Tag Archives: Joseph Campbell

The Gospel of Star Wars

Long ago, in a galaxy far away, I was in high school.  It was a mediocre public school in Lancaster County, PennsylvaniaPaulBarberEdit1 where there was a holiday for the first day of deer hunting season, but not for Martin Luther King Day.  This is, however, where I met Mr. Paul R. Barber, my own Jedi  master.  Mr. Barber died this month, so this column is in his honor.

Having lived in the Midwest and visited Texas, Missouri, and Oklahoma, I can tell you that Lancaster County trumps all of them with Bible-belt influence.  Some people consider that a good thing, I am not one of them.  The predominant Biblical interpretation for this region is literal, which strips Christianity of the rich potential of metaphor.  It was in this environment that Mr. Barber volunteered to teach world religions.  He was a devout, practicing Roman Catholic, but when he taught Hinduism, he became a Hindu.  He was so effective that invariably the Biblical fanatics in class – and there were always several of them – would barrage him with angry arguments.  They expected his approach to teaching non-Christian religions would be to offer up what was wrong with them.  Living where I did, I think I understand what it was like for Luke Skywalker on the desert, trying to farm, when he finally met Obi-Wan Kenobi (Episode IV: A New Hope, the first movie produced), who would become his own Jedi master.

With Mr. Barber, I took an independent study in philosophy where he introduced me to the likes of existentialism and pragmatism, while also letting me read Jonathan Livingston Seagull and showing me how to find philosophy in popular culture and simplistic books.  At the time of this writing, All Things Religious is up to about 6,500 views.  I recognize that CNN gets that many hits in 15 minutes, but think about how long it would take the majority of clergy persons whose average Sunday audience is 70, to be able to say their sermons were heard 6,500 times.  I would not have taken this path without Mr. Barber.

Star Wars creator George Lucas said, “I’ve always tried to be aware of what I say in my films, because all of us who make motion pictures are teachers — teachers with very loud voices.”
http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/george-lucas/about-george-lucas/649/LucasC3PO

The values and mythology of Star Wars was not accidental.  Lucas told “American Masters” (PBS): “There was no modern mythology to give kids a sense of values, to give them a strong mythological fantasy life…Nothing was being done for young people with real psychological underpinnings.”  Lucas said that he set out to write a “modern fairy tale” for children and was greatly influenced by mythology scholar, Joseph Campbell (substantiating YouTube link follows).
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bSyyqctan2c

Joseph Campbell warned us (“The Power of the Myth,” with Bill Moyers, PBS) that without mythology, society starts to fall apart.  If you would challenge that, then observe the shocking and ever-increasing incidents of random shootings.

It is possible that a secular culture, like Lucas created in Star Wars, can still share stories, fantasies and a value system.  The Galactic Republic of Star Wars was the democratic union that governed the galaxy of many races and species in peace for a thousand years with the Jedi Order as guardians of peace and justice.  Then slowly and surreptitiously, the (evil) Empire rose to destroy democracy to the benefit of the few.  Their challenge was all the easier in a culture that had succumb to corruption and bureaucratic inertia.

The Jedi Knights were the spiritual sort in the galaxy who trained and self-governed with telepathy, insight, and wisdom.  I see them as conscience police.  When bad things happened, it was good to call a Jedi to investigate and defend.  They were armed with lightsabers which were more for defense than offense and had both power and grace.

Lucas mixed the temporal and the meta-physical by introducing the “Force” and the midi-chlorians.  For help on this, I found a site that calls itself “Wookieepedia,” the Wiki for Star Wars.  (Don’t know how good it is but it the name makes me smile.)  It convincingly described the Force as “a pervasive energy field.”  It’s a little more than that because it seems to have a “will” for the creatures of the galaxy.  To help interpret that will, there are the microscopic midi-chlorians which are present to varying degrees in different species, highest of course in the Jedi.
http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Midi-chlorian

At this point I remind you that the creator of the Star Wars phenomena – for it is a great deal more than six movies, set out to tell stories to children.  The movies have all been extremely successful.  There are Web sites, games, toys, Halloween costumes and products that seem to reach to the stars.  One year for Halloween I was a Jedi Knight and my little dog was Yoda.  Some silly neighborhood kid came as Darth Vader and was freaked out when I drew my lightsaber on him.  Well, what was he expecting?  I’ve got your lightsaber now, kid.

I propose that Star Wars is more than entertainment and Joseph Campbell was right.  The attraction to those stories speaks to our natural desire for myths that serve our time.  Curiosity about the metaphysical is natural.  A common morality is essential.  As a global community, we have to stand outside our own traditions to recognize our common values.  I don’t see how we can survive otherwise.  I challenge you to present me with a culture that doesn’t value justice, for example, though of course not as much agreement on how it is defined.  Or view from the reverse perspective; examine what’s behind those trying to impose micro-ethics on others.  I predict you will see a desire to control, oppress, or subjugate someone who is different, and it is often fear-based.

Here’s what Master Yoda said about that (Episode I): “Fear is the path to the dark side.  Fear leads to anger.  Anger leads to hate.  Hate leads to suffering.”

Thank you Jedi Master Paul Barber.  May the Force be with you. –J.B.

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Have a Yourself a Very Druid Christmas

The holiday season always brings with it the whining of Christian traditionalists to ‘keep Christ in Christmas’ and wanting to take all of us back to that ‘old time religion.’  I suppose most of these folks are not reading this blog, but if you get a chance, please remind them that the Christians stole December 25th from the pagans and no one really knows when Jesus was born.

The Winter Solstice was a popular December festival celebrating the coming light of spring as the days started to get longer, not shorter, following the first day of winter.  It was such a darn good celebration that Christian converts didn’t want to give it up.  Who can blame them?  They even took the now popular Christmas tree and transitioned that ancient fertility symbol into something for their own religion.  So if we reflect on Christmas and the Old Time Religion, we may need to study the Druids, who I’m told, really knew how to party.

When it comes to clashing traditions and complementary myths, there is no one better to turn to than gifted storyteller and mythology expert, the late Joseph Campbell.  He and Bill Moyers (journalist and Christian theologian) produced that series for public television in the 1980s.  In Program Two, “The Message of The Myth,” he said, “Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life.”  Campbell showed us that today’s common perception of the word myth as an untrue story, like an urban legend, is a mistaken understanding.  As Karen Armstrong also said, “In popular parlance, a ‘myth’ is something that is not true.  But in the past, myth was not self-indulgent fantasy; rather…it helped people to live effectively in our confusing world…” (The Case for God, p.xi).

The following excerpt is one way Campbell and Moyers said it, again from Program Two (which I transcribed, so the sentence structure is mine).

MOYERS:  Far from undermining my faith, your work in mythology has liberated it from the cultural prisons to which it had been sentenced.

CAMPBELL:  Every mythology, every religion, is true in this sense, it is true as metaphorical of the human and cosmic mystery.

The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions said, “But while myths may be both intended and understood as factual, it is clear that more often they are stories which point to truths of a kind that cannot be told in other ways, and which are not disturbed if the apparent ‘facts’ of the supposed case are shown to be otherwise…” (p.672).  So just in case any fundamentalists are reading this blog, myths are your friends, just as they are mine.  You may choose a literal interpretation of your myths, but by preserving the underlying metaphor, you are assuring the longevity of those stories.  It’s as simple as the story of the boy who cried wolf.  Does it matter if some kid really did this?  Of course not.  However, the underlying wisdom of that story can be applied to a medieval village or an Internet web site.  When fundamental religions cling to the details of the myth, they limit the possibilities offered by the lessons of the metaphor.

Whether we are talking about Jesus, Mohammed, Abraham, or the Buddha, all traditions offer us myths to live by.  Describing these stories as myths does not demote them to the realm of fiction but strengthens their identity as timeless metaphors.  “Star Wars” is an example of contemporary fiction with common human metaphors that express timeless values.  Watch any of the movies again and identify themes like heroism, justice and oppression, good and evil, the vision quest, and love, just to name a few.

Joseph Campbell said: “It’s ridiculous to go back to the old time religion.  A friend of mine composed a song based on ‘The Old Time Religion.’

‘Give me the Old Time Religion

Let us worship Zarathustra

Just the way we usta’

Zara-thustra-busta

He’s good enough for me.

All religions are true for their time if you can find what the truth is and separate it from the temporal inflection.  Just bring your same old religion into a new set of metaphors and you’ve got it.”  (In case your ancient religious history is rusty, Zarathustra was an Iranian prophet from c.6,000 BCE.)

No matter what holiday you celebrate, even if it’s just a day off work because of someone else’s religion, I hope your holidays are pleasant.  I plan on spending a perfectly Druid Holiday in the best city in the world: The Big Easy, New Orleans, NOLA.  I hope to make the Druids proud – and I’m ready, though I’m not entirely sure NOLA is ready for me.

Faith and the Lost Dog

This column is going to be more personal than what I usually write, and I do not promise a happy ending.  Consider yourself warned.  Don’t worry, I won’t do it often.    It is also a little longer than usual.  I have edited as best I could and I just can’t say what I need to say in fewer words.  And personal column or not, your comments in response are always welcome.

Religion, doctrine, theology, these are all big picture concepts.  What we believe, what we have faith in – that is where the rubber meets the road.  Faith is individual and personal, and not an area where any of us have the right to dictate to each other.  Further, if you are deferring your own personal discernment to others, whether they are friends, spouses, or clergy (especially clergy), then you are shirking responsibility for your own spirituality.  (I don’t mean atheists or agnostics, for they – by definition – are taking a position for themselves.)

My faith is exercised by believing in an eventual good outcome in times of pain and noticing the times of joy and contentment with gratitude.  Just Monday morning I was sitting in my office writing, with my dog Buddy crashed out on the futon looking so content I took a picture.  I remember feeling grateful to have the peace and safe space to read, and write, and be with the unquestioning devotion of Buddy.  Joseph Campbell said, “Follow your bliss,” and I can say that this was a blissful morning.  I don’t have a full-time job and I never seem to have money, but in that moment, life was perfect for me.

I have to ask, is joyful contentment an invitation for Evil?  It seems so.  On Tuesday evening Buddy ran away.  Buddy has epilepsy and I give him a lot medication every day.  He has run twice before, but I sincerely believed we had corrected his lapses in judgment and willingness to cooperate with me.  That being said, there is nothing he loves more than running and running with reckless abandon.  I couldn’t bring myself to keep him constantly tethered to me on a leash.  Our yard is big and sheltered and I had every confidence that I could teach him it was best to stay home.  I was so very wrong.  It was as if Evil whispered in his ear and even as he was looking back at me, he just kept going further away from me until he vanished into suburban hedges.  The last time I saw him was 6:20 p.m. on Tuesday evening.

And that is why I found myself last evening sitting in the backyard of my veterinarian’s office (close to where he was last spotted) from 9:30 p.m. to midnight, writing by flashlight in between meditating and dozing off.  I did this the night before (except for the writing part) and have spent many other hours starting at 5:30 a.m. driving, walking, and sitting search for my missing dog.  Again and again I ask how this is possible when Buddy and I are so connected.  As I write this, it is Buddy’s fifth day in 90-plus degree heat with no food, water, or medication.  Maybe I’ve been watching too many “Charmed” re-runs, but isn’t there some protection for the innocent?  Well, if Evil is an entity with a dark plan for pain, this was the most successful shot at my faith that could have been fired.

In the interests of disclosure, I practice Christianity, though many Christians would not want to claim me.  I’m not really sure about the deity of Jesus and I certainly don’t believe Christianity is the only ultimate truth.  I admit to cursing like a stevedore and loving tequila.  Though I am now with my favorite spouse, I have too many divorces behind me.  (I think you get the picture.)

I do not believe in God the Chess Master, smirking while we all scramble to figure out his mysterious “will” for our lives.  I do believe in karmic justice and every time I get screwed I hope that I live long enough to see some of it.  I also do not believe in a Santa Claus God to whom we submit requests for relief from pain or just bonuses for being such great folks – like a winning lottery ticket.  I do believe in miracles, but most often the miracle is that another human was motivated to do something kind for no personal gain.  That counts, by golly.

If Buddy does not come home safely, or worst of all, if I never actually know what happened to him, then I have to say, Evil won.  That is quite enough to make me question the power of love in the universe.

Remember Chief Seattle told us we are all part of the web of life?  The reverence of that connection is what my relationship with Buddy means to me.  I had an everyday connection to all that is good in the world.  I had a clear understanding of unconditional love.  I knew simple joy.  So if it is the goal of Evil to disrupt and destroy: mission accomplished.  If I never see Buddy again, I expect to go on with my life.  His abrupt and premature departure does not diminish what we had.  It does shake my faith to the core.  I don’t really believe in a personal God, but I also don’t believe in Nothing.  And somewhere in the middle, I was hoping for help in a time of pain for things that are out of my control.  Sort of sums up the human condition, doesn’t it?  Well, we’ll see what happens.

P.S. Don’t tell me if you find a typo.  I haven’t slept much since Tuesday.

Epilogue: As of 7/19/2010  he is not home and no one has seen him since the 15th.