Rolland Hein, Christian Mythmakers, 2nd edition (Cornerstone Press, 2002)
In the 1980s, television journalist Bill Moyers popularized the idea of myth when his series on Joseph Campbell aired on PBS. Almost overnight, it seemed, it was acceptable for grown-ups to talk about myth, and the power of myth on the human psyche. Fairy tales were no longer just for the nursery room (which idea itself was relatively new, by the way). It was a great time to be discussing the power of myth. Things have perhaps backtracked slightly, but with the recent Lord of the Rings movies, it is once again becoming fashionable to speak about myth. In certain circles (including GMR), however, it never became unfashionable. For many, myth is not a fad, but a reality of life.
The power of myth draws inextricably upon the human psyche. But myth itself is not a religion: it is one of the tools of religious experience. Thus, it should come as no surprise that there are scholars, thinkers, and laypeople within Christianity who discuss the idea of myth.
OK, it may come as a bit of a surprise to some readers that there are Christians who can speak of myth. After all, in America the predominant, or at least the most vocal, form of Christianity is evangelicalism, which has a recorded track record of not being comfortable with mythic ideas. A book like Rolland Hein's Christian Mythmakers is desperately needed, both for Christians who think myth is dangerous and for non-Christians who want an understanding of how myth and Christianity relate.
Hein is professor emeritus of English at Wheaton College and has written several books on George MacDonald. (I haven't read these books, but I have heard good things about them.) In this book, Hein broadens his scope a bit, and looks at not just George MacDonald, but at a number of Christian writers who wrote mythic work: John Bunyan, Dante Alighieri, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton, Charles Williams, Madeleine L'Engle, Walter Wangerin, Robert Siegel, and Hannah Hurnard. This book is written as much as an introduction to these writers' major mythic works as it is as an analysis of how Christians can approach the mythic in the reading of literature.
The book begins with a forward by Clyde S. Kilby which is a reprint of his 1973 essay, 'The Rationale of Myth,' here retitled, 'What is Myth?' The essay has held over the 30 years since it was first published, and the statements that Kilby makes to answer the title question hold as well today as they did when first published, reflecting the permanence of myth upon the psyche. 'The two most basic characteristics of man are to know and to worship,' Kilby writes. However, Kilby observes, '[o]ur present age in particular is convinced that the main avenue to knowing is the making of statements.' This epistemological mistake leads us to dismiss myth, to disparage other avenues of knowing. If it can't be quantified and systematized, it can't be known. However, there is another avenue, the avenue of imagination, and the main expression of imagination is through myth. 'Systematizing flattens, but myth rounds out. Systematizing drains away color and life, but myth restores.'
It is this restorative power of myth, this ability of myth to transcend current epistemological limitations, which makes myth especially powerful for Christians, for it is in light of myth that Christians can know God better than the current avenue of knowing allows. This is what Hein looks at in his book.
The second edition of Christian Mythmakers begins with a newly inserted chapter about the proto-Christian mythic author, Dante Alighieri, and then proceeds historically to the present. Originally, the book began with a chapter on John Bunyan, but as we'll mention below, this was most unsatisfactory. The inclusion of the chapter on Dante helps strengthen the argument of the book.
In Dante, Hein sees the beginning of Christian mythmaking in that in The Divine Comedy 'Dante inevitably turns many of the archetypal images of the mythological past -- such as the hero, the quest, and the afterlife -- on their heads.' This inversion is the movement from external realities to internal: 'Historically, in the main, the transition from the pagan past to the Christian present is a shift in focus from external to internal reality.' But it does all this within mythic structures; for example, '[t]he numbers three (for the trinity), four (for man), and one (for final unity), making ten, are omnipresent.' In a rationalistic world, such numbers would be meaningless, mere markers signifying quantity, but within a myth they take on large and staggering meaning.
Christian myth, however, stumbled in the reformation and the subsequent religious tensions of the 16th and 17th centuries. While aiming to recover what they viewed as wrong interpretation by the Roman Catholic Church, the Reformers applied strongly rationalistic hermeneutics to their epistemological systems, resulting in a distrust of things mythic. It is ironic, then, that Hein's next chapter is on the author of the bestselling Puritan book ever, John Bunyan and his Pilgrim's Progress. Hein sees Bunyan's work as strongly mythic, but there are problems with this view, problems that Hein struggles to reconcile. On the one hand, there is the allegorical nature of Pilgrim's Progress which can be viewed as mythic in that it uses images (recall Kilby's idea of imagination as the avenue of knowing) to relay truth. But on the other hand, that very allegory becomes caught in its own linear correspondence, where each element corresponds to a real-world truth that the author is trying to convey. The mythic, therefore, is strangled, wanting desperately to soar (as in the encounter with Apollyon in the Valley of the Shadow of Death or as in the struggle through the Slough of Despond), but ultimately hampered by the direct correlation to real world lessons. It is like the many 'nursery room' fairy tales that end with 'and the moral of this story is '. Hein writes that 'Bunyan's frequent didacticism suggests -- and his apology confirms -- he was never free from the fear that the mythic level may exist beyond his mastery.' That is, the mythic has a life of its own, and Bunyan -- a pastor who had the care of his flock to concern himself with -- could not allow it to take flight of its own.
Ultimately, though, Hein finds mythic value in Bunyan's writings: 'In their imaginative contemplation of the ordinary individuals who would live the Christian life, mythmakers penetrate deeply into the nature of Christian experience.' And this is, indeed, what Bunyan does and why his work is still widely read.
Next up in Hein's analysis is Hein's own particular area of study, George MacDonald. In many ways, it is with MacDonald that Christian mythic writers begin. Among those writers whom Hein discusses, MacDonald is the first to be writing in distinction against the Enlightenment assumptions that define the 'modern' worldview. For Hein, MacDonald is a Romantic. Hein writes that 'Reformation rationalism had come to lack the joyous celebration of mystery . George MacDonald's achievement lies in his accomplishing a consistent and coherent system of thought derived from the best of [the] traditions of Calvinism and romanticism.' It is a strain of thought that would be picked up by C.S. Lewis in the 20th century.
This Christian romanticism, though, according to Hein, is the essence of Christianity, not the cold rationalism of the Reformation. (It is interesting to note that there is a current trend within Reformed thought to get back to this 'romantic' theology.) Specifically, Hein sees Christian romanticism as concerned with the symbol: 'Symbols have the capacity to reach very high -- towards something ineffable -- and arouse wonder; to attempt to define their significance precisely is to diminish them . To MacDonald, symbols portray spiritual truths. He conceived of the world as sacramental, with all the images in one's experience having the potential to convey grace to the beholder.'
The next author is one that is often not considered a fantasist, except amongst Christian romantics: G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton's fantastic work is limited to just a few works, most notable (and the ones that Hein analyzes) are The Man Who Was Thursday and Manalive. More important than his work, though, was Chesterton's everyday view of the world. For if there was ever a man who saw very little distinction between the fantastic and the mundane, it was G.K. Chesterton. Hein begins his chapter on Chesterton thus: 'To G.K. Chesterton, life was a mystery with a rightness at its heart. To see it accurately is to worship . Much of the secret of Chesterton's success lies in his ability to capture inside of his writing the air of the fairy tale -- the mythic mode of thought.' Indeed, at a theoretical level, Christian mythic romanticism reached its zenith with Chesterton; subsequent writers only serve to be the example of his theories. It is not in the 'fantasy' writings of Chesterton that you find his most fantastic thoughts, but in the 'pedestrian' writings: his theology and his journalistic work.
The next three chapters, comprising nearly half the book, turns attention to the Inklings fantasists, namely Charles Williams, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis. Much ink (no pun intended) has been spent on these authors and the mythic quality of their work, so Hein's chapters serve more to show how they fit within his thesis than to shed any new light on their works. Indeed, only one fairly new to one of these authors would find the chapters to be revelatory. Still, not all good ideas need be new ideas, and so the chapters on the Inklings are valuable in their support of these great authors.
The book rounds out with a brief and (sometimes) cursory glance at a number of more recent Christian fantasists. With the exception of Madeleine L'Engle (who rightly deserves a chapter of her own in this book), the brief précis on these authors does not do a disservice to their writings. It is perhaps sad, then, that a tradition which blossomed in the middle of the 20th century would seem to be just puttering along. There is hope out there that things will pick up, with the resurgence of interest in liturgical thought and worship within Christianity and the movement of Christian focus from the rationalistic north hemisphere to the more holistic cultures of the south hemisphere. Time will tell. But until then, we need books like Hein's to remind us that the rationalistic bent of current Western Protestantism is not the only way (and indeed not the proper way) of viewing the mythic and Christianity.
[Matthew Scott Winslow]