Saturday, February 23, 2013

Some Myths Are True

I've been reading a lot lately about myths of various sorts. Mostly they have been about our self identity as Americans, and in particular, Christian Americans. Last month I read Greg Boyd's, "The Myth of a Christian Nation", put out by Zondervan (there's something deeply ironic about that). Reading Boyd's book led me to another, even better, book, called "Myths Americans Live By", by Richard Hughes. What I like about Hughes' book is its fair appraisal of both the promises and the perils of the various American myths. He considers the myths of America as: the Christian Nation, the Millenial Nation, Nature's Nation, and its expression through Manifest Destiny, and the mythic qualities of American Capitalism. In each of these, he allows that they have a core that can be expressed and enacted in noble ways, yet acknowledges that each of them, especially expressed through Manifest Destiny and the Gilded Age of early capitalism, saw great misery and awful crimes committed, all in the name of "progress". The only myth he sees no redeeming quality existing in, is the one he (and others) called the myth of the Innocent Nation. This myth is inherently destructive, since it is borne out of a self delusional self conception that inevitably sees the world in starkly black and white, us versus them, we wear the white hats and anyone against us of course wears the black hats. Aside from an overly confident belief in the American Creed (boiled down to "We hold these truths..."), Hughes' analysis is quite good.

It also has sparked an interest on my part in understanding better what it is about myth that so shapes our understanding of ourselves, others, our past, and even our future. It seems we cannot live without some sort of myth. Of course in using the term myth, I'm using it not in the sense of an untrue story, such as we understand when we describe something as an "urban myth". Instead, I mean the term in its more basic sense, which is that of being a story that gives meaning to the world, both in how it began, what it's end/purpose is, and what best describes our interaction with it. In that sense then, some myth is more true than other myth. As Tolkien told CS Lewis late one Sunday evening in 1931 when Lewis held on to the notion that myth automatically meant untrue, and therefore he could not accept the idea of a resurrecting God, since it was seen in so many other religions, Tolkien said, "Some myths are true. They describe reality." That's what I'm after. Good myths then are healthy, since they afford us a better picture of the world we live in, and allow us to more accurately interact with that world.

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