A favorite accusation of non-believers is that Christianity is a mish mash of ancient myths warmed up and served again. The fairy tales of incarnate gods, virgin births and dying and rising gods are simply re-framed in Christianity. Is Christianity merely paganism warmed up? Is Christianity a fairy tale or a myth?
C.S.Lewis discussed the topic with his friend J.R.R.Tolkien. Both men were brilliant scholars–Lewis a professor of English literature and Tolkien a philologist. Both were lovers of ancient folklore, myth and legend. They understood that myth, legend and fantasy stories operate in a profound way within the human imagination. As the hero goes on a quest to slay the dragon, rescue the fair maiden and find the treasure we go on that journey with him. A transaction takes place in which our heart and mind are shared with the hero’s and a spiritual and psychological transformation occurs.
The Catholic Tolkien asked Lewis (who was then still an atheist) why he was so attracted to the myths and legends of the ancient world, but when he met the same sort of story in the gospels he rejected them. Tolkien explained that the stories of the Bible work on us just like other myths except they really happened. Eventually Lewis came to accept the existence of God, then finally the Christian faith. His understanding of how the Christian story works “as a myth that really happened” changed his life and opened the door for him to become one of the world’s greatest Christian writers.
Therefore when skeptics say that Christianity is a myth or a fairy tale the best response is Tolkien’s: “Yes, they are myths that really happened.” In order to explain what this means we must consider how the Christian stories are presented. From the beginning of the Hebrew Old Testament the stories of the Bible are woven into human history. The writers of the Old Testament insist that the patriarchs and prophets were real human beings who lived in an identifiable place at a particular time in history. While all the historical details may not be verifiable by modern historical techniques, the fact remains that these stories were not presented as fantastical fairy tales or mysterious myths, but as history. The fact that the great sagas of the Old Testament work on us like myths or fairy tales is fascinating, but that does not mean they are all fiction and fantasy. Instead we have a unique and astounding collection of ancient literature: stories and legends that work on us as myth, but which are presented as history.
The same is true of the stories of the New Testament. The birth of Jesus Christ, the stories of his ministry, his life, death and resurrection are presented as real historical events. In the gospel stories the great themes of death and re-birth, sacrifice and service, heroism and the battle against evil are all re-told, but this time it takes place in real time with real people. The Christian story gathers up all the myths and fairy tales and does not copy them, but fulfills them. As the Jewish prophecies looked forward to the coming of Christ, so the pagan myths, in their own way, served as pointers and hints of the coming incarnation of God as man.
A practical man may well ask what this has to do with everyday life. It has everything to do with everyday life, because if the great myths and stories of heroes came true in the Bible stories, culminating in the life of Christ, then by imitating Christ, the Christian believer embarks on his own heroic quest. He sets out on his own adventure to slay the dragon, overcome evil and fight valiantly for beauty, truth and goodness. As he follows Christ the great myths and stories can be lived out in his own ordinary life.
Too often the Catholic faith has been reduced to a set of rules, regulations or dogmas. The rules, regulations and dogmas are important, but they are the map for the adventure. They are not the adventure itself. A new understanding of the importance of myth and fairy tales will help believers see the quest to follow Christ in a new and exciting way. Far from being dusty old tales of ancient times, as the popularity of C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien proves, myth and fantasy stories remind us that in hearing the call to follow Christ we embark on the greatest adventure of all.
Fr Dwight Longenecker’s latest book, The Romance of Religion–Fighting for Goodness, Truth and Beauty, is published by Thomas Nelson. Visit his blog, browse his books and contact him at dwightlongenecker.com