A Story About You and Me:

Myth, Demythologization, and the Surplus of Meaning

My take on sacred stories draws on many different influences, but the underlying spirit of it is rooted in the kinds of relationships I have witnessed between so many Jewish people and their sacred texts.  Here is a link to a two-minute introduction to Judaism if you are interested: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xJbg_cXYFyMNow on to the article:

Two creation stories?  What do you mean the Bible has two creation stories?”[1]

“Well, in the first one, God creates the earth, populates it with animals, and then creates human beings to have stewardship over it.”

“And the second one?”

“In the second, God creates the earth, then creates a man, then tries in vain to find a suitable companion for the man by creating all of the animals, and then, finally, God puts the man to sleep, extracts one of his ribs, and creates a woman.”

“I never realized these two stories were so different.  They even contradict each other.  How could people include these in the Bible if they don’t even coincide scientifically and historically with one another?”

“Because the creators and the caretakers of these stories were not doing history, or science.  They were doing myth.” 

The two most ubiquitous views of scripture I hear as a teacher of religious studies are one, what we might call the “reductionist” view, which claims that all of these myths are merely humanity’s early attempts to explain the world.  This is where we get our modern connotation of the word “myth” as something false, made-up.  The second view we might call “literalist,” as it holds these stories to be literally true, even when their truth seems to go against widely accepted scientific and historical truths about the world.  Both the reductionist and the literalist views of myth are based on misconceptions of the origins and the purposes of these sacred stories.  A brief look at some of the foremost thinkers-on-myth will not only elucidate these origins and purposes, but may even show us how to discover the true value of these stories, the reasons why we have been telling them to each other for thousands of years.[2]

“Myth” comes from the Greek word “mythos,” which means “story.”[3]  In religious studies, ‘myth’ does not have the connotation of “false” or “made-up” that our popular usage carries.  Stories may be fiction or nonfiction, but neither of these designations takes away their status as stories, or myths.

Myths have often been dismissed as early attempts by human beings to explain natural phenomena.  This dismissal of myth is part of the demythicization process that has been underway since the Renaissance, as we tried to replace mythological explanations with scientific ones.  For example, the story of Noah’s Ark seems like a story about why we have rainbows, and, now that we know what physical processes cause rainbows, we no longer need that story.  But Noah’s Ark is no more a story about rainbows than the film The Matrix is a story to explain the phenomenon of déjà vu.  Both stories do attempt explanations of these phenomena, but those explanations are merely to lend credibility to the rest of the story.  Neither story was created merely to explain these things.

The word “myth” is reserved for a particular class of stories, those which point to a sacred reality.  “Sacred reality” does not necessarily refer to God or gods or heaven.  It may also refer to the natural order of things, an ethical order, or some other value that is placed “on high” by a particular people.  This sacred reality may be understood only unconsciously.  It may not be clear to the story tellers themselves what exactly their most sacred reality is.  A story teller might tell you that their sacred reality is God, whereas one might notice that all the elements in their stories point to a different sacred reality, such as the emperor or the social hierarchy.

It is also important to note that the ontological status of that sacred reality (whether it exists or how it exists) is not what is really important.  “Sacred reality” is real enough just by virtue of its being designated as “sacred,” over and against the “profane”—the normal, everyday, worldly concerns of a people.[4]  The question is not “What is true?” but “What have peoples found necessary to point to and preserve as centrally important for their entire existence?”[5]  In other words, what does the story tell us about the people who wrote it?  What does it tell us about the time, place, and culture in which they were living?  If a people have a myth saying, “God created fish,” we do not know whether that deity exists, but we do know that “fish” must be important to these people.  So myth, or “truth embodied in a tale,” contains a kind of truth that is different from scientific or historical truth.

How do we know when we are in the realm of myth?  How do we know when a story is speaking about meaning—existential, psychological, spiritual meaning—rather than about scientific, objective fact?  Mircea Eliade points out that myth always take place in illo tempore, literally “at that time.” Eliade uses in illo tempore to refer to the unique phrases that begin all myths, phrases that bring the reader into “mythic time,” announcing that eternal, mythic, spiritual truths are about to be disclosed (as opposed to scientific or historical truths.)  Famous examples of in illo tempore include “In the Beginning,” “In the Dreamtime,” “When on High,” and “In a Galaxy Far Far Away.”[6]   Myth is something that never happened and always happens.  “On April 10, 1979” is history; “Once upon a time” refers to eternity. 

Paul Ricouer defined myth as “a pattern of symbols.”  This symbolic nature of myth may account for the connotation that myth is something different from fact: Whether a story is historically true or not, it always has a meaning beyond the literal meaning of what is being related.  A myth always has a plethora of meanings.  A story about a tree may have an ostensive reference to the particular tree to which the original story teller points while telling the story.  It also refers to the central tree in any village in which the story is later told.  Finally, “tree” may also symbolize the interconnectedness of nature or the human family, or some other meaning that is contained within the story.

The word “symbol” comes from two words, ballein, “to throw” and sym, “together.  So a symbol is a place where two apparently unrelated things are “thrown together.”  “Tree” does not literally have anything to do with “human family,” although it may be used to symbolize that in a myth.  “Tree” does have characteristics that make it a useful symbol for “human family.”  Other symbols are less obvious: The “Golden Arches” may mean “hamburger” or “food” or “stomach ache” to a particular person, even though a gold letter “m” has nothing to do necessarily with any of those things.

Because of their symbolic nature, myths contain an infinite number of meanings.  Ricouer referred to this as the “surplus of meaning,” stating that the discursive interpretations of a symbol or pattern of symbols can never exhaust the possible meanings of that symbol.[7]  Something of this idea is contained in the adage “a picture is worth a thousand words.”  A myth is worth an infinite number of words.  As Hans-Georg Gadamer points out, a text has many meanings: the literal and symbolic meanings intended by the author, the meanings constructed by the author’s original audience in their own place and time, and the meanings constructed by the current reader.[8]  This last case—the current reader—is what truly opens up the idea of a surplus of meaning.  The current reader’s life and world are constantly new and changing, meaning there is an infinite number of things to which the text can refer.[9]  In other words, you can never read the same book twice.  We can re-read Shakespeare hundreds of years later, and every angsty young lover can have their own Romeo or Juliet.  This is also why myths are repositories of wisdom, containers for truth that is at once ancient and timeless and yet ever-new and relevant.[10]

With all of the infinite number of ways we can interpret a text, how do we know which one is correct?  That question belongs to the field of hermeneutics (from the Greek god Hermes, the “messenger”), the science or art of interpretation.  It was originally concerned with issues surrounding the interpretation of texts, specifically the Bible.  Hermeneutics has an even wider application today, referring not only to the interpretation of texts, but also to visual art and music.  It even asks questions about the interpretation involved in the very acts of seeing, hearing, and being in the world.[11]

Gadamer points out that there are two basic facts about human understanding.[12]  These facts are present in every act of understanding, whether it is reading a book, watching a film, or engaging in a conversation:

  1. You can’t understand the whole if you don’t understand the parts, and
  2. You can’t understand the parts if you don’t understand the whole.

The first fact is obvious.  You can’t understand a sentence if you don’t understand the words, and you can’t understand a book if you don’t understand the chapters.  The second fact is less obvious, but here is an example that might help: If I say, “He cut the blades of grass,” you know that I am talking about mowing a lawn.  But you cannot know this by merely looking at the parts:  Is “he” an animal or a man?  Does “blades” refer to knives or swords, or to grass?  Does “grass” refer to a lawn or to marijuana?  And yet we get the meaning.  How can this be so?  The problem also comes to light when you think about any book or film that has a twist at the end.  For example, the viewer of The Sixth Sense thinks that they understand the movie throughout the whole film, until the very end.  Then, in the last scene, some information is given that requires the viewer to go back and review every scene of the film with new eyes.  The viewer needs to understand the whole in order to more fully understand the parts, at the same time as they need to understand the parts in order to understand the whole.  But how can this be so?  These two truths are contradictory—a paradox.  So how do we accomplish understanding?

Gadamer’s answer comes in the form of a shocking word: “prejudice.”  Human beings pre-judge all the time.  This skill has earned a bad name because of its unbridled use in discriminating against various groups of people throughout history.  However, prejudice or pre-judgement is a necessary step in understanding.  A pre-judgement provides us with an immediate understanding of the whole—a grossly incomplete understanding, but an understanding nonetheless.  This prejudiced understanding is then confirmed, unconfirmed, modified, or deepened as the reader comes to understand each of the parts.  Then, once all the parts have been taken into account, the reader has an informed understanding of the whole.  It is no longer a pre-judgement.[13]

This happens all the time with books.  We begin by literally “judging the book by its cover.”  The cover and title give us an immediate idea of the whole.  Other factors may contribute, too—such as who gave us the book, or in what section of the bookstore it was found.  Then we read the table of contents, a part of the book which helps us to confirm or deny our initial judgment.  Finally, we read the book and can make a true judgment as to its contents.

What about the case of our confusing sentence, “He cut the blades of grass”?  Where do we get our prejudged whole so that we are not caught up in the ambiguity of each and every word?  Scientists have witnessed Gadamer’s paradoxical truths at work even in the very act of reading.  Observing the human eye’s behavior reveals that the eye does not read linearly, deciphering each word in order from beginning to end.  Rather, the eye darts all over the place: from the beginning of the sentence to the end, then to another word toward the beginning, then to a word further on—all in an attempt to understand the whole and the parts simultaneously, knowing that one cannot be done without the other.

This process of understanding takes the shape of a spiral.  As Ray Hart says, the hermeneutic spiral recognizes that our first reading of a work gives us an understanding of it, but that repeated readings are necessary to deepen this understanding.[14]  Our understanding of the whole is never complete.  When we read a book once, we overcome our pre-judged understanding.  But when we read it a second time, we are able to understand all of the parts better, now seeing them in the context of the whole.  This process goes on indefinitely.[15]

Does the hermeneutic spiral mean that we can never have a correct interpretation of a work?  Most hermeneutics speak of the validity or invalidity of an interpretation, rather than whether it is “correct” or not.  The idea here is that if one can show that the pattern of symbols (myth) roughly fits the pattern of the interpretation, then the interpretation is valid.  Making sure these patterns fit is another way of talking about the internal context of the work.  In our example, “He cut the blade of grass,” interpreting “blade” as “sword” is invalid, because while we can think of a time when a sword would cut something, we cannot think of a time when we would use it to cut grass.  It doesn’t fit the context.  Validity has a wide range, though, especially if the reader-interpreter indicates how they are using the myth.  If the reader is claiming that their interpretation is what the author originally meant, the criteria for validity is different from that which would be required for an interpretation that claims to apply the myth to one’s own life.

We said earlier that looking at myths can answer the question “What have peoples found necessary to point to and preserve as centrally important for their entire existence?”  Thanks to the work of Ricouer, Gadamer, Carl Jung, and Joseph Campbell, we have discovered that we can also ask another set of questions of myth: “What can this story tell me about myself?”  How can its symbols be translated into a meaning that is personally relevant to me?  In what ways can this story’s symbols get me to think about myself existentially, psychologically, developmentally, spiritually?

This particular type of interpretation is called demythologization, a term coined by the theologian Rudolf Bultmann[16].  Where demythicization (de+myth = “remove the story”) sought to remove myth and replace it with science, demythologization (de+myth+logos = “remove the symbols of the story”) seeks to remove the symbols from the myth, exposing deeper philosophical meanings that are relevant to our own lives.  For the demythologizer, myths are not just stories to explain the world, or ways of learning about the guiding principles of a culture.  They are not stories about something that happened thousands of years ago.  They are stories about you and me, right here, right now.[17]

Demythologization asks us to see ourselves in the story.  One or more of the symbols represents us.  The story of David and Goliath[18] may tell us about a historical event or a legendary event.  It may tell us something about the place the underdog held in the value system of the ancient Hebrews, or in the hearts of modern day Jewish people.  But it can also teach us something about how to think about a bully when we are in third grade.  And then again, when we get to be an adult, the story may give us insight into how we can deal with some other seemingly insurmountable challenge we are facing.  At another time, it may clue us in to our own bullying tendencies.  All of these meanings and more are possible, as we grow and develop and read and re-read.  It is auspicious that these ideas about interpretation can be found in all of the great wisdom traditions of the world.  We find them in the PaRDeS, the four-level hermeneutic of the Torah in Rabbinic Judaism.  We find them in Islam, in the ta’wil and tafsir levels of meaning in the Qur’an.  We find them in the Christian Lectio Divina.  We find them in the psychology of C. G. Jung, and in the theory of myth given to us by Joseph Campbell.  We find them in the very mouths of babes who, when they are read the story of Little Red Riding Hood, exclaim with wide eyes, “What did I do next, Daddy?  What did I do next?” as my friend’s daughter did one night during her bedtime story.

Indeed, myths can reveal eternal truths about a people, all humanity, the world, and about you and me.  But to treat myths as history or as science, whether for the purpose of discrediting them or of exalting them beyond all reason is to grossly misunderstand their origins, their purpose, and their true value.

[1] The Bible actually has three creation stories, the third one appearing in the Book of Isaiah.   But I think it is enough to blow our minds with a fresh look at the two stories located side-by-side in Bereshit, the Book of Genesis.

[2] I have been direct throughout this essay in arguing that this is the way to think about myth.  However, I don’t mean to alienate off those who prefer either a literalist approach or a reductionist approach.  I think one could hold a literalist approach and yet still benefit from additional interpretations and meanings resulting from the hermeneutics discussed here.  Also, those who prefer to explain away religious myths as outdated explanations would lose nothing by searching these stories for other types of meaning besides the explanatory ones.

[3] The Greek word mythos literally means “word,” but it gains its significance from its relationship to the word logos, also meaning “word.”  The difference is that where logos refers to a word that promotes discussion and argumentation, the word mythos refers toa word that presents a sacred reality, one that needs no validation.  See the entry on “Myth” in Mircea Eliade’s The Encyclopedia of Religion, (Eliade, Mircea, “Myth: An Overview”, The Encyclopedia of Religion, New York: Macmillan Library Reference, (1987), pp. 261-272.  I take mythos to mean “word” in precisely the same sense that early rap artists and other inner city youth would use the word “word” in response to any profound statement by one of their peers.  It signifies the presence of a truth that needs no argument or defense.  

[4] See Emile Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Oxford: Oxford University Press, (2008), pp. 416. or Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, trans. Willard R. Trask, San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, (1987), pp. 256.

[5] See entry on “Myth” in Mircea Eliade’s The Encyclopedia of Religion.

[6] See Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane.

[7] See Paul Ricouer’s Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning, Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, (1976), pp. 108.

[8] See Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method, New York: The Crossroad Publishing Corporation, (1991), pp.594.

[9] This also means that an artist does not know the full significance of their own work.  Have you ever a created a piece of art, and then someone points out a feature or meaning you had not seen before?  This should be a great relief to the artist, because otherwise only omniscient demi-god geniuses could produce lasting works of art.

[10] See Joseph Campbell, Hero With A Thousand Faces, Novato, CA: New World Library, (2008), pp. 432.

[11] See the works of Gadamer, Ricouer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, John Caputo, and Jacques Derrida.

[12] See Gadamer, Truth and Method

[13] Racial prejudice always remains at the level of prejudgement, with the process of understanding stifled practically before it has begun.

[14] See Ray Hart’s Unfinished Man and the Imagination: Toward an Ontology and a Rhetoric of Revelation, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, (2001), pp. 420.

[15] In The Truth of Broken Symbols, (Robert Cummings Neville, The Truth of Broken Symbols, Albany: State University of New York Press, (1995) pp. 348.) Robert Cummings Neville builds on Paul Tillich’s theory of “broken myths” to explain how a symbol or myth must be both engaging and limited.  A symbol or myth is only effective if it shares in the power of the thing symbolized (which engages us), but the more it shares in that power, the greater the danger that we will make an idol out of it by not recognizing its limitations.  Only if the symbol is allowed to exist in a broken way will we avoid this idolatry.  The hermeneutic spiral ensures that we never make an idol out of any single interpretation of a myth.

[16] See Rudolf Bultmann, New Testament and Mythology, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, (1984), pp.180.  I am grateful to one of my professors, Dr. Dennis Outwater, for his interpretation and application of Bultmann’s ideas.

[17] I take this phrase from my mentor, Steve Antil, who is a consummate story teller known for his “stories about you and me.”  It was also Steve’s daughter who uttered the final words of the next paragraph.

[18] See 1 Samuel 17:1-58

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