27.8.09

Evangelical Myths

A couple months ago I started watching the television show “Northern Exposure” on DVD. “Northern Exposure,” which ran for six seasons on CBS starting in 1990, is set in the fictional town of Cicely, Alaska. One of the most fascinating themes of this quirky, funny, and sometimes deeply moving series is the way Cicely’s white and Indian residents co-exist in community. One of my favorite episodes in Season Four depicts the Thanksgiving celebration, which in Cicely has taken on elements of El Día de los Muertos. Indians ambush whites on the street, pelting them with tomatoes – and then they hug, friends. The holiday culminates with a parade down main street with the Indians dressed as skeletons and spirits. Then everybody gathers at The Brick tavern for a community feast.

I’m in Season Five now, and an episode I watched yesterday corresponds nicely with something I’ve been struggling with re: "On the Narrow Road", my upcoming "evangelical pilgrimage" across the country. A recurring character in the show’s later seasons is a local shaman (he prefers the job description “healer” to “medicine man”) named Leonard. Since he is taking on more white patients, Leonard decides to do some research. He sets up a table in the community center and invites whites to come in and tell him their legends. One white man tells Leonard the story of Paul Bunyan. “How often do you think about that story?” Leonard asks (I’m paraphrasing). The man replies, “Oh, I haven’t thought about that story in years.” Other whites tell him campfire stories like the one about the man with the hook. But these stories aren’t what Leonard had in mind. Toward the end of the episode, Leonard is talking with the white DJ of the local radio station. “I’ve failed, Chris,” Leonard says with a defeated sigh. “I’ve failed to locate the white collective unconscious.”

I laughed out loud.

I read somewhere recently that many pilgrims will prepare for their journey by studying the stories, legends, songs, and myths of the land and people they plan to visit. This is one way I want to prepare for my own pilgrimage through evangelical America. But I feel a little like Leonard in that episode of “Northern Exposure.” I have failed so far to locate American evangelicalism’s collective unconscious.

What are the guiding myths, so to speak, of American evangelicals? Do we look to stories of the Puritans and the Piligrims (speaking of Thanksgiving), or to a particular interpretation of America’s founding? Does the Left Behind series qualify? Those stories do act as a symbolic representation of a meaning system – the beliefs, assumptions, and organizing principles – of a great many people in this country. What about “The Purpose Driven Life” or books by James Dobson? My sociologist friend Matt suggested I may have to approach these questions from a regional perspective – reading Jerry Falwell, for example, to better understand evangelicals in Virginia.

None of these are particularly satisfying, and I am starting to wonder if I am looking for something that doesn’t exist. Is American evangelicalism so individualistic that the only guiding myth that matters to the average evangelical is his or her own testimony (conversion story)? If this is true, what are the consequences for the movement? What does it mean that we don’t have stories to bind us together?

What do you think? Do American evangelicals have guiding myths? Does the shortage of these stories (if in fact there is a shortage) say something about the individualistic nature of evangelicalism? or about its regional and denominational complexity? I’m lost in a morass of questions.

28 comments:

  1. I think there are plenty of myths, but they're very functional in nature, thus perhaps hard to find out of a particular context. For example, you've got apologetic myths -- stories about atheist conversion (Darwin's toping the lists), the guy who found Noah's Ark, the Shroud of Turin, etc. Evangelism myths/anecdotes, such as the man crossing Niagra Falls with a wheel barrow (just a google search away if you don't know it). Then there are the Chick tracks, loaded with every scare-'em-to-Jesus story you've ever heard. The stories are ridiculous, but they're usually based on well-worn evangelical myth intended to inspire fear and outrage.

    In true Protestant tradition, we don't have good stories just for their own sake; we have stories that prove a point.

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  2. Larry brings up a good one, but as far as I can tell, we evangelicals don't all think alike on a lot of topics.
    Almost all my friends these days are evangelicals, and many like Purpose Driven Life, but not a one can stand Left Behind. We're indifferent to Falwell, and Dobson when he talks about psychology and parenting, but are very split when he talks politics.
    As an evangelical, I wouldn't appreciate anyone concluding what I think about these and other topics any more than, say, a person of color would want anyone making assumptions about them because of race.
    To Larry's point, I observe a lot who think America has been used by God, but not that we are any better than other nations. Maybe that's what I observe because my own church is so missions-oriented. But the other items I mentioned above go way beyond my church.

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  3. Just realized I left a word out. I meant to say many people I know *like* Dobson when he is discussing parenting/psychology, but are split when he gets into politics.

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  4. There are many myths that American live by - but most are paltry, predigested and historically false.

    But really, what would you expect from a nation full of individuals who don't even know how - or why - their ancestors came to these shores?

    Far from victory, most "Americans" came here because of famines or harsh politics - or both.

    We've all been fed a steady diet of denial and gossamer history. Our group - and individual histories are far more intriguing than most history books tell...

    My ancestor who came to America (from Scotland) was given the choice by Cromwell of immediate execution or indentured servitude in America.

    These are the kinds of choices that built America.

    There are thousands of these stories - most of them ugly - which is why we prefer the Disneyfied versions.

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  5. Aren't Biblical stories the collective myth of Christians? If you want to be specific to America you can look into the common use, understanding, translation of these myths by evangelicals. It seems as though the obvious place to look for the collective subconscious of a specific religion would be in their sacred texts. Think Sunday school stories.

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  6. I agree with Becca's point.

    But there's more than that. There are the myths of American martyrs, like Cassie Bernal. Or the story of the college professor and the chalk.

    I think many of these exist in chain emails and Christian culture lexicon.

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  7. Can someone create a new blog post about emergent myths about evangelicals? That would be voluminous. Start with "evangelicals hate gay people" and "evangelicals don't care to help poor people" and "evangelicals think hurricanes happen because of gay pride parades" and then add to that list.

    Just a thought while practicing work avoidance. ;)

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  8. @James:

    Good point, especially on the poor people...I worked for a brief time raising funds for homeless missions in Portland over the phone, and I found the people I called to be incredibly generous and kind.

    With exceptions, of course...there were one or two who would go off on how their tax dollars were helping poor people against their will. But that was rare. I'm not sure of stats, but I'd guess Christians are still the top donors in the US today.

    I think the "hates gays" thing isn't really about hate, but more about how the old "love the sinner, hate the sin" seemed hollow and false, because there didn't seem to be much love happening there, at least on a public level.

    As for blaming 9/11 and predicting major storms and a tsunami hitting the evil Pacific Northwest...those aren't myths. Maybe not EVERY evangelical believes these things, but the really loud and obnoxious minority does.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H-CAcdta_8I

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pat_Robertson#Predictions

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  9. i'm with becca. if you take "myth" to just mean "our stories" and not put on the connotation that they have to be fictional that the word has taken on recently, then the Bible is our set of myths.
    since you mentioned left behind, i'd say that the narnia series would probably qualify. or at least the lion, the witch, and the wardrobe.

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  10. I agree with Jordan, growing up with God fearing never-been-drunk-virgins-til-they-were-married-went-to-church-every-Sunday parents, I knew immediatley what he was talking about when he said the professor and the chalk story. Christians really, really love to send "uplifting" (usually fabricated) e-mail forwards.

    What comes to mind for me when I think of "evangelical" and "myth" are the ways Biblical stories are twisted, like how the wise men visited Jesus the night He was born (it was actually 2 years later), Moses is depicted in illustrations/movies as being a robust older gentleman in the 50-60range when really he was pushing 90, Jesus was a soft spoken white dude, the Bible says drinking is a sin, etc.

    Oh and any time you talk to a Christian about J.R. Tolkein they always mention how C.S. Lewis "made" him a Christian or vice versa or whatever.

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  11. Emily, you forgot how Hebrews always have British accents in movies;)

    Jordan, I was actually posting tongue-in-cheek. Or keyboard. Whatever. But to your last keyboard, I'd respectfully request that nobody judge any group by their loudest, self-proclaimed leaders. Every group, including those you belong to, has extremists.

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  12. Emily, I have read in several reliable sources that Tolkien had some talks with Lewis while he was still an avowed athiest, and one of those talks was the last straw. Lewis made a personal committment to Christ soon after, while riding a motorcycle. Is this not true?

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  13. John,

    It'll be interesting to hear what you find. I believe evangelicalism to actually be in it's teenage years, struggling to find an identity, etc. I mean, Billy Graham is still alive, for pete's sake. Although many would disagree, I feel that's what much of the emerging/emergent steps have been all about; we couldn't take the family any longer, so we moved out to find ourselves. It's fair and probably needed.

    p.s. - I wonder if you just went looking for the "american" myths, if you wouldn't find the "american evangelical" myths just to the side...in some sense, they've grown up together...

    Traveling mercies,

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  14. James,
    oh no, I know it's true, I'm just saying it's one of those things that gets said over and over in Christian circles. Not a "myth" in the sense it's false, but "myth" in the sense it's legendary. Same thing with the story of the guy who set out to prove there was no God, spent like, 30 years on a book, got to the the last page, realized there was God, and then wrote Ben Hur. Or something, I dunno google it.

    But yeah, I don't doubt it's true.

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  15. I went into a Christian bookstore the other day and asked where I could find names such as: Miller, Claiborne, Campolo, Bell, McClaren. And this guy's head about exploded. He honestly took me aside and warned me against all this dangerous stuff. He informed me that their theologies were bad so they didn't carry their works. He pointed me to some books that denounced these heresies entitled something Emergent...fleeting...hell...IDK. I sat down and read a chapter about the emergent eschatology as being paraphrased as unbiblical Wishful Thinking. My head about exploded.

    With two exploded heads he later asked, "Have you ever read, John MaCarthur . . . that's some good stuff."

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  16. For-All-Bible located at the Northpark Mall in Joplin, Missouri. I also found out that they refuse to carry the TNIV Bible because it's bad.

    To be honest I don't know how they make money. Last time I checked these authors along with Phillip Yancey attest for what, 70% of all Christian bookstore profit. Well come to think of it I guess they still have MacArthur, Lucado, Osteen and Eldredge . . . and I almost forgot Joyce Meyer's...and yes, of course everyone sells C.S. Lewis. And something about Larry the tomato and creation science booklets. So I guess they're still making money.

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  17. [head explodes]

    Holy pooh,

    I'm hanging out with "Emergents"?

    [/end head explodes]

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  18. Thank you, everybody, for your thoughtful comments. They are immensely helpful.

    I came across something in a book I was reading yesterday, "Paradise Found: Nature in America at the Time of Discovery." It's a myth worth exploring, though not one limited to evangelicals. (John B., I've also sensed that American evangelical myths might be found alongside American myths.) The author of the book, Steve Nicholls, writes:

    "Environmental historian Donald Worster considers that one of the key ideas implicit in American history is that America was built in a rediscovered Garden of Eden, a Paradise of plenty."

    Thanks again for all your thoughts.

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  19. My last comment was meant to be a joke and and not a jab.

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  20. Eric,
    I would urge you not to be so harsh regarding that bookstore. There are so many books out there which have authors or publishers which would like to place them under the "Christian" umbrella that bookstores must find a place to draw a line. An extreme example would be books about Jesus going to India and discovering Buddhism when he was a teen, or of course the Gnostic gospels.

    IMO, the line is a fuzzy one, and I can see why some of the more theologically conservative stores would consider McClaren and Bell to be outside of what's acceptable for them and their clientele. I know of an entire denomination which won't allow Eldredge books to be sold in their church's bookstores.

    So I don't have a problem with them selling only what they choose to sell. And if you opened a store and sold McClaren, Bell, Miller, etc., and chose not to carry Osteen and Falwell, I wouldn't have a problem with that, either.

    This being America and free enterprise and all, you are free to shop somewhere else. It's not like this one store is making a decision about what you can read.

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  21. No, but a lot of innocent people will go into a store like this because a Christian friend of theirs is reading Claiborne and then they'll ask for it and the guy behind the counter will laugh and take them aside and all of a sudden they are questioning themselves and their friends faith based on a clerks response to a book he's never even read.

    This happens all the time.

    Oh and I would definitely carry Osteen and Lucado and all of that stuff because they sell. I'm American, I want to make money. I don't have morals when it comes to profit margins.

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  22. I wasn't defending the guy's demeanor. I thought you were being more critical of the what they chose to sell than the way the guy was acting. Upon re-reading, I can see it was more 50-50.
    I guess I have to ask you to ask yourself: if you were in his shoes, and someone came in wanting a prosperity gospel text, because they want to learn how to get God to give them what they want, what would you say to them?

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  23. Eric,

    Take a day trip to Wichita and visit Eighth Day Books; if it's not worth your time, I'll buy you some Miller beer. But just know that there'll be very little Claiborne or Brian Mc there...but there'll be shelf upon shelf of Enger, Robinson, Shaw, Cairns, Fairchild, and Lott. Magic, baby...magic.

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  24. Eric darling,

    You have no morals when it comes to profit margins? My dear, that is my favorite manner of Christian. Please contact me immediately. I have the most inspired ideas for a bookstore you've ever heard!

    You're friend until The End,
    Prince B

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  25. This may be off the track, but the other day I was considering why I enjoy South Asian films so much. I was contrasting the idea of American films and why I am not very impressed or impacted by them.

    American films used to be about idealism, individualism, nobility and that sort of stuff. Now they pretty much describe a nation which is disillusioned by idealism, and nobility, but fiercely loyal to individualism.

    But the South Asian films are about passion, blood feuds, romance and other strong feelings that are resounding within the community.

    I thought to myself, "Have I lost the love for myths of principal and championship and discovered the myths of unbridled passion and overcoming?"

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  26. Prince, if you've got the papers, I'll sign 'em.

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