How the Myth of Christ Made Me a Christian
or, Why English Majors Should Keep Quiet in Church
Vocatus atque non vocatus, Deus aderit.
[Called and yet not called, God is here.]
He is here. In literature, in campfire tales, across cultures. God’s fingers brush through the pages of history and leave the slightest of traces, only perceived by critical eyes, these little flecks of divine dust that shimmer in hindsight. God is here.
But was his Son here?
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God. And the Word was made flesh in first century Palestine, crucified under Pontius Pilate, and returned to the Father only to be picked apart by scholars and laymen alike for centuries following. Who do you say I am? A liar. A myth. A man — yet divine?
All the facts pointed away from reconciling creeds and history, of heaven and earth. This Jesus of history could not have been, and if he did, was he the Christ of faith? Many fly the airspace between heaven and earth , all in search of certitude. I read Bruce Fisk’s textbook on the *Historical Jesus*, searching to answer a professor’s questions and not my own. School comes easily when it stays on the PowerPoint, but I find myself uncomfortable when it wanders into my journal and conversations.
My faith is fine, thank you I don’t need anymore doubt.
Yet here we are. I needed less help with understanding the elements of Jesus’ historicity, but more help in reconciling his mythic side, the faith of the matter. But what do I do if the skeptics are right?
I heard all this historical Jesus stuff before, read Bultmann for myself, and passed back to creed-based Mennonite Brethren safety with no trouble. Now this Professor made things hard for me. This class told me to look at my heart and the bits of faith within them and see how well the historical beliefs fit next to them. I had to pull out each pulsing bit of faith I had so neatly knit into my inmost understandings of Christ’s life and graft a historical perspective of the same events alongside faith.
I hate self-performed intellectual surgery. Hate.
But this time I could do it — the stakes were much higher. My Bible major half easily smoothed over cracks in historicity with a dab of child-like faith, but my English major half considered the fallible narrator, the myth, and the human drive to publish at the cost of fact.
Myth as Memory
I took an expository writing class over January. The whole time I read articles and essays of other writers that felt conflicted with the historicity of their memoir. I met the same challenges when I wrote my own memoir essay: I fake-quoted my grandmother and jumbled events, but each decision suited my narrative structure to reach my ultimate purpose. Yes, the characters came off as caricatures, but I was only writing to emphasize one element of each person: my grandma’s worry and grandpa’s humor when it comes to food.
That personal narrative process resurfaced as we discussed the historicity and reliability of the gospels. My classmates were bothered, yet I was comforted. The apostles wrote gospels of Jesus like how I wrote playful tales about grandpa: we both had a purpose, audience, and historical events, but the specific facts did not need a particular order when the thesis takes precedence.
My English major half reconciled the loose ends as elements of the literary form of a gospel in the same way a personal narrative gives room for misremembered events.
The Bible is trustworthy in its gospels because scholars before us have cleared them for error and already tested and approved the stories though they contradict. Instead of feeling belabored by lack of historical accuracy, I felt encouraged by the fact that these remembrances were honest and sought to be pastoral for coming generations.
Yet I find myself in the middle of the spectrum when I reconcile myth with history.
Myth as Fact
I took this Jesus class alongside my C.S. Lewis course; so naturally, his writing developed and assisted this process in Jesus class. While writing an essay on Lewis’ conception of myth, I came across quite a bit of his thoughts on the Incarnation. He and I are cut of the same literary cloth, so his scholarship spoke to me with more sense in his essay “Myth Became Fact.”
Christianity uses too much myth in the place of historic doctrine for many critics, including Lewis in his atheist years. Yet myth gives life. Hearing myths allows humanity to experience the concept concretely, and translating the ‘meaning’ of the myth yields an abstract understanding. Reason harmonized with emotion.
The closest thing I’ve seen to a myth is Beyoncé. Hands down a goddess IRL. I can study her abstractly, follow her tweets and gather a general conception of who she is, but she’s still a myth. She’s unreal, heightened, Instagram-based reality. But if I met her? The myth becomes fact. The hazy, mythic conception of the most vivacious siren known to mankind becomes real in that she is a concrete person with a time and place and motive.
The Incarnation is myth becoming fact, without losing the myth.
The story of a God reborn continues, but now has historical fact attached to it, the historical person crucified under Pilate (67). Lewis explains that “by becoming fact, it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle. To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths. The one is hardly more necessary than the other” (67).
The Incarnation is fact without losing the myth.
Myth As Life
I see the gospel writers as more like musicians than lawyers, and I consider their purpose as I read. Each author could spin his own version of events for his audience while maintaining fidelity to the original. I can read them like memoirs from first-hand (sort of) witnesses of the key myth of history. But I won’t say that in church. Churches are for faith and encouragement, so I keep my findings in the academic. If a like-hearted soul asks my same questions, I hope to provide them sufficient evidence for reconciliation.
Historicity is of vital importance for people like N. T. Wright, yet I find it dimming into the shadows in comparison to the living Christ of Faith alive and at work in the church today. Yes, God’s hands sprinkle glimmers of the divine into the pages of history. But sometimes He pushes the book to the side as He leans in to whisper more about the facet of Himself He shrank so small, so humiliated, that it became the size of a man asleep in a boat on the stormy Sea of Galilee.