Modern Myths

Continuing the thoughts on engaging a secularized society from the previous post but one, I approach the issue of a secular age from a slightly different direction. Rather than starting from secularity, I start by looking for myth and go from there. If the principal tenet of 20th century secularity thought is that a grown-up society doesn’t need myths and superstitions, then it seems to me that modern society has decisively proven this to be false. The chief refutation is the veritable explosion of the genres of speculative fiction in the past century, and in particular in pop culture in the last fifty or so years.

Speculative fiction is the formal label for genres like Science Fiction, Fantasy, and various blendings of the two.

Once considered the provenance of nerds, geeks, and misfits, the American Entertainment juggernaut has moved them mainstream over the last half century. Whether they have created a market or found one is, no doubt, a matter for debate, that it has become so is not really up for debate. Think about it: Star Trek, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, the Marvel universe, the DC universe, Dr. Who, Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Game of Thrones—the list can go on as these are only some of the major players in America… The embrace of these myth cycles and the obsession of their respective fandoms is telling.

Humans need myth. We need stories that speak to our deep desires around power, around what makes us human, around the true nature of reality and how that truth confirms, denies, or transcends our quotidian experience of the material world.

I’d even go a step further and suggest that these various modern myth cycles have a built-in liturgical component. If we understand liturgy in its broadest possible terms—an engaging experience where we are intellectually and emotionally connected with the myth and its thought world—then the movies, video games, and tv shows that transmit these (even moreso than the books or graphic novels from which they may have been born) should be seen as the liturgical underpinnings of these modern myths.

Now—there are a whole lot of directions we could go in from here. However, let me make just one point… When we consider these modern “secular” myths in relation to something like Christianity, a major distinguishing factor is that the barrier to entry and the myth’s demands on the person are much less.

By “barrier to entry” I’m referring to the faith-claim necessary; it’s much lower for these. No one asks whether Star Wars or Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings “happened,” whether they are historically true. Rational people accept that they are works of fiction—albeit ones that engage in discussion of things that can be both deep and true despite their obvious lack in the historicity department. Likewise, as in the polytheistic pluralism that marked much of the Greco-Roman world, enjoying one does not mean foreswearing all of the others.  There is less to believe, and that belief does not have to be exclusive.

Too, these various fandoms do not require the kind of personal transformation that a religion with a weighty ethical component demands of its adherents. Sure, you can choose to hold certain beliefs inculcated by the various thought-worlds, emulate the deeds of certain core characters, but nothing requires that.

As I said—much more could be and probably should be said around this topic, but this is all I have time for now. I suppose the bottom line for me is this: we may live in a modern age, but I seriously question the degree to which it is secular. We still live in a deeply mythic world because that is the nature and character of the human imagination. The question is how we use that to reflect upon, embody, and proclaim the Gospel.

2 thoughts on “Modern Myths

  1. Vik Slen

    I will read this more carefully soon, but I love where you’re going by identifying the core human attributes of religion even as they apply in a “non-religious” (secular) society. Yes, the mass media are the principal component of our postmodern secular global liturgy.

  2. Marguerite K.

    Many years ago, I found my way back to church through the myth and liturgies of ancient and primitive people. A narrative means something and you act in a deliberate way to embody it.

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