The Power of Myth

There seems to be a strong bias against fact in this day and age.  James Poniewozik in Time magazine (23 Aug 2010) states:

On Aug 4, Barack Obama, celebrated his 49th birthday.  Or at least, he did if you live in one version of the U.S.  If you live in another version, on Aug 4, Barack Obama, the claimant to the presidency, celebrated an unknown anniversary of his birth on foreign soil, maybe Kenya, which makes him ineligible to hold his office.


Many also believe that he (obama) is a Muslim, that 9/11 was an inside job or the work of Saddam Hussein, that health care reform will establish “death panels,” that FEMA made plans for “concentration camps,” that Trig Palin’s real mother is not Sarah but Bristol, that corporations or community organizers stole this or that election.

And religions are not immune from the power of myth.  A very high percentage of Americans do not believe in evolution, instead professing a belief in the literal story at the start of Genesis.  The Old Testament is full of myths that many Christians continue to believe are reality, for example:

  • The creation story including Adam and Eve
  • No death before the fall
  • Noah’s flood
  • Tower of Babel and language
  • Jonah and the big fish
  • Earth standing still

The Old Testament may be great literature, but is not particularly good history, and its certainly not a science book.

Mormons are certainly not immune from believing in myths.  For example:

  • Seagull-and-cricket story
  • Three Nephite stories
  • All Native Americans are Lamanites
  • Afro-Americans are descendants of Cain and Ham, they were fence sitters in the war in heaven

Some of us would rather believe an inspirational fabrication, than a scientific fact.  This anti-intellectualism is disturbing.  But this type of thinking seems to be encouraged by the faction represented by Joseph Fielding Smith, Ezra Taft Benson, Bruce R. McConkie, and Boyd K. Packer.  On the other side, you have individuals like B.H. Roberts, James Talmage, John A. Widtsoe, Henry Eyring, and many contemporary scientists at BYU who argue for a more scientific fact-based approach to Mormonism and religion in general. 

If we don’t give up on our myths (or at least de-emphasize them), we will continue to lose our young college-trained members.  We are already losing our appeal to scientific community.

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7 Responses to The Power of Myth

  1. Susan says:

    I occasionally play the piano in LDS Primary. The subject on a particular Sunday in July (to coincide with Pioneer Day) was the story of the Mormons and the crickets. Quite frankly, I hadn’t heard the story for some time, so it refreshed my old, worn-out memory. Hearing it as an adult (subjective, I know), vs. a primary child spun an entirely different light on the cricket/seagull story. I would love to read any journals from those of the day who actually witnessed this supposed event. For now, I’ll categorize it as another “Mormon legend” story. I believe that we need to shelve some of these supposed stories that get resurrected on a regular basis. It’s one thing to tell a 3-7 year old this story in junior primary (captive audience), but as we progress, college-trained members will find these kind of stories less appealing. It is difficult to be taught these stories your entire life, and then realize that in all reality, they are most likely untrue.

  2. dor says:

    extremely well said. An adherence to the myth also works at cross-purposes for what those stories teach. Keeping them as myths are a way to have power over the lessons, rather than seeing the stories as universal and ways of understanding even our world today.

    Adherence to the myth not only means we lose young people from our faiths, but that we as faith communities become irrelevant. As the faith communities become increasingly marginalized in an age of scientific acceleration, we run the risk of losing a voice that can influence and inform ethics and morality.

  3. dor says:

    One other thing. This post from TED, quoting Joseph Campbell seems relevant to this discussion:
    “The old gods are dead or dying and people everywhere are searching, asking: What is the new mythology to be, the mythology of this earth as of one harmonious being?” – Joseph Campbell Joseph Campbell often pointed out that Western culture is in a mythological free fall.”

    It links myth with inspiration and suggests that we need new myths coming from art and the creative community

  4. Laur says:

    Maybe we just need to present things in context. Myths can be a great tool for teaching kids. The cricket seagull one is a great example, if you put it next to Johnny Appleseed and teach kids to appreciate the concept while giving them the tools to understand the difference between gospel truth it would be a kick start to questioning the meatier parts of the gospel and creating a culture of truth seeking rather than dogma.

  5. Roger Hansen says:

    I don’t really care if someone believes that earth is flat as long as they don’t try to make that belief a condition of membership. As long as they don’t preach it in Sunday School or other church meetings. When individuals like Donald W. Perry (Ensign, Jan 1998) suggest in an official LDS publication that members are required to believe in a literal Noah’s Flood and Tower Babel, then I start to have trouble.

    I have a friend whose son recently announced that he is an atheist. Part of his reasoning involves the idea that religion and evolution are not compatible (part of it is probably also youthful rebellion). Conservative church goers can no longer pretend that evolution is a failed abstraction. The LDS Church needs to take an unequivocal stand that the perceived conflicts between our beliefs and those of biologists can and will be resolved.

    I agree that some myths can be and are important. Certainly Johnny Appleseed is a great example. But at some point, they need to understand they are fiction, myths, embellished history, whatever.

  6. Susan says:

    Yesterday in church, it came up about all of us (LDS) being “called (at a moment’s notice) to walk back to Independence” to usher in the millennium. I suspect this is another “Mormon legend” but I hadn’t heard it for a while. See, that’s why I go to church. It refreshes my memory of all the legends that I’m missing out on.

  7. Roger Hansen says:

    Robert Kirby’s column in the SLTrib (24 Sep 2010) deals with this issue as it relates to a widle fire that threatened Herriman, UT:

    “There’s nothing like a close call for some people to start seeing a heavenly reason why they weren’t burned in a fire, squashed by an avalanche, drowned under a flood, or didn’t have their head pulled off by a gorilla just when it seemed imminent.

    Less than 48 hours after the fire, I overheard someone talking about a line of angels seen standing between the flames and a Rose Canyon home that didn’t get burned.

    When I tried to pin the person down regarding his source, he told me he must have heard someone talking about it at the store.”

    Kirby continues with a 3 Nephite story and then concludes:

    “On Monday, while driving around delivering sandwiches, I saw all sorts of exceptional explanations–firefighters, heavy equipment operators, and other public safety personnel who had spent the night between the flames and us (Kirby lives in Herriman).

    Filthy, exhausted and parched, they certainly didn’t look like angels or miracles. But for those of us whose homes didn’t get burned, they amounted to the same thing.”

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