Myths for the Modern World

I just finished finished reading Karen Armstrong’s A Short History of Myth (2005). Almost everyone loves myth from a distance, as a conceptual springboard or reference, as long as it doesn’t get too close to one’s own beliefs or worldview. This book helps put myth in a more useful perspective, which I’d like to explore. But rather than spend several paragraphs defining or explaining what myths are or are not, I’ll just settle for a one-sentence definition [myths are stories about the world with cosmic significance, that talk about birth and death, love and pain, good and evil, earth and sky, origins and end times] and move on to the good stuff. I’ll give one paragraph each to two particularly relevant points Armstrong makes in the book, then speculate a bit on whether and how Mormonism has shown itself capable of providing usable myths for the modern world.

The first point from the book is that the myths that emerged or developed during various historical periods relate directly to the material and cultural circumstances of the human situation at that time. So the cave paintings of animals and hunting stories come from the hunter/gatherer period; the burial and rebirth stories from the advent and flourishing of agriculture; and the burst of ethical thinking characteristic of what she calls the “Axial Age” (represented in the Bible by the writing prophets of the Old Testament) from the period following the emergence of urban centers, which precipitated a humanistic reaction to the difficulties of urban life. In a sense, we are still living off of the moral capital accumulated during the Axial Age. But the question naturally arises: What sort of mythology would develop or result from the modern world of our own day? What myths work in the modern world?

Which leads to the second point from the book. The modern age is characterized by a split between mythos and logos, between story and logic or reason. Armstrong traces the split back to the Greeks — Plato, for example, would banish poets from his ideal city, although it is worth noting that Plato himself made effective use of myth in his own writings. Our modern notions of truth are firmly grounded in logos and are defined by history and science. Armstrong notes how unique the modern Western world is in rejecting its own traditional (i.e., religious) mythical heritage. The modern world lives largely without compelling myths. That sets up her final observations in the last chapter of the book about how writers, artists, and poets have stepped in to fill that void. She briefly discusses T.S. Eliot, Picasso, Joyce, Orwell, Conrad, and Thomas Mann. Like Joseph Campbell, who rejected the idea that “old-time religion” could meet the mythical needs of the modern world, Armstrong doesn’t seem to think religion has that much to offer anymore. But it’s not clear to me that artists and poets really have much to offer either. The mythical shelves are pretty bare these days.

Which leads to my inquiry: Does Mormonism have anything to offer? Does Mormon doctrine or the Mormon worldview provide any mythic frames that provide Mormons with meaningful and effective ways to live their lives? I’m aware this is a different line of thinking than the standard apologetic defense or critical attack on LDS beliefs and claims, which (as one would expect, we being moderns) each use the facts and theories of history and science to persuade one way or the other. What I’m getting at is the fact that Mormonism seems to mean a lot more to most Mormons than other modern thought systems (either religious, sceintific, or the writer-and-artist variety) seem to mean to their adherents. Here are three LDS doctrines or beliefs that seem to serve something like a mythic function for Mormons. Perhaps readers have other possibilities to offer.

1. The Pre-existence. If you grow up with it, it seems so natural. To converts, it is invariably a welcome concept. Truman Madsen’s book Eternal Man lends some depth to the doctrine. Saturday’s Warrior shows its dramatic possibilities. Its potential abuses were on full display when the Pre-existence was used as a justification or explanation for the pre-1978 priesthood policy, which helps us understand why pre-existence was and is a heresy for classical Christians. But that doesn’t undermine its overall significance for Mormons. It’s our answer to the question, Where did we come from? Can’t get more mythic than that.

2. Temples as sacred space. Non-Mormons struggle just to understand what goes on in temples and how ordinances performed in LDS temples fit into the LDS plan of salvation. But what temples mean or symbolize to practicing Mormons goes well beyond mere ordinances. Temples are important to Mormons just for being there. Other denominations really do not have any sacred spaces that do for their members what temples seem to do for Mormons.

3. Lehi’s dream. This one actually takes the traditional form of a myth. It’s amazing how much mileage we get out of this rather straightforward narrative, which occupies all of 29 verses in 1 Nephi 8. I imagine there isn’t a kid who has grown up Mormon who hasn’t seen this illustrated on the chalkboard at least five times in one or another church class. Mists of darkness, rod of iron, great and spacious building … these are symbols for shared cultural concepts for Mormons, taught or at least highlighted in a pedagogical way by the narrative of Lehi’s dream.

Like I said, you may have others to offer.

29 comments for “Myths for the Modern World

  1. I will pick the low-hanging fruit: The pioneer trek west. It is so historical as to go beyond just mythos, but the many stories and anecdotes that came out of the plains-crossing very much serve a mythical function.

    This is just one example of how Mormonism in particular takes the historical and serves it up to mythical ends.

  2. I hope it’s not to presumptuous to suggest an additional direction we could take this discussion. Considering the benefits of the mythical function, would it turn anyone’s world upside down if we were to learn that Joseph Smith was divinely instructed about God’s use of myth and parable (i.e., fiction) to teach His children, and was accordingly given license to help create new myths to counter the omnisciently-predicted loss of myth in the modern world? What if God knows that stories (whether fiction or non-fiction) are the most powerful way of teaching His children, and accordingly authorizes and assists His servants in helping create those stories to achieve righteous ends? Think of that movie “The Village.”

    There has long been a great debate over whether scripture should be taken literally or figuratively (or both). Knowing that God knows all things and would therefore anticipate such an important debate, it is interesting to me that scripture doesn’t directly say much of anything about whether it should be taken literally or figuratively. Rather, we are just told that scripture is inspired and is spiritually beneficial. “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:” 2 Tim. 3:16. It is interesting to note that scripture doesn’t say scripture is profitable for correct historical understanding. The enumerated benefits of scripture are limited to its spiritual effects–not its historical accuracy.

    Let me go on record as saying that although I believe some scriptural stories are myths and are intended to be read as myths (e.g., Jacob wrestling an angel), I also believe that much or most of scripture is historical. However, I can’t help asking myself: What if I’m wrong? What if the stories in scripture are all myths, or at most just fiction loosely based on historical events? Does that turn my world upside down? Why should it matter as long as it is “profitable for doctrine [and] instruction in righteousness”? Who am I to impose limits on the ways God teaches us correct moral principles? If He’s found that fictional stories do the best job, who am I to say He can’t use them and employ servants to create and teach them?

  3. Meat Eater, your comment seems more directed to scriptural interpretation than the broader question of the mythical aspect of present Mormon doctrine and culture. Yes, various scriptural texts can serve as the basis for establishing or extending myths, but I’m not sure you can turn it around and use the mythical perspective to critique a historical or literal approach to interpretation. I don’t see mythology as particularly well-suited to that sort of criticism. FPR posts scriptural interpretation posts on a regular basis that considers that or similar angles. But I’ll agree that the “historical versus mythical” view as applied to scriptural texts should not be seen as an either/or test.

  4. I don’t know exactly how this fits into this discussion, but I watched a video on youtube a while ago that was a Jack Chick ripoff of Titannic; basically, the creator used images from Titannic and Jack Chick comics to tell the story about this unsaved person who died on the Titannic and went to hell. The thing that got to me was how narrow the worldview was, and how comically unreal was the hell that was presented. The angels all had wings, God was this emotionless guy sitting on a throne, the book of life was this big book on a stand tended by an angel who looked like a clerk, and hell was just a big pool of lava tended by guys with horns and tails.

    My reaction was interesting: I thought “how could somebody really believe in something like this? I mean, REALLY believe in it?” that it is a literal interpretation of the afterlife, which I assume the creator of the film did believe. It seemed so cramped, narrow, and disconnected from the universe to me. It didn’t answer a lot of questions I could have asked about mortality, God’s justice, or anything else. It just seemed that someone read the Bible and said “well, we don’t understand what this really means or how this really works but we have to believe it” and spat out some half-baked, uninspired interpretation of scripture.

    Like I said, I don’t know exactly how this fits into the discussion, but I know that my Mormon worldview has helped me to understand and inquire about cosmic things in ways that are both broad and deep, and thought that this experience with the Jack Chick comics demonstrated that.

  5. Personal revelation. The Mormon belief that God speaks to people through their feelings is either a great myth, or the ultimate myth-buster, depending on your point of view. William F. Buckley wrote about a global interfaith conference he attended. Someone introduced themself to him saying something like, “I’m Buddhist. What’s your superstition?” Buckley used this story to illustrate the pervasiveness of religion-as-myth even at a religious conference, but I’ve wondered the impact had the attendee introduced himself the same way to a Mormon, and the Mormon answered, “I know Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world, and so can you.” I think that testimony and flat-out challenge would probably have stunned the guy. “You know, and you know I can know too?”

  6. Hi Dave, it sounds like either I didn’t understand your initial post, or you didn’t understand my response (2), or both. (I’m pretty sure I didn’t intend to “use the mythical perspective to critique a historical or literal approach to interpretation” because I don’t understand what that means even after reading it several times.) So I’m really not sure where you want us all to be going with this discussion at this point, but I have a hunch that The Three Nephites become involved at some point. :)

  7. Meat Eater: The discussion will go where it goes — it’s not like I control what people say in the comments. But in comment 2 you referred to “another direction we could take this discussion” and then spent some time on the literal versus figurative question. I was just responding. Personally, I see mythology and scriptural interpretation as two fairly distinct topics. I’ve seen a lot of posts on scriptural interpretation and not many on mythology, so, to be honest, I wouldn’t be thrilled if the discussion focused on scriptural interpretation. And I don’t see the categories used to understand myths and how people use them to be of much help in advancing the “figurative versus literal” debate. That’s what I meant when I said it doesn’t make sense to “use the mythical perspective to critique a historical or literal approach to interpretation.” But I could be wrong.

  8. Dave, I apologize again for posting a comment that differed from the direction you wanted to go with your initial post. My bad. I’ll just hang back and see where you take the discussion and observe. No worries, mate.

  9. Continuing revelation itself allows for the creation of new mythology. I think that’s why there is such a diversity of mythology from ancient days and such a paucity now.

    Not specifically Mormon, but it’s interesting how “Star Wars” and “Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter” and other tales of ultimate evil vs. weak little good make a gazillion dollars and a real impact on millions of people in our modern society. Relative to Mormonism, I do believe that there is a distinct difference between how Mormons and others tend to relate to this type of saga. Others tend to talk of being “inspired” or “drawn into” the stories; Mormons, OTOH, seem to see them as an extension / expression of their existing world view. We don’t need to be “drawn into” them, since, in a very real sense, we live them daily. Likewise, we tend to see parallels with our theology, mythical viewpoints and even modern lives. (Yoda as Spencer W. Kimball is the classic example.) Other Christians usually have to create their own explicitly Christian versions (Left Behind, Veggie Tales, etc.), while Mormons are able to co-opt popular mythical epics.

  10. Ray beat me to it. Yes, in addition to Tolkien, one can look at many other authors, poets, and musicians to see the continuing use of myth in our modern society. For example, William Morris’s fiction and poetry (“Sigurd the Volsung”, “The Well at the Worlds End”); Robert E. Howard’s (“Conan the Cimmerian” series of novels); Lloyd Alexander’s novels (“The Black Cauldron”); and in music, Richard Wagner’s music-dramas (“Der Ring des Nibelungen”, “Parsifal”, “Trisan und Isolde”). These are just a small example of many authors, poets, and musicians who still utilize myths for their inspiration.

  11. Ray, yes it’s true that George Lucas tapped epic themes for Star Wars, relying on his friend Joseph Campbell for guidance in the literature. And Tolkien, being a scholar of early languages, could access early English and Norse materials directly, Lord of the Rings being his (wildly successful) attempt to make that older literature accessible and meaningful for a modern audience. So I agree those sources do reflect epic and mythic themes.

    On the other hand, there is a ritual and ethical component to traditional myths that modern cinematic and literate use of mythic themes lacks. Viewers don’t really participate and don’t really engage or commit to do anything differently in their lives. Quoting Armstrong:

    A myth, it will be recalled, is an event that — in some sense — happened once, but which also happens all the time. An occurrence needs to be liberated, as it were, from the confines of a specific period and brought into the lives of contemporary worshippers …. A myth cannot be correctly understood without a transformative ritual, which brings it into the lives and hearts of generations of worshippers. A myth demands action. (p. 106-07.)

    She then cites the Jewish Passover rites as an example of how the narrative of the Exodus was made mythically transformative in that ritual and ethical sense for later generations of Jews.

  12. Dave, that’s why I think there is a difference between how Mormons and others tend to interact with Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, etc. We have “myths” that others lack – a mythical perspective, if you will. We regularly contemplate the cosmos in ways that other average Christians simply don’t. I have never heard any of my Catholic friends claim anything at all like Yoda just HAD to have been based on a Pope – or my Protestant friends say the same about a Protestant leader – or my Muslim or modern Jewish or Buddhist or Shinto friends, either. Having a mythical foundation (and eternal covenants can be seen as a practical fulfillment of the ultimate mythological relationship with the divine) gives us a motivation to incorporate mythical representation wherever we see it. Such depictions might inspire others, but they “ring true” to us as literally applicable to our own daily lives.

    I don’t want to over-analyze or over-intellectualize this (too late?), but I look at the common rejection of Harry Potter among evangelical Christians as encouraging witchcraft, and the overwhelming embrace of Harry Potter among Mormons as representative of their own struggles, and I am struck by the difference. We embrace the mythical and magical without blinking an eye. It is embedded into our most basic and foundational creeds and our view of modern history. The belief that a 14-year-old boy was delivered from an actual devil and spoke with Deity, and that each of us can do so symbolically and end up becoming heirs of celestial glory, is such a close parallel to the main plot lines of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter that we translate witchcraft as symbolic of the Spirit, the Force as symbolic of the Priesthood, Frodo’s journey as symbolic of enduring to the end, etc.

    IOW, we apply these mythical stories to our own lives in a very practical way. We leave the theater or put down the book and think, at least subconsciously, “I can be just like Luke or Frodo or Harry. I can fight Vader or Sauron or Voldemort – even though I’m just as weak and/or confused as Luke or Frodo or Harry.” For us, it’s not an isolated myth that loses power rather quickly; it’s just another expression of how we see the world anyway – what we commit to do each and every week. Again, it doesn’t just inspire us as moving fiction; it rings TRUE to us, even though we know it is fiction.

  13. Might it be ok to translate Armstrong’s words thus?

    “Myths must be likened unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning.” Mormons have that down pretty well, I think.

  14. The Fall. The Mormon variation on the traditional Christian account is very significant. And its universalized in the Temple.

  15. As fun as it can be to identify mythic stories with epic stories, myth is certainly not limited to that. As I understand myth, it is a description of a pattern that recurs in human behavior. Aspiration and fantasies can certainly be a part of a myth, but so, too, can mundane neuroses, petty obsessions, selfish withdrawal, and societal oppression.

    Jean-Paul Satre told mythic stories. So, too, did Sylvia Plath, and Albert Camus, and Flannery O’Connor and Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. So, too, do William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, and C.J. Cherryh. Many of those authors’ stories are overtly mythic in structure and tone. When it comes to seeing, capturing, and retelling patterns of human perceptions, responses, and behaviors, there are lots and lots of great works out there — not just the epic, magical ones.

    And, fWIW, I don’t agree Mormons are more prone to perceive and identify with a myth than non-Mormons. I’m not even particularly confident that are more prone to perceive and identify with a particular variety of myth than non-Mormons — after all, Tolkien, and Rowling, and Lewis, and Lucas have managed to sell more than 12 million copies of their works. And I’m willing to bet not every one of the 12 million or so of us have purchased copies of their works.

    Even within such a fantasy/magical realism genre, could we plausibly contend the Mormons are more attuned to Gabriel Garcia Marquez than non-Mormons? That we “get” Moby Dick better than non-Mormons? That we start from some kind of preferred position when we read Jorge Luis Borges?

  16. Among the mythic themes built into Mormon thought, scripture, and practice: expulsion from community (the 19th century Church from the US, individual converts from the convert’s prior community/family, the current LDS member from the LDS community), the unpredictability of contact with God/Holy Ghost (Joseph Smith’s First Vision, Peter’s revelation taking the gospel to non-Jews, revelation-based schisms from the main Church).

  17. greenfrog, Good point about the others. I don’t think Mormons are any more attuned to Moby Dick or the non-epic, non-magical mythology you mention.

  18. I don’t experience a lot of what Greenfrog cites as myth, though others might. (Moby Dick comes close sometimes).

    When I think of modern fiction that has mythic qualities, I think of the Night Lands, the Lord of the Rings, and to some extent a Canticle for Liebowitz, Perelandra, and the Mote in God’s Eye. Also Gates of Fire, by Pressfield.

    Despite all his flaws, Orson Scott Card pulls off the rare and beautiful trick of being mythic in some of his stuff. My big disappointment with Empire is that the mythic story the beginning set us up for didn’t happen.

  19. I think the temple, to a debatable extent, extends the mythological scope of the Adam and Eve narrative by (again, to a debatable extent) universalizing the figures in question. Adam and Eve are every-man/-woman. I also think that the reaction within the Church to the Bushman biography is illustrative of the tension built into the Mormon zeitgeist between the mythologized Joseph-the-Prophet and the culturally historicized Joseph-the-Man.
    Another particularly apt and specifically Mormon example would be Missouri-as-Eden — particularly interesting in light of Dave’s comments (#2).
    Other examples from the gentile sphere might include Adam Smith’s invisible hand/Invisible God and Hao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (which I think surpasses both Tolkien’s and Lewis’ admittedly impressive efforts).

  20. Having a conflict isn’t what I mean by myth in #19, sir, or everything would be mythic, including the stomach flu I have today. Me vs. the tummy bugs is Man v. Nature, no?

  21. #22: Sorry about your flu. One of the Great Myths of the 18th & 19th Century, was that Man would rule over Nature. In Moby Dick, the Great White Whale IS Nature, and defeats Man. (new Myth?). But whatever PGK or Greenfrog say on this: I agree!

  22. I’m not sure there’s a clearly demarcated distinction between epic themes, mythical themes, and standard plot lines. Would “boy meets girl,” a plot line featured every night on television, qualify as mythic? If not, what about “Paris meets Helen” or “The Tale of Odysseus and Penelope,” those classic Greek productions? The theme of “Man versus Nature” sounds too modern, seeing it is only in the modern era that we have really developed the concept of inanimate (or at least unspirited) Nature. But maybe that’s simply a sign that Moby Dick is a modern myth, using modern categories, told using a modern medium (the novel). Time for an English or Classics major to weigh in on this topic.

    On the original topic of Mormon mythic themes: Ian (#1), the pioneer trek across the plains, like the Exodus that it was likened to at the time, certainly works for me. Adam (#15), the Mormon version of the Fall definitely fits and is universalized as well as employed as a context for ethical commitments. That really seems like best LDS analogy to the traditional use of myth as sketched out by Armstrong in the quote in comment #12. Greenfrog (#17), expulsion from the community was not one I had considered before, but being on the outside of the great and spacious building (rather than partying with the insiders) also seems to reflect that expulsion theme. Brad (#20), I’m not sure about Missouri-as-Eden (look at the trouble it is causing Romney this week), but I’d maybe go with America-as-Zion.

  23. #24:+ #12 “A myth cannot be correctly understood without a transformative ritual.” I am not sure on this. But Myth and Ritual mean different things in different disciplines. Such as Religion Thought Vs. Physiology.

  24. Responding to OneLowerLight: I\’ve seen that Jack Chick \”Titanic\” film as well, and I know what you are talking about. There is a hypnotic quality to these tracts, as much as our minds and faith reject them. Is this the \”otherworldly\” forces that JTC is always yammering on about? There are 9 other short films based on actual Jack Chick Tracts over at You will find them challenging, I am sure!
    Thanks for your comments, Jimmy

  25. Dave, the Armstrong passage you cite in the comments above alludes to this, but I’ve always thought that myth, to be muth, must be imbricated with ritual: the myth is the narrative explanation of the ritual; the ritual moves bodies through space, while the myth moves experience through time. Temple ritual/Adam & Eve & the Fall is the central Mormon instance.

  26. #12 “A myth, it will be recalled, is an event that — in some sense — happened once, but which also happens all the time. An occurrence needs to be liberated, as it were, from the confines of a specific period and brought into the lives of contemporary worshippers …. A myth cannot be correctly understood without a transformative ritual, which brings it into the lives and hearts of generations of worshippers. A myth demands action.”

    Clearly there is a distinction, maybe even a catergorical divide, between art and myth. I was recently reflecting on the overdependence (dare I say tyranny) of the scientific worldview and the overemphasis on the rational as we have learned from our unique slant of culture and tradition. Even in the Church we speak of the truths and information supplied to us as product from science and academia as somewhat hallowed. To be fair, there is good reason, even reproducible and predictable reasons, to be impressed by these advances. Most that would bother posting on a blog such as this lean heavily to their minds and thoughts over their feelings and hearts. But how divine is this view? Is there not a more balanced, and even more human (possibly by extension more divine) view of the world and its common experience?

    It seems to me that life’s experiences are not rigidly divorced between mind and heart (not to mention spirit), that which is thought and felt. Experience is more complete (and holistic perhaps). So the question for me becomes who is better prepared and more likely to convey this entirety of the divine and the spiritual life, the scientist, rationalist with her unique tools and preconceptions or the artist, poet with hers? Both are clearly colored by their traditions and assumptions. But perhaps the human and its connection with the divine is less about reproducibility and objectivity and more about spontaneity, individuality, and the subjective.

  27. First off. Don’t misinterpret the Buddhist remark on “what’s your superstition?” Central to many Buddhist schools of thought is the idea that this world is an illusion (think Plato’s cave if you are having a hard time with the idea). Thus even Buddhism itself, as a way to truth and reality, is “a superstition” because it is of this world and not the real world. Acheiving enlightenment (nirvana – oneness with the universal spirit/monad) necessitates rejecting some Buddhist ideas since they are of this world.

    Second, LDS folks are hardly unique in their attraction to myth and the whole evangalical’s hate Harry thing is way over blown. Dobson, in this case, seems out of step with most of his constituency. Loads of non-LDS people (and yes even non-Christians like myself) love Harry, Star Wars, and Tolkein.

    Third, “the split between mythos and logos” Does Armstrong talk at all about how logos was also used by early Christians to refer to Jesus and is a synonym for word and light as in “In the beginning was the word” and “I am the way and the light?” She seems to overstate the myth-logic split.

    Fourth, what is so disappointing about many modern myths (say taking a tour around Snopes) is how little they seek to explain. Some larger myths such as the Horatio Alger stories or the Myth of the Frontier (see Slotkin’s trilogy: Regeneration through Violence, Fatal Environment, Gunfighter Nation) have explanatory power but don’t sustain themselves against investigation.

    Fifth, the biggest myths of the modern era (post 1492): race, the idea of Continents (or The West and The Rest), the notion of the ethnic nation have all been, on the whole, crappy with tragic results. Why does the modern era breed lousy myths?

Comments are closed.