on "a short history of myth"

(1 comment)
February 25, 2007
I just finished Karen Armstrong's "A Short History of Myth". (I was supposed to read it for my UU Church's Science and Spirituality group, but then the Florida trip came up, so I read it in the airport and the first leg of the flight and wrote this.)

So her final chapter argues that the West is really hurting from its lack of mythology; that logos, thought/reason, has reigned surpreme for a long time, and while in many ways it has made life better for the people of those cultures, it hasn't been providing the ultimate answers that those people, neurotic and confused as we are, need.

She seems to especially criticize the attempts to reconcile rationality with myth, claiming that these were paths tried and found wanting in Judaism and Islam, but that Protestant Evangelicalism carries on the hopeless and painful struggle.

That certainly rings true with my interpretation of the tradition I grew up in. I've heard it said that if Christ has not literally risen from the dead, if other events are allegorical instead of literal, if the Bible has not received special divine protection in every verse, than the whole game is up. (Actually the Bible verse is "And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain" (1 Cor. 15:14))

That's a very brittle kind of spirituality to have, if you take the obvious literal reading of that line.

And then, even within Christianity, there are things I've been taught that only now do I realize aren't considered fundamental Christian tenants. Armstrong argues that the Orthodox, for example, haven't embraced the rationalist doctrine, are content with a great deal of Mystery, don't buy into the whole original sin idea, and maybe God would have come to us in the form of Jesus even if Adam hadn't sinned. (On the other hand, when confronted with someone looking to pick a rationalist fight, they'll mention this annual Easter candle lighting miracle that takes place in the Holy Land. Given that the person channeling the miracle is searched to not have any lighting implements before going off in secret but that self-lighting candles have been known for a long while, I'm a little skeptical.)

(remake of an old comic of mine)

So, I'm struggling to understand how people accept things that are mythically true, but not factual "reality". I guess it's harder to do in a highly connected world. Historically, you experience myth by soaking it in as your immersed in your culture... but when you start to notice that other peoples believe other things, your own beliefs might start seeming arbitrary. Maybe even evil! Decartes was driven to hunt for first principles when he noticed he couldn't know if his whole external experience was really the result of a demon trying to trick him. (And I know I started to stray from my Protestant heritage when I started realizing that if I had grown up in an Islamic tradition rather than as the son of Protestant ministers, I'd probably be just as fervent about a totally different belief.)

Armstrong thinks that we look to find our myths in cultural figures, like Elvis and Princess Di. And maybe retell our mythologies in great art, like Guernica and "The Wasteland".

Maybe the purest modernist mythology we can have is science fiction. By telling stories of the future, we can escape our paranoia that the stories aren't "really real", because they sit in the realm of Might Be rather than Was. (For the record, this is also the explanation I gave for preferring "space" Legos; cars in the present and castles in the past don't have little dots all over them... but the spaceships of the future might.) Of course, this is slightly more true for Star Trek than Star Wars, the latter just seperating itself by being "a long time ago in a glaxy far far away".

I dunno, just a thought. It certainly puts the hard core fan in a new light. Maybe the overweight fanboy in the full Klingon regalia, browsing memorabilia at the local convention is really a shaman for the modern age.
Trying to channel pre-new-job nervous energy into straightening the apartment. The problem remains the same: pick a task, finish a task even when I the task takes me to a different room where other tasks start beckoning.