The Power of Myth

Sunday, September 09, 2012
It's pledge week on public television, which means, in between pitches for donations, they're showing some of the best programming ever created. This includes the Peter, Paul, and Mary concert, a Sinatra tribute, Yanni, Paul McCartney, some alternative health specials, and... Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth.

I don't believe I've ever seen the entire series. Back in the late eighties, when the series first aired, I was the mother of a young child in a failing marriage working a full time job while going to school at night. I didn't have a lot of time for television. I have seen bits and pieces of this series during past pledge weeks, but I've never seen the entire work.  I happened to see more of it today and was once again impressed by the wisdom of this man. It's amazing how an interview recorded thirty years ago is as fresh and relevant today as it was then.

Maybe more so.

I hardly know where to begin with the ideas that resonated with me. There was that much good stuff.

One thing Campbell said was that ritual exists to take you out of the everyday. He used the changes in the Catholic church as an example. Celebrating mass in the ritual language of Latin was a significantly different experience than using the vernacular. The altar used to be at the back of the chancel and the priest faced it, which meant he faced away from the congregation. I'd add that the use of incense and candles and the way they engage the senses also served to put you in a spiritually different place than the everyday world. Today, with the use of the vernacular and moving the altar forward and having the priest face the congregation may make the mass more accessible. But you lose some of the otherness of the ritual.

I've had a similar experience at my own church. While I enjoy the joyfulness of the contemporary service, there are days when I long for the traditions I grew up with. The liturgy remains basically the same throughout the year in a traditional service while changing weekly in the contemporary service. Particularly on holidays I find myself going back to that tradition, to connect to that other place of worship and to get nearer to God.

The church service or mass itself isn't the only place where our society has lost shared rituals. In the name of religious freedom and political correctness, many of the rituals at schools and public functions have been eliminated. Or participation has been made optional. As the recent brouhaha over the Democrat platform this past week showed, we're not sure whether to include God or not in our public life. Whether on purpose or as an accidental omission, God was not mentioned in the 2012 Democratic platform. The media focus on this led to God being put back in mid-week. I'm not sure everyone was happy with that.

One significant life event is the move from being a child to being an adult. In the past, religion was responsible for the rites of passage from child to adult in our society. For Christians, that was confirmation. For Jews, Bar Mitzvah. Campbell stated that the results of the loss of these myths and rituals could be seen in the New York Times. He said that most crimes are committed by young people because they did not have the ritual of becoming an adult. He contrasted that with the ritual a boy goes through in the aborigine culture of Australia. The men take the boy into a deep, dark cave and change his body (including circumcision). It is a frightening experience and the man who leads him in is not gentle with him. However, when he emerges, he is no longer a boy. There is physical evidence of the change and he's now recognized as a man. I suppose an argument could be made for high school graduation being our new ritual, except that the high drop-out rate reenforces Campbell's beliefs.

Throughout the program there was the emphasis on there being more than the physical world we know. That there is the other, the spiritual world that exists in parallel and beyond the physical world. And, according to Campbell, it is the artist's function to mythologize the environment of the time. Through stories, paintings, music, and sculpture, the artist uses current symbols to reach across to that other world, to express it for all of us.

And maybe that's why I am a writer as well as a Christian. In both activities I catch glimpses of that other world, the world that is more magnificent and mysterious than anything we know on earth.


Georgia said...

It strikes me that to move from child to adult childish things have to be put behind. Namely, selfishness which our society struggles to define.

This post resonates with me this morning against the backdrop of conversations about my teenage grandsons. Also against the backdrop of my current novel about the ritual of Chinese women binding their feet to make them more desirable.

On my nitestand is Joseph Campbell's The Mythic Image where a quote from William Blake is highlighted: "If the doors of perception were cleansed,every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks in his cavern."
A rambling response, I know, but your post is thought provoking.

Elise M Stone said...

Thanks for commenting, Georgia. I'd love to take credit for the words, but most of them came from Joseph Campbell. And it is a very thought-provoking series.

Reine said...

During the pre-Vatican 2 ritual of the Mass, the people faced Jesus/God with the priest. When the bread (wafer) was transformed with the drinking of the wine, the priest turned and faced the people with the "offering."

Rituals are interesting as an outsider and moving as an insider. Sometimes they bring the outsider in. I am not very ritual oriented myself anymore, but I do find rituals very interesting, especially in cultural context.

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