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Myths: Redemption, Not Reproduction

Guest Blogger: H.G. Ferguson

Recently the question of how mythology relates to Christian fantasy — if it relates at all — was raised on Speculative Faith by Elijah David, and by Mike Duran, and the conclusion reached is that myths can be “redeemed,” i.e., mythological creatures, stories et al. can indeed be woven into a Christian story’s framework to bring glory to God. Both writers cite Lewis and Tolkien, of course, who mined different mythologies to bring forth characters like Mr. Tumnus and whole plots like a magic ring. Both David and Duran encourage Christian fantasy writers everywhere to follow suit. Duran even asks whether or not all myths can be redeemed, not just certain ones.

There are those, however, who strenuously disagree. Many Christians believe any and all “paganism” in a Christian story automatically infects and corrupts it, since God condemns pagan gods and practices thoroughly in the scriptures. Therefore, any tale that has anything “from a pagan source” is inherently suspect and actually quite dangerous, even inspired by the devil. Google this mindset and you’ll find it swiftly. Narnia is corrupt, LOTR is corrupt, it’s all corrupt and evil because it has things in it that come from paganism. For these folks, myths cannot be redeemed, period.

Unfortunately, people who assert this don’t understand … (gasp) … Psalm 29.

Photo by tverdohlib • Fotolia

Photo by tverdohlib • Fotolia

Psalm 29 is a hymn to YHWH’s majesty and power. It also is, practically verbatim, a hymn to the god Ba’al. Google this if you doubt me. Yes, the very Word of God settled forever in heaven (Psalm 119:89) contains a hymn to a mythological deity in it! Oh, the unutterable HORROR of it all! Well…not quite. It was originally a hymn to Ba’al, but now there is one tiny little difference. The name YHWH replaces the name of the pagan god. This is YHWH’s way of saying I RIDE THE STORM, NOT HIM. It is also the example par excellance of redeeming a myth, because God redeems this one Himself. The Holy Spirit inspired the Psalmist to take this hymn and tell the Truth. These are pagan words from a pagan source, but they honor and praise the true God, YHWH. Because they are redeemed. Not … reproduced. Keep the name Ba’al here and the myth remains unchanged, untrue, and dishonors the REAL Rider of the storm. Redemption, not reproduction. The truth about Psalm 29 silences as far as I am concerned the objection that anything from a pagan source corrupts a Christian story. Not if it is redeemed, Jack.

So yes, myths can and should be redeemed, but there is a danger here, as Duran rightly observes, and care is required. There is a solemn warning in 2 Timothy 4:3-4 about those who will depart from the faith and wander away into “the myths,” i.e., mythology. This is reproduction, not redemption. Historically this referred to the gnostics but in our day it also applies to some who think they can pretty much mine/write whatever they want and still claim they are honoring God. When myths are reproduced, this dishonors the one who said I AM YHWH…YOU SHALL HAVE NO OTHER GODS BEFORE ME (Exodus 20:2-3).

Now what do I mean by this? Let me give you an example.

The phrase much in vogue today is “What if?” But a Christian writer who actually believes the Bible is God’s Word and that it is objective, absolute truth should never ask that question without asking first WHAT DO THE SCRIPTURES SAY? That determines our “what ifs.” There won’t be a “what if” if that “what if” is the opposite of what God says. Or there could be, but then that’s a lie, is it not?

One thing unifies all pagan mythologies, whether they be Egyptian, Norse, Celtic, Greek, or Slavic (and all of these can be rich sources of story fodder). That one thing is polytheism, many gods, some battling each other, some hopping into bed with each other or taking delights with mortal men and women, ad infinitum et nauseam. Why nauseam? Because polytheism cannot be redeemed and still remain polytheism. A polytheistic story universe does not honor the One who said, “I AM YHWH, AND THERE IS NO OTHER. BESIDES ME THERE IS NO GOD…BEFORE ME THERE WAS NO GOD FORMED, AND THERE WILL BE NONE AFTER ME” (Isaiah 45:5, 43:10).

So if a Christian writer thinks he or she can honor the God Who spoke these Words by creating a universe with many gods in it, even one with a “high god” at the top, and all these beings are called gods and they are indistinguishable from the mythology from which they were drawn, think again. This is reproduction, not redemption. It may sell books and not offend people, but it certainly would offend God. He says so.

Some claim Tolkien crossed this line with his Valar, but any careful reading of his corpus will not substantiate the allegation. There is no polytheism in Tolkien, Eru Iluvatar alone is God. Tolkien redeemed the notion of “gods” with a little g by making his Valar created beings, subservient to Eru and the workers of His will, much like the angels. The Valar are never called “gods” except by mistaken Men. In Numenor there was only one holy place, the Meneltarma, and that was sacred to Eru Iluvatar alone. The Valar are respected, but not worshiped. Redemption, not reproduction. (And by the way, in Lewis, Oyarsa is not Maleldil).

Redemption, not reproduction. My current WIP set in 1850 northwestern England involves some denizens from British/Nordic folklore — fairies, goblins, palug cats, a bad-tempered fachan, a wight — even a human/non-human married romance! But all these beings have a relationship with God, the real God, the True God, the same way the Christians and unbelievers in the story do. Not the same relationship, but the same God. Some spit in God’s face, others serve Him, whether they be human or not. This is what I mean by redemption, not reproduction. I could populate my tale with all manner of things indeed, but if this relationship with God is not there at the center, then I have merely reproduced the old tales, complete with their presuppositional framework of polytheistic gods. The real God, the True God, He would not be there. The old gods who are not gods would be. I could indeed pen such a tale so as not to “offend,” but my Bible tells me Jesus Christ is to have the pre-eminence in all things (Colossians 1:18), including what I write. A story using myths mined from pagan religions that avoids every Christian reference might make me successful, but what is my true motive in doing so? This is not redeeming myths for the right reasons, it is reproducing them for every wrong reason imaginable.

As a Christian who believes the Bible, I cannot do that. I will not do that. I won’t check my faith at the door in an effort to look like the world so I can be popular and not offend. Far better I offend men, but not God, who calls me to be true to His Word.

And myths? Yes, we can redeem them. We should redeem them. Even must redeem them, perhaps. May God give us the wisdom to do so in creative ways that truly honor Him as we write our stories according to His Word and to the praise of His glory.

 

author HG Ferguson

HG Ferguson

Author, theologian, graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary and Oral Roberts University, HG Ferguson brings biblical truth and articulate power to bear upon matters of both spiritual arcana and his work as a writer of horror fiction from a thoroughly scriptural perspective. Always outside the box of convention, but never outside the lines of what God has told us in His Holy Word. In his metaphysical horror novel Jezebelle, the darkness haunting a small southern town takes a road trip—into implacable evil and mindless destruction. And some Light too.

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7 comments on “Myths: Redemption, Not Reproduction

  1. I agree with you in that I am uncomfortable with stories with multiple gods. I think it is a mistake to for Christian authors to stray from monotheism.

    However, I disagree with you to a degree on Tolkien. Modern neo-pagans embrace him with enthusiasm. The nuance between “g”ods and “Gods” is lost on most people.

    I think Tolkien made a mistake in the Silmarillion. I agree that he attempted to redeem the “gods” but I think we would have to say objectively that he mostly failed. Only a relative handful of Christians even read the Silmarillion. From the admittedly non-random sample of neo-pagans I have personally known (around a dozen), they read the Silmarillion with gusto and don’t object in the slightest to anything Tolkien said there. They see the Paganism and don’t notice how it was changed.

    Tolkien was human. It is almost seen as blasphemous to suggest otherwise in some circles, but he was capable of making mistakes. There is a reason the lost world embraces him fully with the vast majority of his fans having no idea he even wrote with Christian themes at all.

    That isn’t to say the C.S. Lewis approach is the only alternative. It isn’t. But I thought a bit of correction about Tolkien was in order. Even though I found myself mostly in agreement with you about everything else you said.

  2. Thanks very much for your response and your support, it is much and deeply appreciated. We can adopt the classic “agree to disagree” on this item :), but I’m not 100% comfortable with Tolkien’s Valar, just as I am not 100% comfortable with some of Lewis’ notions either, nor did I mean to imply a carte blanche on either of them. As far as pagans go, let me be characteristically blunt 🙂 that SOME pagans have been kinder to me than SOME Christians! Let the pagans see what they will in The Silmarillion, it’s impossible to read the opening words of that “Bible for Middle-earth” and not hear Genesis 1:1. And you may be dead on about most Christians having never read The Silmarillion, but every Christian needs to read Akallabeth, the Downfall of Numenor, the most powerful thing spiritually Tolkien ever penned. And if you’re not a Christian, you just will not “get” what that is all about. Thank you for your response, it is SO nice not to be ignored! 🙂

  3. Great topic, HG! I appreciate your championing holding onto our faith and writing stories that honor our Triune God. My first novel draft was ‘Christian light’ because I didn’t yet know how else to write for Christ. Over time, I’m hopefully learning how to place God in the story’s center or there is no redemption.

    I loved the Narnia Chronicles, first reading them as an adult believer. I am moved by the stories creative fantasy, joy, depth and redeeming hope. Of course, it helps that Aslan tells one of the characters (Lucy?) that He is known by a different name in her/our world.

    I enjoyed LOTR movies (somehow couldn’t get into the books) but can’t say I saw Christ in them. The themes of faithfulness, love, loyalty, sacrifice are clearly there. But, if Tolkien meant to bring people to faith, I’m not sure how that was supposed to work. Tolkien, I’ve read, was upset that his friend Jack (CS Lewis) was so openly a Christian apologist. Not sure what that was about!

    How do you feel about stories that use other names for God, alluding to Him but not by our names? How do we help non-Christian readers know our intention at glorifying Him?

    • Thank you for your gracious response, and the support. You raise very important questions. I will attempt to answer them briefly :). Regarding Tolkien, Tolkien is what Jesus called the treasure hidden in a field — you have to dig for it. He disliked allegories and said he much preferred history, whether real or imaginary. He did indeed think Lewis was too explicit, but that was just a difference in the men, their temperaments, their own personal prejudices, likes and dislikes. We all have them. Yes, Christ is present in LOTR — Gandalf, Aragorn and Frodo all remind us of Jesus in different ways, but they are NOT Christ — they are Gandalf, Aragorn and Frodo. Much has been written about this. I highly recommend this short youtube video, where actors portrayed Lewis and Tolkien discussing and debating truth before Lewis came to Jesus — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NzBT39gx-TE. Tolkien preferred to be symbolic, but you have to dig for it. I hope to talk about that here at another time in the future.

      As to other names of God, He may have many names already. We may not be alone in this universe, and if there are indeed “aliens” for example, they know who He is and have their own relationship with Him, as the SF film ENEMY MINE so beautifully depicts. I have no problem with God being called by other names in other worlds, as long as this does not descend into the darkness of polytheism (many gods of which he is just one more) or henotheism, where he is the high god at the top with everybody else who are also gods arranged below in a pecking order. 9 times in Isaiah 45 alone YHWH says I AM GOD THERE IS NO OTHER in different ways. That’s the truth. You are on the right path, His path. God’s deepest blessings on you and your writing!

    • Yikes, I forgot your last question. Mea culpa. The answer to that question lies in the Holy Spirit, the scriptures, and you. In short, I can’t answer that for you, only He can. In my horror novel (gasp!) Jezebelle, only two characters are Christians — Holly Clark the librarian and my protagonist’s grandmother. Holly is subtle, but the granny is pretty open about her faith, as a southern Christian woman of color would be (I was partly raised by one, so I know of what I speak). But the worldview of this story throughout, the story of the lost soul Jezebelle who made her choice and now pays for it, is contrasted with Shoshanah, who is just as physically beautiful but is driven to destroy this evil thing or die trying. Shoshanah’s struggle with Jezebelle is a reflection of her own struggle with the evil in the world around her, and within herself. The last scene of the story ties it all together. Does anybody get saved “on screen” in Jezebelle? No. But the truth that there is way that seems right to us but it ends in death is the point. So how do we help non-Christian readers see our intention? One step at a time, one theme at a tine, one verse at a time. Some stories will be more “explicit” than others here, however He leads, what His purpose is from tale to tale. But that’s between the Holy Spirit, the scriptures, and me. So go to the Lord, to His Word, and ask Him to lay on your heart how to do this, and what. He’ll answer you. Oh, He’ll answer you indeed!

  4. The times I read Silmarillion, I viewed the Ainur/Valar & Maia as no more than versions of the angelic hierarchy which God/Eru Iluvatar allowed the choice of taking physical form to enter and govern the world. Although Tolkien drew on mythologies (particularly Norse & Celtic) and archetypes from them for the entire Arda cosmology, I never had the impression they were pagan substitutions for Christianity; neither did I feel he was trying to ‘redeem’ the mythologies. He used what he felt was needed to build the milieu and adapted ancient text styles (such as Poetic Edda and Prose Edda — I’ve read both and more) to lovely effect.

    But I can’t help but wonder sometimes whether we — in our advanced and highly educated 20th/21st century Christianity — missed something in our understanding. I used to have one of my grandmother’s old college Lit-Myth books that had Alfodr (Allfather) as a separate and superior entity to Odin rather than one of Odin’s alternate names. Similarly, I read an 1800s monograph with a curious translation about Poseidon, saying “the sea-face of God” rather than “the face of the sea god” as one would expect. What did some of those ancients really believe? Are these breadcrumb hints about God revealing Himself to those who never heard of Him or of Christ (hearkening perhaps to Rom 1:19-21 and Rom 2:12-16)?

    No doubt, such in-house questions could be endlessly & fruitlessly debated, but they seem to be unanswerable this side of eternity.

    Personal perspectives — everyone has them. 🙂

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