Posted by: cctracker | February 9, 2012

Myth vs Nuance

I finally did get around, as promised, to reading the article my friend shared with me about the mythology of “Star Wars.”

In the piece, Liel Leibovitz makes the case that George Lucas does indeed take his cue from close study of Joseph Campbell and intentionally sets out to encode the grand generalities of all religions in his movies. As I mention in my post, I actually don’t think he takes that stuff too seriously at all in the first three movies.

But his point resonates a bit with what I said about the second three: we get a vague, culture-less “spirituality” in which the battle between good and evil is flat, facile and easy. He says Lucas makes the same mistake in his new film about the Tuskegee Airman: it’s all cool battles and grand drama with no attempt to get at the real intricacies of race and history.

We don’t need more “transcendental humanism,” he says in conclusion.  We’ve got to say more than “follow your bliss.”  It has to be “both grander and more specific.”

That may be true, but I think putting those two modes together in religious practice is actually quite a trick.

Here are two observations about how religion seems to “work:”

The first point:

On the one hand, it seems that religion does rest on grand narrative quite a bit. In fact, I think human communities naturally, that is to say biologically and neurologically, assemble and promulgate broad narratives and iconic images and that individual people naturally lap them up and lean on them pretty heavily as they navigate their lives.  And I’m not talking about those other, “unenlightened”  types. I’m talking about myself. I’ve reflected a lot about the stories and images that have shaped me: both the ones that are simply “there” and the ones I cling to and sustain. And I’ve talked to my students about their own. Listening to call-in shows on NPR, watching the commentators on TV news, trying to stay focussed on a Sunday homily or simply sharing life with my neighbors, I see and feel their power and influence everywhere. People are saying they’ve thought a claim through and so hold  to reasoned convictions, but most often I hear the myth being spooled out  without much of the nuance of of lived experience.

John Gast's "American Progress"

Most of the time these days, I’m standing back, listening to them and trying to do two things: First, trying to measure their myths, aphorisms and images against the complexity and nuance of life as I see it; and  second, trying to maintain enough humility to offer them the respect they deserve since I suspect that their actual inner life is much richer and more nuanced than they are able to articulate.

But every now and again I hear a different storyteller’s voice, someone offering me other kinds of images. There is silence next to whatever story they tell. Typically, some lengthy pauses. The images they conjure up are full of specific times and places: objects with lots of texture, scenes with characters that vanish into shadows. Outrageous things happen in their stories and remain unexplained, though somehow still honored for whatever they signify. Sometimes they do have a few “facts” and even a passionate perspective on where the facts lead. But the arrow of their opinion is flying through air they’ve acknowledged is thick with the vast complexity of what remains unknown or unexamined.

As I’ve shared in an earlier post, my Dad is such a person for me.  So is my brother. And my wife. And several of my colleagues. Some of them are quite religious, some devout. Others only marginally so. A few are comfortable with the term “spiritual” –one Leibovitz finds distastefully vague–, but can no longer make publicly “religious” statements. None of them, though, would ever advertise that fact in a way which drew attention to themselves or suggested a criticism of someone else who might be listening. I am much better than I used to be about appreciating the wisdom of these people in my life. They are good spiritual teachers.

Once in a great while, I encounter someone like this who is at the same time a publicly religious person. A designated spiritual teacher. A person of office who is required to represent the images and narratives of orthodoxy and yet still carries them lightly, with open palms, open heart and an open, unguarded mind. A priest at our school comes to mind. Benedict XVI. The Dali Lama.  Aware of the bedroom communities of the faithful whom they know are listening because of their office, these teachers give voice to the grand narratives of their tradition. They hold up the holy icons for contemplation. Their message offers both comfort and challenge.

But at the same time, they seem to know that people like me are out there , too. I hear nuance and humility in the way they tell  the grand narrative. Their posture and quality of presence tells me that iconic images are for them a way to enter more deeply into the mystery and surprise of real experience.  A little confession: It helps to read their books where they really let their hair down!

Here is the second point:

Like every species and population on the planet shaped by millions of years of adaptation in exchange with countless others, religion itself has evolved in an organic way. The world’s great religious traditions are ancient on our human scale. Unlike the overnight construction of Star Wars mythology or Scientology’s Psycho-Cybernetics,  these traditions have had time to absorb, condense and  reflect  vast stretches of the nuances of human life. When myths and icons emerge from all that nuance into particular traditions and take up places of honor in a community, they are rightly regarded with reverence for all the experience and consciousness they encode.

Krishna and Arjuna in the Bagavad Gita; Image at reputiatedbrilliance.blogspot. com

That doesn’t mean, of course, that  they will automatically produce wisdom and virtue in the faithful. In some circumstances they will even misfire as ignorance and hate: organic counter-patterns with their own evolutionary genesis and function. And sometimes they will strike those of us who are more rational and scientific as quaint, anachronistic or flat.

Christ, Pantocrator 8th century Byzantine Mosaic

But that is where religious training, reflection, study and leadership have to come in. Very few will have the time or inclination to do this “adult-level” work. But those who do it have a dual responsibility: For the vast community of the faithful for whom the grand narrative and the iconic images will remain mostly concrete and literal, they have to find ways to use the poetry of these forms to motivate and inspire  people to be faithful in the day to day circumstances of their lives.

Bishop Oscar Romero Image at

But for the relatively small but very powerful group of sophisticated–and usually marginal–members of the community, leaders have to find ways to invite them behind the external forms into the vast, experiential, nuanced  truth encoded within the forms. And they have to do this in such a way that they don’t encourage them to reduce sacred forms to mere practical vehicles whose only purpose is to convey the “real” but abstract truths.  Nor can they allow them to think of themselves as holier or superior to ordinary folks just because they’ve had a look “behind the curtain.”

Thomas Merton Image from W.L. Lyons Library

I’ve been trying to listen and learn from these kinds of leaders for many years. Trying to move back and forth between the grand narrative and  iconic images to the density, chaos and wonder of nuanced experience and back again. I’d like to learn to help others walk between them. But the truth is I still find it very daunting.

So when Leibovitz says in his critique of “Star Wars” that what we need is a religion  that is “both grander and more specific,” I agree.

But as I said, in practice it is quite a trick.


  1. Jim,

    Thanks for these wonderful thoughts—coherent yet complicated. I’m guessing that, like me when I read this entry, you, when you wrote it, thought about our friend Bill. Here’s one of many of your sentences that summoned Bill to mind: “But the arrow of their opinion is flying through air they’ve acknowledged is thick with the vast complexity of what remains unknown or unexamined.” It’s a great sentence. Also, I thought about Shakespeare. Right now I’m teaching Macbeth and one of the kids asked the other day about this line: “Heavenly powers, restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature gives way to in repose.” The student wanted to know if Shakespeare had Banquo praying to unnamed “heavenly powers” because he wasn’t Christian or because he believed that the people of the historical Macbeth’s Scotland (C.E. 1040) were not Christian. I responded that I’ve noticed there are almost no explicitly Christian references in the play and yet it seems to me the most decisively Christian of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Maybe it’s what Harold Bloom would call the anxiety of influence: writers avoid disclosing those to whom they have too great a debt. But even more than that, I think it’s Shakespeare trying to demonstrate that the truths of Christianity inhabit the universe, especially the natural world. Let’s take Christian diction out of the play, he seems to be saying, and see if the turhts of Christianity manifest themselves anyway. If there’s one opinion arrow that flies through the vast complexity of the play, it’s something that long ago you quoted to me from (then) Father Jim Telthorst: “It’s a heaven all the way to heaven and a hell all the way to hell.” There’s a spiritual economy of life—an economy for which the words of Shakespeare and the life of Christ provide a guide to “the wealth of nations,”

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