PBP Week 29: M is for Myth and Merida! This theme of history and myth I hope to explore in the upcoming week, I’m too tired now to go into it as deeply as I would like.
-Pixar’s new movie Brave came out last week while I was away. Despite all the anti-women, difficult gender issues, and gentrified versions of fairy tales Disney makes beautiful movies. I suppose animation-wise Brave doesn’t stand up to Wall-E or Monsters Inc (though, if you are a nerd like me check out howMerida’s hair moves). Brave is a different kind of movie: it teaches lessons, it makes new myths, and most of all, it’s a story about being a GIRL. Brave, though there is plenty to attract boys and men, is primary a story about the experience of being a daughter, and being mother. So, for that alone I have to say, it’s worthwhile to see and actually support these kinds of stories. Brave also makes a new story, complete with a new method of Disney “happy endings.” It is a modern fairy tale, one that creates a captivating story, imparts difficult life lessons on the nature of life, myth, and relationships as well as remaining accessible to young and old audiences.
Brave is not only an excellent example of creating modern myths, it explicitly talks about how mythology works. Merida’s mother uses mythology in the story to try to teach her daughter about finding your place in the world. Merida, having heard the story over and over, ignores the heart of the story: she doesn’t heed the lesson and pushes on her own way forsaking her responsibility to others. As a result, bad things happen. In the move (because it’s Disney), the myth it turns out was “true” in that it factually happened. Now, Merida awaits the same fate if she can’t find a way to break the spell, accept her responsibilities as a princess, and heal her relationship with her mother. The animated version hammers home the point: mythology teaches us lessons because they speak real truths, it doesn’t matter if the stories are factual. This is a common lesson in many books, including one of my favorites Heron and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie. In the novel, the son constantly asks his story-teller father if the story is “true”:
“What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?”
The lesson, at the end of the novel is this: All Stories are True. Stories are how we teach lessons and impart universal truths. This is also, what religion aims to do and thus why mythology and religion go hand in hand. Today it seems that people, from fundamentalists of all sects to atheists, have got hung up on what it means for a story to be “true.” I maintain that this is missing the point: All Stories Are True. That does not mean however that we should take them literally word for word to be true.
Mythology and sacred stories, are not stories about factual events, they are stories about universal truths and sometimes modeling behavior. The reason we use stories, or why Jesus taught his “lessons” in parables, is because it’s human nature to take a lesson we had to puzzle out for ourselves as a greater truth than the lesson that was spoon fed to us. When your mother says “Wear THIS dress” the natural reaction is “Why? I don’t like that one” she answers: “because I said so”… the fight goes on. We simply do not respond well to outright statements that while may be true, are inconvenient. Anyone who says they prefer that (certain exs I’m talking to you) is lying.
This is something we struggle with culturally as well, because even though All Stories Are True, and there isn’t always a “right” answer: there usually is a wrong answer. To get to the “right” answer, especially when you’re dealing with as popular myths as something like the Bible, you need to take historical contexts in account. The Bible is a good example of this, though I’m sure there are Pagan texts just as misunderstood. The truth is, I can’t think of a Pagan text as widely used as the Bible. As a theology student at a Catholic university, I was most interested in comparative religion and the early Christian church. See, the truth is, the Bible is taken entirely out of context: it’s a meta-narrative. This means, it’s meant to be read from cover to cover: the climax is the birth of Jesus and the gospels. In fact, really many Christians only use the New Testament because the Old Testament is seen as the story of the Jewish people, proving a groundwork to understand Jesus’s role in history. Some versions of the Bible don’t include books and substitute others like Song of Solomon (Song of Songs), Enoch, and Maccabees. Once you have that all settled, many books are taken out of context because much of the New Testament is actually a historical record of problems in the early church. This isn’t to say that these texts don’t show Christians how to better live a Christ-like life or they are irrelevant, but so much of Paul is taken out of context someone really needs to sit down and point out they were letters written to solve problems in the early church: specific problems. Finally, even after all of that, so many versions of the Bible exist. My personal favorite is The Way (1969) a modern interpretive Bible with beautiful 1960s illustrated photographs. The most popular Bible, the King James version, however was written in the seventeenth century with political ambitions in mind. The King James Bible was not only written to have an English version of The Bible, but to solidify the basis of the Church of England (meaning any hints of a papacy would be removed) and protect and enforce the desired feudal social order. In that context, it’s easy to see why so many people are politically moved by this particular version. For me at least, knowing the history of texts, plays a huge role in how I interpret them. In this case, knowing what I do about early Christianity and the history of The Bible itself, I find it easy to find the truth and beauty: and leave out the literal words. This is equally important with Pagan texts and stories. All stories are true, but just because there isn’t a “right” answer does not mean wrong answers do not exist. Just a hint but, that a sacred story is factually true, is almost always, the wrong answer.