Christianity and Mythology

by Andrew Simmons                                                                           Thursday,  April 10

“The content of myth is always concrete; in myth it is a question not of God in general and humankind in general but of a definite form or instance of a definite divine revelation…For this reason, myth is or rather must be the negation of any subjectivism or psychologism…” –Sergius Bulgakov, Unfading Light: Contemplations and Speculations, p. 65

Ark-Gustave Dore

The Great Flood by Gustave Dore

It goes without saying that the film “Noah” has stirred up a significant amount of controversy due to views of the film’s politics, theology, and accuracy to the narrative. This is not one of those critiques. To be honest, the film was rather disappointing for me, and I would much rather go beyond critique for the sake of this article. What will be focused on is what has been brewing within and around events such as the Ken Ham and Bill Nye debate: the validity of myth. For many, myths are merely viewed as being synonymous with lying; others treat myths as being literal history based on a misunderstanding of the reality portrayed in myth. Myths are fundamentally a real presentation or unfolding of values cemented within a society. According to Joseph Campbell, myths find meaning and continuation through metaphor and religion (Campbell, 8). From assessing this definition, not only can “Noah” be properly explicated, but myth itself can be properly understood by a society that seemingly has lost its mythic mentality.

Mythological stories arose from a time in history in which the polis or communitas was the fundamental way of life for the various tribes and kingdoms around the world. The more individualistic and self-autonomous society we live in today is the byproduct of the Enlightenment which in itself has a basis in the end of the communal space during the Renaissance. Since even modern myths such as the Lord of the Rings find a firm foundation in the myths derived from the old Anglo-Saxon polis, there is a connection between myths and a communal way of life. Aeneas, even if he does not create the city, is the great mythological figure of the Roman people. He is the great paterfamilias (father) that both exemplifies the values and instills the value in his people. What Virgil is not doing is creating simple propaganda, but, rather, is embarking on the creative journey that one day assumes him in the myths of Dante.

For Dante, Virgil is the objective presentation of pagan virtue who finds his meaning throughout the whole of the pagan (or at best Roman) communitas. In much the same way, Aeneas is made to reflect the values that the entire community holds to. Their objectivity is grounded within a communal way of living, and, as such, they do not reflect the subjective psychological views of the individual (Bulgakov, 65). The same can be said of Noah, Abraham, and the other mythic figures of the Old Testament. It is Kierkegaard who has to ponder the psychology of Abraham in his Fear and Trembling for the myth does not. Abraham can be a titanic figure of faith that does not question God’s word for he is the father of his people and objectively reflects them. The same goes for Noah of which there is no account of his subjective views in the narrative itself. When Babylon conquered Assyria and brought an end to their polis, they presented a mythological account of their god Marduk making the cosmos from the corpse of the Assyrian god Tiamat; when they brought down the Assyrian community, they ended their world and replaced it with their own. But with this comes a serious question: is the myth of the people or imposed on the people?

The answer to the question is placed within the context of the myths themselves. When Aeneas travels from the ruins of Troy to Italy, he is always under the pressuring auspices of Fate. When he seeks his own individual pursuits, Fate is always present through the god Jupiter who takes away friends, family, and the aspirations of Aeneas. In Roman society, the rule of Fate through the gods exemplified their emphasis on right and wrong (verum and falsum) (Zuckert, 58). From it, the great legalists and ethicist such as Cicero emerge to expound upon morality and the rule of law. Within the Greek polis, truth claims were bound up within the word aletheia which means the disclosure of being (Zuckert, 38). From this, the mythological stories of the Greeks present a means of disclosing being (Zuckert, 58). Aristotle and Plato mention Homer and critique him, but they are indebted to Homer and wish to expound upon what he has set in motion. The God of the Biblical myths provides an intriguing impasse for He offers both commands, but there is also a mystery interwoven throughout the narratives.

Despite the commandments, the Biblical myths have continued to maintain a tradition of commentaries that further pass on the narrative even if they are not myths themselves. The commentaries are referred to as the Midrashim of which Father Robert Baron considers the Noah film a part of. Additional texts include the Babylonian Talmud, the Dead Seas Scrolls, and possibly the Medieval Jewish philosophers. Now, I would, as a Christian, say that this tendency has continued within the Christian community. Whether it is the stories of saints, medieval theological dramas, or even the works of writers such as Dante, the faith has not found itself within a static horizon  as seen among fundamentalists. The culmination of Biblical myths is grounded within Jesus Christ who has brought forth a new community in the Kingdom of Heaven. Christianity does not annihilate the polis, but perfects it; the Christian may find himself as a lonely individual in the world, but he is of a divine community. The Christian is one oriented towards being immersed in myth, not contrary to it.

Works Cited:

Bulgakov, Sergius. Unfading Light: Contemplations and Speculations. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 2012. Print

Campbell, Joseph. Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor.  Novato, California: New World Library. 2001. Print

Zuckert, Catherine H. Postmodern Platos. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. 1996. Print.

Andrew Simmons is a graduate from Aquinas College. He studied  for a double major in History and Theology with a minor in Catholic Studies. In 2010, during his freshman year, he converted to Catholicism. After what the responses were to Noah, he is worried that Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings” will bring the controversy scale up to a whole new level. 

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Trinity at the Red Sea

The narrative of Israel’s miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, is perhaps the most dramatic scene in the entire Old Testament. In one sense, crossing the sea and subsequently defeating the Egyptians indicates a political liberation: a people once held in bondage by a tyrant have now been freed. However, if one looks below the surface, the drama unfolding is much greater than mere politics. Saint Paul points to the deeper significance of this event when he says, “I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, and all of them were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1 Cor 10:1-2). Thus, just as the Egyptians were  decimated in the sea, so too are an individual’s sins and spiritual evils destroyed in the waters of baptism.

However, I wish to take Saint Paul’s typology further by arguing that the three persons of the Trinity are typologically present in Israel’s crossing of the Red Sea. This can be done by looking at the roles or missions of the LORD, Moses, and the fiery cloud in the Exodus and comparing them to the missions of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the gospels.

First things first, then, let’s start by comparing third person of the Trinity with the pillar of cloud and fire. The cloud has two primary missions: first, to guide the people of Israel, and second, to be the image of God’s immanent presence with his people. As a guide, the cloud not only leads the people of Israel out of Egypt but also through the wilderness, guiding them even when it is too dark for them to see (Ex 13:21). This mission of guiding God’s people is also the mission of the Holy Sprit. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth” (Jn 16:13).

The second mission of the the cloud is to make known God’s immanent presence with his people. In the Old Testament, this is seen most explicitly on three occasions: the cloud covering Mount Sinai (Ex 19:16), the cloud resting upon the tent of meeting (Ex 33:9), and eventually, the cloud coming upon the Ark of the Covenant in Soloman’s temple (1 Kings 8:10-13). In the gospels, the Holy Spirit, in the form of a cloud, does the same thing. Most dramatically this is seen during the transfiguration of Jesus (Mt 17:5-6). Furthermore, it is the cloud of the Holy Spirit that makes know the Incarnation itself! Just as the cloud of God’s spirit came upon the Ark of the Covenant in the temple, the same Holy Spirit came upon and “overshadowed” Mary, the Ark of the New Covenant, at the moment of the Incarnation. Clearly, the pillar of cloud and fire in the Exodus is, in some typological way, the Holy Spirit as seen in the gospels.

Blessed Virgin Mary, The Helper in Childbirth

The New Ark of the Covenant

Next, let’s look at Jesus and Moses. There are two specific roles shared by Moses and Christ that concretely define who they are – these are the roles of liberator and mediator for God’s people. Concerning the former, anyone who has seen The Prince of Egypt knows that Moses, with God’s power, freed his people from physical and political bondage. However, it is not until the coming of Jesus, the Great Liberator, that God’s people will finally, and totally, be freed from sin. The liberation through Moses was a foreshadowing of liberation through Christ.

The next common mission of both Moses and Christ is that of mediator. A mediator is one who acts as an advocate for a weaker party in order to reconcile them to the stronger party. In the case of ancient Israel, Moses acts as their advocate, working to reconcile them to the LORD. However, because God is utterly transcendent, no mere man, not even one as great as Moses, can fully act as a mediator between God and his people. It is not until the Incarnation of Jesus Christ that mankind has a perfect mediator with the Creator. Thus, Moses, the mediator of the Old Testament, prefigures the ultimate mediator, Christ Jesus.

Lastly (but not leastly), Let’s look at the missions of the LORD of the Exodus and God the Father. It is through God’s relationship with Moses and Jesus that the dual mission of the LORD and the Father can be illustrated. This dual mission is that of sending out the liberator and then giving divine authority to the mediator.

In the book of Exodus, it is the LORD who sends Moses to free Israel from slavery. The LORD says, “Now, go! I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt (Ex 3:10). In the gospels, God the Father acts in the same way. In that famous verse from John’s gospel, Jesus says that God sent his son into the world in order to save the world (Jn 3:16-17). God the Father saw the continued slavery of his people to sin and death, so in the definitive act of love, he sent his son to enact perfect liberty among his people.

Moses the Prince

However, God also gives authority to those whom he sends. In the OT, with the knowledge of God’s name (“I am who I am”), Moses is able to call forth God’s power such as no one before him ever could. It is through great signs of divine power that God demonstrates the authority that he has given to Moses. Now, Jesus does not need to invoke God’s name because he himself possesses “the name that is above every name” (Phil 2:9). Yet even so, God the Father affirms the authority of his Son at Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordan, at the Transfiguration, and finally, in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. In other words, the Father acts to validate his mediator not unlike the LORD in the the Exodus.

But now that we’ve compared these OT and NT characters, we need to ask, “What’s the point?”

From the Church’s very beginning, theologians such as Saint Paul and Origen, among others, have used a typological reading of the Exodus to help illustrate the invisible, spiritual realities of the Sacrament of Baptism. Likewise, by reading the Exodus in Trinitarian terms, one can use the sacramental theology of Baptism to illustrate the theological reality of Israel after their liberation from Egypt.

One example is that the Sacrament of Baptism makes the recipient a new creature incorporated into the Body of Christ. Likewise, the escape from Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea acts as the definitive “birth” of the nation of Israel. Another important example is that, just as the baptized person has the missionary mandate to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19), the people of Israel had the mandate to be “light to the nations” in order that the LORD’s salvation “may reach to the ends of the earth” (Isa 49:6).

When one reads this great story in the light of Christian tradition as a type of baptism, the theological depth of the Exodus is revealed. Salvation history is the great narrative of the Trinitarian God establishing a people for himself, a people called by God to be the “city on a mountain” (Mt 5:14) through which all creation will find true freedom and reconciliation with the Creator.

Paul Fahey is a husband, father, and catechist. He has a BA in Theology with minors in History, and Catholic Studies and is currently studying at the Augustine Institute for a MA in Theology. Click here to see his other posts for The Porch.