Myth and Meaning with John Walton

Myth and Meaning
Conversation with: John Walton

In this video, John Walton talks about ancient myth and how we might better understand it if we think about its intended functionality—that is, myths were a way to explain a culture’s origin and universal significance though they lacked the advances of scientific discovery.

To discuss this video, see our post "On Myth and Meaning" at Science and the Sacred.

Video Transcription

The concept of mythology is an interesting one because it's a trigger word. It's a word that lots of people attach different values to, and that they understand very differently. And to some extent, it's a genre label. And we always run into the trouble with genre labels that if it's our genre label, then to use it for something else is going to be immediately that anachronistic and probably misunderstood.

We have to remember that the people of the ancient world fully believed their mythology. It wasn't false stories to them. It wasn't fables or fairy tales. Not only did they believe those myths, but they believed they were vital to the way they understood themselves and their world. Mythology was the way that they answered the questions about "who are we" and "why are we here" and "who's in charge" and "how does the world work".

To that extent, of course, and I'm not the first one to recognize this, that we can talk today about science being kind of our modern mythology because it answers the same questions. That's not a genre designation. It's just saying this is how we answer the questions about who we are and where we fit and how the whole place works.

I don't think we should be surprised to see the same kinds of things addressed in scripture because since the Israelites lived in that world, their questions were framed in very similar ways. They were asking the same kinds of things. They were familiar with the way the world around them answered them, and we find that God's revelation to Israel sometimes used that framework to answer the questions and sometimes threw it out altogether.

Neither option is any more or less God's revelation. I don't believe that the Israelites were involved in the process of borrowing mythology, but I certainly believe that the book of Genesis is trying to answer similar kinds of questions. Who are we? Where do we fit in? How does the world work? But they're doing it within totally different theological context because of God's revelation to them. But the idea that they should be asking the same questions and using the same kind of framework of communication to answer them is not a surprise at all.

This is part of what I call the cognitive environment. It's kind of the world in which they think. It's the same ways that Americans are consumers and are capitalists and believe in democracy and freedom. This is our cognitive environment. We don't have to learn it from anybody or borrow it from somebody. It's how we're raised. It's how we think, and it would be tough to get out of it if we wanted to.

And for Israel, that's that world. So they don't have to borrow anything. They're not derivative, they're not dependent on that other literature, but it's no surprise that they reflect some of the same kinds of thinking.