Monday, June 2, 2008

Is That All It's About?

About a million hours from now We're gonna find what life's about We're gonna wrap our heads around What no one could figure out To find just one broken stare A space in time to share We're gonna start these lives of ours In about a hundred million hours --Local H, "Hand to Mouth" I've been, like, massively busy for the last couple of weeks (although I am writing a new story over on Right Behind, for the record). I haven't been writing much, but I have been working through something. I sense that this is the first entry in a rather convoluted Loco to Stay Sane/Mythology Project uber-entry. It starts with, of all things, a story and a prayer. I was at the release show for Local H's absolutely awesome new album, 12 Angry Months, that finishes with "Hand to Mouth" (the very last measure of "Hand to Mouth," for the record, is actually a measure from the first song, "The One with 'Kid,'" which is one of the coolest things ever. It's also kind of sad if you know what the album is about, but that will probably come up later). There's really nothing better than a really good rock show, especially on a Tuesday. But when I got home I found that I had a message from a friend. It wasn't a good message. My friend had just learned of my relatively new lack of Christianity and felt betrayed by my change. It wasn't really something I was prepared for. I'd been prepared for people attempting to re-convert me or shun me, but it had never really occurred to me that anyone would take it personally. I tried as best I could to explain what had happened, but the right words weren't really coming to me. Finally--and too late for the response I sent, sadly--I realized what the words were. The underlying story of Christianity has lost its power over me. A week or so later I was sitting on a park bench. It was just one of those days where everything was going really well except for one thing. I couldn't help but think I needed to thank someone or something for all that was going on and, while I was at it, toss in a request for the universe to deal with that one little issue. Some time later the loss of the power of the story and that random prayer clicked in something I said in a completely unrelated conversation and I said something in a way I'd never said such a thing before. And here begins my big, crazy thought. Joseph Campbell documents a concept that shows up in a lot of myths as the prosaically labeled "Supernatural Aid." It's pretty self-explanatory, but the context takes many forms, from advice to direct aid for the hero from the divine itself. It winds its way through myth and fairy tale and makes up the very core of the so-called "Greatest Story Ever Told:" the Christ story at the center of Christianity. Growing up in the church I was told that the story of Christianity was special. I was told it was the only story that included an incarnational deity, that it was the only story that included a deity who died, that it had to be true because everything in the story fit together so very well. I was then encouraged to spend as much time as possible reading my Bible and only approaching "worldly" entertainments with the correct, god-centered mindset. I tried to do that for a long time and, if I'm perfectly honest, there are many things I learned from my Christianity that I retain and have every intention of retaining because they're based on things I find to be true. But the story itself and all of the rationalizations built around it, well, those I don't so much care for any more. I never really believed the bit about Jesus being the only incarnational deity. I grew up with the Greek myths and was perfectly aware of the plethora of stories about the gods wandering around on Earth. Now, there really weren't any stories of, say, Zeus being born to a virgin and growing up as a boy and whatnot, but there were the half-gods, like Herakles and Achilles. Gods also died and came back to life all the time in the old myths. The harvest gods were dying and getting resurrected every couple of months to explain the cycles of the year, then there's the Norse tale of Odin sacrificing an eye and hanging for nine days from the World Tree to gain the necessary knowledge to hold off Ragnarok. What happened to me, I'm finally realizing, was a gradual lessening of the power of the story of Christianity. There are only so many times you can pray for Supernatural Aid, not receive it, and explain it away. There are only so many times you can pray for something, get something that's kind of random and pretty much just as good at solving the problem at hand before wondering if the whole thing isn't actually random. Then, of course, there are the times that something seems miraculous until you walk around them a couple of times and realize, "Hey, I could have done this myself," and, later on in a similar situation, do exactly that. Once you stop believing the rationalizations and realize that results are pretty much random and divine intervention really only seems apparent when applied with hindsight, the story itself starts to seem pretty much useless. After that, the only thing to do is get over the fear. Leaving religion is a scary thing. I've spent a lot of time looking over my shoulder for lightning bolts that never came. More to the point, I also spent a lot of time trying to avoid bringing it up with anyone outside a small circle of friends who I figured could handle it if I told them. I had to get to where I am now to be sure I could handle the fallout. I had to be able to see it as a story and not reality. I picked up a book called The Measure of All Things by Ken Alder, a professor at Northwestern, pretty much completely by accident that turned out to be immensely helpful in understanding this process. The book itself is one of the best history books I've ever read, which may seem odd, as it covers the history of the metric system. We don't think about things like measurements much, precisely because they're standardized pretty much everywhere you go (that, by the way, is a parphrase of something Alder said in the book. I'd be quoting him like mad here, but I kinda lent my copy to someone who won't be able to give it back until August. I will attempt to give credit where credit is due, though). We've got the Metric System and the English System, plus some minor trade systems that have been standardized to one system or the other but still use the old terminology: horses, for instance, are still measured in "hands," but the "hand" is, like, four inches or something. One of the farthest reaching insights Alder offered is this: the most important part of getting the metric system spread was the story behind it. See, the meter, on which most of the rest of the system is based, was supposed to be a fraction of one of the Earth's meridians. This gave the meter a sense of legitimacy over the older measures, which were based on things like a king's foot or the width of a church door or the weight a peasant could carry in one day or whatever. But, really, the meter has no more real legitimacy than any of the other possible measures. In order for it to be accepted it needs to be agreed upon by the community. That is where the story comes in. The meter was accepted because the people behind it had a good sales pitch and an epic story of a seven-year process of measurement set against the backdrop of the French Revolution. It was, in a sense, mythologized and most of the world uses the metric system (and it's encroaching on the last major bastion of non-metricness as we speak. Most Americans could probably handle a switchover to metric, as it's already on our soda cans and speedometers, anyway). Moreover, that mythologization of the metric system built in to the concept an aura of inevitability that is the most singularly useful part of the entire thing(most of the preceding paragraph was brought to you by Professor Alder). Similarly, we have The Greatest Story Ever Told. The Christ story is an epic tale that includes all of the conventional measures of mythology. If you take that the way I was taught in Sunday School, it's because all mythology is somehow a pale imitation of that one, central story. You have to believe that the Bible just kind of popped in to existence whole cloth in order to really buy the argument (and that's basically what I was told back in Sunday School. It's a slightly more sophisticated argument that the Bible was "directly inspired" by god, meaning that god was cracking the whip on all the writers and editors or taking direct control of their hands to make sure that they wrote the right things). Moreover, by declaring everything an imitation or foreshadowing or culturally different craving for Jesus or whatever, the Christian apologist, whether we're talking about Paul in Acts or the pastor at the church down the street, creates that all-important air of inevitability. If you take it anthropologically, however, it seems pretty likely that the story is actually an intentional process of making sure all of the elements of mythology are involved. At that point Christianity basically becomes the metric system, replacing a disparate collection of bewildering measurements with a single system and immeasurably improving dialog and commerce. So why am I a current fan of the metric system and a former Christian? Can I actually compare the two things? Is there a good reason I'm putting this under Loco to Stay Sane, but switching from the Peacemakers to Local H? That's why this is an uberpost. Campbell, Alder, and, of all things, 12 Angry Months, form a foundation. So stay tuned...


Fiat Lex said...


More fine prosification as usual, mein freund. What should I call you on Blogger anyway? Acci? Histo? ...Phil, after the name of my pet philodendron?

You express the point about the need for a sense of inevitability really well. That the proselytizers generally make themselves believe, and wish others to believe, that the Christian symbol set covers all the bases because it's The Original Story. Rather than it being a complex collective mythology that has evolved into every nook and cranny of the human need for myth over the past two thousand or so years. Har, har. Christianity itself must evolve or die, praise be to god the rat faucet, who never runs dry.

The insurance business has another term that addresses a similar sense of inevitability, but in the context of trying to create it in the mind of a potential customer. One must have a neat, busy-looking office, official company signage, letterhead and lingo, present an open and engaging demeanor etc etc. These things all create the presumption of agency in the customer's mind. They presume you are an agent with both the power and the authority to fill their insurance needs, and ideally begin to feel uncertain about their ability to handle their insurance needs as well as you, the agent, could.

Which is why consumers of religious ideas, as well as financial planning products, need to educate themselves! All the research and questioning and soul-searching leads up to that moment when you realize, "Wait a minute. I'm in charge of figuring out what I need, and this pastor/agent might simply be selling me what he has and tricking me into thinking I need it!"

And that's when you walk out and find a park bench and start measuring the cold, stochastic firmament against your heart all by yourself. :D

You do the hokey pokey and you turn yourself around;
That's what it's all about.

Stinger said...

Years ago, while still a christian, I read a book called Peace Child. The whole point of the book was this missionary turning the myths and rituals of the people he was working with into the "truth" of the biblical myths. At the time, I found it quite moving. In retrospect I see that it simply means that peoples everywhere have similar ideas to one another.

Anonymous said...

Well, I haven't "left religion," although I'm not sure what I'm calling it, now; but that pretty much sums it up. Really, I grew up very protected and insulated, and it turned out the Christians were right: Once I let "the world" in, I "turned from" Christ, but not because I denied that I was a sinner, or that I needed ideals and morals, but because their story--everything they'd PROMISED was true--just wouldn't hold up under any kind of scientific or historical scrutiny.

Now, I'm not sure there isn't a "god" but I'm pretty sure it's not what they think it is, and I can't understand it. I am trying to manifest my own reality as a spiritual understanding of my connection to the world. I'll let the world know how it goes in my blog. :) Good luck with yours. (I bookmark you to read more later, thanks for sharing.)

Geds said...

Hmm, I would hazard a guess that we have similar stories, scyllacat.

Jake said...

I'm just visiting from Slacktivist. I haven't read any of your posts yet, and I really would like to, but unfortunately the light letters on dark background scheme actually makes it very uncomfortable, verging on impossible. I know I'm not the only person around who has this problem and I wondered if you would be at all open to changing the colour scheme of your blog?