Monomyth Myth

Since I’ve been exploring movies as the locus of truth, and meaning, for contemporary religious culture, I can’t avoid Joseph Campbell.  His interpretation of mythology—long discounted by mythographers of specific cultures—influenced film makers like Stanley Kubrick, the various Batman directors, and, most famously, George Lucas.  Campbell’s interviews and his eventual series The Power of Myth highlighted his work, even as specialist scholars noted the problems with it.  This is the subject of an essay in the LA Review of Books.  This story, written by a couple of professors (Sarah E. Bond and Joel Christensen), exposes the problem with Campbell’s “monomyth,” perhaps best typified by his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  This is stuff I realized as a postgrad student—Campbell didn’t footnote much and as Bond and Christensen note,  he “cherry picked” examples rather than looking at myths in context.

Image credit: Joan Halifax, via Wikimedia Commons (via Flickr)

One of my observations, when it comes to movies, is that people take their truths from movies, like they’re modern myths.  In other words, although Campbell’s method may’ve been faulty, he gave us Star Wars and the rest is history.  I rest on the horns of this dilemma.  My dissertation (and consequent first book) on Asherah was based on the idea of contextualizing myths.  In other words, I was arguing against a monomyth.  At the same time I’ve come to see that scholars don’t determine what people believe—culture does.  Consider how distorted the “Christianity” of Trump supporters is and you’ll see what I mean.  People don’t read scholars to find these things out.  Besides, wasn’t Campbell an academic?

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Without reaching out to the masses, academia turns in smaller and smaller circles.  Many of us who desperately want to be in its ranks are turned away because there just aren’t enough jobs.  At the same time, people will go to movies and they will be exposed to the monomyth, and they may even build their lives around it.  Isn’t that a way of becoming true?  Mythology, despite popular perception, is a complex subject.  There’s a lot going on in what may appear to be simple, or even naive, stories.  They have similar themes, but as I was warned—stay away from that other great popularizer of folklore, James Frazer.  His “parallelomania” was also out of control.  But Frazer and Campbell both understood something that those long in the academy often forget—people are hungry for stories that give meaning to their lives.  And these stories, even if academically questionable, become truth.

Smile, You’re Condemned

Yesterday at Montclair State University, I was sitting in the hallway (my office) prior to class. (Office hours are required, but space is limited for adjuncts such as myself.) While I was reading my book a student walked up and handed me a business card. “For you, sir,” she said politely. The card had a smiley face on it, and was designed to bring cheer.

Then I flipped the card over and found out I was going to Hell. A bit of a downer when you’re about to start class!

It isn’t the first time people have attempted to convert me without bothering to find out what I believe. It seems that if you already hold the zealot’s view you’ll appreciate the gesture of being condemned just to make sure your soul is saved. It is the thought that counts, after all.

The book I was reading was Joseph Cambell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces – a book I’ve known since college but from which I have only taken a tipple until this year. Many scholars of mythology fault Campbell on being too much of a generalist and looking too much for connections where they are not obvious. His language can be florid and mystical, verging on “believer,” for those uncomfortable with any kind of faith. I find Campbell to be a welcome guide, although, as for any guide, I do not believe all he says! One nugget in particular stuck out at me: “Wherever the poetry of myth is interpreted as biography, history, or science, it is killed.” As we find ourselves on Good Friday, only those with eyes firmly shut will disregard Campbell’s wisdom.

I still remember my shock when I first learned that gods, centuries before Jesus, had been dying and rising. What had always been presented to me as a unique historical event actually had a long and venerable prehistory. It suddenly seemed as if the ministers I’d known hadn’t done their homework. Or perhaps they lacked the cognitive finesse to understand Orpheus, Adonis, Baal, Osiris, and even Ishtar, as types of either blatant or obscure resurrection. It is the Campbellian, or nearly universal hope: life prevails over death. As the young lady walked away, I sincerely wished her happiness in the quest she’s only beginning.