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The greatest myth ever told

By Donna Sinclair

It was at a seminar years ago. I can't remember what it was about, or who the leader was, but I remember the young man who wanted to argue, all day, about the Bible. He believed it was literally, historically, factually true. Sensing my unease with this position, he kept returning to it, trying to articulate it in a way I could hear. Over lunch, over dinner, he would riff through various biblical stories, and with each one he would say, accusingly, "You think this is all metaphor, don't you? You think this is myth. You think it's not true at all!"

Years later, I am still trying to find an answer for him. I'm not alone. Many United Church Christians struggle to find an understanding of Scripture they can live with -- and explain to their neighbours. Perhaps it would help if we knew exactly what myth is, and whether myths are true.

Author Tom Harpur says they are. "A myth enshrines a truth that is essential to understanding the human condition," he explained in an interview shortly after The Pagan Christ: Recovering the Lost Light (Thomas Allen & Sons) placed itself on the best-seller lists. In it Harpur traces stories of the Christ in other cultures -- the Egyptian God Horus, for instance, who was born of a virgin, announced by a star, healed people, was crucified and rose again, 5,000 years before Jesus. It's a startling look at the pervasiveness of myth, at the way members of all religions are brothers and sisters.

Harpur's mail has been running about 20 to one in favour of his thesis, that a belief system based on myth and allegory -- a narrative belonging to all people -- was simply covered over and destroyed by early Christian fathers. More startling, he suggests the Jesus we love probably didn't exist, except in our own souls and hearts. Mind you, that life is very powerful: "It came to me," writes Harpur, "with unparalleled illumination that the story of Jesus is the story of each of us in allegorical form. As spirit-gifted animals, we are crucified on the cross of matter; we are bearers of the Christ within and will one day be resurrected to a glorious destiny with God."

Harpur (also an Anglican priest) explains that seeing the Gospels as profound myth, rooted in ancient mystery religions, shouldn't really upset us. "All the great doctrines of Christianity don't change," he says. It is simply that "one sees them through a wholly different light. It is like turning a prism, so the light hits it from different angles."

Northrop Frye is a towering figure in 20th-century thought. He was bespectacled, professorial, shy, extremely witty, and always United Church. Although the fact he was clergy provoked suspicion in some academic circles, he never gave up his status as an ordained minister; his last published work (he died in 1991), The Double Vision, was a series of lectures he gave at Emmanuel College in Toronto.

Alvin Lee -- now the general editor of The Collected Works of Northrop Frye -- remembers how, when Frye took chapel services at Toronto's Victoria University where he taught for 50 years, students went more for "insight and understanding," than worship. "He was intensely visionary and intellectual."

Frye's undergraduate lectures on symbolism in the Bible at United Church-affiliated Emmanuel were packed, year after year, perhaps one reason that "myth" used in the same sentence as "Scripture" is not too frightening in this denomination. "It is impossible to demythologize the Gospels," he told his students, "every syllable of the Gospels was written in myth." But it is a particular and wonderful kind of myth, unique, self-contained, conveying deeply what it means to be human. "The language of the Bible has to be a language that somehow bypasses refutation and argument," he said. It is a "narrative and images that present a world to grasp. The end that it leads you to is seeing what it means, not in accepting or rejecting it."

Belief, in other words, has nothing to do with it: meaning, everything. The Bible tells us the "difference between life and death, between freedom and slavery, between happiness and misery." Frye understood the Bible as a work of human imagination, Lee explains, which is what shapes the world.

"All myth is the work of creative imagination, and we live by imagination." He describes his own involvement in Hamilton, Ont., city politics, and his yearning for city councillors to opt for bicycle paths and public transit over yet another massive roadway: "What will be the consequences of destroying this valley?" he says. To foresee (and avoid) such harm requires "an educated imagination," the mark of a "mature society." That's how we know the difference between myth used badly (as in Nazi Germany) and myth used well; it "allows this expansion, this good thing to happen to humanity."

Understanding the Bible as universal myth is to see it rising, like trees whose roots are deeply intertwined, from peoples all over the world and through the centuries. That's a revolution, Lee says, in the way humans think about one another: "The men and women in Baghdad become just as important as those in New York City."

Further, when we refrain from certainty, from reading the Bible as "a prescription for action in a simple- minded, direct way," we avoid the damage done by religion-tinted escapades. Lee was "very proud of Canada, when it refused to go along with the Iraq war," and he describes (as does Harpur) a fundamentalist U.S. lobby pushing a rigid vision of the Middle East. The way to tell a good reading from a bad reading of any sacred texts, Lee goes on, is that "myth opens up possibilities. It doesn't shut them down."

But what would this mean for the church? Does accepting the Bible as myth mean there was no Jesus, ever, and no star, no small children carrying presents down the church aisle at Christmas, no Joseph, no Mary, no magnificat?

Not at all. For Rev. Bruce Gregerson of the United Church's national senior leadership team, using the word mythos to describe the Bible is perfectly compatible with Jesus' presence as a living, breathing, figure in history. "We can do both," he says. "The fact that there are overall patterns, that the dying and rising God is a fundamental myth, in no way has to deny the historical understanding of the life of Jesus." We acknowledge the significance of the worldwide myths, and "we understand," he says, "that what is at work here is God's action in the world. If the incarnation takes form in the life and death of Jesus Christ, that doesn't deny it. It affirms it."

The fact a Christ story has appeared elsewhere simply reinforces the legitimacy of all faiths, and Gregersen underlines the importance of our acknowledging "there are other manifestations" of the underlying reality we call God. Myth, he continues, "is seeing and touching a deeper reality than we would usually see," and the great power of myth is to help us "see in deeper ways than the perception of the moment."

But the historical reality of Jesus still counts. "It was important that Jesus came in the midst of occupation, empire, abuse, searching for justice. We have always lived in a time when to follow Jesus was to follow ways that address historical injustices." So we can't separate the faith from the very real, very physical world around us. "If we spiritualize Jesus to a `Christ-within-us' image, and don't make the connections with the context in which we live," he says, "we are denying God's action in a particular context."

Probably that's what my friend who worried I believed the Bible stories are "only metaphor" feared. He knew Jesus was very alive, very real, in his life. One answer for people who (like him and me) have to stretch to reach each other's point of view may be small congregational study groups. Lee says any United Church group could sit down with a King James version of the Bible and copies of Frye's The Double Vision and The Educated Imagination "and get along." Harpur, too, says people "need to share their reaction," and look, even during Sunday worship, for allegorical meanings in the Gospel readings.

So if I were to meet that now-not-so-young man again today, I would say, "Yes, I think there is metaphor here, and myth. But it is not a lie. It is the deepest truth I know. It is proclamation, which we do not judge except by its own rules. It is the story of the human spirit. And it is mystery."

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