Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Power of Myth

The Power of Myth
By Joseph Campbell

Note: I am finally caught up on my vacation reading. These blog updates will now come at more reasonable intervals as I actually finish books I'm currently reading.

In my mind I invite the following three people to my house for dinner: Richard Dawkins, Joseph Campbell and C.S. Lewis. somewhere after a delicious smoked salmon dinner while we lounge in the parlor sipping a glass of port I pose the following question:

Ryan: Is there a God?

To which I imagine I would get the following responses:

Lewis: "Unequivocally, yes."

Dawkins: "Categorically, no."

Campbell: "Who cares?"

The Power of Myth was Campbell's literary swan song from 1988 and coincided with a PBS special of the same name. The book reads as a long interview with Bill Moyers and after having finished it, I'm already wondering whether this was the best possible introduction to Bill Campbell, a writer I have been dying to read for quite some time.

First off, the interview style lets Campbell go off in all sorts of directions concerning mythologies from around the world while only loosely adhering to a particular theme. I have a decent handle on mythology via the Bible, Edith Hamilton, a smattering of Eastern texts and whatnot, but I couldn't call myself an expert on the subject either. So it was difficult to follow a man with a lifetime of learning, especially as he jumps from Pima Indian folklore to Japanese legends to Hindu myths. But I managed and came away with a lot to think about.

I especially enjoyed the moment when he told the story of how he feared his teaching would rattle the faith of his more religious students. He worried that his more dogmatic students might question their faith based on the recurring themes in mythology and how that fit within the framework of their own beliefs, somehow lessening them. What he found instead was that these mythologies actually illuminated their religious lives, added color to their beliefs.

As for me, an avowed atheist, I found that a lot of what he wrote made a lot of sense. We as people spend a lot of time wondering about the purpose of life and whether or not God exists. Campbell argues that life has no purpose and the existence of a personal god is beside the point. Mythologies don't exist as a way to explain this world and the afterlife. They are constantly evolving lessons (often anthropomorphized) that help us understand that we do not move through this life alone. Myths play an important role in our journey through life and they are just as relevant today as they were thousands of years ago. God has very little to do with it. n fact, the idea of god (or gods) is up for debate. The idea of God, in fact, is inward, rather than outward. God is within us rather than the unknowable being in the sky. each of us is a god and we find god within the other.

Oh man, trying to sum up Campbell's ideas in a single paragraph sounds like the ramblings of a new-age weirdo. I'm not really doing him justice. But to be fair, the book isn't well organized. I realized that I need to read some of Campbell's earlier work to get a firmer handle on his teachings. The Power of Myth was not the best place to start. But the book fell in my lap and if nothing else, it has whetted my palette for more.

I also quite liked the bits about Star Wars. I'm glad Campbell died before the prequels were made. I suspect his insistence on George Lucas being a modern myth-maker would have disintegrated had he seen Jar Jar Binks


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