VIEW VIDEO I made the mistake of reading an article about retirement several months ago that made me nervous about our finances. Neither Joan nor I have pensions, so the only thing we have for retirement is the money we’ve managed to save, and are starting to worry that the $300 we’ve put away might not carry us through our golden years. I made the mistake of mentioning my concerns to Joan, who immediately put me on a budget, rightly assessing that I was the problem, and said we were going to start eating all our meals at home, which we’ve been doing, for the most part. But now I can always tell when we’re running low on money, because we start eating a lot of ham and beans, which I now refer to as “gap-fillers,” the food we eat in the gap after running out of money but before payday. Gap fillers.
When you think about it, gap-fillers are pretty common. When I was a kid, my bicycle was a gap-filler, occupying that gap between walking everywhere and learning to drive. Duct tape is a great gap-filler. Just last week, while at the hardware store, the button on my pants popped off. I wasn’t wearing a belt so the hardware store owner gave me a length of duct tape to hold my pants up until I could get home and sew the button back on. On the way home I stopped at Kroger and saw someone I’ve been inviting to our Quaker meeting. I invited them again, but I don’t think they’ll be coming anytime soon. You lose a lot of credibility walking around in public with our pants duct-taped on.
We all have gap-fillers in our lives, things that do the job until something more suitable comes along. In these next few weeks, I want to talk about things I’ve learned from Christmas, so today want to speak about the prevalence of myths this time of year. By myth, I don’t mean a false belief or idea, but rather those traditional stories we tell one another that help explain either our origins or some great human mystery. For instance, there are creation myths, like the story of Adam and Eve, and there are myths that attempt to explain human suffering, like the Greek myth of Prometheus whose overreaching ambition so angered the gods that all humanity was penalized.
Christmas is rife with myths. There’s the virgin birth of Jesus, and the wise men following the star to the manger in Bethlehem, and we enjoy these myths because we realize that while they’re not literally true, they are nevertheless meaningful and often have something important to teach us. The story of the virgin birth was never about God’s manipulation of the natural order, but more about the significance and importance of Jesus. The myth of the virgin birth was God’s metaphorical way of saying, “This is my son, whom I have chosen, listen to him.”
Now, eventually myths are replaced with knowledge, experience, and reason, but until they are, myths are great gap-fillers. They help us make sense of things until we grow knowledgeable enough to learn the actual truth of something. Or are able to think abstractly.
At one time the myth of the virgin birth of Jesus was very important to me. It made Jesus special in my mind, and I was reluctant to reconsider its true meaning. Now I realize the value of Jesus isn’t due to his unique or magical birth, but rather in his priorities, insights, and virtues. I feel the same way about the resurrection of Jesus. At one time I needed that to be literally true, but now I’m content to let that story symbolize the ultimate triumph of good over evil.
Myths are wonderful for children, but less so for adults, especially when believing in a myth forces us to deny what is observably and obviously true. When a child believes in Santa Claus, it’s fun and magical. When an adult believes in Santa Claus, it’s sad and pathetic. We would worry about that adult, wouldn’t we? A great danger in religion is when we allow the myths of our religion to supplant science, reality, and knowledge. This misappropriation of myth is present not just in religion, but in entire societies, causing real damage. In the 1920s, at the height of the second resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, a myth was born called the Myth of the Lost Cause that successfully convinced millions of Americans that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery but about state’s rights, a blatant denial of the evils of slavery and its role in our nation’s development. So the statues went up and the denial of racism continued and continues to this day when entire states condemn the teaching of actual history, preferring the myth. The misappropriation of myth, when passed from one generation to the next, causes real damage.
A man once accosted me after a speech I had given. I had just started moving from a myth-based religion to a reality-based religion, and I was feeling my way along rather tentatively. He asked if I believed in the virgin birth. I told him I once did, but now I wasn’t so sure. He grew angry and told me if I didn’t believe in the virgin birth, then I wasn’t a Christian. I wasn’t sure how to respond, so said nothing, but left feeling anxious, worrying he was right and God might punish for believing the wrong thing. The man seemed so right, so confident and I was so uncertain and full of doubt. I’m sure you’ve met his kind before. Today, I would tell the man that being a Christian doesn’t mean believing all the myths about Jesus, myths inconsistent with knowledge, experience, and reason. I would tell him being a Christian means we embrace the priorities of Jesus, that we look at the life and teachings of Jesus and say, “Yes, those qualities are important to me. I want to be like that.”
In Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland Alice told the White Queen, “One can’t believe impossible things.” The Queen answered, “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast” As Christians, we’re not asked to believe six impossible things before breakfast. We’re asked to let the life of Jesus inform our lives. When we’re children, we learn of that life primarily through myths. But those are gap-fillers, taking us by the hand until knowledge, experience, and reason carry the day. When we’re adults, we can say with the Apostle Paul, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I grew up, I put away childish things.”