“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, June 14, 2010

A Religion that Can Be Touched: The "Myth and Metaphor" of Christianity

...This interconnectedness can be seen in the way that God creates "new things." Each new thing is utterly unique and unlike anything that has come before, groundbreaking on a whole new level, and yet the new thing is always deeply connected to and intertwined with everything that has come before. When the new thing comes, the former things are seen for what they are; as Lewis says, "each movement becomes in its season the breaking into flower of the whole design to which all else had been directed." And because they prepared the way for it and are gathered into it, the former things reflect and magnify the light and beauty of the new thing when it comes. The greater thing (the new thing is always greater) is seen more fully because of the layers of lesser things that symbolize it and point towards it. Again, this may seem abstract and general, and we have to look at examples to understand the pattern.

We have already seen how the theme of God doing "new things" grows throughout the Bible until it reaches a glorious climax in the very last pages. The idea of reality being layered - so that the greater thing is always reflected through a million smaller things in a million different ways - also has a strong presence in the Bible. Consider first the "layers" or "images" in the Old Testament that foreshadow different aspects of Christ and his coming (which is the ultimate "new thing" in Scripture):

  • Christ's death and resurrection is reflected and in a way foretold in pagan myths of dying and rising gods (see "The Great Story"). More broadly, the fictional stories we tell have a striking tendency to reflect the pattern of "eucatastrophe" in this Great Story of death and resurrection, like "refracted light" (see "Made in the Author's Image" and "Tolkien on Stories and Sub-creation").
  • Salvation: God's deliverance of his people from bondage in Egypt and restoration of his people to the promised land from Exile in Babylon foreshadow the ultimate deliverance from sin and death and return from exile in a fallen world that is accomplished through Christ.
  • Jesus Christ, the true King, comes on the path made ready for him by the pattern of Kingship in Israel. He is "David's son and David's Lord," the King of Kings, of whom the kings before are but a shadow.
  • Jesus is the great high priest, ultimate mediator between God and man, and once-for-all sacrifice for sins. Ancient Israel's sacrificial system pointed towards this coming achievement symbolically with its priests as mediators and its sacrificial rituals.
  • Jesus, the final and greatest prophet, is preceded by countless lesser prophets who spoke of his coming and prepared the way for Him.
  • The giving of God's law through Moses is shown to be the first step towards the fulfillment of that law in Christ, the "new Moses."
  • Adam and Christ are connected in the opposing roles they play; through Adam, sin comes into the world, and through Christ, sin is eliminated (Romans 5). All humanity is connected to Adam's fall and Christ's faithfulness.
All of these human roles in ancient Israel were designed (by God) to point towards Christ and to magnify his light all the more when he came. More generally, almost everything in the Old Testament is a shadow of something greater that is to come. People, events, practices, stories, etc. are shadows and whispers, precursers and "types" of the real thing that is to come. With Christ the veil is lifted and the real thing is seen in full light, but those who know the Story remember the shadows and whispers, the images and types, and see the light of the greater thing shining all the more brightly. They see how it is connected to all that came before, they glimpse the larger pattern of which Christ is the center and cornerstone.

Of course, it is not only things before Christ that are "layers." The same pattern continues in the New Testament. Christ's death and resurrection unleashes, as it were, a wave of redemption and salvation and renewal upon all of creation. In all things, though, Christ remains the root and center of the pattern, the seed from which the tree grows, and everything that happens in the wake of his resurrection is again a reflection and magnification of that center:1
  • Plant life symbolizes death and resurrection. Jesus and Paul both used this analogy (John 12:24, 1 Corinthians 15:36; see also 1 Clement 24). The seed falls into the earth as a frail and tiny little thing, but from it rises up a far greater and stronger new life.
  • The setting and rising of the sun reflects Christ's death and resurrection (again, see 1 Clement 24). Christ, the Son of God and light of the world (John 1), whose face was seen "shining like the sun in all its brilliance" (Revelation 1:16), dies on a cross as darkness veils the sky and rises again in the early morning.
  • Baptism and communion symbolize death and resurrection and the gift of the cross in a tangible way. When we eat the bread and drink the wine, when we are carried down into the water and then raised up, we taste, we feel, we experience with our senses this great pattern of death and resurrection.
  • As we grow in our spiritual lives, we become more like Christ. In losing our lives to find them, in dying to ourselves in order to live in Christ, in finding joy in suffering, we participate in his death and resurrection. We are "Christ figures" of a sort, and by growing in this way we shine the light of Christ to the world around us.
  • Human birth is another image for spiritual rebirth - we must be "born again."
Through these symbols, Christianity is made tangible - one can taste sacrifice and redemption in the bread and the cup, one can see resurrection in the rising sun and in the annual rebirth of all plant life. The music, the pictures and icons and visuals, the words and grammar of the Bible, the color and texture of 1st-century Palestine - all these things function as a tangible layer through which we can approach the deeper truths claimed by Christianity.

If we broaden our horizon, we find that not only Christ and his death and resurrection, but many other spiritual things are reflected by images and symbols within this world:
  • Our relationship with God - multiple images in Scripture are used to describe this. We are God's children and he is our Father. The Church, God's people, is the bride of Christ (Ephesians 5). Christ is the "Son" of God the "Father." Human relationships - between children and parents, between siblings, between lovers - are "layers" reflecting our relationship with God, and the relationships between persons of the Trinity. We cannot stare at the sun, but in human relationships we see in part who God is (both in himself and to us) in the form of reflected light.
  • Dorothy Sayers argues in The Mind of the Maker that the human activity of imagining, writing, and telling fictional stories is an image of the Triune God creating this world and telling His Story within it. "The mind of the maker and the Mind of the Maker are formed on the same pattern, and all their works are made in their own image."
  • Physical things are often used in Scripture as metaphors for spiritual realities (eg. "the body of Christ," "the bread of life")
  • Language itself is metaphorical and symbolic. Words can never capture the very identity of the things they refer to - they merely represent, just as a picture can represent a place or person or moment.  Language is another layer through which we comprehend and communicate an understanding of the world.
  • For many more potential images and layers, see "To Him Are All Things."
In short, all of creation is filled with images and symbols of greater things. "Is not the sky itself a myth?" asks Lewis. These shadows and metaphors and layers are the lens through which we begin to grasp the things of God. Abstract truths are made tangible, the ways of the eternal and invisible God made understandable to sensory and temporal creatures.2 In a sense, the infinite becomes finite, but the light of the higher and deeper things of God is not diminished by being reflected through "lesser" things. It is enriched by this added layer and is magnified so that it shines all the brighter. Through "myth and metaphor," through words and images and stories, we make our way towards the heights, "further up and further in" towards the things of God that transcend comprehension. High and deep are these truths, and yet even with our senses we begin to know them.

1 For more on the pattern of death and resurrection, see these posts.

2 It is of course the physical world that mediates all these tangible images. How astonishing it is that fields and particles and space and time should be God's chosen language, as it were, for revealing transcendent divine truths to his children! How incredible it is that beauty from beyond the walls of the world can be carried in the frequencies of sound waves (music) or photons (colors). Space and time and matter is the stage upon which God’s story is told, the language through which it is spoken, the medium through which the divine light shines. But it's more than a stage - it is beautiful in its own right and shines its own God-given light. Above all, God affirms the goodness and value of the physical world by making a human body his own body, by making the physical a part of his own identity in Christ.

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