Q: Doesn’t the word myth mean that something is false?
A: That is one meaning of the word. When myth is referring to mythology however, the word has a different meaning. Briefly, myths are metaphors that convey truths of spiritual nature, through vivid and dramatic images. These metaphors are meant to unlock doors in the human psyche and enable man to move away from a shallow understanding of the world, towards a deeper, spiritual knowledge.
Q: Why do we need symbols to gain a deeper understanding?
A: In a sense we need symbols to understand anything that is not tangible, even our understanding of electricity is derived from water symbolism. If physical forces have to be explained this way, symbolism should be no less necessary for explaining the human soul, or spiritual realities.
Q: Why tell stories in metaphor rather than the way we do it in modern society, in our history books?
Firstly we also tell stories in metaphor through the arts, if this did not fill a purpose, we would not have music, movies, poetry, dance etc. Telling stories metaphorically allows for our imagination to engage, and without it we could not really understand anything but would be restricted to learning cold facts. We learn by using our imagination – thinking creatively – and the myths and poetry allow for our brains to do so, therefore that form of storytelling has a function that history textbooks for instance do not provide.
Q: What ought to be the criteria for interpretation?
A: Interpretation is what we do when we go about trying to understand scripture. If we believe that a text contains knowledge that can be of any value to us, it should be in our best interest to interpret it so that we extract the most value, or meaning. For if something is without meaning, what can be its value? The way to interpret should thus be finding most meaning. In the Bible there is a story known as Jonah and the Whale. In this story a prophet (named Jonah) escapes his calling, boards a ship and heads into a storm. Jonah and the ship crew conclude that Jonah is the cause of the storm, so he agrees to be thrown overboard. In the water he is swallowed by a large fish and within its belly he prays to God. After three days he is vomited up on dry land and resumes his calling. If the story is understood literally it is indeed an incredible story, but what then would it teach us? For what reason did the Bible redactors choose to include this story?
When a person turns away from what he knows is right, he will experience the turmoil that is stirred when his actions are no longer in harmony with his faith. This turmoil is the inner storm that leads to destructive behaviors, and may even threaten the safety of people around him. As it pains his soul to hurt others, he throws himself into the chaotic waters of self-destruction. In his darkest hour, he is compelled to recall his faith and the grace of God envelopes him, keeps him dry and safe from destruction. The first day he is weak and he bewails his plight, the second he repents and regains his strength, and on the third day he is reborn and resumes his mission. Looking at the story of Jonah from this perspective we find a person that we as humans can identify ourselves with, we can find parallels to our own lives and with the help of this imagery we gain a deeper knowledge of ourselves.
Q: Is it possible to have an approach where we avoid interpretation all together?
A: In the Gospel it is mentioned that Christ was born of Mary, but we also read that he came down from heaven. To reconcile these two origins of Christ we assume that heaven is a symbol for a spiritual reality – thus we are interpreting. If we however were to take these two origins literally we would have to find an explanation as to how Christ could descend from heaven and come from the womb of Mary, or we would have to say that one origin is false and the other true – thus we are not avoiding interpretation, but rather choosing a path that makes it much more intricate to interpret. If it was possible to stick only to literal meanings and get a coherent message, there would not be need for more than one church that employs this method, but we find that there are a number of different ways of interpreting even what is taken as literal fact.