Celebrating the difference between truth and mythology
December 22, 2005
I suppose knowing that we have worship services at 4:00, 6:00, 8:00 and 10:00 tonight makes my wondering over the wondrous story understandable – even if some of the story is not.The ancient tale’s incongruities, inconsistencies and downright historical inaccuracies don’t prevent me from entering into this special time with a deep joy that has me eager to experience, once again, this awesome, mysterious night. It is also what makes our myths so enchanting – they tell the truth unencumbered by the facts.Sadly, there is much confusion regarding the mythologies that shape our lives. For many folk, the very word “myth” is synonymous with “falsehood.” Truthfully, the opposite is true. Myths, religious or otherwise, are those stories that shape our understanding of reality, of how we see the world and our place in it. Myths have, for good and for ill, inspired innumerable people, countless cultures and not a few nations into bold action.
America was founded on the cherished myth of the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Millions of men and women have given their lives for a variety of myths from demagogic idolatry to democratic vision. Myths hold enormous power over all of us. Whether your myth is the monotheistic biblical story of creation or Ayn Rand’s atheistic “Atlas Shrugged,” the stories, histories, biographies, etc. that we hold dear compose our mythologies. They tell the truth to and for us.Problems arise when we begin thinking that our myths should be everyone else’s. In politics it is called imperialism. In cultures it can be found in racism and sexism. In religion it is often called evangelism. A good example of bad evangelism could be found this past week on Barbara Walter’s TV special on heaven. One of her guests was Ted Haggard, the president of the National Association of Evangelicals. When asked the ultimate destiny of a person who has not accepted Jesus as his or her savior, the Christian leader confidently declared that such a person would eternally reside in hell. Now in my mythology, this isn’t just an example of bad evangelism but bad theology as well. Myths that may be true for us are not necessarily factual for others. I know that may be hard for some folk to swallow but this just isn’t a one-myth-fits-all world.
The recent court decision in Dover, Pennsylvania regarding the teaching of Intelligent Design in public schools is illustrative of the confusion regarding myth. The judge, who is a conservative Republican appointed by President Bush and hardly can be accused of being an “activist”, recognized that ID was a valid and meaningful mythology for many people. The idea that a creator is behind the development of our world has captured the imagination of countless religious folk and will continue to do so. But it is not appropriate for such a mythology to be taught in a public school science class. A comparative religion class perhaps or a history of mythologies to be sure, but it should not be taught as a science because it isn’t.The current brouhaha over the use of the seasonal greeting “Happy Holidays” versus the more traditional “Merry Christmas” is another indicator of our mythological confusion. As our world becomes both smaller and flatter, a plethora of meaningful myths enter the public square. The Christian myth no longer has sole occupancy. Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Pagans and many others have their own stories and songs to shape their spiritual journeys. “Happy Holidays” is one small way of honoring these other mythologies. Indeed, if I understand the teachings of Jesus correctly, it seems a very Christian thing to do.
I remember reading of the Native American shaman who sat at a campfire and prefaced his story by saying, “I don’t know if what I’m about to tell you actually happened but I do know it is true.” That truth is what I will be celebrating tonight. Rich Mayfield writes a Saturday column. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. “Reconstructing Christianity” by Rich Mayfield is available at Barnes and Noble, Amazon or your favorite bookstore.