The Golden Bough

The Golden Bough [1890-1915] is an anthology of comparative mythology and religion, written by the Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer.

The book is in fact 12 volumes which analyse the narratives and rituals of the ancient world. Its central thesis is that originally, religions were fertility cults concerned with cyclical seasons. These cults revolved around concerns of life and death and almost universally featured the worship of and periodic sacrifice of a sacred king. This king was most often the incarnation of a dying god, who perished at the harvest and was reincarnated in the spring.

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Frazer proposed that mankind has progressed from magic through religious belief to scientific thought, however this legend remained pervasive into the 20th century, Frazer’s own era. He cited the examples of Osiris, Tammuz, Adonis and Attis, Dionysus and drew parallels to Jesus Christ.

The book scandalized the British public when first published, as it equated the Christian story of Jesus and the Resurrection with the pagan religions. Nevertheless, it soon became a staple of anthropology and comparative religious curricula.

aeneas

The book’s title  The Golden Bough, refers to  the adventures of the Trojan hero Aeneas, [Virgil, The Aeneid, Book VI] who leaving Troy after its destruction travels to Italy and founds what will become Rome. He is aided by the 700 year old sibyl of Cumae, who agrees to escort him into the underworld to find his father. To achieve this, Aeneas must pluck a branch of the Golden Bough, a sacred tree that only the gods can access. Aeneas’ mother Aphrodite assists him to pluck a branch of the tree and with it and with the help of the sibyl, he descends to Hades unscathed. There he greets the ‘shade’ of his father who shows him the river Lethe, or forgetfulness and beyond it where all the spirits of the unborn await. There are Aeneas descendants, among them great men such as Romulus and the Caesars who would one day rule Rome. Aeneas’ father also points him to the Gates of Sleep through which he can return to the living.

Virgil’s narrative highlights a few interesting things about the motif of the dying king, or the hero who descends into Hades and returns.  First, it is a classic hero journey, as developed in Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces [1949]. The hero journey, also called the monomyth, is a narrative pattern favoured by storytellers, film-makers and script writers the world over. It describes the typical adventure of the archetype known as The Hero, the person who goes out and achieves great deeds on behalf of the group, tribe, or civilization.

Second, Virgil connects the hero journey to the World Tree, The Golden Bough or the divine Tree of Life. This common motif of ancient narratives connects the realm of the divine, the gods and their garden of Eden or paradise, to Earth. The branch or fruit of of the tree of life bestows immortality and so is restricted from mortal access. Access to life and thus to this tree becomes of obsessive interest to ancient heroes.

world tree

What does all this mean and what importance does this narrative resonance have at a time such as Easter?

Many point out that Easter coincides with the pagan festival of the first full moon of Spring. Thus, the celebration of the death of a supposed god-king,  who later was resurrected to restore life to earth and to humanity is easily explained away as simple anthropological pattern that people of  a more scientific age should be well beyond.

But this is where things begin to go a bit strange.

The Christian celebration of Easter coincides with the Jewish full moon celebration of the passover, a feast which celebrates the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. Far from celebrating the sacrificial death of a god-king, the Passover celebrates the merciful sparing of the people of Israel from a plague of death in Egypt by the sacrifice of a simple lamb.

Within the ancient near eastern context, rich with narratives of dying and rising god-kings, Zoroastrians and Jewish narratives resonated with a typological hero, a servant king, who would bring peace and end the cosmic cycle of death and mend the polarities of light and dark. This king, the anointed mashiach or messiah, would not only restore life, but end all wars, suffering, illness, death and sorrow. While it was acknowledged that this king was a servant and would suffer, this king would also be politically significant and liberate the Jewish people from their bondages.

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When devout Jews of the first century AD declared the Jesus of Nazareth was this promised anointed one, the uproar and dissent caused within the Jewish communities of the Mediterranean caused even the Imperial Rulers to complain and seek to suppress it [Divus Claudius,  25].

Most significantly what this shows is that the Jewish people were the least likely people of the ancient world to equate a man to God, or to conflate pagan mythology of a dying and rising god with the advent of their mashiach.

Historians have posited that claims of Christ’s divinity or evidence of the resurrection were laid-over first century accounts of Jesus of Nazareth to satisfy mythical types. However, this too has been shown to be quite unsupportable. The earliest texts which report eye witness claims of Christ’s death date from the first century and the debates and unrest caused by the earliest followers of Christ are supported by secular historians such as Claudius [above] and Tacitus [Annals XV.44], Suetonius [Nero 16] and Pliny [Epistulae X.96].

TacitusSuetonius

 

 

 

 

 

 

The fact that hundreds of so called eye-witnesses of the resurrected Christ were persecuted and willingly died to maintain this claim, caused unrest across the whole Mediterranean region and resultant persecution by the authorities.

So what can we make of these seeming contradictions? The Christ narrative seems to comply with mythical archetypes which resonate throughout world literature and point to cosmic reconciliation of death and rebirth. However, within the Jewish context, the claim that Christ fulfilled messianic hopes of ending the struggle between dark and light, restoring peace, ceasing the cycle of death and bringing peace – was vehemently opposed by large portions of the Jewish community and yet defended to the death by others.

It is perhaps what CS Lewis refers to when he states:

The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens —at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.  ~ C.S.Lewis [1970] God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. 

Rather than simply assuming, Christianity, like any mythical belief, has roots in pre-scientific questions of death and rebirth, winter and spring, Lewis shows how in fact, the poetic resonance of myths and legends of all eras and cultures, created a prophetic typology, pointing forward to a solution to a cosmic and unsolvable problem.

mashiach

That solution came at Passover about 30AD, when a man died a criminals death. His blood not only averted the Plague of Death on humanity, but also initiated the release of humanity from slavery into glorious freedom.

His resurrection caused a radical revolution in the lives of his 500 odd followers and eye witnesses, who radicalised by the realisation of the fulfilment of all messianic hopes turned the world upside down in a quest to share the news, not only with the Jews, but with the whole world.

Because it has been the whole world who has been dreaming of this miraculous solution since the beginning of time.

 

 

The King and the Maiden

Suppose there was a king who loved a humble maiden,

Thus beings a story by Danish philsopher,  Soren Kierkegaard [Philosophical Fragments, 31-42].

The king was like no other king. Every statesman trembled before his power. No one dared breathe a word against him, for he had the strength to crush all opponents. And yet this mighty king was melted by love for a humble maiden.

How could he declare his love for her?  In an odd sort of way, his very kingliness tied his hands. If he brought her to the palace and crowned her head with jewels and clothed her body in royal robes, she would surely not resist – no one dared resist him. But would she love him?

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She would say she loved him, of course, but would she truly? Or would she live with him in fear, nursing a private grief for the life she had left behind. Would she be happy at his side? How could he know?

If he ever rode to her forest cottage in his royal carriage, with an armed escort waving royal banners, that too would overwhelm her. He did not want a cringing subject. He wanted a lover, an equal. He wanted her to forget that he was king and she a humble maiden and to let shared love cross over the gulf between them.

For it is only in love that the unequal can be made equal.

beggar and the maiden

The king convinced he could not elevate the maiden without crushing her freedom, resolved to descend. He clothed himself as a beggar and approached her cottage incognito, with a worn cloak fluttering loosely around him. It was no mere disguise but a new identity he took on. He renounced the throne to win her hand.

With this parable, Kierkegaard illustrates the truth that Paul expresses about Jesus Christ:

Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,

but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance like a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient – even to death on a cross.

Jesus

Happy Easter everybody.

Prometheus [2012]

In his 2012 film Prometheus,, Ridley Scott revisits his Aliens franchise, deciding to tell the origin of not only his Alien creatures, but of humanity.

Plot Summary

The film opens with a humanoid  creature left on earth, a rocky and watery desolate place.  As his space ship leaves him, he drinks a potion and he collapses into the stream. His body dissolves into the water, and fragmented DNA reforms into strands; life is started on earth.

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Years later, in 2089, scientists Shaw and Holloway discover cave paintings of humans worshiping giants who are pointing to a constellation. They gather the data and present it to the Weyland corporation, invested in research into the origins of humanity. It seems Shaw and Holloway have found a star map. Weyland commissions the expedition aboard the space vessel, Prometheus, to seek out the star system and its inhabitable planet there.  The ship, and crew in cyro-sleep,  are guided by robot David.

Shaw and Holloway and the crew awake to find themselves near a desolate planet with a curious hive like structure. Within, there is a breathable atmosphere and heaped up bones and carcases of the inhabitants. The place seems to be a sarcophagus. David, proficient at multiple forms of communication, is able to awaken hologram like memories of the deaths of the giants here. It seems they were escaping a terror. David also opens long shut doors, taking the expedition into a temple-like chamber full of vases. Although dormant, from these vases quickly grow squirming, menacing demons – Aliens.

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The crew take a preserved giant head and one of the vases, back into the space ship. In the process they lose two crew in the honeycomb tunnels of the hive. These two poor souls are the first victims of the rapidly growing, frightening creatures disturbed in the chamber. In true Aliens style we know it’s just a matter of time before each crew member gets their come-uppance.

Aboard the ship, Shaw examines the giant head and discovers a close match to human DNA. They have discovered the Engineers – the predecessors to human life on earth. The discovery sends ripples through the crew aboard, “you’re messing with 300 years of Darwinism.” When Holloway asks Shaw if this disproves her faith, marked by a cross around her neck, she retorts, “but who made them?”

David opens the alien vase and extracts what looks like vials of liquid from within it.  Most enigmatically, he deliberately places a tiny drop of the black ink into Holloway’s glass of water.  That night Holloway and Shaw make love, but not before we discover that her father died fighting ebola in Africa and that she is sterile and cannot bear children.

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The next day, the crew return into the hive, however Holloway is seriously ill, and Shaw, unknown to her, is now pregnant with an alien foetus.  David explores alone and discovers the cockpit of the Engineers‘ spaceship. He activates the hologram memories again and discovers that the Engineers were bound for earth.

Curiously, the spaceship is packed to the gills with vases like those in the temple. It’s almost as if the ship is packed with weapons – fearful biological weapons.

Most interestingly, David discovers an Engineer in cryosleep with an audible heart beat. One is still alive.

Holloway is very ill and Captain Vickers will not allow him back on board. When the crew try to return him to get medical help, Vickers instead torches him with a flame thrower. Not long after Fifield, one of the ships crew left in the hive tunnels over night arrives, crazed and zombified. He too is promptly killed. Inside the ship, Weyland the elderly millionaire who established the Prometheus expedition, is found. It seems,  he commissioned the expedition to find the Engineers and discover the secret to his own immortality. Strangely, Captain Vickers is revealed to be his daughter. Both she and David have known the deadly nature of this expedition and are party to Weylands hubris.

At this point though now it is dawning on the crew, Shaw in particular, that the expedition is doomed. The alien foetus within her has grown rapidly and threatens to kill her. Boldly, she accesses a medical pod and performs surgery on herself, extracting the wriggling creatures and sewing herself up with laser stitches and staples. With only a few jabs of pain killers to abdomen and legs, she then proceeds to race and chase for the remainder of the film. The foetus she leaves to die, locked in the medical pod.

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Weyland and David awaken the Engineer, the one remaining creature of the race who spawned life on earth and are promptly and soundly beaten. This is no benevolent creator; no. The Engineer is bent on piloting his spacecraft straight towards earth where the vials of alien embyos and black sludge will obliterate life.

Is this the moral kick back for daring to name your space ship Prometheus? Is the search to find the gods, or to be like the gods, worthy of mortal punishment?

One by one the characters on the team Prometheus die off; in true Ridley fashion the female protagonist kicks butt. Despite the cesarian section, she shoots, kills, climbs and fights for the remainder of the film. She also maintains her faith, and although the Engineers wished to obliterate life on earth, she wishes to find the reason why, and the reason why they created life in the first place.

Thematic Points: 

Technology and Artificial Intelligence

Cryo-sleep, light speed, star maps, human like robots capabale of jealousy and deceit and proficient at “over 6 million forms of communication, ” the film explores a future only 80 years ahead of our own. David the robot is an enigmatic character, at once loyal to Weyland, he deliberately infects Holloway with Alien substance. His loyalty shifts from Weyland to Shaw upon Weyland’s death however, perhaps revealing a rather human expediency to preserve his own existence.

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Faith 

Shaw wears a crucifix and maintains a faith beyond scientific reason. At one point it is mentioned that surely by 2089, religion and faith would be no longer relevant. However, she is bent on asking the deepest of age old questions. Science fiction the genre, is able to ask the questions asked by myths and legends throughout time – why are we here ? where did we come from? What is the meaning of our existence? Is our creator benevolent or not? In fact, science fiction reasserts that humanity is not on a trajectory away from spiritual wonderings but into the same ones. The genius of Star Wars was that it portrayed a future and advanced scientific world into which spirituality was integrated, instead of being tied to the dated and contextual issues of post-enlightenment rationalism.

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The Myth of Prometheus & the Quest for Immortality

The central theme in Prometheus concerns the Titan who defies the gods and gifts humanity with fire, for which he is subjected to eternal punishment.  The gods want to limit their creations in case they attempt to usurp the gods.

Weyland is an elderly millionaire who seeks to find the origin of life and take immortality for himself. This hubris leads the mission to sure death and the unelashing of a terrible biological weapon into the universe. It seems both Weyland’s accomplices, David and Captain Vickers know of the dangers of the mission and comply. The moral framework of the story judges Weyland but not Shaw. She wishes to know her creator and to ask “why” and survives to continue her quest. Conversely, Weyland wishes to wrest immortality for himself, and so suffers judgement for his hubris.

The Origin of Life

As mentioned above, the narrative is set within the 21st century and is thus constrained by contemporary rational scientfic questions of life and origin. The story does not counter Darwinian evolution, instead addresses the missing link in evolutionary theory, “how did life start?” The Engineers are thus named because they are the agents of life [and death] but not the creators themselves. The film closes with Shaw jetting off, still searching for the answers. Moreover,  robotic responses [placed in the mouth of David] as to “why does it matter?”, sound hollow to the human heart and spirit. To be human is to question.

Interestingly, the Engineer who comes to prehistoric earth to generate life, gives up his own life,  for life to continue. Notes on the film production process allude to alternative plot elements, including an Engineer coming to earth 2000 years ago, to intervene in human barbarity, but was crucified. However Scott removed the plot element for fear it was too heavy handed.

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The Problem of Evil

The giants created life on earth and now seek to destroy it ? Why?  It’s like the planet and its hive are an enormous trap, set to lure over-reaching mortals in search of eternal life and answers of being, and then in turn to release utter destruction upon them and their species.

There is an amorality about the plot as well. The Engineers themselves are and have been consumed by Aliens. This biological weapon is indiscriminate, much like ebola, or the burrowing worm that lives in the eyeball intent only to blind, or the insect that lays it’s larva in the chest of a live host only to burst forth into life, killing it.

Why do we live alongside such creatures and imagine a benevolent world with a benign creator. Life is cruel – we alone place meaning onto that cruelty. So goes the questions as to the nature of morality in this universe.

However, it is intrinsic to narrative to create a meaningful universe. The characters have agency, face a crisis and struggle for catharsis. The absence of morality leaves both good and evil neutral – and removes the crisis. If there were no questions of morality, there would be nothing “wrong” with aliens destroying life; and we inherently believe in life. The suffering and randomness experienced in the universe does not discredit the existence of God, but rather, the existence of ultimate meaning  affirms that our suffering is significant and our struggle for catharsis, has worth.

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Some Final Thoughts:

In an earlier blog, Noah and the Quest for Immortality, I touched on the age old question, expressed in myths, legends and the greats of world literature – the question of life immortal. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the hero discovers that immortality lies only in human civilization and not in any herbal remedy to prolong life. The Noah story, which refashions this tale, reinjects into this epic narrative the note of eternal life. It lies in a promised descendent who would take destruction upon himself, delivering life and relationship with God back to humanity.

In the biblical account of Adam and Eve, the pair are originally granted immortality in the Garden and need not lust for it. Curiously they are tricked to eat of the fruit “of the knowledge of good and evil.” I say curiously,  because this knowledge is something they already possessed. Otherwise the dare would have no meaning for them. Why would they be tempted to take of what they already had ?

The power in the temptation was for them to believe God was withholding something from them – equality with him. He was a killjoy, a cheater, someone who wanted less for them than they could attain. The fruit of the “knowledge of good and evil” would bridge the gap. So in taking what they already had, they showed distrust for God’s voice and so distrust for God’s nature and their own identity. In doing so, they lost relationship with God, and so lost immortality.

The quest ever since then has been to reattain immortality. And more importantly, to reattain relationship with God. These two things should not be equated to be the same thing.

What the film Prometheus shows us, is that it’s not the quest for relationship with God, or to ask “why” that gets humanity into problems, but the selfish quest for immortality and its power, to the exlcusion of relationship with this creator, that is the problem. The one who seeks to know God, must also listen to how this God is telling the story of redemption in unexpected ways.

The film was a popular and critical success, grossing over $400 million world wide. Nevertheless, there  are major weaknesses to the plot, including the strange choice to have a young actor [Guy Pearce] made up to look like an old man Weyland. Moreover, the unlikely way Shaw runs, fights, climbs and chases after experiencing major abdominal surgery is close to ludicrous. Various other characters such as Captain Vickers and other minor characters are underdeveloped leaving plot elements enigmatic or weakened.

Nevertheless the story is an interesting prequel to the Aliens saga and exploration of origins.

Paolo Freire and “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed”

Any living or breathing creature cares about the plight and welfare of others, especially the equality [or inequality] of wealth, resources and services such as health care, education, freedom of speech, etc.  How to achieve equality of resources though is a much debated issue, especially around election times.

Do we budget tightly and stimulate business at any cost [capitalists views], or do we tax the wealthy to redistribute wealth to the disadvantaged, in an effort to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor [socialist views]?

Articles such as this, from the Quora digest this week, address the problem of the distribution of wealth:

So “redistribution of wealth” is a tricky thing.  Money isn’t wealth, and if you redistribute it, it doesn’t really change anything.  You need to redistribute (or even out via other means) ownership of the means of value-creation, which is a far more complicated thing to do – you can’t easily tax a rich guy a portion of his factory (not as easily as you can tax liquid profits in the form of money). Thus, the real problem you’re looking to solve is “how can I make it so that the poor control a larger proportion of value-creating power?”

http://www.quora.com/Distribution-of-Wealth/Why-cant-the-poor-be-handed-out-lots-of-money-to-make-them-rich

The term “value creating power” is an interesting point to dwell on. If not simply referring to production power [factories] alone, could it mean value in the form of information power, wealth of mind, of heart, of connections, of knowing and of being?

How then does a society create equality of consciousness among people?

paulo freire

Paulo Freire [1921-1997] was an Brazilian educator and philosopher who believed in the power of education to allow the oppressed to regain their sense of humanity. His seminal work “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” [1968] questioned traditional education methods, which might simply replicate prevailing power structures. He labelled this a “banking model” of education in which the student is treated as an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge. Instead, he advocated for a “co-creation” model of education. This model, particularly used in literacy projects amongst adults, enabled the learner to question social domination of race and class that is woven into traditional education systems.

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Having grown up in colonial Brazil and experienced poverty himself first hand, he acknowledged that the powerless in society can be frightened of freedom. He writes,

“Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift. It must be pursued constantly and responsibly. Freedom is not an ideal located outside of man; nor is it an idea which becomes myth. It is rather the indispensable condition for the quest for human completion”.

So the redistribution of power and wealth comes through struggle on behalf of the socially disadvantaged themselves, a struggle first for belief in their own spiritual and moral freedom to be agents of change. Interesting.

In 1961, Freire was appointed director of the Department of Cultural Extension of Recife University and in 1962 he applied his theories to literacy programs, when he taught 300 sugarcane workers to read and write in just 45 days. His successes were both supported and and at points censored by various governments.

Freire believed that,

“education makes sense because women and men learn that through learning they can make and remake themselves, because women and men are able to take responsibility for themselves as beings capable of knowing—of knowing that they know and knowing that they don’t.”

Freire’s work explains how and why the mere re-distribution of wealth away from ther rich to the poor is not sufficent to create equality. Equality exists as much in the struggle of the mind and heart. Once adults can not only read and write, but have the power and strength to accept their own freedom, then they can question power structures of race and class and reclaim not only “means of value creation” such as businesses and factories but also, books, films, stories. They can bring others of the “oppressed” with them and fight for the equality that every human desires.

paulo-freire

 

 

Who is the baddy?

We all know that story does not work without a crisis; the protagonist requires a challenge to overcome, the dragon to slay, the mountain to conquer, the darkness to subdue. Every hero requires a nemesis and every protagonist, an antagonist. This is the stuff of good stories – drama, tension, a fight.

Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines villain as:

“a cruelly malicious person;….a scoundrel; or a character in a play, novel, or the like, who constitutes an important evil agency in the plot”.

Important evil agency in the plot.…………Interesting!

mary poppins

As a child watching Mary Poppins I remember the bad guys clearly – they worked  in the bank. Cold, miserly, money hungry, they would steal men’s time away from their children, away from joy, fun and family. In contrast, Mary sought to bring the children’s dreams alive and to mend relationships between parents and their offspring.

The sensitive viewer may grow to believe that banks and institutions are evil, that the arts and pursuits of family, simple hearty work [such as chimney sweeping] and creativity are true, good and right. But is this a fair representation of reality?

 

Well not really,  but it’s just a kids story, right?

In a cowboy or Western movie – the baddy is an Indian or Mexican. In a spy or war movie, the baddy is a German or Eastern European or Muslim. Are the baddies foreign nationals?  Are the baddies the capitalists [Mary Poppins]  or the government [Divergent/ Hunger Games]?  Are the baddies the drug dealers and criminals amongst us ? Who are the bad guys, really?

 

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The very word villain comes from the Middle-English word for “base or low born rustic” or medieval latin “farmhand”. In medieval times, it accounted for one who did not behave in manner befitting a Knight – one of lowly, dishonourable behaviour.  In contemporary parlance, the word is cognate to the french word for “ugly.” The term “sinister” comes from the latin root for “left.”

So in narrative terms – cruetly and malice, wickedness and crime are related to social class, political persuasion and physical appearance? Maybe not in such simplistic terms but if we continue to digest simple stories and their simple morals, perhaps we produce a society of people with narrow minded stereotypical views of who out there needs to be punished for social ills.

How do we redress this?

maleficent

Of late, years Hollywood has played a lot with story conventions around stereotypical bad buys, and we have more tales telling the back stories of villains such as Wreck It Ralph, Despicable Me, Maleficent, Shrek, Monsters Inc and so forth. Children learn that the bad guy [or girl] has a story too.

However since classical days, the greatest of literary works are the most complex in their approach to the nature and origin of evil.

Greek and Roman plays and poems presented complex tales of conflicted heros with murky motivations. Shakespeares characters are deeply wrought characters full of  jealousy, hubris, power lust, and vengeance. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and the Russian writers are famed for the manner in which they can cast characters both empathetic and corrupted at once. The genuis of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter is that while evil lay without in the form of Voldemort, it existed in very real form within Hogwarts too, among the full blooded wizards, the Slytherin families and even within Harry himself and his desire for power.

harry and voldemort

Most tales of inner struggles are tragedies. Simple stories of good versus bad can end happily when good guy defeats bad guy, but what does one do when the good guy IS the bad guy? How does this story possibly end happily?

John Lennon’s song has become the anthem of peace marches since the ’60s

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…

 

For us to realise that there is no baddy “out there” – not another nation, not another religion, not an ugly person or a different person – this requires a terrbile self knowing and self realisation that is absent from Lennon’s anthem – the baddy is within.

This sounds like religious dogma you might protest…. Religion has created all manner of  guilt complexes to make us out the be the culprit of all wrong doings.  Religion exists to torture us in the knowledge that we are “baaaaaad” deeply and irrevocably bad. However, it does seem that within this realisation comes the truest form of self- knowing.

religious guilt

No wonder our human psychology is complex – we construct stories in which  the fault belongs to others. These narratives save us from descending into madness. Acceptance of culpability would crush us. But lack of acceptance creates in us a delusion, a splintering from true self-knowing. So what is the answer?

I personally find the solution in Hebrew literature. Ancient and deeply perceptive, Hebrew narrative is nuanced enough to make the protagonist both empathetic [we can identify with them] but also the villain. When you pass by the normal foils – giants, lions, enemy kingdoms – you find the true problem. The human heart is the problem. While there is evil and conflict and tension from without – ultimately it’s the complex, betraying and deceitful human heart at the bottom of it all.

This narrative however, does not descend into despair. It does so by introducing a new note into the story – the note of grace.  When the crushing knowledge of human culpability is first raised, so is the notion of a sacrifice, a scape-goat. First, literally it was a goat or lamb, ceremonially slain at feast times and symbolically expunging evil. However, such symbols cannot redress the evil in the human heart, can they?

Abraham

And so transpires the greatest myth of all, the myth become history [as CS Lewis puts it], God become man, to die a death that only man can die, and redress an evil that only God can redress. This scape-goat moves from beyond symbol into something so groundshattering  that philsophers and theologians are still confused by the depth and weight of it all. This event in history, permits true self knowledge. Humanity can know self to be corrupt without despair, for the punishment has fallen upon the scape-goat, the innocent. This gracious act in turns becomes the wellspring of transformed action, as with a new lease of life, humanity can simultaneously know self and rejoice.

How would this transform politics, international relations, human relations – the fundamental understanding that the problem lies within?  And this knowledge does not result in despair, nor in delusion, but in glorious self knowing and true “peace on earth.”

 

The Myth of Thamus and Theuth

In the writings of Phaedrus, Socrates tells his disciples this story.

Among the ancient Egyptian gods, there was one called Theuth who discovered “number and calculation, geometry and astronomy, as well as the games of draughts and dice, and above all else, writing” (Phaedrus, 274d). One day, Theuth visited Thamus, King of Egypt, urging him to disseminate the arts around Egypt. For each art that Theuth presented, Thamus offered his praise and criticism. When it came to writing, Theuth said:

O King, here is something that, once learned, will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memory; I have discovered a potion for memory and for wisdom. (Phaedrus, 274e)

But Thamus replied that, as the “father of writing,” Theuth’s affection for writing had kept him from acknowledging the truth about writing. In fact, Thamus asserted, writing increases forgetfulness rather than memory. Instead of internalizing and understanding things, students will rely on writing as a potion for reminding. Moreover, students will be exposed to many ideas without properly thinking about them. Thus, they will have an “appearance of wisdom” while “for the most part they will know nothing” (Phaedrus, 275a-b).

myth of theuth 3

Socrates used the illustration to point out that writing alone has no understanding of itself and “continues to signify just the same thing forever” (Phaedrus, 275d-e). Nor does it discern its audience nor offer self explanation. Socrates instead favoured conversation, “the living, breathing discourse of a man who knows, of which the written one can be fairly called an image” (Phaedrus, 276a). Socrates praised dialectic:

The dialectician chooses a proper soul and plants and sows within it discourse accompanied by knowledge—discourse capable of helping itself as well as the man who planted it, which is not barren but produces a seed from which more discourse grows . . . Such discourse makes the seed forever immortal and renders the man who has it as happy as any human being can be. (277a)

As a lover of good writing and an advocate of literacy as key to community development and human emancipation, I find this conversation  interesting for a few reassons.

  1. First, it comes to us via text. We enjoy it and think about it purely because it is recorded in writing.
  2. Second, Socrates highlights that “meaning” is the soul of communication, and the rendering of the human heart and mind, its greatest good. The absence of human interaction, leaves a vacuum, giving space for the empty pursuit of knowledge, disconnection of thought from feeling, and the subjectification of meaning altogether.

myth of theuth 2

Much like contemporary complaints of electronic forms of communication “killing conversation”, we can view first hand an ancient discussion of the same problem. The key it seems, is that humans must talk “to” each other and not “about” each other.  Reading “about love” is not the same as “behaving lovingly”.

Nevertheless, the power of this analogy even today, shows that writing has its place. Phaedrus accused Socrates of inventing the myth to support his point and Socrates did not disagree.  Word pictures, poems and stories particularly have an ability to capture timeless truths, and carry meaning throughout the ages.

A good poem helps to change the shape and significance of the universe,
helps to extend everyone’s knowledge of himself and the world around him
—Dylan Thomas

When all is said and done, nothing beats human relationships, dialogue, discourse, dialectic and discussion. Turn off our e-devices, close the books and have a chat.

Peaceful Combat

The Olympic Games, were held every four years [an Olympiad] in Ancient Greece, in honour of the gods. Attributing them mythical origin, the games were more than simply entertainment but festivals of peace giving. Atheletes travelling to the games we granted amnesty via, The Olympic Truce, to travel safely to the games through enemy territory. The games served to unite the city states of the Grecian peninsula into Panhellenic unity.

Interestingly, both sport and story telling featured as part of the festivities, and the gods were said to descend from Mt Olympus to enjoy the revelries. The peaceful games in their honour, presented combat, both in the playing arenas and in the amphi-theatres, and brought the combat to a peaceful resolution. Instead of war – wrestling, javelin throwing, horse racing, foot races and boxing were undertaken by trained athletes while citizens spectated and cheered. This “play combat” externalised inter-state conflict without making it bitter.

olympics_map

Likewise, stories externalise inner conflict, jealousies, rivalries, revenge, madness and hatred.  These dramas played out by trained actors while spectators cheered offered catharsis for human inter-personal and intra-personal struggles. Even more interesting is that modern pscyhology and mental health theory has taken elements of ancient stories and converted them into therapy.

In the ancient world

Gods and heroes of Greek myths have been of interest to psychoanalysts, who find them as symbols of human intrapsychic life, evolution, and conflicts. Many of these gods and heroes, like Oedipus, Electra, Eros, and Narcissus, have had their names given to psychological situations, conflicts, and diseases. Freud picked the myth of Narcissus as a symbol of a selfabsorbed person whose libido is invested in the ego itself, rather than in other people. The term narcissistic personality disorder, also taken from the myth, describes a self-loving character with grandiose feelings of uniqueness – Arash Javanbakht

Echo_and_Narcissus

The theatrical side of the Olympics has since been lost in favour of the sports. Maybe this can become a new form of international relations –  more poetry and story telling in foreign policy and play out global tensions harmoniously? Maybe we can approach story as medicine for our soul – to help us work through inner ills and understand ourselves better?

Why archaeologists?

In Science fiction and fantasy there is an abundance of scientific professionals such as archaeologists, journalists, detetectives and doctors who end up on quests in strange realms, seeking talismans of great power or significance, and encountering strange and mythical creatures and tests. My childhood favourite was Tin Tin, who always managed to run into some mystery and follow it through to its mysterious end.

tintin

The more I read, and the more I read “about reading”, the more I discover something called the “hero journey”. This ‘hero journey’ accounts for common features between stories, such as:

  1. An ordinary person, selected for a quest. Sometimes unwillingly, due to birth right or a prophecy.
  2. The leaving of home or the realm of the familar.
  3. Encounter with mythical creatures, tests and trials.
  4. Characters who come along at the right time as “helpers” to aid the hero.
  5. Hero battles creatures and overcomes trials and tests through courage and wit, often this requires great self sacrifice.
  6. Return home of hero to the realm of the familar  but forever changed inside.

In the case of the archaeologist/ scientist, it seems that the curiousity of the individual and their passion for knowledge leads them into a hero quest, often a treasure hunt. Their scientific nature gives them a firm footing in our current familiar world, making them believable as they journey through mythical realms. They stand as though the bridge for us between two worlds, the real world and the mythical dream world which we cannot reach ourselves.

They become our avatar into dreams.

TOMB-RAIDER-1

The tougher, the more sceptical and scientific they are, they more we can trust them and allow them to guide us into the dream world, knowing that they will be able to discern the tests that await and bring us home.

Fiction cannot be False

The power of art is to speak the truth. In fact, it is of utmost importance that artists treat their work and their subjects as real places with living beings. Audiences detect fakes – even within fantasy worlds. How curious, right? Ethan Gilsdorf affirms my views in his latest review of  “The Hobbit: Battle of Five Armies” in Wired this week. He scathingly decries Jackson’s prequels as “losing the plot” – literally. He writes:

J.R.R. Tolkien once said that “believable fairy-stories must be intensely practical. You must have a map, no matter how rough.” But in Peter Jackson’s new and final Hobbit film, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, which opened Wednesday, there is no map. There’s not even a plan. We veer far not just from Middle-earth, but from all plausibility.

middle earth

Gilsdorf continues to list sequence after sequence of mind bending CGI chases and escapes. He lists among them, rabbit-drawn sleds, physics-bending chases along wooden catwalks and bridges within the Goblin caves, fights sequences which resort to three-stooges antics and pratfalls, river barrel rides resembling a theme park ride, and a silly elf-dwarf romance planted surely to appeal to teenage girl audiences  – and many others which undermine the credibility of the films.

You can’t fault Jackson for his physical world-building. The attention to detail—every set, every special effect, every prop and suit of armor and ruined town, every last smouldering candlestick and dragon scale—is unparalleled. Middle-earth feels real. But in these Hobbit movies, the more important thing to get right is situational realism: How the plot turns, what the characters do, if they move through space in a believable way. All this is thrown out the door. The sincerity of Thorin and Bilbo’s struggles is completely undermined by the story’s blanket disregard for physics, logic, and credibility. Gone into the ether is Tolkien’s gentle, thoughtful, and more plausible children’s tale.

The new Battle of Five Armies, stoops to even lower lows in Gilsdorf’s mind, to reach new levels of computer generated “kinetic fury”, more like “Mortal Combat” than an epic masterpiece of literature or film.

“Without the cooperation of the Tolkien estate, there can’t be more films,” Jackson said at a press conference after The Battle of the Five Armies‘ world premiere in London. At the moment, Tolkien’s heirs don’t seem eager to sell the movie rights to any of his other works. Like the Elves who depart Middle-earth for Valinor, it seems that Jackson’s hold over Tolkien’s will someday fade.

smaug

 

Not unlike George Lucas’ efforts to revive Star Wars,  Jackson it seems has largely messed it up for die-hard fans, with shallow characters and an over-reliance on CGI and effects. Modern fantasy has its roots in classical myth and legend, something Tolkein knew intimately. He respected ancient literature and language and sought to create a mythical saga that rivalled the greats.  The time he spent crafting languages, a depth of history, genealogies, sub cultures, geographic believability and a political and economic environment,  all created architecture for his characters to live and breath real lives.

When we read, watch or listen to a story – we inhabit the story. For many audience members, this inhabitation is not merely an escape for 2 hours on a holiday but a journey they will be willing to make again and again if the world is crafted carefully for them to be believable and the journey of the protagonists a journey that brings them self realisation, courage or peace.

May we have more fiction that tells the truth.

Reading the Bible as Literature

In an earlier post, I essayed about how meaning in the Book of Job can be excavated by understanding the genre as a form of late 2nd and 3rd century BC  satire. This literary understanding of Job should shake few orthodox believers since few scholars posit that Job has much historical merit. Even Calvin did not put any historical weight to Job rather stating that Job was a literary piece.

This begs the question, what can be gained by reading the Bible as literature? And what can be lost?

tower of babel

Much of the bitter debates between science and faith stem from a scientific reading, or attempt thereof, of Genesis 1-3. Problems, arise from placing historical merit to genres such as apocalyptic [Daniel, Revelation]. Literary-critical readings of the ancient texts have attempted to excavate and construction process of each text, assembling fragments of early texts and detecting seam-lines between these and newer segments, seeking to map the hand of later editors or ‘redactors’.

Is there merit in assuming that for scripture to be credible, it must have poured in one sitting into the mind of the author and transcriber and onto a scroll, much like Muhammed’s reception of the Qu’ran in a cave centuries ago? Does the hand of editors, the assemblage of various genres and the combination of historical events with literary and theological meaning undermine the merit of scripture, infallibility, inerrancy and so forth? What are the implications of  genre [generic?] readings of scripture?

The heart of such questions comes down to this – do the above questions, undermine the truth of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, the cornerstone of Christian beliefs? If the earlier passages are various forms of methaphor, simile, parable, fable, legend and poetry – can we put any historical, scientific and factual weight into the existence of Jesus and the value of his teaching?

Jesus myth

C. S. Lewis wrote extensively about myth and the gospels, owning that the  crucifixion, while being a historical event [Cornelius Tacitus in his Annals, xv. 44: Christus … was executed at the hands of the procurator Pontious Pilate], this doesn’t preclude its subsequent mythologization. But neither does it negate its historicity. The accounts of Jesus life and deaths assert that  is that the ressurection was a specific historical event in which humanity finally gains a fulfillment of its ancient desire for eternity:

The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens — at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.

Myth became fact, essay published in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, C. S. Lewis, Walter Hooper (Editor), Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; Reprint edition (October 1994; original copyright 1970 by the Trustees of the Estate of C. S. Lewis). 

Lewis essentially surmises, that all the ancient poets, artistcs and mystics, dreamed of a solution to the human dilemma, and painted word pictures to express this resolution. When Christ lived and died, he simply fulfilled these predictions, in historical time. This is the truest case of characters walking out of dream into history, out of narrative and into time.

jesusresurrection_2

JRR Tolkien says as much,  stating that  the difference between the ‘fairy-story’ (or for Lewis, ‘mythic’) elements of the Gospels and other fairy-stories,  is that the Christian story ‘has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfilment of Creation’ (‘On Fairy-stories’, 62). In a letter to Christopher his son,  he clarified:

Of course I do not mean that the Gospels tell what is only a fairy-story; but I do mean very strongly that they do tell a fairy-story: the greatest. Man the story-teller would have to be redeemed in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story. But since the author of it is the supreme Artist and the Author of Reality, this one was also made . . . to be true on the Primary Plane. (Letters, 100–101)

The glory of the gospel story therefore is that it is the ‘true’ myth, myth become fact, fairy-story incarnate in primary reality. As Tolkien concluded in his essay, ‘this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused’ (‘On Fairy-stories’, 63).

And so, with tender reading, the Bible yields much to the reader and love of both myth and history.