Press "Enter" to skip to content

Category: Bible

Myth

02

Back when I taught introductory high school courses in literature, every year started with a lesson in myth. American literature classes read Columbus’s 1493 Letter to King Ferdinand of Spain Describing the First Voyage. World literature classes considered the Yoruba story of The Golden Chain. In freshman classes, we looked at the first two chapters of Genesis.

I taught at a Christian school. And by their junior year, most students had been through this unit two or three times. They knew in a general way where I was headed. But in my other classes, things didn’t go so well.

I persisted.

In the first weeks of school, students still have good intentions, so for the most part they listen with intent. As I ran through the initial outline, smiles would inevitably spread as it became clear that I was probably going to hell. (There’s nothing like a teaching train wreck to lighten the day of your average high school student, and every kid knows a certifiably crazy teacher will ruin the year for some and provide limitless conversational fodder for the rest.) But by the end of the first few minutes, those smiles would be fading. Fast.

That’s when I could count on some volume.

Interruptions, urgent questions, waves of murmuring. Students shouting. Students covering their ears. There were always tears.

I persisted.

Myth, I proposed, is any story of origin. If it’s a story – and if it tells of a beginning – it’s a myth. Myths answer questions of identity, purpose and morality. Myths are how a culture – all cultures – encode the answers to life’s most important questions for the shaping of future generations. A culture’s best literature, then, is always built on myth.

Other literature may be commercial or educational or transactional or technical.

But good literature – the stuff that lasts, the stuff that gets passed from generation to generation, the stuff that we’re expected to have read and to know – it all contains myth or is built on myth or is myth. Together, that body of literature contributes to a culture’s mythos, its best answers to life’s big questions.

Romeo & Juliet is built on myth. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn challenges myth. The Bible contains myth. It also comments on myth, questions myth, compares myths, challenges some competing myths and provides space for the acceptance of others. Genesis 1 and 2, for instance, are separate myths, and in some important ways, they disagree. Theologians would probably argue that they’re not so much in competition as they are in conversation. Which seems – considering that the two accounts have been placed side by side at the start of the Bible, not to mention the fact that they both lay a foundation for the same culture – a pretty strong point.

I recognize that for some readers, this conversation might be covering new ground. Or creating a bit of cognitive dissonance.

Yet I persist.

Here’s the problem: many of my students were raised in a religious culture that is anti-myth. A culture that doesn’t know how to value the Bible (let alone the myths it contains).

It’s a culture that thinks Genesis is an incomplete history. It’s a culture that thinks Exodus is an unfinished travelogue. It’s a culture that thinks Leviticus is an obsolete legal code. It’s a culture that thinks Numbers is a sloppy census. It’s a culture that thinks Deuteronomy is an abbreviated repetition of all those other Bible bits. It’s a culture that reads all the gospels as a conflated Jesus story – one with wise men and shepherds; Anna, Simeon, and the Egyptians; 8-day-old Jesus, 12-year-old Jesus, a metaphysical Word-and-Light show, and the real Jesus.

It’s a culture that fervently wants for the Bible to be commercial or educational or transactional or technical.

And this, too, is my culture. I was raised in it. I live and work in it. More times than I can count, I’ve felt suffocated in it. Frustrated by it. Angry with it.

But I persist.

And I find that my people mostly know that the Bible – if it’s going to mean anything at all – must be something more than a commercial. It must be something more than a primer. It must be something more than a medium of truth exchange. It must be more than a collection of basic instructions before leaving earth.

And I find that my people – especially those that are spiritual but not religious – need the kind of mythos the Bible already offers.

And I find my people wondering whether the myths in other cultures might teach us something about our own.

In the meantime, I expect the volume to rise. I expect shouted interruptions, urgent questions, waves of murmuring. And tears.

In my life as a teacher, discomfort almost always led to growth.

So I persist.

Here’s the problem: many of my students were raised in a religious culture that is anti-myth. A culture that doesn’t know how to value the Bible (let alone the myths it contains).

Opening

02

A grocery store in town has automatic doors that slide open as shoppers approach. It’s no big deal. Most stores do. But a few weeks ago, as I rushed from the store, the infrared sensor didn’t sense me. The door didn’t open. I ran into the glass. I was both embarrassed and frustrated. Later, it seemed that what I had experienced might have been a bit of a spiritual awakening.

Spirituality, I’ve reasoned, is like a series of openings. If spirituality is a fundamental dimension of my humanity, then it’s a series of openings that are mostly invisible, taken-for-granted, automatic. If I don’t notice these openings – to beauty, to wisdom, to intimacy, to understanding, to truth – if I fail to see (let alone value) those gifts to which I’m granted access, then I simply don’t know that I’m spiritual. If I never embarrass myself by running up against the glass, I may never learn that I’ve been living in two worlds. I may never learn to fully live.

What does it mean to be spiritual? I think it is a kind of awareness of the openings that allow me to transcend the purely physical, the purely literal, the purely logical. An awareness that grows into desire.

Origen of Alexandria (185-251) discusses spirituality in a treatise on Interpreting Scripture. In Rowan Greer’s translation of the text, Origen explains a three-fold method for understanding the Bible. The first of these is to view biblical texts or narratives as a “body, that is a logically coherent narrative meaning.” There are stories that say what they’re about. The second of these is to view biblical texts as a “soul . . . [that] bestow the greatest instruction upon those who hear them.” These are texts that we learn to interpret and explain. The third of these is the spirit, where “spiritual meaning is involved.”

I’ve run up against the glass. Then I realize that, of course, even scripture is an opening; and I want to cross over, to step through, to enter in. I want to be spiritual. And spiritually aware. I want to live.

I want to cross over, to step through, to enter in. I want to be spiritual. And spiritually aware. I want to live.

Change

02

When Zachariah Dicks visited Friends in Georgia in 1803, he predicted that the house in which they met – only five years old at the time – would soon stand empty. “O Bush River! Bush River! How hath thy beauty faded away and gloomy darkness eclipsed thy day.” Only five years later, what Dicks foretold had come to pass. Bush River’s member meetings in South Carolina and Georgia had been disbanded. The roughly 500 Quakers of Bush River had moved away, most of them to Ohio.

The issue was slavery.

Many early Quakers in America owned slaves, and when George Fox made his 17th-century visit to American Friends, he urged them to treat their slaves with kindness, to educate them (an open violation of the law) and to “let them go free after a considerable term of years, if they have served . . . faithfully.” William Edmundson offered Friends an additional challenge: “Many of you count it unlawful to make slaves of the Indians, and if so, then why the Negroes?” Eighty years later, traveling minister John Woolman further identified slavery as a kind of moral disease motivated by “the love of ease and gain.”

But effecting change proved difficult.

Southern Quakers argued that purchasing a slave often prevented the separation of man and wife or parent and child. In addition, Friends in North Carolina had learned from painful experience that their former slaves could be seized by their non-Quaker neighbors and once again sold into slavery. In many meetings, then, trustees were appointed to receive transfers of ownership for the slaves, giving freedom while legally binding these “ex-slaves” as property of the entire meeting. Others worked together to get slaves to the North, where they could be free.

Every step closer to abolition of slavery made southern Quakers a nuisance to their neighbors. So when Zachariah Dicks visited Bush River, he found an audience that Errol Elliott describes as “tired and largely hopeless. They had stood firm, but uprisings and violence” in the region had convinced them that war was imminent.

So they left, sold their property and resettled in Ohio, where they helped build up towns like Salem and Springboro – stops on the Underground Railroad.

Many early Quakers in America owned slaves, and when George Fox made his 17th-century visit to American Friends, he urged them to treat their slaves with kindness

PO Box 751 . Newberg OR 97132-0751