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Power of words column lands on meaning of ‘myth’

I read your (View) article today over a cup of coffee and almost spit it out with the line "In the Hebrew creation myth …." We both know that it is not myth — why say it? The Bible is not myth! I looked up the definition of "myth" and the Bible is not a false representation of the truth … it is the truth.

— L.T., Las Vegas


I have enjoyed reading your columns for quite a while. This brings me to the reason for my writing to you. I am referring to the sentence, "In the Hebrew creation myth, God speaks creation into being."

Are you making the statement that God didn’t create the universe in six days? If so, I have to question your motive for inserting your nonbelief in creation into a reader’s question regarding words.

It seems to me after pondering this for a while that this was an opportunity to state in words your dismissal of the biblical creation. I don’t understand this coming from you, because you always seem to deeply think through your words before putting them on paper. Obviously, I am a Christian who absolutely believes in God and that he created the universe in six literal days. Also, I understand others may not believe as I do, but I take it a bit personally when it is outright called a "myth."

— P.Z., Las Vegas


These two letters — both honorable and fair — represent a fair handful of similar letters I received after publishing my column regarding the power of words ("Words can be powerful — for good or ill," Jan. 11 View). All of these letters stumbled over my use of the word "myth," and the stumbles ranged from surprise to confusion, disagreement and outright offense. One letter said "lies" in the reference line, and then the one word "idiot" in the body.

Don’t you just love a cogent argument?

All the letters assumed what L.T.’s assumed, whose dictionary defines myth as "a false representation of the truth."

In colloquial use, the word "myth" is used by modern people to casually dismiss something as false or inaccurate. In some cases, "myth" is used as pejorative — an intellectual contempt. When in college, driving my Volkswagen Beetle through the snows of Flagstaff, Ariz., I asked the tire dealer about wider tires to get better traction. "That’s a myth," he said, and sold me the vehicle’s regular tires. He meant, of course, it’s not true that wider tires help, though it’s widely believed.

But there is another use of the word "myth" not often employed by modern people. A myth is a story, a narrative containing and transmitting a worldview, values and essential meaning. While myths can contain history and certainly emerge from and in history, historicity is not the fundamental aim.

When I wrote of the "Hebrew creation myth," I meant the Hebrew story that reveals to the people Hebrew who God is, how God is related to creation, how we, therefore, as creatures, are related to God, the earth and to one another.

For the record, Genesis is my favorite book of the Bible, precisely because I find the myths contained therein to be so powerful, useful, not to mention (in my opinion) a universally accurate depiction of the human condition.

My understanding of the importance and the power of myth is why I offer no shrift to the modern tempest regarding evolution versus creation. I think of that debate as a conversation between two people using two different radio frequencies.

Now, I do confess freely that I am not a biblical literalist. What I take literally is what the Bible means. As Presbyterian author Frederick Buechner says, to take the Bible in every way literally would be like using "Moby Dick" as a whaling manual.

Though raised in the church, Oxford professor C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) was a professed atheist by age 15. In 1926, he met and forged a close friendship with Oxford colleague J.R.R. Tolkien. This relationship became the nexus of Lewis’ conversion to Christianity. After many discussions and spirited arguments, Tolkien is said to have said to Lewis, "Clive, you know what a myth is, yes?"

"Of course I do," Clive assured him.

To which Tolkien said, "Well … Christianity is a true myth."

And Lewis was converted and later baptized in the Anglican Church.

It is in exactly this sense that I meant "the Hebrew creation myth."

A myth is in fact not a "false representation of the truth." A myth is eternally true.

Originally published in View News, Jan. 25, 2011.

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