On the Jersey side of the Lincoln Tunnel atheists have posted a billboard featuring the three Magi approaching the manger. The text reads, “You Know It’s a Myth. This Season Celebrate Reason.” The sign saddens me.
“Myth” is not the same as “falsehood.” Myth is a narrative structure used to convey some of the deepest truths we humans can glean. Myths are not believed in but unpacked and lived.
The problem with contemporary religion is that it devalues myth and imagination, and seeks legitimacy in history and science. The power of Christmas is not that Matthew and Luke were historians (they can’t even agree between themselves), but that they were mythmakers. They used story, just as Jesus did, to convey a truth that science and history could not accommodate.
I am, of course, speaking as a nonChristian, but I say the same about the myths of every religion including my own. If I insist the Exodus is history I have to deal with a murderous God and a host of extraneous, harmful, and self-serving miracles. But if I accept it as myth I am dealing with the liberation of self from enslavement to power; the suffering is mine, the deaths are mine, and the liberation is mind. Myth is meant to lived rather than believed in; it is about the inner life not the political one.
The characters found in myths represent aspects of our own psyches. The Virgin Birth is neither a miracle nor a biological act of parthenogenesis (asexual reproduction). It is a story about how something new and potentially redemptive comes into the world. As a myth Christmas speaks to all humans. As science and history it makes no sense at all.
If we reclaimed the power of myth, and understood its role in our lives, we could reclaim the world’s religions as keepers of myth and train clergy to be guides to myth who can help us live out the mythic and imaginal dimensions of our lives through acts of compassion and contemplative spiritual practice.
If I had the money I would post my own Magi billboards. But I would change the tagline from “You Know It’s a Myth. This Season Celebrate Reason” to “You Know It’s a Myth. This Season Celebrate the Imagination.”