It is amazing what you remember as you get older. You would think that the really important things would stick with you; the first time you realized that your parents had an existence prior to your own, your first day at school, the first time you realized that boys and girls were different, and the first time that really mattered. Instead, your very first memories are often of something very trivial; the shape of a bridge near your house as you walk under it, an argument with your sister the outcome of which you remember as being completely different from what your parents told you. Some events are backlit by great emotion, such as when your first kitten ran out into traffic and was run over. Other events may be permanently inaccessible due to a trauma or a catastrophe.
Then there are the anomalies. You can remember every detail of a remote event as if you were there, but you can’t remember for the life of you where you were or what you were doing there. It was in the spring of 1974. I remember that because the Sun was shining and there were a lot of people outside. Since I was living in Michigan at the time, and the event was some kind of a Christian event – rally, concert or some such – it had to be in the spring of 1974. Prior to late 1973 I wouldn’t have voluntarily attended a Christian event, except maybe to argue with Christians. Ergo, it had to be during the spring or early summer of 1974. Some friends of mine brought a nun to me. I still don’t know why. The nun was young, not much older than we were, and kind of cute, even without make-up. She was clearly confused. My friends pushed the nun at me. The nun looked at me, and she said this;
“You have to demythologize what you read in the Bible, then remythologize it.”
I didn’t know how to respond. I heard the word “demythologize” which immediately triggered an association with the German philosopher/theologian Rudolph Bultmann, and this immediately raised a red flag in my head – “caution, liberal Christianity ahead!” The nun looked strangely grave. Why would a slightly older celibate Catholic girl, a girl I might have been interested in dating had she not been a nun, be looking at me like this, as earnestly as any of my Evangelical friends? She wanted me to respond.
‘I guess what you’re trying to say is that we don’t have to believe Jonah was actually swallowed by a fish to preach the gospel.’ I replied as best and a truthfully as I could at that time. ‘Yes!! Exactly!!’ the nun responded. ‘But it’s the remythologizing that is even more important!” I was flummoxed. I had absolutely no idea what the good sister meant by “remythologizing”. I don’t think I said anything. The literal snapshot memory ends with the good sister’s response, but something marked that tiny almost 40-year-old exchange as significant, since I can remember it vividly despite remembering nothing else about that day, not even why I was there.
Now, Rudolph Bultmann, as a German existential theologian, made a great noise about the de-mythologization of the message of the New Testament. It was his claim that ‘modern’, ‘scientifically-minded’ people couldn’t be expected to believe the miraculous, “obviously” mythological stories in the New Testament. Of course, Bultmann was not the first to point this out. North Atlantic, Anglo-Celtic society has been undergoing a three century-long process of demythologization, in the sense that no one believes, for example, in the story of Jonah and the Fish the way their seven-times-great-grandparents did. Even the ones who “believe” it feel a need to defend its historicity. Now, this is hard for me to think about, much less put into words, but when you cast a myth in terms of its “historicity” you have already lost that sense of primacy which the myth held before there was any controversy of whether it is “historical” or not. Nobody these days believes that Baldur the Good was slain by a twig of mistletoe guided by the hand of Loki the Trickster. It is a beautiful story, but here is the kicker; no one alive today understands what it meant for someone to believe it was true. Was it understood as historical by the Viking who stepped out of his boat into the surf, coming ashore on a beach in Northumberland? Did he invoke Baldur’s aid? What did he expect when he did so? This is what I had in mind when I posted about Neil Gaiman and the Neo-Pagans. The point that Mr. Gaiman was trying to make was not that neo-pagans were evil people, or hypocritical in the practice of their religion [although there are hypocrites and slackers in every religion], but that there isn’t any organic continuity between what they believe and what somebody believed about the same gods back in the seventh century. The stories about Baldur and Thor had been demythologized already, effectually, by the triumph of a superior mythology – that of Christianity. With the pruning back of Christianity in competition with rationalistic Modernism, room has been made for experiments like neo-paganism and neo-paganism is a remythologization. However, it is a re-mythologization that still lacks a myth, and apparently still in the salvage mode. Perhaps, and this is a big, big perhaps, there is a nexus of spiritual energy out there that was once known as ‘Thor’ or ‘Odin’. Maybe, and this is an even bigger maybe, and much more dangerous, that nexus may be relatively benign. People invoking ‘Thor’ or ‘Odin’ will have experiences with whatever is behind these names. Stories will circulate about these experiences, and they will be smoothed and embellished as stories inevitably are, and a new myth will arise.
Western Europe and its cultural outposts in the Americas are not the only society to have suffered demythologization. What took three centuries in Europe evaporated in a single week in August 1945 in the skies over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Japanese world view, their mythology, their belief in themselves as a people especially favored by heaven, and of their divine Emperor, dissipated immediately after their surrender to General Douglas MacArthur. This ended World War Two, and inaugurated a deep spiritual malaise in the Japanese soul. For a few decades, the spiritual malaise generated by this forcible demythologization was held at bay by a rising tide of prosperity, but this receded after the bursting of the Japanese economic bubble in the 1990s. The Japanese are great storytellers, and during this post war period, they generated a number of cautionary tales about the effects of atomic warfare, but all in all their stories were about the omnipotence of science and the triumphant march of modernity. Now, their comics [manga] and cartoons [anime ] are devoured in industrial quantities by sensitive and thoughtful Western young people as the Japanese struggle with questions of transcendence and identity, and attempt to rebuild their shattered mythological structure. Needless to say, this project is being very closely tracked by their co-sufferers in the West.
My next post will be about super-powers.