“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” – John 12:24
“The last enemy to be destroyed is death...Death is swallowed up in victory.” – 1 Corinthians 15:26, 54
"The greater the sin, the greater the mercy, the deeper the death and the brighter the rebirth.” - C. S. Lewis
"This story...has the very taste of primary truth." - J. R. R. Tolkien

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Great Story, Part I

“A phoenix is a mythical bird with beautiful gold and red plumage. At the end of its life-cycle the phoenix builds itself a nest of cinnamon twigs that it then ignites; both nest and bird burn fiercely and are reduced to ashes, from which a new, young phoenix arises” (Wikipedia).
Isn’t that a striking idea? The phoenix bursts into flame and dies a triumphant but ruinous death, yet new life emerges. Out of death comes life. Hope rises anew from the ashes. This imagery of death and resurrection appeared over and over in various mythologies and legends, and it has survived through the millennia and right down to the present age in the story of Jesus Christ.

C. S. Lewis, even when he was an atheist, was a man who loved myths and stories. His children’s stories, The Chronicles of Narnia, are saturated with mythology as well as theology, as Michael Ward demonstrates in his book Planet Narnia. As the following video points out, it was partly his fascination with stories such as that of the “dying and rising god” that led him back to Christianity, the “true myth”:

Lewis argues in “Myth Became Fact,” that in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ this general myth became a true story and a particular historical reality:
“The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens – at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle. I suspect that men have sometimes derived more spiritual sustenance from myths they did not believe than from the religion they professed. To be truly Christian, we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths.” (Lewis, “Myth Became Fact,” God in the Dock 66-67)
One might suspect that the story of God’s death and rising in Jesus Christ is a fiction patterned after the older myths. Initially this might seem a likely explanation for yet another dying and rising god. But although the general pattern is similar, there are too many striking particulars of this story to plausibly suggest that it is an invention. Crucifixion was viewed as the most horrible death – a divine curse for the Jews and a punishment for slaves and criminals for the Romans. To invent such a story and expect to gain any sort of following would be foolish and even offensive; this cultural mindset is part of the context behind 1 Corinthians 1. A crucified messiah or god was a contradiction in terms, yet we have records of the suffering and martyrdom of most of the disciples. They insisted on telling this story. For this and other reasons, it is highly unlikely that the death and resurrection of Christ was an invention – this simply does not account for the facts. And yet the story of Christ is, in a more general way, strikingly similar to all of the old myths – it’s character is not just a god or other supernatural being, but God himself. Lewis writes that “it carries with it into the world of Fact all the properties of a myth…We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We ought not be nervous about ‘parallels’ and ‘Pagan Christs’” (God in the Dock 67).

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