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Joseph Campbell & the Power of Myth

My friend Pat is spending a lot of time listening to Joseph Campbell talk about the "power of myth," but she says she is "tongue-tied" when it comes to explaining what it is she's up to. I know what she's saying -- it's hard to casually say that you're exploring the nature of man and God over all history and all cultures. And yet I have a lot of friends who are in Bible Study, sponsored by their church of choice, and they have no problem announcing that to the world as a valid and respectable way to spend their time.

So I guess Pat could say that she was "in a religious studies program" or (now that she has me and her husband and daughters involved) that she's in a "study group."

But Campbell is way more than a religious studies guru. Instead of narrowing us down to a particular set of dogmas, he throws open the doors to all belief systems. Instead of doing the compare-and-contrast of a comparative-religions professor, he tells us that our stories (our "myths") about life, death and the origins of the universe are more alike than different. In these days of academic subspecialties and politico-religious splintering, Joseph Campbell tells us we are all one.

What is "myth"? A set of symbols and stories that inspire us to live our lives in a certain way. Campbell talks about four functions of mythology:

[Mystical or Metaphysical] A "mythological canon" reconciles the waking consciousness to the mysterium tremendum et fascinans [awesome mystery] of the universe as it is. Direct experience, I think -- lets in the "wow!"

[Cosmological] It puts together an interpretive picture of this universe, shaping the images and stories to the requirements of a particular society (conditioned by their history and geography). "Here's how the universe works."

[Sociological] It tells us how to behave within our society and enforces the moral order. This is where it gets tricky because institutionalized authority can take over and make a mess of it. The danger is when professed beliefs become disconnected from what people are actually doing (corruption, hypocrisy)... when adhering to the social order means disconnecting with the universal/divine order. A spiritual wasteland can ensue.

[Psychological] The "most vital and critical function of myth is to foster the centering and unfolding of the individual in integrity, in accord with d) himself (the microcosm), c) his culture (mesocosm), b) the universe (macrocosm) and a) that awesome ultimate mystery which is both beyond and within himself and all things." [Campbell, in "Creative Mythology"]

I just started reading "Creative Mythology," Volume IV in Campbell's Masks of God series. Reading him is way more challenging than listening to him being interviewed by Bill Moyers. Every sentence must be pondered. But here's an idea I really like: In our modern world, when a society becomes a moral and spiritual wasteland because the institutions have become disconnected with the natural order of the universe, it is up to the artist to defy authority and to go on a quest to re-establish the direct connection with the universe (or the divine).

Creative mythology... springs not, like theology, from the dicta of authority, but from the insights, sentiments, thought, and vision of an adequate individual, loyal to his own experience of value. Thus it corrects the authority [which is] holding to the shells of forms produced and left behind by lives once lived. Renewing the act of experience itself, it restores to existence the quality of adventure, at once shattering and reintegrating the fixed, already known, in the sacrificial creative fire of the becoming thing that is no thing at all but life, not as it will be or as it should be, as it was or as it never will be, but as it is, in depth, in process, here and now, inside and out.

I think he defines the artist's (and aren't we all artists in our own way?) pursuit of authenticity.

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