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Category: Culture

Myth

02

Back when I taught introductory high school courses in literature, every year started with a lesson in myth. American literature classes read Columbus’s 1493 Letter to King Ferdinand of Spain Describing the First Voyage. World literature classes considered the Yoruba story of The Golden Chain. In freshman classes, we looked at the first two chapters of Genesis.

I taught at a Christian school. And by their junior year, most students had been through this unit two or three times. They knew in a general way where I was headed. But in my other classes, things didn’t go so well.

I persisted.

In the first weeks of school, students still have good intentions, so for the most part they listen with intent. As I ran through the initial outline, smiles would inevitably spread as it became clear that I was probably going to hell. (There’s nothing like a teaching train wreck to lighten the day of your average high school student, and every kid knows a certifiably crazy teacher will ruin the year for some and provide limitless conversational fodder for the rest.) But by the end of the first few minutes, those smiles would be fading. Fast.

That’s when I could count on some volume.

Interruptions, urgent questions, waves of murmuring. Students shouting. Students covering their ears. There were always tears.

I persisted.

Myth, I proposed, is any story of origin. If it’s a story – and if it tells of a beginning – it’s a myth. Myths answer questions of identity, purpose and morality. Myths are how a culture – all cultures – encode the answers to life’s most important questions for the shaping of future generations. A culture’s best literature, then, is always built on myth.

Other literature may be commercial or educational or transactional or technical.

But good literature – the stuff that lasts, the stuff that gets passed from generation to generation, the stuff that we’re expected to have read and to know – it all contains myth or is built on myth or is myth. Together, that body of literature contributes to a culture’s mythos, its best answers to life’s big questions.

Romeo & Juliet is built on myth. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn challenges myth. The Bible contains myth. It also comments on myth, questions myth, compares myths, challenges some competing myths and provides space for the acceptance of others. Genesis 1 and 2, for instance, are separate myths, and in some important ways, they disagree. Theologians would probably argue that they’re not so much in competition as they are in conversation. Which seems – considering that the two accounts have been placed side by side at the start of the Bible, not to mention the fact that they both lay a foundation for the same culture – a pretty strong point.

I recognize that for some readers, this conversation might be covering new ground. Or creating a bit of cognitive dissonance.

Yet I persist.

Here’s the problem: many of my students were raised in a religious culture that is anti-myth. A culture that doesn’t know how to value the Bible (let alone the myths it contains).

It’s a culture that thinks Genesis is an incomplete history. It’s a culture that thinks Exodus is an unfinished travelogue. It’s a culture that thinks Leviticus is an obsolete legal code. It’s a culture that thinks Numbers is a sloppy census. It’s a culture that thinks Deuteronomy is an abbreviated repetition of all those other Bible bits. It’s a culture that reads all the gospels as a conflated Jesus story – one with wise men and shepherds; Anna, Simeon, and the Egyptians; 8-day-old Jesus, 12-year-old Jesus, a metaphysical Word-and-Light show, and the real Jesus.

It’s a culture that fervently wants for the Bible to be commercial or educational or transactional or technical.

And this, too, is my culture. I was raised in it. I live and work in it. More times than I can count, I’ve felt suffocated in it. Frustrated by it. Angry with it.

But I persist.

And I find that my people mostly know that the Bible – if it’s going to mean anything at all – must be something more than a commercial. It must be something more than a primer. It must be something more than a medium of truth exchange. It must be more than a collection of basic instructions before leaving earth.

And I find that my people – especially those that are spiritual but not religious – need the kind of mythos the Bible already offers.

And I find my people wondering whether the myths in other cultures might teach us something about our own.

In the meantime, I expect the volume to rise. I expect shouted interruptions, urgent questions, waves of murmuring. And tears.

In my life as a teacher, discomfort almost always led to growth.

So I persist.

Here’s the problem: many of my students were raised in a religious culture that is anti-myth. A culture that doesn’t know how to value the Bible (let alone the myths it contains).

Schism

02

In the early 19th century, to be a Quaker was to be opposed to slavery. But how to live out this opposition? To work against slavery was to live in tension with Quaker testimonies to both integrity and peace. Helping an escaped slave, for instance, sometimes created pressure to bear false witness. Or to bear arms. As it turns out, balance is difficult. And there was disagreement between what historian Errol T. Elliott has called the activists and the gradualists. Some Friends gave up their membership. Some Friends lost their membership. Meetings were split.

American Friends at North Carolina’s Rich Square Monthly Meeting minuted in 1843 that they did not “allow their members to hold slaves,” but neither did they allow interference “with the system of slavery further than by petitions, reason, and remonstrance in a peaceable manner.” The larger yearly meeting minuted its condemnation in that same year of “those Friends who had given ‘shelter improperly’ to slaves.” That, too, was the year that Indiana Yearly Meeting would split over the issue of slavery. Hundreds of Indiana Quakers would leave their yearly meeting and start a new one, the Indiana Yearly Meeting of Anti-Slavery Friends.

Of course, they would argue they’d been kicked out.

At issue was the Underground Railroad. With active Quaker supporters in both North Carolina and Indiana, its existence created a problem for Friends everywhere. Support for the Underground Railroad looked to many like a form of religious extremism.

Initially, Friends had worked together to support the education of African-American children, as well as to fight the “Black Laws.” These laws, first enacted in Ohio and later in neighboring states, required that any free person of African descent obtain and carry certain court documents for employment and residency. These laws also fined those who helped fugitive slaves. But Levi Coffin called Quakers to a greater cause. An Indiana Quaker with North Carolina roots, Coffin had personally witnessed the separation of a slave woman from her child, resulting in his resolution “to labor in this cause until the end of my days.” For 30 years, he served as an unofficial president of the Underground Railroad.

Many Friends joined him.

Their activism resulted in an 1841 minute by Indiana Yearly Meeting: “As the subject of slavery is producing great excitement in our land, we again tenderly advise our dear friends not to join in associations.” The following year, an enforcing minute was approved, excluding from service on committees, any who identified themselves as abolitionists. Coffin and hundreds of others, having been removed from their leadership positions, simply started a new yearly meeting.

There was reconciliation, with the two yearly meetings effectively recombined by 1857. But old wounds heal slowly. There are still those who call us to orthodoxy. There are others who argue that faith without works is dead.

Quakers today have the privilege of looking back on our history with pride for what was accomplished. What we forget are the compromises that were made, the internal rancor that often boiled up into battles for control over meetinghouses and yearly meetings, battles that frequently led to schism. We forget that the never-ending tension between righteous faith and loving acts is yet to be resolved. There are still activists and gradualists among us. There are still battles. There are still wounds. There is still hope for reconciliation.

We forget that the never-ending tension between righteous faith and loving acts is yet to be resolved. There are still activists and gradualists among us.

To Wait

02

A few years ago, I spoke at this camp on the Oregon Coast. There were lots of kids there whose parents I knew. But most of the kids didn’t really know me. And they had plenty of friends at camp. And I was one of the old people.

Except at the end of the week, one of those kids got left at camp. His parents didn’t show up to take him home. I saw him sitting in the gravel next to the Meetinghouse. Looking out at the highway. Waiting.

I decided I’d wait there with him. I walked over to where he was sitting. Sat down in the gravel. And we talked. About his best friend at camp. About his cabin. About whether his parents loved him (that was a joke on my part, but he took the statement seriously). About his sisters. And life the way an elementary-school kid thinks about life.

I think I told him that because of who his dad was, he was growing up with a lot of expectations. I think I told him that his ability to be honest was going to be pretty important, especially when he made mistakes. I think I told him that effort mattered more than ability. And that I thought his parents actually did love him. A lot.

He told me a lot of things as well. But I kept trying to read between the lines and didn’t end up hearing much. I got the feeling, though, that he enjoyed talking, maybe even needed to talk. That walking over and sitting down in the gravel was a quality decision.

Later that year, I ended up on a planning team with that kid’s dad. We had meetings in Newberg, and on at least one occasion, I stayed at their house. They put me in what one of their daughters called “The Pimp Room.” The kid was playing percussion. Showed me some things he’d learned. Talked about the school he’d missed (quite a bit of school as it turned out). And whether he’d be at camp the next summer.

For a few years, this was the pattern. We’d run into each other during a week of camp or at Yearly Meeting. Maybe sit down once or twice. Not for long, though. Too much happens at camp. I had responsibilities. He had lots of friends. We’d talk about school. About his family. About a book he’d been reading but hadn’t finished. About a theory he had. About religion. About people’s expectations. About whether I thought he could learn how to be happy. Or how to care about someone (not just for them). Or how to let people care for him.

Every year his questions got a little more serious. He was smart enough to know he couldn’t get answers to most of his questions. Which was part of the problem. He really, really wanted answers.

As far as he could tell, other kids either hadn’t figured out how to ask important questions. Or their answers had shown up. Right on time. At the end of camp. And he was still sitting here in the gravel, next to the Meetinghouse. Looking out at the highway. Waiting.

A few years ago, I moved back to Newberg. The kid had really grown up. He’d developed into a first-rate high school musician. He was a decent athlete. He had a gift for bringing people together, for creating community, for making people feel safe and accepted. He made mistakes, and those were bigger than they’d been when he was in grade school. And we talked more. About music. About poetry. About his dreams. About his questions. About his relationships. About his mistakes. About God.

I told him that he had value. I told him that he was doing good work (in spite of the mistakes). I told him that the questions might be a lot more important than the answers. I told him that it wouldn’t hurt to listen to his parents. Or to catch up on his schoolwork. Or to be patient with people. And I told him that no matter what he did, I’d still want to be his friend. That no matter what he believed, I’d always be up for a cup of coffee and a talk. That no matter what I heard, I knew the truth of who he was and of who he’d always be.

Someone who cared deeply about how. Someone who cared deeply about why. Someone willing to sit down in the gravel when the rest of the world was driving home. Someone who was willing to look out at the highway and wait.

As far as he could tell, other kids either hadn’t figured out how to ask important questions. Or their answers had shown up. Right on time.

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