What Does it Mean to Speak of Something as a Myth?

For many people, the term “myth” signifies something made up. And indeed, one of the secondary definitions of myth is “an unfounded or ralse notion” or “a person or thing having only an imaginary or unverifiable existence. But those secondary definitions don’t capture the use or value of myth in the spiritual context.

In catch-up mode on some articles I didn’t get to last week, I just came across a piece from about a week ago in NCR written by Fr. Roger Karban. In it, Fr. Roger provides a very helpful understanding of myth, writing

It’s precisely because [experiences of God] are so important and memorable that our sacred writers frequently employ “mythical” language to describe them. Myth here doesn’t refer to a story or statement that isn’t true, but to an experience so unique and significant that it can only be expressed in symbolic language.

We normally employ myth when we’re talking about the most meaningful events in our lives. For instance, I can ask you three questions about your marriage. You can answer the first two in simple, factual terms; the third always demands some myth. When were you married? Where were you married? What does it mean for you to be married? If you begin your third response with, “It’s like,” or “It reminds me of,” or “Have you ever,” you’re crossing over into myth. You’re reaching into symbolism to connect your experiences with those of the questioner.

In that sense of the term “myth” there is much in the Bible that is mythical. That is not a statement that those things are not true. (As my friend Bill Nolan quips, “Everything in the Bible is true, and some of it actually happened.”) Rather, the truth is conveyed in a symbolic way to make it more understandable.