Sunday, June 13, 2010

The role of myths

Joseph Campbell was a 20th century professor and writer who took a hard look at mythology across many cultures and popularized, through his writings, the study of myths.  To Campbell, a myth is a story from which the listener or reader can draw life lessons.  We can look to the hero of a myth for an example of how to face a challenge and how to live at least some aspect of our life.  So many stories are about young people approaching adulthood because that's when myths have the greatest effect and are most needed.  After reaching adulthood, life and its challenges only become more difficult, but since we're more developed and experienced, myths have less power and are therefore not as needed.  Campbell was quick to point out that many people do not need myth at all.  If you can live your life with sufficient self-direction, you don't need to look to myths.  While others, at some times, can look to myths for inspiration.

One of the prominent uses of religion is to provide myths that help us face life challenges.  This is no secret.  Most sermons about Bible stories instruct the listener to not only consider the story to be an amusing tale, but also to draw life lessons and to apply those lessons.    But, as Campbell pointed out, the Bible is only one source of myths.  Cultural and literary sources are another. 

It is common to ridicule people who are really into fantasy, particularly the Star Trek phenomenon.  But the myths of Star Trek speak more directly to many modern people than the two thousand year-old myths of the Bible or the ancient myths of other religious texts.  Nearly all episodes of Star Trek, both old and new, dealt with morality.  And they did so with a modern perspective on issues such as slavery and war.  And, more importantly, everyone acknowledges that Star Trek is fiction, so it doesn't carry the baggage of supposed absolute truth and arbitrary commandments.  As humanists, when we see a Fundamentalist insisting with absolute certainty that dinosaurs coexisted with people, or that inherent homosexuality does not exist, or that following his way is mandatory, we might think that the Star Trek perspective on myth is more agreeable.

1 comment:

  1. While it is true that myths indeed serve a purpose -- for example, the modern myth of Harry Potter persuaded perhaps hundreds of thousands of youngsters to sit down and actually read -- the time that people have spent in poring over ancient relgious texts represents an enormous waste of their time. If as much mental effort were to be expended in studying ways to solve humanity's pressing problems in the here and now, we'd probably already have a sustainable green economy and have solved the problem of global warming. Time is a precious commodity. We only live once. But future generations depend on how wisely we use both our time and brain power. Let's pull our our noses back away from the video game screens and get real!