“Tell them true stories”

I was told a whopper as a child. I was taught that there was a great being who created the entire universe, all the stars and planets and galaxies in the infinite reaches of space. Then I was told that this being had created me for a purpose that he had in mind, and that he would always be with me (yes, oddly enough, this being was always described as “he”). And I had to believe it, as a real and objective truth, and reject anything I found that contradicted it. As I grew up I realised that these claims had as flimsy of a backing as the stories of the jolly elf that brings presents each Christmas, but somehow there must be something to it because all the adults I knew believed it. Any of these adults, naturally, would easily tell me that Santa Claus was only a fairy story. But God and Jesus? Totally true.

Now I see the only difference between the two stories is that the one about God and Jesus happens to have a whole religious establishment dedicated to holding it up and shielding it from the truth. But that somehow didn’t stop me from finding out.

Finding out was rough in that it involved having my whole worldview turned upon its head, shaken and disordered, and left me sitting in the rubble trying to sort everything out. Which, while it was difficult, was a good thing since it allowed me to discover my own opinions and views rather than continuing the parrot those of someone else. But there are some assumptions that go deep, having been imprinted since earliest childhood, that are hardest to shake and hardest to figure out after the upheaval. What do I do about meaning and purpose? What do I have to keep myself going when the days are bleak, I feel depressed, and when all seems to be going wrong?

The myths in a religion may not be literally true, even to (many) followers of the religion, but what they do is provide a framework for thinking about who we are and why we are here and why we should carry on when things are tough. There is something just a bit flimsy about deriving your ideas of purpose from stories that you really don’t quite believe are true. Regardless, myths are a good way to communicate rather abstract ideas and ways of thinking that an individual person may never come up with on their own. Myths can be true stories in a sense, if they give good lessons and good guidance for life situations. Taking a look at the characters in fictional stories and seeing what they do, and why they do it, and what the outcomes are can help guide our thinking when we are faced with real-life dilemmas. The power of myth is the power of imagination: we can work out scenarios in our heads and think about the likely outcomes before taking real action.

For an example of a modern myth, I love Philip Pullman’s idea of the “republic of Heaven.” This idea is built and elaborated on in the “His Dark Materials” trilogy (best known for The Golden Compass), particularly in the final book The Amber Spyglass. This idea is analogous to the idea of the “Kingdom of Heaven” in Christianity, except that rather than being servants and subjects we are free citizens. And, of course, there is no king. How much better this sort of myth is for a modern world of democracy and individual liberty!

A great example of the difference between the “Kingdom of Heaven” and the “republic of Heaven” is shown by a passage from C.S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia.” Having grown up loving CS Lewis’s fiction, this is particularly meaningful to me. I was always a bit sad and confused about Susan in the end of the series, and I think Pullman’s analysis makes perfect sense.

Here is a nonrepublican view of stockings from C. S. Lewis. Near the end of The Last Battle, the final book in the Narnia series, Susan is refused entry to the stable, which represents salvation, because, as Peter says, “My sister . . . is no longer a friend of Narnia.” “Oh Susan!” says Jill. “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.” In other words, normal human development, which includes a growing awareness of your body and its effect on the opposite sex, is something from which Lewis’s narrative, and what he would like us to think is the Kingdom of Heaven, turns with horror.

[from The Republic of Heaven by Philip Pullman. Bold is mine]

How is this different from the attitudes of the Magisterium toward children in The Golden Compass? That growing up is a bad thing? Let’s all stay childlike and pliable and humble and subject to authority. Cut away those daemons! (If this makes no sense to you, you need to read the “His Dark Materials” trilogy.)

We desperately need new myths, and true stories. Stories suitable for free a people, with free minds.

(Oh, and be sure to read the rest of Philip Pullman’s article The Republic of Heaven. It goes in much more depth than what I have represented here.)

4 thoughts on ““Tell them true stories”

  1. I’ll go for the new myths, or at least an update of the old ones, but true stories are usually pretty boring. True stories almost always have to be enhanced to keep our interest. That’s why myth is so important to us.

    • I think most true stories are boring because they have relevance only to a single person or small group that were in the story. But every now and then real things happen, like the entrapment of the Chilean miners and how they were rescued (there is a riveting NOVA special about this), or the story of how flight was invented, or the story of how the universe evolved (even with the gaps in our knowledge) that are inspiring and filled with hope. Nothing gives hope and inspiration more than a really good story that also happens to be true. I think myths are great and that we should use our imagination, but nothing can take the place of true stories.

  2. It’s not even the actual stories; the very *idea* of true stories seems to bore people. I have been going to an international film festival for a few years, and I’ve started to watch more and more documentaries. It’s true that old-fashioned doc films were boring as high school history classes, but nowadays these true stories often contain more interesting twists than fictional movies. I can’t get my friends to go watch docs with me though.. they are scared they’ll be bored and have wasted time and money (really? Time is considered as “wasted” watching stories about real people whose lives are so different from ours they’re not even fathomable without the existence of the doc films as evidence?)

    It’s true that fictional movies have more dramatic flare to them, however the plots and twists are rarely original any more. It’s basically the same kind of plot + twists, played by different actors and in new settings, with better special effects. But people don’t want stories with completely new concepts. It’s too much work for the brain. They prefer semi-familiar stories, told over and over again. The Bible is a familiar piece of literature accepted as truth by many highly respected people. Why believe in something new?

  3. Interesting thought Nancy. I wonder sometimes if people cling to myths and superstitions not because deep down they believe they are true, but because they think reality by itself is just to bleak… I always cringe when I hear someone has come to the end of a vacation say that it is now “time to get back to reality.” As if the boring, routine, or stressful bit of life is more “real” than the enjoyable parts. Not me. I think the fun stuff is more real :)

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