How God Redeems Pagan Imagination
Editor's note: This post is the second installment in a series titled, "Of Myth and the Bible." Brian Godawa serves as an advisor board member at Stage & Story.
In the first post of this series, I explained how myth is not a false fable or lie, but rather an imaginative expression of a culture’s values and beliefs about reality. As such, a Christian mythology is not a falsehood, but simply a way of expressing the Christian worldview through imagination.
In this post, I would like to show how God himself actually redeems pagan imagination by subverting well known mythological motifs and investing them with new meaning that incarnates a Biblical worldview. I want to address God’s conflict with Leviathan, the dragon, and the sea.
THE SEA MONSTER
In ancient Near Eastern religious mythologies, the sea and the sea dragon were symbols of chaos that had to be overcome to bring order to the universe, or more exactly, the political world order of the myth’s originating culture. Some scholars call this battle Chaoskampf — the divine struggle to create order out of chaos. Creation accounts were often veiled polemics for the establishment of a king or kingdom’s claim to sovereignty. Richard Clifford quotes, “In Mesopotamia, Ugarit, and Israel the Chaoskampf appears not only in cosmological contexts but just as frequently — and this was fundamentally true right from the first — in political contexts. The repulsion and the destruction of the enemy, and thereby the maintenance of political order, always constitute one of the major dimensions of the battle against chaos.”
For example, the Sumerians had three stories where the gods Enki, Ninurta, and Inanna all destroy sea monsters in their pursuit of establishing order. The sea monster in two of those versions, according to Sumerian expert Samuel Noah Kramer, is “conceived as a large serpent which lived in the bottom of the ‘great below’ where the latter came in contact with the primeval waters.” In the Babylonian creation myth, Enuma Elish, Marduk battles the sea dragon goddess Tiamat, and splits her body into two parts, creating the heavens and the earth, the world order over which Babylon’s deity Marduk ruled.
A side-by-side comparison of those same Ugaritic passages with Old Testament passages reveals a common narrative: Yahweh, the charioteer of the clouds, metaphorically battles with Sea (Hebrew: yam) and River (Hebrew: nahar), just as Baal struggled with Yam and Nahar, which is also linked to victory over a sea dragon/serpent.
‘Dry him up. O Valiant Baal!
Dry him up, O Charioteer of the Clouds!
For our captive is Prince Yam [Sea],
for our captive is Ruler Nahar [River]!’
What manner of enemy has arisen against Baal,
of foe against the Charioteer of the Clouds?
Surely I smote the Beloved of El, Yam [Sea]?
Surely I exterminated Nahar [River], the mighty god?
Surely I lifted up the dragon,
I overpowered him?
I smote the writhing serpent,
Did Yahweh rage against the rivers,
Or was Your anger against the rivers (nahar),
Or was Your wrath against the sea (yam),
That You rode on Your horses,
On Your chariots of salvation?
In that day Yahweh will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent,
With His fierce and great and mighty sword,
Even Leviathan the twisted serpent;
And He will kill the dragon who lives in the sea.
“You divided the sea by your might;
you broke the heads of the sea monsters on the waters.
You crushed the heads of Leviathan.
Baal fights Sea and River to establish his sovereignty. He wins by drinking up Sea and River, draining them dry, and thus establishing his supremacy over the pantheon and the Canaanite world order. In the second passage, Baal’s battle with Sea and River is retold in other words as a battle with a “dragon,” the “writhing serpent” with seven heads. Another Baal text calls this same dragon, “Lotan, the wriggling serpent.” The Hebrew equivalents of the Ugaritic words tannin (dragon) and lotan are tanniyn (dragon) and liwyatan (Leviathan) respectively.
Thus, the Canaanite narrative of Leviathan the sea dragon or serpent is undeniably employed in Old Testament Scriptures. Notice the last Scripture in the chart that refers to Leviathan as having multiple heads just like the Canaanite Leviathan.
And notice as well the reference to the Red Sea event also associated with Leviathan in the Biblical text. In Psalm 74 above, God’s parting of the waters is connected to the motif of the Mosaic covenant as the creation of a new world order in the same way that Baal’s victory over the waters and the dragon are emblematic of his establishment of authority in the Canaanite pantheon. This covenant motif is described as a chaoskampf battle with the Sea and Leviathan (called Rahab) in several other significant Biblical references as well.
When it comes to comparative studies between the Bible and other ANE mythopoeia, confessing scholarship tends to operate under a faith commitment to overwrought supernaturalism. It paints a picture of Israel’s mythopoeia as wholly other or completely alien to its surroundings, as if this is what is needed to secure religious authority behind the text. The evidence clearly contradicts such theories of “divine dictation” or modern notions of science and history. The humanity of Scriptural authorship does not negate providential divine authorship.
But critical scholarship tends to operate under a faith commitment to anti-supernaturalism. Therefore it interprets common story motifs between Baal and Yahweh as evidence of evolutionary transformation of one religion into another — of polytheism into monotheism. They reduce the Bible to derivative “mythology” that plagiarizes or borrows from its pagan neighbors. The discerning reader need not fall for the cultural imperialism of either of these modernist narratives.
Common imagination springs from what John Walton calls a “common cognitive environment” of people in a shared space, time, or culture. Walton suggests, “Borrowing is not the issue […] Likewise this need not concern whose ideas are derivative. There is simply common ground across the cognitive environment of the cultures of the ancient world.” The story of a Cloud-rider controlling the elements and battling the Sea and Leviathan to establish his sovereignty over other gods with a new world order is not a false “myth,” it is a narrative shared between Israel and her pagan neighbors that Jewish authors appropriate, with divine approval of Yahweh, as a metaphor within their own discourse. And that discourse involves subversion, the replacement or overthrow of the opponent’s worldview with one’s own.
It is no different than what we do today, as we moderns use the current science narratives of string theory or multiverses to construct our worldview and spin our science fiction just as ancient man did with the Mesopotamian or Ptolemaic universe. And as writers well know, science fiction is a morality tale about where our current cultural values will lead us in the future. Or we see the narrative of atheistic evolution seek to reduce morality, altruism, and religion into categories of its own construction and control. Political opponents on all sides in the Media construct narratives to control public discourse. The real revelation is that subversion of narrative is not a special technique used only by activists and intellectuals. It is the very nature of most storytelling through history. We are all creatures of our times seeking to control the narrative of our times, just as the ancients did. And those who control the cultural narrative, control the culture.
Great fathers of the Christian Faith subverted their cultural narrative. Curtis Chang, in his book, Engaging Unbelief, examines the apologetic work of church fathers Augustine and Aquinas. Augustine lived within the Roman Empire whose cultural narrative was the history of the “Eternal City.” So the Bishop of Hippo wrote his City of God to defend the Christian faith in terms of urban historical narrative saturated with references, motifs, and themes from classical Roman authors like Virgil and Marcus Varro. He subverted that “City of Man” by revealing the destructive pride lurking behind all human social construction. Aquinas, in his Summa contra Gentiles, appealed to the Aristotelian story of knowledge because he was addressing a Muslim culture steeped in Aristotle. But he subverted that cultural narrative by teasing out the ultimate insufficiency of human reason. Augustine and Aquinas changed their worlds through subversive literary metaphor.
Chang explains this rhetorical strategy as threefold: “1. Entering the challenger’s story, 2. Retelling the story, 3. Capturing that retold tale with the gospel metanarrative.” He writes that the challenge of each epoch in history is a contest in storytelling, a challenge to “overturn and supplant the inherited story of the epoch with its own metanarrative […] The one who can tell the best story, in a very real sense, wins the epoch.” 
The hostile “post-Christian” epoch in which we live requires enterprising believers to retell the narratives of our culture with bold fresh perspectives. Tolkien and Lewis are among the finest modern examples of subversive authors who entered into the genres and mythology of pagan worlds to harness them for Christian imagination. Tolkien’s Middle Earth abounded with the mythical Norse characters of wizards, dwarves, elves, giants, and trolls all in the service of his Catholic worldview. Lewis’s Narnia is saturated with a plethora of beasts from assorted pagan mythologies, deliberately subjugated to the Lordship of Aslan.
As a professional filmmaker I would add to these examples Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, that subversively enters the narrative of indigenous pagan earth religion in order to reveal it as barbarism based on human sacrifice. Scott Derrickson’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose subverts the materialist narrative by depicting the supernatural on trial. Horror is a genre in all the arts that tends to be considered pagan or destructive. Yet horror is another genre that the “Holy Book” uses to subvert the evil its authors fight against. Who can deny the power of epic horror fantasy in the books of Daniel and Revelation that seek to turn the fear of man into the fear of God?
The problem is that some of those who revere the Bible as their sacred text fear that engaging pagan thought forms or motifs will corrupt their narrative, dilute the truth, and drag the believer into apostasy. Hopefully, this exploration of how the Biblical authors subverted pagan narratives of the Storm God versus Leviathan the Sea Dragon will provide a boost of confidence that will help free the believing storyteller and reader from the religious shackles of fear of the imagination. For as the great artistic intellect Francis Schaeffer once wrote, “The Christian is the really free man — he is free to have imagination. The Christian is the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars.”
I am a filmmaker, so I think in terms of movies. We need more storytellers to tell vampire stories with a Christian worldview (The Addiction); more zombie stories with a Christian worldview (I Am Legend); more demonic stories with Christian redemption (M. Night Shyamalan’s Devil); more post-apocalyptic thrillers that honor God (The Book of Eli); more subversion of adultery (Fatal Attraction), fornication (17 Again), unbelief (Paranormal Activity), paganism (Apocalypto), humanistic anti-supernaturalism (The Last Exorcism), and our “pro-Choice” culture of death (The Island).
I will end with a question and a charge. With two exceptions, why were all these movies that subversively incarnate the Christian worldview made by non-Christians instead of Christians? Rise up, O Christian apologists and subvert ye the world’s imagination!
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 Hermann Gunkel first suggested this theme in Schöpfung und Chaos in Urzdt und Endzeit (1895).
 Bruce R. Reichenbach, “Genesis 1 as a Theological-Political Narrative of Kingdom Establishment,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 13, 1 (2003).
 Clifford, Creation Accounts, 8, n. 13.
 Samuel Noah Kramer, Sumerian Mythology: A Study of Spiritual and Literary Achievement in the Third Millennium B.C. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1944, 1961, 1972), 77–78.
 “Charioteer of the Clouds” also appears in these texts: KTU 1.3:4:4, 6, 26; 1.4:3:10, 18; 1.4:5:7, 60; 1.10:1:7; 1.10:3:21, 36; 1.19:1:43; 1.92:37, 39.
 KTU 1.2:4:27–32.
 See KTU 1.5:1:1–35.
 KTU 1.5:1:1–4.
 Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., The Ugaritic Pantheon (dissertation) (Ann Arbor, MI: Brandeis University, 1973), 212.
 See also Is. 51:9; Ezek. 32:2; Rev. 12:9, 16, 17.
 Ps. 89:9–10; Isa. 51:9–10; Job 26:12–13. Psa. 18, 29, 24, 29, 65, 74, 77, 89, 93, and 104 all reflect chaoskampf. See also Exod. 15, Job 9, 26, 38, and Isa. 51:14-16; 2 Sam. 22.
 John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 21.
 Ibid., 27.
 Schaeffer, Francis. Art and the Bible. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973, 91.
This post is adapted from God Against the gods: Storytelling, Imagination and Apologetics in the Bible by Brian Godawa. Brian Godawa is an award-winning Hollywood screenwriter (To End All Wars), a controversial movie and culture blogger (www.Godawa.com), an internationally known teacher on faith, worldviews and storytelling (Hollywood Worldviews), an Amazon best-selling author of Biblical fiction (Chronicles of the Nephilim), and provocative theology (God Against the gods). His obsession with God, movies and worldviews, results in theological storytelling that blows your mind while inspiring your soul. And he’s not exaggerating.