I just finished finished reading Karen Armstrong’s A Short History of Myth (2005). Almost everyone loves myth from a distance, as a conceptual springboard or reference, as long as it doesn’t get too close to one’s own beliefs or worldview. This book helps put myth in a more useful perspective, which I’d like to explore. But rather than spend several paragraphs defining or explaining what myths are or are not, I’ll just settle for a one-sentence definition [myths are stories about the world with cosmic significance, that talk about birth and death, love and pain, good and evil, earth and sky, origins and end times] and move on to the good stuff. I’ll give one paragraph each to two particularly relevant points Armstrong makes in the book, then speculate a bit on whether and how Mormonism has shown itself capable of providing usable myths for the modern world.
The first point from the book is that the myths that emerged or developed during various historical periods relate directly to the material and cultural circumstances of the human situation at that time. So the cave paintings of animals and hunting stories come from the hunter/gatherer period; the burial and rebirth stories from the advent and flourishing of agriculture; and the burst of ethical thinking characteristic of what she calls the “Axial Age” (represented in the Bible by the writing prophets of the Old Testament) from the period following the emergence of urban centers, which precipitated a humanistic reaction to the difficulties of urban life. In a sense, we are still living off of the moral capital accumulated during the Axial Age. But the question naturally arises: What sort of mythology would develop or result from the modern world of our own day? What myths work in the modern world?
Which leads to the second point from the book. The modern age is characterized by a split between mythos and logos, between story and logic or reason. Armstrong traces the split back to the Greeks — Plato, for example, would banish poets from his ideal city, although it is worth noting that Plato himself made effective use of myth in his own writings. Our modern notions of truth are firmly grounded in logos and are defined by history and science. Armstrong notes how unique the modern Western world is in rejecting its own traditional (i.e., religious) mythical heritage. The modern world lives largely without compelling myths. That sets up her final observations in the last chapter of the book about how writers, artists, and poets have stepped in to fill that void. She briefly discusses T.S. Eliot, Picasso, Joyce, Orwell, Conrad, and Thomas Mann. Like Joseph Campbell, who rejected the idea that “old-time religion” could meet the mythical needs of the modern world, Armstrong doesn’t seem to think religion has that much to offer anymore. But it’s not clear to me that artists and poets really have much to offer either. The mythical shelves are pretty bare these days.
Which leads to my inquiry: Does Mormonism have anything to offer? Does Mormon doctrine or the Mormon worldview provide any mythic frames that provide Mormons with meaningful and effective ways to live their lives? I’m aware this is a different line of thinking than the standard apologetic defense or critical attack on LDS beliefs and claims, which (as one would expect, we being moderns) each use the facts and theories of history and science to persuade one way or the other. What I’m getting at is the fact that Mormonism seems to mean a lot more to most Mormons than other modern thought systems (either religious, sceintific, or the writer-and-artist variety) seem to mean to their adherents. Here are three LDS doctrines or beliefs that seem to serve something like a mythic function for Mormons. Perhaps readers have other possibilities to offer.
1. The Pre-existence. If you grow up with it, it seems so natural. To converts, it is invariably a welcome concept. Truman Madsen’s book Eternal Man lends some depth to the doctrine. Saturday’s Warrior shows its dramatic possibilities. Its potential abuses were on full display when the Pre-existence was used as a justification or explanation for the pre-1978 priesthood policy, which helps us understand why pre-existence was and is a heresy for classical Christians. But that doesn’t undermine its overall significance for Mormons. It’s our answer to the question, Where did we come from? Can’t get more mythic than that.
2. Temples as sacred space. Non-Mormons struggle just to understand what goes on in temples and how ordinances performed in LDS temples fit into the LDS plan of salvation. But what temples mean or symbolize to practicing Mormons goes well beyond mere ordinances. Temples are important to Mormons just for being there. Other denominations really do not have any sacred spaces that do for their members what temples seem to do for Mormons.
3. Lehi’s dream. This one actually takes the traditional form of a myth. It’s amazing how much mileage we get out of this rather straightforward narrative, which occupies all of 29 verses in 1 Nephi 8. I imagine there isn’t a kid who has grown up Mormon who hasn’t seen this illustrated on the chalkboard at least five times in one or another church class. Mists of darkness, rod of iron, great and spacious building … these are symbols for shared cultural concepts for Mormons, taught or at least highlighted in a pedagogical way by the narrative of Lehi’s dream.
Like I said, you may have others to offer.