Myth & More


Myth is a necessary way of understanding, but it is deeply misunderstood. The place of myth—and its misplacing—have a lot to do with the divide between fundamentalists and other believers.

Myth does not mean “things that aren’t true.” Rather, the “language” of myth has to do with what is truly timeless. Myth is not bound by the limits of historical thinking, which deals with time-bound and passing phenomena. Myth is a witness to the fact that some things are true forever. Jesus told stories that are not historically true (the parable of the Prodigal Son, for example) but point us to enduring truths.

There is a debate in Christian circles over the historicity of the Fall. It exists in muted form even in nonfundamentalist circles. What primordial event might have happened to explain our current sad state? In the Orthodox Church, interpretations have ranged from the allegorical to the literal. In the Roman Catholic Church, Pius XII (who opened up Catholic biblical studies in many ways) wanted to hold on to some version of Adam and Eve having actually existed.

The caution of a religious or theological tradition is understandable. To throw out or doubt the truth (which is not to say the facticity) of a traditional story, rather than try to see it clearly in its context, without present prejudices, leads to wildly silly things, like just about anything Bishop John Shelby Spong writes. But to be so cautious as not to see how myth works is also to...

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About the Author

John Garvey is an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal. His most recent book is Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.