The Ancient Modern
Further Thoughts on Myth / Joshua Alan Sturgill
Myths are so elegantly misleading.
And we can’t help but create them: every fact, story, science, fable, memory, art—all carry within them the element of Myth… the element of the Unfinished. Myths take us as on a stroll through a majestic garden. But they can’t identify the flowers. Myths bring us out of the temporal, but can’t reach the Eternal. They’re a kind neighbor who walks with us partway down the road, but only so far before he has to get back home. Myths are wild animals in a zoo; beautiful paper wrapping a priceless gift. Myths are a step stool, not a ladder.
And not all Myths are equally revealing, equally obvious or clear. Contemporary sitcoms and dramas are Myths. Huge-budget comic-book-hero movies are Myths. They tell us something of our longing for transcendence, but very little about transcendence itself.
I’ve been thinking through our contemporary Myths. What do fantasy films and romances and courtroom soap operas teach us through the Mythic language of narrative images? I find the answer to this question a little disturbing.
Our current Myths tell us:
that Nature is expendable
that science heals the wounds it causes
that humanity is “evolving” toward more violent states of being
that morality has no particular place in the war between good and evil
that good and evil are on equal footing, but evil loses because it does not understand human erotic affection
that erotic affection is the most powerful force in the universe—in a sense entirely limited to the physical world
that death, God, religion, higher states of being, prayer and all supra-natural beings and ideas are neither as rewarding nor as interesting as erotic affection.
For better or worse, this is what our Myths tell us. I am thinking of movies and television, comedy and drama, romance and fantasy.
How much nature is collaterally destroyed in an Avengers movie? This is one extreme. But think about any romantic comedy. How much time is spent out of doors, in nature? Food and water and weather either magically appear or are entirely absent. Nature does not exist in most of our entertainment. And we find this Myth entirely believable.
Similarly, from sci-fi to CSI, the driving force of the story is erotic affection. There is an attraction we hope will overcome its obstacles and reach a sex act or a marriage. Characters are motivated by their affections alone, and we find this motivation obvious and ultimate. That characters should be moved by love of God—or, of literature or history or of selfless compassion—is very rare.
We absorb and express these Mythic messages semi-consciously. We crave and seek out stories that affirm or verify our Myths and those that that deny or disprove—and sometimes ridicule—ideas contrary to our Myths.
I think these Myths, and our obsession with creating them. says something about both their importance and their ineffectiveness. Like a weak drug we must take in large does, it relieves some symptoms, but doesn’t help heal the cause of the suffering.
I began by saying that Myths can only take us so far. True enough. But I should add that I believe in the power of Myths to take us in the right direction. Rightly oriented Myths are essential to our spiritual and mental health; the best and truest Myths will make the best and truest culture.
The difficulty, in a world saturated with shallow Myth, is to find where and how the deepest Myths are being offered. We should go there—to that place, book, idea, person—and give the deepest Myths the freedom to guide us as far as they can.