Christianity as the myth that came true


I started reading Northrop Frye (I discuss one of his books here) when I mentioned to a colleague that, for my lecture on Christianity and classical mythology, I had a final slide called ‘The Myth That Came True?’ He told me about how he discusses Frye’s book Words with Power in his class about theories of myth. Frye is neither here nor there for this post, though.

The idea of Christianity as the myth that came true is one associated with that group of creative thinkers and writers, the Inklings. It most famously comes up in the story of C S Lewis’ conversion from theism to Christianity. He was walking in one of the Oxford gardens with friends and fellow Inklings J R R Tolkien and Hugo Dyson about myth and truth and suchlike things. Lewis’ feeling at the time was that all that he found beautiful was untrue, and everything he believed to be true was grim. The myths, such as the Baldr and Adonis, were beautiful but ultimately empty and meaningless, not bearing truth.

This conversation with his Christian friends drove home to Lewis the idea that myths themselves carry truths, and the greatest myth of all actually was true. Christianity is the myth that comes true: the God leaves his habitation, comes down, dies, and rises again. (This is not exactly as Lewis tells it.)

In his book Miracles, when discussing the Resurrection, Lewis discusses the relationship between dying-and-rising myths and the Resurrection of the Son of God. He refers to the gods that die and rise again every year, people like Osiris or embodied at some level in Adonis, as ‘Corn Kings’, and says that there is a fundamental difference between the resurrection of Jesus Christ and corn kings, in that he rises never to die again, and sets us free from death itself. Or something like that. (It’s been a decade, people.)

These gods who die and rise, then, from Osiris in Pharaonic Egypt to Baldr in Viking Norway, are at a certain level shadows of Christ, but ultimately not the real thing. Mythology, which is the basic mode of speech of all civilization (and here I cite not merely Frye, Words with Power, but Barfield (an Inkling!), Poetic Diction), is itself an approach to divine revelation — a sort of storytelling version of St Justin Martyr’s philosophical logos spermatikos. Not only in philosophy but even in mythology has the Word of God hidden Himself only to be fully manifest in Jesus Christ.

J R R Tolkien’s idea of eucatastrophe from his essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ is another place where we see the mythic ordering of salvation history. Eucatastrophe is when everything goes horribly, horribly wrong, only to save the day. It is common in the best fairy stories, indeed, the best stories, according to Tolkien. The eucatastrophe par excellence is the death of Jesus on the cross. God dies. The Messiah is slain by foreign enemies having been betrayed by his people. And as a result, by his wounds we are healed.

These men did not simply think of myths in the way my colleagues and I like to problematise them in classes on Greek and Roman mythology. Sure, mythos is simply ancient Greek for story; Lewis and his colleagues all know that. But Lewis, having admitted that in the chapter on myth in An Experiment in Criticism goes on to discuss those particular stories that have a certain hold on us, many of which are repeated in different cultures. There is something powerful inherent in Orpheus and Eurydice, regardless of who tells us, whereas The Odyssey needs Homer’s poem.

This mythic mode, the sort also sought by their younger contemporary Joseph Campbell, is common to all cultures. And Christianity takes up the mythic mode and, rather than it being fabula makes it into historia — the stuff of flesh and blood, something you can stand on and rely on. It is beautiful and true.

Three C S Lewis Books You Should Read But Probably Haven’t

At some point in his or her reading life, the fan of C S Lewis learns that he was, in fact, a literary critic, a scholar of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Oxford and at Cambridge. This fact will probably not influence the selection of most of Lewis’s fans — it will probably deepen an appreciation of certain facets of his writing or help explain some of its oddities. Most of Prof. Lewis’s readership, however, will probably not stray far from the canon of Narnia, The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, the various collections of essays produced in his lifetime and beyond, as well as the less famous but well-worth-the-effort terrain of the Space Trilogy — Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra/Voyage to Venus, and That Hideous Strength — and Till We Have Faces with a glance through Miracles for the bold.

How many Lewis fans have read An Experiment in Criticism? Studies in Words? The Discarded Image? Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature? The Allegory of Love? A Preface to Paradise Lost?

I imagine the fans of Lewis and Milton will certainly have read that last; I have yet to, nor have I read Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature and The Allegory of Love. I intend to.

First, An Experiment in Criticism. This book is Lewis’s response to a sort of unpleasant ‘evaluative’ criticism, criticism that distinguishes between bad books and good books. This sort of reading still rears its ugly head, as Anne Fadiman discusses in her fabulous essay ‘Procrustes and the Culture Wars’ in At Large and at Small, discussing a critic who says that Huckleberry Finn isn’t even worth reading, not worthy of being called literature because of perceived moral failings on Huck’s part. True story.

It also exists all over the place, as all readers of ‘genre’ (sci-fi, fantasy, horror, mystery/crime) fiction know.

Lewis steers the reader away from such a perception of the universe, to a question rather of types of readers as against books. This distinction speaks of an attitude towards literature (or, indeed, any art). Does someone read and reread certain books multiple times? Does this person read for the sheer delight of words, images, stories, poems? Or does someone read a book but once, always seeking new territory? Does this person read for moral improvement, because these books are fashionable, because they are ‘important’?

The great thing is, in Lewis’s distinction between the many and the few regarding any art, we can all join the ranks of the many. We can all learn to reread and rewatch and relisten over and over again, to delight in words and rhythms, in brushstrokes and pirouettes, in appoggiaturas and crescendoes. It is partly a matter of attitude, partly a matter of practice, partly, in some ways, a matter of training.

I, for example, am by and large of the many when it comes to painting. I tire quickly of Attic black figure vases. Unless a painting is startingly breathtaking, I will not spend too much time on it. I believe that, with more exposure and patience, with more books about artistic technique, I could become a better ‘reader’ of paintings. If I wanted to.

So for readers.

This is not all Lewis has to say — there is a wonderful chapter on myth. But the book is worth a look. It is worth reading for making you think about how you read books, not simply which books you read. And that is a worthy endeavour.

Second, Studies in Words. To the non-philologist, this may be the most dreary of the three I have chosen to highlight. Nonetheless, this book gets my stamp of approval because his chapter on ‘Nature’ opened my eyes to some problems inherent in the study of Pope Leo.

Besides dealing with 10 particular words and how they are used and have evolved over time (nature, sad, wit, free, sense, simple, conscience/conscious, world, life, I dare say), this is one of those books that helps teach you how to read and think. You learn attentiveness to syllables, sounds, and meanings with a book of this sort. You start to watch the words you use and read more carefully.

What is wit? (See the film/play of the name!) Is there a difference between the old, 1662 Prayer of Humble Access saying, ‘…thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy’ and the Common Worship version, ‘…you are the same Lord, whose nature is always to have mercy’? What use of nature is that? I dare say that it will help you be a more careful reader, something we could all use.

Third, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature. I love this book. It opens the reader’s eyes to the mediaeval conception of the universe as well as to techniques and styles of literary rhetoric and of medieval tastes. The starkly pagan aspects of medieval philosophy are not shied away from, but the beauty of classical styles of rhetoric is upheld.

Lewis is fond of the Ptolemaic conception of the universe. In his discussion of this framework, he acknowledges the fact that it has been proven wrong. Yet who knows how accurate our current vision is? When a new spirit of thought begins to take hold, and new evidence is then discovered, then we shall no doubt dispense with it as well. In these thoughts, he is similar to Chesterton in an essay which escapes my mind, wherein G K says that it is not the visible and tangible that moves the unseen and philosophical but the other way ’round. A tree does not move the wind; the wind moves the tree.

And so, someday, as our worldview shifts, we will be able to reassess the evidence and may reach a vastly different conclusion about the makeup of the cosmos than current. It will not, Lewis admits, be Ptolemaic. Nonetheless, he is still fond of Dante’s universe, with the Primum Mobile moving everything out of Love of God. He recommends a couple of moonlit walks to help one come to an appreciation of the medieval conception of the universe.

This book also has a wonderful chapter on the longaevi, those numinous beings who inhabit so much of the folklore, myth, and literature of the pre-modern world, be they fairies, nymphs, minor gods, spirits of rivers, what-have-you. Worth a read.

But what does this have to do with Classic Christianity?

First of all, most Anglophone Christians who begin seeking older forms of our faith, especially if they are Protestants, do so either along with or through the influence of C S Lewis. A greater understanding of this highly influential thinker of the 20th century is, then, in order for such as these.

The other reasons are thus: Our access to our forebears of the faith is largely through their written words. To become better readers is to be able to better apprehend these words and thus more faithfully find a way forward in life with their aid. Fully one half of Christian history is medieval. To better understand the medieval world is to better understand our heritage as Christians. Third, much of the riches of ages past is locked away not in ‘straightforward’ theological treatises, but in poetry, in fiction, in not-so-clearly-theological philosophy, and so forth. To understand that aspect of the heritage more fully is to understand the heritage at large more fully.

Thus why you should read these three books.