A Storied Faith

MYTHS, FABLES & PARABLES

People have been explaining themselves, their relationship to the gods, and what life means with myths for thousands of years, before language began to be written down and ever since. One of the first epics to be recorded, the Babylonian tale of Gilgamesh, is about our desire to overcome death. Norse mythology (my favorite) shows us that wisdom comes at a terrible price: Odin, the father of the gods, plucks his eye out and drops it into Mimir’s well to become wise.

There is a depth in the Norse myths that I never found in those of the Greeks, whose gods seem to be humans writ large and stupid: bigger versions of ourselves and our passions. Even if some of this is true of the Norse myths, there is more there: the purity of Baldur, the trickery of Loki, who is so like the tricksters Spider and Coyote in African and American Indian traditions. These stories were easily remembered and passed on in preliterate culture, and, when written down, became the basis for everything literary that happened from then on, from Homer to Joyce, for example, or Kafka, or anyone who turns to fable and parable. In some ways the best modern narrative work in short stories or novels functions as myth, offering us ways to read and interpret our lives through Gatsby or the brothers Karamazov.

Nonbelievers say that humans have created the gods, or God, in their own image, and that is certainly true of the gods who serve as patrons of wine, war, sex, wisdom, and so forth. Monotheism changed all that by making God essentially other, so Moses is not given God’s name or any way to control or define him. “I will be what I will be.” “My ways are not your ways.” The Anglican theologian Charles Williams said that God commanded us to build altars so that he could send down the fire somewhere else. This is, I think, essential to Christianity. To think that we can know or conceptualize God in any way is folly. Any concept of God is an idol.

And yet there is something right in the storytelling element of our relationship to God. When I was a child I loved Padraic Colum’s books. Colum was an Irish poet, playwright, and Commonweal contributor who wrote a series of books to introduce children to the great myths (and one for adults: Orpheus, Myths of the World). He was a wonderful storyteller whose book on the subject, Story Telling New and Old, is worth any parent or teacher’s time. His The Children of Odin was important to my early spiritual development, and may still be doing its work. I heard the gospel better for it, and I am sure that such deep listening can happen to whole cultures. A nonbeliever might say that this shows only that Christians, like the Greeks and the Romans and the Norse and Africans and American Indians, projected their notions into a fabulous realm and drew metaphysical and moral conclusions from fantasies.

Instead, I think that God made us as people who see our lives as stories with a beginning, a middle, an end, and a purpose. Myths address this aspect of our being. We need them at many levels (fairy tales are important, and children who never hear them are terribly deprived). God’s revelation of God’s relationship to us took storied forms, played out in myth (Eden), mythical lives (the patriarchs), and history turned to mythic uses (the exodus from Egypt, the Babylonian captivity). The stories in the Bible—stories about Job, Ruth, and the prophets—form the way we think about our relationship to God. In Christ this is taken to a radical extreme: God becomes one of us, as powerless before evil as we are, and is murdered. This is not an incarnate god like Krishna, who can (quite wonderfully in the Bhagavad-Gita) switch instantly from flesh to divinity; Jesus was not a divine being clothed in flesh but a completely vulnerable human being who can be nailed to a cross and still be divine. This takes us to a new place.

In the story of the final judgment in Matthew 25 we see how unimportant ostensibly religious acts are, and how important unreflected-on kindness and compassion are (as well as unreflected-on hard-heartedness): in each case one asks, “When did we do—or fail to do—these things?” The lesson seems to be, this must become part of your instinctive nature, for good or ill. And there is the story of the two sons asked to work in the fields; one says he will, and does not, while the other says he will not, but relents and goes anyway, and is obviously the hero of the tale.

If nothing else proved the divinity of Christ and of Christian revelation to me, this would: Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, the story we most need to hear, in four sentences.

He knows us.

Published in the 2010-12-03 issue: 

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

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