Storytelling and Religion
I’ve never been a religious man. I am probably one of the few people (this this country, at least) who can make the claim that I was born atheist. There was no moment of great enlightenment, no crisis of faith or fall from grace. I simply never believe in a higher power as far back into my childhood as I can remember. Sure, memory is a tricky thing, and I might be looking back with rose colored glasses, but the fact remains. What I find intriguing, though, is how often I find myself captivated with certain polytheistic cultures. The ancient Greeks are probably the best example of this; granted, this is the kind of thing that runs with the territory when you devote your life to the study of western philosophy, but it extends beyond that. I love the art and mysticism of ancient South American tribal cultures (your Mayan, Aztec and Incan civilizations). The Egyptian hierarchy pulls at me. Norse mythology is just plain fun. It’s no wonder that my two favorite comic series at the moment are Thor and The Incredible Hercules. Or that books like American Gods or the Vertigo comic series Fables seem to be right in my wheelhouse. I often try to figure out just why I have such an aversion to monotheism, and yet at the same time cannot deny the pull these polytheistic cultures have on my imagination.
I used to say that if I ever got a tattoo, I would put three ancient Greek words on my back, two on my shoulders and one on my neck that would form a sort of wide, fat triangle. Those words were going to be αρέτε, or excellence, τίμε, or honor, and λογος, or knowledge. These three terms were at the core of ancient Greek culture and philosophy. They were very much a meritocracy, where people of great wisdom and power rose to prominence. This was contrasted in a way by their theological underpinnings; the Greek pantheon was a group of petty, imperialistic, adulterous and generally awful gods. I find it fascinating that a culture predicated on such flawed deities could produce such groundbreaking developments in the entirety of western civilization from science to art to philosophy to warfare. These people grew up idolizing deities that did not live up to the expectations to which they eventually rose. And yet, throughout that whole time, everything was done in supplication to these gods, which logically does not seem to follow. But I think I have an idea whi I personally find it so captivating.
When you consider yourself to be a writer, that comes with expectations. .Unless you have always just focused on copy writing or critiques or essays, you don’t become a writer unless you have some sense of storytelling foundation. Some people are born storytellers. Neil Gaiman is the type of person I would put in that column, and you can tell because of the wide range of literary output that he has produced all across the board, from comic work like The Sandman to the Douglas Adams biography Don’t Panic to his well established novels. Some are born to read stories. I always loved John Hurt for his voice and delivery when reading stories. Just watch an episode of Jim Henson’s The Storyteller or the opening sequence of Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Stories capture the imagination, excite the senses and offer a vicarious escape from the drudgeries of day to day life. The fact that the ancient Greek pantheon had humanistic qualities and flaws makes them great characters in a story. Stories need conflict. I have personally held the opinion that the best conflict comes from within rather than without; the perfect protagonist persevering against a hateful, black hatted villain can only take you so far. You believe that there can be something more. You cast doubt into the reader’s mind about the hero only to make his triumph more satisfying. It’s storytelling 101. Much of this, of course, has been collapsed into the monotheistic Judeo-Christian tradition. Flawed characters abound in both the Testaments, but the flawed characters are all human. By its very nature, the God figure of a monotheistic religion must be perfect and infallible, because it is the cornerstone of all creation. You introduce a flaw in the creator, and that imperfection can be extrapolated out into all that He creates. So, of course, they have built in ways to explain why the world is not perfect, ranging from the fall of Adam to the sacrifices of Jesus and so on. But I think you lose something in translation when you do that, and the stories just don’t grasp me the way that these grand mythological tales seem to do.
So much about what makes a religion impressive and powerful is the way it captivates the imagination and moves the human mind to act in some fashion. Without that, all you’re really doing is going through the motions. It’s a kind of untenable faith that is prone to fracture, which is not something around which you want to build a value system. Someone who is basically half-heartedly going along is less likely to be resolute in his beliefs and values when the chips are down. I have many problems, most of them ideological, with religious faith in general. However, I would probably prefer to interact with someone who is resolute in his faith than someone who is going through the motions. There are limits, and once religious fanaticism comes into play, you’re walking a fine line and things can get much worse very quickly, but that is a topic for another time. What’s important (and I fully realize that this…whatever it is has been somewhat scattershot in its execution, and I hope, dear Reader, that it has enhanced your experience) is the execution of the story. And the Greeks were just better storytellers. You worshipped these gods because if you crossed them, they would absolutely ruin every possible facet of your life. The tragic plays would be the best example of this. Look at the folly of Agamemnon and Cassandra. See what happens when Oedipus and his family tempt fate and refuse prophecy. Prometheus, Tantalus, Sisyphus, the list goes on. If you can catch your audience in your thrall with the storytelling that is at the core of your faith/spiritualism/mysticism/religion/what have you, then you have done most of the necessary work on the road to absolute allegiance.
When I was growing up, I never had any interest in the stories of the Bible. I think a lot of that has to do with how straightforward these stories are, which has at its root the problem of the infallible deity as I mentioned before. But beyond that, so many of the stories of the Bible struck me as pedestrian. I was exposed to Greek mythology, Aesop’s Fables and Grimm’s Fairy Tales along with the stories of the Bible at a young age, and I saw no real difference between any of them. At their core, they are all allegorical morality tales. But the Judeo-Christian tradition is more grounded. The fantastical is portrayed in a different way. When you are a young boy and your imagination is firing off in all directions, it just makes sense that the more otherworldly parables would catch your attention. If you read the story of the Prodigal Son and the myth of Phaethon, how could the vision of this boy in way over his head barely hanging on while this chariot pulled by flaming horses burns the sky itself not be the one that burns (yes, that was on purpose) indelibly in the mind? But society and culture makes it readily apparent from go that these myths and fables are fairy tales are just stories and aren’t real or significant beyond their entertainment value. I content that there is a strong chance that if I lived in a world where the Greek myths were not myths but instead the basis of a legitimate religion, there would have been a very strong possibility that I would have bought into it as more than just a story. The Greeks never saw the gods or Minotaurs or any of the other wild creatures, but I you can catch the mind you can catch the heart, and visa versa.
Stories shape our world in such a significant way; it’s a shame that the stories so many of us are raised on just don’t cut it as stories. They’re fine on their own, I guess, and they serve a purpose, but when you compare to the long traditions of epic poetry, tragic plays and the fable tradition, they just don’t stack up. It makes you wonder what the future holds. I mean, sure, the Judeo-Christian model has held for thousands of years, and gets stronger generationally due to the power of tradition, and how you can pass something down to your children at an early age and indelibly hold them to those beliefs. It’s certainly possible that this will be the dominant religious model in the western world for the rest of all time. But what if it doesn’t? What if something else comes along, be it a new religion or some kind of event that leads to the worldwide spread of either atheism or agnosticism. Would the stories of Adam and Eve or the Flood or Sodom and Gomorrah just become the mythology of a new age? It seems like it would follow if some global change were to occur. Hopefully these new myths would not replace the old ones; I would hate to see the grand Greek tradition die on the vine replaced by an inferior series of tales. Not that I would actually see it, of course. There is no way anything like this could ever happen in my lifetime. Still, it’s fun to think about.
Not sure if there was much of a point to that, but I needed to get something out of my system and into a blog, so there you have it.