One of the more memorable phrases culled from C.S. Lewis is Christ is “myth made fact.” The notion kind of sneaked up on Lewis during the process that lead to his conversion to Christianity. An offhand remark by his friend T.D. Weldon, a fellow Oxford don and, like Lewis at the time an avowed atheist, made a deep impression on him over the years: “Rum thing, that stuff of Frazer’s about the Dying God. It almost looks as if it really happened once.” Of course, that is precisely the claim of the Gospels.
Lewis’ insight is worth comparing with René Girard’s view of Jesus in relation to mythology. Girard, of course, also studied Frazer’s writings about deities, mainly vegetative deities, dying and rising. Frazer, seems to have absorbed Jesus into the other myths, blurring the distinction between them. Girard, on the other hand, believes that both the myths and the Gospel accounts refer to real events. Here, he also differs from Lewis who seems to have thought of myths as something like cosmic poetry, dealing with timeless truths, such as the vegetative cycle in temperate climates where nature, like Persephone, dies and then rises again. For Girard, all myths, in their origins, are made fact.
Girard’s thesis of sacred violence asserts that social tensions in early societies were resolved, if they were resolved at all, by collective violence that was very real. Mythology then became something of a cover up of this event while still alluding to it. The rising from the dead in such mythology would be the deification of the victim who, in retrospect, was seen as the solution for the problem for which the victim was earlier blamed. Tying such mythology into the vegetative cycle raises suspicions for me that this development, if it did not originate in agricultural societies, was greatly furthered within them. After all, the claiming of land by a tribe would easily inspire other people to desire that land. In such a setting, social tensions leading to the victimage mechanism would happen much quicker than in hunter/gatherer societies. Girard’s thesis also suggests that the real cycle is not in nature but in human activity. That is, an act of collective violence holds a society together for only so long before it needs to happen again. The mythological cycle, then, is a vicious cycle.
For Girard, then, the Gospel narrative of Jesus dying and rising is not the historicization of a timeless truth, but an instantiation of a scenario that had been happening in reality, in time, since the dawn of humanity. What’s new about the Gospels is that the story is told straight out and the victim is claimed to be innocent and was unjustly murdered. For Girard, it isn’t so much a case of myth become fact as the truth behind myth revealed.
As a Christian, Lewis retained sympathy for the myths of dying and rising deities, regarding them as great poetry. Girard, of course, is not so affirming of mythology, as he sees it as obscuring the truth. However, Girard’s point of view does not necessarily mean that myths are bad poetry. Moral goodness and ascetic goodness are not equivalent, after all.
There is a deeper reason though for being open to Lewis’ sympathy. It was the pathos of a deity like Balder who was killed through collective violence that moved Lewis, and it was the same sensitivity that should make the passion of Jesus deeply moving as well. (Interestingly, Lewis went through a period where the dying pagan deities moved him more than the story of Christ; perhaps a residue of his resistance to conversion.) Although a myth such as that of Tiamat, who was blamed for Babylon’s primordial chaos and torn to pieces, does not try to inspire sympathy for a victim the way the Psalms of Lament do, we can see a woman victimized by the people who made a strenuous effort to avoid seeing what they were doing.
There is a deeper reason for sympathy for myth. Deplorable as the countless acts of collective violence were and continue to be, Girard’s thesis also demonstrates how profoundly people were caught up in this mechanism so that they could not escape without intervention from God. It is precisely this intervention from God to free humans in bondage that Paul celebrates time and again in his epistles. If we need this intervention from God in Christ, then we are hardly in a position to be judgmental against the first humans that fell into the same traps we do.