Monday, March 30, 2009


I picked up a copy of The Power of Myth from the library today. I'd been interested in reading it for a while now for a couple of reasons, the first being that I've been on a bit of a journey of self-discovery lately---who isn't, right?---which has involved me keeping a dream journal, which in turn has led to me reading up a fair bit on myth and archetype. Yeah. Whatever, it's fun. The second reason, though, is a little more complicated, and requires a little background. But before that, I think I need to explain what prompted this post.

When I opened the book, the first thing to catch my eye was that someone had written in pencil, above the Introduction:
"...the full assurance of understanding, to the knowledge and mystery of God, both of the Father and of Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Now this I say lest anyone should decieve (sic) you through persuasive words...Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit...not according to Christ. Col. 2:2-8"
Now, I take it as a positive sign that my first thought was, "Huh. Some douchebag on a holy mission", rather than "God is sending you a warning! Turn back! Oh noes!" That was, however, my very next thought, and I had to take a moment to talk myself through the panic before I could move on...which is a pretty clear sign that I'm not all better yet. Once I got past it, though, I began to read and found that Douchebag On A Mission (DOAM) had littered the margins with smarmy little notes.

"Who defines good?"

"Never talk about truth just what seems best."

"Professing to be wise, they became fools. Rom 1:22"

"Creation tells us things about God men understand but corrupt yet God is the same."

"Those principalities went against the Gospel just like Campbell."

And much as I wanted to fling the book across the room, I had to laugh. How could I not? It was like looking at myself through a mirror into the past. If it weren't someone else's handwriting---and if I didn't have some scrupulous aversion to writing in books in the first place---I'd have guessed it was me. Which, strangely enough, leads us back to my second reason for picking up this book, which again, as I said, requires a bit of background.

See, while the Christian high school I attended was pretty solid on academics, it was equally (if not primarily) concerned with instilling the proper worldview in its students, which meant making sure we all were properly equipped to view life through the lens of their peculiar subset of Christianity, so that we could go out into the public sphere and badger others into doing the same.

Geds the Accidental Historian wrote up a great little Field Guide to The North American Evangelical some time back, which should serve as a helpful reference to any of you unfamiliar with this subculture. By my senior year, I had become #6, Answers to Everything, a particularly obnoxious little breed who, out of her own raging insecurity, seeks to amass knowledge for herself to build up a sturdy defense against all comers. I can't say for the whole staff, but a fair number of teachers there were of the Answers to Everything variety as well, and seemed to uphold it as the highest standard of Christian virtue. And I, being an obliging, codependent little wench, wanted nothing more than to give the right answer and receive a pat on the head in return.

Anyway, senior year. English class. Mrs. Jacobs. She was one of my favorite teachers, actually, and still is. She was a funny, insightful woman who, in spite of it all, genuinely challenged us to think. Looking back, actually, I notice that most of my favorite teachers were my English teachers . They seemed to have a better sense of humor and a more relaxed approach to life and human nature than did, say, the Bible teachers---but I suspect that's true of anyone who routinely deals with literature outside of a bizarre, narrow interpretation one's own holy scriptures.

But that's not to say the English teachers were entirely exempt from the little quirks of the Evangelical mindset. As we sat there one balmy May afternoon, wishing for the final bell, Mrs. Jacobs stood before us and warned us to be on our guard as we went off to college: the ideology represented in the video she was about to play for us was now standard fare at most universities, and it represented a grave danger to our faith. We spent the rest of the week watching the PBS special with Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell, with Mrs Jacobs piping up every so often to point out specific heresies we would no doubt encounter. I don't remember much about Campbell himself except that he said "metaphor" funny, and had really sweaty armpits. That much I remember. The embodiment of deception stood before us and he had sweaty armpits. I marveled at the banality of evil.

Months later, while my friends had all gone off to their colleges of choice, I was taking evening courses at community college with no real aim. I rationalized, of course. Two years here, then Berkeley. It's cheaper this way. People smiled and nodded, perhaps because they sensed that I needed them to. When two years had passed and I hadn't transferred, I had, by that time, become a very active member of a Charismatic church nearby, so it was very easy to decide that God had kept me at said junior college, in spite of my plans, for His greater purpose. Praise God. Every new turn of the story brought a new spin; a new understanding of God's divine plan. But of course it was all me: I hadn't turned in the things I needed to turn in, I had procrastinated until after all the due dates, mostly because I was afraid. I'd spent a lot of time online, avoiding friends and hiding from the decisions everyone kept saying I needed to make. In the end, I decided by not deciding, and now here I was, rotting in relative obscurity and embarrassment, while my friends were all off doing something to be proud of.

But I took deep comfort in the idea of "defending my faith", which, as most of you can probably guess, mainly meant cultivating a sense of persecution and striking back at imagined foes. In those moments, I didn't feel like a failure: I felt like a warrior. If my world looked mundane, that was only the illusion: everyday life was fraught with hidden meaning and significance, and I walked by faith, not by sight.

My first fall semester, I took a course in World Mythology. I can't exactly remember why, at the time, though I remember always liking mythology. I grew up reading Greek and Roman myths---sanitized for children, but still recognizable---and on hot summer nights, when we would sleep in the front room where it was cooler, my mom would put on the cassette of Navajo legends she'd brought back with her from one of her backpacking trips. As I drifted off to sleep I would watch the four arrows--- blue, yellow, white and black---stretching out into eternity as the world was born.

Of course, that was when I was a child, and I thought as a child, and now I put childish things behind me. I had a higher purpose, and I wouldn't be swayed. I bought the books for the class, one of which---wonder of wonders---happened to be by Joseph Campbell. The warnings from high school rang anew in my mind. My Peretti Novel Spidey Sense tingled as I noticed the black snakes entwined on the cover, and I left the bookstore with a renewed sense of importance. Campbell represented some vague, looming evil---a man who had set himself up against God, daring to address Christianity as one of many myths, instead of acknowledging, like C.S. Lewis, that Christianity was the fulfillment of all previous myths. A man who was singlehandedly deceiving millions. Not knowing what else to do, I spent the rest of the evening in the cafeteria, reading, and jotting down notes that sounded a whole helluva lot like the ones I found scribbled in the margins of the book I picked up today. At the time, I'd thought them an incisive apologia for the Christian faith. I happened upon them again when I was cleaning house a couple months ago, and found them, not surprisingly, to be an embarrassing example of Completely Missing The Point. Like DOAM, I'd been so defensive of what I'd been indoctrinated to believe, that I never really got what I was reading.

I rarely ever learned for the sake of learning, in those days. I either learned for the sake of having knowledge to put on display, or I learned for the sake of building a defense against what I was being taught, in order to preserve my brittle faith. And that's why, in spite of years of hard work, I remain pretty uneducated.

And it's why I picked up that book today. It's not entirely about it being a big "fuck you" to my indoctrinators, though I'll admit, that sure doesn't hurt. It's not even about sitting at the feet of Campbell and mindlessly absorbing all he has to say---I'm not looking for a new religion. It's about dropping the defensiveness and being willing to learn. If I were still one to couch things in Christian terms, I might call that humility*. It's about dropping the battle mindset, and being willing to see someone who disagrees with you as just that: a person, who happens to disagree with you. They don't represent The Enemy, and you sure as fuck don't represent God, at least no more than any of us do. You represent you. Why can't that be enough?

It's about liking myself enough for that to be enough.

And going from there.

* D'oh! Michael Mock points out in the comments that "humility" is by no means an exclusively Christian term, and he's absolutely right. Sorry about that. Unfortunately, for me the word had always been used in a religious context, so I still reflexively think of it as Christianese. Not sure how to fix that in the original post, so I'm patching it up here with an asterisk and a disclaimer.