Mythic and Parabolic Stories in Culture, Part II

Tagalog: Rebulto ni Lapulapu.
Statue of Lapu-lapu.  Image via Wikipedia

If one takes the definitions for “mythic” and “parabolic” from the previous post, then,

Myth: A story that has power within a certain culture because it resonates with the culture’s deep-seated values.

Parable: A story that has power within a certain culture because it is dissonant and challenges the culture’s deep-seated values.

First, clearly, using these sort of definitions, the term myth or parable cannot be applied generally to a story, but only within the context of a resonant or dissonant culture. A story may be a myth in one culture, a parable in another culture, and simply an interesting (or uninteresting story) in a third culture.

A second, related, issue is that even if a story has mythic power in two cultures, it may have it for different reasons. In the previous post, this was noted with the story of David and Goliath where the mythic power of the story within ancient Israel is different from that of modern-day United States.

A third issue is that there are common themes in myths and parables that transcends culture even if their role in the culture varies.

Let’s take this third issue to the Philippines. The story of David and Goliath is built around a more universal construct… a seemingly weak protagonist overcoming a stronger antagonist. In the Philippines, a comparable story is the story of Magellan and Lapu-lapu. It fits the definition of a myth because it resonates with a deep Pilipino worldview. The story is well-grounded in history even if romanticized by some. It is, for example, unlikely that Magellan personally fought Lapu-lapu. In the event, Magellan was a Portuguese explorer serving Spain to explore the world for purposes of the spice trade. Magellan landed in the Philippine archipelago around 1521 and began trying to convert people and place them under the authority of the Spanish flag. Lapu-lapu, a leader in the region, refused obey Magellan. When Magellan tried to intimidate Lapu-lapu and his men (that behavior worked in Central and South America), a battle ensued in which Magellan was killed and his men routed. Only a few survived to make it back to Spain.

For its mythic quality, the characters needed to be redefined. At that time, there was no such thing as the Philippines (simply an archipelago of islands having many local tribes and leaders) but Lapu-lapu becomes the representative of the peace-loving Philippine people. Magellan was an explorer and spice trader who had the utter foolishness to forget his charter and dabble in local politics (a dangerous thing even today in the Philippines). However, Magellan comes to represent the powerful and violent outside imperialist (whether it be Spain, America, Japan, or another). So in its mythic form, the historical story of Magellan and Lapu-lapu becomes the rallying story of the Pilipinos quest for peaceful self-determinacy in the face of more powerful outside powers.

In missions, it is good to recognize that stories that are important to us may be unimportant in one culture. It may even have the opposite effect (as Don Richardson noted in Peace Child, that the tribe he was working with found Judas to be the protagonist of a myth demonstrating the power of clever deception). It requires a deep understanding of the beliefs of a people to successfully identify the effect. On the other hand, though, there are common story structures that transcend culture that provide a pattern to build stories on. We will look at this in the next post.

<Part of my Book, Theostorying: Reflections, on God, Narrative, and Culture>

2 thoughts on “Mythic and Parabolic Stories in Culture, Part II

  1. Pingback: Mythic and Parabolic Stories in Culture, Part III « MMM — Munson Mission Musings

  2. Pingback: new myth, old god (and the origin of heaven and hell on earth) « JRFibonacci's blog: partnering with reality

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