Aren’t kids in elementary school, or before, taught lying is wrong? Is that social convention or morality? Is lying always wrong? If you’re lying to protect the Underground Railroad, for example, then I’m going to go with not wrong. And perhaps to that classic question: Do I look fat? – it might be wise to say no, regardless of one’s honest opinion. Socially, we rarely say, ‘No, I’m not busy, but I don’t want to meet you;’ we create a socially acceptable alibi. And what about lying to our parents? I know several of the world’s religions have something to say both about how we treat our parents and about lying.
I have a friend whose 20-something offspring lies to him on a regular basis. It seems like this happens even when it just doesn’t matter, over the simplest questions. Perhaps the lies started when the kid was younger and trying to craft a conflict-free space between divorced parents. Perhaps lying was easier than working things out honestly. A short-cut. What I have noticed from the outside-looking-in, is it seems that these routine lies present no apparent moral dilemma for my friend’s progeny. Nonetheless the pattern of willful deceit is as hurtful to my friend as it is habitual for the kid. So maybe, the moral measure of the lie is the impact it has on others. In this case, I believe these lies are wrong because of how they hurt the parent and damage the relationship.
In everyday vernacular, the word myth has come to be interpreted as something that’s not true. I have the 1997 publication of the Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (John Bowker, ed.) and in spite of offering numerous thorough and worthy definitions in over two pages, the Oxford also says that the word myth has “become synonymous with falsehood” (p.671). That is an unfortunate use of the word. Myths, some related to religion and some not, are more like fairy tales, by best definition, as I wrote about previously.
Not too many people read “The Three Pigs” and debate whether the story ever happened. Fairy tales entertain us with a story and offer some moral guidance. No one wants a house that the Big Bad Wolf can blow down in one exhale, so perhaps this story suggests we might prepare for the worst and take more time to build a safer house, literally or metaphorically. Myths can offer social and moral guidance, when the word myth is used in the most accurate sense, and perhaps we shouldn’t use cable TV as an example. I just tried to watch two different shows with myth in the title: “Myth Busters,” and “Myth Hunters.” The first program was just an excuse to crash cars and de-bunk or recreate movie stunts. I couldn’t stand watching more than two minutes.
I watched two episodes of “Myth Hunters” on Netflix with two different men trying to prove two different Biblical myths. One guy tried to locate Noah’s Ark and the other claimed he located the Ark of the Covenant (both of Jewish and Christian legend). What I could not understand is why. They thought that by “proving” these two things existed, they would prove god exists. The thing is that even if someone locates what seems to be Noah’s Ark, there there is no way to actually prove that’s what it is. The other thing is that faith should not come out of proof, but rather inspiration, study, meditation, or life experience, to name a few different paths. Faith is all about believing what can’t be proven. If you need a series of facts to support your religion, then maybe religion is not for you. Stick with science – which is not to say science and religion are mutually exclusive. The complexity and grandeur of the universe is inspiring to me. Mystical in fact. But my inspiration not destroyed by basic scientific principles like gravity, climate change, or evolution.
Our culture needs more myths. I can imagine a modern myth about a greedy stock broker who nearly caused the collapse of the economy while amassing so much personal wealth that he literally exploded and all his wealth was turned into gold coins that rained down on public housing. I can also imagine a kid who lies to a parent so much that every lie sucks her into a hole from which only her parent can provide rescue if there is just one honest request, but the kid no longer remembers how to tell the truth.
Myths offer us the possibility of social subtlety, which I would think would be welcome in our screaming mass media world. An entertaining story with a variety of interpretations and moral lessons can be appreciated or politely ignored. You get to choose. By contrast, there is no need for the arrogance of shallow, accusatory television evangelists spewing simplistic answers to complex issues. That is the dumbing-down of moral lessons, and again, arrogance.
I would cite the popularity of Harry Potter as evidence on how myth serves humanity, especially the young. The book series had a clear value system, primarily social justice and defeating oppressors. Who doesn’t want to hear that story? There was personal sacrifice for the greater good and compassion toward outcasts. These are welcome messages, with the potential for positive social impact. And apparently, I’m not the only one who likes the Potter myth or J.K. Rowling would not have gone from welfare mother to billionaire.
While suffering the fools pursuing a real Noah’s Ark on Netflix, I found myself pondering it as a myth. It is not so hard to imagine a god disgusted with humanity and ready for a do-over. Then I think about Noah and what I take-away from that myth is that maybe, just maybe, one good person can make a difference. You may be mocked, it may mean tremendous sacrifice, but the flooding will come to an end and there will be rebirth, somewhere, somehow. And all that rebirth was made possible because God found one good person. One good person prevented the complete destruction of the world as he knew it; and, also noteworthy, lots of animals were saved. Finding Noah’s Ark doesn’t prove Noah or God exist, but not finding his boat doesn’t mean the story is a lie, or without value. It doesn’t matter if it happened, it is a myth. It is a story that engages our imagination and gives us something to think about. One good person made a difference in spite of personal sacrifice and that is a myth to live by. – J.B.