Of Myths and Men

As LDS we tend to be fairly uncomfortable with the concept of Myth.

Or rather, we’re uncomfortable with the idea that myths have something to do with real history. We’re, of course, not alone in this. The desire to neatly and clearly draw the lines that separate myth and reality, story from history, fiction from non-fiction is intrinsic to the modern, post-Cartesian world we collectively inhabit. “Myth” is probably most commonly used colloquially as a synonym for error, misbeleif, or even lie. (I myself recently chided a certain MMM scholar at T&S for his imbibing of the “myth” of the omniscient, omnipotent Brigham Young). The word has been configured linguistically and semantically in a way that makes it epistemologically suspect.

We tend to bristle when the language of Myth is used to describe or comment on the scriptures. There are solid grounds for this reaction among those who take scriptures seriously, since it is often those who dismiss them out of hand that most vehemently insist on their mythical character. To speak of the “myth” of the Exodus or the Flood is typically to relegate these stories to the realm of the fictive, and to cast those who believe them as ignorant, unscientific, simple-minded, confused, or simply stubborn.

I’m not unsympathetic to these concerns; but I also find the mythic components of many scriptural stories — particularly those concerning the origin of humankind — to be intriguing, compelling, and utterly impossible to ignore. Of course here I’m not using “myth” as a synonym for “untruth” — that is as taking away from a story’s truth value — but as enhancing and enriching its truth. Martin Buber spoke of Myth as a metaphorical expression “not of an imaginative state of mind…but of a real meeting of two Realities.” He described the “mythization” in scriptural stories of the collective memory of intersections of nature and super-nature, of meetings between God and Man. (Buber actually developed this line of thinking, drawing distinctions between Myth, Saga, and Legend, depending the nature and degree of separation between God and Man in the world represented in the story). Jim Faulconer, citing Eliade, has illuminated these questions from an LDS perspective. For my part, I understand Myth as a story in which multiple and multivalent layers of symbolic, metaphorical, and parabolic meaning are embedded within the narrative.

The classical example here is the story of the Fall, of Man’s expulsion from the Garden Paradise. The mythic elements of early Genesis have been discusses at great length by throngs of scholars and thinkers from an almost endless variety of backgrounds. Carl Sagan’s erudite “Speculations” on the subject earned him a Pulitzer Prize. I won’t belabor the details, but the gist of almost any mythical reading of the Garden of Eden story is as follows: Expulsion from the garden is a symbolic representation of the human race’s transition from animal to man; from a romanticized harmony with nature to a systematized exploitation of it; from eating freely a variety of foods that grow spontaneously and naturally to a steady diet of grain (“bread”) sustained by tireless work; from a genial relationship with animals to dominion over them; from nomadic hunter-gathering to agriculture and living in cities; and from the blissfully childlike naivete of life in the Garden to the complex symbolic reasoning and frustrating ethical quandaries of the Real World.

Looking at myth in this manner — as the many represented in the one, as the universal manifested in the particular, as the length and breadth of history captured within the narrow confines of a tightly constructed narrative — can be illuminating. Narratives are never value-neutral, and the mythic reading of the Genesis story suggests possible answers to perpetually vexing questions about the nature of human beings, human minds, human societies, and human culture. Framed from the perspective of evolutionary anthropology and cognitive-developmental psychology, such questions might include: What is the relation between self-awareness, free will, and consciousness of death? Of what nature is the knowledge capable of driving a wedge between man and nature, irrevocably severing the long-held symbiotic relationship between them? Is human progress (agriculture, complex societies, food surpluses, city-dwelling) really the self-evidently positive force that we’ve come to believe it to be?

But such a reading also presents real complications for people who believe the persons described to have been real, flesh-and-blood, historical individuals. The word/name “adam” doesn’t help matters in the case of the Eden myth. Adam means man, and where proper names end and general nouns (definite or indefinite) begin is less than clear. The KJV slips back and forth between “the man” and Adam while inside the Garden, shifting to a more sustained use of “Adam” after expulsion. But if we really want to internalize the lack of clarity, we might do well to imagine an English version that replaces “Adam” with “man,” “Man,” “the man,” etc. Adam’s historical existence is further problematized by the fact that the narrative sustains a mythic reading so well; that is, it conforms allegorically in such a creative way to proto-human/human history. If Adam is a free agent, as the narrative wishes so plainly to emphasize, surely he could not have programatically patterned his choices and behavior as an individual so they would reflect in miniature the development of an entire species that is his namesake. The mythical reading evacuates the narrative of plausibility as an actually occurring, historical, clinically described set of events. The characters may or may not be based on real individuals, but the story doesn’t describe real history, and the power of the myth is not dependent on its attested historical accuracy or reality.

Problems, problems…

Enter Joseph Smith.

The Prophet of the Restoration penned revelations/commentaries/translations on numerous biblical passages. Of particular interest here is his expansion of the Hebrew origin story, as he more richly develops the mythic elements of the narrative. The scope of those expansions could sustain a book-length treatment. For now, I’d like to explore the example of the Cain/Abel story. Typically, this is read as an allegory of the age-old conflict between agricultural societies and those dependent on animal husbandry. The more efficient and more intrinsically resource-exploitative forces of agriculture overpower and marginalize the livestock keepers, seizing in the process the controls of the fate of humanity. Agriculture is a necessary precondition for complex, stratified societies, and Cain is credited with building the first cities — that is, with laying the foundation of the modern world as we know it, on the coattails of agricultural surpluses. Joseph Smith’s treatment of this story adds vital content as well as dimension. He introduces a key element into the narrative with sweeping implications: greed. Cain is motivated to murder Abel, not over mere petty jealousy, but because he has learned a secret that has kindled his lust for power. The “Mahan” principle, what Hugh Nibley has aptly described as the “conversion of life into property,” the awareness that the accumulation of material wealth (and here, as in other societies, property=freedom) can be limitless, provided one is willing to destroy life or cause suffering in the process of its acquisition. The words “am I my brother’s keeper?” ring far more ominously with far deeper implication in the context of a story of a fratricide motivated by the prospect that “the flocks of my brother falleth into my hands.”

Curiously, though, while Joseph Smith amplified and enriched the mythic elements of this story — a process which tends, in theory, to mitigate Cain as a historically plausible actor in the events described — he also added considerable depth to Cain’s individuality in the process. The Cain of Genesis is rather tepid, two-dimensional, an archetype rather than a person. His behavior is inexplicably rash, as if he is acting out a pre-scripted drama, typifying in a microcosmic narrative macro-historical forces of change, lost innocence, and embodied wickedness. The Cain of Moses 5, by contrast, is idiosyncratic, complicated, enticed, hesitant, brazen, remorseful yet prideful, torn by competing loyalties, utterly human — far more human in the basest but most manifestly believable ways than his deflated Genesis clone.

This represents what I would argue is a constant tendency in the scriptural reconstructions of Joseph Smith; the mythic figures participate in richer, more fully-developed allegorical narratives but are also more fully-fleshed-out, believable individuals. The Prophet eats his proverbial cake by filling magnificent mythic stories with characters — individuals — that leap off the page in their distinctive humanness. Joseph Smith’s Cain is more compelling as a myth and a man.

Comments

  1. Brad, this is a well thought-out and wonderfully executed essay. It is deeply resonant and highlights several important aspects of religion and in specifically Mormonism.

    Another expansion of the Genesis story that I quite like is the idea of Adam as pre-mortal actor. At once this appears to demand historicity and yet we are all asked to regard ourselves as Adam in the uniquely Mormon liturgy.

    Great stuff.

  2. Steve Evans says:

    Brad, I like this very much. I’m glad you brought up Faulconer’s (and Eliade’s) thinking on this as well.

    To what extent is our current Joseph Smith also a product of myth-making? He, too, is more than a man.

  3. The problem with treating scripture as a myth is that it is like an axiom.
    If you say scripture is mythical you will find many mythical elements. Science will back up your claims that it must be mythical and science that doesn’t must be from religious fundamentalist who somehow distort the real science.
    IF you say scripture is non-mythical you will find some great history lessons. Science will be refinded to explain what really happened. Those big-bang-nutcakes who insist of some other science must be wrong because they don’t think in account all the real observations in scripture.

  4. Dwarik,
    The contrast is not so much between myth and history but between mythic narrative and clinical, anecdotal narrative. J. D. Crossan uses the example of a statue of Abraham Lincoln in which he wields a large hammer standing next to a slave with broken chains. Did it ever happen like that? No. Did it happen? Yes, in a far more profound (and historically meaningful) sense than that represented by the limiting, literalist reading of the vignette.
    Myth in the sense I’m using here is macroscopic historical process collapsed into narrated event. The story is true, even if the snake didn’t really convince them to eat magic fruit which resulted in their being summarily tossed from a blissful garden into a dreary world void of other human life but frequented by otherworldy visitors from the past/future.

  5. Bravo this is an intelligent and thought-provoking statement on myth. Orson Scott Card said that “history is a creative reconstruction of the past.” There are elements of truth to myth but many times the people and events set an idealistic standard. Joseph Cambell would have given you an A for your effort.

  6. Friends,
    I’m hoping that others will join Dwarik in challenging Brad’s archetypal reading of the LDS canon. Personally, I’ve never had a problem with the mythological paradigm. I find that myth forces me to engage the text as a searcher for meaning rather than as some sort of dispassionate historical observer, which at best leads me to examining causes and effects.
    The mythological perspective allows for a more personal, introspective experience. Case in point: As far as I know, pretty much everyone accepts the parable of the Good Samaritan as no more than a story. Hopefully, someone will correct me if I’m wrong, but no one is out there trying to establish the historical truth of the parable. We know from the get-go that this is a story that Christ (or one of his biographers) has created the story to make a point. Does the story’s lack of factuality detract from its power? I don’t think so. It is precisely for this reason, in my opinion, that the parable rings true for so many of us. It is true in the sense of true doctrine, rather than true in the sense of factual observations.
    Further, after 2 years of preaching the sort of open-source revelation of Moroni 10:3-5 and James 1, I’ve always found the F.A.R.M.S. Raiders of the Lost American Horses and their ilk to be theological cowards, constantly searching for a historical trump card, so that the other kids will play nicer.
    However, although I clearly demonstrate my heartfelt respect for them in the above paragraph, many people seem to feel a profound need for the historical anchor. And as much fun as it is to deride the idea as I see it, I don’t think that the historical perspective gets a fair shake in my or Bradley’s hands.
    Seriously, somebody out there read this and enlighten me. Poke fun at the spiritual lack of backbone it takes us myth-makers to shrug our collective shoulders and claim that all this stuff that Joseph Smith died for is just a collection of faith-promoting stories.
    Why doess historical factuality matter?
    Regards.

  7. bit — I suppose that the difference between myth and historicity can be made fairly clear. No one will walk across the plains because someone had a good mythical tale. No one is really given hope and comfort given the mythical proportion of the resurrection — what we care about is honest to goodness life and being together in real time and not merely in a good story.

  8. Alfred P Johnson says:

    One of my new favorite Mormon Myths: That Native Americans are descendants of the Lamanites.

  9. #8 – It’s late, so I won’t respond as I might otherwise.

    #6 – I am a former history teacher. This is a bit simplistic, but historical factuality is important IF it can be determined with any degree of certainty. When that is not possible, factuality is totally unimportant.

    I absolutely LOVE what I see as the mythic nature of the records that tell of events prior to Moses, at the earliest. “As it has been translated correctly” has MUCH broader and powerful meaning than most people realize, imo. I love even more the mythological, symbolic and allegorical nature of the temple. That foundation is flexible enough to provide unending inspiration and application that simply wouldn’t be possible in a more literal construct.

    Finally, Joseph Smith’s willingness to create modern myths fascinates me. For example, repositioning the Garden of Eden to his own surroundings is pure prophetic genius, as is extending that repositioning to wherever the saints are gathered in the temples. I believe if we fail to embrace mythology as a powerful motivator and divine tool we fail to step into the peculiarly prophetic world of the Restoration.

  10. I love even more the mythological, symbolic and allegorical nature of the temple.

    I should add my two cents here: I think that texts that resemble the temple (Genesis, Moses, Abraham) are derived from it and not the other way around. If we’re supposed (as President Packer, among others, has suggested) to interpret everything in the temple as symbolic, why should we read these texts any differently.

    blt,
    I’m not casting history aside in favor of myth. Rather I’m suggesting that history is embedded in myth, but on a number of levels not accessible via a straightforward, superficial reading of the narratives in question. I don’t think the temple is a parable (a parable, as I understand it, need not be factual but must, to be effective, be plausible in the sense of reflecting a context of everyday reality). In fact, I’m not a fan of interpreters (including some LDS) who try to read, for example, the parable of the Good Samaritan as an allegory of cosmic history.

    The point of this post was not that there are myths in our scriptures. The point is that Joseph Smith embraced and expanded upon the mythic elements (the Cain/Abel story was just a useful, relatively brief example; the temple is packed to the brim with even richer examples), while at the same time amplifying the individualistic, idiosyncratic elements of the characters involved. His revelations refuse to choose between the two — between myths enacted by symbolic archetypes, on the one hand, and real events described in clinical detail and carried out by actual people, on the other. The great genius and great paradox of his treatment of founding Jewish and Christian myths is that in his hands they become at once more provocative on a mythological scale and more believable on a personal/historical scale.

  11. MikeInWeHo says:

    “No one will walk across the plains because someone had a good mythical tale.” I’m not so sure about that. Put aside the LDS experience, which may be too close to home for this conversation. There are other examples where plains have been crossed and wars fought over (now known to be) mythical accounts. Examples, anyone??

    I remember a professor in Ann Arbor saying “We often think of myths as lies. This is not the case. Myths are the means by which societies convey their most important truths.”

    Ray is correct. The power of the Restoration does not flow from literal history. In the Restoration the Lord is re-connecting with humanity the way He always has: through prophetic voices. What do prophets do? They tell us stories that we need to hear.

  12. Comment #8 is a perfect example of the epistemological baggage with which we typically deploy the term “myth.” Mr. Johnson might as well have substituted “misunderstanding” or “folly” for the term “myth.” Until we can free ourselves from the notion that myth=fiction, the power of the scriptures and the temple to teach us will remain relatively impoverished.

  13. Mike, which professor?

  14. Mike, Ann Arbor? I would offer you condolences about the inability of a certain team to compete against its bitter rival over the past seven years, but that would be tactless and juvenile – so I will take the high road and refrain from rubbing in that failure of epic proportion. Chin up, my man; Coach Tressle will retire in a couple of decades, so you might find consolation in your lifetime.

  15. Adam Greenwood says:

    That churl’s name is Tressel. FYI.

  16. #11:”Myths are the means by which societies convey their most important truths.” Mostly true, but also have we convey our most important lies. Also a problem in “conveying” the Myth, is we like to super-size it’s power by beginning it with: “Now… the story I am going to tell you is True!!

  17. blt: “I’ve always found the F.A.R.M.S. Raiders of the Lost American Horses and their ilk to be theological cowards”

    Then that must make you some sort of theological hero!

  18. I think the ‘default’ should be the story is a Myth “by which societies conveys their most important truths”. Then we can be surprised and joyed when we find out it is ALSO true, and not devastated and angry when finding out it’s not.

  19. gst,
    That’s a bit harsh, man. Mr. t’s rhetoric might be a bit over the top, but his point still deserves consideration. You could lash back similarly to almost any criticism of another’s work.

    “I’ve always found De Palma’s films to be tedious and overreaching.”

    “Then that must make you the most exciting yet thoughtful filmmaker in the whole wide world!”

  20. Adam Greenwood says:

    Then you must be really gentle, Brad!

  21. Adam Greenwood says:

    One time there was like this hurdling theological comet that threatened all theology on earth, but none of the FARMS contributors used their super-powers to theologically do battle with the menace, and this even though they have cool capes and stuff.

    It was pretty disillusioning.

  22. Steve Evans says:

    There was one guy who was the Greatest Theological Hero, but he lost the manual on how to use the suit. It was hilarious!

  23. Steve, I think I remember GTH — something about “a wing and a prayer,” maybe…

  24. Adam Greenwood says:

    I used to have metaphysically hard bullet-repelling skin but once when I was escaping from Trinitor’s lair I got zapped with an orthopraxic sin ray so I’ve had to be my mild-mannered alter ego Adam Greenwood ever since, though I’m working feverishly in my lab on a golden director of which I expect great things.

  25. Brilliant stuff, Adam…

  26. Adam Greenwood says:

    Even though there were some bad stuff from the old days, Dr. Ransom would battle the Royal Exemplar for example, I really think it ment we were more at one.

  27. Brad – fine post. As someone who sympathizes with Protestant neo-orthodoxy, it rings true to me on many levels. Reading scripture through the lens of the mythic forces us to into a more thoughtful, self-critical faith.

    Here’s the devil’s advocate position anyway. I realize your point here is particularly Joseph Smith’s engagement with scripture, but I wonder how we choose which stories to read typologically or, as the neo-orthodox would have it, existentially, and which to take literally. For folks like Niebuhr, of course, scripture was to be taken seriously but not literally; its truths are more important than its factuality, and Adam, Noah and the rest are to be read primarily in the mythic way you lay out, as statements about the human condition in embodied form.

    You say that Joseph Smith “refused to choose,” but it appears to me than he manifestly did choose. For him – as for the authors of the Bible, incidentally – Adam was a real person who lived in a real place; the incarnation and resurrection were literal, factual events. And while many Mormons, influenced by the heritage of liberal theology, are increasingly comfortable with a typological reading of the first. But does our religion make it possible for us to read the second in this way? Is the importance of the resurrection for Joseph Smith what it teaches us about the power of believing in Christ or that such a thing can literally happen? Further, how might any of this apply to the Book of Mormon?

    It seems to me that your description of what Joseph Smith is doing is closer to the way Robert Alter reads the Bible than to ‘myth’ in the sense that twentieth century theologians use the term. According to Alter, Biblical authors were relating fact as narrative; they shaped what they believed to be history using the tools of fiction. When they (or Joseph Smith) told a story multiple times in different ways, they did so purposefully – but they held the content of such stories as important as their purpose.

  28. Brad — precisely right.

    Brad, I also note that twice now you’ve mentioned the epistemological baggage surrounding the concept of myth. Doesn’t that baggage exist for a reason?

  29. Adam Greenwood says:

    Right back at you, Brad. I’m assuming those wings were eagle’s wings?

    Anyway, I don’t miss GTH. Those clouds of glory he trailed were just so much pollution. Personage Man was more my style.

  30. #15 – Correct, you are. Can’t believe I typed it that way.

  31. Matt,
    There’s no doubt that JS believed these men to have really existed and really acted in history (as do I). But their really existing does not inexorably lead to the conclusion that they literally did all the things the the stories described them as doing. Further, Joseph’s treatments of their narratives enhances their mythic depth. He might have consciously chosen a side, and I very much doubt he engaged in conscious mythmaking; but his writings split the difference while dramatically expanding both sides of the proverbial coin.

    You don’t have to be Carl Jung to believe that people subconsciously tap into the myths that animate the human experience; you might just believe in inspired revelation instead.

    Further, how might any of this apply to the Book of Mormon?

    I’d say, just as one example, that Nephi’s (re)writing of the Lehite origin story is pretty clearly myth mingled with historical narrative.

  32. I’m not casting history aside in favor of myth. Rather I’m suggesting that history is embedded in myth

    Brad, just making sure I’m reading you as you wish to be read…which came first…the history or the myth?

  33. Eric Russell says:

    “I’ve always found De Palma’s films to be tedious and overreaching.”

    Amen, Brad.

  34. Joseph Campbell has already been mentioned once, but I would only second his thesis that mythical heroes are used in many cultures to teach truths.

    I also can’t help but think of Arnold Frieberg’s BoM paintings, and see the signs of archetypal heroes in those. I look at the story of Ammon and his defense of the King’s flocks, and see huge parallels to mythic hero tales. That story is so over the top, though, that I tend to believe it. Not sure anyone could make that up.

    We seem to be comfortable in assuming these heroic attributes of real historic figures, while seeking confirmation of the truths that are taught through spiritual means. Believing in a myth may be a first step to learning how to exercise faith, as in “the essence of things hoped for, the evidences of things unseen”.

    Just one of many paradoxes in our religion that I feel provide a tension that motivates us to seek truth through the workings of the spirit.

    Good thought provoking post, Brad.

  35. Major Threadjack Alert (not that hasn’t already happened here):

    In light of the Greatest Theological Hero, and the FARMS folks looking for their capes, who would we install in the LDS Justice/Mercy League of Superheroes?

    Julie Beck’s Wonderwoman?
    Certainly Ammon and his Magic Sword, Disarmer!
    Mahonri Moriancumer, the Ancient Submariner?

  36. Kevin,
    I think Mormon’s fingerprints are all over Waters of Sebus story. Ammon’s ministry and its consequences are problematic for Mormon’s triuimphalist/tragic reading/writing of the history of Nephite civilization. Ammon’s desire (along with Alma, his brothers, others) to preach to the enemy rather than fight them (preemptively, no less, cf. Alma 26:23-26) flew in the face of the logic and assumptions (dare I say “myths”!) that underpinned Nephite culture, and was met with derision by most Nephites. (Imagine a repentant Mormon kid abandoning his dream to be a great UFC fighter in order to go preach to Muslims on the Afghan-Pakistani border).

    Nibley has questioned whether or not what happened at Sebus was some kind of sadistic war game or gladiator sport — a kind of capture-the-flag (scatter-the-sheep) with incredibly high stakes — that the king played for his own amusement. That might explain several aspects of the narrative that slip through Mormon’s redaction: the melodramatic reaction of Ammon’s mates (trying to get the sheep back doesn’t so much as cross their mind, instead they wail like stuck pigs); why Ammon alone has a sword and sling while his opponents are armed (pun intended) with only clubs (in which case Ammon’s brave victory seems less like a superhuman performance than Indiana Jones besting the swordsman with his pistol), especially since one of the survivors shows up at the king’s house the next day sword in hand.

    It’s doubtful we can reconstruct what really happened at Sebus (thought I do think Nibley is headed in the right direction); what is clear is that Mormon seized upon the story and rewrote it as an allegory of missionary work. By using Ammon’s mighty battle skills as an emblem of his effectiveness as a missionary (even though he otherwise eschewed violence during his time among the Lamanites, even to protect himself, see Alma 26: 28-30), Mormon conflates the role of missionary with the role of soldier, thus de-problematizing the story of Ammon in the Nephite national narrative. (Kind of like reworking Martin Luther King as a moderate proponent of equal rights with effective public speaking skills as opposed to a radical proponent of nonviolence and vehement critic of US foreign and domestic policies.)

    So I guess I’m basically agreeing with you. Ammon disarming his opponents is a myth — a story rooted in something like real history but reworked and allegorized in the service of reifying Nephite beliefs about justified and righteous violence against enemies that threaten their favored status or blessed way of life.

  37. 34 – Another threadjack, but I’ve always found it funny that the hero in Frieberg’s paintings are never wearing shirts. I don’t think I’d want to see any of the “theological heroes” of this post without a shirt on.

  38. 36 – MLK remark is brilliant.

  39. Jacob M,

    Or tights!

  40. To #36, I agree. I also see it possible, not that you didn’t, that such a reworking of history isn’t always done deliberately. For instance, Nephi’s depiction of Laman and Lemuel may not be sufficient to represent their true characters, but is merely a reflection of what Nephi saw. Thus do I need to take it as literal factual history that they called Nephi “lacking in judgment” (read:stupid) or can I see Nephi looking into the past and reconstructing it as he viewed it. Interesting stuff.

  41. I think that you should pick a different word to use if you don’t want to imply “fiction.” It’s obviously a lot of fun to play cute word games with a half-dozen people who are already on the same page as you, but it’s not conducive to getting the rest of us to respond favorably to your ideas. Any conversation that starts with “let’s talk about all the myths in the Book of Mormon!!” is going to leave a lot of understandably angry and suspicious people behind, right from the start.

  42. Steve Evans says:

    Sarah, actually Brad’s use of the word “myth” is incredibly common in academic circles. No need for you to get grumpy about it or deem his post “cute word games.” If you read his post properly, you probably would be less angry and suspicious.

  43. Sarah,
    Steve beat me to it, but I though Brad’s explanation of “myth” was almost unnecessary. He simplied defined a well-accepted (though sometimes misunderstood) term of art.

    Basically, there’s not another easily-accessible term for the concept that Brad’s using that I’m aware of, especially given that “myth” is the correct term.

  44. “Myth” is a loaded word and you shouldn’t use it when describing the scriptures unless you want to ruffle some feathers at Church.

  45. CC,
    My use of the term “myth” will only cause problems for people who ignore the substance of my argument. As I made clear in my lengthy definitions and disclaimers, it is not a term I mean derisively or take lightly. I guess I’m just not that concerned with what people who shut their ears without engaging the substance think of my choice of terms.

  46. I read your essay and I get where you’re coming from but I’m just saying that you’re playing with matches by using the word “myth.”

  47. To all these people complaining about the use of the word “myth”, what word would you rather have him use? I can’t think of a better word to use for the purposes of his argument. Maybe people should stop getting their feathers all-a-ruffled.

  48. So Brad shouldn’t receive a mission call. That’s a different discussion.

  49. To the complainers of the use of the word “myth”, I quote from Brad’s original post:

    As LDS we tend to be fairly uncomfortable with the concept of Myth.

    We tend to bristle when the language of Myth is used to describe or comment on the scriptures.

    You were warned. I defend Brad’s use of vocabulary here. A good introduction might be the highly accessible book “Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth”, essentially a compilation of conversations Campbell had with Bill Moyers on his PBS TV show some 20 years ago. There should be nothing pejorative about his use of myth in relation to the Book of Mormon, the Bible, or Joseph Smith’s story. Have we not all heard or participated in some making of Myth about actual historical figures?

    Let me give you a good example. A number of years ago, one of the twelve commented on President Kimball’s reaction to Sonia Johnson chaining herself to the gates of the Seattle temple at the time of it’s dedication. To the best of my recollection here, the other GA said that Pres. Kimball saw her chained there in the rain, and remarked “That poor woman. Someone should get her an umbrella.”

    I heard that story repeated at least three times in our stake over the next year, each time growing in the retelling. First, it was said that he stopped the car and had someone give her his own umbrella. A later retelling had him stopping the car, getting out himself, a giving her the umbrella, kissing her on the cheek, and saying “I love you”. None of those things is uncharacteristic of President Kimball, and as such are “true” representations of the character of the man. Nothing, however, except the first statement, was reported.

    Myth is a powerful concept, and we certainly need to understand it’s hold on us, even within the constructs of the church.

  50. Matt Thurston says:

    Brad (#31) said: “There’s no doubt that JS believed these men to have really existed and really acted in history (as do I).”

    There seems to be some tolerance within believing Mormon circles for the myth-mixed-with-fact reading of scripture and history, especially ancient scripture and history. (California Condor and Sarah exempted, of course.) But what about a purely mythical reading?

    Must one believe these men (Adam, Moses, Noah, Jonah, Nephi, Mormon, etc.) “really existed and really acted” to make these myths come alive? Is there a place in Mormonism for people who do not believe these men existed, but nevertheless are able to find eternal and metaphoric truths in these stories?

  51. Brad and everyone else is free to use whatever words they want when describing the sacred texts of Mormonism. I’m just trying to give some free advice. You won’t last very long as a gospel doctrine teacher if you get up on Sunday and start using inflammatory words.

    If you’re trying to say that maybe the earth is not 4,000 years old, then okay, I’ll admit that you have a good point. But that doesn’t mean that you have to be an agitator in Sunday School.

    When you refer to an event in the scriptures, you don’t have to say whether it’s a “myth” or history. Just refer to it by chapter and verse and then read the scripture or summarize the events. If you really have to describe it, maybe use the word “miracle” or “narrative.” If you’re really liberal maybe slip the word “supernatural” into a comment. But I think “myth” is crossing the line, any way you slice it.

  52. Steve Evans says:

    Give it up CC.

  53. Matt Thurston says:

    In the following quote, Joseph Campbell extols the virtues of myth, and includes a warning that seems germane to this discussion:

    “Read myths. They teach you that you can turn inward, and you begin to get the message of the symbols. Read other people’s myths, not those of your own religion, because you tend to interpret your own religion in terms of facts - but if you read the other ones, you begin to get the message. Myth helps you to put your mind in touch with this experience of being alive. Myth tells you what the experience is.”

  54. In your last line you say

    Joseph Smith’s Cain is more compelling as a myth and a man.

    Too bad Cain’s Joseph Smith was neither!

    (Sorry! Once I read that line, I couldn’t help but think of Cain’s wretched movie!)

  55. #49 – Great example. The number of members who get broadsided when they find out about Joseph Smith’s faults and weaknesses is a good example of why it is important to separate fact from myth – even as the temple is a perfect example of why it is important to embrace the power of myth.

    #50 (second paragraph) – No. Yes. It’s one of the things I love about Mormonism – as Brad said, the fact that the line between myth and history is not clearly defined and is left up to us to interpret individually. Granted, if you try to convince everyone at Church that Nephi was not a real person but just a mythological figure, you will be in for an uphill battle, but there certainly is room for that view. It’s much more the effect of the overall belief (what you become and how you act) than the specifics of the details (exactly what you believe) that defines “Mormonism” – based on my experience. Unfortunately, not everyone is willing to accept that alternate perspectives are ok, but it certainly is fine within the doctrinal framework itself.

  56. I always look up words that people use in discussion even when I know what they mean (to me) to aid me in seeing where the other person might be coming from. Here’s something I found under “myth”:

    Myths are “stories about divine beings, generally arranged in a coherent system; they are revered as true and sacred; they are endorsed by rulers and priests; and closely linked to religion. Once this link is broken, and the actors in the story are not regarded as gods but as human heroes, giants or fairies, it is no longer a myth but a folktale. Where the central actor is divine but the story is trivial … the result is religious legend, not myth.” [J. Simpson & S. Roud, "Dictionary of English Folklore," Oxford, 2000, p.254]

    I think especially when we speak of ancient events that were passed on orally for years/decades/centuries before they were written down, there is always the chance that as they were passed down some details were changed, added, subtracted, etc. The person who eventually recorded them might even take some liberties of their own depending on their personal motives.

    I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about specific details in the BOM or any other scripture because in most cases the message or lesson behind the details is far more important to me. I think that the Lord makes sure that they contain what matters most and leaves the rest for the Spirit to enhance to those who desire more.

  57. It is good we are learning more about how to think about the utility of “myth”. But as I said in #16, myths can also tell lies and mislead. One need only to look at the myths used (misused) by people during a war.

  58. Amen, Bob.

  59. Brad: In the end, can Myth be no more than a shadow of truth? (see Plato’s cave) Is it that “Dark Glass” we always talk about?

  60. Brad,
    Bravo. Impeccable. I can’t wait until you join the ranks as a permablogger.

  61. I think the word that can replace “myth” for the religious is “symbolic” without raising as many eye-brows. It may not be the proper use of the word, but it is the one that religious people (Mormon or no) very much understand and prefer. It doesn’t have the “baggage” of “a lie or fiction,” but instead an underlying meaning. The word symbol or symbolic is often used in a way that myth would probably be more accurate.

    You use “myth” with your own peril among the religioius. Substituting the word symbolic for mythic is safer if you care to not offend. I have given a short re-write of the post as an example:

    “Looking at [the symbolism of the Garden of Eden] in this manner — as the many represented in the one, as the universal manifested in the particular, as the length and breadth of history captured within the narrow confines of a tightly constructed narrative — can be illuminating. Narratives are never value-neutral, and the [symbolic] reading of the Genesis story suggests possible answers to perpetually vexing questions about the nature of human beings, human minds, human societies, and human culture. Framed from the perspective of evolutionary anthropology and cognitive-developmental psychology, such questions might include: What is the relation between self-awareness, free will, and consciousness of death? Of what nature is the knowledge capable of driving a wedge between man and nature, irrevocably severing the long-held symbiotic relationship between them? Is human progress (agriculture, complex societies, food surpluses, city-dwelling) really the self-evidently positive force that we’ve come to believe it to be?”

    I know symbolism is often used in conjunction with myth, but for the religious the word myth has been disgarded and symbolism expanded to take its place. That is because most religious people (perhaps even literalists) understand that life can have meaning. However, even implying by the word “myth” the Scriptures or other sacred narratives are not historical is often considered blasphemy. For those who don’t understand, blasphemy is a very serious word by those who make the charge.

  62. #61: “(In the) religious, the word myth has been discarded and symbolism expanded”. I think your point is correct, and it’s OK with me. However, I worry it keeps a dialogue between Scripture and Science at an (unneeded?) distance.

  63. “I worry it keeps a dialogue between Scripture and Science at an (unneeded?) distance.”

    It depends on if you mean a dialogue between people or between disciplines. I think it is the exact opposite when it comes to people. How can you have a dialogue when you offend the other anyway? It means one of two things. You don’t care to have such a dialogue or you intentionally offend.

    As for disciplines, this is a harder question to answer. I wonder if “myth” is even a scientific. Most of those who use it are not really accepted by scientists or historians. They also seem to consider “myth” a bad thing to be dismissed over actual people or events. It is a word that BOTH sides have a hard time accepting. For that reason it might be time to put the word to bed for research purposes.

  64. #63: The first thing to do if you are going to have a dialogue, is to agree on the meaning of terms or words to be used. I agree, if you can’t get by the use of the word Myth is offending, then there will be no dialogue. But Myth is as solid in science, as faith is in religion.
    All I am saying, for a dialogue, religion must be open that the term means no more the a story we rely on to live our lives. The story can be true or false, it’s use can be good or bad.

  65. I thought it would be helpful to define the words “Myth” and “Truth” as it relates to this discussion from a dictionary:

    Dictionary.com Unabridged

    –noun 1. a traditional or legendary story, usually concerning some being or hero or event, with or without a determinable basis of fact or a natural explanation, esp. one that is concerned with deities or demigods and explains some practice, rite, or phenomenon of nature.
    2. stories or matter of this kind: realm of myth.
    3. any invented story, idea, or concept: His account of the event is pure myth.
    4. an imaginary or fictitious thing or person.
    5. an unproved or false collective belief that is used to justify a social institution.

    Compare that defination with the defination of the word “Truth”

    1. the true or actual state of a matter: He tried to find out the truth.
    2. conformity with fact or reality; verity: the truth of a statement.
    3. a verified or indisputable fact, proposition, principle, or the like: mathematical truths.
    4. the state or character of being true.
    5. actuality or actual existence.
    6. an obvious or accepted fact; truism; platitude.
    7. honesty; integrity; truthfulness.
    8. (often initial capital letter) ideal or fundamental reality apart from and transcending perceived experience: the basic truths of life.
    9. agreement with a standard or original.
    10. accuracy, as of position or adjustment.
    11. Archaic. fidelity or constancy.
    —Idiom12. in truth, in reality; in fact; actually: In truth, moral decay hastened the decline of the Roman Empire.

    Another interesting thought is Plato’s “pious lie” to make others moral, (we need to create myths) according to his book the Republic. I have often wondered the morality of this idea. Anyone have an opinion on it, as it relates to words like “myth” and “truth”? Plato seems to argue in favor of having “good” myths but getting rid of the “bad” myths that harm people? Any thoughts? Is being dishonest good at anytime or always bad? (In the realm of religion and belief). It appears to me that Plato doesn’t trust the common man to be good without myths…?

  66. Foxjones: For Plato only the Philosopher lives in a world where we see what is true by the use of reason. He himself adopted the myth of preexistence in the Meno to explain the innate knowledge that we all have of the Forms. So it seems that use of myth was for him useful to explain certain phenomena (and Plato never gave a better explanation of our supposed knowledge of the Forms).

  67. I think I would agree with Aristotle more than Plato.

  68. Philosophers from Plato to Strauss have been fond, to varying degrees, of positioning the philosopher as uniquely qualified to see and know the whole truth and bequeathing to the ignorant masses those portions, allegories, half-truths, and well-intentioned lies that will keep them in line. The Grand Inquisitor might be one of the most salient myths of our time.

    I know Dan Vogel (whom I respect a great deal personally but whose intellectual premises I find problematic and I believe impoverish his scholarship) is an especially avid fan of the “pious fraud” theory of Mormonism’s origins.

    As to the question of truth-telling as a categorical ethical imperative, I think it’s a bit simplistic if not down right naive. For lack of a less worn-out example, telling the truth to the Nazis who ask you if you’re hiding Jews in your attic is hardly virtuous. I don’t think the question of the utility of pious lies is particularly germane here in that it refuses to part with positivist notions of what constitutes historical Truth. As someone with an MS in History, I can scarcely overstate my skepticism of treating history as a science.

  69. Well said, Brad.

  70. I agree with Brad. But since he used Nazis, I guess the thread is over.

  71. Myths are magical and for some can be very faithful promoteing!

    -platojones….

    Vogel must be apostate…hmm…thanks for letting me know. Poor silly scholars think they know stuff.

  72. Wow, fj. That’s a leap worthy of Marion Jones – when she still was on steroids.

  73. That was a joke but I can see you didn’t get it.

  74. Got it.

    :-) can be annoying, but it gets the point across. Of course, so does *grin* – and it’s less annoying. *grin* (However, three such references in one comment definitely is annoying, so I will stop there and not add another.)

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