Myths to Live by

Gods churn 2


cropped-screen-shot-2017-03-13-at-4-09-41-pm.pngThanks to those of you who attended book club last month. Based on a consensus among attendees, we have decided to modify the reading schedule for the remainder of the year. The corrected schedule can be found here. In a nutshell, book club members suspected that the book The Shallows would be too similar to Amusing Ourselves To Death, and opted to skip it. Next month’s book will be Faith Beyond Belief, and we’ll meet on June 15th at 7 PM.


As always, we had a wonderful discussion, though it was sometimes only marginally related to the book, Joseph Campbell’s Myths to Live By. A lot of us had a hard time reading it, especially under time pressure, which mostly seemed to be due to Campbell’s tendency to not say what he means. Campbell uses myths to hit his conclusions home — metaphor — rather than just saying what he means directly and in English.

For example, in the first chapter titled “The Impact of Science on Myth,” Campbell makes the case that science undermines our cultural religious beliefs, but that we should persist in it anyway. He says that science undermines belief by giving us concrete explanations for phenomena that previously required magical explanations. In doing so, he posits that the moral fabric of our society is threatened. That’s why, he says, we have so much badness in our current culture. To clarify, the “current culture” that Campbell was referring to is the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, when our society’s discourse tended toward angsty disarray over fears of the changes that the the civil rights and women’s movements were anticipated to bring us — which may or may not have been realized, depending on your particular bias. Of course, fifty years later, this is still the big fear that most religious authorities are still harping on about.

Although Campbell is a great advocate for science, rather than rejecting that theory outright, Campbell ends the chapter in the telling of the Samudra Manthana, a Hindu  origin myth. In the story, the  gods and the antigods all agreed to set aside their differences and join forces in the churning of the primordial Milky Ocean, with the goal of harvesting the secrets to immortality. They used Mount Mandara as a churning rod and the serpent Vasuki for a twirling-cord, and they started stirring away. The first thing to emerge from the Milky Ocean was a gas that was so toxic that it threatened to destroy all of creation. Fearing destruction, they immediately stopped churning, and then approached Shiva  for protection. Shiva was powerful enough to swallow the toxic gas, enabling the gods and antigods to get back to work, stirring the cosmic waters, until they yielded up all manner of good things.

From this, we are supposed to understand that Campbell’s opinion is that we should keep right on churning — keep pursuing and relying on scientific explanations for observed phenomena — until we get past the era of toxic effects, and we can begin realizing the benefits of science move fully. Campbell’s style is to never quite make those points explicitly, and so his text requires a close reading and analysis. This can be a challenge for casual readers (like us).

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