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Should Christian Parents Teach Mythology?

By Rob and Cyndy Shearer
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #2, 1993.

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Rob and Cyndy Shearer

Should Christians teach their children about Zeus?
Should they know who Wodin, Loki, and Thor are?
Would our children benefit by knowing anything about Heqet, the Egyptian goddess of birth? (Hint: She was usually depicted with the head of a frog.)

If you read our last column, you know that we are strong proponents of teaching more than just American history to our children. In fact, we advocate beginning with the Old Testament (as history) and teaching our children about western civilization in sequence, moving through ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation, Explorers, etc. so that our children understand both the context and logical development of our culture.

There are a number of sound reasons for doing this. But attempting it does confront one with a different set of problems. If you begin with the cultures of Egypt, Greece, and Rome, you will immediately have to make some decisions about how you will (or won’t) cover the topics of evolution and mythology with your students.

The “mythology” issue is one we have thought a lot about. Christian parents have legitimate concerns about teaching mythology. We don’t want to teach falsehoods to our children, or lead them to confuse falsehoods with the truth; and we don’t want to encourage any fascination with or inappropriate attention to the occult.

Having said that, we think that the study of mythology (Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and Norse) is still appropriate and profitable for our children when set in the proper Christian context for three reasons:

It inoculates them against false religion.
It gives them a deeper understanding of Greek and Roman culture (and Egyptian and European).
And it builds a foundation for them to understand the great literature of western civilization.

What the Bible Says About the History of Religion

The key phrase in the paragraph above is “the proper Christian context.” Whenever we approach the topic of mythology, we introduce it by reviewing with our children what God has to say about the history of religion.

Modern man spins a tale about primitive man beginning by worshipping anything and everything; trees, rocks, thunder, streams, grasshoppers, etc. Then (the wisdom/foolishness of the moderns speculates), man “progressed” to worshipping only a few specific deities. Then, as he began to walk completely upright, he moved from many gods to monotheism, the worship of only one god. The last step in this sequence you won’t find spelled out explicitly, but it is the logical completion of the “evolution of religion” and that is the step from monotheism to atheism, the worship of no god.

This progression, from many to few to one to none, is not found in Scripture anywhere. Beware of authors who present this as the way man’s religions developed!

What the Bible says about the “development” of religion is quite different:

    Since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures. (Romans 1:20–23)

The picture here is of the “devolution” of religion. The Bible says that men fall into false religion and the worship of idols when they reject the truth about God, refuse to honor him, exchange the truth for a lie and suppress the truth in unrighteousness. There’s nothing here about “progressing” towards God by way of mythology.

Our recommendation then is not to teach mythology until you have taught Genesis. And begin your study of mythology by reviewing with your children what God says about man’s religion in the book of Romans. Once set in proper context, there are valuable lessons to be learned while reading the Greek myths. Without setting it in context, you risk confusion and error. So by all means, include mythology in your history lesson plans about Egypt, Greece, and Rome but set it in context.

Moses, Paul, and Mythology

One last note about including mythology in your course of study: Moses clearly knew Egyptian religious stories and Paul clearly knew about Greek and Roman religion. This can be seen in the way each of them deals with the false religions of the culture they are dealing with. Paul even quotes from Greek poetry (a poem which discusses the pantheon of Greek mythological gods). To understand the conflict between Moses and Pharaoh, it is tremendously helpful if you understand the relationship between the plagues and the Egyptian pantheon. It turns out that each of the plagues is God’s challenge to a specific Egyptian deity. If you don’t know who the Egyptian deities are, you can’t really understand what God is saying.

This does not mean that we need to dwell on detailed descriptions of immoral practices associated with the false religions. We use common sense . . . and rely for the most part on texts published before 1965. But a study of the themes and major characters of Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Norse mythologies will have much to teach us and our children.

Three Reasons for Studying Mythology

To return to our three reasons for including mythology as a part of history:

  1. The best protection we can give our children from false religion is an early inoculation/exposure to it under controlled circumstances. Set in context as described above, we have an opportunity to discuss with our children the contrast between true and false religion. We can highlight the foolishness of the false gods. They will always remember the comparisons and will be much less likely to be taken in by “new age” repackaging when they are older.
  2. To understand the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, or North Europeans, you need to understand what they believed about their gods. By including a study of the myths when you read biographies or study these cultures you can ask key questions about how the false religion affected the culture. You can ask, “If the Greeks believed the gods behaved this way, how do you think they would behave themselves?” With Greek religion you can discuss the reasons for Socrates’ execution (one of the charges against him was that he taught the youth of Athens that there could be only one god and that the myths had many contradictions and couldn’t be true). You can talk about why Paul went to Mars Hill and preached about the unknown god. You can talk about the background to the controversy in 1 Corinthians over eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. These issues are much easier to understand if you have some knowledge of Greek religion.
    With Roman culture as well, there are close links between morals, behavior, and religion. The Romans adopted the Greek gods, and then went further and began to deify the emperors. Christians who refused to sacrifice to the emperor found their lives in danger. Note well, it was not illegal to worship Jesus; it was illegal to worship Jesus only! The worship of the emperor fit Roman “statism” very neatly and meshed with the respect all Romans were taught towards “the fathers” (Latin patria, whence we get our English word patriotism). We cannot fully appreciate the issues facing early Christians unless we are familiar with Roman religion.
  3. The myths are an integral part of our literary heritage. One cannot fully appreciate any great writer (Shakespeare to name one) unless one is familiar with the stories from the myths. Knowing them does not mean we must accept them as true. But we should know them in order to intelligently converse with and present the Gospel to our culture. The great works of literature in the western tradition all use symbols and images drawn from the myths of the Greeks, Romans, and Scandinavians. We cannot appreciate the nuances or the ideas themselves unless we recognize the references.

An acquaintance with the myths of the Greeks, Romans, and Norsemen has seldom proven a snare to adult Christians or their children. Quite the opposite seems to be true. For scholars like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien the myths and legends (what Lewis called “northernness”) aroused in them an appreciation for beauty and drama and a longing for “joy” that Lewis said was instrumental in his final conversion to Christianity.

Our conclusion then? Do not teach mythology as a separate subject or in a way that encourages or entices. But do teach mythology as a key part of the history and culture of the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Europeans. And do teach it in the context of what God himself teaches about man and his turning aside to false religions. In this way you will make your children better able to serve God, to communicate to the pagan culture around us, and to stand as godly men and women in their own generation.

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