N.T. Wright on Meaning and Myth

Over at Science and the Sacred, N.T. Wright discusses Genesis 1-3, myth, and the American Culture. It is simply worth watching to see Wright’s face as he says “the question of Genesis–history of myth?” (1:15). I could nearly quote the whole 5 minute video, but here is a particularly poignant bit:

When anthropologists talk about myth, what they mean is not ‘an untrue story.’ What they mean is, ‘A story which is full of power for how we understand ourselves individually, for how we understand ourselves as a community, for how we understand what the human project is all about, and some of its paradoxes, tradgedies, and so on.

The mythological element, however, has got misunderstood to be, ‘If it’s myth, therefore it isn’t history’ and vice versa. We need to lighten up about these words, and maybe find some other words.

I am coming to agree more and more with saying we need to find “some other words.” Calling Genesis (particularly 1-11) myth in America is simply an exercise in futility. We are shooting ourselves in the foot if we expect American culture to embrace a myth as a medium for truth.

Additionally, Wright goes on to endorse the the understanding of Genesis 1 articulated by John Walton in his Lost World of Genesis One. The clip is excellent; I commend it to you.

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4 thoughts on “N.T. Wright on Meaning and Myth

  1. I watched the Wright video. I agree that myth can be used to inform how to view ourselves without being literal and stuck on details. I get how one can look at the “thrust” of the Myth — as Wright says. In fact, I just posted about a Hindu myth in the Mahabharata.

    But Wright seems to want it both ways. He wants us not to judge his myth so that he can have it claiming “truths” that he wants it to say. He wants it “true” in many ways. So, he is willing to let the details go, just as long as he gets to decide what the “thrust” of the myth is.

    He tells us that he believes that Genesis tells us the truth when it says that something like “a primal pair getting it wrong did happen.” And that Genesis makes a true claim when it says this world was made to be God’s dwelling and he shared it with humans. [whatever that means?]

    Point is, Wright seems to me to want his Bible myths to be true in very strong ways. He wants to say, “Well, not literally true” which I get, but he does want to decide exactly what part we should hang on to as true.

    So if we get a list of true claims that Wright wants the Bible to say, then we can discuss it. I get how it is important to look for the “thrust” or themes of a text, but that doesn’t mean we can’t completely disagree with those meanings too. But unless one writes down the claims you think are made by the myths, conversations will slide all over the place as people keep moving the meaning to avoid detection. Instead they want to use it as a sacred tribal flag.

    1. I do think it would have been helpful for Wright to explain more of what he had in mind regarding a primal pair getting it wrong. Clearly, Wright believes that a historical event not unlike that of Genesis 3 could have happened, but I assume he would not base that belief on a historical nugget he believes is ultimately embedded in Genesis 3. Again, it would have been helpful for Wright to explain his thoughts in greater detail here. I really don’t know what he is getting at.

      As for making the world to be God’s dwelling place and sharing it with humans, Wright is alluding to the argument in John Walton’s new book, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. A consensus in biblical scholarship is developing as to the connection between Genesis 1 and the priestly tradition of Israel’s faith. Among other things, Walton argues that the creation in Genesis 1 is of a cosmic temple. Mark Smith’s new book, The Priestly Vision of Genesis 1 provides a similar perspective.

  2. Walton asserts quite plainly that the ancient Hebrews believed in a solid firmament above which lay vast waters. What is that description of the cosmos supposed to “teach us?”

    Also does the Bible begin and end with myth? From Genesis 1 to the New Jerusalem mentioned in Revelation?

    Aren’t all great works of literature equally mythical yet serious about various aspects of the human condition?

    Lastly, as Enns and Lamoureux point out (in their recent reviews of Beale’s book on inerrancy) the “temple mythology interpretation of Genesis 1” does nothing when it comes to answering questions concerning the Bible’s inspiration. The mythological significance attached to temple construction is just as mythological in scope and meaning as cosmic geography portraits of the cosmos in Genesis 1.

    NEITHER DOES GENESIS 1 ENTIRELY FIT THE DESCRIPTION OF THE CONSTRUCTION OF A TEMPLE, THERE ARE ELEMENTS as Enns and Lamoureux point out, that do not fit such an interpretation.

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