The Power of Story, The Truth of Myth

June 10, 2012

From “The Unwritten” # 37, p 7 by Mike Carey and Peter Gross. Vertigo (DC) Comics, 2012.

Stories matter. More importantly, myths matter. Grand narratives we often leave unverbalized or even unacknowledged largely shape the way we “see” the greater meaning of all that is around us, and can imperceptibly affect even the tiniest of our daily actions. Even in this post-modern and quasi-secular age, the stories we tell or internalize are a major factor in shaping our identities, nations, cultures and ultimately our shared world.

This is hardly an original observation. Many thinkers and writers have carved entire careers out of exploring the universal presence and power of myths, as most notably in recent decades Joseph Campbell did. Yet when we apply those concepts to beliefs “closer to home,” many lose all perception of the true power and “truth” factor possible in “myth.” John Dominic Crossan–an Irish Catholic ex-monk, retired professor, and a pubic academic who writes history and theology mostly regarding the historical Jesus–  writes in his spiritual memoir and autobiography “A Long Way From Tipperary” about the difficulty of expressing the truth of myth and the true power (and potential) of parable. Throughout his career he has found the answers he gives in response to interviewer’s questions condensed into soundbites and “quotes” that leave off the positive half of his expressions, turning the exhortations of truth he provided in conversation into sterile skepticism on the printed page. In the past when Crossan has been asked as a historian if there was an “empty tomb” or a witnessed, physical, “resurrection,” he may have answered as a historian in the negative; but as a Christian he has wholeheartedly affirmed “resurrection,” and that affirmed truth is one that for Crossan runs far deeper than reconstructed and quantifiable “facts” ever could. Many in the Church itself miss this point very regularly, so perhaps the secular media should be forgiven for doing so as well, though not for cutting off an answer so as to package it in a manner suitable to the story they wanted to tell before they bothered to do the interviews in the first place. But the fact remains that many don’t understand or perceive “faith” as “trust,” as an intentional personal alignment with a cause (or “force”), often expressed and grappled with through Myth–it is difficult, scary, and even unlikely for anyone to fully understand how truth can be expressed experientially and spiritually through Holy Myth until they begin to tiptoe into those metaphorical waters. A literal, physical, empty tomb is all that many (Christians and non-Christians alike) can possibly equate with “Easter” or “Resurrection.” For Crossan, alignment with and commitment to a way of living and believing and expressing oneself in and through holy Myths that counter the grand and most often violent secular (and/or nationalistic) myths is a mindset and lifestyle that runs much, much deeper than affirming or negating a set of “facts” with little or no thought given to what that affirmation (or negation) means afterwards.

Much of the problem comes from the degradation of the term “myth” as it is used in Western parlance. We label something a “myth” when it is untrue in the same way we have degraded the affirmation “I believe” to apply only to things we choose to believe  without “facts” or are “unsure” of, or when they at best counter hard evidence-based claims and at worst are completely irrational. Liberal theologians like Crossan, Borg and Spong all have had a hard way to go in expressing the reverence they have for the Christian terms and concepts they have worked to reframe and update to a public who hear only the internalized negativity of the words they use to express their new approach to “truth,” even when those “new” approaches fall more fully in line with long-standing and ancient perceptions than fundamentalist or materialist claims which are more a product of the enlightenment than of faith history.

A religious friend of mine once said that no great truths could be expressed through fiction. Stories are for escapism, fun, but they have no real depth, he claimed. Now, even though those that express their faith in terms of “Holy Myth,” grant that Myths (with a capital M) are much more than “stories” in that they convey (eternal) meanings instead of just distraction and entertainment, it still seems unlikely that one who can find no truth in even the greatest of art or literature can find comfort in a faith that readily claims to find truth in Myth. For those that hold their religion in such a light, once the rationalistic ground for their belief systems is shattered for them personally, their faith must be abandoned. This is why “faith” and “religion” can be so easily damnable for both fundamentalists and hard-line atheistic materialists.  The fact is that without story we are not fully human. As humans, language was born as a stepping stone to better accommodate stories. Before that we scrawled our stories on cave walls in stick figures or expressed them around a fire with grunts and hand motions. It is stories that signify there is more to us than there is to less-evolved species, or at the very least that we are more aware than those other species are. Stories are the foundation for not only art, literature, music, drama, and film but also the recording of history and the concepts, interpretations and worldviews that spring from recognizing we are living in a stream of history, that we are not the first nor the last generation to exist. Story crafts culture, story is the cornerstone of civilization. Stories are the ground that holds up philosophy, religion and politics. Stories unite us in relationships, they are the family history we create and keep alive by telling stories of what grandpa did without a fact-checker to run down comparisons between this time and last time’s telling of the tale. Stories unite us in nations as they find form in anthems and folk songs recounting the exploits of nation-founders and heroes. More imporantly, stories lay the ground-work for worldviews which a person draws on when they argue the necessity to build a nation (or a people or a place) where all are welcome and can be provided for; and as with worldviews, stories (when they attain the level of Myth) can be good or bad, can inspire greatness or evil. Which is the point for someone like Crossan; the fact that he found great similarities between the story of Caesar Augustus and the story of Jesus did not trouble his faith. In the “flipping” of that story, Crossan sees the early Christian community affirming that Caesar is not the Son of God, that Jesus is. That the life of a Jewish peasant who preached nonviolence and a direct relationship with God was far more important and eternal the life of a self-proclaimed deity who spread and maintained power through violence and imperialism. For Crossan, the Myth of a holy birth in which the mother is a willing participant with a holy God in a sacred union was much more a story to align oneself with than the ancient tales of gods who forced themselves on unwilling women. For Crossan, a life shaped by the person of Jesus in which truth, equality, mystic union with God, and the work towards a kingdom devoid of the separation between rich and poor, a world devoid of injustice and war is a life worth living. Crossan’s words were once cut off to make a headline reading that a “scholar says Jesus was a peasant with an attitude” without including the concluding phrase of that sentence, which was that “as a Christian I believe that attitude is the attitude of God.” This is the story that Crossan chooses to believe, this is the Holy Myth he finds ultimate truth in and it is where he has devoted his life. He acknowledges that his Myth isn’t the top of a cornered market, that other paths have valid truths. But it remains for others to forcibly align themselves with the holy Myth that seized them if it happens to do so. To negate the story, to dispel the Myths as if they have nothing to teach us in our era is to get rid of most of what drives us to transform life and the world for the better. The enlightenment gave us many things  but what it began the process of taking away was the full appreciation of story. It led to movements in modernism that create a false dichotomy between truth and myth, between “fact” and “story.” We must find a way to reclaim that now; even the “story” of evolution can fill the role of Holy Myth. I heard a sermon recently that called Darwin’s work “our Creation myth,” and the pastor invoked it as that and also as much more, expressing it as the best way we now have to talk about how we came to be and seeing in it the interconnectedness of all that is and the responsibility that entails. These concepts have been expressed by religious believers of many different creeds and callings, but the point is that holy Myth has not yet closed its doors if we do not allow  it to do so or force it to happen. We participate in an ongoing story and it is up to us to ensure the sacredness and vitality of that story.

From “The Unwritten” # 37, p 13 by Mike Carey and Peter Gross. Vertigo (DC) Comics, 2012.

*The pictures are from the most recent issue of “The Unwritten,” a masterful comic series (also available in a series of graphic novels/trade paperback) by Mike Carey and Peter Gross. Carey writes and Gross draws a masterful series dissecting story, myth, pop culture, religion, philosophy and history in a visceral yet thought-provoking way.


3 Responses to “The Power of Story, The Truth of Myth”

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