Story and myth

Stories and myths are an important part of our lives and our faith. I think that this can make us uncomfortable, not least because it can imply that they’re somehow not true. We can also feel that we are put at a disadvantage by admitting this; science deals in facts and we deal in stories and myths?!

However, the reality is somewhat more complicated than that. Mary Midgley, in her book The Myths we Live by argues:

We are accustomed to think of myths as the opposite of science. But in fact they are a central part of it: the part that decides its significance in our lives.

Also, this is not all:

Myths are not lies. Nor are they detached stories. They are imaginative patterns, networks of powerful symbols that suggest particular ways of interpreting the world. They shape its meaning.

The myths, the stories we tell each, the networks of symbols shape our understanding. Our understanding of the world are shaped by the stories that we tell each other. This is an understanding that Dawkins actually agrees with. In his book Unweaving the Rainbow he argues that science is inspired by “a poetic sense of wonder” and that good science should be feeding and inspiring good poetry and a sense of wonder.

This is a powerful argument in favour of telling and retelling the stories of our faith, both Biblical and personal. As Deuteronomy says:

Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

I think that’s a challenge for us to be aware of what stories we’re actually telling other in the rest of our lives, and also a challenge for us in our services: to tell more stories, to help people enrich their lives with the stories and symbols that we have to use.

Mary Midgley also argues:

Symbolism is an integral part of our thought-structure. It does crucial work on all topics, not just in a few supposedly marginal areas such as religion and emotion, where symbols are known to be at home, but throughout our thinking. the way in which we imagine the world determines what we think important in it, what we select for our attention among the welter of facts that constantly flood in upon us.

These are some of the insights that narrative theology have brought to us, and a reminder of the limitations of systematic theology (and so also expository preaching). I came across this quote by Flannery O’Connor from her book Mystery and Manners:

The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anyone asks a what a story is about the only proper thing is to tell them to read the story. The meaning of the fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you experience that meaning more fully.

That’s quite a comprehensive argument against proof texting amongst other things! But, do we believe it? Most of the Bible is stories in some form or another. This is a challenge to wrestle with them, to allow them to shape our thinking, to keep coming back to them, and not to think that we’ve ‘worked them out’, extracted the principles from them, or anything that reduces them to less than stories and myths. Let us experience the meaning of the stories and myths that are at the heart of our faith, the stories and myths that are also true and can and should shape our lives.


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