Near Sacrifice of Isaac

The Israelites Cross the Red Sea
5th c. Mosaic, Nave, Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome
(Public domain.)

Humans Need Stories

What follows raises the question: How does what appears below change who we look at the biblical narrative and apply it today?

Humans need stories. Stories inform, educate, celebrate, and bring about change. We define and redefine ourselves through the telling of stories. Without our story we would cease to exist. Stories give meaning to our name, who we are individually and collectively in society.

Human memory is not fact processed, but story processed. One part of our memory draws facts out of events, while the other part places them in their episodic sequence. It is the sequence, not the facts, per se, that allows our memory to establish purpose. Roger C. Schank, a pioneer in artificial intelligence, states, "We know them [stories], find them, reconsider them, manipulate them, use them to understand the world and to operate in the world, adapt them to new purposes, tell them in new ways. Our ability," Schank says, "to utilize these stories in a novel way is the hallmark of what we consider to be intelligence." Human memory, then, is subjective and needs stories to make sense of both who we are and of our world.

Stories can only be realized through storytelling, when they engage the audience. This is as much true if we are the sole audience to a story playing in our mind, or part of a larger audience, collectively listening to the storyteller. The form of the storytelling – narrative, film, music, etc. – makes no difference.

Good storytelling draws the audience into the story to collaborate, amplify, interrupt, even change it. Good storytelling moves us, changes us, and often brings about social change.

Just as humans need stories, stories need humans. Walter Isaacson, the CEO of Aspen Institute, reminds us that the great narratives of history were not narratives set in stone, but collective experiences transmitted orally; reinterpreted and embellished with each retelling. During the Elizabethan era, theatergoers didn't passively observe plays, they rowdily engaged with the actors. Through the continuous retelling and embellishing these narratives became memes, forming culture, values, and life lessons.

The printing press changed all of this by, as Isaacson says, "freezing words." When books became the vessel to carry the story, the story became static and lifeless. From the book, the lifeless story has carried over into almost all mediums of storytelling.. What would happen today if playgoers rowdily engaged the actors as they did during Shakespeare's day? They would be quickly evicted from the theater, maybe even arrested. Today, according to Isaacson, the story can either deliver a clear and fixed message or contextually engage, but not do both.

The rise of interactive technologies has reopened the possibilities of storytelling. How these possibilities will emerge is not yet fully seen. As Urban Paradoxes documents the urban experience we will explore and seek to engage interactive technologies to tell the story of our collective urban experiences in such a way that they move us, change, and bring about social change.

Mythos: A belief by which we live

In my neighborhood every time the neighborhood gathers together, the tale of the rat in the toilet comes up. The story has been told and retold so many times that it has become a neighborhood legend of mythic proportions; sort of a localized urban myth. When I heard the story once again the other day, I got to thinking about how our neighborhood narratives – stories – not only flow from past events, but also shape the present experience. My thinking continued to flow from these thoughts to a more theoretical contemplation of the role of myth in the urban experience. You will see as my thoughts unfolds in this essay, I am not defining myth as fiction or make believe, but as a symbolic image of reality.

While I am going to be theoretic in this essay, I promise that in the next I will make application to how we might understand the urban experience both in general and specific contexts. Following that, these pages will explore the urban experience in specific contexts, e.g., neighborhoods, themes, etc.

We all need stories because we are stories. Human life itself is structured as a story. Each of us is a central character in the drama of life. Each of us knows, better perhaps than we know anything else:, life has a beginning, middle, and end.

Consider this question: Is there a difference between myth and modern news? Is not the news merely a contemporary retelling of ancient myths: the flood myth, the sacrificial victim myth, the regeneration/resurrection myth, hero myth, and so on?

Myths are populated; they are about beings, human and otherwise, for myths are a crucial part of being human. Myths do not live in the abstract. "We tell myths about things that are most important to us. We tell myths to define good and evil, to pass on memory of what we believe and what we cannot believe. We tell myths to give meaning to the meaningless and to explain what cannot be explained" (Daily News, Eternal Stories: The Mythological Role of Journalism, Lule, Jack; NY: The Guilford Press, 2001; p.59). The frame of reference, however, is always human. That is why gods with human characteristics and heroes with supernatural characteristics populate myth. Without them myths have no meaning.

Studied alive, myth as we shall see, is not symbolic, but a direct expression of its subject matter. It is not an explanation in satisfaction of a scientific interest, but a narrative resurrection of a primeval reality, told in satisfaction of deep religious [spiritual, ed.] wants, moral cravings, social submissions [and ambitions, ed.], even practical requirements. Myths fulfills in primitive culture [and ours ed.] an indispensable function; it expresses, enhances, and codifies belief; it safeguards and enforces morality; it vouches for the efficiency of ritual and contains practical rules for the guidance of man. Myth is this vital ingredient of human civilization; it is not an idle tale, but a hardworked active force; it is not an intellectual explanation or an artistic imagery, but a pragmatic charter of faith and moral wisdom. (Myth in Primitive Psychology: Magic, Science and Religion; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1954; p.101)

The philosopher Ernst Cassirer argues that the images of myths are not known as images. They are not regarded as symbols, but as realities. He notes that "the myth-maker does not invent the facts; he interprets facts that are already a given in the culture to which he belongs." Myth's "success as a practical argument" he argues, "depends on its being accepted as true, and it is generally accepted as true if it explains the experiences to whom it is addressed (The Myth of the State; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1946; p.57)."

Northop Frye, in his book,The Educated Imagination (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1964) compares poetry, and by extension, myth, to history by noting:

The historian makes specific and particular statements such as, 'The Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066.' Consequently he's judged by the truth or falsehood of what he says—either there was such a battle or there wasn't, and if there was, he's got the date either right or wrong. But the poet, Aristotle says, never makes any real statement at all, certainly no particular or specific ones. The poet's job is not to tell you what happened, but what happens [emphasis added] not what did not take place, but the kinds of thing that always does take place (p.63).

It is the difference between history and myth that turns the biblical experience into prose worth recording. If it is merely a rendering of historic fact – on such and such a date, such and such happened here – or a tour of significant buildings, architecture, or places, it is nothing more than a recording of data. It is when the events become transformed into dynamic experiences that they become real and meaningful.

The Role of our Stories (myth)

Remember that our working definition of "myth" as used in this essays is that it is the "narrative by which we live. It makes no difference whether we are speaking of a religious framework or of our everyday story.

We began with the premise that human history is not fact-processed, but story-processed. Human memory is one part fact and one part story. It is the sequence, not the facts, per-se, that allows our memory to establish purpose. This is as much true whether we are telling stories of our distant past or telling the stories of our neighborhoods.

If we examine myth, that is, our stories, as "human memory sequentially arranged," we will see that myth is neither objective nor embedded history. That myth is not objective reality ought to be obvious. Myth contains too much imagination [like embellished tale of the rat mentioned above] to be objective fact. That myth is not embedded history is less obvious. Many anthropologists hold that we can learn about primitive society via the truth in their myths. However, this has the effect of making that which remains after the embedded truth (facts) is removed, un-true, thus, non-real. But, is that which is left truly non-real?

I suggest that it is not.

The problem with the anthropological approach is that it fails, for example, to do justice to the reality of the myth in the lives of ancient peoples, who functioned totally within the framework of their myth. To understand the people of antiquity and their culture, to give reality to their history, we must do so within the full context of their myth.

In Theology Brewing

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