Engaging the Myths of our Culture

One of the myths of our church culture is that of the independent, solitary, thinking individual, thinking deep thoughts in private, then emerging to share them with a grateful world. I suppose Descartes going off by himself and figuring out “I think therefore I am” is the archetype, though that was hardly a sermon. (It’s been more influential than most sermons.)

So when I was first asked to give this lecture, I did what felt to me like a counter-cultural thing: I asked a group of friends what I should say. This was my (email) message to them:

I have been asked to give a plenary address during a conference on the topic, \”Engaging the Myths of our Culture,\” on which, as you know, I am a world expert. (That is irony, in case it doesn\’t show on the screen. What it really means is: WHY ON EARTH AM I EXPECTED TO SPEAK ABOUT THIS TOPIC? WHAT DO I KNOW? WHY ME? WHAT MYTHS?)

Some years ago, I remember Brian Walsh describing how he had to preach once on a difficult text and canvassed members of his congregation for a couple of weeks beforehand to ask what *they* would say on the topic. It was a good lesson for me, that the sermon (lecture, whatever) does not *have* to be the product of a single mind, closeted alone with prayer and commentaries. Is that a modernist myth? Why should the sermon *not* be a community product–assuming a somewhat theologically literate congregation anyway?

You can probably see where it is going.  I would like to know, What do you think are the myths of our culture that need to be engaged? And in case, you are wondering, I do have my own ideas (having spent some time in solitude in my study), but I would prefer to hear from you before I share them.

What follows, therefore, is actually based on a conversation between friends. Some of the ideas are mine, some are theirs (and I will give credit where it seems appropriate), and some (frankly) are a blend. Some I will comment on, some I will simply let stand on their own.

Let me say some introductory things about myths in general before we look at some specific ones:

1. I am working with a definition of myth something like this: those foundational stories which shape our cultural life, such that we take them for granted whether or not they are fact. You could also call them the “little gods” of our lives, in whom we trust, and who have authority and give guidance and inspiration to what we think and say and do.

2. Our hope is that our myths are life-giving, that they will enhance life (however we understand that). For example, we love the mythology of freedom because it seems to us that in enhances human life. We try to stamp out the Nazi myth of the super-race because it showed very quickly that it was destructive of human life.

3. We are myth-making beings. That seems to be the way we are made. If you don’t like that language, we could say, human beings are created to struggle with questions of meaning. My students went onto the campus last year and asked people what question they would most like to ask God. The most common question? “Why are we here?” We want to know, and our myths are an attempt to find the answer. Or you could say we have an instinct to search for truth. Part of Christian mythology after all is to say this is implanted by God to cause us to search for God. “Thou hast made us for thyself and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in thee.” Myth making is a good thing. The danger of course is settling for mythologies that are less than the truth.

4. Most mythologies are a mixture of good and bad, of truth and untruth, of life and death. C.S. Lewis says: “in mythology, divine and diabolical and human elements . . . all play a part.”   At its best, he says, myth is “a real though unfocused gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination”  and it can point us toward Christ. At other times, that gleam of divine truth is so distorted by our sinfulness–even the myth of the super-race has a grain of truth in it (God’s call to be renewed in his image)—that it leads us away from him. Or it can be a mixture of the two.

5. Christianity has its own mythology. Using this kind of language should not worry us. Remember the definition: myths are “foundational stories which shape our cultural life.” C.S.Lewis puts it this way:

The story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference, that it really happened, and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths. 

6. I need to say also that, these days, in a pluralistic society, there are no myths which are universal. Every ethnic group has its own mythology, every community, every religious group, every family, probably every individual! And many of those myths are mutually contradictory. So for any I name, you can probably give me examples of the opposite. My list is not infallible or exhaustive, but it may get you thinking about your own list.

7. Part of the problem with myths is learning to recognize them and name them. By their very nature, we take them for granted; we don’t notice them any more than we notice the air we breathe. As G.K.Chesterton says, most people, if they were asked, “Why do you prefer civilization to savagery?” would have a hard time justifying it.  Our myths are so much part of us, we don’t stop and question such things, and, as a result, they have power over us which maybe they shouldn’t have. One way to think of this is to say that the “little gods” have a tendency to turn themselves into God (with a capital “g”), and to claim absolute authority—which makes them into idols.

I cam across an example just this past week. I don’t know if you have seen the interviews with people in the town of Bountiful (BC), the breakaway Mormon community that practices polygamy. One little girl was asked, when she grew up, whether she would mind sharing her husband with another woman. She said no, explaining that they have a different religion from the interviewer. The interviewer was left musing whether the little girl had been brainwashed. I couldn’t help thinking, That is such an easy (perhaps cheap, even arrogant) response to someone who lives by a mythology different from mine: they’ve been brainwashed, they’re ignorant, they’re irrational, uneducated, crazy.  That’s a lot easier than saying, Well, that’s their mythology: what’s mine? And why do I hold to mine rather than theirs? The interviewer’s response means I don’t have to think or be self-critical.


Here are some of the myths we discussed in our email correspondence:

1. Materialism

Michael: Well, for starters, you could talk about the supreme myth of our culture, namely that economic materialism determines human identity. 

Nick: The myth is, better people get better jobs i.e. jobs that make more money. This is something that definitely shapes reality, and is why I meet so many people in business programs at University with no idea what they\’re doing or want to do.

Material things make us human. The more we have, the more fully human, fully alive, we are.

2. Busy-ness

Val: I think there is another cultural myth around time.  It goes something like this:  the busier we are, the more important we are. The more busy we are, the more incredible hours we keep, the more crowded our schedules and the heavier the demands on our time proves (to ourselves or to anyone who will notice) that we are important.
Eugene Peterson tells a great story about about going into a doctor’s office, finding there’s no one waiting, and seeing the doctor through a half-open door reading a book.  His first response is not “Oh good, I don’t have to wait in line”—but “I wonder if he’s any good. A good doctor will have people lined up waiting to see him; a good doctor will not have time to read a book.” Although I grumble about waiting my turn in a busy doctor’s office, I am also impressed with his importance.

3. You can succeed

Peter: Right off the top of my head I would say one of the myths goes something like this: if you dream hard enough and combine that with hard work you will achieve your dreams. 

An article in The Hamilton Spectator just this week promotes the same myth, giving it apparent scientific status—and the myth that scientific proof is the last word is still quite common. So the two reinforce one another—a powerful combination.

This is often expressed to high school graduates.  It is particularly poignant when the person communicating this message is an Olympic medalist.  As Stephen Farris, the former professor of Homiletics at Knox College, said, (I am paraphrasing) \”the implication is that the person who finished in 10th  place or who didn\’t make the Olympic team didn\’t either dream, try, or work hard enough.\” Stephen’s own dream was to be a race-horse jockey. Given his 6\’5\” frame, no dreaming, working or trying was going to get him into the Kentucky Derby.

4. Appearance

Steve: I would add the myth of appearances—the perversion that suggests our value is a function of what we consume (eat, wear, our cosmetics, hair styles, music, furniture, house) and what we do (the sports we play, the vacations we take, etc.)—the icons of which are the celebrities and the industries around them (People magazine and the tabloids–sacred texts), Hollywood (the Zion of the cult), home improvement shows (Bob Vila and Martha Stewart are both high priests).

One response to this shows just how powerful myths are: they actually create our truth and our reality:

Lyn: The importance of appearance in our culture is not a myth (maybe I\’m biased after years in the fashion industry), it\’s the reality that many live with—how we look and dress, the car we drive, even what we eat—that is how many are judged. And it is hard to lose that even when we are told on Sunday that we are loved \’just as we are\’ because you know that\’s not true when you arrive at work on Monday morning!
Mythologies actively compete for our loyalty. The true myth we are reminded of on Sunday has a hard time competing with the false myth we encounter on Monday morning. This is why I say they have god-like power.

5. Freedom

Judy: I think the primary, and maybe most damaging myth in our culture is that of \’I Know Best\’.  This undoubtedly is a product of our culture\’s focus on \’the great autonomous thinking self\’.  Despite a whole lot of very good evidence to the contrary, people believe this whole heartedly.

And the idea that you have to think for yourself—“don’t take anybody’s word for it, don’t let anybody tell you what to think”—is, of course, a part of the much bigger myth that says I need to be free, independent, unique, expressing myself freely and fully. I need to be my own person.

6. Follow your heart

Merv: I was watching Mulan 2 with my kids the other night and the plot is about three princesses who are to be wed to three princes in another kingdom to secure peace for their country. However, they end up falling in love with the three guards sent to escort them on the way and in the end conclude that their true duty is to their heart and not to their country, their father or their word, so they go off with the guards (after only a few days, because they are in love).

Your head will mislead you: but your heart knows. (Of course there is truth in this: it was a Christian who said, “The heart has reasons of which reason knows nothing.”) But it can be as unhealthy an extreme as pure rationalism. “Go with your gut. What are you feeling? What does your instinct tell you?” In our world, those things have a higher authority not only than reason but higher than any outside authority.

To these myths I added a few of my own:

7. What is old is bad

C.S.Lewis describes his reaction on hearing that Owen Barfield had become an Anthroposophist: “‘Why, damn it—it’s medieval,’ I exclaimed; for I still had all the chronological snobbery of my period and used the names of earlier periods as terms of abuse.” He was not a fan of what he called “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age.”

This is still with us, and shows no sign of going way. I heard the other day that “The African Church has a Victorian theology.” (What more is there to say once you’ve said that?) G.K.Chesterton goes after this myth too:

You might as well say that a certain philosophy can be believed on Mondays but cannot be believed on Tuesdays. You might as well say of a view of the cosmos that it was suitable to half past three, but not suitable to half past four. If a man believes in unalterable natural law, he cannot believe in any age. If a man believes in a will behind law, he can believe in any miracle in any age.

8. Liberalism will inevitably triumph over conservatism

You will recall the questions about the election of the new Pope: “Is the new Pope going to bring the RC church out of the dark ages and into line with the modern world?” To which Cardinal Ambroziac (of Toronto) replied in effect: “It’s not the church’s job to get in sync with the world. We are more concerned that the world is out of sync with the church.” Brilliant answer.

9. Religion and faith are irrational and therefore private matters

Lesslie Newbigin highlighted this 20 years ago. He showed how the Western world has divided things into facts (which are provable and public) and values (which are private and not rational). Religion has moved from the first category to the second. So you can believe what you like in private, however irrational, but you cannot let it affect your public opinions or behaviour or politics. People don’t seem to realise that a basic tenet of Christianity like “Love your neighbour as yourself” is very difficult to do privately and very quickly affects your politics.

Ian Brown, in his recent series in The Globe and Mail about evangelicals in the US, falls into the same mistake. He hears the claims of Christianity and writes:

To my mind this was like saying if you really long to believe you can jump off the CN Tower and fly, you can. Which would be nice. But arguing about the irrationality of faith is pointless. Reason is reason, faith is faith. . . . For a lot of Christians in the United States, believing something is true makes it true.

How do we respond to all this?

Steve: Reviewing the list, I found myself doing an intuitive sort:  this myth is partly true, this myth is entirely false, this myth is close to the Gospel but twisted, etc.  I think in de-mythologizing our culture, the task of discernment requires more nuance than simple adoption or simple iconoclasm. I guess I\’m pleading for something more than the kind of Christian separatism that lives in a black and white world of \”culture bad/us good\”.

For instance, freedom is important — it is God\’s gift (albeit to an irresponsible and confused humanity).  The critical question is: How is that freedom to be exercised?  And is benevolent oppression preferable to the messiness of freedom?  Alright, alright, I know I am a product of the West, so I think freedom is pretty important and it\’s hard-wired into my sense of how God is with us (God invites, God does not violate and all that).

Steve is right to alert us to this danger of saying everything in the church is true and everything outside the church is bad. Just because the obsession with freedom is often narcissistic and amoral doesn’t mean that the basic desire is wrong—a “gleam of divine truth.”

So from a Christian point-of-view, how do we discern when a myth is true and can bring life, and when a myth is false and brings death? I suggest that the difference occurs when those myths are independent and freestanding. They are safe as long as they are subject to Christ: but a little power goes to their head, and they quickly begin to behave as though they are God (with a capital “G”), as though their power comes from themselves instead of from the Creator.

Let me illustrate. There’s a scene in Prince Caspian (in The Chronicles of Narnia) where Aslan leads Susan and Lucy in a \”Romp\” (a wild and extended party) with a number of interesting characters including Bacchus (god of wine and fertility) and Silenus (a drunken satyr and the advisor of Bacchus—thank you, Google, fount of all knowledge) and many other mythological characters. When it\’s all over, Susan says this: \”I wouldn\’t have felt safe with Bacchus and all his wild girls if we\’d met them without Aslan.\”

The scene doesn’t have a lot to do with the story, but Lewis wanted to make a point. He knows mythology, and has no problem with the gods and their myths being thought of as demi-gods—as long as they know who their Lord is. In fact, in the space trilogy, the planets are actually ruled over by gods who bear their traditional Roman names—Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn and so on. But they are all subservient to Maleldil their creator. Under those circumstances, the power they exercise is entirely benign: if they ever forgot and began to behave like God, then the universe would be in trouble.
What does this mean for the church?

1. We need to identify the myths, and name them.

If we are not alert, we will begin to embrace alien mythologies without realizing it. Let me give you two very different examples.

A church warden said to me recently about the blessing of same sex unions, “Well, this is the way Canadian society is going, so the church needs to go there too.” Now, there is a legitimate debate to be had about the issue among Christians, but not on these grounds: everybody else is doing it so why can’t we? There are very few things we should do simply because the mythology of the world around demands that we do them.

The other example is from an article in First Things, entitled “A Tale of Two Stanleys”, by Alan Jacobs. The two Stanleys in question are Stanley Hauerwas the theologian and Stanley Fish, the postmodern literary critic. For a time both were at Duke, which added pungency to Jacobs’ article. He writes:

Nowadays Hauerwas says things that resemble the things said by Fish. Fish, on the other hand . . . never sounds like Stanley Hauerwas. For instance, while Hauerwas now uses words like \’interpretive communities\’ and \’strategies of interpretation,\’ Fish has not yet been heard to talk about God or the Church. 

I will leave to you to decide whether Hauerwas is using the language of Fish (if you like, the mythology of Fish) in a way that is legitimate or illegitimate for Christians, but Jacobs is at least right to raise the question.

2. We need to be self-conscious about how the myths of the world around us differ from the Christian story.

Here’s an example from the email correspondence:

Renee: I have been aware of how in our Anglican liturgy we confess corporately, not just in the sense of confessing at the same time but saying that \”we\” as a people, as a body, have sinned.  That is a very alien thing, to think oneself fundamentally a part of something larger (the body of Christ) rather than merely a voluntary member of an organization.

One could add, it is also very counter-cultural to say that anyone has sinned. We prefer to say we make mistakes, we make poor choices, we do things we regret, but we don’t actually sin. (And, by the same token, when did you last hear someone apologise?) But in a strange way, to believe in sin actually enhances human dignity: we are responsible creatures, freely capable of choosing evil, and that’s an awesome privilege, far greater than the privilege of making mistakes. And to learn to confess our sin—to admit that we have some responsibility for the problems of the world—to find forgiveness and renewal—that is also radical and empowering.

3. We need to engage with the myths. But what exactly does “engage” mean? By engage, I don’t mean condemn. At least, not usually. There may be times when a myth is so dangerous that it needs to be addressed directly, challenged and confronted, as the Confessing Churches did with Nazism in Germany. More often, I suggest, the better way is to enter into conversation with the myth, to show why it is incapable of giving life by itself, and to show how it is fulfilled when it comes under the lordship of Christ.

Two examples: one is “the autonomous thinking self,” the other the idolatry of freedom. On the first of these, Judy says:

This seems to be the great challenge for the Church today—how to connect with the \’great autonomous thinking self\’, while proclaiming a faith that teaches dying to self, utter dependence on God, and a life of community.

I suppose you could go head to head, and say, This way leads to death, and we need to repent. Judy suggests another route:

I have to say though that even though it is clearly a myth, and a damaging one at that, the Church can still make this myth a point of contact with the Gospel—through \’explorer classes\’ or some other means of helping people \’determine if Christianity is for them\’. 

See what she is doing? She is suggesting we actually appeal to the “autonomous   thinking self”: why not consider Christian spirituality, choose a course that suits your level of interest, weigh up the evidence, chew it over, think for yourself, and come to a thoughtful decision that is right for you. That’s the appeal of Alpha, Christianity 101, and other such courses. Is it dishonest? To encourage people to think for themselves, hoping all the while that the end of that road may be that they bring every thought into captivity to Christ? I don’t think so: it is simply latching on to an element of truth in this cultural myth, and using it to point people to Christ. This is what missionaries always do.

The second example of engaging a myth concerns the myth of freedom: I need to be free to make my own choices. When I was doing a lot of evangelistic speaking in universities, I would often use the 1993 film Groundhog Day to talk about this, and try to build a bridge from the secular mythology of freedom to the “true myth” of Christian freedom.

The movie’s premise is that weatherman Phil Connors (played by Bill Murray) gets trapped in Groundhog Day and is doomed to live that one day over and over again. After the initial panic, he realises that there are some advantages to this arrangement: if he never has to move on to tomorrow, that means there are no consequences for his actions, and he is free to do whatever he likes—which he proceeds to do with great enthusiasm.

Eventually, though, Phil gets tired of this totally self-centred \”freedom,\” and realises that every Groundhog Day, he actually come across people in need, and he decides to do whatever he can to help each of them. As a result, on what turns put to be his last Groundhog Day, he simply moves from one good deed to another. Now he’s using his freedom not to do whatever he wants, but to help others, and, as a result, he becomes a much nicer person. From a Christian point-of-view, this is an improvement, but to say that we should use our freedom to help others is just another myth, even if it is a more ethical one. But the movie is not over.

At the Groundhog Day party that night, he is “bought” at the bachelor auction, by Rita (played by Andy McDowell), his TV producer, who has (inevitably) fallen in love with him. People are bidding $5 and $10 for him. Rita empties her wallet of every cent she has–$339.88–in order to \”buy\” him. Like Jesus, she gives everything she has to \”redeem\” the one she loves. When Connors wakes up the following morning, the calendar has finally moved on: it is February 3rd. He experiences the truth that it is only when he belongs to someone else, someone who loves him, someone who gives their all to redeem him, that he is he truly free.

It seems to me that this is another example of taking a myth of our world—that freedom is central to who we are as people—showing how it is destructive while it stands by itself, and leads the listener to an appreciation of how the desire for freedom is actually fulfilled in serving Christ.  It’s not the whole Gospel, of course—lots of things are missing from the analogy—but it does make a valuable point.

You need to be aware that this strategy of responding to myths is not approved of by everyone. William Willimon, for example, explicitly says that this is what a preacher should not do:

Too much of my preaching begins at what I judge to be \”where people are.\” I begin with their experience, their \”felt need.\” Then in twenty minutes, I attempt to move them to the gospel. This renders the gospel into nothing more than a helpful resource to get us what we wanted before we met the gospel. See? I have already accommodated the gospel to the assumptions of the reigning culture rather than allowed the gospel to challenge those assumptions.

I really don’t think that to move in twenty minutes from talking about freedom as doing whatever I want, to talking about freedom as submission to Christ is really accommodating the Gospel to the assumptions of the reigning culture. But Willimon’s caution need to be borne in mind.

The Biblical model for this kind of interaction with non-Christian mythologies, of course, is Paul at Athens in Acts 17, where he calmly takes over poems written in praise of Zeus and applies them to the God of the Bible.

So, we need to recognise and name the myths, to discern how far they are in line with Christian truth, and then to engage with them (whether in confrontation or in dialogue), and to show how all things come together in Christ. That’s the urgent calling of the church’s leadership today. In fact, I would say that’s called preaching the Gospel.
Wycliffe College
May 2005