Mere Creation: Lewis on Myth, Truth, Fact and Genesis
What, then, did Lewis think specifically about Genesis 1-3? Did he consider the opening chapters of Genesis to be myth, or history, or science, or what?
Ever since George Smith discovered and published the ancient Babylonian creation story, Enuma Elish, in 1876, theologians, biblical scholars and informed laypeople have been aware of the fact that the book of Genesis was not written in a literary or cultural vacuum. As other ancient Near Eastern creation stories have been brought to light we have come to know a lot more about the intellectual, cultural, theological, and literary milieu within which Genesis was written, giving us an unprecedented opportunity to assess just what sort of text Genesis is. Taking all of this new evidence onboard, the majority report among contemporary biblical scholars is that the ancient texts which Genesis chapters 1-3 resemble the most are ancient Near Eastern myths—an observation which suggests that that is probably the best way to read Genesis, as well. In fact, most mainstream biblical scholarship today would understand Genesis to be an Israelite revision or version of prior mythical creation stories.
This critical consensus had more or less already been settled within mainstream scholarship by Lewis’s day, and Lewis directly addresses these matters in chapter XI of Reflections on the Psalms. He begins by dispelling the misperception that he believes “that every sentence of the Old Testament has historical scientific truth.” On the contrary, says Lewis, “[This] I do not hold, any more than St. Jerome did when he said that Moses described Creation ‘after the manner of a popular poet’ (as we should say, mythically) or than Calvin did when he doubted whether the story of Job were history or fiction.”1
Lewis is doing two things here: First, he is staking out his own position as a critically informed interpreter of Scripture, and, second, pointing out precedents for his approach in the grand Christian Tradition, namely Saint Jerome and John Calvin. Lewis was too well read to fall into the all-too-common misconception that all Christians were wholesale biblical literalists before the dawn of the Modern era. Figurative readings are, in fact, well represented among the best of the Church’s historic interpretations of Genesis. Recognizing that fact, Lewis was perfectly happy to grant the emerging scholarly consensus about the genre and origins of Genesis. He writes, “I have therefore no difficulty in accepting, say, the view of those scholars who tell us that the account of Creation in Genesis is derived from earlier Semitic stories which were Pagan and mythical.”2 Lewis goes on to sketch his idea of how God could “take up” a clutch of Pagan myths, guiding their tellers and re-tellers over the generations so as to make the stories His own:
Stories do not reproduce their species like mice. They are told by men. Each re-teller either repeats exactly what his predecessor had told him or else changes it. He may change it unknowingly or deliberately. If he changes it deliberately, his invention, his sense of form, his ethics, his ideas of what is fit, or edifying, or merely interesting, all come in. If unknowingly, then his unconscious (which is so largely responsible for our forgettings) has been at work. Thus at every step in what is called–a little misleadingly–the “evolution” of a story, a man, all he is and all his attitudes, are involved. And no good work is done anywhere without aid from the Father of Lights. When a series of such re-tellings turns a creation story which at first had almost no religious or metaphysical significance into a story which achieves the idea of true Creation and of a transcendent Creator (as Genesis does), then nothing will make me believe that some of the re-tellers, or some one of them, has not been guided by God.3
Lewis’s belief that Genesis, as we presently have it, was fashioned out of an extended, divinely guided oral and written tradition of telling, modifying, and retelling “earlier Semitic stories which were Pagan and mythical” and that Genesis itself is “mythical” fits squarely within Lewis’s incarnational and sacramental understanding of Scripture. God “takes up,” as Lewis says, human literature, blessing, shaping, and sanctifying it for His own mysterious redemptive purposes. “Thus,” writes Lewis, “something originally merely natural–the kind of myth that is found among most nations–will have been raised by God above itself, qualified by Him and compelled by Him to serve purposes which of itself it would not have served.”4
It should be clear by now that for Lewis “myth” is not a bad word. It does not necessarily carry connotations of falsehood or contrivance or deception or muddle-headedness. Being a “myth” or a “folktale” does not, for Lewis, disqualify Genesis as the most sublime articulation of the doctrine of creation found anywhere. As he writes in chapter IV of his book Miracles:
No philosophical theory which I have yet come across is a radical improvement on the words of Genesis, that “In the beginning God made Heaven and Earth.” I say “radical” improvement, because the story in Genesis—as St. Jerome said long ago—is told in the manner “of a popular poet,” or as we should say, in the form of a folk tale. But if you compare it with the creation legends of other peoples—with all these delightful absurdities in which giants to be cut up and floods to be dried up are made to exist before creation—the depth and originality of this Hebrew folk tale will soon be apparent. The idea of creation in the rigorous sense of the word is there fully grasped.5
For Lewis, myth is a highly imaginative way of speaking about the world that can speak truth at least as well as history or science can—indeed can sometimes speak truths about which history and science must remain silent. For Lewis, “myth” hardly means false. Lewis had no trouble calling Genesis mythological, not because he had a low view of Genesis, but because he had a high view of mythology. In fact, says Lewis, “Even assuming (which I most constantly deny) that the doctrines of historic Christianity are merely mythical, it is the myth which is the vital and nourishing element in the whole concern.”6
Perhaps Lewis’ clearest exposition of his view of myth is to be found in his short piece, “Myth Became Fact,” which you can find in his book of essays, God in the Dock. Lewis argues that, far from being inevitably false, myth is uniquely able to articulate abstract truths in concrete terms. “In the enjoyment of a great myth,” he writes, “we come nearest to experiencing as a concrete what can otherwise be understood only as an abstraction.”7 In our usual experience, abstract truths and concrete experiences are quite opposed to one another:
Human intellect is incurably abstract. Pure mathematics is the type of successful thought. Yet the only realities we experience are concrete–this pain, this pleasure, this dog, this man. While we are loving the man, bearing the pain, enjoying the pleasure, we are not intellectually apprehending Pleasure, Pain, or Personality. When we begin to do so, on the other hand, the concrete realities sink to the level of mere instances or examples: we are no longer dealing with them, but with that which they exemplify. This is our dilemma–either to taste and not to know or to know and not to taste–or, more strictly, to lack one kind of knowledge because we are in an experience or to lack another kind because we are outside it.8
Abstract truths are not true in the same way that historical truths are. Two plus two did not equal four only once in a particular place and time. Two plus two equals four in all places and times. It is not a historical fact, but an abstract universal truth. But there are other abstract truths and concepts besides necessary logical and mathematical ones which similarly transcend space and time, like Personality, or Pain, or Justice, or the Human Condition. Truths such as these, according to Lewis, can often be better illuminated and communicated by means of mythology than they can by theoretical treatises.
Take, for instance, the phenomenon or concept of narcissism. We may describe narcissism in two basic ways, mythically or conceptually. The myth of Narcissus, classically set out by Ovid in book III of his Metamorphoses, is well known. A famously handsome hunter, Narcissus, is led by his enemy to a still pool of water where Narcissus catches sight of and falls deeply in love with his own reflection. Unable to pull himself away from the beautiful countenance looking longingly up at him from the pool, eventually there Narcissus dies. There is narcissism in a nutshell. Compare the myth of Narcissus, however, with the definition of narcissism found in Webster’s Dictionary:
nar•cis•sism noun \ˈnär-sə-ˌsi-zəm\
1: egoism, egocentrism
2: love of or sexual desire for one’s own body
Now, clearly, if one were to propose the above dictionary definition as the meaning of the myth of Narcissus, there would be a way in which such a proposal would not be completely off-base. But, still, to flatten the myth into a dictionary definition is inevitably an impoverishment, and, clearly, if one wants to really get a handle on what narcissism is, the myth beats the dictionary, hands down. Lewis writes:
[When reading a myth you] are not looking for an abstract ‘meaning’ at all. If that was what you were doing the myth would be for you no true myth but a mere allegory. You were not knowing, but tasting; but what you were tasting turns out to be a universal principle. The moment we state this principle, we are admittedly back in the world of abstraction. It is only while receiving the myth as a story that you experience the principle concretely.9
To really taste abstract realities, one needs myths—not definitions, abstract theological accounts, or philosophical expositions.
So, what follows from this for our understanding of what Lewis means when he says that Genesis 1-3 is myth? Two things are clear: First, Lewis is not using the word “myth” as a loose term of opprobrium, connoting falsehood or silliness or any such thing. Rather, he means by “myth” a very specific literary genre, which he takes to be the genre of the stories of Orpheus and Eurydice, of Narcissus and the pool, of Icarus and Daedalus, and also of Adam and Eve. He comes to this conclusion primarily on literary grounds, reading the texts in their contexts and on their own terms. When he takes that same literary critical approach to the rest of Scripture, he finds not a book of nothing but mythology, but a book packed with a kaleidoscopic variety of genres: epics, chronicles, psalms, proverbs, hymns, poems, apocalyptic visions, Greco-Roman biographies, histories, epistles, and more. Moreover, Lewis makes it quite clear that Christianity, mere Christianity, depends ultimately on the miracle of the Incarnation, which Lewis takes to be the fundamental Fact at the core of human history. So there is no reason whatsoever to think that if Lewis takes Genesis to be myth, he is on a slippery slope towards taking the whole Bible to be myth as well. That’s a silly argument and people need to stop making it, whether they agree with Lewis or not. As Lewis would be quick to point out, to make a “slippery slope” argument is to commit an informal logical fallacy, in any case.
It is clear, too, that for Lewis good myths put us in touch with abstract reality in a way that neither abstract definitions nor historical anecdotes can. Good myths really do illuminate and convey realities and are, in that sense, true, even if that which they narrate never occurred in space and time; that which they narrate is not fact, per se. Myths are true not if (and only if) what they narrate happened, but if they make vivid intangible, unempirical realities. The truth of Genesis chapters 1 and 2-3, then, lies not with their historicity or scientific accuracy, but with their ability to help us to taste the bittersweet human condition as both akin to and estranged from God and to see the world as it is, as God’s good handiwork and cosmic cathedral. So, then, for Lewis, one need not assess or defend the historicity of these stories, but only to receive them as they are and to taste and see that the Word of God is, indeed, good.
My sense is that many American Evangelical admirers of Lewis would be surprised by Lewis’ overall theology of Scripture, to say nothing of the ways in which Lewis’s ideas about Scripture anticipate the proposals of current controversial scholars like Peter Enns and Kenton Sparks. Regardless, it would be a mistake to think that Lewis had simply capitulated to the Spirit of the Age or to Darwin here. He hadn’t. Lewis had too much backbone for that. Lewis was a professor of literature, a man trained in the reading, understanding, and appreciation of texts, and his literary instincts, given the available evidence, led him to the conclusion that Genesis was myth. Meanwhile, his theological instincts led him to the conclusion that that was perfectly fine. He knew that figurative readings of Genesis were well represented in the grand tradition of the Church and took the deliverances of modern biblical scholarship to be not a betrayal but a refinement of that tradition.
Tomorrow, Lewis and the Fall.
1. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, 109
2. Ibid, 110
3. Ibid, 110-11
4. Ibid, 111
5. Lewis, Miracles (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1996), 47
6. Lewis, “Myth Became Fact,” in God in the Dock, 64
7. Ibid, 66