Markus Barth: on demythologization

Bultmann’s program of demythologization is based on a peculiar definition of myth which baffles the reader at the same time by its simplicity and by its disregard of the involved history, development, and scholarly discussion of the myth. According to him, myth is present wherever the unworldly is spoken of in a worldly way, where one speaks of the gods in a human way, where the transcendental is objectivized. It seems as if the whole problem of myth were narrowed down to a specific way of thinking and speaking.

—Markus Barth, “Introduction to Demythologizing,” The Journal of Religion 37:3 (1957), 148.
I think it is worth pointing out that, while Markus Barth is correct in criticizing Bultmann’s limited rather unusual understanding of myth, what Barth demonstrates is precisely why Bultmann should be taken much more seriously than he is. Bultmann is not simply a pawn of the scientific Enlightenment; he is concerned about proper speech about God. Myth is improper because it confines and objectifies God. Myth, in other words, is for Bultmann what metaphysics is to theologians post-Karl Barth. This is why Jüngel is quite right to see a deep correlation between Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity and Bultmann’s program of demythologization: both are concerned about proper talk of God.


Andy Kaylor said…
Not having a fuller context for what you or Barth are saying, I'm going to shoot from the hip at this one.

I don't see how myth "confines and objectifies God." Bultmann is concerned with the mythic language and imagery in the Bible, right? Are we now to conclude that though it was OK for them it's not OK for us (as we have with the New Testament writers' scriptural interpretation)?

I don't mean this as a fundamentalist/defensive reaction against Bultmann, but I think sometimes we need to take a step back and ask, "Is this reasonable?" As I understand it, Bultmann is talking about stripping away the pre-modern worldview of the Biblical writers so that the essence of what they were saying can be refitted for a modern audience. But taken too seriously this approach inordinately elevates the interpreter's "hearing" of the word. Surely the meaning of the Bible is distinct from the words used as a medium, but to imagine that we can now properly distill the essence is realy a bit egotistic.

To my way of thinking there are two ways to "demythologize" the Bible (using the word now according to its denotation, not necessarily Bultmann's meaning): either we can strip away the mythological aparatus as Bultmann suggests, or we can take the mythological aparatus literally as tough it were fact. Either of these removes the "myth" from the text, and both do the text violence.

Saying God is a fortress is only confining and objectifying if I mean that God is literally a fortress. Saying that Jesus ascended to heaven is only confining and objectifying if I mean that he is now sitting on a throne somewhere in outer space.

It is most certainly true that when we hear the word of the Bible we must wrestle with what it "really means" -- it won't do to read the story of Jesus changing water to wine and say "it means Jesus changed water to wine" -- but at the same time we have to recognize that our evaluation of what it means is not itself the essence of the Word, as can be seen from the fact that while we may admire Bultmann's method, most of us would reject his conclusions.

To me, trying to strip away the myth of the text to get at the kerygma is a bit like explaining why a joke is funny. Someone might nod and say, "I understand," but they won't laugh. It seems much better to encourage people to develop an imagination that enables them to "hear" the myth. For this reason, we do not hear our Lord say, "He who has ears to hear, let him exposit."
Ben Myers said…
This is an excellent post, David, and I think you're exactly right.
Anonymous said…
i'm just a silly liberalish anglican friar.

but it seems to me that there should be some problem in saying at once that the Scriptures speak in mythological terms, and that it is inappropriate to speak in them. either this amounts to the statement that the poor benighted fools who wrote and read the Scriptures when they were first penned have been transcended by our impressive and stunning modern wonders, or it amounts to the statement that there is some radical difference between them and us such that it was all right for them, but not for us.

now if it's the former (you can hear the scorn in the way i say it!) this certainly does make Bultmann simply the tool of the enlightenment.

if it's the latter, then one looks for a clear statement of just why human nature has so radically changed. have we lost our ability to read poetry? has Kant been added to the canon?
Anonymous said…
pardon a second comment, but i missed something i meant to comment on the first time.

both are concerned about proper talk of God.

I know less than nothing about Jüngel. But yes, Barth and Bultmann are both concerned about proper talk of God. Of course, they share this property with Nietzche, Plato, Plotinus, Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, and Maimonides.

Surely the interesting question is what they think is the proper way to talk of God, and how they think we should go about finding this out?

For me, Bultmann stands for the principle that, whatever the Scriptures say, he (Bultmann) has determined the proper way to talk of God, and that's that. This, to me, makes it hard to say the word of God after the reading in the liturgy.

And, on the other pole (and it really is quite a wildly different pole) Barth seems to stand for the principle that, whatever our reason and tradition may tell us, the proper way is whatever the Scriptures do, and that's that. This, to make, makes it hard to say thanks be to God after the reader has proclaimed the word of the Lord.

But then, I'm far too (Anglo) Catholic for Barth or Bultmann!