How God Subverts Pagan Imagination
Editor's note: This post is the first installment in a series titled, "Of Myth and the Bible." Brian Godawa serves as an advisor board member at Stage & Story.
Whenever I consider that I have something important to say about faith, imagination, and/or apologetics, I usually discover that C.S. Lewis has already said it long before I could, and he has said it better than I will. True to form, his famous essay, Myth Became Fact, describes the heart of Christianity as a myth that is also a fact. He comforts the fearful modernist Christian whose faith in the Bible as a book of doctrine and abstract propositions is suddenly upset by the frightful reality of the interaction of holy writ with legend, pagan parallels, and mythology.
Rather than deny the ancient mythopoeic nature of God’s Word as modern Evangelicals tend to do, Lewis embraced it as a reflection of God’s preferred choice of concrete communication over abstraction (the worshipped discourse of the modernist). He understood myth to be the truth embedded into the creation by the Creator in such a way that even pagans would reflect some elements of that truth. Thus, when God Himself incarnates truth into history in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, it is no surprise that it takes on mythopoeic dimensions reflected in previous pagan notions of dying and rising gods.
He concludes his essay with these memorable words:
We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about “parallels” and “pagan Christs” — they ought to be there — it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t. We must not, in false spirituality, withhold our imaginative welcome. If God chooses to be mythopoeic — and is not the sky itself a myth — shall we refuse to be mythopathic? For this is the marriage of heaven and earth: perfect myth and perfect fact: claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the child, and the poet in each one of us no less than to the moralist, the scholar, and the philosopher.
A common reaction of many Christians to the word myth is often one of mistrust. In their minds, “myth” means “false,” and since the Word of God can never be false, the category of myth is anathema in relation to the Bible.
But this is not an accurate assessment of the varied understandings of myth. Because of a modernist bias of anti-supernaturalism, some scholars define myth as “a necessary and universal form of expression within the early stage of man’s intellectual development, in which unexplainable events were attributed to the direct intervention of the gods.” In some critical and liberal quarters of theology, this connotation has stuck to the meaning of myth and certainly warrants critique in light of its prejudicial definition that assumes a materialist universe without supernatural agents.
But a more specific and recent definition of myth is appropriate to our discussion. In this sense, myths are, as Northrop Frye has explained, “stories that tell a society what is important for it to know, whether about its gods, its history, its laws, or its structures.” In this sense, mythical stories, whether historically factual or fictional, do the same thing; they reveal true transcendent meaning. By this definition, calling the Bible mythical in some of its characteristics or imagery is not to jeopardize its historical claims. In fact, the Bible often claims to reveal the unseen transcendent meaning and purposes behind immanent historical events. Thus, Lewis’ phrase, “myth became fact.”
OLD TESTAMENT STORYTELLING APOLOGETICS
The pantheon of gods assembles to battle the chaos monster to protect their territory and kingdom. When the waters of the heavens part, the sea dragon of chaos breaks through and leaves destruction in its wake. The pantheon fights the sea dragon and its monster allies until it is stopped in its tracks by the mighty storm god.
Those who are educated in ancient Near Eastern mythopoeia will recognize this storyline as the Canaanite epic of Baal and Leviathan or the Babylonian epic of Marduk and Tiamat the sea dragon. But what they may not know is that it is also the storyline of the 2012 Marvel blockbuster movie, The Avengers. The purpose of bringing up this point is to call attention to the modern relevancy of this ancient narrative before we descend into the turbulent sea of ancient mythological memes and motifs that are too quickly written off as petty scholarly obsession with obscure archaic minutia that fail to connect to our lives in the modern world. Leviathan vs. the Storm God is a tale we are still retelling today in cultures both religious and secular.
With the discovery in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries of pagan religious texts from ancient Near Eastern (ANE) cultures such as Babylon, Assyria, and Ugarit, Biblical scholarship has discovered many literary parallels between Scripture and the literature of ancient Israel’s enemies. The Hebrews shared many words, images, concepts, metaphors, and narrative genres in common with their neighbors. And those Hebrew authors of Scripture sometimes incorporated similar literary imagination into their text.
With regard to these Biblical and ancient Near Eastern literary parallels, liberal scholarship tends to stress the similarities, downplay the differences, and construct a theory of the evolution of Israel’s religion from polytheism to monotheism. In other words, liberal scholarship is anthropocentric, or human-centered. Conservative scholarship tends to stress the differences, downplay the similarities, and interpret the evidence as indicative of the radical otherness of Israelite religion. In other words, conservative scholarship is theocentric, or God-centered. In this way, both liberal and conservative hermeneutics err on opposite extremes.
The orthodox doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture states that it is composed of “God-breathed” human-written words (2 Tim. 3:16). Men wrote from God, moved by the Holy Spirit (2 Pet. 1:20–21). This is a “both/and” reality of humanly and heavenly authorship. While I affirm the heavenly side of God’s Word, in the next post, I will illustrate how the writers of the Old Testament both appropriated and subverted the story, imagery, and metaphor of their religious enemies as a polemic against those enemies’ religion and deities. We will take a look at my favorite creature of imagination in the Scriptures, Leviathan, sea dragon of chaos.
 C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock, (Fount Publishing, 1998, 1970), 67.
 Brevard S. Childs, A Study of Myth in Genesis 1-11, (Dissertation, zur Erlangung der Doktorwurde der Theologischen Fakultat der Universitat Basel, 1955), 1-2.
 Robert A. Armour, Gods and Myths of Ancient Egypt (Cairo, Egypt and New York, NY: The American University in Cairo Press, 2001), 2.
 A significant author of this view is Mark S. Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel's Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts (Oxford: Oxford University, 2003).
 A significant author of this view is Gleason L. Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (Chicago: Moody Press, 2007).
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.