CS Lewis on the “True Myth”


The Areopagus in Athens

“Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things’. Therefore it is true, not in the sense of being a ‘description’ of God (that no finite mind could take in) but in the sense of being the way in which God chooses to (or can) appear to our faculties. The ‘doctrines’ we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are the translations into our concepts and ideas of that which God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. Does this amount to a belief in Christianity? At any rate I am now certain (a) That this Christian story is to be approached, in a sense, as I approach other myths. (b) That it is the most important and full of meaning. I am also nearly certain that it really happened…”

This quotation is from CS Lewis in a letter to Arthur Greeves: from The Kilns (on his conversion to Christianity), 18 October 1931. If you have read much of what I write, you would readily notice that I quote and allude to CS Lewis often. He resonated with me in college, and he continues to resonate. He is cited by more diverse groups of people, perhaps, that any person I can think of. He had a unique way of approaching things from fresh points of view, often pulling those fresh ideas from the dusty tomes of ancient literature. His concept of myth and True Myth is one such point.

Some might consider his frequent allusions to ancient, pagan myth heretical, and some might even confuse his love of pagan myth as New Age. I find him to be extremely orthodox in unorthodox ways, and I find his creative approaches to orthodoxy to be refreshing and thought-provoking.

We don’t have to look any further than the ultra-orthodox, Paul the Apostle, to find some common ground with CS Lewis. When Paul was in Athens, some Epicureans and Stoics he debated in the marketplace, brought him to the Areopagus to address a Greek crowd. In that address, Paul referenced an altar inscribed “To An Unknown God” and quoted Aratus, a Cilcian poet (Phaenomena 5): “in him we move and live and have our being”. (Acts 17:22-28)

Paul used the quotation from Aratus that was spoken by a pantheistic poet to convey a theistic principle about God. (See Acts 17:22-28 – Quoting the Philosophers?) On the one hand, Paul connected with the people “where they were” using language and references they understood to convey something about God. In one sense, this is how CS Lewis relates the ideas of myth and True Myth.

It’s interesting to me, as well, that Paul know enough about pagan poetry to quote Aratus. In Titus 1 (v. 12), Paul quotes a Cretan philosopher, Epimenides. Again, it’s striking that Paul knew enough about pagan philosophy (presumably) that he could quote Epimenides.

What CS Lewis says about myth is that it contains some elements of truth, which shouldn’t be surprising at all, as truth is universal and should, therefore, be something that is universally recognized. The difference between myth and True Myth is that all myth ultimately is just a shadow of the True Myth. All myth conveys truth through storytelling. True Myth isn’t just another story; it is The Story. It isn’t “just” myth, but reality – “it really happened” as CS Lewis says.

All myth is an attempt to shine light on truth. True Myth is the ultimate Light shining on the ultimate Truth.

The True Myth is the Gospel. God, the Creator of the universe and everything in it created man in His own image as His crowning creation and then became a man, injecting Himself into His own creation, in order to communicate His very heart to us and to rescue us from errantly going our own way and missing the ultimate purpose for which God created us – to have loving relationship with Himself.

That God created us in His image, with some capacity for self-determination (or the illusion of self-determination) necessitated Him coming to us in a way that we would not be utterly overwhelmed by awe and fear at God’s presence. Such a naked encounter with God would not be conducive to a loving relationship with us. Thus, He came as a child, as one of us – he came to his own and his own didn’t recognize him. (John1:10)

Christ Jesus
Who, being in very nature [in the form of] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature [form] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

This creed repeated by Paul in Philippians 2:5-11 eloquently relates what God did in becoming man and approaching us stripped of everything that might unmistakably identify Him as God our Creator so that He could invite us to love him without coercion.

That people stood up against God in the flesh, rejecting Him and exerting their wills over His purpose is the ultimate evil, the likes of which would animate the greatest of mythic plot lines. That God would be put to death by His own creation that He loved and came to serve is the ultimate tragedy. That God would triumph in spite of His apparent weakness, voluntarily stripped of all His power and glory, having made Himself subservient to His own creation, is the ultimate dénouement.

That God would give us the ultimate hope, showing us that He overcomes our greatest weakness (sin), of which we are woefully unable to master left to our own devices, and our greatest fear (death) is the ultimate resolution.

Lewis’s concept of “God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there” makes as much sense of myth as it does Scripture itself. That we find some truth and wisdom from pagan sources and other sources around the world, makes sense. God is the God of us all. Truth is truth, and wisdom is wisdom, wherever it may be found, but God had to work in the hearts and minds of people who as He found them.

Again, it is necessary for an all-powerful God who desires a loving, reciprocal relationship from His creation to approach His creation in this way, as any other way would defeat the purpose of achieving reciprocity between an incomprehensively great God and His finite, creaturely beings – us. God had to reveal Himself to us in ways our finite and limited understanding could grasp, making headway over time to the point when, at the right time in history, He could insert Himself into the story.

In this same way, God found in Abraham a man whose mind contained the thoughts and images that were most receptive to what God needed to communicate to reveal Himself. God found in the descendants of Abraham a people who were best able to carry that revelation forward, preserving it, cultivating and expanding on that revelation in ways that God was best able to set the stage for His own appearance in the story.

From the same speech Paul gave at the Areopagus, Paul, explains it this way:

“The God who made the world and all things in it, since he is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He himself gives to all people life and breath and all things, and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each of us.” (Acts 17:24-27)

The whole story was orchestrated by God in real time, and “At just the right time,… Christ died [for us].” (Romans 5:6) And the story continues to this day, God having reconciled the world to Himself in Christ, no longer counting people’s sins against them, giving us the message of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:19) And, just as sin entered the world through the exercise of one prohibited choice, reconciliation comes through the exercise of one God-ordained choice – accepting what God has done for us and ceasing from our own efforts, yielding our self-control to God’s control, loving God for his self-sacrificing love for us.

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