Friday, February 12, 2016

Oh, the stories we tell!

     As a religion/anthropology/sociology-geek, one of the things that really gets my goat (not meant to be a sacrificial reference!) is the fast-and-loose way people use the word "myth". According to, the first definition of "myth" is:  "A traditional, typically ancient story dealing with supernatural beings, ancestors, or heroes that serves as a fundamental type in the worldview of a people, as by explaining aspects of the natural world or delineating the psychology, customs, or ideals of society". That pretty much is in accord with what I was taught many years ago in my religion classes. There is nothing in that definition that addresses the question of "true" or "factual", although as soon as "supernatural" is mentioned, many "moderns" immediately jump to the conclusion that there is no factual nature. In the same dictionary entry, it isn't until the third and fourth definitions that "fiction" or "half-truth" are mentioned. Other dictionaries, on the other hand, put those "fictitious" definitions at, or near, the top--again, I suppose, reflecting a "modern" world-view.* So, in common parlance, "myth" generally means "false"; myths are to be dispelled and mythic stories become less-than-valuable.
     On the flip-side, however, are those many people who will talk about the modern "myths" that we've created in the last several decades, the "Star Wars" trilogy being, probably, the best example. In other words, there are folks who recognize the power of story, even a story that isn't, even potentially, "factually true" (most of us hope there is never a Jar Jar Binks on the planet Naboo!). This discussion, of course, has taken on new currency with the recent release of the first episode of the third "Star Wars" trilogy. Commentators of many stripes are noticing how the "Star Wars" story has taken the place of many earlier mythic epics, and we hear conversations about "Gilgamesh" or Homer's Iliad or Odyssey, or even biblical stories!

      It is clear, whether we're talking about ancient stories--based on historical events or not, or novels on the New York Times "Best Sellers List", stories are our attempts to make sense of our lives, to understand our place in a greater world, and, in some cases, to inspire, or encourage, us to take some kind of action. And the lasting power of some stories is a testament to their power to do just that. So, I have to ask, what kinds of stories, great or small, are we telling these days?  Are they life-giving or soul-sucking?  Or, in what direction do they lead us? Or, if they move us to action, is that action to the good or not?
     I know which kinds of stories I prefer to read or watch or hear. Yes, I most often appreciate good character development and a happy ending. But chiefly I want stories, whether mythic or not, that will challenge me to rise above my current situation, or that can give me hope in tough situations.  Probably that's what many of us want.  The danger is that some of the "stories" that we hear promise us "hope" at the expense of others. Evil must be defeated, yes. But "manufactured evil", falsely creating an "enemy", so that "we" can win is a loss for all. In the end no-one rises; little is improved.  Those stories fit definition number 3 of "myth" in  
The Free Dictionary: "A fiction or half-truth, especially one that forms part of an ideology."
      So, what ARE the stories we are telling?  Or, more importantly, what stories are we hearing and accepting? To which definition of "myth" do they belong? What kind of people/society are they forming?


* See for example, the on-line "simple" definition in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

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