I may study English, but that doesn’t stop me having a big interest in the mythology and folklore of ancient cultures, including our own. In fact, studying English facilitates some parts of it, as it allows me to study Viking literature and links to the classical religion of Greece and Rome in many ways. My modules also allow me to go back to Old English literature, to the time when Christianity was starting to displace the old gods in Anglo-Saxon culture. So really I have loads of opportunity to study this sort of thing.
But why would I want to? I don’t keep this interest of mine a secret. If you follow me on Twitter or know me personally then you’ll have probably worked out that I love all this sort of thing, including its modern offspring in the forms of a lot of fantasy literature and, of course, comic books. And this would all be fine…but aren’t I a Christian? Doesn’t the Bible say stuff about not following other gods – “You shall have no other gods before me” – and that sort of thing? Absolutely. So aren’t I blurring the lines a bit? Nope.
Not the way I see it, anyway. For a start, I’m not going to start believing in any of these old gods that I’ve read about. Loving the stories doesn’t mean loving the gods as anything other than the literary characters that they’ve been preserved as. They’re certainly not coming before the real God. Actually, I’m just one in a long, long line of Christians that have been interested in the old gods for historically and literary purposes.
Take Snorri Sturluson, for example. I’m not surprised if you haven’t heard of him, but he’s responsible for writing one of the two main works that have survived to teach us 21st century folks about Viking mythology and religion. However, Snorri was no follower of Thor. He was, in fact, a Christian, living and writing in 13th century Iceland a good couple of hundred years after the country’s conversion to Christianity. So why did he write about the old stuff? Well there are a lot of reasons, but a major one is that he wrote out of cultural and historical interest, to preserve the old stories (he also shook them up and Christianised a lot of them!).
Then there’s John Milton. I expect a few more of you will have heard of him and his poem, Paradise Lost. He was an Englishman, living in 17th century Britain, and PL is one of the greatest works of ‘Christian’ fiction ever written (in my opinion), covering the fall of Satan and man. And yet did you know that the whole thing is saturated with classical mythology? From the genre of writing to the metaphors and imagery, the poem is full of it, to the point where you’ll miss a lot of its significance if you don’t know about pagan stuff. All this in a radical protestant work! The thing is, the education system (up until not that long ago, really) centred on learning Latin and Greek and reading ‘the Classics’. All educated Christian men would have read the stories of Zeus and his band of merry Olympians.
So I’m in good company. I read this sort of thing primarily because I love the stories – they’re fantastic (and a bit weird). It really is a whole new world of culture and fantasy, and whilst my knowledge of Ancient Greek myths and Old Norse myths aren’t too bad, I’d love to know more about other things such as Ancient Egypt and more easterly mythology. But this interest isn’t divorced from my Christianity, either. In reading these old stories and learning about these old beliefs I can put my own beliefs into context. This allows me to see where my own beliefs differ and, I believe, are unique. It shows me how the character of God, even in the Old Testament (I say this because a lot of people call the OT God barbaric, as if He’s somehow different to the NT God), was radically different to those of other ancient religions.
From what I understand, there are many things unique about the religion of the Bible. The major, major point is the incarnation, death and resurrection of God (and anyone trying to say that Christians just copied the Roman Mithras cult…just don’t). Another major point is the way that my God is constantly seeking a better relationship with His people, and actively reaching out to us in a way that you just don’t see in other old religions.
Those are just a couple of examples; I don’t want this post to go on for too long, but they give a flavour of the kind of things that I’ve realised about my own faith through learning about these faiths of the past. I would encourage you to do a bit of digging yourself, and I can promise you that you won’t get bored! But in all seriousness, as a Christian it is good to be educated about the beliefs of others, if only to allow you to know yours better – to know what makes them unique. The beliefs of the ancients are one way to do that, and in learning about them you can see the kind of culture that Judaism and Christianity grew up in.
If nothing else, by looking into this you’ll read some cracking stories.