Some thoughts on myth in our time
It’s a real shame that many agnostics and atheists are unable to read Christian myth without feeling it to be silly or psychotic, because it is one of the most intricate and beautiful complex of myths ever. I can understand that, however, because it is only my careful study of Greek and Near Eastern myth that has allowed me to do it. It is also unfortunate that so many believers are unwilling to talk about Christian myth as myth (and I don’t mean here to equate myth with false).
I’ve come to separate the Christian religion(s) from Christian art or ethical philosophy or literature. In order to explain what I mean, I suppose I have to define the word religion, which I use to mean something like, “a systematic belief about the influence of metaphysical forces on the physical world.” So the isolated phrase “turn the other cheek” (still a radical idea) is not strictly religious, but part of ethical philosophy, while the phrase “God commands us to turn the other cheek,” or, “turn the other cheek otherwise God will punish you,” moves it into the realm of religion. Admiring the kindness or selflessness of Christianity (leaving aside for the moment questions about the accuracy of those attributes) is not sufficient in my opinion to call yourself religious, nor is it sufficient to call yourself a Christian, for which title I think you have to believe in the superiority of Jesus Christ to all other humans, at the very least.
Myth is also notoriously difficult to define, but I prefer to think of it as an action or approach, rather than a collection of things. That is to say, myth is a process (in a way not unlike science) by which we attempt to make sense of the world or human existence. I personally think that to believe you are literally eating the body or drinking the blood of Christ every week is psychotic, but that the symbolism of that ritual is artistically and mythologically beautiful. Take sacrifice as another example. If you study ancient religions, it will quickly strike you that sacrifice is a surprisingly widespread feature. It is very difficult to really comprehend what those religions and rituals meant to their societies, both because of lack of evidence and because it is so foreign to our modern sensibility. But if you can get even a light grip on it, then the idea of God sacrificing his son for the world becomes a terribly fascinating idea. (And that’s not to mention the interesting intertextuality with the story of Abraham and Isaac in the Hebrew Bible.) Christian sacrifice in general is interesting for its shift from sacrificing wealth or food to sacrificing pleasure. In both cases it is more like delayed gratification: do ut des. But there is also the idea of sacrificing personal wealth or pleasure to the community, which seems more selfless. Christian mythology, although heavily influenced by it, is different from Greek mythology in its systematization. Ancient Greek culture didn’t demand that its myths constitute a coherent whole, and it didn’t even demand that people believe in it in a literal sense, or so it seems to me.
Although it isn’t part of my research, I’m very interested in how the modern world approaches and recasts ancient myths, and also in our own production of myth. I suppose nothing in our modern world completely corresponds to the place of myth in ancient societies, but it does live on, for example, in Judaism and Christianity. Myth ventured simultaneously into science and religion and art and history and fiction. Poetry was myth. Myth was education. Today we have legends which balance history and fiction. Fiction performs some of the same functions which myth did, and I would say, for instance, that Joyce’s Ulysses, whose title draws attention to its recasting of an ancient myth, is for that reason closer to myth than a novel such as Lolita. Science fiction, as its name indicates, employs science and technology in a fictional framework to explore issues of human existence. Comic books do something similar, usually without so much science. These last two probably come closest to the action of mything (if I may stress the process). You’ll notice that ancient myths also distanced themselves from everyday life, even in Attic tragedy, which with a few notorious exceptions was set elsewhere, very often in Thebes. Who cares what happens to Thebes and the Thebans?
Someone just recently asked me about movies which would be good for a class on mythology, to explore modern concepts. The remnants of myth in the modern world seem to me more vibrant in film than in literature (although The Lord of the Rings is a notable exception, as well as some great children’s and young-adult literature). The first ones I thought of (and I’m sure there are other and better ones) were: O Brother Where Art Thou?, Big Fish, The Fall, Unbreakable, and Inglorious Basterds. She was already considering Star Wars, which is a great way to look at how a story can permeate an entire culture. O Brother, I thought, would be handy to look at how an ancient myth can be recast not just in a modern setting but in a modern way. Unbreakable can be profitably used to raise questions about heroism, and how our modern concepts can differ drastically from ancient ones. It is different from so many sci-fi and comic-book-like movies in that it presents supernatural powers in a relatively realistic way, and asks sincerely how a modern man might cope with them. Inglorious Basterds is probably only one of many examples of how we can create meaning by fictionalizing an historical event, and it would be interesting to compare the role of history and mythology in the Greek world. Big Fish and The Fall are both reflections on storytelling and the relationship between fiction and reality. I personally would choose to show The Fall because I think it is the better film.
I know I haven’t offered a clear definition of myth, but I hope to have given some shape to it. Do you have thoughts about the nature of myth, past or present? What are some of your favorite modern myths (and please keep in mind that moving to Ankara does not excuse you from this assignment)?