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Mythos

mythos, n. the underlying system of beliefs, especially those dealing with supernatural forces, characteristic of a particular cultural group.

I remember trips I would take with my family by car at night listening to the radio. We lived in central Ohio. Unlike in New England, which I now call home, the terrain was flat, and the towns were far apart. The radio signal would fade in and out as we went along. First there would be occasional static, then the program we were listening to would break up or become something else altogether. I seem to recall Charles Reich used an image similar to this in The Greening of America as a metaphor for change as American society moved from one cultural epoch to the next. The signals from the earlier era would start to fade in an out and eventually be replaced by newer ones. Reich was looking forward to the day when the old order would give way to a Sixties-style counterculture. Presumably he did not contemplate the day, some 45 years after his book was published, when Bob Dylan would release an album of Frank Sinatra tunes.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to make light of Reich’s prognostications. In the end, rock and roll music, hallucinogenic drugs and bell-bottoms amounted to more of a fashion statement than a new consciousness. Yet there have unquestionably been radical cultural shifts over the ensuing decades, just not always ones that Reich or anyone else could have anticipated. Something is indeed happening here, but we still don’t know what it is. All we are getting is lots of static and signals fading in and out. When you are traveling along country roads at night with no landmarks to navigate by, the signals tell you only that you are far from your point of origin and not yet near a destination.

Sailors, of course, have no landmarks to navigate by when they are out of sight of land. Before GPS and radar, they steered by the sun and stars. In the Northern Hemisphere, they could calculate their position at night using the North Star, which remains fixed relative to the movement of the boat and the rotation of the earth on its axis. In cultural terms, a society’s founding myths are the fixed points for measuring change. The God who appeared to Moses in the Sinai Wilderness was the same God who had established his Covenant with Abraham 700 years earlier and who appeared to Jesus 1200 years later. The same God inspired Martin Luther to lead the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century and Martin Luther King to lead the American civil rights movement in the mid-20th century. These individuals came from different parts of the world during different historical epochs but all claimed allegiance to the same God. I doubt any of them would have regarded their religion as a “founding myth” of their society. To think in such terms already puts you at one remove from your own cultural roots, even for a Christian writer like C.S. Lewis who viewed the story of Christ as a “true myth.”

For those fully immersed in a particular mythos, it is not even something they regard as a set of beliefs so much as a way of life – one inherited from their ancestors and ordained by God or the gods. If their way of life is threatened by foreign domination or technological advances, they can find it profoundly disorienting. Much of the turmoil in the world today is the result of this, particularly when traditional cultures are confronted by modern industrial society. Every major religion has fundamentalist movements that seek to defend themselves against modernity through strict adherence to age-old beliefs and practices. The real problem, I suspect, is they think God no longer speaks to them, except to repeat what was said long ago. Or is it that they can’t hear due to all the static? And yet for all that, they can at least claim answers to questions that modern industrial society doesn’t even pretend to address: Who am I? Why am I here? What is the meaning of it all?

At the conclusion of Hermann Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf, Mozart materializes in modern dress and tunes in Handel’s Concerto in F Major on an ancient radio. The novel’s protagonist, Harry Haller, is outraged that the music of the immortals is so badly mutilated by this primitive device. But Mozart only twits him for failing to appreciate the cosmic humor of it all. “Just listen, you poor creature,” he advises, "listen without either pathos or mockery, while far away behind the veil of this hopelessly idiotic and ridiculous apparatus the form of this divine music passes by….You hear not only a Handel who, disfigured by the radio, is, all the same, in this most ghastly of devices still divine; you hear as well and you observe, most worthy sir, a most admirable symbol of all life.”

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