Category Archives: Myth

Can Morality be taught without ‘Myth’?

Sean O’Conaill  © The Irish Times  Tuesday November 22 2011

RITE AND REASON: The attempt to identify Christianity with basic biblical literalism and violence is dishonest, writes SEÁN O’CONAILL

HOW DO we humans develop moral values? It is fascinating to see this question being raised by the “new atheism” (Rite and Reason, Michael Nugent, October 18th, 25th, Nov 1st).

Rejecting all religious storytelling (‘myth-making’), Nugent backs the scientific method and assures us that “we can best live together with other sentient beings by empathising with them and seeking to maximise their well-being and minimise their suffering”.

Nugent did not tell us, however, how he would go about teaching empathy. Would this be a matter of compiling empirical data about the impact of, say, abuse upon children, and then presenting these facts – as Powerpoint presentations maybe – to other children and adults? Does he think this kind of exposition would hook them and turn them into moral paragons, or bore them to tears?

Does Mr Nugent empathise at all with the children in Dickens’s Hard Times to whom that other devotee of empirical science, Mr Gradgrind, wished to teach nothing but hard facts? Does he see any virtue in Dickens’s manner of teaching morality – by creating vivid fictional characters and tracing their lives through boldly dramatic plots? Can he think of a better way of persuading an errant capitalist to empathise and ‘think again’ (ie repent) than by sitting him down to read or watch A Christmas Carol ?

These questions are important because, for all of recorded time, human culture has found storytelling to be the most effective method of holding the attention of the widest range of people, and of evoking the strongest empathy and deepest reflection. Has the new atheism come up with something not only radically different but empirically proven to be more effective?

If so, is it not time we heard about it? If not, just how empirically justifiable is the new atheism’s contempt for religious myth as a transgenerational conveyor of moral values?

The meaning of the word “myth” is contested. At the simplest level, a myth is a story to which we attribute overarching importance as a conveyor of “life meaning”. We now live, we are told, in the postmodern era, when no such “grand narrative” is respectable, so the word “myth” has come to mean something close to a “lie”.

Can the new atheism prove that this is an entirely safe place to be, morally? Is there evidence that, deprived of all myth, human beings become more moral, and more empathetic? If no superior myth has emerged purely out of the scientific method after four centuries, is there no reason to fear that science, for all of its power to change our environment, may be morally sterile and indifferent?

Although you cannot depend upon the new atheists to tell you this, the Christian myth has been told in different ways. Augustine’s sex-centred interpretation of the Bible is hugely different from Teilhard de Chardin’s evolutionary account.

Emerging Christianity is busy discussing how to connect Christian salvation with planetary salvation, and finding that task well within its compass. The call to generosity and simplicity of life is meeting a Christian response as varied and relevant today as the medieval monastic movement and the Franciscan renewal of the 13th century.

The new atheism’s attempt to identify Christianity simply with fundamentalist biblical literalism and violence is transparently dishonest.

On the other hand, Nugent’s interest in morality is greatly to be welcomed. It signifies a realisation that the problem of evil is as far from resolution today as it was when some of the 18th century rationalists proposed that universal education would bring a moral Utopia. Why are we so prone to self-harm as a species? Mr Nugent needs to ask himself if his optimism about the moral benefit of demolishing all religious myth might not be just another example of empirically unsubstantiated faith.

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Licensed to Kill

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2003

Nothing could be more formulaic than a James Bond film – unless we descend still further to the Popeye cartoon.  As it is the Popeye plot that provides the basic framework for this whole style of Hollywood entertainment, let’s look at that plot for a moment.

Always (despite what happened the day before), our hero Popeye and his beloved, Olive Oyl, have no thought of violence as they set out upon their daily idyll – a visit to the beach or mountain perhaps.  Yet out of nowhere appears the enormous Bluto, who beats Popeye senseless and heads off with the protesting female.

At this juncture, an entirely coincidental saving event occurs – contact between Popeye’s failing digestive system and the contents of a can of spinach.  Immediately our hero is restored to redemptive health and strength.  He heads off to rescue Olive, and in the process sends Bluto in a cathartic parabola towards the horizon.  The End.

Only for today, of course.  The success of the formula dictates that Bluto must be even more mysteriously restored for the sequel that will always follow.

Bluto’s epic size and malevolence are essential to the plot – for otherwise Popeye would have no excuse for the violence he must eventually use.  Similarly, Popeye cannot begin the day with a breakfast of spinach – as this would prevent him from suffering victimhood and even imply calculation and foreknowledge (especially if Olive Oyl had cooked it for him).  Everything must be rigged to create the complete moral imbalance that will give Popeye his licence to use maximum force.  He doesn’t even work out at the gym.  He is entirely innocent, and Bluto is entirely guilty.  Otherwise there can be no supremely cathartic, violent climax.

Bond films follow essentially the same logic.  A master criminal with global ambitions usually begins the film by dropping a failing henchman into a tank full of piranha fish, sharks, or crocodiles.  This establishes his Bluto credentials – and so does the unleashing of a world-threatening enterprise that will trigger the involvement of our hero, James Bond.  The latter, virtually on his own, will soon encounter the master criminal, as well as some supremely nubile and vulnerable female.  Both will suffer various trials and torments, until some gadget allows Bond to turn the tables (the spinach factor).  For some unaccountable reason the master criminal will never kill Bond at the first opportunity – but suavely entrust him to a stupid henchman or a lock-up with a large air-vent.

The films end always in a vast investment in stuntmen, catapulted corpses and explosions – and subsequent pneumatic bliss for Bond.  Our master criminal may either be annihilated or saved to conspire another day.  It matters little.  Master criminals are bankable resources – so hack Hollywood writers will work like hospital casualty teams to bring this Bluto, or another, back another day.

Clearly, the Bluto theory of life is commercially viable – as the Bond films have reaped more than $8 billion since the first one, Doctor No, in 1962.  The hugely profitable Die Hard and Lethal Weapon series are also basically Popeye films – as is the ‘Alien’ series in the Science Fiction genre, and Independence Day.  Mass entertainment is hugely indebted to the simple notion that world-threatening, (and female-threatening), malevolence is always out there somewhere – so we must logically be licensed to kill.

Walter Wink in Engaging the Powers has brilliantly pointed out that the Popeye plot predates Hollywood by many centuries.  It is in fact the core of the Enuma Elish – the Babylonian creation myth.  In this, Tiamat, mother of the Gods, sets out to kill her children, the supposedly lesser Gods.  One of these, Marduk, is licensed by the others to prevent this.  He kills and dismembers her – and she becomes the various parts of the material universe.

The essence of the tale is the overwhelming justification for Marduk’s violence – which is wholly just and necessary.  He too, although supremely violent, is innocent.  As he was the Christ figure for the Babylonians, he justified the rapacity of ancient Babylon itself – which included, of course, the enslavement of the people of Israel.

Their Genesis story may well have been written in response to the Enuma Elish.  Its account of the origins of human violence is wholly different: far from originating with creation itself it lies in competing human desire for the same object – the Cain and Abel story.  The geo-politics of the ancient world centred around competition for the fertile river valleys of Egypt and Mesopotamia.  Those of today centre around oil, in the very same region.  Otherwise little has changed

How far is George Bush from an appreciation of the difference in the Babylonian and Biblical accounts of the origins of violence? On November 3rd a US-owned Predator drone in Yemen fired a deadly missile, destroying a car and six occupants – one of whom was supposedly a high-ranking Al Q’aeda member.  As the US mid-term congressional elections proved the same day, ‘9/11’ has most potently revitalised the Popeye plot as a text for the restoration of the Bush dynasty, with Bin Laden & Saddam Hussein alternating in the Bluto role.  The handlers of the younger Bush have exploited that opportunity to the hilt.  Hollywood keeps in step by giving us yet another Bond film.

Only three years ago, the Bond formula appeared to have been played out.  Media wits suggested in 1999 that the next Bond film should be entitled ‘Enough is Enough’.  Now Al Q’aeda has dusted off the Marduk legend – and the elevation of the Irish actor Pierce Brosnan to megastar status in the years ahead seems likely.  If we in Ireland take the same innocent pleasure in this that we did when John Ford made The Quiet Man, we will have wasted much time (half a century exactly) in learning nothing about the world.

Meanwhile of course, Bin Laden tells exactly the same Popeye-Bond yarn to the Arab world, but casting America in the master-criminal role, and himself as James Bond (or the medieval Islamic equivalent, Saladin).  If he has indeed survived Afghanistan we are only midway through the film – and haven’t seen anything yet in the way of explosions and cartwheeling bodies.

Is George Bush a good or an evil man?  The pundits argue endlessly, when the answer is obviously: Yes.  George Bush is a good and an evil man.  He is endowed with impregnable innocence by the Christian fundamentalism that has incorporated the essence of the Marduk legend into mainstream US Christian thought (we must have, and we alone can be trusted with, a license to kill).  He is also evil in being so deliberately enveloped in self-righteousness that he cannot step into the shoes of a Palestinian or Egyptian or Saudi or Chechen idealist and see how easily he and America become therefore, in their stupefying lack of empathic intelligence and awesome military power, the Bluto of someone else’s nightmare.

The truth is that Genesis is absolutely right.  We humans compete – and it is out of this competition that violence arises, because the elevation of the winner is always, and simultaneously, the abasement of the loser.  The Marduk legend was concocted, and is endlessly retold, merely to justify the violence and the victory of the stronger.  US emergence as sole superpower in 1989 was for many Islamic people their abasement, as it signalled not only the defeat of the Palestinian cause but a single globalised economic system with them, usually, and probably forever, on the outside.

As a durable global peace depends not upon the always unsuccessful expulsion of Bluto, but upon the exposure of the Tiamat/Bluto lie, it follows that Christian education must rapidly understand the application of ancient myth to modern culture and global politics.  It simply isn’t good enough that Christian children in Ireland may well exalt Pierce Brosnan as a role model, when he personifies and exalts a deadly ethic – one that now grips the world in a vice – to buttress a basically commercial and militaristic agenda, and an unjust world.

As long as we humans insist upon having a licence to kill we will go on narrating history as the Marduk legend in Popeye/Bondian terms – interminably rigging the story to justify our own murderous intent (‘republicans’ and ‘loyalists’ please note).  So long as the ‘Christian’ west cannot separate itself clearly from that intent, and that myth, so long will it continue to misinterpret its own basic texts and to betray the humble and pacific God it hypocritically exalts.

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