When C. S. Lewis was beginning to make the transition from unbelief to belief in Christianity, reportedly one of the primary avenues for him was the mythological connection. Lewis found Biblical stories irritating in what they asked listeners to accept and believe, but very similar stories in other ancient myth cycles didn’t bother him in the least, though they were also accepted and believed by other groups of people in other times — rather, these other cycles appealed to him. Noticing this, Lewis’s friend J. R. R. Tolkien said something to the effect of, “Well, Christianity is just another mythology — only it’s one that happens to be true.” And (again, so I’ve read) a light began to glow for Lewis.
During the past year, I’ve started reading the Bible in a new way. Always before in life, I’ve read the Bible in bits and pieces — “lessons” — usually determined by the church’s lectionary calendar or the appointings of this or that devotional booklet. But it dawned on me that, as one who places such value on Story, I ought to explore the aspect of Scripture as Story. That is, I ought to see what might be seen from reading entire books in order, watching the events unfold naturally and cumulatively. One of my favorite college profs liked to point out that “history = His Story.” The Bible we have today looks like a book. It’s bound like a book. It fits into our bookcases. Maybe we keep it there. But oddly, we don’t usually read it like a book, starting at the beginning of a story and seeing where it leads us, appreciating the characters, what they do, and what happens to them.
I can see you all shaking your heads and slapping your foreheads, thinking, “Duh! It’s taken you more than four decades to get around to this approach?” Well, well, whatever. We’re never too old to learn. So anyway, I started with the four Gospels. I read John, then Luke, then Matthew, then Mark. Then I went back to square one and read through Genesis. (A pace that works for me is reading a chapter almost every night. If I’m too busy some nights to read a chapter, I don’t get down on myself. The book has been around for a long time — I know it will still be there the next night.) Then I went on into Exodus, and that’s where I am now, in the midst of the plagues upon Egypt. (It’s really making me want to rent The Ten Commandments, which I used to watch every year on TV when I was a kid. One network would put it on at Eastertime to compete with Jesus of Nazareth on the other network. I wanted to watch The Ten Commandments for the seventh or eighth time, and my parents wanted to watch Jesus, so we’d do a lot of switching back and forth whenever a commercial came on on one network. [Yes, in those days, homes usually did have just one TV set. . . .] How many of you used this line with your parents on a school night? — “Just let me stay up until the parting of the Red Sea!” — Bring back any memories? I won’t ask how many of you played The Ten Commandments on school recess. My friends and I did . . . probably convincing the playground teachers that we were insane. Of course, we’d conditioned them: in the years before The Ten Commandments, we played Planet of the Apes.)
Boy, do I digress! Here’s the point I set out to make: I’ve been noticing a fascinating parallel between Genesis/Exodus and Homer’s Odyssey. Let’s compare the Biblical Jacob with Odysseus. Jacob’s name means “He Grabs the Heel,” because he came out of the womb grasping the heel of his brother Esau. We’re told that Esau was a great hunter, a man of the open country, but Jacob was a quiet man who stayed among the tents. The Trickster is a common figure in world mythology, and I’d venture to say that Jacob is the closest figure the Old Testament gives us to The Trickster. He uses his head. He’s shrewd. He’s not above doing things that are, frankly, out-and-out dishonest. He skillfully gets his brother’s birthright. He deviously (in cahoots with his mother) gets his aging father’s blessing that was meant for Esau. He does something so tricky with the livestock that even I’m not sure I understand what he did, but he greatly increases his herds at the expense of his uncle and father-in-law Laban.
Odysseus is wily, too. That tricky hollow Horse was his idea. And how about how he gets his captured men out of the cave of Polyphemus, the Cyclops? After he’s blinded the Cyclops, he has his men cling to the bellies of the sheep as they leave the cave. Polyphemus touches each passing body and feels only the fleeces of sheeps’ backs. Isn’t that eerily close to that stunt Jacob and Rebekah pull in Genesis 27, when they put goatskin on Jacob’s smooth arms so that his father Isaac, nearly blind in his old age, thinks he’s feeling the hairy arms of his firstborn Esau? Odysseus is always coming up with clever ways to have his cake and eat it, too. He wants to hear the Sirens’ song, but he knows hearing it can be maddening and fatal, so he has his men lash him securely to the mast so that he can’t jump into the waves, no matter how enchanted he becomes. The men all plug their ears, and their captain alone gets to hear the alluring song. And when he comes home, he doesn’t do so with a fanfare; he comes home in disguise at first to see how things are going in Ithaca. It’s only when he can “scour the Shire” in one fell swoop that he reveals himself.
Then there are the gists of the stories themselves. Odysseus is proud of himself for that Horse innovation, and his hybris offends the gods. Poseidon decides to teach him a lesson; and thus, the Odyssey: it takes Odysseus ten years to get home — ten years, in which he’s tried and tested and subjected to all sorts of things before he comes again, at last, to Ithaca and his beloved Penelope. [He does some slaughtering of rivals who have moved in and are attempting to take over.]
Genesis/Exodus is also a coming-home story. It seems so easy for the sons of Israel to run down to Egypt again and again when they need to buy grain during those years of famine. Then they take up residence down there, and then they become slaves, and then God sends Moses to deliver them. But on the way home, they grumble and lose faith . . . and so Exodus becomes an Odyssey. The children of Israel have to wander for forty years in a wilderness that was so easily crossed before. But when they’ve learned their lesson, when they know that God is God, the promised land awaits. [Like Odysseus, they shed quite a bit of blood to reclaim the land.]
What’s all this doing in a discussion of the writing life? The point is, it pays to notice connections. There are truths, elements, and patterns that resound throughout history, throughout cultures, throughout diverse media. Look for the patterns. You’ll be a better writer for it.
I’ll go one final step and suggest that we pull back with our “Google Earth” buttons — zoom way back outward from Genesis/Exodus to look at the Bible as a whole. The entire Bible is a coming-home story: human beings wander away from God on a long, dark path, and God brings them home. Homecoming, reconciliation, redemption . . . all themes to keep in mind when we write our magnum opuseseses. They make great stories because they reflect the greatest story.