The Bible is Not A Myth: God’s Patience with a Tone Deaf People

I don’t know where God gets the patience. We are absolutely the most difficult people to communicate with! As the Letter to the Hebrews begins, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets.” Many and various ways – thank you, God for trying everything you could think of to get through to us. And then, as Hebrews continues, “in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son”. And not just any, run of the mill offspring. No! This Son was “appointed heir of all things,” by God, “through whom he also created the worlds.” Sending such a magnificent messenger means nothing less than a passionate desire to be heard: I AM SENDING YOU MY SON, THE ONE THROUGH WHOM I DO MY GREATEST WORK TO SHOW YOU WHO I AM! IS ANYONE LISTENING??

That was two thousand years ago and still God has not abandoned hope. At least I think he hasn’t! Which is so like God. But what is so not like us is that finally, tentatively, it appears that we are beginning to get the message. At least a part of the message that has not gotten through to us before. A Spirit of renewal has been moving through Christianity. New meanings are being discovered in Scripture, meanings that are so strange and unnatural to us that they could only have come from God. Or should I say, that they could only have been coming from God for a long, long time until we finally developed ears to hear.

Myths Conceal Suffering

Part of why it has been so hard for God to get through to us is our tone deafness to the difference between myth and Scripture. We have been unable to perceive that ancient myths have a basis in reality: they are stories of violence told from the point of view of the perpetrators. Remember the old saw that history is written by the victors? Myths are like that, too. The losers don’t get to tell their story because unfortunately they are dead. So we never get to hear about the losers’ suffering or their claims of having been falsely persecuted and killed for no reason. All we get are incomplete stories in which the victim’s voice is silenced and the violence is glorified. In myths the gods battle and slay one another and out of their combat emerges fire and agriculture and all the good things humans need to flourish. In other words, the myths tell a story of how good and necessary divine violence really is.

As you may be aware, the Bible has often been dismissed as just another myth. Sadly, due to our tone-deafness, we Christians have had trouble refuting that claim. But in the last half century, since the work of René Girard has been part of theological reflection, a coherent explanation of myth and the uniqueness of Scriptures has emerged with amazing clarity. The incredible insight about myths that has been made possible by Girard and his mimetic theory is that underlying myths are actual events of human violence in which a community is formed around the expulsion or murder of a victim. In other words, it’s not the gods who are violent – the violence is ours. But in refusing to take responsibility for what we have done, we blame the gods for it.

Girard calls this scapegoating violence and we can see its echo in our world today. All of us are aware of the phenomenon of scapegoating, so much so that past accusations of guilt against minority groups arouse our suspicion. We no longer believe in the accusations of witchcraft or sorcery that bedeviled (pun intended!) the middle ages because we can sniff out the lie. We can see how a community benefits from having a common enemy to blame all their troubles on.

Scripture Sides With the Victim

That ability to detect the lie is due to the Gospels. Because of what God’s Son did for us we realize that not only is the accused innocent, but the crowd is guilty without knowing it. Girard explains the difference succinctly:

“In biblical texts, victims are innocent and collective violence is to blame. In myths, the victims are to blame and the communities are innocent.” (The One by Whom Scandal Comes, 35)

And here:

“Myths are religions of victorious false accusation. The Gospel narrative refutes not only the guilt of Jesus but all lies of the same kind, for example the one that makes Oedipus out to be a parricidal, incestuous plague-spreader.” (When These Things Begin, 92)

It still comes as a shock to us that Oedipus is a type, just like Jesus and the Suffering Servant, of someone who is hated without cause. So under the sway are we still of the mythological worldview that even though we can see the scapegoats of others, our own remain hidden from us. We still believe that Oedipus is guilty and that the chorus – that’s us! – is innocent! We prefer to remain blissfully ignorant of our similarity to the crowd that is deaf and blind to its guilt and the innocence of the one they seek to condemn.

But the God who spoke to the Hebrews through the prophets is acutely tuned in to the voice of the suffering victim. To illustrate this, Girard compares two stories of a brother murdering his brother to found culture, one from Roman mythology and one from the Bible:

“Romulus kills Remus and the city of Rome is founded…Romulus is justified. His status is that of a sacrificer and High Priest; he incarnates Roman power under all its forms… By contrast, even if Cain is invested with basically the same powers… he is nonetheless presented as a vulgar murderer. The fact that the first murder precipitates the first cultural development of the human race does not in any way excuse the murderer in the biblical text… The condemnation of the murder takes precedence over all other considerations. ‘Where is Abel thy brother?’” (Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, 146-147)

Is God’s Message Getting Through?

See the difference? Is God’s message getting through? It’s not something we could figure out on our own because we have no access to the carefully closed reality we have constructed out of faith in our own innocence and the guilt of those we condemn.

“If the Passion were only something human, the voice of Christ would have been smothered, or he would have become a pagan divinity like the rest, a sacralized scapegoat. His real message would never have made it to us.” (When These Things Begin, 91)

The full revelation that our reality depends on being tone deaf not only to God’s messengers but to the cries of our victims awaited its fulfillment on the Cross. We are slow learners. But God understands our resistance to hearing the truth about ourselves. To be Christian, however, is to be a repentant persecutor, fully aware of our sin while rejoicing in God’s willingness to die for us while we were yet sinners. While we struggle to grasp the full impact of the Cross, hatred, bigotry, intolerance, violence and war continue to plague us. But our God is a patient God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. I invite you to pray with me that someday soon we prove worthy of God’s patient hope in us.

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About Suzanne Ross

In January 2007, Suzanne and her husband Keith founded The Raven Foundation to increase awareness of mimetic theory. In 2010, Suzanne served on the staff of the first mimetic theory summer school sponsored by Imitatio. Her first book, The Wicked Truth: When Good People Do Bad Things, examines the lessons of myth, scapegoating and forgiveness in the hit Broadway musical Wicked. Her second book, The Wicked Truth About Love: The Tangles of Desire, explores patterns of romantic love and how to create a fulfilling relationship. Suzanne continues to lecture on mimetic theory and popular culture at universities, conferences, churches, bookstores and libraries. She is currently working on the Leader Guide that will accompany James Alison’s Adult Christian Education DVD series, The Forgiving Victim.

  • Marcion

    Why didn’t the risen Jesus just stay on earth? That way, every time someone is advocating violence in the name of god, Jesus could simply show up personally and explain that he doesn’t want violence. He could even heal the sick and feed the hungry while he’s at it, like he does in the gospels! Maybe the reason people aren’t getting the message is because god is an awful communicator.

    • Adam Ericksen

      That is a great question, Marcion. Your comment reminds me of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, especially the end when Abraham says, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” The Bible is pretty clear that God wants us to love God and love our neighbor. The rest is commentary on how to do that. Jesus is the prime example for Christians, and by leaving after the resurrection he made space for us to “heal the sick and feed the hungry.” It’s not much more complicated than that, but we have a hard time listening to God and to the suffering of others.

      • Marcion

        “Your comment reminds me of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, especially the end when Abraham says, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

        Doesn’t this seem a little… off? If people don’t pay attention to ancient books, not even walking corpses will convince them that something should be taken seriously? It sounds like the writer of that parable was making an excuse for a god who wasn’t there.

        “The Bible is pretty clear that God wants us to love God and love our neighbor.”

        What about the times in the bible that god wants us to kill our neighbor? The problem is that god only communicates through an incoherent, contradictory mess of a book written in languages most people don’t know. Why not send a burning bush to answer whenever someone has a question about what god wants?

        ” Jesus is the prime example for Christians, and by leaving after the resurrection he made space for us to ‘heal the sick and feed the hungry.’”

        So god could heal the sick and feed the hungry, but chooses not to? He lets people die of hunger and disease in order to make a point? That doesn’t sound very loving.

        • Adam Ericksen

          Great questions. If Christian tradition is right about Jesus, then God died because humans didn’t care for God. God identifies with the victim and throughout the bible hears the voice of the victim – from Abel to the Psalmist to Jesus to Stephen. Jesus gives us a lesson in interpreting the bible when he opened up the scriptures to his disciples on the road to Emmaus. He opened up the scriptures and interpreted it to them. Now, someone with a fundamentalist understanding would say that the scriptures don’t need interpretation. It says what it say! But Jesus was no fundamentalist when it came to Scriptures. He interpreted them by quoting the prophet Hosea, who said that God desires mercy, not sacrifice. So, Jesus interpreted through the lens of mercy, because that’s what his understanding of God. And he calls his followers to have the same interpretive lens.

          • Marcion

            Does god identify with the amalekites he orders slaughtered in 1 Samuel 15?

          • Adam Ericksen

            According to Jesus, yes. Jesus identifies with them, and with everyone who dies as the victim of violence and neglect. Who looks more like the God revealed in Jesus – those who inflict violence upon their enemies or those who love there enemies so much that they forgive their enemy’s violence as opposed to inflicting violence upon them?

          • Marcion

            You’re missing my point; The bible has god calling for violence just as often, if not more often, as he calls for mercy. In the bible, cruelty and violence are very much a part of god’s character. According to Christians, this god and Jesus are the same entity. God’s failure to communicate in a clear and unambiguous manner leaves “god wants me to love my neighbor” as just a valid an interpretation as “god wants me to kill my neighbor.” This is not an academic question; these texts have been used to justify violence in god’s name. There’s no reason for a truly loving god to let things like this be done in his name when he could simply send the risen Jesus or a burning bush wherever people are about to do violence in his name and teach them that that’s not what he wants. If god is as loving as you say then his inability to communicate properly literally kills people.

            That’s what I’m saying: It’s impossible to take your claims of a loving god seriously when he doesn’t even bother to TRY and correct murderous misconceptions about his will. Instead he just flies off into space or something and lets his children suffer in ignorance for 2000 years.

          • Adam Ericksen

            But you seem to have a fundamentalist reading of the text. Jesus didn’t have that. In fact, none of the ancient rabbis had that. They argued with the text and with each other. Man, the ancients had such diversity in their interpretations. We moderns are deprived by the influence of fundamentalism that holds sway over conservatives and atheists. Fundamentalism claims the bible says X, so it most surely means X, at all times it means X, so you must accept it or reject it! Jesus, the ancient rabbis, the early Christians all had a more nuanced interpretation. Indeed, this is no academic exercise, and the 20th century shows the human capacity to be violent with or without religion. What we need is more mercy and less sacrifice, even for those we call our enemies. But again, Christians get that from Jesus and his interpretation of his Jewish background. I don’t really care where you get it from, as long as you get it.

          • Marcion

            I’m fully aware of multiple interpretations. As I said, “god wants me to love my neighbor” as just
            a valid an interpretation as “god wants me to kill my neighbor.” My point is that god has made no effort to explain that he didn’t do the horrible things attributed to him, and that the cruel interpretations aren’t what he wants. It makes it hard to take claims of his love seriously when people suffer every day due to these cruel interpretations. If god is literally willing to die to make this point, why do all of his efforts to show that this isn’t what he wants end 2000 years ago? Fundamentalists wouldn’t have a leg to stand on if the risen Jesus showed up and denounced all of the atrocities in the bible, so why doesn’t he do that?

          • Jeff

            The fundamentalists, in turn, would say that you’re just making stuff up and deliberately (or misguidedly) misunderstanding the very clear and obvious message god has. How are we supposed to tell who’s right?

  • Steve

    It depends on how you define “myth.” My definition is very different and I
    have no problem referring to the Bible as mythology, and I don’t mean
    in a negative way. I mean myth as a story containing great meaning and
    pointing to deeper realities.

  • Brian P.

    Suzanne, I’m curious what you expect us to do practically with this kind of stuff. I get this. I even think my yet-to-be great-grandkids’ generation will get this.

    In the mean time, my church signs us up for free (actually, wouldn’t it have to be funded by our tithes?) accounts for the likes of Right Now Media. I’ll like you review the kind of content.

    There’s a small group studying Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This totally shocked me. Otherwise, it’s all quite lamentable. Tone deaf one might even say.

    I think our church has one or two pastors who might know who René Girard is. But it doesn’t seem to me that they want reconcile their own contemporary spiritual journeys with the popular Christianity they let be primarily perceived from their pulpits.

    Do you expect me to bring up Girad’s mimetic theory with my dad? With my wife? With my kids? With a small group leader?

    With a pastor? Again? They tend to want dittoheads and helpers for their ministries and programs.

    Maybe it’s not exactly a leveled “the people” who are tone deaf. Maybe some are more tone deaf than others.

    Maybe the deafness is only in hearing God. Perhaps a time continues to be when people gather around themselves a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.

  • Manny Panning

    2 Kings 2:23-24
    English Standard Version Anglicised (ESVUK)
    23 He went up from there to Bethel, and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” 24 And he turned round, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys.

    God has bears attack and tear 42 children for the high crime of teasing a bald man. Some messengers.

    • ahermit

      As a bald atheist I always have mixed feelings about this one…

  • R Vogel

    There are some pretty big assertions here that need to be defended. There are certainly many episodes in the Hebrew scriptures that could easily fall under the victim blaming/scapegoating paradigm: Sodom and Gomorrah, the conquest of Canaan, Brides for Benjamin, Noah. Even the christian testament engages in a fair amount of scapegoating when the destruction of the Temple is blamed on ‘the Jews’ and their failure to accept Jesus rather than the Roman Empire. And can’t ‘Jesus is gonna come back and purge the world of all the ungodly by tossing them into a lake of fire so a new Jerusalem can be instituted’ be viewed as a fair bit of aspirational scapegoating? (perhaps I am using the term wrong)

    I find your assertion that ‘[t]he ability to detect the lie is due to the gospels’ as religio- and ethno-centric. It is also ironic since the episodes of witch trials alluded to in the former paragraph was pursued extensively by followers of said gospels, so the lie detector was not quite a useful to them. I am fine with you saying that the gospel texts can be re-interpreted through the lens of mimetic theory, but it seems a bit anachronistic to imply this is the actual message.

  • Powerglide

    Numbers 30-31.

  • bill long

    So you mean when Yahweh commanded Joshua to slaughter every man, woman, child and BABY in Canaan and Midian that’s not a myth? When was the last time you read that “true story” to your Sunday school kids?

    • duhsciple

      Yes, there is myth in the Bible which is slowly, patiently being overcome by God

  • Psycho Gecko

    The bible does some definite victim-blaming, like the penalties for if a woman’s raped. If they accept that she was raped, they sell her off to the rapist. If they don’t accept it, they stone her to death.

    There’s also the bit where if some genocidal Jews come by and kill your entire people at Yahweh’s command, the innocent women will get enslaved, but only if they’re virgins. Otherwise, they get killed too.

    While we’re at it, what about the poor animals that get raped? Biblical law says that someone screwing goats is to be killed, as are the goats.

    Then with Job, Yahweh ruins his life on a bet. When Job dares to get angry, Yahweh’s just like “Who are you to tell me I can’t ruin your life for no good reason?”

    There’s also that mess with Bathsheba and her kid from King David. David’s the lust-filled one that gets her husband killed. Yet God punishes Bathsheba and the newborn son by killing the kid days after it’s born, all to get back at David.

    On top of that, there were a couple of people upon which Yahweh placed a curse. They and all their descendants would be cursed because these two people were lied to. Adam and Eve, I believe their names were. Possibly Adam and Steve, too, not sure on that one yet. They were created without knowledge of good and evil, without knowing what a lie was, and without the idea that something in creation might not be working hand in hand with their god. So when something lies to them, what does Yahweh do? He curses the victims and all their descendents throughout time.

    Actually, there’s also the bit where Yahweh drowned almost the entire planet, killing almost every animal (sinless though they were) and every baby (sinless though they were) and every young child or innocent person who had not done anything wrong (unless they happened to be Noah’s close family). So even if the world was a sinful cesspool, he drowned the baby in the same bathwater he killed the child molesters in.

    Which brings me to the subject of hell. Now, Hitler often talked about his Christianity and how he was doing things for the Lord. He murdered gay people and Jews, people destined for hell according to most Christians. What does it say that if Christianity is true, Hitler may be in heaven and the victims of the Holocaust are likely in hell for the rest of eternity? The sequel to the Diary of Anne Frank is likely to be a downer, that’s for sure.

  • Steven Weir

    The Bible is just a book. Religion is just baseless beliefs. I don’t understand why people care so much about all these myths.

  • DC Rambler

    Where a lot of problems arise is when people read these ancient texts with their modern minds and think it’s a history book without understanding the methods of storytelling and worship in Jewish and Greek traditions. The minor details weren’t nearly as important as what any of the stories means. And yes, there would be great discussion and discourse over issues great and small. The idea that the Bible is a absolute perfect and inspired gift from God without any errors or edits is a rather recent belief and certainly not historically accurate. When you study the oldest Bibles that still exist and the other ancient survivors, you would be surprised by the changes it has gone through. But again, it’s what the stories say to each of us. For me it’s simple. Love, compassion, inclusion and justice. Simple stuff. Oh ya..Peace

  • gorm_sionnach

    Not all mythology deals exclusively in violence, and by limiting your scope to only examine and critique those myths which deal exclusively, or even primarily in violence, doubly so for the so called “mimetic theory” will necessarily lead to confirmation bias.
    Myth is not terribly complicated in and of itself: it is simply stories which a given culture tells about itself (and all that that identity entails) in order to provide meaning to their experience. To then make the claim that all myth is essentially a narrative of the relationship between sacrifice and sacrificed is even less useful as an analytic perspective than something like Campbell’s “monomyth”. Myth requires that it be understood from within the cultural context it was developed, and while many cultures share cultural and linguistic trajectories, this does not mean that regional or localized variance can be swept aside to look at the “big picture”.
    It is also interesting that the concept of “scapegoating” is singled out, because it certainly plays into the perspective that a narrative (and mistakenly so, since there are many other myths relating the perspective of the sacrificed over the sacrifice, especially if the criteria for this is one perishing at the hands of another) which can then be argued makes Christianity unique among all mythologies. Consider the death of Baldur, the murder and resurrection of Osiris, the death of Donn and the ascendency of Amaregin. Why in Irish literature alone there are countless stories where those who are exiled and eventually killed are portrayed as the protagonists, the exile of the sons of Uisliu, the tragedy of the children of Lir and the tragedy of the Sons of Uisnech.

  • AdelleCardillotul

    like Jacqueline implied I’m
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  • DC Rambler

    A bit of hate mail from the ” Let us love one another ” crowd so out of fear of more nasty words and vitriol I shall admit these mistakes..Jesus was not Jewish..He did not speak Aramaic..He did not live in Judea..This was not a poor region suffering from the effects of the Roman occupation..The OT says nothing about a Messiah returning to restore order..Paul was one of the original Apostles..A scribe followed Jesus, recorded his words and they are in a museum, Paul had no conflict with the Jesus movement and Jewish law, the original sources of the Bible were not written in Greek and there has never been an error or an edit in any copy of the Bible and every single ancient copy that still exists is exactly the same. Whew ! There..I took it all back, I was wrong, I have seen the light, Now stop with the cursing..WWJD ?

  • Adam King

    The Bible is not “a myth”, it’s a collection of myths.

  • The_Physeter

    But, you’ve got to see that the Old Testament is mythical, right? The slaughter of the Caananites — totally justified by the victorious Israelites, claimed as something demanded by their god? The murder and scapegoating of Achan: when Israel used poor tactics and failed to defeat Ai, they blamed it on Achan for taking things from Jericho, and killed him, and said this was God’s idea? The time they decided to kill all the Midianite males, and take the women as sex slaves, and said it was God’s plan? How is that not the victors writing a myth to justify their violence?

    Then you say:

    “If the Passion were only something human, the voice of Christ would have been smothered, or he would have become a pagan divinity like the rest, a sacralized scapegoat. His real message would never have made it to us.” (When These Things Begin, 91)

    But didn’t you also just say that this message has been unknown to us for thousands of years, and that people are just now finding new meanings in the Gospels that seem strange and unnatural? Why did God write a book that would be misunderstood for 2,000 years; why didn’t he teach it to people in a way they would more quickly perceive?

  • Yonah

    I think the good moral intent of the author can be preserved and celebrated if we step back and make an crucial component of the definition of “Scripture” the whole editing and editor-ship of the Bible. It is one thing for bible-haters to cherry pick a violent text and go “See what a nasty book this is”. It is quite another thing to consider WHY such texts were purposefully preserved (not erased like Tricky Dick Nixon’s tapes) by editors. I assert that that there is a continuing moral intelligence being accumulated in editor-ship of the Bible. The Old Testament is not a monolithic war history document, but as Walter Bruegemann describes, a “polyphonic” collection of documents in which one observes much re-visioning of God and the call of God along the way….THAT journey of development is crucial to what is to be got from the Bible. In a different way, what we observe in the New Testament is a regression in anti-Judaism…it gets stronger with the later texts. But again, editors did not go back and totally erase the existence of the early Jewish Church. In terms of the decisions of editors to keep as much as the breadth of the texts as they did, consciously or unconsciously, Suzanne’s instincts are good and laudable. A full beholding of the Bible should not lead to violence, but away from it.

  • Steven T Abell

    Cherry picking. Willful myopia. You have written about the message *you* want to extract from the Bible, while ignoring all the other bits that obliterate your claim. If you only want to claim those parts that make you into what you feel is a good person, fine. Say so, and tell us which parts those are.

  • Doug Goodin

    I am not a believer, but in my opinion, religion is valuable thing. It creates social capitol, and it provides a framework for unifying societies which might otherwise collapse under the weight of individual self interest. That said, the Abrahamic suite of religious myths are still just that, myths.

  • leilaleis

    Sorry, but “god’s patience with tone-deaf people,” is far less impressive than human patience (defined as suffering) with an invisible god who demands obedience.

  • Chuck Farley

    You’ve missed something important here. Take a look around, the Christians are the winners, and their book reflects this. The victims of the stories of the bible are not the Christians, the victims are the various tribes that are destroyed. Notice that they aren’t around to write their own story.