The Myths We Deem to be True and Sacred

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A few weeks have now passed, since the start of another new year. On New Year’s Day, I was happy to kiss 2020 goodbye. Similar to what an old colleague once told me almost forty “new” years ago, when I’d taken on the task of resurrecting a struggling mission congregation, “You can’t fall off the floor.” In other words, there is no place to go but up. We hope.

In the Christian liturgical calendar, January 6th is always observed as the last day of Christmastide; also known as the Feast of the Epiphany. From the Greek (ἐπιφάνεια – epiphanea) it literally means “light all around;” commemorating the appearance or manifestation of the infant Savior to the world.

But in this new year – just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse — something dark and revelatory already happened on that day. Thousands of insurrectionists stormed the Capitol; wielding clubs, and bats, and – in one instance – a Bible. Another carried a huge banner depicting his Lord in a prayer posture, with the caption reading “Say yes to JESUS.”  A third flag bore the stars and stripes, and read, “Jesus is my Savior, Trump is my President.”

Now that the dust has somewhat settled, leaving only the mop up of the political and legal ramifications, it might be helpful to take a slightly more dispassionate view of things about those religious zealots; and gain a more constructive perspective by asking what the heck was going on?

I’ve long been prattling on about the synonymous nature of politics and religion; both of which serve to give one a sense of order out of chaos, and understanding to the world around us. But nowadays there is something that has become more accentuated than ever before; namely, that the divisive nature of my political point of view and religious persuasion — and how it may differ from those which another happens to hold – is more than ever before perhaps framed in terms of what each may claim to be true and untrue.

Now, as our nation reorganizes itself with new political leadership, what is asserted as “the truth” is based on basic arithmetic and scientific facts. One plus one still equals two when it comes to counting ballots. And medical discoveries in the face of a raging pandemic still hold the greatest promise of saving us from ourselves.

But facts and truths are not always the same thing. Myths, for instance, are certainly not factual. But they can sometimes convey great truths about us and the way we come to understand our world. That is the function of myths, and why humans have always spun such tales. The prior U.S. administration’s infamous claim to “alternative facts” may differ from any semblance of recognizable reality. But, like it or not, a mythic vision of making us “great again” is a hope and a dream that does not require any factual substance or realization.

Almost like a mantra, I have often asserted we live our lives by myths and metaphors. The task and challenge are to distinguish false and deadly myths from those that are true and life-affirming.

This could not have been made more clear to us than with happened in our nation’s Capitol on January 6th.

We live our lives by myths and metaphors.
The task and challenge are to distinguish
false and deadly myths from those
that are true and life-affirming.

The imaginary “American Dream” and the notion of “a more perfect union,” are not just aspirations, but a never-ending mythic story that affirms something we hold to be true. They are about an almost sacred reality that we nevertheless know to be as yet unrealized.

So too, any religious faith (Πίστις, meaning trust) is most authentic when it does not succumb to the temptation to turn its great mythic tales into any sort literalist’s intransigent, factual reality. A story about changing water into wine so a joyful wedding feast can continue is not meant to prove the magical powers of an un-natural feat. Raising the dead to new life again is not a story about death-defying immortality with the resuscitation of a mortal’s corpse. Such mythic tales are about trusting in one’s own realized experiences, so one can embrace the possibilities of joyfulness and second chances.

In David Galston’s recent essay article about “This Is Our House,” (here) he likens the misconceptions of those proprietary claims made by those who violently took over the Capitol with the Christian Right that “offers self-assurance and self-righteousness like salvation merchandise, and the price for this commodity is fervent belief.” In both cases, they’ve re-enacted a mythic tale they deem to be true. And, they’ve been sold a bill of goods that lacks the one thing that lies at the heart of “we the people” democratic governance, on the one hand; and a vision of the reign of “god” on the other. Namely, the common good.

As Galston writes,

“It is clear to me that the mixture of religion as consumerism with the toxic elements of racism and sociopathy, which combine fundamentalism with politics, results in the arrogance and violence of January 6. I am not sure how successfully the United States can overcome this extremely divisive problem. I …  And, most tragically for me personally, I’m not sure whether Christian is a word I can use anymore to describe myself and my sense of life.”

That concluding sentence struck me as an almost confessional statement that raises an important question I’ve been pondering for a long time. Several years ago, I wrote a Words & Ways commentary qualifying “What Kind of Christian?” (here) Now I too wonder if the term can be redeemed or reclaimed in any meaningful and useful way.

There is nothing more sacred than one’s own “sense of life.” What then are the great mythic tales we can embrace, tell and re-tell in all we say and do that will affirm our sense of life; instead of leaving it tattered and torn?

My next commentary will explore the question of how – or whether — the term Christian might still be some sacred form of self-identity; along with an as-yet unrealized vision for our world.


© 2021 by John William Bennison, Rel.D.  All rights reserved.
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