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Why Myth Matters

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Dwight Longenecker writes: One of the most tiresome misconceptions of the cynic in the street is his idea of myth. He uses the word “myth” to mean “useless fairy tale.” A myth is a fantasy, a fable or a fanciful fiction.  At best it is a harmless children’s story. It might be a pretend story told for a religious purpose or at worst it is an intentional fabrication devised to hoodwink the gullible.51w4-qnQopL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

[Dwight Longenecker's book: The Romance of Religion: Fighting for Goodness, Truth, and Beauty is available at Amazon.com]

Yes, some ancient fanciful stories are called myths and have a religious dimension.  This fact makes the definition of myth even more complex and therefore more easily misunderstood. Because ancient Greeks and Romans told stories about Zeus and Jupiter, and because they were fantasy stories, and because Zeus and Jupiter were gods, the cynic in the street concludes that all stories from ancient times that feature the supernatural must also be fanciful old time stories that may be somewhat entertaining, but which are all make believe.

To the scientific man a myth is a curious but valueless cultural artifact from a superstitious age. The worthlessness of myth is rooted in the work of several academics from the turn of the twentieth century. The Englishman E.B. Tylor is considered the father of “cultural evolutionism.” He considered myth and primitive religion as failed attempts at science. Myths, in his opinion, were the theories that primitive people devised to explain the world. Now that we have science we know better, and we should discard myth. Religion, Tylor thought, was a holdover from those primitive mythological times, the root and fruit of a backward, superstitious mindset.

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Max Müller as a young man

The German Max Müller was also active at Oxford slightly before Tylor. Müller was an Orientalist and philologist. He considered myth to be a “disease of language.” Primitive people had ideas and theories about their world and then developed words for them. From the words they developed stories, and the abstract concepts were soon personified into mythical beings. Müller considered this to be a kind of hiccup in the development of language and therefore myth could be dismissed.

Around the same time, the Scottish social anthropologist James Frazer was studying magic and ritual in primitive societies. In his classic work, The Golden Bough, Frazer traced similarities among various cultures, whose development he saw as organic and natural. He posited three stages of development for human culture: primitive magic, religion and science. Myth was all-encompassing in the first stage, archaic but still powerful in the second stage and unnecessary in the scientific stage…(read more)

Intercollegiate Review

Dwight Longenecker’s latest book is The Romance of Religion: Fighting for Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. Visit his blog, browse his books and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com.

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