I've been sitting here pondering the difference between Myth and Fantasy. For in this season of Christmas, a season in which both seem to feature so prominently, it seems to be increasingly difficult to isolate the tree from the trimming, particularly when it seems that the trimmings have become so visually dominant that they threaten to obscure the tree altogether.
Like so much of what passes as Christian tradition, I suppose, these days.
How is that, for example, I often ask myself that a small book less than a hundred pages in length which nonetheless told an epic story of kingship and kindness has generated so many thousands of pages of philosophical discourse? How is it, that when all those tomes (in my own Catholic tradition, all those volumes of Canonical Law, Encyclicals, Papal Bulls and theological debate) are stacked, one on top of the other; towering toward heaven with their millions of tons of reasoned discourse; that they still don't carry a fraction of the moral weight of that one small original tome. What is it, that the trimmings lack, that the tree retains?
I think that it has something to do with the peculiar power and the ephemeral nature of Myth. I mentioned in a previous Editorial that, for me, Myths are not those stories we tell each other which are untrue but, rather, those stories which we tell each other which communicate, in a way that logical linear reasoning cannot, those things which we believe, in fact, to be most true.
Because of the highly symbolic and imaginative manner in which Myth expresses itself, it necessarily resists prescriptive interpretation. Much to the annoyance of successive generations of lawyers within the Vatican, Myth, because it speaks from the very heart of the symbols with which it explains the universe, always speaks in a way that defies legalism and empiricism. Truly successful Myth, within any tradition, 'morphs' itself to fit exactly the changing shape of the needs of it's time. It is not redefined so much as it redefines itself. It changes it shape to meet the needs of each new generation of listeners but without ever compromising the essential 'truth' of its mythology.
Which brings me to what I see as being at least one essential difference between Santa Claus and Jesus Christ; the two protagonists who are currently arm wrestling for ownership of this auspicious season.
When my children were younger I, like many parents, spent a great deal of time, money and energy on perpetuating the fantasy of Santa Claus. Intercepted letters to Finland; reindeer teeth marks in the Christmas carrot, special wrapping paper; all fairly innocent and the source of much good natured amusement to all concerned.
I also spent a great deal of time, like many parents did trying to impart the power and tradition of the essential tenets of the Myth of Christianity. Retelling the story of the life of Christ; attending Church on Sunday; and engaging annually in much discourse on the way that Christmas, in it's rebirth of hope, was such an essential part of that 'dreaming'.
Sadly, among the general population; the guy in the red suit is doing substantially better business than the bloke in the manger; who is once again taking a serious battering in the popularity stakes.
Why? Everyone seems to have a different explanation.
The fundamentalists screech that Christian Churches have lost the plot and that an immediate return to the incineration of heretics and liberals (just to be on the safe side) is in order. The current Papacy through its recent appalling treatment of Balinese Theologian Fr. Tissa Balasuriya would seem to agree.
But I think it is because, in the modern world, a world which claims to be so rational, so logical... and so cynical, we have found it so much easier when faced with the Abyss, the modern malaise of Life without meaning, to flee into Fantasy than live through Myth.
Fantasy only requires that we daydream. It tells us pretty stories that do not in any way challenge us. It is escapist, indeed it may even be so enchanting and distracting that we cease to feel the need for anything beyond it. I don't believe that it is any coincidence, for example, that as the Hollywood special effects industry has perfected the Fantasy of Space Travel; that interest in, and budgets for, space exploration in the real world have shrunk dramatically.
After all, who needs the reality when the hallucination is vastly more accessible, convincing and comfortable?
I also find it amusing that, at a same time when contemporary society has rejected religiosity in such resounding tones, it's movie makers have chosen to fill it's cinemas; those modern day temples in which our collective stories are told; with fantasies such as 'Ghost' and 'City of Angels', and any number of other quasi-religious fantasies that preach the comfort of the immortality of the soul and yet demand nothing of it's devotees. But such is the widespread addictive and delusional appeal of Fantasy.
Myth on the other hand always requires a response. It challenges us because it is necessarily incorporated into the mindset that we bring to bear upon the world around us. The myth of Icarus did not lead the Wright brothers to spend billions of dollars making movies that created the mass illusion of flight. It lead them to build an aeroplane in which man might indeed fulfil that destiny.
Since Coca Cola subverted the Christmas legend of St Nicholas in the early 1950's, Santa Claus has become one of the most notoriously successful marketing icons of our time. He co-exists happily beside rampant consumerism and rapacious self-indulgence despite his altruistic demeanour; and he manages to do so because he is essentially a fantasy. Santa Claus can be put back into his box by his masters at any time he becomes inconvenient. He is highly unlikely to overturn the tables of the money lenders. A delightful daydream; a fantasy of an impossibly jolly and self sacrificing man with magical powers; whose only reason for being is to spread love and goodwill to all. Sounds slightly familiar.
But heaven help us if he was to ever to become a Myth. For then, like Christ or Ghandi or Mother Theresa, he may even become a role model; so powerful and pervasive that it might demand a response; might insist that we change the way in which we deal with each other, not for some brief period, once a year, but throughout every waking hour of our lives.
Claus vs. Christ. The Fantasy or The Myth. For those of us who prefer the empowerment of our 'dreaming'; who revere the power of Myth over the ineffectual and escapist daydreams of Fantasy, the 'bloke in the manger' is still ahead on points.
Happy New Year.
Just read your editorial and have printed it out to send to my 'beloved'. It's wonderful. The best soap box speech I have read in ages. I think also that the realm of fantasy as prescribed by rampant consumerism and capitalism also endeavours to buy and sell both our myths and dreams back to us, minus of course their spiritual powers, and as you say, demanding only the response of consuming more.
Date: Fri, 10 Jan 1999 06:41:04 +1100
From: Glenn Jones
Having just read your editorial I was not so much surprised by your comments; but found myself asking why more people haven't asked the same questions.
I agree about your concept of a myth being able to "morph" as my Gameboy addicted son says. One can only hope that we continue as parents to apply some core of morality and religious basis to the individuals who preceive the value of the myth.
As in all aspects of life the preception is greater than the reality and far more difficult to diminish. Quite possibly by ensuring the basis by which we precieve the benefits of Christmas i.e. Presents Vs Christianity, will dictate the future of Christmas as we know it.
As said in Proverbs 12:4 Train the child in the way he should go, and when old he will not depart from it. (I'd like to say I got it from the bible but alas it comes of my desk calender!)
Wed, 31 Mar 1999 19:49:08 EST
Maybe Christ should have hooked up with the twelve dwarfs instead of the apostles. That act didn't have any Hits until after he died.
I am not entirely sure that your not a figment of your own imagination, Mr.Spock. Particularly given that, as all good Trekkies would know, Vulcans do not possess a sense of humour - Ed.
Date: Fri, 08 Jan 1999 06:41:04 +1100
From: Alan Blackshaw <firstname.lastname@example.org>
I've just read your editorial. Some top thoughts. It has actually made me think. I come from an Anglican tradition with strong fundamentalist leanings.
My how times have changed. I'm certainly pleased I left the fundamentalism behind in my mid twenties. It was such a damaging philosophy.
It is an outlook that looks only to judgement. For me, the answer is not in church but with that "bloke in the manger" wherever I may find him again.
All the best
Myth and Fantasy Editorial
Thu, 14 Jan 1999 23:19:34 +1100
"J. Graham S. Smith" <email@example.com>
MYTH v. FANTASY
Your recent editorial on this subject was very interesting, enjoyable, and thought-provoking. In fact, you had me convinced, until I realised that you had missed a vital difference between your "myths" and "fantasies".
Firstly, can I confirm the meanings that you have attributed to these terms?
"Myths" are the stories and beliefs of religious, traditional and similar organisations, the story of Jesus Christ being a prime example?
"Fantasies" are the stories and beliefs of the purveyors of, for example, films such as Star Wars and Star Trek, in which special effects can now so convincingly portray things that did not actually happen, that it is impossible to distinguish them from reality? And of course your prime "fantasy" example is of Santa Claus, where parents and others collectively combine to so convincingly tell an untrue story, and to support it with fabricated evidence, that children under the age of about 8 will implicitly believe in it.
(Almost, but not quite, Graham. I was suggesting that Myths are the stories we tell each other, regardless of their factual veracity, which are meant to transfer cultural 'truths' between generations. As such they are neither "good " or "evil" inherently. Rather they are statement as to what particular cultural groups value, and exemplify the manner in which those associated with that group should respond. I was not suggesting that they were exclusively religious either. The Myth of Aryan Superiority was as vital and motivating an idea for the Nazis of Hitler's Germany as it is evil and detestable by our standards. The point being that Myth requires integration into the mindset of the listener and will influence behaviour patterns. Fantasy on the other hand, requires only a passing interface. It is merely diverting and has little capacity to truly effect our worldview)-ED
Your discussion and arguments based on, and flowing from, the above all make sense and I would not dispute any of them. But there is something missing. Purveyors of myths expect, even demand, that we believe in them implicitly, for ever. Purveyors of fantasies do not.
What's more, the purveyors of myths demand a belief that the only valid myth is their myth. And they will go to extreme lengths to defend this view. In the past they have hunted out, persecuted and tortured defenceless women and then burnt them at the stake as witches. Ferocious wars have been waged in Europe in the name of your myths since soon after the birth of Christ. And they still are. In Ireland. In what was Yugoslavia.
In the Middle East. In fact, most of the wars throughout the world have been waged with at least some religious content.
Now purveyors of fantasy ask you to believe in their product too, but only temporarily, while you are in the cinema, or until you are 8 years old! Mind you, the producers of Star Wars and Star Trek will both ask you to believe only in their movie, because it is the best, has the most believable special effects, is more scientifically accurate, has more well-known actors, etc. And they will do all they can to get you to pay to see their movie. But once you've done that, they could not care at all if you also pay to see the other! How many religious organisations are this accommodating?
What's more, the fantasy purveyors are prepared to put their product to independent, critical test. If the film critics give Star Wars 8/10 and Star Trek 7/10, and if Star Wars gets 10 Oscars and Star Trek 6, most people will accept that Star Wars is the better movie and the producers of Star Trek will stop making contrary claims. Has any religious or similar organisation ever put their beliefs up for critical independent examination (eg, by scientists) and be prepared to accept the result, whatever it maybe? Will any such organisation ever do this?
You rightly say, "Heaven help us if he (Santa Claus) was ever to become a Myth." Because then you would NOT be allowed to stop believing when you were 8. Books would be re-written to turn the fabricated evidence for him intofact. Non-believers would be outcast. Wars would be waged in his name!
Of course, all is not as black as I have painted it. Religious and similar organisations do a great deal of good work too, supporting the needy and the sick, comforting relatives when death strikes, and they give a great many people the will for living and a meaning for life.
I could go on and on about their good points, but for the modern world all such organisations are too supremely dogmatic about the basis for their existence, and too demanding in their believers' unquestioning acceptance of all they say and do. In the past, when our understanding of the natural world was, at the time of the cave-man, virtually non-existent, and up to say, mid to late last century when scientific knowledge and understanding started to explode, man's inherent need to believe that there has to be a purpose and a meaning for everything was only met by religions and similar organisations.
They filled this role very well, but they abused the power that came with it, and took things to extremes. Today, people still have the same need to believe in something, but they are also educated and knowledgable enough to understand that everything done and said by the religions is not necessarily good and right and moral.
I suggest that science has not risen to the occasion to more humanely fill this need instead. So you have many who still cling to their religious myths but only to the extent that it suits them.
For example, how many Catholics would be prepared to fight for the IRA in Ireland if the Vatican said this was the way to go? They keep and use those parts of the mythical stories that give them the comfort and meaning to life that they desire. Others get diverted or misled into the new and extreme doctrines that have sprung up, mostly originating in America, and mostly since the early 1800s. Others still, get to believe too strongly in the fantasies you mention.
It's a pity that the scientific and sceptical movements have not been able to put together a quasi-religious organisation that combined all the goodness and morality of conventional religions, all the wonder of science and nature, none of the dangers of the fantasies, and none of the dogma an extremism of the existing religious and similar organisations. (I've heard of the Humane Society, or the Humanists, but really know nothing about them.Their name suggests they might fulfil this role, but they certainly don't have much of a popular following.)
Finally, do you recall Carl Sagan? He was a Canadian astronomer and scientist who was often on television until he died a few years ago. His most famous television appearances were in a series of popular documentaries called "Cosmos", mostly about the marvellous, wondrous star system the Earth inhabits. He has also written several books.
One I have read and can thoroughly recommend. It's called "The Demon-Haunted World - Science as a Candle in the Dark". It covers science, religion, critical thought,scepticism, ghosts, witches, demons, and much else, all woven into one very readable and illuminating book that has much to do with your editorial andmy response. It's published by Random House, New York and should be in your public library (mine has two copies).
Thank you Pat for such a thought provoking article!
Castle Hill, SydneyAnd Thank You, Graham, for such a wonderful, well thought out and detailed response!
The Christian Myth as you so rightly point out is rather much maligned because of the historical behaviour of the institutions that have proclaimed it. In the end, however, I do not think that the Myth is damaged by the failings of those who admire it, any more than say The Bill of Rights is made ignoble by the ignoble behaviour of a duly elected President. Myth is doubtlessly entwined with it's community of adherents but it retains a it's own individual integrity which is not necessarily degraded by the way in which third parties may attempt to manipulate it for their own purposes. The real question is how Christ would have felt about the very real events you refer to.
I would not presume to speak for Him but I rather love the way my Pommie Mate, Ralph Mctell (whose Dreaming is somewhat different to mine) imagines it in his gorgeous song 'Jesus Wept' (from 'Sand in Your Shoes' Transatlantic TRACD 119)
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