We’re way past Genesis at this point, but like the poor, the issue of non-historical scripture will always be among us. Most people know of the genre of “parable” because they’re in the Gospels, but “myth” is very poorly understood and the term carries a lot of negative baggage. You have to be very careful throwing around the term. One simple definition of myth is that myth is worldview in narrative form. That is, it’s a way of explaining one’s conception of how the world works, in everyday language.
John Walton, another Evangelical Old Testament professor who’s recently earned my respect, elaborates on myth this way.
“Mythology by its nature seeks to explain how the world works and how it came to work that way, and therefore includes a culture’s ‘theory of origins.’ We sometimes label certain literature as ‘myth’ because we do not believe that the world works that way. The label is a way of holding it at arm’s length so as to clarify that we do not share that belief – particularly as it refers to involvement and activities of the gods. But for the people to whom the mythology belonged, it was a real description of deep beliefs. Their “mythology” expressed their beliefs concerning what made the world what it was; it expressed their theories of origins and how their world worked. By this definition, our modern mythology is represented by science – our own theories of origins and operations. Science provides what is generally viewed as the consensus concerning what the world is, how it works and how it came to be. Today, science makes no room for deity (although neither does it disprove deity), in contrast to the ancient explanations, which were filled with deity.” From Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, p. 14-15.
NPR recently provided a perfect example of modern myth. Radiolab featured a discussion with Dr. Fred Coolidge about the hypnic jerk. That’s not a certain kind of internet troll, but that thing you do when you’re 90% asleep, and suddenly… your legs kick and you’re wide awake. That’s a hypnic jerk. No one really knows why it happens.
Coolidge suggests that way back in the past, primates underwent a transitional period between living on the ground and living in the trees. They returned to the trees at night because it was safer, but lived primarily on the ground. Falling out of the tree at night would likely cause injury and expose you to predators on the ground. A monitoring-and-correction system or a subconscious “am I falling out of the tree?” reflex could conceivably be an evolutionary advantage, one passed down to us as a vestigial sleep habit. In other words, evolutionary biology may explain the hypnic jerk and why so many people dream about falling.
The whole series (of which the hypnic jerk is part six) is interesting and worth listening to, but here’s a rough transcript of the relevant part between the two hosts and the sleep professor.
Prof: “If some of those primates had that behavior, they may have been just slightly more likely over millions of years to adapt and survive.”
Host1: “We haven’t gotten rid of it yet, is what you’re saying.”
Host2: “So that’s my jerk, is basically so I don’t get eaten by a lion, all these many years?
Host1: Yeah, that’s what he’s saying. Sort of like a Lucy echo.
Host1: ‘Do we know this, or are we just imagining…?
Host2: “NO, how are we gonna know this? It’s just a story!” (laughter)
In the last statement, Host 2 recognizes that what they’re telling is a myth, a story (albeit a scientific one) that explains how the world works, as well as the fact that said story can’t be empirically demonstrated.
Can scripture include myth? Or put differently, did ancient prophets share the worldview of their culture and the world around them? I think it’s clear they did, and that God’s revelations to them were adapted and expressed through that worldview. (I should point out, at least two important LDS General Authorities disagree, but that’s for the next post. This is turning into a series.)