What child does not love mythology? And what child does not sense, deep in his bones, that the myths he loves are filled with richer meaning and significance than he can fully comprehend? Sadly, when we grow up, too many of us lose our youthful love for myths and, more importantly, our humble willingness to learn from them.
This loss is particularly strong among evangelical Christians like myself who’ve been raised to be somewhat suspicious of fantasy, especially pagan fantasy. That suspicion, unhealthy in the best of times, is particularly harmful today when our simultaneously modern and postmodern world has thrust upon us its own secular myths, to which we’re expected to pay lip service.
Chief among those secular myths are the following: (1) science is an absolute good and no limits should be placed on it; (2) an enlightened state can decide what is moral or immoral; (3) man can and should build utopia; (4) love is always and intrinsically meritorious; and (5) there are no essential differences between the sexes.
Here I will challenge these five modern secular myths by setting them against five pagan ones.
1. Daedalus and Icarus (Technology)
Many know the myth of Daedalus and Icarus, of how Daedalus the great artificer built magnificent wings so that he and his son could fly to freedom. All went well for a while until young Icarus forgot his father’s warning to not fly too close to the sun. Casting aside all caution, Icarus soared up, only to have the heat of the sun melt the wax that held the feathers to his makeshift wings. Without feathers to hold him aloft, Icarus plunged to his death as his father looked on helplessly.
When we grow up, too many of us lose our youthful love for myths and, more importantly, our humble willingness to learn from them.
If we read the tragic tale of Daedalus and Icarus as a warning against all inventiveness—as a simple illustration of the obscurantist adage that if God meant man to fly, he would have given him wings—then we will misunderstand the myth. What this old story would teach us is that science without prudence and restraint is dangerous, and that there should and must be limits to human technology. Even a child can understand that!
2. Antigone (Morality)
When his two nephews, Eteocles and Polyneices, killed each other in a civil war, Creon, king of Thebes, decreed that, for the sake of public law and order, the first would be given a royal funeral and the second would be thrown to the dogs. So adamant was he that his policy was necessary for the common good that he decreed that anyone who tried to bury Polyneices would be put to death—a decree he carried out on his own niece Antigone when she offered burial rites for her brother.
Four and a half centuries before Christ, Sophocles of Athens wrote a tragedy about Antigone; in it, she argues that a higher law of piety transcends Creon’s manmade law. No earthly court or ruler can outrank the natural law inscribed in the conscience of every human being. The pagans of ancient Greece knew this—and not just Sophocles. Had the audience of his play not also known this truth, they would not have understood the play. How is it that our age has forgotten what was once common sense to those without the law of God?
3. The Fall of Atlantis (Society)
The tale of Atlantis doesn’t appear in any book of history but is told as a myth by the ancient world’s greatest philosopher, Plato. Far back in the mists of time, Atlantis was a master of science, culture, trade, and war—until evil was found in her. The wisdom and temperance of Atlantis slowly gave way to arrogance, folly, and lust, and she began to war with her neighbors and herself. In the end, the gods sent a great wave that flooded the island and carried off its people, its possessions, and its pretensions. In the space of a few hours, proud Atlantis vanished, sunk beneath the wave, and swallowed by the sea.
How is it that our age has forgotten what was once common sense to those without the law of God?
Atlantis, like the Tower of Babel, stands as an object lesson for what happens when man thinks he can fashion, apart from God, a human-centered, God-defying utopia. We think in our arrogance that we can build what Augustine called the “City of Man” (as opposed to the City of God) and not suffer the same fate as the kingdoms symbolized in the statue that Nebuchadnezzar sees in his dream (Daniel 2): Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome. If we won’t heed Daniel 2, maybe we’ll heed Plato’s myth!
4. Atalanta and Hippomenes (Love)
With the help of Venus, the goddess of love, Hippomenes defeated the athletic Atalanta in a running race and so won her hand in marriage. Atalanta was overjoyed to marry him, and all should have been well, but Hippomenes forgot to thank Venus for her aid. As a result, Venus corrupted the desires of Atalanta and Hippomenes so that they made love in the sacred temple of Cybele. Enraged, the goddess transformed the lustful pair into lions.
In our post-sexual-revolution world, people have comes to believe that all sexual desire, as long as it contains some element of love and is consensual, is good. This myth reminds us that there are such things as disordered desires and that they lead us not only to ruin but to the loss of our humanity. When we give in to our base passions, we become like beasts. Significantly, Hippomenes’s indulgence in forbidden desire is prompted by his lack of reverence and gratitude for love itself (embodied in Venus).
5. Jason and Medea (Gender)
Although Medea the witch helped Jason gain the Golden Fleece and defeat his enemies, her dark magic repelled Jason, and he callously put Medea aside to take a new, more sophisticated bride. His decision led to a breach between the lovers, causing Jason to become less and less compassionate and Medea more and more enraged. In the end, Medea took vengeance on Jason by not only killing his new bride but also the two sons whom Medea had born to Jason.
[The myth of Atalanta and Hippomenes] reminds us that there are such things as disordered desires and that they lead us not only to ruin but to the loss of our own humanity.
What leads to the tragedy of Jason and Medea isn’t their refusal to treat each other as interchangeable equals, but their mutual inability to understand and respect the masculine needs and perspectives of the one and the feminine needs and perspectives of the other. In the myth, Jason becomes strangled by a cold, sophistical, merciless rationalism, as Medea becomes consumed by an uncontrolled passion divorced from all higher ethical standards. In the end, their complementary unity is torn asunder—together with the sons who were the fruit of that unity.
Fighting Fire with Fire
By using these five myths from ancient Greece to counter five of the strongest and most persistent secular myths of our modern/postmodern culture, I don’t mean to suggest we should forego reason- and logic-based apologetics. I merely suggest that it’s sometimes more appropriate and effective to fight fire with fire. Secular myths have power precisely because they are myths. They appeal to us on a level deeper than reason and logic, a level that engages our emotive and imaginative core.
The culture wars of the 21st century are being waged in the arena of narratives, stories we tell ourselves to give our lives meaning and justify our actions. If we’re to win such a war, then we must meet our adversaries on the battlefield of myth. And we must realize that, when it comes to this kind of struggle, the old pagan myths, which contain the collective wisdom of the past, are more often than not on our side. For Christ, as Chesterton, Tolkien, and Lewis all agreed, is the true myth, the myth made fact.