Monday, March 30, 2009

Making our own myths...

I just finished another one of the Great Courses: Classical Mythology delivered by Elizabeth Vandiver.

Verdict: Outstanding, right up there with the Middle Ages and Vikings.

The professor was both articulate and very engaging, and left me wanting to take her next course. But aside from recommending this choice, I wanted to share a big "aha" moment at the end.

After carefully explaining what myths have meant to civilization, Vandiver saves a surprise ending for the last few minutes.  Proceeding from her initial definition of myths as "stories we tell ourselves about ourselves that embody our deepest fears and greatest aspirations and hopes" [my version] she asks the question why we don't have myths to fall back upon today.

While some would place religion (even Christianity) in this category, for the most part myths about an earlier time simply don't work well any more.  We know too much about the past, we have too much science to disprove fantastic stories, and we have becomes used to thinking the future will be the "Golden Age" instead of a period lost in the mists of time.

Her surprising suggestion was modern myths face forward into the future, since we are capable of imagining fantastic circumstances and heroes in the future.  In short, sci-fi may be our equivalent body of myth.  She particularly singles out Star Trek for several reasons.

The folks on Star Trek are obviously related to us, possess extraordinary powers, and engage in adventures that illustrate what we hope and fear right now. They are our Heracles (Hercules) and Zeus, so to speak.

This rings true for me, and helps me to understand how powerful I find the idea of myth in the example of Star Trek. Such stories help shape our moral and ethical belief system more subtly and thoroughly than I think we suspect.  Indeed, one STNG episode even explores the idea of a civilization that communicates primarily by mythical metaphors.

In an amazing coincidence, I also stumbled across a fascinating essay about the "Christianizing" of modern sci-fi/fantasy that also seems plausible. While the Christ-theme is obvious in the Narnia series, consider other popular stories.
Both The Matrix and Superman Returns show the hero’s discovery of his powers. We see Neo learning martial arts almost instantaneously through the cable leading to his brain—a computer nerd’s fantasy; in a euphoric flashback, we watch the young Clark Kent finding out that he can fly. No parallels to these episodes of joyful self-discovery exist in the New Testament. But turn your attention from the canonical Bible to the Apocrypha—in particular, to the Gospel of Thomas, one of the so-called Infancy Gospels, stories of Jesus’s childhood nearly 2,000 years old—and you’ll find the child Jesus animating clay sparrows, restoring people to life, and even exacting revenge on his enemies. “He was again passing through the village,” the text relates, “and a boy ran up against Him, and struck His shoulder. And Jesus was angry, and said to him: You shall not go back the way you came. And immediately he fell down dead.”
If that last story sounds vaguely familiar, maybe you’re one of the millions around the world who have read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (1997), the first installment in J. K. Rowling’s unprecedentedly successful seven-volume series of fantasy novels, the first five of which have been made into blockbuster movies. Early on in The Sorcerer’s Stone, before Harry discovers his magical powers, his loutish cousin Dudley punches him in the ribs during a visit to the zoo. Unconsciously, an angry Harry makes the glass separating Dudley from a boa constrictor disappear. We soon learn that Harry, like so many of today’s fantasy heroes, is marked for greatness from infancy as the only person who can defeat a world-crushing evil. The final book in the series, Harry Potter and the Interminable Sequels—no, wait, that’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—has Harry (you guessed it) choosing to die to save the world and then returning to life, after a brief journey to an afterworld resembling (note the place) London’s King’s Cross railway station.
One reason that Disney finally made a movie out of C. S. Lewis’s Christian allegory The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in 2005 may be that popular fantasy has become increasingly religious at heart. Peter Jackson’s brilliant film adaptations of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, on the other hand, probably don’t fall into the category of messianic fantasy, despite a quick episode in which the wizard Gandalf experiences a sort of death and rebirth; Tolkien’s chief inspiration was political, not religious, and Jackson remains faithful to that intention. [More]

In a time where we seem to be questioning our entire modern moral social structure, we could do worse than read more science fiction, I have decided. As brain researchers have pointed out (more on this later) even occasionally thinking about stories that depict moral actions - whether it's Christ in the Temple or Spock's death in The Wrath of Khan - predisposes us to better and more moral actions.

We need stories and myths, and we need to tell them often to ourselves and children if we are to preserve the values we profess to treasure. Arguing about which particular myth is "right" misses the point and power of this ancient cultural tool.

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