One of the most tiresome misconceptions of the cynic in the street is his idea of myth. He uses the word “myth” to mean “useless fairy tale.” A myth is a fantasy, a fable or a fanciful fiction. At best it is a harmless children’s story. It might be a pretend story told for a religious purpose or at worst it is an intentional fabrication devised to hoodwink the gullible.
Yes, some ancient fanciful stories are called myths and have a religious dimension. This fact makes the definition of myth even more complex and therefore more easily misunderstood. Because ancient Greeks and Romans told stories about Zeus and Jupiter, and because they were fantasy stories, and because Zeus and Jupiter were gods, the cynic in the street concludes that all stories from ancient times that feature the supernatural must also be fanciful old time stories that may be somewhat entertaining, but which are all make believe.
To the scientific man a myth is a curious but valueless cultural artifact from a superstitious age. The worthlessness of myth is rooted in the work of several academics from the turn of the twentieth century. The Englishman E.B. Tylor is considered the father of “cultural evolutionism.” He considered myth and primitive religion as failed attempts at science. Myths, in his opinion, were the theories that primitive people devised to explain the world. Now that we have science we know better, and we should discard myth. Religion, Tylor thought, was a holdover from those primitive mythological times, the root and fruit of a backward, superstitious mindset.
The German Max Müller was also active at Oxford slightly before Tylor. Müller was an Orientalist and philologist. He considered myth to be a “disease of language.” Primitive people had ideas and theories about their world and then developed words for them. From the words they developed stories, and the abstract concepts were soon personified into mythical beings. Müller considered this to be a kind of hiccup in the development of language and therefore myth could be dismissed.
Around the same time, the Scottish social anthropologist James Frazer was studying magic and ritual in primitive societies. In his classic work, The Golden Bough, Frazer traced similarities among various cultures, whose development he saw as organic and natural. He posited three stages of development for human culture: primitive magic, religion and science. Myth was all-encompassing in the first stage, archaic but still powerful in the second stage and unnecessary in the scientific stage.
These three thinkers were hugely influential in the first part of the twentieth century and German theologian Rudolph Bultmann (1884-1976) applied their ideas to Biblical criticism. His goal was the ‘de-mythologization” of scripture. Bultmann wanted to weed out what seemed to him to be the mythological, supernatural elements of the Biblical stories and the Christian religion so that Christianity might be more acceptable to modern man.
The problem with these reductionist theorists is that they did not understand the deeper significance and function of myth within the human psyche. Carl Jung with his depth psychology was more sanguine about myth. He suggested that mythical stories connected individuals and societies with the “collective unconscious” in which all humans partake, and were one of mankind’s ways of interacting with the vast unseen world.
Romanian thinker Mircea Eliade went further, theorizing that myth helped individuals know how to make sense of their world and how to behave in their society. Combined with religious ritual, myth helped them connect with deep shared societal events, memories, and values.
The mythologist Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) built on the work of Jung. Like Eliade, he argued that myth has an important function in society in four ways: it evokes a sense of awe, it supports a religious cosmology, it supports the social order and it introduces individuals to the spiritual path of enlightenment.
Now here’s where it gets interesting. Joseph Campbell’s work was a great influence on Star Wars film maker George Lucas. Lucas claimed that in the Star Wars saga he wanted to create a “myth for modern man.” Campbell was also a major influence on Christopher Vogler, a script doctor for Disney studios, whose work The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers is a central text in Hollywood.
Myth died, but myth has risen. Dozens of movies follow Vogler’s mythic structure for plot and characterization. Comic book heroes and the movies derived from them are myths re-enacted and writ large for the silver screen. The exploits of superheroes in their great battles with evil are modern examples of the drama and power of myth. The technology of both production and distribution have turned modern myth-making through movies into a cultural tsunami. The brains of the early twentieth century could never have imagined myth making such a comeback.
Working in Oxford only slightly later than Tylor and Müller was another philologist and author—J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien and his friend, C.S. Lewis were fascinated with the power of myth. Tolkien consciously intentionally devised his great epic The Lord of the Rings as a myth for the English people, to replace the Arthurian cycle.
Against all odds, through popular culture, myth is more potent and omnipresent in modern society than anyone could have imagined. Why? Because in an increasingly global society, myth is a universal language. Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, Spiderman and Batman transcend cultural divides. Mythic heroes in movies communicate universal values in their fight against evil. In a culture where the abstract theories of academics are out of touch and meaningless, stories communicate more effectively and more universally.
Furthermore, in an increasingly irreligious age, mythical movies and literature carry the truths that religion had traditionally conveyed. People who would not set foot in a church go to the movies. They share vicariously in the hero’s quest and go through a cathartic transformation. They follow the hero as he makes his moral choices and so decide (even unconsciously) that they live in a moral universe.
The importance of the resurgence of myth for religion was not lost on Tolkien. In his essay on fairy stories, he explained that the viewer or reader of myth comes to understand that there is not only a plot and meaning to the story, but there is a plot and meaning to life, and if his life has a plot and meaning, then the cosmos has a plot and meaning, and if the cosmos has a plot and meaning, then there is Someone who plotted the story—someone who knows its ultimate meaning, because He is the ultimate meaning.
Dwight Longenecker’s latest book is The Romance of Religion: Fighting for Goodness, Truth and Beauty. Visit his blog, browse his books and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com.