Myth as Myth (A few hours with “The Bible” TV Mini-Series)

I’m a sucker for religious programs and historical dramas. Put the word “Bible” into the title of a basic cable series and I’m usually there. (Oh, how I miss you Mysteries of the Bible!) If you share my passion for all things religious and spiritual you might have stumbled across The History Channels’s The Bible last night, produced by Mark Burnett (Survivor) and Roma Downey (Touched By an Angel). I found the show pretty awful across the board (though the actors certainly seemed to be giving it their all), but much of America disagreed. It pulled in thirteen million viewers, most of them from the Sunday Church Crowd (my guess).

I’m not going to get into the absurdity of the series its self, though Noah telling the first creation story in Genesis with a Scottish brogue all while attempting to plug leaks in his ark was pretty hilarious. (I was reminded of the show Killer Karaoke a few times.) I also won’t get into the Angel Battle Ninjas ™ at Sodom, and I’m not exaggerating there, promise. The Bible television show is a blood soaked nightmare with limited production values (kind of like the real thing), though I’ll give the producers credit for not casting any blondes.

My biggest problem with The Bible (apart from the Angle Battle Ninjas ™) was its lack of humor. Everything about it was demanding that I take its Biblical stories with utmost seriousness. Scottish brogue Noah should have provided a moment of comic relief, or at least a smile, instead there are storms in the sky and children being told that God loves the world so much that he’s killing nearly every living thing on it. Happy times. This is not new though, monotheisms (especially Christianity and Islam) are always serious about their mythology, even when it desperately cries out for a wink and a nod.

So many Christians demand literal interpretations of everything in the Bible, no matter how absurd or fanciful, and it borders on maddening. I don’t mean to mock or trash on anyone’s religion here, I just wish more Christians* were able to accept their stories for what they are, mythology. It should also be completely OK to be bothered by parts of that mythology. No one should have to try and rationalize Yahweh telling Abraham to sacrifice his second son as a literal thing. It’s disturbing, creepy, and really pretty horrible, but crazy-guy with voices in his head is always being analyzed as an historical figure, more George Washington than King Arthur.

As a Hellenic-leaning Pagan I love Greek mythology. I wrap my rituals in it (Saturday is the feast day of Aphrodite and Adonis), and I see it in my day to day life. When I look at the pan-pipes adorning my altar I think of Syrinx running away from Pan and eventually turning into a stand of reeds, but I don’t take it all literally. I’m not going to get into a long theological argument over whether or not Syrinx actually turned into plant matter, because I really don’t care. It doesn’t matter to me one iota, and if anyone ever made a Pan movie I’d be overjoyed to see Syrinx wink at the camera before undergoing her transformation. Myth can certainly be serious, but there’s no crime with adding a dash of fun to the proceedings.

While watching the History Channel last night I couldn’t help but compare the tale of Pan and Syrinx to the story of Lot, his family, and Sodom. Lot’s tale ends with his wife being turned into a pillar of salt, and all for just having the gall to turn around and witness the destruction of Sodom. There’s no love or joy in that story, and it’s all presented as a matter of fact. With all of the material in the Bible, Yahweh turning a woman into salt for looking over her shoulder is what you want to go with?

(The whole enterprise could have been redeemed if last night’s retelling had ended with the narrator saying “and she was the most delicious salt any of them had ever tasted.” I also can’t help but think of how the story of Lot’s wife would be interpreted if it was a tale from Classical Mythology. I’m sure everyone would talk about her transformation as simply an explanation for why the Dead Sea is so full of salt.)

It’s a shame that the more fanciful Bible stories aren’t interpreted for what they are more often. It’s mythological narrative, not a history book, and that should be OK. Christianity doesn’t invoke negativity in so many Pagans because of Jesus, or the stories. It makes a lot of us angry because of the the absurd notion that its stories and tall tales always have to be something more than that. Why is one chapter in the book of world mythology always treated as history, and the rest as simply story?

Pagandom doesn’t get wound up when the story of Cerridwen and Gwion Bach is presented as legend instead of fact. We recognize such tales for what they truly are. They are stories, they are myth, and they speak truths much like Aesop’s fables. Things don’t always have to be “literally” true for them to be true. I believe in magick, but I don’t think it can be used to guide thousands of animals onto a giant boat made by the hands of just one dude. Belief in the supernatural has to walk hand in hand with some degree of skepticism.

As nasty as Yahweh is in The Torah, it’s surprising that more people don’t interpret those stories in a less literal way. Yahweh is certainly not a deity of love, peace, or tolerance in the Old Testament. I’d certainly sleep better if I were a Christian believing those stories were only meant metaphorically. Thinking back to last night’s almost sacrifice of Issac, it’s a much more comfortable story when looked at through the lens of myth instead of the lens of history. (I know when I brought up such things in Sunday school, I was given the “God sometimes wants us to suffer and to test our faith.” Baloney. If that’s the case it’s no wonder I passed on your god decades ago.)

I’m not one for claiming that my religion is superior to other belief systems, but Paganism does have a lot of strengths missing in other faith traditions. We can laugh at ourselves, and we can laugh at our myths. Most of us don’t draw definitive lines in the sand, and the majority of us seem to be OK accepting mythology as mythology and historical fact as historical fact. We also aren’t so intractable that we are OK with accepting new information, even when it might conflict with something we desperately want to believe in.

Unless there’s a large demand for future snark I’m probably done with The Bible on The History Channel. It was completely lacking in joy, and seemed to flip from one violent moment to the next. I’m spiritual because it brings me happiness. Show me a TV version of The Bible containing a little bit of that and we might be back in business.

*Jews have always been a lot better about not taking it all so literally.

Paganism: A Tribe or Tribes?
Endings and Beginnings
Paganism: A Tribe or Tribes?
Finding the Common Ground at PantheaCon
About Jason Mankey

Jason Mankey has been involved with Paganism for the last twenty years, and has spent the last ten of those years as a speaker, writer, and High Priest. Jason can often be found lecturing on the Pagan Festival circuit, so you might just bump into him. When not reading and researching Pagan history he likes to crank up the Led Zeppelin, do rituals in honor of Jim Morrison (of The Doors), and sing numerous praises to Pan, Dionysus, and Aphrodite. He lives in Sunnyvale CA with his wife Ari and two hyper-kinetic cats.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    Next post, ‘Vikings’?

    I would guess that a lot of the issues you have with the series is the way you view it. There are a lot of people out there you don’t see certain legends as metaphors.

    When dramatising the Bible, it is obvious that the dramatic scenes are the ones to go for, especially the most well known ones. The god of the Old Testament is not a loving god. YHWH self describes as a jealous god, one easily moved to wrath. His defining stories, for the masses (who are unlikely to have actually read the Bible), include the exile of Adam, and his woman; the razing of Sodom and Gomorrah; the Biblical plagues; the fall of Jericho; the testing of Job; the trial of Jonah… All examples of a god trying to consolidate power through dominance and fear.

    Apply a literal interpretation to these (and other) myths and we get to see a rather petty god struggling for control.

    Apply a metaphorical interpretation to the myths and we can see a (largely nomadic) people with no true homeland struggling to survive in harsh (desert) environs whilst facing hostile tribes all around them. The ability to endure fear and adversity are essential traits for survival.

    • Ywen DragonEye

      A jealous god of war chosen as the “only” god by a desperate people.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        I wouldn’t describe YHWH as a god of war. Strife, perhaps, but not war.

        As to the ‘only’ god, well, that is dubious. His jealousy gets in the way of the Hebrews having a full pantheon, but he does acknowledge (either implicitly or explicitly) other gods.

        If you look at him in the right way, he actually fits the criteria to be defined as a djinn. So not even a god at all.

        • Ywen DragonEye

          It may be wrong, but I do recall reading somewhere that when the Hebrews were polytheists, YHWH was their god of war. I should look for the reference and try to fish out its validity.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            That’d be an interesting reference to hear about.

  • Katherine

    Well said Jason! I was so looking forward to the series and I was very disappointed.
    I was also brought up Catholic, attended Catholic Schools and was never satisfied with the answers the Nuns would give me when I asked any type of deep question about God or the Bible. I have much respect for Jesus as a man who once lived and preached about loving his fellow man. I very much enjoy your articles, keep up the great work!

  • rainbowgryphon

    I didn’t see the series, Jason, but I agree with your points about the Bible being much more meaningful as myth. I’m thinking of Joseph Campbell here.

    The way I see it, all scriptures that are taught as literal history are taught so by a small group of people with an agenda for the purposes of control. Follow the rules and believe the narrative and you are one of US. I won’t say that all scriptures were created that way, but in being taught as literal history, they’re being used for that purpose. There’s nothing, for instance, barring anyone from doing the same with Greek myths and controlling people based on their literal truth. It’s a very effective way to control people!

    I do want to point out one thing, though, that I don’t agree with, which is in your footnote. I was born Jewish, and I can’t agree that Jews have been a lot better in not taking these stories seriously, by which I supposed you mean literally. In my experience, it’s more that Jews don’t try to convert people, so they’re less vocal about what they really think to non-Jews. I’ve known Jews, including in my own family, who are just as Bible-thumping as some Christians; they just only do it to other Jews. :-)

    Thank you for this honest, thoughtful post.


    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      I don’t see that literalism is required in order to use scripture to control.

      In fact it is often easier to use scripture as metaphor if you want control. Literalism makes things black and white: Honour thy father and thy mother – respect your parents.
      Metaphor can be used to rule on shades of grey: Honour thy father and thy mother – respect the ‘parent’ Church. (Priests are often called ‘father’, are they not?)