I have had the privilege the past two weeks to lead discussions among viewers of the first two episodes of a series of interviews of Joseph Campbell called The Power of Myth. We all sit in a circle and I ask the participants for their impressions, thoughts, and insights. All agree that there is great power in myth. They particularly agree with Campbell’s summation that, “myths are clues to spirituality”. When the group probed deeper into the nature of this spirituality they found it difficult to express in words exactly what it is that embodies spirituality. Even Campbell concludes that one reaches a point where the message in the myth is transcendent and can’t be expressed with words. I very much agree with this, even if it may leave some with a sense of puzzlement.
Another theme that dominated the discussion was the question of whether or not we need new myths and metaphors that are more appropriate for today. Many of the myths explored by Campbell are ancient in origin, yet some have endured. But even Campbell admitted that many of the myths are outdated; and that one need not alter the messages and deep insights contained in the metaphors of the myths, rather a way must be found to create new myths to represent those messages and insights.
The modern movie emerged immediately as a possible candidate for a vehicle for modern day mythology. Coincidentally the interview series with Campbell was held at the library of the Lucas Ranch in California. George Lucas, the owner of the ranch, is famous of course as the creator of Star Wars movie franchise. Campbell acknowledged that Star Wars is certainly a modern day representation of the power of myth. The discussion participants also offered up the idea that the movie Avatar was also representative of the power of myth. Much has been written about Avatar as modern day mythology with some believing the movie is less about the power of myth as offering clues to spirituality as it is about perpetuating stereotypes about the inability of native cultures to solve their own problems making it necessary to introduce the “white savior” motif. Many in our group believe Avatar did an excellent job conveying the importance of respecting the environment in which we live as opposed to exploiting it to the point of destruction. Regardless of one’s views on the particular details and messages within the movies all agreed that they do serve as modern day mythology.
As our discussions progressed and we probed deeper and deeper into the mysteries of myths a lengthy discourse about the meaning of metaphors and their role in myths emerged. All finally agreed with Campbell that myths contain metaphors that serve to represent deeper truths that are best conveyed by good old fashion story telling. In each of the two episodes we have viewed so far Campbell tells a story that contains the essence of the message of the myth. One story was about a Native American maiden who shunned all suitors until she was wooed by what turned out to be wizard who trapped her in a life she struggled to break free from. The other story was about a lesser god of India who desired to build a bigger and bigger palace for himself. In this story the God of all the gods teaches the lesser god the lesson that he is not as important in the grand scheme of things as he thinks he is. Each of these stories in their full form have subtitles and complexities that are conveyed in the telling. It is easy to get caught up in the details and miss the message. In our discussion participants came away with the general consensus that one must not get so caught up in the metaphor that the message is lost. Campbell encouraged viewers to embrace the message in the myth and that often the message is very individual.
Story telling as a vehicle for conveying myth has been a part of my life from the very first time my father stood in the doorway of the bedroom shared by my three brothers and me and improvised story after story, night after night. My father never read a book to us, but the stories he created by his ability to create vivid images in my mind have influenced my thinking to this day. But my father was capable for much more. When I would question him about what seemed to me great mysteries like where did the moon come from? What exactly is the sun and how does the earth go around the sun? My father would give detailed answers using the best scientific information available. In the case of the question of where did the moon come from he explained how long ago a meteor crashed into the earth and a piece of the earth flew off into to space creating the moon. This is the generally excepted theory of the moon’s creation to this day. The question about the sun was given the fantastic explanation that the sun itself was moving through space. That it was not stationary and that everything I could see in the heavens was moving.
These scientific explanations seemed in stark contrast to the stories my father would tell, which were filled with strange characters from his childhood who often performed some kind of magic. It is this juxtaposition between the real and the fantastics that gives life its meaning. In the beginning of the second episode of the Power of Myth, Campbell posed the question of whether or not science and technology are eliminating the need for myths. The answer Campbell came to and with which our discussion group agreed, was that myths of today simply need to find a way to incorporate science and technology. Somehow, instinctively, my father knew this and it has certainly had a great influence on my thinking. Campbell also observed that we must be “captured” by myth. We don’t possess it as much as it possess us. The story telling by my father certainly captured me as did his scientific explanations of reality.
I believe both science and myths are tools that help us fashion what I have dubbed the coin of knowledge, which has two sides: intellectual and spiritual knowledge. Each informs the other; and life has no meaning without both. The secret is to resist the temptation to make the tools your objective, rather to use them to attain transcendence where words and theories fail and something unimaginable waits to be discovered. And for that,
To God Be The Glory, forever, and ever
Categories: God and the Universe