lenten journal: myth makers


    I’m a couple of hours away from heading off into the wilds of the Tidewater area of Virginia for a youth retreat. If predictions hold true, I won’t be able to post again until Sunday, since no one expects we will have any sort of Internet access at the campground. As hard as it has been raining today, I’ll be happy if the rooms are warm and dry.

    My friend Charles drove me to the Jamestown Settlement Museum so we could feed our inner history geeks. Much of the museum has been recently updated in preparation for Jamestown 400 (the 4ooth anniversary of the founding of Jamestown), or as it is billed here, “America’s 400th Anniversary.” When we purchased our tickets at the museum, the woman asked where we were from. When I said Marshfield, Mass. and told her it was just north of Plymouth (which is “America’s Hometown” where I come from), I couldn’t help but notice a little bit of competitive disdain in her look. I wonder if she picked up the same look in my eye.

    The exhibits were excellent and informative and were laid out well. As long as we timed our sojourn to fall between the teeming hordes of energetic, cabin-feverish fourth graders, we got to read the explanations and watch several short movies and slide shows about the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of those we call the first settlers. Actually, the exhibits tried to follow three strains of people: the Native Americans, the English, and the Africans. In one of the summarizing pieces, the narrator said something to the effect that Virginia had been created when these three groups came together. Though I understand the spirit of the statement somewhat, I couldn’t help but think the Powhatans were already here, the English invaded, and the Africans were dragged kicking and screaming. That voice had to be a white man talking.

    I remember Dr. Wallace Daniel, my favorite history professor at Baylor, reminding us that history is written by the winners. You don’t go to England to find works on how we won the Revolutionary War, if you catch my drift. The winners are the ones who get to grow the story from history to myth, in the Joseph Campbell sense. He describes the four purposes of myth as follows:

    One’s mystical. One’s cosmological: the whole universe as we now understand it becomes, as it were, a revelation of the mystery dimension. The third is sociological, taking care of the society that exists. But we don’t know what this society is, it’s changed so fast. Good God! In the past 40 years there have been such transformations in mores that it’s impossible to talk about them. Finally, there’s the pedagogical one of guiding an individual through the inevitables of a lifetime. But even that’s become impossible because we don’t know what the inevitables of a lifetime are any more. They change from moment to moment.

    Our American myth begins with merchants, soldiers, and outcasts who sailed from England for the purpose of getting rich, settled in a place that looked good but had no potable water, were duplicitous in their dealings with the folks who already lived here, and considered anything (and most anyone) their property. By the time we get through telling the story, we end up with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness because we were the winners and that’s the myth we need to “take care of the society that exists.”

    Our roots are in Jamestown (and Plymouth), and we are more than those roots. We have grown into the myth in many ways, and we hide behind it as well. We use it to justify our actions and to challenge ourselves to grow into who we hoped we would be. We need our story to find our place in this world. Telling our story is not the hardest part. That comes with learning to listen to the stories and myths of others, stories where we are not the ones cast as heroes.

    The theme of the retreat this weekend is “Best of Friends.” The youth group at the church here is healing and rebuilding and trying to figure out who they are and what they mean to one another. I’m going to spend the weekend with fifteen or so high schoolers and a few adult sponsors talking about seeing the church’s story as “being in the company of friends,” as Gallagher calls it. We will be leaning into the other three purposes of myth — mystical, cosmological, pedagogical – as well as a little bit of taking care of the church as it is, though that’s not the real point.

    To me, one of the hard things about tying teenagers to myth is few actually feel like the hero, the winner, in their story. The history of most any adolescence is hard to write because it feels like a losing proposition to most all of us, at least in the living of those days. As an adult trying to coax the stories into daylight, I have to make sure I’m listening to their story, to their myth-in-making, and not looking for an opening to say something brilliant like, “I know just how you feel,” or “That’s just part of growing up,” or “One day you’ll look back on this and laugh.”

    Adolescence happens only in the present tense. There is only Now; there is no Not Yet.

    The words that come to mind first are those of Uncle Walt, as Mr. Keating called him:

    O ME! O life! . . . of the questions of these recurring;
    Of the endless trains of the faithless—
    of cities fill’d with the foolish;

    Of myself forever reproaching myself,
    (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)

    Of eyes that vainly crave the light—of the objects mean—
    of the struggle ever renew’d;

    Of the poor results of all—
    of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me;

    Of the empty and useless years of the rest—
    with the rest me intertwined;

    The question, O me! so sad, recurring—
    What good amid these, O me, O life?


    That you are here—that life exists, and identity;

    That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.

    We tell our stories, and we listen to them, to remind ourselves of what has been true about us since God breathed us into existence: we matter. Everyone from George Bailey to Napoleon Dynamite is tied to the same myth of grace and hope.

    And I’m off to listen and tell the story again and maybe dance a little. I’ve got some sweet moves.



    1. A very wise person once told me that the reason our life is important, the reason our life matters as much as any other life is because of the fact of it. That we live. That’s all and that’s everything.

      Nowadays I add one more thing to that. It matters because God saw fit to invite me to this party.

      Are you going to cook for the teenagers?

    2. Nice post. So true about the present-tense of adolescence.

      Your suggestions about myth and personal story are intriguing. I think myth is generally the truest story about ourselves that we know how to tell.

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