Myth, Identity, and the Healthy Church
Last Sunday was the first time I had been to church since May. Church hurts, and attending is like trying to date again after going through a painful divorce. Past churches hurt me, and it takes a lot of intentional steps to trust again; trust requires a vulnerability that I can’t always muster. Typical answers to “Why go to church?” like “Because it’s your duty” and “Because God wants you to go” gloss over and delegitimize the pain I experienced. I seriously doubt God would obligate or want me to participate in an abusive system.
But I answer this question not as a minister or a priest trying to convince people to come back to the church. I write as a layman, albeit a layman with some degree of philosophical, theological, and historical expertise. I believe the church can be good — even beautiful. In short, a healthy, beautiful church is a place where diverse people can gather around a common identity which values truth and love and aspires to excellence. To find this place of beauty, though, we have a lot of work to do.
Much of the harmful or even abusive behavior within the church right now is a product of a misplaced identity — people don’t know what it means to be a Christian. We’ve lost touch with something fundamental. What we have instead is a set of beliefs and practices we inherited but do not understand, and we inflict those beliefs and practices on others like they were collectively a crucible to separate the True Christians from heretics. To heal the wounds in our church, we need to go back and not only recreate the context in which Christianity took place but also the mindset toward religion as a whole.
To be Greek; to be Roman; to be Christian
In the centuries leading up to the time of Christ, to be a Greek was to know Homer’s writing. The Iliad and The Odyssey were not just interesting stories; they were formative, and they gave the Greeks an understanding of what it meant to be Greek. Later, the Romans would craft their own myths, and to be Roman was to know Virgil, as The Aeneid laid a base for what it meant to be Roman. Each of these stories was a baseline for understanding their society and what was valuable.
Christianity emerged out of these societies, both Greek and Roman, as well as Jewish, which also had a strong sense of identity tied to myth. Should we expect, then, that Christianity suddenly produced a list of facts about the past in order to identify itself? No, Christianity too is myth, whether or or not it also contains historical aspects (which it certainly does). Jesus existed and might possibly have died and risen again, but Christianity is still myth in the larger sense of the word. The stories included in the Judeo-Christian tradition are not necessarily things we are supposed to believe; they are ways of understanding who we are.
Resurrecting the Mythic Mindset
When the church grows unhealthy and forgets its place in the myth, we lose this sense of identity. Instead, we have a bunch of stories and moral laws which make very little sense of their own accord. Why did the Jews have so many laws? Why are those laws so harsh and at times unethical? What are the genealogies in both the Old and New Testaments? I could go on. Without the myth, we treat these as facts, and their identity-forming significance is dead. We concoct complicated systems of interpretation, go on and on about “context,” but fail to view them outside of our modern black and white sensibilities of fact or fiction. To be a dead Christian is to view Christianity as a long list of beliefs which you have to affirm.
This is where theologians sometimes chime in to say, “Well, in my theology course, we studied hermeneutics for a while,” but this is not the point. You can know facts and proper interpretation for days, but that just makes you a historian or a critic of ancient literature, not a Christian. And if we think we can decide who is Christian and who is not via which facts and interpretive methods people believe, we are deceiving ourselves.
I definitely approve of and encourage studying history, ancient literature, and hermeneutics, but we have to resurrect the mythic mindset if church is to be itself again. That means that we look back at these stories and see them not as statements about the past but about who we are right now. Myth ties us into the narrative in the way that literature in general simply does not: we are Jonah, Moses, Peter, and Paul. As participants in the myth, we kill Christ, and we celebrate his resurrection every time we go through the Easter season; we witness his birth during Advent. When we read of David or Solomon or Abraham, we see parts of ourselves.
The failure to engage in the mythic mindset is not exclusive to one type of Christianity. Even many progressive churches don’t know the alternative offered in myth; they just have a different set of laws which they “discovered” through some new miracle of creative interpretation. Being a Christian in such a church, whether conservative or progressive or whatever label is trendy, is about conforming to the blueprint set out for us by our leaders and peers. If you fit in, then great! You get all the benefits of the exclusive club. If you don’t fit, though, too bad, because “Christian” comes pre-defined and has no room for exceptions and outsiders.
These dead churches are everywhere. They are so prevalent, in fact, that the question for many people is not “How can I find a healthy church?” but “How can I find a church that will accept me?” (see also, “Which churches won’t hate me?”) We try to find a church that has pre-approved us for participation, so as we church shop, we rush to the “Doctrinal Statement” page of whatever churches we’re considering to make sure we won’t be violently thrown out once the church discovers our beliefs — and that’s really sad. It shows that churches are not even trying to participate in the ongoing mythic narrative of Christianity, because Christianity for them is over and settled, and all that is left is for you to give your “okay” by showing up every Sunday and perhaps tithing to help this settled Christianity perpetuate itself.
On the other hand, when we are the myth, we also get to act within it as the church. We get to make decisions, and we can expand the story to include others we left out by accident or ignorance. We get to say sorry for our mistakes, grow together, learn what makes each other tick, and write the story of who we are together. We look at the myth, with all its beauty and grotesqueness, and say, “This is who we are,” and that is wonderful. We must find this mindset once more!
The Mythic Church
The reason I go to church is to be part of this narrative. That is one of the benefits of the high church traditions: the service itself ties you to the practices of believers throughout the ages and across continents. Even though I go sparingly (a fact which I am hoping to change), I keep myself aware of who I am, as one particular Christian participating with my contemporaries and predecessors in a millennia-long process of figuring out what it means for us to be good human beings as God would have intended. As we write the story together instead of holding each other to a preset standard, we become the mythic church. It is not simply a social club or a charity, even if it has elements of these things. Rather, it is a way of taking people from diverse circumstances and ways of life and uniting us toward a common goal and purpose by giving us a single identity.
We are the people of the mythic Christ who gave us a new identity when he looked at the Jew, the Greek, and the Roman, and declared that we all bore the image of God. With his death, he affirmed that we were all of such great value that he could not pick between us. He chose to affirm our common humanity. And this is the church, an affirmation of life through the new spirit set against exclusion and hostility.
This post is part of an ongoing series entitled, On Going to Church.
Chris Attaway is a philosophy student in his final semester at Houston Baptist University. After a long series of traumatic events spanning over parts of 2011 and 2013, he started his blog, The Discerning Christian, as a way to understand his experiences and help others in similar circumstances. He hopes to go to graduate school for religious studies in 2015. Chris is an avid PC gamer and was raised by wild Internets. He has a beautiful wife and the two cutest cats in the universe.