Back when I was teaching full time, one of my favorite television shows was Northern Exposure. In fact, the fictional town of Cicely, Alaska, had quite a lot in common with Nashotah House. Both were populated by quirky characters in a relatively remote location. Both were small, insignificant places with visions of grandeur. Both were effectively run by conservative forces that liked to imagine themselves as benign or downright noble. Both distrusted outsiders with ideas that might challenge the status quo. One of my favorite characters was Maggie O’Connell, the woman in a man’s world who refused to let the male establishment set the limits to what she could do. A strong woman character whom the men all respected served as an antidote to daily life at the seminary. My wife and I liked the program so much that we even stopped in the town of Roslyn, Washington, where the outdoor scenes were shot, a couple of times on our way out west.
We don’t have television now, so we have to watch Northern Exposure on DVD. While at a hotel recently, however, the name of Janine Turner on the television made me look. I had known that the actress portraying Maggie O’Connell was a political conservative in real life, but here she was advocating an “anyone but Obama” type campaign or some such nonsense. I felt as if I’d been sold a false bill of goods for all these years. Like Margaret Thatcher, Turner believes in socially conservative causes. Margaret Thatcher, that contradiction of a woman who felt that females belonged in the home, had undue influence on a once great Britain. Where was the woman who played such an ardent feminist in a male world? How could anyone pretend that kind of passion in front of a large audience for six years and spent her real life trying to deconstruct a cause that has everyday ethical implications? It’s all an act.
Women have been relegated to positions of lesser prestige for millennia for the crime of caring for their offspring. Men have been free to abandon responsibility and seek selfish ends, if so inclined. No matter what our gender, we pursue in life what is most meaningful to us, and it amazes me when strong women support a structure that has consistently shown itself interested in keeping them down. Vaunted as a show where diverse characters come into constant conflict but always “strive to accept their differences and co-exist,” Northern Exposure displayed depth without eschewing what is laughable about the human condition. Real life, I suppose, it is much more like the small town of Rosyln, Washington. For a few years it was an out-of-the-way tourist stop where actors could play characters they really didn’t believe in while living in a fictitious town where everyone at least attempted to tolerate everyone else.
A friend of mine pointed me to the following YouTube video:
Having spent many years in Wisconsin, I have to admit that this isn’t the weirdest thing I’ve witnessed. Not even the weirdest thing in the name of religion. Nevertheless, the fact that grown adults are running around the Wisconsin woods dressed as Na’vi and throwing toilet paper onto innocent trees shows just how diverse religions can be. My ears perked up at about the 3:50 mark on the video where Tsu’tey says “I didn’t believe in God before Avatar” – a statement that catapults James Cameron into the role of father of God, I guess. What will it take to make some people believe?
I have said for years that movies are the new mythology. At the risk of showing my age, and blowing my coolness factor, I recall the episode of Northern Exposure (“Rosebud”) where Leonard Quinhagak, a Native American shaman, tries to discover the healing myths of the Caucasians. The inhabitants of Cicely simply don’t know any myths. Meanwhile, in a separate plot, Ed Chigliak attempts to make a movie. The juxtaposition illustrates quite nicely how movies are indeed modern myths. The sense of transport many viewers reported upon seeing Avatar (critics, be quiet) also illustrates this phenomenon. Movies take us outside ourselves in a way most religions would kill (some literally do) to achieve.
Donning a blue body suit and freezing your tail off in Wisconsin may not be everyone’s favored form of religious expression. It is healthier than much of the religion I saw expressed at Nashotah House. In fact, when Tsu’tey and Eytukan are shooting arrows at the manikin of a woman I thought I had slipped back into my accustomed pew for a spell. The myth of Avatar is that peace, love, and tolerance may indeed coexist without the greed of the sky people who only want the money. There is a truth deeply buried here. If a few more cassocks could be shed along with a few more human tears perhaps we could embrace the contents of Pandora’s box unafraid.
“Myth” is a difficult word to define. In the ancient world, however, reality, or truth, was expressed in terms of myth. Today we assume that myth is “untrue” or false. This dichotomy often leads to an unfortunate undervaluing of ancient texts and stories. At root the problem is that we are on the far side of a paradigm shift. This podcast addresses the question of how we might try to understand myth in a way that fits with the modern outlook. Since historical veracity is the modern paradigm, it stands to reason that history has become the mythology of present-day thinkers.