What They Say About “Myth” Is a Lie!

The verb you most often see associated with the noun “myth” in a headline is “debunk.” For example, “The Seven Myths about You-Name-It Debunked!”

Sadly, most people read and use the word “myth” as a synonym for “lie,” especially to refer to someone else’s belief or explanation that those who have superior knowledge can show as false.

OK. It’s true that words change not only in their basic meaning, but also in their connotation and usage.  That has been the history of the language, especially English, and no one should get upset over the fact that common parlance is no longer the King’s (or Queen’s) English. Henry Higgins and Victorian pedants and several whole generations of schoolmarms notwithstanding, English, along with every other language, changes. And the more rapid the tools of communication – i.e., all the electronic and social media, instant news worldwide, and an overwhelming surfeit of information at the touch of a screen – the more rapid language is going to change. IMHO, anyway. (As a side comment, I’m currently watching a lecture serious on the History of the English Language in the Great Courses series. Fascinating, enlightening, and enjoyable.)

That said, I lament that “gay” no longer means gay, “man” no longer is allowed to mean generically human, but I understand the change and the reasons for it, accept it, and even appreciate the need for this evolution. (And, I have the humility to let it be that it makes little difference whether I agree or not.)

I’m seriously put off, however, by the fact that I can no longer use the word “myth” (or it’s related expression, “symbol”) in a religious context without people immediately saying something like, “Well, is it true or not?” or “Did it really happen or not?” Usually this is followed by something like, “Are you saying the Three Kings (or the seven days of creation or Noah – take your pick) in the Bible is merely a myth?”

In the study of religion, myth has never meant a lie or something that is not true.  Myth always means a story that conveys a deeper meaning, something of significance to our origins, our values, and our deepest identity.  The story often takes many forms in its retelling, but the important thing is that the retelling – even if it becomes what we would call “fiction” – always embodies truth that is beyond the power of mere literalism to convey. Facts both serve and yield to truth. (If you’re up to it, check out this excellent essay on “Symbol, Myth and the Biblical Revelation” by a renowned Catholic theologian of the last century, Avery Dulles, S.J.)

For example, there are two distinct creation stories in Genesis, which, if you read them carefully, do not fully agree with one another.  But, separately and together, they convey important truths about human nature, humankind, God, and God’s relationship to us and to all of creation. The same can be said of Noah and the flood story. In fact, there are so many flood stories in ancient Near-Eastern mythology, that it’s hard to deny that they have some kind of common natural origin, whether a catastrophic tsunami caused by a comet or asteroid striking the Indian Ocean or (my favorite) the dramatic sudden rise of the Black Sea caused by rapid melting of Ice-Age glaciers (following the Younger Dryas event) which cut the Bosphorus channel.

There’s still a lot that we don’t know about the exact details and chronology of earth’s and humankind’s history and development (much less that of the unbelievably vast universe), a fact which should give us pause about trying to know too much – or at least fighting about the certitude of one’s own perception.  But one thing is for sure: the Bible is not, and was never intended to be, a scientific textbook. We don’t look to the Bible to tell us facts and details, even esoteric facts; we do look to the Bible for insight into the deeper realities of God and humanity. And those realities – “truths,” if you will – will always lead to insight, but will never capture he whole.

What launched this reflection on “myth”? Well, as I said above, I’ve been seeing a lot of headlines lately about this or that “myth” or set of “myths” being debunked , whether the subject of said “myths” is Islam or Pope Francis or cherished political doctrine of the right or the left. And I cringe whenever I hear such language. When folks claim to debunk myths, it’s always in a polemical tone. And in polemics, any desire for understanding or dialogue is the first casualty.

Our world today needs understanding more than it needs one-sided victories.

But my related sadness is that it is impossible to explore the depths and the riches of faith – Scripture, sacraments, tradition, etc. – without a willingness to understand how myth and symbol really work. When I try to talk in these terms, I’m often face with blank stares of incomprehension, no matter how much I try to define what I’m talking about.

Well, this will undoubtedly be fodder for further reflections.

BTW, regarding Noah: I found the movie wonderful. It wonderfully explored the “mythic” dimensions of the Biblical narrative in a way that allowed the narrative itself, rather than literal traditions about it, to shine through.  Two of my favorite nun media critics agree: Sr. Rose and Sr. Helena.

2 thoughts on “What They Say About “Myth” Is a Lie!

Add yours

  1. Thank you for this Fr. Tom! More needs to be said on this specific subject and the use of language in general. I believe that the use/misuse of language contributes to so much misunderstanding in the world and it is getting worse. Not only because the world is shrinking, but because of the sloppy way we use language particularly American English. I agree that one needs to accept that all languages change over time, but there needs to be some basic understanding about the meaning of words. If it is necessary to use a word to convey a meaning other than its dictionary meaning, than think of a new word. Before I go on a full blown rant about this, your study of The History of the English Language sounds absolutely fascinating! And, I too enjoyed the movie Noah. God bless you!

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