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On resisting mythological consciousness

By Peter Sellick - posted Thursday, 25 June 2015

In Hebrew thought the historical displaces the mythological imagination. That is why the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures are so concerned with Historical event, even though the telling is highly overlaid with theological concerns

Such an understanding of the nature of mythology should deter us from describing unnatural events in the Scripture as belonging to this genre. For example, the annunciation to Mary of her conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit falls between the genres of history and mythology. While written as if it describes events in time, it is not history as we know it as a description of actual events. Neither can we describe it as mythology because the boundaries between nature and culture are not erased. Rather, we may understand it as a theological construct in narrative form created by the writer.

The narrative of Mary sets the stage for the reader to understand Jesus referring to God as Father, not only His Father but everyone's Father. This is crucial for the reader's understanding of who, theologically, Jesus is, even for the gospels of Mark and John who have no infancy narratives and no reference to a virgin birth but in which Jesus refers to God as Father.


While various writers, including David Tacey in a recent book, have described unnatural events in Scripture as mythological, this is not an adequate description. The function of these narratives is not to diffuse the alienation between humanity and nature, but to carry theological weight.

I think it is true that our society is influenced by the "triumph of the therapeutic", the idea that everything may be fixed. We would fix the alienation that comes from the denial of the mythical consciousness. We would, like Israel in the wilderness, return to Egypt and forfeit the self-consciousness and unease that formed the culture of the West. This is the great temptation in our time including for the denatured form of Christianity that would fix the estate of humanity and return us to a world of comfortable dreams.

Rather, the function of Scripture is to intensify our experience of the human dilemma, not soften it with mythological or magical thinking. We must refrain from thinking that religion and, for us, Christianity, is a panacea, something to make us feel better about the world and ourselves. It's blessing derives from its truth, not from pious talk meant to comfort.

Our temptation is to believe that since we can relieve so much pain of the body with sophisticated technology, we can also ease the pain of the human soul. But alienation and anxiety are the consequences of the escape from Egypt and the mythological mind, they are not for curing but for enduring because they are the irritants that have driven us to our present state of civilization.

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Key ideas for this essay were provided by H N Schneidau's Sacred Discontent.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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