The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Embracing myth and theory

Posted by Ron George on January 1, 2016

Star Wars: Enduring mythology in popular culture

Star Wars: Enduring mythology in popular culture

It was way too early for enthusiasm.

She came to church chattering about a movie she’d seen three times the day before.

I’m going to take you to see it,” she said as she helped me prepare for a 6 a.m. Eucharist. “It’s called Star Wars.”

And so it began, not in a galaxy far, far away but right there in the sacristy of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Arlington, Texas.

I really can’t just tell you what it’s about,” she said. “You have to see it.”

I did, that very day with her, and then with the family and then as often as opportunities arose through the next 38 years. It’s always been my favorite episode of the Star Wars saga, a coming-of-age story about an obscure adolescent with an impressive lineage who saves the day by remembering The Force.

There’s nothing quite like a melodramatic, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, space fantasy (not science fiction!) to call forth from the adult male mind every hope and dream of a nine-year-old boy: Light sabers, servant androids, bizarre creatures, shooting and explosions. Harrison Ford as Han Solo (and his Wookie) saved the film from its otherwise overdone self – but that’s an opinion far in retrospect.

Short version: I loved Star Wars then and still do.

Its instant and overwhelming popularity, which continues to this day, struck me then, as it does now, as a well-calibrated barometer of humanity’s need for stories that convey something true to and about those willing to allow it into their souls; myths, in other words, stories we choose to believe not because they’re actually true but because they convey to us something of value. Myths don’t always convey good values, but that’s not the point. Mythological truth is all in the mind of devotees.

The year Star Wars was released, 1977, was a prosperous year for societal myths in America. From Jan. 23 through Jan. 30, 1977, the nation was awed by Roots, a multigenerational television saga of mythic proportions because it began in a time and place far, far away and yet conveyed something of contemporary value to millions who watched the story unfold through more than two centuries. The final episode of Roots was among the most watched television programs of all time. (What a shame that the story turned out to be mostly a hoax perpetrated by plagiarism.)

It’s simply not enough to say that these powerful stories were just ripping yarns. High adventure may be fun but it’s not memorable in the same way Star Wars and Roots grabbed us by the throat and compelled our interest and soulful engagement. Star Wars takes place in a time and place out of mind, which is ingredient No. 1 for yarns that rise to the level of mythological meaning. It is not by accident that it is set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” That means anything is possible, as in the mythological past (“once upon a time”); and, lo and behold, there are people then and there whose life-stories we want to embrace as though they were our own.

Lavar Burton as Kunta Kinte: Mythological power in a family history

Lavar Burton as Kunta Kinte: Mythological power in a family history

Roots begins in the 18th century but in a setting that breathes of humanity’s primordial past – West Africa, home of the Mandinka, home of Kunta Kinte, who was brought to America as a slave and whose descendants are emblematic of the African-American experience on this continent. Roots’ final chapter depicts the author’s discovery of his family’s tribal origins in what is now Gambia; and, regardless of whether it was factual, it remains true in the story that such a reunion with one’s ancestors is a good and powerful thing in the life of any human being: Author Alex Haley is said to have discovered his African roots in a kind of mythological past as he listened, almost mesmerized, to a Mandinka elder recite centuries of village history.

We believe these stories, these myths, because we want to. We want to find ourselves in them and befriend their characters. This is especially true of Star Wars, witness continuing fascination with the costumes, artifacts and allied commentary in the form of books and video games; but it also was true of Roots, lest we forget, as an entire nation pondered its origins and history in light of one family’s experience.

Myths are not stories we make up to account for things we can’t otherwise explain; they are stories that transmit our values, for better or for worse. As a nation – indeed, as a species – we are far more apt to interpret ourselves and our societies mythologically than to embrace actual history or any other ordered system of thought. We are far more apt to believe what we hear as a compelling story than to acknowledge the truth of, say, scientific evidence of climate change.

Indeed, neuroscience tells us that our personal memories are not so much a filing cabinet of facts but a continuously recomposed story or mythos that evolves over time and becomes a narrative that omits more facts than it recalls in order to make sense of and derive meaning from our lives. We are, in other words, myth-makers at every level of our social existence. We know a compelling myth when we hear it and, especially, when it comes at us via compelling storytelling media such as film and television.

Myth, then, relies on belief as to what is true or of value in human life. Belief entails commitment; and, in some cases, such commitment, especially to powerful myths such as the second coming of Jesus to judge the living and the dead, is nigh unto impossible to dissolve. Joseph Campbell famously called religious myths “the masks of God” and described at length how deeply rooted these stories are in humanity’s collective psyche; indeed, how they are manifestations of our anxious quest to encounter that which is greater than ourselves.

Myths do embody a kind of wisdom, but they must be continuously reinterpreted as our intellects evolve, especially since the advent of evidentiary science, the apparent sworn enemy of mythology. Some say this need not be so, as our most cherished myths probe the question of why while science address the how of things. Karen Armstrong, for example, argues in her many books that religion, rooted in mythology, is a complex human artifact akin to art and architecture that interprets rather than explains the cosmos.

"Mask of God-1" by Prakash G Naya

“Mask of God-1” by Prakash G Naya

All of which may be true, but such finesses fall short of addressing the fundamental issue: Scientific method is a direct challenge to mythological interpretation and belief. This has long been a fundamental clash in human history – rationalist philosophy versus religion – but it has never been more intense than has been since the European Renaissance.

Scientists don’t tell stories; they develop theories. Ironically, there’s not a great deal of difference between these two processes: Both begin with the human imagination; both ponder what is and wonder what is beyond the current scope of knowledge; both develop a narrative of what ought to be or, at least, what seems to be.

Science, however, tests its theories, and therein lies the great divide. Myths are seldom examined once they are embraced; indeed, because they become so much a part of the fabric of our belief systems, myths – even silly ones – may endure far beyond their interpretive usefulness. A theory, however, may die instantly when it either is disproved or remains unproven and dies of irrelevance.

The rub gets raw when myths and science give apparently contradictory accounts of the same thing – e.g., the origin of the universe; and, things get really down and dirty when science examines the myths themselves – e.g., the virgin birth of Jesus – and concludes that they are not true. Secular myths, too, are subject to scientific scrutiny, and many are just as susceptible to being found untrue; for example, the idea that America was founded upon the premise of “liberty and justice for all” when, in fact – as the science of historical research tells us – it was founded upon the premise of privilege for certain classes and types of people, let alone that it entailed the genocide of native peoples.

The irony is that myths endure despite the rigor of scientific inquiry. We prefer to believe that the universe was created by a supernatural being and that Jesus’ mother was a virgin; and, especially, we want to believe that our beloved nation was not founded mostly by a mercantile class of white men who believed that women and slaves were second-class citizens and that indigenous peoples were expendable.

Truth be known – if it can be said to be known at all – the premises of Star Wars and Roots can not endure scientific scrutiny, but who cares? These myths transmit a certain kind of truth to those who believe just as the unscientific stories of Judeo-Christian scripture and popular conceptions of the United States transmit something that is true for and of faithful Christians and, probably, most American citizens.

But what kind of truth is that, especially if it leads us to make irrational decisions at this or that tipping point in history? Our cherished myths – major and minor – may sustain us as human consciousness examines the why of things, but are we to ignore what humanity knows of the how of things when it impinges upon our mythological interpretation of reality?

Science hasn’t cornered the truth market, but at least it concedes the limits of its knowledge and changes its interpretation of the world when data compel it to do so. The same cannot be said of those who embrace myths as though they were verifiably true and reject scientific evidence out of hand when it conflicts with their beliefs. Unfortunately, it’s just another way among many that we humans have separated ourselves from one another by fundamental differences of perspective and find ourselves in an apparently hopeless cycle of rancor, denial and blame.

There are myths about that; they seem to ring true, and it is unlikely that science will soon develop a remedy for hubris, humanity’s overweening pride – in our myths and in our science.


2 Responses to “Embracing myth and theory”

  1. Patsy Durham said

    What a wonder-filled thought-filled way to start a new near. Thank you, Friend.

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