Explorations in Modern Mythology

Reality inspires fantasy. Love poetry exists because lovers exist. Adventures are recounted because people encounter and overcome peril. Real horror exists in the world, twisted men and monsters. So we tell stories about them.

But when we delve into deeper beliefs, into ideas more profound and more fundamental to how we see the world, our stories take on themes more powerful and more resonant than those of the average daydream. When we speak of life and death, of the purpose of existence, of the laws of nature and of human nature, the stories we tell become something else. They become mythology.

Belief inspires this kind of story, whether that belief is true or false, rational or irrational. Every community wants to pass on its deepest wisdom, wants to contemplate the grandest mysteries of its creed. Christians have the canon of Scripture, but we also reach out and spin other stories. Dante’s Divine Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, the best of medieval romance, Shakespeare, Spenser, even the ribaldry of Chaucer, and countless others all tell stories inspired by their authors’ convictions as members of a Christian society.

Since the invention of the printing press, and of the silver screen, man’s love of telling stories has been given free rein. We have become a culture that is telling stories constantly, film after film, book after book. Never have we seen such a vast number of stories being told and retold at such a fast pace.

The technological advances that led to this boom in storytelling came of age at the same time as another cultural phenomenon. Charles Darwin gave voice to a movement of skepticism that had been growing since the Enlightenment. He provided an explanation for the diversity of life and the astounding suitedness of most species to their environment which involved no divine intervention. Early evolutionary theory swept away the need for what many considered primitive superstitions and replaced them with rational science.

This view of the world which rejected miracles and the divine—a position referred to as philosophical naturalism—and which embraced the principles of natural selection and common descent soon took hold of the scientific community. As it spread among the learned, it emerged into the popular consciousness as a striking picture of the universe, a world of vast distances in time and space, of unimaginable transformations across eons, and a bloody struggle for survival and progress up out of the slime. It struck artists, it inspired storytellers, and a mythology began to grow.

The story of evolutionary naturalism’s place in the popular consciousness is a fascinating one. The ideas of that worldview have captured the minds of such men as H. G. Wells, Joss Whedon, H. P. Lovecraft, Bryan Singer, and Robert E. Howard. It permeates the worlds of Planet of the Apes, Star Trek, The X-Files, much of the comic universes of Marvel and DC, and the first season of True Detective. 2001: A Space Odyssey is nothing if not a meditation on such a universe. Everywhere we look in popular culture, we see philosophical naturalism, accompanied by the fundamental insights of Darwin’s theory (the details have long since evolved in other directions).

Over the past year or so, I have studied these works and others. This has often yielded profound insights into our cultural consciousness, and into human nature in general. It has also revealed many great artists worth revisiting, and stories worth telling. The knee-jerk reaction of many Christians might be to avoid such investigations, but God is the creator of all mankind, and of the world we live in, not just of the church. There is much to be learned in every corner of creation.

At some point after beginning this journey, I decided to post my thoughts publicly, offering something of a guide to evolutionary naturalism in pop culture. It is my goal to draw attention to the ways in which that worldview has inspired stories, the ways in which people have responded to their own beliefs. Human nature has certain laws, certain desires and antipathies, that carry across time and space, that transcend both cultural and national boundaries, and lend their character in striking ways to the most insignificant of objects. In pursuing this line of inquiry, we can learn much, not only about evolutionary naturalism, but about mankind in general.

The first glimmer of this project can already be seen in my posts on Conan and the Marvel Universe in general. In the coming weeks and months, I want to delve into Wells, Lovecraft, The Planet of the Apes, and the works of Joss Whedon. I also hope to revisit Conan in more detail, and other narrative universes as opportunities arise. I hope your interest is peaked enough to join me on this voyage of discovery. It’s been an exciting one so far, and I expect it will lead to many more strange and wonderful places.

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For the Sake of the Argument

Maybe it’s because this is the internet. Maybe it’s that most of my friends are Reformed theology/philosophy/worldview nutjobs (myself included). Maybe it’s cause we’re in college and we think we’re smart. At any rate, big, important discussions about the world and everything in it seem to be our favorite pastime. About that I have to say two things.

First, that’s excellent. It’s a big world and a wonderful life and folks who want to live it right, who want to live it to the glory of God, are on the right track. Iron sharpens iron, so arguing about it isn’t out of the picture either. While not everyone needs to constantly have these “great ideas” conversations, somebody definitely should.

Here’s the catch. Folks who like to argue–they like to argue. They get caught up in the back and forth, the nitpicking, and the well-made point. We construct our perfect little worlds, our ideal policies and constitutions, a new way of phrasing some doctrine, a new take on an old philosopher, or whatever. It delights us. But sometimes folks get so caught up in searching for the ideal, plotting it out and planning it, that they miss the entire point: living.

All these arguments are about life because we think life is important. It’s worth talking about. And because we’re Christians, we try to have these conversations in a God-honoring manner. But what happens when you spend so much time in the land of theory that you spend considerably less time walking the walk than you do talking the talk? We end up conceding the very thing the argument is about for the sake of the argument. We dishonor God by never living in the world he gave us

What exactly do I mean? I mean that there are people who write blog posts, but never write stories. There are people who argue with adults on facebook but never teach children in real life. There are people who explain social theories with the metaphor of dancing who never actually dance.

Of what worth are the words of a man who praises the beauty of the mountains and never climbs them? Why on earth should we listen to the political opinions of a man who never takes action in politics? Who cares about someone’s opinions on ecumenism when they’ve never talked to the guy from the church down the street, much less some obscure Eastern Orthodox sectarian?

These arguments are about planning our lives and culture. They answer Schaeffer’s question “How Shall We Then Live?” But if the majority of our free time is spent answering the question instead of living, the point becomes moot. If you don’t want to make a better movie than the pagans, why should we hear you complain about them? If you don’t have an interest in music, why should we hear your opinion on why the contemporary Christian stuff is so shallow? Get out off of paper once in a while and practice what you preach. Live how you think we should live. Then your words are worth hearing.

He said on his blog, using examples from his past. We all have a lot to learn.

The Impossibility of Switzerland

Today I read an article responding to a man who claimed that education can be neutral—that there can be no such thing as a distinctly “Christian” education. Poppycock. Now, I do have a dog in the fight. Two dogs, in fact: the diploma I’ve earned and the diploma I’m working for. With that in mind, I will attempt to address this issue in an unbiased manner.

In that spirit, let me say “poppycock” again. Part of the gentleman in question’s argument, is that facts are facts whether you’re Christian or not. To which I reply, yes, and because Christianity is true, the facts are Christian. We either live in a world where Christ—God himself—became man, died for our sins, rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and will return to judge the living and the dead, or we do not. If we live in such a world, it changes everything from the meaning of life on down. Including education.

How ‘bout some specifics? I’ll start with an easy one. History. If Christ came, then that is the most important point in history. If his Word is truth, then we have to judge every civilization he mentions in the Bible the same way he judged them. If this world is the story of Jesus coming to claim and glorify his Bride, then that is the way we must tell it.

What of science? Another easy one. If the Bible is the Word of God, and if we’re being honest, then the better part of modern biology, archaeology, paleontology, some physics, and a good bit of the rest of the ‘ologies,  need to be scrapped. Carefully, discerningly, lovingly scrapped. Is that scary? Good. That’s Christianity for you.

Civics. Was man endowed by his Creator with certain inalienable rights? How do we reconcile “honor the king” with David running from Saul with a merry band of outlaws? Literature. Is it true to life? Is it good? By whose standards? Is it beautiful? The beauty of the cross, of fluffy bunnies, or of bloody grit? Music. Is there an inherent order in the way God crafted sound? Math. What does its very existence say about logical order in the universe? PE. What is its purpose? How should we deal with boys and girls on the playground? The same? Differently? Separately?

Beyond this, every education instills some sort of morality. If you are Christian, it will be Christian morality. If not, then it will be another morality.

And you can’t escape this by trying to avoid touchy subjects. (Imagine trying to leave out everything I just mentioned and still calling it education.) You teach as much by what you leave out as what you bring in. By not talking about Jesus, you say he isn’t strictly necessary. By avoiding the issue of how our faith relates to society, you teach that it doesn’t. At least, not in any significant way. By refusing to teach morality, you give children the right to craft their own. And, speaking as a Christian, let fallen man create his own morality and we’re in some hot water.

In all this, you may have noticed an implied conclusion. If every part of life belongs to Christ, if there is no neutrality, then we relate to non-Christians across battlefronts. After all, there is no part of our lives we can share without either butting worldviews or abandoning the faith for a moment.

This is true. Amos 3:3 says “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” The principle of unequal yoking applies to more than just marriage. Our every act is a stand taken, and over time you will either stand together, or you will stand apart. There is no middle ground, and straddling the fence has some uncomfortable side effects.

What this does not mean, however, is that you cannot be friendly to unbeliever. It does not mean you can have no affection for them. In fact, following in the footsteps of Christ, rather than preventing you from loving them, commands that you do sp. But, as someone once said with very different intentions in a very different context, love is war. You are fighting for someone’s soul. If you love them, you will fight to bring that soul to Christ. And, as Paul said, it is not against flesh and blood that we war, it is against spiritual forces. It is the bonds of sin and death that keep men enslaved. Ours is a war of emancipation.

To review, there is no neutrality. Not in education, and not anywhere else. To quote that imminent authority Bugs Bunny, “This means war!” But it is a war fought in love. And for that, I offer this. These men won a soul for Christ not by having the best arguments, or the most beautiful art, or a killer education system. They won him over by being Christ towards a man who was lost. We can all learn from their example.

Happy Maundy Thursday.