The True Myth and Challenge of Belief

871832The Christian faith has a lot in common with other religions.  We find story after story of dying and rising gods in ancient literature.  Isn’t the story of Jesus just another mythical story?

Well, yes.  And no.

CS Lewis writes in his essay “Myth Became Fact” (found in the book God in the Dock):

Now as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth.  The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact.  The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens – at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical person crucified it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate.  I suspect that men have sometimes derived more spiritual sustenance from myths they did not believe than from religion they professed.  To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths. The one is hardly more necessary then the other (God in the Dock, 58-59).

Of course Christian faith has much in common with other faiths, myths and stories.  Truth, wherever it is found, whether in religion or philosophy or a good novel, points to the ultimate truth.  The difference, Lewis argues, is that in the story of Jesus Christ the shadowy unhistorical myths become real and true history.  Jesus’ resurrection took place in a real time and place.

Believing that such a thing really happened is not easy.  It is difficult to believe in fantastic things, as I wrote about recently.  Yet “belief” itself needs some sort of definition.  For some Christians, including me at various points in my life, belief merely meant assent.  To believe then was to assent to a series of statements.

Did Jesus rise from the dead?  

Yes, I consider that to have happened.

Did Caesar cross the Rubicon?

Yes, I consider that to have happened.

The problem here is that merely assenting to things does not affect your life much.  I fear that often what goes by the name “Christian apologetics” has its goal to convince people to assent to the truth of Christian faith.  So we defend our view and offer arguments targeted at the rational mind.  Can we get them to flip their vote from “no, of course Jesus did not rise” to “yes, it makes sense to say he did”?

Lewis goes on to write, “A man who disbelieved the Christian story as fact but continually fed on it as myth would, perhaps, be more spiritually alive than one who assented and did not think much about it.”

Yes!  It is not that Lewis thinks believing it to be fact is unimportant (read the first quote up above again).  But he recognizes that simply believing does not count for much.  How does it change your life?  If Jesus is risen then everything is different.

Life has the last word, not death.

Hope has the last word, not despair.

Love has the last word, not hate.

 

Stephen King, CS Lewis and Believing Fantastic Things

51s5tovoubl-_sx302_bo1204203200_Stephen King’s novel Salem’s Lot is the story of how vampires destroy a small town.  In the midst of this, some characters figure out what is going on and try to rouse the town to fight back.  They run into many obstacles, such as skepticism.  At one point a priest, Father Callahan, is trying to convince a family their son is targeted by the vampires:

“Let’s talk a little more first. I’m sure your witnesses are reliable, as I’ve indicated. Dr. Cody is our family physician, and we all like him very much.  I’ve also been given to understand that Matthew Burke is above reproach…as a teacher at least.”

“But in spite of that?” Callahan asked.

“Father Callahan let me put it to you. If a dozen reliable witnesses told you that a giant ladybug had lumbered through the town park at high noon singing ‘Sweet Adeline’ and waving a Confederate flag, would you believe it?”

“If I was sure the witnesses were reliable, and if I was sure they weren’t joking, I would be far down the road to belief, yes.

Still with a faint smile, Petrie said, ‘That is where we differ.”

“Your mind is closed,” Callahan said.

“No – simply made up.”

When I read this I could not help but think of CS Lewis’ children’s story The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  In this story a young girl named Lucy discovers a secret door into the land of Narnia.  Her brothers and sister do not believe her.  Then one of her brothers, Edmund, goes through the door too.  Lucy is ecstatic.  Finally her story will be believed!  Yet Edmund, in a moment of sheer meanness, says he saw nothing and that he and Lucy were just pretending.  She’s just a dumb kid, after all.

The older siblings go to a wise old Professor.

“How do you know?” he asked, “that your sister’s story is not true?”

“Oh, but – ” began Susan, and then stopped. Anyone could see from the old man’s face that he was perfectly serious. Then Susan pulled herself together and said, “But Edmund said they had only been pretending.

“That is a point,” said the Professor, “which certainly deserves consideration; very careful consideration. For instance – if you will excuse me for asking the question – does your experience lead you to regard your brother or your sister as the more reliable? I mean, which is the more truthful

“That’s just the funny thing about  it, Sir,” said Peter. “Up until now, I’d have said Lucy every time.

The Professor encourages them, in light of her past trustworthiness, to trust Lucy now.

The idea is the same as that in Salem’s Lot: it is possible to believe impossible things if trustworthy people share them.  If we do not rule out certain possibilities at the outset we may come to see that fantastic  things could be true.

Lewis would draw a real world conclusion from this.  Certainly humans do not usually rise from the dead, everyone knows that.  But if people we can trust report to us that once someone did rise from the dead and if we can think of no ulterior motives or other possibilities for what happened, then it makes sense to believe them. This is what happened with Jesus.

Do you buy it?   

I do.  Of course, I can see how others wouldn’t.  Its fantastic.  Heck, believing in vampires and magical worlds through doors may make more sense.  But what if the reports that have been passed down through the ages are true?

It changes everything!  It changes how we look at the world.

Is the world hopeless or hopeful?  Well, what if the story of the world is not one that ends in death but one that ends in the hope of new life?  What if, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, the arc of the universe truly is curved towards justice?  Not because humans are so great and can work really hard and build something (I think history shows us that’s too optimistic) but because there is a Being we call God working behind the scenes to ensure that in the midst of all the hopelessness and death, there is hope and life.

I’ll take the fantastic and hopeful explanation.  Its all that can get me out of bed in the morning.

 

Devotional Recommendations?

Students and friends often ask me what books I would recommend for devotional reading.  I admit I am not entirely sure what sort of book they are looking for.  If by devotional they mean a book they can read a few pages each morning that will provide spiritual reflection throughout the day, then nearly anything can be a devotional!

One thing I have found helpful for devotional reading is Prayer Books, such as the classic Book of Common Prayer.  Such books provide prayers to read each morning, noon and night as well as scripture.  Or you can just use the prayers and then read whatever scripture you like.  Recently I’ve been using Shane Claiborne’s Common Prayer: Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.  Rather than reading the suggested scriptures, I’m reading my own bible passages of choice (two chapters of Exodus and one of the Gospels right now, if you’re curious.  Another prayer book I’ve appreciated is Phyllis Tickle’s Divine Hours.

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If you want to go a different direction, in the last year or so I discovered a whole series of devotional books that come from the work of some of the best spiritual writers throughout the history of the church.  All the books in the series are “Praying With…” someone and I’ve prayed with the likes of Julian of Norwich, Thomas Aquinas, Benedict, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Catherine of Siena and Francis of Assisi.  I’ve long liked reading history and these sorts of works.  These books are nice because they give good background on each author as well as commentary on their work.  Each day includes scriptures, prayers and questions you can journal about or think on during the day.  Plus, you can get them used quite cheap!

Ultimately, this series points me to the best of what “devotional” literature can be.  It does not replace reading scripture; engaging with scripture should always be a part of our spiritual practice. Yet we recognize that we are influenced by our own culture and experience, so we look to spiritual guides from past places and times in whom the Spirit has worked.  Sitting at their feet, reading their words, helps us to grow.

Finally, if you aren’t sold on that series, I can think of lots of books that have been helpful to read a page or two a day.  Basically, a list of some of my favorite books!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer – Cost of Discipleship

Philip Yancey – What’s So Amazing About Grace

Richard Rohr – The Naked Now

Barbara Brown Taylor – An Altar in the World

Thomas a Kempis – Imitation of Christ

CS Lewis – Mere Christianity