Friday, December 13, 2013

Deep Thoughts on the John

I’m reading The Power of Myth, an extensive interview with Joseph Campbell by Bill Moyers. It’s currently my bathroom reading, meaning it’s handy for those daily sit down situations that come with being human. In this morning’s reading, it became clear that Campbell believes that religious books such as the Bible were understood by ancient peoples to be intended as allegory rather than as fact. In other words, to Campbell, these ancient folks were wiser than many people alive today.

That the Bible and other ancient religious texts should be read as allegory and metaphor certainly seems clear to me. And even the most ardent literalists of today do read sections of the Bible in that way. Consider. “You are the salt of the earth,” from Matthew 5:13. Doesn’t everyone read this as metaphor? From this, you may take that I consider an absolutely literal reading of the Bible to be a mistake. It can’t be taken that way.

On the other hand, were ancient peoples wiser than many folks today? Somewhere buried in history are the folks who “first” told these stories. I have always imagined that they knew the tales were not literally true, but they believed them to be symbolically or spiritually true. I cannot rule out two other possibilities, though. First, they may not have believed the stories to be true in any sense, but were only making them up for entertainment value. I’m sure that humans have been telling ‘whoppers’ ever since our race started. However, I’m personally skeptical of this scenario. Second, it’s also possible that the people who first told these tales had hallucinatory or dream experiences that convinced them the stories were literally true. I think this is more likely than the former possibility.  

But what about the people who first “heard” these stories? Did they think the tales were to be understood as allegories, or did they think they were fact? My personal opinion generally disagrees with Campbell, although neither of us has proof of our speculations. I imagine that there were three types of folks in that first audience for these tales. First, there were those who took the tales as literal truth, perhaps given to them by an authority, or because they jibed with what these folks already were thinking to be true. Second, I also suspect that other members of that original audience didn’t buy the tales as literal at all but felt them to have a resonance and deeper meaning. Third, there were probably those who didn’t believe a word they were hearing but didn’t say anything because of the social pressure of those around them. 

In other words, I suspect that first audience was pretty much the same as modern audiences, although the percentages of the three groups may have changed over time. This has been, Deep Thoughts on the John, with Charles Gramlich.


Cloudia said...

Thoughts like this are the roots of your storytelling.....what if?


pattinase (abbott) said...

Been meaning to read Campbell for years.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Charles, I think you're right. The modern audience is the same as the first audience. While I may not accept these tales as the "literal truth," I'm willing to accept them as allegories or parables and metaphors and even put them into practice in daily life. I find these tales enlightening from a spiritual viewpoint.

the walking man said...

One can take all of the ancient texts as literal, allegory or metaphor--none of what I think about truth matters, for in a sense truth is as truth knows itself to be. BUT (as there is always a but) it matters little how one understands the words, it is the actions that the words inspire in the individual that matter.

Charles Gramlich said...

Ivan, eh?

Cloudia, perhaps so.

Patti, Me too. Finally getting around to some of it.

Prashant,there clearly seems to me a purpose in them that is beyond mere instruction on how to live by the rules.

Mark, yeah, I would agree with that. The depth at which one understands them, though, may inspire different kinds of actions.

Brian Miller said...

ha. i think that culturally during the time of the original telling, they had people who thought they knew the way it should be done and that were elitist and exclusionist...

that being said, nothing much has changed...ha

ivan said...

I meant to say uncanny thoughts while in the can, but the comment space somehow bedevilled me. (That, or I drink too much). :)

Ron Scheer said...

I'm guessing the notion of "literal truth" has gone through numerous evolutions over time.

Ty said...

There also might be another option to toss into the mix. That first audience might predate, perhaps even by tens or hundreds of thousands of years, what we recognize today as religious texts, including the Bible but even such works as Homer and Sumerian myths. Such an audience might not have had the capacity to recognize truth from falsehood, at least pertaining to matters of the "unseen." So, potentially what some cave dweller believed thousands upon thousands of years ago could have come down from generation to generation, changing a little here and there, and being reworded (accidentally or purposefully) until the era of recorded history. Thus, early Paleolithic ideas influencing beliefs by mankind some 6,000 or so years ago. I would in no way suggest the ideas heard by that first audience would have much or any similarities to what we think of today as mythology and/or religion.

But maybe I went back too far, all the way back to the earliest inklings of mankind, or mankind's ancestors.

If we broke the notion of a first audience down into multiple first audiences, say one per region or culture, then the door opens for a lot more complex speculation.

Just some thoughts. And I'm in no way an expert.

BernardL said...

With all the translations from Hebrew and Greek, leading up to the myriad forms since John Wycliffe's version in English, it is very difficult to think of the bible in any other terms than literary masterpiece. Faith combines many elements of the human condition, and a deep seated belief rooted in our souls. I believe, and am very glad I do.

Charles Gramlich said...

Brian, yes, I'm betting you are right.

Ivan, ahh, I understand the issue.

Ron, when it comes to human thinking that is probably true.

Ty, I do indeed figure that most of the stories in the Bible were passed down in just such a way. Some, like the flood, may have had a basis in truth but then been embellished. Others, I wonder about. The flood story is in many, many cultures, though.

Bernard, translations are indeed an important element since in some cases at least things cannot be literally translated from one language to another without altering meaning at some level.

Riot Kitty said...

Don't mock yourself, these are good thoughts! I think these three types still exist.

I love Campbell's ideas but find him PAINFUL to read, style-wise.

Charles Gramlich said...

Riot kitty, this is my first direct exposure to Campbell. I've read quite a lot about his stuff.

jodi said...

Charles-I think back in the day we were maybe more original thinkers. Technology has clouded our brains and made us lazy.

Snowbrush said...

My sister is an advocate of the Bible as metaphor, but I often fail to see what its supposed to be a metaphor for, and she is unable to tell me except with another metaphor, the situation being as wide as it is deep.