In our course on Exploring the Old Testament, we spent some sessions dealing with texts that we characterised as myths. These are narrative sections of the Bible that look, on the surface, to be historical reports—but, in fact, we have come to the conclusion that there is little, or no, evidence from outside the Bible to support our reading them as history.
In fact, in some cases, we decided that these narratives are more like myths. We defined a myth as “a purely fictitious narrative involving supernatural persons”, or as “a traditional story, usually associated with the time of origins, paradigmatic significance for the society in which it is told”. Some of the passages that we saw as fitting into this category were the Creation Stories in Genesis 1–3; the story of The Flood in Genesis 6–9; the account of The Exodus in Exodus 14–15; and the period of Wanderings in the Wilderness that is recounted in parts of Exodus and Numbers.
What do we make of these mythological passages, which so many people take as straightforward historical accounts? How do we preach on mythological passages in ways that assist our listeners to be open to the interpretations and applications that we offer them? It takes skill to find ways that connect and engage at depth with people, offering them a new or different point of view, without antagonising them or causing them to shut off from what you are saying.
Myths are invitations for us to engage our imagination, to enter into the story, to put aside the notion that “this really happened”, “this is a fact”, “this is the truth”. Myths invite us to step out of the world that we inhabit day by day, to step into another world that is created within the story. That invitation to step and and then step in can open up all manner of possibilities in understanding life and faith.
We do this every time we reread a children’s story to our children, or grandchildren, or tell a story as the “children’s address” in worship. We do this whenever we go to the theatre and watch a play, created by a playwright, set in an imaginary location at another time. We do this when we listen to music that enriches our spirits, that takes us “out of ourselves” into a different place. The saints of the Celtic church talk about “thin places” where the environment can invite us to pause, reflect, imagine, and as we move out of ourselves and gain a deeper sense of God, present with us.
So we know the dynamic of stepping out of the concrete, specific, material, historical realm, and entering into a deeper, expanded, transcendent dimension. We can do that in the ways noted above (and more); why not also in the times that we read scripture? We can perhaps do this when we listen to one of the parables of Jesus, knowing that they are stories, not historical accounts. Can the same be done for other, longer, narrative sections of scripture?
The German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer writes about “a fusion of horizons” that can take place when we step out of our familiar world, into the world of the story, the myth, which has its own dynamics and patterns. The basic premise of this understanding is that the familiar world that we inhabit in daily life has its own horizon; we see all of life encompassed within the overarching framework that is provided by the furthest horizon of our culture. We instinctively operate within that horizon. We have our own understanding of the world; we operate within our own experiences, our own received traditions, our own expectations and patterns of living.
Myth that is offered in a biblical text has another horizon, a different horizon. The patterns of behaving, the structures of relationships, the ethos of the culture, are each set in a different way by the different horizon of that text. Stories that are myths offer us alternative experiences and patterns of living, and different traditions and customs. These patterns and experiences shape a different horizon within the story. Recognising the extent of that horizon—how it is broader, or how it is closer, than our familiar everyday horizon—is a part of the process of interpretation.
When we provide an interpretation—when we start to think and talk about how “that text” relates to “our context”—we are fusing the horizon of the text with the horizon of our life. Our everyday horizon incorporates what we have been taught, what we have experienced for ourselves, and thus what resonates in the depths of our soul. These are the prejudices (the pre-judgments) that we bring into the process of interpretation. Those prejudices need to be named and acknowledged. They are not barriers to interpretation; they are factors that facilitate our interpretation.
The horizon of the text may introduce new factors, bring different awareness, invite fresh experiences. Those new and different factors need to be integrated into our familiar horizon. That process is the pathway of fusion, as the two horizons are brought into relationship with each other. The creativity and imagining that a myth offers, invites us to reshape our familiar patterns of interpretation as we enter into a framework with a different horizon of understanding. That is a great gift offered to us through this particular genre.
Hans Georg Gadamer defines a horizon as follows:
Every finite present has its limitations. We define the concept of “situation” by saying that it represents a standpoint that limits the possibility of vision. Hence essential to the concept of situation is the concept of “horizon.” The horizon is the range of vision that includes everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point. … A person who has no horizon is a man who does not see far enough and hence over-values what is nearest to him. On the other hand, “to have an horizon” means not being limited to what is nearby but being able to see beyond it. … [W]orking out the hermeneutical situation means acquiring the right horizon of inquiry for the questions evoked by the encounter with tradition.Gadamer, Hans-Georg (2013). Truth and Method. Translated by Weinsheimer, Joel; Marshall, Donald G. (revised 2nd ed.). London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic. ISBN 978-1-7809-3624-6.
For earlier posts, see: