On the way to Mass, one of my kids asked me if it were true that people evolved from apes, because that’s what she heard in school, but she had read otherwise in the Bible.
Now, I know we have talked about this before. Many, many times. It’s just that she likes the story of Genesis very much, and she wants it to be literally true. The God she knows and recognizes is the one who is depicted literally in the pages of her picture Bible.
She isn’t ready to hear what I have told her in the past, and what I told her again this time: That I’m not really sure how modern humans came to look like they do. That it’s okay to believe that Genesis is literally true, but that I think some kind of evolution must be true; and also that I suspect scientists aren’t quite as sure about what happened as they profess to be.
What I am sure of, and what I tell my daughter she is very free to believe, is what it does say in the Bible: that God made human beings on purpose, out of love, and that He continues to love them and to want to be with them, and that he deliberately gave them an immortal soul. When and how that happened, and what it looked like, I don’t exactly know, and neither does anyone.
I told her that the story of Genesis isn’t bad science. It’s also not good science. It’s not science at all, and was never intended to be. I said that if she wrote a story about what kind of family she has, and someone told her it was bad science, she would be baffled, because it wasn’t science; it was a story. And that is what we generally mean by myth: Not something fake and made up to fool people, but just the opposite: something that attempts to tell something we think is true about what the world is like. And so the book of Genesis is a myth, in the sense that it was written to tell us all kinds of true things about how the world was made, and how humans were made, and by whom, and why, and what kind of relationship they have with God.
It tells us that the creation of the world was not violent, not ugly, not competitive, not chaotic, and not random. It was in some way orderly, it was deliberate, it was done with a plan, and it was beautiful. It was good. It was done in the context of relationships, from the very beginning. This is the myth of our creation. This is what I believe about how God made us.
My daughter is probably too young for such a subtle idea, but I’m not really sure what else to tell her. I knew she is very interested in Greek myths, so I said (probably confusing the issue more, but I was driving, and things pour out of your mouth as you drive) that Greek myths served the same purpose as Genesis: To try to explain what kind of world it was, as they understood it. They got some things wrong, but some things right.
Prometheus, for instance, I said. He was a titan who dwelt in a kind of paradise, but realized that mankind below was cold, bereft, needy and alone; and so he had pity on them and brought them the gift of fire.
And what a gift. It was more than just a flame, but signified all kinds of good things, light, heat, warmth, protection, intelligence, enlightenment, and even comfort. He cared for them, and so he came down from heaven and brought them good things.
It was here that I discovered the D’Aulaire illustration of Prometheus has been quietly living in my head all these years as a proto-image of Jesus. Of course he had.
But then, I said, of course they also got a lot wrong. In this myth, the other gods didn’t want man to have all these good things. So they punished Prometheus for what he had done.
And then it occurred to me: That part was a proto-Jesus story, too, albeit very darkly. In the myth, because of his kindness to mankind, Prometheus was nailed to a rock to have his liver eaten out by an eagle; but, because he was immortal, it regrew every day, and was devoured again the next day, and his agony continued. A wretched, ugly story, so perverse . . . but so familiar.
You see it, right? Fine tune this myth, and it becomes Jesus, who came down from heaven to save mankind, and for his troubles he was nailed to a tree and now he has become an immortal meal. The suffering part is over, but yes, his body becomes our food over and over again. The ancient story distorts the reality to come until the point of it all is lost, but it’s hard to deny the basic form is there. What does it mean?
Maybe the point isn’t lost after all. Maybe the point is that we tell these stories over and over again, but they don’t take on any kind of truth or beauty until Jesus arrives. That’s the point. If you want your story to mean something, put Jesus in the center of it. At least that is how it seems to me.
We have all seen the man who is knee deep in theology, with ecclesiastical degrees and pedigrees up to his neck, but he has no love, no kindness, no spark of divinity inside him that he allows to become a flame. Why, because there is no Jesus at the center of his story. And we have all seen the man who doesn’t know the holy name of Jesus at all, and yet his whole life and all his works are animated and illumined by that presence just the same. We have all seen men whose lives make stories like this. What does it mean?
It means that Jesus hides. He hides in Genesis, He hides in myth, he hides in humanity, he hides everywhere, so that we can find him. At least that it how it seems to me.
Image: Charles Ephraim Burchfield letter to Louise Burchfield, 1933. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. (Creative Commons)