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I was not sure what to expect when I opened this book and started reading. I believe that the Bible is the inerrant, infallible, God-breathed word, at least in its original autographs, so I was interested in how storytelling, imagination and myth, (as I understood it), fit into that view. As it turned out, I had a serious misunderstanding about myth, so as I started reading, he had me at the second paragraph of the preface with his comment about C.S. Lewis’ view on the ancient mythopoeic nature of the Word. Brian said the following: “He (Lewis) understood myth to be the truth embedded into the creation by the Creator in such a way that even pagans would reflect some elements of that truth. Thus, when God Himself incarnates truth into history in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, it is no surprise that it takes on mythopoeic dimensions reflected in previous notions of dying and rising gods.” In that same section, Brian added a comment about myth by world-renowned literary critic, Northrop Frye. Frye described myths as “stories that tell a society what is important for it to know, whether about its gods, its history, its laws or its structures.” So, God’s transcendent truth is encoded in mythical stories found in the Bible. These stories may be historically factual (literally true), or only figuratively (metaphorically) true. To properly understand that truth and properly decode the stories, we need to not only have a reliable translation of the Bible, but also have an understanding of the culture, concepts, metaphors, motifs and idiomatic expressions in play at the time of the writings. This was one of a number of profound revelations for me about the Bible.
The remainder of the book went on to show how biblical writers used a balanced blend of imagination and storytelling to convey theological concepts and apologetics. The overview provided by this book is demonstrated in Brian Godawa’s Chronicles of the Nephilim series (adult and teen versions), and his novel, The Dragon King, all of which I highly recommend.
The balance of this review covers the individual chapters.
In Chapter One, “Demonizing the Pagan Gods”, Brian introduces the pagan gods, and “gods of the nations” as actual, demonic beings, some of which are given authority to rule over earthly authorities. I am new to the notion that the gods mentioned in Psalm 82, the members of God’s Divine Council, were in part, or in whole, the gods and goddesses of the various pantheons. Further, that God assigned these gods geographical areas and people over which to rule. To enhance my understanding in this area, I found it helpful to read Michael Heiser’s Unseen Realm in parallel. These two sources have caused me to revise my view that the myths and legends of the world’s pantheons were just fanciful and entertaining tales, precursors to science fiction and fantasy writing. In this chapter, Brian goes on to illustrate how God, through the biblical writers, demonizes His enemies, human or divine, by craftily changing their names, subverting their myths and using their own imagery against them. Brian admonishes us to call out evil when we see it and to not “dance around” the issue.
Chapter Two, “Old Testament Storytelling and Apologetics” – This is my favorite chapter. Brian started with a short discussion on apologetics and defense of the faith, from the usual philosophical, historical and archaeological evidence perspectives, and then he branched out into a discussion about polemics, or aggressive arguments to counter an opposing view. This combined strategy provides a powerful process to include in my apologetics toolbox. What followed was a discussion on the apologetic strategies for communications associated with imagination and storytelling from a biblical perspective. Wow! This was something that I had not heard of before. After thinking about this for a time, I concluded that it would also be a great addition to my apologetic toolbox, but there were some things I needed to understand. Up to that point, I had been treating the bible as literal, historical truth to the extent possible, with metaphor or allegory inserted only when clearly indicated. This chapter introduced me to the idea that Bible stories can be literally true from either a literary, or a historical perspective, and/or simply be figuratively or metaphorically true as illustrations of important life-concepts. Having this expanded view, I now needed to figure out how to use those insights to get to my main interest of extracting the maximum truth-value from biblical studies. While discernment of Bible truths through prayer is the preferred route, this was not sufficient for me. Fortunately, Brian supplied a path of Bible interpretation by using the appropriate worldview. Since I do not read, Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic, I would first need to address the issue of selecting an appropriate English Bible translation. After that, I could move into interpretation.
Proper Bible interpretation is dependent on a number of factors, one of the most important of which is the ability to understand the cultural context, metaphors and symbols commonly used, as well as idiomatic expressions that were in play in those times. If we can understand those aspects at some reasonable level, then we will have the greatest probability of extracting the true, underlying meaning from the Bible stories. That was my goal and that meant interpreting that English Bible translation within the cultural context of the ancient writer. To some degree, “thought for thought” or paraphrase translations of the modern English Bible provide that information, especially if they include detailed study notes. The main issue for me with those versions, is that translator bias gets introduced and can cloud or mask the truth. A better strategy, is to use a “word for word” English Bible translation such as ESV, KJV, and NKJV, together with supplemental materials on the cultural context, myths, metaphors, motifs and idiomatic expressions in use. The next question was where do I get this supplementary information from? Again, Brian’s book filled this gap for me by introducing me to literature pertaining to the ancient Near Eastern (ANE) worldview.
The ancient Near Eastern (ANE) worldview derived from an extensive analysis of ancient pagan religious texts found in the areas of Babylon, Assyria and Ugarit. These texts were contemporaneous with biblical writings, and as modern biblical scholars soon discovered, there were many parallels between the various literary styles present in Holy Scripture and those found in the ancient pagan texts. As I learned in this book, this was because the ancient Hebrews and their pagan counterparts shared common words, concepts, metaphors, idiomatic expressions, and even methods of storytelling, so naturally their respective literature showed common features. Dr. John H. Walton, a noted a scholar in this area, calls this “common cognitive environment.” The common cognitive environment provides the framework for understanding Bible literature in its varied literary forms in that it provides us with a way for understanding what the texts meant to the authors, and to those that first read and studied the texts. This approach allows us to extract the information that is meant for us. As Brian taught, God transmits his truths using human authors and the “common cognitive environment,” because we finite humans are not capable of fully understanding His infinite kingdom. The first illustrations of these concepts that Brian included, were ones that Israel shared with other ancient Near Eastern folks, the “sea dragon of chaos,” and the “Cloud-rider. Whether or not these were actual beings, they both served figuratively as means of demonstrating that God is without equal and is superior to the gods of Canaan, and that He will bring order out of chaos, and judgment on those He decides deserve it.
Chapter Three, “Biblical Creation and Storytelling” – This chapter describes biblical creation from the perspective of the ancient Near Eastern mindset. It was not at all what I thought it would be! From the ANE perspective, creation stories were about covenantal relationships, and the concept of Chaoskampf, of establishing order from chaos, were two themes illustrated here. I found it interesting to learn that creation myths were used to rewrite history so to speak, by using a technique called “subversion.” Subversion is a literary device of rewriting the story by using commonly understood ANE concepts, metaphors, images and stories, which are modified to literarily rewrite the story in an alternate narrative. A number of examples were included as illustrations.
Chapter Four, “The Universe in Ancient Imagination” – This chapter dealt with the ANE understanding of Cosmography or the theory of the heavens and the earth. Cosmography is a technical term that means a theory that describes and maps the main features of the heavens and the earth, or it can be a complex picture of the universe, which includes astronomy, earth science, geography and even theology. Brian illustrated these ideas with ancient Mesopotamian cosmography, which included the heavens, the waters above the firmament, the firmament, the earth, the abyss, the pillars and the underworld, with emphasis on this being a pre-scientific understanding that God didn’t find necessary to correct (assuming our current scientific understanding is true). Brian pointed out that even if modern science showed that the pre-scientific model was false, this in no way diminished God’s sovereignty over all of His creation.
Chapter Five, “New Testament Storytelling and Apologetics” – This chapter focused on Paul’s Mars Hill sermon to the pagan community as described in Acts 17:24-31, in which he used subversion of the Stoic worldview coupled with his extensive knowledge of the pagan literature to attempt to retool a belief. According to Brian, “In subversion, the narrative, images, and symbols of one system are discreetly redefined or altered in the new system.” In effect, the Greek polytheistic view is first taken up, and then subverted into a Jewish Christian monotheistic view, with the endgame being a call for repentance. Brian also includes commentary on the verses. This was a great illustration of apologetics using defense and attack on the Greeks, something else for the toolbox.
Chapter Six, “Imagination in Prophecy and Apocalypse” - In this chapter, Brian discusses the ANE view on “collapsing universe with falling stars and signs in the heavens” included in apocalyptic literature. The surprise for me was that rather than referring to a cataclysmic physical ending, the de-creation language used actually referred to the ending of the old covenant and the inauguration of the new covenant, which will be consummated at the physical return of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, and the initiation of God’s new heavens and the earth. The other surprise for me was to learn that the ANE interpretation of “cloud riders” referred to a common understanding of deity coming in judgment. Considering the popular apocalyptic view of His coming out of the clouds and descending to earth, this was a mental retooling for me. As Brian points out, it is most likely a metaphorical and not literal description, but of course, we will not know until we see how He returns.
Chapter Seven, “An Apologetic of Biblical Horror” – In this chapter Brian show how God uses storytelling, imagination and Bible stories that classify as horror genre, to serve a number of useful purposes. Horror (biblical or otherwise), can be redemptive by forcing us to face or sinful nature and basic fears and by showing us the logical consequences of sin. Brian illustrated these ideas with insightful examples. Considering society’s fascination with the genre, this was an interesting and very positive insight for me. This chapter contained numerous examples of biblical horror stories and horror movies that do the same thing. This chapter we quite enlightening particularly with respect to how a Christian might approach this subject and it led me to both his video lecture series on the Hollywood worldview, but also to his book, Hollywood Worldviews.
As I mentioned at the beginning, I have only read this book twice and I know that it will take a number of additional readings to dig out more of the truth. This is a very helpful tool. Thank you Brian!
Again, Godawa presents a look into the culture and writings of the ancient Hebrew and their surrounding neighbors, and in doing so, presents us with a deeper understanding of many texts of Scripture that, when taken too literally, become confusing.
The premise is, the ancients wrote in a literary style that we are not necessarily expecting from them, and until we recognize this fact, we are prone to misinterpret what the writers were trying to get across in Scripture. This has been a big problem in the modern church for decades upon decades, and Godawa joins the ranks of many, many other writers delving into these topics.
Ever since the discovery of the Ugaritic texts in 1929, and the Dead Sea Scrolls a few decades later, the understanding of Scripture has opened wider than at almost any other point in church history, yet the typical preacher/teacher and pew sitter have no clue about the depths of this topic being written and exposed. Sadly, without a better understanding of this ancient worldview, the modern church is doomed to continue misunderstanding the text and will continue propagating an alien view of the Scripture.
I will briefly mention a few chapters that stand out. Chapters one and two start right off looking at how story telling was done in the Old Testament. How they took the names of the other gods and twisted them in a belittling manner, as well as taking the stories of those gods and twisted them and took them over, applying them to Yahweh while demonizing the original gods. This is very helpful because many atheists want to say Judaism/Christianity just stole their theology from other nations. Once you grasp the true story telling aspect, you understand the Scriptures are a taking of those stories and inserting the truth with Yahweh at the center - so no, they are not just stolen stories. These two chapters alone should be a booklet that all Christians need to read, learn and understand - but wait there is more.
Chapters three and four look at Biblical creation and cosmology in the ancient mind. Enjoyable, but it was chapter five that stood out to me even more. Here Godawa discusses New Testament storytelling, dealing specifically with Acts 17:16-34 where Paul defends the gospel at the Areopagus in Athens. He breaks down the discussion verse by verse showing how Paul's style is doing pretty much what was already covered in the second chapter. He takes familiar story elements from the Greeks and twists them to make his point about Yahweh. This chapter was most enjoyable.
Sadly, all good things come to an end, and only a couple chapters later found myself at the end of this enlightening book. Every chapter is worth its salt here, those mentioned were just a few that struck me the most. I encourage all Christians to read this, but especially those unfamiliar with the ancient near Eastern worldview and its influence of the Hebrew Scriptures. There are tons of deeper scholarly works on this subject, but start here, Godawa is writing to the average person and is easy to grasp.