David Brooks in the New York Times offers an interesting contrast between “myth” and “parable,” arguing that we may be in the midst of a “Fourth Great Awakening,” with this time a “mythic” religion.
Looking at the superhero movies that dominate the pop culture, our adulation of sports heroes, and our current political values, Brooks notes the decline of parable-based religion, and the rise of a religious sensibility based around heroes and heroic achievements.
Myths respond to our hunger to do something heroic. Whether it is Zeus, Thor, Luke Skywalker or Wonder Woman, myths trace the archetypal chapters of the heroic quest or combat: refusing the call, the meeting of the mentor, the ordeal, seizing the sword and so on.
The core drama is external: fighting the forces of evil, enduring the harsh journey, developing the skills that make you the best.
Parable is a different kind of story. Parables are usually set in normal time and reality. Parables have ordinary human characters, never superheroes. The word parable comes from the Greek word meaning comparison. Parables are meant to be relatable and didactic.
Parables respond to our deep hunger to be in close relationship. Parables — think of the good Samaritan, the emperor’s new clothes, the prodigal son or the story of Ruth, Naomi and Boaz — are mostly about inner states, not external combat. Characters are presented with a moral dilemma or a moral occasion, and the key question is whether they express charity, faithfulness, forgiveness, commitment and love.
Myths tend to celebrate grandeur and heroic superiority; parables tend to puncture the pretensions of superiority and celebrate humility and service to others. . . .
There are many virtues to the mythic worldview — to stand heroically for justice, to be loyal to friends and fierce against foes. But history does offer some sobering lessons about societies that relied too heavily on the competitive virtues.
They tend to give short shrift to relationships, which depend on the fragile, intimate bonds of vulnerability, trust, compassion and selfless love. They tend to see life as an eternal competition between warring tribes. They tend to see the line between good and evil as running between groups, not, as in parable, down the middle of every human heart.
We’re spiritual creatures; our lives are shaped by the moral landscapes and ideals we inherit and absorb. I’d say our politics and our society are coming to resemble the competitive mythic ethos that is suddenly all around.
I’m not sure about this dichotomy and if Brooks has the right understanding of “parable.” But these are not just literary distinctions.
In his book Sacred Discontent: The Bible and Western Tradition, Herbert Schneidau shows with considerable exegetical, anthropological, and archaeological evidence that the Bible opposes and casts down the “mythical” mindset and “mythical” cultural values, as exemplified, for example, by the Hebrews’ pagan neighbors.
If Brooks is right in seeing a religious awakening with all of this mythological hero-worshipping and mythological values, it will be a revival of pre-Christian paganism, complete with a divinized state, the exaltation of war, leaders with god-like authority, and the inability to criticize the status quo.
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