Paul's Warnings About Myths


Must Christians avoid mythic stories?

The Lord of the Rings, and similar works of literature by J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and others fall into the category of mythic stories. Since the Apostle Paul warns us to have nothing to do with myths, shouldn't Christians avoid reading these stories, and forbid their children to read them? To find out, let's examine the three relevant scripture passages one at a time. All are found in the letters to Timothy. Some translations use the word "myth" to translate the Greek word mythos, from which we obviously get our English word. Here, I'll be quoting from the New King James Version, which often follows the original Authorized translation by using the word "fables." However, I'll stick to the word "myth" in discussion for the sake of consistency.

The three passages are I Timothy 1:3-4, I Timothy 4:1-8, and II Timothy 4:2-4.

I Timothy 1:3-4

3As I urged you when I went into Macedonia—-remain in Ephesus that you may charge some that they teach no other doctrine, 4nor give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which cause disputes rather than godly edification which is in faith.

Myths are linked here with "endless genealogies," the pastime of Jews whose confidence for acceptance before God was in their descent, in the flesh, from the Patriarchs. In addition to these extra-Biblical genealogies, Jewish tradition included the Talmud and other apocryphal writings, some of which included fanciful tales (see Titus 1:14), and none of which was inspired in the sense that holy scripture is. Over the years, the line between scripture and tradition had become blurred (and you know, it still rings true today!). In this context, "myths" are manmade traditions that have been elevated to the status of Christian doctrine. Paul's concern here is that there be a clear distinction between sound doctrine and the traditions of man, and that the latter not be "given heed," that is, not be treated as authoritative.

Note also that the kind of "myth" Paul is concerned over causes disputes. What kind of myth would do that? Disputes arise over uncertainty about dogma. When we become dogmatic about extra-Biblical writings or ideas, ancient or current, or about our religious traditions, we open the door to unnecessary, harmful disputes. It would seem odd ascribe that effect to mythic stories, as long as they are clearly recognized as merely human literature, and are not made a rule of faith and practice in addition to scripture. Properly understood, mythic stories, especially those written from a sanctified imagination, may edify us and lend support to our faith; and need not lead to the sort of disputation Paul wanted Timothy to avoid. 

I Timothy 4:1-8

1The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. 2Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. 3They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. 4For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.

6If you point these things out to the brothers, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, brought up in the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed. 7Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. 8For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.

Myths are linked here with "old wives tales," that is, superstitions. False teachers, too, under the influence of demons, hold the sort of superstitious cosmology that came later to have such labels as "Gnostic" and "Manichean." "Godless" in verse 7 contrasts with the affirmations of the goodness of God's creation in verses 4 and 5. See Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 25, and 31.

In this context, then, "godless myths" are those doctrines which are untrue chiefly in that they deny that "everything God created is good," or conversely, ascribe to the created order not only the cursed consequences of the fall, but actual inherent evil. In our time, this error most often arises as a result of the Cartesian spirit-body dualism that lies as an unspoken assumption behind much Western thought. In Christian circles, this sometimes shows up as confusion between the material, human body and what Paul calls "the flesh." The body itself comes to be wrongly thought of as the seat of evil.

Certain false ideas flow naturally from that false assumption. One of those is that rock music is evil because (so it is said) it unduly emphasizes the rhythmic (bodily) element over the harmonic (mental-emotional) and melodic (spiritual) elements. My purpose here is not to categorically deny that rock music is evil. That subject is beyond the scope of this article. Rather, this is to point out an example of how a Gnostic assumption has insidiously crept into Christian thinking.

In practice the consequences of those ideas are exacerbated by our tendency to improperly correct abuses by banning the things abused, and to adopt these quick-fix solutions as permanent traditions. In that way, Christianity came to hold, in varying degrees in different places, a host of these godless myths for much of the 20th century and into the present:

  • Drinking alcoholic beverages is a sin. Incredibly, this one was extended in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to include even the very wine which Christ himself hallowed for use in his memorial supper. To this day, most Protestant churches in North America continue to substitute plain grape juice. This stunning display of arrogance on the Church's part shows the strength with which these godless myths can hold sway over sound doctrine. How truly was it spoken of us by the prophet Isaiah, "Thy silver is become dross, thy wine mixed with water"! In no way am I advocating drunkenness, as it's quite possible to enjoy fine fermented beverages without ever getting drunk. And, even so, I think drunkenness a lesser sin than the legalistic imposition of extra-Biblical mandates, if the strength of Paul's rhetoric is an indication.
  • Using tobacco in any form is a sin. In response to this, ask yourself, Who made tobacco leaves? Why did He make them smell so good? What did He intend for us to do with them? I'm not hereby advocating filling your lungs with smoke several times a day, every day, until you're addicted to nicotine and short of breath. But to ban outright something that God Himself made for us, and called good, is a cure worse than the disease of lung cancer. Again, as with alcohol, it's quite possible to enjoy it responsibly.
  • Dancing is a sin. This manmade law is flatly countermanded in the pages of scripture by several Old Testament examples. Our bodies were made by God to respond to music. Dancing is the fullest expression of that part of our design. As with everything, it should be done with thoughtful care. Shaking your half-dressed booty at a rave club, for example, is practically guaranteed to foster all kinds of fleshly desires, in you and in others. Holding someone other than your spouse too closely while waltzing could do much the same thing, if in a gentler way. But forbidding disciples to dance altogether is a worse sin than any you could fall into at any dance hall.
  • Eating or drinking certain classes of foods or beverages is a sin. For example, some teach that eating meat is a sin because man was originally made to eat only grains and vegetables. Others teach that caffeine is a drug, and therefore coffee (among other beverages) must be avoided. There is a resurgence today of ostensibly Christian teachers instructing disciples "to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth." Paul says these teachers have actually abandoned the faith and are following deceiving spirits. Such surprisingly strong words show the severity of this error. Is it really so bad to tell people that it's wrong to eat red meat, or drink coffee, or whatever? Yes, because behind that command lies not only legalism, for which both Christ and Paul reserved their harshest rhetoric, but also a denial of the fundamental Christian principle expressed beautifully by hymn writer Isaac Watts:
    I sing the goodness of the Lord,
    That filled the earth with food;
    He formed the creatures with His Word,
    And then pronounced them good.

Yes, each of these teachings denies the very Word of God, both written and incarnate. That is what makes them "godless."

Mythic stories such as The Lord of the Rings do not fit into the category of "godless myths" in the foregoing sense. They are overtly fantastic tales intended to express truths about life in the cosmos in an imaginative way. The godless myths Paul instructs Timothy to avoid are false teachings masquerading as Christian doctrine, but in fact denying a truth fundamental to genuinely Christian thought. These two senses of the word "myth," then, are entirely different. Paul does not mean that Christians should have nothing to do with mythic stories. 

II Timothy 4:2-4

2Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. 3For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; 4and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables.

Here as in the two previous passages, "myths" are contrasted with sound doctrine. Especially in this passage, the word "myth" is used as a synonym for false doctrine generally. Mythic stories cannot be seen as a form of false doctrine, since they make no express truth claims. This passage does not even forbid us to read myths that communicate identifiable falsehoods, such as ancient Greek or Pagan myths might. We should read mythic stories the same way we should read all human writing: with discernment, holding fast to the good, and filtering out the evil.

Paul here urges Timothy to maximize his opportunities to preach the gospel and teach sound doctrine to everyone who is willing to listen, because they will not always be willing. "Strike while the iron is hot," is a parallel injunction in modern English. He warns that there will come a time when people en masse will turn away from truth and be turned aside to its opposite: not mythic literature, but the teaching of wolves in sheeps' clothing.

A mythic tale, while not factual history, may yet be true in the sense that it serves as a vehicle for wisdom, and more generally by reflecting to some degree the true state of spiritual reality. It was precisely that which Tolkien believed was the chief purpose of mythic literature, and for which he increasingly strove over the course of his career as a fantasy writer. Literary works like The Lord of the Rings in no way qualify as false doctrine toward which apostate Christians turn when they can no longer endure the truth. To the contrary, they may serve to arouse in believers and unbelievers alike a sympathy for truth, a hatred of evil, and a longing for that full redemption of body, soul, and spirit for which God's elect are graciously, lovingly predestined.

29 March 2004
David J. Finnamore
Orlando, FL