G.B. Caird defined a myth as “a story told about the remote past, but told in order to explain the present.” He went on to suggest that “it may well be argued that all genuine convictions require a mythology for their adequate expression and cannot influence the conduct of men until they have bodied forth in powerful imaginative symbols” (Revelation of St. John the Divine, 148). Caird was right. No matter how great the truth expressed, propositions do not often move people. We require stories to story our lives. The most profound realities and tragedies of our existence require explanation. We need myth to having meaningful lives.
“Myth” is a disparaged word in our day. The contemporary western world does not live by myths but by facts‒or so the myth goes. Despite the disdain for anything “mythical” among thinking people, we long for them. “Myth” is also a four-letter word among Christians, for it seems to imply that a story is not true. Christians cannot handle a story not being “true,” though very often they have no idea what kind of “truth” a story ought to be. So thinking people will consider me a fool and Christians a liberal, but I want to spend time in the mythology of Revelation.
I don’t intend to suggest that Revelation is not true or that it isn’t myth. I believe it to be both. Revelation is a story—a story that is filled with poetry, symbolism, song and even monsters. The fact that these monsters aren’t ontologically embodied as dragons or mutant beasts doesn’t mean they are not real. John’s apocalypse is an unveiling that uses story to tell the truth about the past and present. In fact, I believe that John’s narrative collapses past and present in such a way that is difficult to distinguish “when.” Indeed, attempts to distinguish the “when” of John’s Revelation most often miss the point. For Christians, John is telling us the truth about us, our world and the dialectical opposition of truths and lies where we live every day.
John’s myth is intended to story our lives in a profoundly different way than we might have ever imagined. He intends for us to follow a slaughtered lamb when we expected a lion. He unmasks our most powerful allies as a whore, evil monsters and behind them all—a red dragon. He turns our comfortable world upside down and afflicts us as only a prophet can. He also lifts up the broken and beaten in Christ as only a pastor can. John offers us a picture of the world, a myth, as though God gave it to him.