Quote on Myth

‘The myths of primitive society are merely the result of an endeavour to express certain ways of thinking and feeling about the facts of life which are brought into existence by the manner in which life is regulated in society.’ —Alfred Radcliffe-Brown (as noted by E.O. James in ‘The Nature and Function of Myth’ in Folklore, 1957).

There is nothing wrong with the quote. But I still want to play with it. My first point is that the term “primitive” is completely unnecessary in the quote. All societies have myths that support the dominant perspective and idealization in it. And since we are talking about removing words, let’s get rid of “merely” as well. There is nothing trivial about this role in a society. We can also get rid of the first “of society” since the only myths I am concerned about are one’s that are embraced by society. Oh yeah, we may as well get rid of the first “The” as well. That gives us:

‘Myths are the result of an endeavour to express certain ways of thinking and feeling about the facts of life which are brought into existence by the manner in which life is regulated in society.’

This is pretty good, but I am not British, so I would like to avoid the term “endeavour,” regardless of how it is spelled. So maybe I would go with.

‘Myths are an attempt to express certain ways of thinking and feeling about the facts of life which are brought into existence by the manner in which life is regulated in society.’

I don’t know, I think it works. A society is regulated partly through certain cultural values. However, these are very abstract, and so symbols, metaphors, stories are created or embraced that reinforce or express these values.

I recall years ago talking to missionaries who worked with a tribe that dwell in the Amazon basin. They had actually made a picture book out of one of the central stories of this tribe. The story seemed to be a bit nonsensical. The missionaries, however, noted that it was less nonsensical than the other stories they had heard in the tribe. But my suspicion is that it made good sense within their culture. The story had lots of animals doing strange things, but I would assume that the animals mean something within the culture. By knowing the values of the people, and what the animals symbolize PROBABLY would make the story clear. I could be wrong, of course. However, if you watch a movie like “Spirited Away” you see a great example of story that can be extremely confusing if one does not understand the symbols from Japanese/Shinto culture.

If a myth doesn’t make sense, one of two things may have happened. One, it may have lost relevance in the culture. As such, it may be called a myth still, but lacks that function in a society. Two, one is too much of an outsider (etic perspective) to understand its significance.

Defining Myth for Missionaries

The term “Myth” is very hard to define because so many people have investment in the term. It is used in anthropology, it is used in religious studies, it is used storytelling and literature. It is used by the scholar and the layman alike. But the meanings often differ. I teach in a seminary and I am very careful how I use the term myth. I like to use the term from an anthropological understanding. Many however prefer a theological or general public understanding of the term. So if I say that something is a myth, I have to make sure that people don’t think that I mean that it is a very old sacred story. I also have to make sure that I am not being interpreted as saying that “It is a false story.”

Lauri Honko’s definition of myth is well-received by many

Myth, a story of the gods, a religious account of the beginning of the world, the creation, fundamental events, the exemplary deeds of the gods as a result of which the world, nature, and culture were created together with all parts thereof and given their order, which still obtains. A myth expresses and confirms society’s religious values and norms, it provides a pattern of behavior to be imitated, testifies to the efficacy of ritual with its practical ends and establishes the sanctity of cult.

Honko, Lauri (1984). “The Problem of Defining Myth”. In Dundes, Alan (ed.). Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth. University of California Press. p. 49.

It can been seen as a useful definition for some forms of myths. Here too is a bit of a problem, to me at least. I colored the single definition in red and green. That is because the first part is the definition in terms of “what it is.” The second part is “what it does.” For me, then, I see this as two definitions… and two definitions limited to religion. When we add culture to the mix, the definitions must broaden.

A definition for myth must include its various usages. Many people use the term as:

  • -Widely held belief without a strong basis in fact.
  • -Things that are not true.
  • -Really old story.

I like mine because it is grounded in culture, not in religion or in antiquity. The Spiderman origin story can act as a myth if it has a strong role in shaping or reinforcing key aspects of a culture.

Stephen Larsen (in “The Shaman’s Doorway: Opening Imagination to Power and Myth,” Chapter 1) talks for four general theories of where Myths come from— how they develop. Larsen also lists Campbells four functions of myths. I have modified the wording a wee bit and the order of things as well.  I wanted the rows to line up.

Where do Myths Come from? Campbell’s Functions for Myths
Distortions of Real Events/Things (Euhemerism) Mystical Function (Instill awe and gratitude in the mysteries of life)
Explaining the way things are (Etiological) Scientific Function (Explaining the way things are that makes sense at that time)
Describing the world as it is wanted rather than the way it actually is (Wish Fulfillment) Personal Function (Serve as a guide for the individual in how to live in each stage of life)
Echo of Social structure (Social Emanation) Sociological Function (Validate, support, and indoctrinate in the social and moral order)

The last row is the one that I tend to go by. It is sociological/cultural. However, myths are far too broad to assume that one function covers all myths. And it is likewise true that myths are too broad to assume that they all have one source.

The problem ultimately is that when a term has such a broad range of definitions, sources, and functions, the word can become useless.

One presumption in all of these definitions is that the myth is not true. This makes no real sense. If a culture has a myth… is it impossible that such a story is historically or factually accurate? A historical story can have a mythic function.

So what do we do as missionaries? I would suggest that a functional understanding is more useful. If we are attempting to express the Gospel message in a culture in a manner that is understandable and relevant in that culture, we are ill-advised simply to focus on propositions. We are better guided by utilizing stories. And if we are using stories we have two main strategies:

  1.  We can use Biblical stories (stories that have a strong “mythic function” in Christianity. There are clear advantages to using stories from canon. But it has two risks. It can be misinterpreted/misunderstood in the new culture. It can be understood but seen as irrelevant to that culture.
  2. We can use stories within the culture that have a mythic function already. There are at least two risks here as well. First, we may not understand the story and its context well enough to use it effectively. Second, the story may not succeed in drawing people to God’s message but reinforce the original worldview of that culture.

The most well-known example of the second strategy in the Bible was Paul utilizing Greek legends and poetry to point people to the God of the Jews. There are other examples as well. And of course, the stories of the Old Testament were not disregarded as the church expanded beyond the Jewish culture. The stories of Jesus, likewise, were used to express the message far beyond its original setting.

Either strategy, however, points to the importance of knowing myths in the culture.  For strategy #1, we may be using Biblical stories, but we need to understand their myths to know how our stories can be made understandable. For strategy #2, we need to know their stories to know how they can be used ministerially.

Either way, we need to know their stories to be used missiologically and ministerially. For missionaries, the functional understanding is more important than a source or process understanding of myths. So I believe one should embrace a functional understanding of myths. It should be centered on its role in culture rather than whether it is true or false.

My definition: Myth: A story that has power within a certain culture because it resonates with the culture’s deep-seated values.  (in “Theo-Storying:  Reflections on God, Narrative, and Culture.”)

 

 

 

 

Quote of Myth, Meaning, and Ministry

One of my students put a great quote in one of his papers for our Cultural Anthropology class.

“Myth is a perceived truth which is immeasurably bersgreater than concept. It is high time that we stop identifying myth with invention or simply human imagination, with the illusions of primitive mentality. The creation of mythis among peoples denotes a real spiritual life, more real than any concepts and of rational thought. Myth is always concrete and expresses life better than abstract thought can do; its nature is bound up with that of symbol. Myth is the concrete recital of events and original phenomena of the spiritual life symbolized in the natural world, which has engraved itself on the language, memory, and creative energy of the people… it brings tow worlds together symbolically.”

<Stated by Nicolas Berdaev in “Freedom and the Spirit.” Quoted by Samantha Lichtenberg in “Experiencing Samoa Through Stories: Myths and Legends of a People and Place.”>

I found that this particular quote has been used in a number of books and articles– and deservedly so. I appreciate the value of myth. Of course, when I say that, I invariably have to add the note, that the term myth makes no assumptions as to historicity or “truth,” An accurately described historical event can be a myth as much a work of imaginative fiction. To see this, though, one has to understand that the term “myth’ has many meanings. In common parlance, it often means “old stories about things that we know ain’t so.” Berdyaev here is using the term more as a literary or theological term.

However, I have come across many a theologican who will say that the term “myth” does not imply ahistoricity… and yet they act in their writings as if it does. Because of this, I prefer to use the term “mythic” rather than “myth.” A story, regardless of it being true or false, accurate or inaccurate, historical or ahistorical, can serve a mythic function— resonantly explaining and justifying core cultural values.

There is a clear link here, I believe, between Berdyaev’s view of myth and Ricoer’s view of metaphor.

Ricoer sees metaphor not as figurative or imaginitive language, but as a link between two terms— one abstract and one concrete. Meaning is found in the tension between the concrete and the abstract.

Berdyaeve sees myth not as imaginative fictuion, but as a link between abstract thought and concrete narrative. Meaning is, again, found in this tension.

I have heard it said that allegory is an extended metaphor. From a syntactical standpoint, that makes sense. However, from a functional standpoint, I think the argument could be made that myth is an extended metaphor. That also clarifies things in another way. The concrete object in a metaphor can be real or non-real, much as the concrete narrative of a myth can be historical or ahistorical.

Berdaev also connects myth with spirituality. If one identifies spirituality as the overlap of power and meaning (in line with Paul Tillich) this is certainly true. Myth empowers and is empowered by the culture within which it resides, and likewise is embued with meaning from, and provides meaning to that same culture.

In Christian ministry we need to create myths, and parables. We need stories that resonate with the respondent culture– affirming and challenging the values of that culture.

More stuff on Myth and Parables in my book “Theo-Storying

The Story Wheel (Part 2)

The previous post was dedicated to the illustration of the story wheel. It is based on work by Sacks, as well as Crossan. But it seemed valuable to me to add ‘antimyth.’ The reason is that a myth ultimately establishes the underlying worldview of the culture. In fact all of the story types (the weakest connection is Action Stories) here are bound to their respective cultures. An Antimyth is a myth that challenges the myth that resides in theculture.

Myth and Antimyth

Remember, with this functionalist view of myth, it is not about being true or false… rather its function in a culture. Myths can as easily be true and historical as they can be fictional or legendary. The underlying myths of Christianity are considerably different from the underlying myths of Islam and Buddhism. As such, the myth in one faith would be an antimyth in another faith.

That is why one is left in a bit of an awkward situation when someone says something like… “Don’t Christians and Muslims (and perhaps other groups) worship the same God?” The argument behind that is that we both worship the one true God, creator of all things. If we both believe there is only one God who is god by His own nature and that that that same God is one and only creator of the universe, it seems silly to say that we worship two different Gods. But, in truth, “God” in Christian culture is not a propositional concept but the God of the story of Christianity, revealed mythically in the Bible. “God” of Islamic culture is also not a propositional concept, but of the Quran and the Hadith. The question is actually whether the myths of Christianity and Islam are compatible. If they are not compatible, then the gods of each are not the same since God of Christianity is the God of the Bible, of the incarnation and of the resurrection, while Allah of Islam is the one of the Quran and the hegira. I would argue that the Bible and Quran correct function as antimyths to each other… despite have some common threads at times. After all, it is hard to imagine any two great works that would disagree on everything.

Apologue

An apologue supports or defends a culture. Fables and folktales typically do since they tell stories commonly with morals that are consistent with the belief structure of the culture. Most movies ultimately seek to support the worldview they are in. “A simple, ordinary guy, gets caught in a web of evil machinations. Although not a “born hero” he sees his need to stand up and be counted to help the innocent common people. Despite horrendous odds, the little guy is able to conquer with the help of a few unlikely supporters.” This story could be seen as an American “Action Story” since it doesn’t have a very strong lesson. On the other hand it can be seen as a rehearsing of the Classic American myth of an honest, hardworking, individualistic “David’ who through courage and good American know-how is able to fight off the evil “Goliath.” But perhaps it is best seen as an Apologue in that it defends the American David myth indirectly by perpetuating it through an “action story.”

Action Story

An action story describes the culture without a lot of judgment. One could argue that most stories are action stories. On the other hand, one could argue that there are no true action stories since all stories are linked to the culture and support or challenge them in some manner. That is why Action story covers a region of the story circle both on the supporting and challenging side of stories. Action stories always speak to the culture but do not have such conversation as their main focus.

Satire

Satires poke fun a cultural traits. While some are sharp, they typically lack a strong positive message. They commonly point out something wrong or unworthy through humor or light attack. But they don’t directly point the way to something better.

Parable

Parables subvert culture. They take a myth and twist it to challenge the underlying cultural presuppositions. They don’t seek to replace the culture. Rather, to open the thinking of cultural members to something bigger than their previous views could accommodate. Parables are different from antimyths since they broaden thinking without necessarily replacing old views.

Which of these are the most valuable in Christian Literature? Probably all of them have a place at times. However, when the purpose of the writing  is to change the mind of the reader, a countercultural (rather than anticultural) approach is probably best. Thus parables should have a prominent place in Christian writing.

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>

Power of Parables

A Horse Drawn Carriage in St. Augustine, FL
Image by Samantha Decker via Flickr

One of the problems of not getting a real liberal arts education (most of my education is in Mechanical Engineering and military leadership), is limitations in communication and the arts.

One of these is in the role of parables. When I was young going to church, parables were defined as “earthly stories with a heavenly meaning”. This is a nice and (obviously) memorable definition. However, what really defines a heavenly meaning? Is an ethical story a parable?

Later, I learned a parable as being “an extended simile”. This is a way of contrasting it with an allegory, which is an “extended metaphor”. The obvious problem with that meaning is that it is disconnected from its purpose.

More recently, I learned a meaning for “parable” that I find more satisfying. A parable is a story that challenges our own beliefs or world view. This definition contrasts with the term “myth” which involves stories that reinforce our own beliefs (etiological purpose). Of course, both a parable and a myth, with these definitions, can be fictional or non-fiction. Therefore…

1.  The first power of the parable is that it engenders change. It is suppose to challenge our preconceptions and beliefs, and point us in a new direction… a new orientation.

2.  The second power of the parable is that it is memorable. Years ago I worked for Northrop-Grumman. I remember that during the first week we were in orientation class, the VP of Engineering told us a parable. It is pretty much the only thing I remember from orientation. This is the story.

Back in the 1800s were two small companies that made buggy whips… Smith Brothers and Jones Brothers. The vision statement of Smiths Brothers was “We seek to make the best buggy whips in the world.” Jones Brothers had a vision statement “We provide navigational control solutions to the world.” The first vision statement makes a lot of sense, but the second one is rather strange… correct?

However, back in the 1890s the horseless carriage (automobile) was perfected and that began the demise of the horse-drawn buggy. What happened? The Smith Brothers company kept growing, for awhile, gaining market share in the buggy whip market. The Jones Brothers market share of the buggy whip market kept shrinking. BUT… this was because Jones Brothers began developing steering and control devices for automobiles. So over time Smith’s Brothers became the dominant company in a dying market, while Jones’ Brothers moved into strong niches in automobile, boat, and eventually airline navigation and controls.

The lesson is that our vision limits our behavior. To grow in a changing world requires flexibility, and flexibility requires broad vision.

While this may not be a “heavenly” parable, I have found it useful in both business and Christian missions.

3.  The third power of parables is that it attracts interest. Having attended seminary in Asia, I have been told many times that the Eastern mindset is built around stories. This is supposed to be in contrast to the Western mindset that is propositional. However, I have some doubts in this. While it is true that Western preachers and theologians tend to be propositional, and have a fascination for the Pauline Epistles over much of the rest of the Bible, I don’t think this is true on a broader level in Western Society. People will pay good money to watch a movie or buy a comic book, but can hardly be talked into attending a public lecture or debate.

Consider the origin story of Spiderman. It begins with a young somewhat self-serving college nerd, and ends with a man of power and responsibility. In fact, the story is really a parable that teaches the lesson “Where there is great power, there is great responsibility.” This lesson contrasts the normal human response that says great power means the ability to accomplish self-gratification. This story is hugely valuable as a comic book and developed into a hugely popular movie. The story is now part of the shared cultural experience in much of the world.

It is not surprising that Jesus used parables. They engender change, they  are memorable, and they attract interest. In missions, they should be developed and used.