to certain bits with which as I understand, are very unlikely to be literal truths. (I’m still to read your work obviously) and I had often myself wondered about option C being that maybe none of the story is correct.
    I find that part of the Bible most interesting and am well pleased you write about it here!



    Comment by Ivan — 27 December 2006 @ 10:23 pm

  4. Ivan — Whether God exists or not, the Judeo-Christian heritage has been a creative one. Perhaps that creativity can be traced all the way back to Genesis 1, where it says that man himself shares the image and likeness of the creator himself. Anybody who could write that must have had a pretty high opinion of human creativity.


    Comment by ktismatics — 28 December 2006 @ 5:39 pm

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