For several years now, I’ve been calling myself ‘The Reformed Mythologist’. It started as a bit of a joke (what does even a regular mythologist do?) but it seems to have connected with a small audience. Essentially, it means that I’m a Christian in the reformed evangelical tradition and I’m interested in story and storytelling. There is nothing remarkable about that, but using the title ‘The Reformed Mythologist’ helps to keep me focused on the area of study to which the Lord has called me. It’s also a good conversation starter.
The Greek word mythos is not as limited as our English word myth. When we use myth we’re typically thinking about a particular kind of story, one which is essentially untrue. The Greek term is broader than that and doesn’t necessarily mean falsehood.
Why do we need to engage with stories of any sort? Can’t we just hold on to doctrinal truth? Well, yes. We should absolutely hold to doctrinal truth, our integrity as Christians depends upon it, but to think that doctrinal truth is completely separate from stories and storytelling would be a mistake. For example, whilst The Apostles’ Creed is propositional, it is largely presented in story form: ‘…conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate…’ For centuries, we Christians have confessed our faith together by recounting the story of Jesus.
Yet, it’s not only the Christian faith. All cultures are built and governed by the stories people tell, which means that stories are pretty much inescapable. Storytelling is hard-wired into creation. Wherever and whenever we live and whatever we believe, stories are inseparable from our human experience. God made us story-creatures.
Must See TV
Twenty-first century British culture is governed by a number of particular stories told through different media. The items we hear on the radio, read in the papers and watch on the news are stories. It doesn’t matter whether we’re watching reality television shows, period dramas, cartoons or science fiction films: they all tell stories about who we are, what we should fear or what we should love. They seek to persuade through the power of storytelling.
Culture shifts then, not as logical arguments are presented and debated, but as stories take hold in the public imagination. The ‘culture war’ is not simply disagreements about facts but about competing stories. The battle for the future is waged through storytelling.
Holding out for a hero
Stories involve characters. It’s almost impossible to tell a story without one. Often we think of these characters as ‘heroes’, but in our increasingly post-Christian society the definition of heroism is up for debate. In an age of ‘safety first’, is it really good for someone to put themselves in danger? Even if it is to rescue others? In the midst of a culture wide mental health crisis, isn’t self-care more important than self-forgetfulness? Many of us feel uneasy about the self-expressive messaging of contemporary stories told through film, television and social media, and, as our culture looks for post-Christian moorings, its stories reveal a version of heroism more concerned with self-fulfilment than self-sacrifice.
Why is that? It’s partly because Western individualism has lost faith in ‘the Hero’ as a character ‘out there’ and become preoccupied with telling the story of the hero within. We are each, individually, the hero. Our struggle is to find wholeness; personal peace is our most pressing need. In the new stories, heroic actions are replaced by therapeutic ones.
We can lament this shift, of course, but we can also recognise that it opens up an opportunity. As Christians, we believe that even though ‘hero’ is not a biblical word, it is a concept we see throughout the Scriptures, and our understanding of heroism is drawn from the person and work of Jesus.
It’s true to say ‘Jesus is our hero’, but perhaps that’s too simple. If the definition of heroism is the point of contention, how do we respond? We might suggest that, even if we have rejected the old fashioned idea that the hero is a ‘good guy who saves the day’, that we still retain a memory that a hero brings about victory for the people. A hero is a champion for the people and of the people. Our champion is not just someone who wins, but someone who wins for us. That might be a recognisable, and workable, definition for people.
We can ask them to think about David and Goliath, the most famous fight in the Bible. It’s a story with profound cultural significance in our Western thinking about heroism – to the extent that their names are cultural shorthand for an underdog tale – but there’s more to this story than relative size and combat experience. Behind the two fighters are the people they represent. Goliath is the champion of the Philistines; David, the man of Israel. As they meet man-to-man, the nations are meeting. Their people are literally lined up behind them.
There Goes My Hero
We can see this corporate dynamic of heroism played out within the social structures of twenty-first century British life. Politically, we want representatives who will fight for our cause in the corridors of power; capable people who take our worries and anxieties about society and bring them to the attention of those who make the decisions. We insist they do this with honesty and integrity.
We look for heroes to represent us in sport. The players wearing the same shirts as us score the goals and win the games. They do it on our behalf. They succeed; we celebrate. Even when we follow team sports, we’re often drawn to the contribution of an individual player. The hero represents us.
We also see representative champions on our screens. The hero is most obviously recognised in the action and adventure genre, but in so many of our culture’s favourite stories, we marvel as an individual struggles for victory to benefit those they love. We shouldn’t be alarmed. This cultural shift is incomplete. Not everyone is persuaded by post-Christian, therapeutic heroism just yet. There are many of our friends and neighbours who will continue to respond to the biblical idea of a champion of the people. We may be surprised who they are. There are many who need to hear the good news of the representative who fights their battles. In the gospel we have that hero.