There are certain melodies that waft through history. One is the cultural contrast between Athens and Jerusalem. This contrast has many meanings, but the most germane one for our day is the contrast between the competitive virtues and the compassionate virtues.
Athens – think of Achilles – stands for the competitive virtues: strength, toughness, prowess, righteous indignation, the capacity to smite your foes and win eternal fame. Jerusalem – think of Moses or Jesus – stands for the cooperative virtues: humility, love, faithfulness, grace, mercy, forgiveness, answering a harsh word with a gentle response.
These two sets of virtues get communicated in different literary forms. The competitive virtues of Athens are usually narrated in myth while the compassionate virtues of Jerusalem often get narrated in parable.
Myth is a specific kind of story. Myths are generally set in a timeless Perilous Realm. The Perilous Realm usually has different rules than the normal world. Creatures have different superpowers, like the ability to fly or throw shafts of lightning. And those rules are taken very seriously. Within the Perilous Realm everything that happens in myth is “true,” in the sense that everything obeys the rules of that other world.
Myths respond to our hunger to do something heroic. Whether it is Zeus, Thor, Luke Skywalker or Wonder Woman, myths trace the archetypal chapters of the heroic quest or combat: refusing the call, the meeting of the mentor, the ordeal, seizing the sword and so on.
The core drama is external: fighting the forces of evil, enduring the harsh journey, developing the skills that make you the best.
Parable is a different kind of story. Parables are usually set in normal time and reality. Parables have ordinary human characters, never superheroes. The word parable comes from the Greek word meaning comparison. Parables are meant to be relatable and didactic.
Parables respond to our deep hunger to be in close relationship. Parables – think of the good Samaritan, the emperor’s new clothes, the prodigal son or the story of Ruth, Naomi and Boaz – are mostly about inner states, not external combat. Characters are presented with a moral dilemma or a moral occasion, and the key question is whether they express charity, faithfulness, forgiveness, commitment and love.
Myths tend to celebrate grandeur and heroic superiority; parables tend to puncture the pretensions of superiority and celebrate humility and service to others.
All of a sudden, we are surrounded by myth. As parable-based religion has receded from the public square, heroic myth, and the competitive virtues it celebrates, has rushed in to fill the space.
I'll just mention three forms that are immensely popular today. The first is mythic movies: “Avengers,” “X-Men,” “Star Wars,” “Transformers,” “Justice League” and the rest. The Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC Extended Universe franchises alone have grossed about $20 billion at the box office worldwide.
I regularly run into people (men, mostly) who are deeply immersed in these mythic worlds, who can entertain you with long disquisitions on the merits of different characters, the moral lessons of each film, whether “Black Panther,” say, is an accurate rendition of injustice today.
Then there are video games, which are myths you can enter into through technology. The video game industry is two or three times bigger than the movie industry. Gamers don’t only play; they gather to watch others play. Last year, according to Rolling Stone, 360 million people watched the League of Legends Mid-Season Invitational (an audience three times larger than the Super Bowl).
Finally, there are sporting events like the World Cup. Sport is living myth. Like video games and superhero movies, it gives the way myth gives. It gives people a sense of the heroic. It is the stage upon which great acts of prowess, courage and shame play out – Ronaldo rising to the occasion, Messi choking under pressure.
Like myth, sport takes place in a Perilous Realm where special rules apply. Also like myth, sport requires a great suspension of disbelief. The viewer has to pretend that it really matters which group of men puts a ball in a net.
Myths are moral narratives – they describe one interpretation of the moral landscape of reality and offer a model of how to be a sanctified person in that landscape. You might say that America’s Fourth Great Spiritual Awakening has come in the form of this mythic revival.
There are many virtues to the mythic worldview – to stand heroically for justice, to be loyal to friends and fierce against foes. But history does offer some sobering lessons about societies that relied too heavily on the competitive virtues.
They tend to give short shrift to relationships, which depend on the fragile, intimate bonds of vulnerability, trust, compassion and selfless love. They tend to see life as an eternal competition between warring tribes. They tend to see the line between good and evil as running between groups, not, as in parable, down the middle of every human heart.
We’re spiritual creatures; our lives are shaped by the moral landscapes and ideals we inherit and absorb. I’d say our politics and our society are coming to resemble the competitive mythic ethos that is suddenly all around.