I should hope that my readers are aware by now that I am a hopeless geek. So it should come as no surprise that I should begin this blog entry with a Star Trek reference, especially in light of the newest Trek movie coming out.
In one of my favorite “Next Generation” episodes, Worf, the Klingon officer, discovers a prisoner-of-war planet where dozens of young Klingons have been held since they were small children. None of these young people had any memory of their home and they knew nothing of their own people. Worf, of course, must rescue them physically; but even more importantly, he must rescue them emotionally. These lost young people, with no sense of belonging or of who they are as a culture, ask Worf to teach them what it means to be Klingon. I suppose they expect him to begin by describing what their home planet looks like; or their history; or their political system; or their religious customs or rituals. Worf could easily have started with any of these areas: anyone familiar with the Trek universe knows that the Klingon people have a rich and complex history and culture. But Worf began teaching his new students about what it means to be Klingon by telling them the ancient myth of Kahless the Great and his evil brother.
An impertinent boy dares to interrupt Worf’s narrative. He doesn’t want bedtime stories–he wants facts. Worf is indignant. “These are our stories,” he rumbles in his impressive bass voice; “they tell us who we are.”
Indeed. That sentence has stuck with me for years, and I use it constantly in my literature classes. Our stories both shape us and explain us. Any story that has survived for decades or for centuries has stayed with us for a reason. Good or bad, our stories, our myths, our legends, our novels, and our poetry tell us something about ourselves that we want to pass down to our progeny.
All ancient cultures told stories, but the ones which first shaped and spoke to Western Civilization are the Greek myths. The Romans, whose own mythology was violent and fairly stark, were delighted to conquer Greece and assimilate the beautiful stories of their enemies. That’s what we have inherited–beauty and violence; soaring ideals wed to pragmatism. The gods of the Greeks and Romans were gods of nature, and therefore capricious, unpredictable, and self-absorbed. It’s hard sometimes to tell the gods from the monsters; in fact, most of the monsters were children of gods and therefore under their protection. The heroes in these stories were men who could overcome, or at least survive, the intervention of the gods. You can easily see the influence of such stories in our culture even today–our admiration of the solitary hero overcoming the odds to survive or of the impudent mortal flouting fate. Our worship of individualism grew from these roots. I’m not saying that individualism is a bad thing; but it can lead to bad things, including a resentment of authority and an unhealthy desire for independence from both God and each other.
What would Western culture be like if it were the myths of other people-groups that had been set down and studied, passed down as the wisdom of the ages? The Norsemen, for example, for all their love of a good fight and their dubious regard for personal property, had gods who felt responsible for the good of mankind. With the exception of Loki, they worked together for the common good and never exploited the weak. They fought constantly, but with giants and monsters which threatened both themselves and mankind. In the end, they are all doomed to die; but their moral compass points more truly north than the Greeks’.
But we are what we are; history has so arranged that we as Westerners be essentially Greco/Roman in our cultural outlook. You can see it in our laws, in our belief systems, in our behavioral patterns, and in all of our stories. It is impossible to read a book in the English language, for example, without finding numerous references to Greek and Roman mythology. Our language is rife with it. You need not have read any Homer whatsoever to know what I mean when I say I have an “Achilles’ heel” or that I am stuck “between a rock and a hard place.” You may not know who Achilles is, or that the “rock”and the “hard place” are the monsters Scylla and Charybdis; but you certainly know how it feels to experience these things for yourself.
Down through the years, more and more stories have been added to those original myths; a people talking to themselves about themselves in order to explain themselves to themselves–if you follow me! There are hundreds of individual stories, rich in meaning, that have entered our cultural consciousness and cut themselves a groove there. Now our thoughts automatically run along those grooves–for better or worse. The wisdom of Aesop; the chivalry of Malory and Tennyson; the eloquence of Shakespeare and Milton; the social conscience of Dickens and Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe; the elegance of Austen and the Brontes; the humor of Wilde and Wodehouse–you need not have actually read these works to have benefited from them or to recognize quotations from them. For example, many of the social reforms that we enjoy in our modern civilization, policies that separate us as “first world” rather than “third world”, can trace their beginnings to stories that helped steer the minds of the people into those directions. Our attitudes towards slavery, our work ethics, our treatment of laborers, children, and women, were all shaped by the stories men and women told and that the readers responded to and passed down to their children and to their children’s children in order to better their society.
This is why the study of literature is so important. To know and understand our stories is to know and understand ourselves. To learn the stories of our past is to benefit from the wisdom of the ages; or to realize where our erroneous beliefs have come from and why. We can pick through our cultural mainstays and keep the good and discard the bad, if we realize that they ARE cultural, not Gospel.
In the end, since the only story that was truly inspired is Scripture, we must always compare our cultural stories to the Bible. And then, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy. . . .” as Paul says in Philippians 4–read it!