I attended a debate last weekend at SMU with my friend Brian around the question, “Can we trust the text of the New Testament?” This debate did not center around questions about the historical accuracy of the events described in the New Testament, about inconsistencies between the different books, about how each book came to be included in the canon, about who authored each book, or about whether or not miracles really occur — none of that. The question was all about how confidently can the original texts of the New Testament be reconstructed from the existing manuscript evidence.
The two parties in the debate were Bart D. Ehrman, well-known scholar and professor at the University of North Carolina; and Daniel B. Wallace, director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts. I was somewhat familiar with Ehrman’s work before the debate. I was glad to see him present in person; he was much more personable than I was expecting. (He clearly won the debate, though neither side discussed what significance their victory would hold.) It was a very enjoyable evening, hearing these scholars share the current status of the field.
I noticed today that Google Docs changed their icon on one of their buttons. Clicking this particular button will select the formatting for the current element; you can then click on another element and apply to it the formatting from the first element. Icon designers have long made metaphors between abstract actions and concrete actions, using images from the latter to represent the former. The metaphor for this action has long been painting – applying the formatting feels a bit like you are painting the new element with your mouse — and the icon to represent this action has long has been a paintbrush.
Here are pictures of the two icons:
It struck me that I must no longer consciously think of the metaphor when I use the action; I now just think “paintbrush equals copy formatting.” The new icon sticks with the same metaphor, but I found it a bit jarring because it is now a paint roller instead of a paintbrush. When I didn’t find the paintbrush, only then did I think back to the metaphor and figure out that the paint roller must perform the same abstract action as the paintbrush did.
I reviewed a book of poetry, The Throne of Psyche by Marly Youmans, for the latest issue of Mythprint. The title poem contained a retelling of the Greek myth of Eros and Psyche, and I was asked to review it because of my interest in myths. I discussed the title poem in some detail in my review, but a couple other poems really struck me (including the one I discussed last week called “The Exile’s Track”). In “Near The End Of The World,” we see artists toiling away to preserve an ancient musical tradtion — even though the world no longer appreciates the beauty of their music. Even though these singers seemed “silly” to outsiders, I suspect they found a satisfying sense of purpose in their work. This image of the final singer — I imagine a man sitting in a chair on the beach, facing the ocean, toiling as the sun sets before him — will stick with me as I continue to wrestle with how to spend my time and energy.
The poem was originally published in Unsplendid. You can read it or listen to Youmans read the poem there. I have included the full text of the poem below.
Once wrestled into place, the stones were walls
Of coastal towers where the resolute
Lit lamps and labored in the ancient way.
These were the ones afflicted by the word,
Who toiled in joy or dole because to make
The sweet sounds sing together was a gift
That couldn’t be renounced. And when the world
In turning turned away the magic sea
—Its depth, electrogenic light, and dreams—
Turning instead to shallower waters,
Mechanical romances, pixel-quests,
Most any product stuttering-fast and bright,
The singers did not yield and often said
So long as there was one for whom the word
Could conjure vision, they would not cease work.
In time a singer proved the only one
—The oceanic last—but did not stop.
How silly they look now—who gave their best
To live as none would any longer live,
Like bubbling fountains in a wilderness.
I reviewed a book of poetry, The Throne of Psyche by Marly Youmans, for the latest issue of Mythprint. The title poem contained a retelling of the Greek myth of Eros and Psyche, and I was asked to review it because of my interest in myths. I discussed the title poem in some detail in my review, but a couple other poems really struck me. In “The Exile’s Track,” the narrator perceives a wonder of nature that impresses upon her a narrative about its history and her relation to it. This poem seems to me to reflect the way I imagine many of the great myths coming into being — not as conscious explanations for natural phenomena, but more as intuitive insights that arise subconsciously in response to them.
The poem was originally published in storySouth, and you can listen to Youmans read the poem on YouTube. I have included the full text of the poem below.
At midnight I went down to the lake, and there
I saw the northern lights as seven swords
Of long-dead kings that glimmered in the sky.
They were as thin and cold as icicles,
Set evenly above a shoal of cloud—
The winter’s glittering eyes drew low to see,
Its glories made into one burning look.
I stepped onto the marble arrowhead
That points the way to North forevermore,
And though I stood below a canopy
Close-crowded with the bright burrs of the stars,
And though I held my love, and though our children
Were safe and sleeping at my back, I met
And knew a loneliness beyond all heal.
A silvery voice arose out of the spires,
Out of the dark’s offhanded elegance:
You gave your heart away, oh, long ago,
So there’s no help–now you must bide in frost,
And when you die, the reaper’s men will scar
The ground for your grave, or else will burn your limbs
And bury the ash in a wall of stone.
I have had many conversations about what exactly “myth” is over the last few years. I believe now that whether or not a particular story counts as “myth” is relative to a given person; a given story could be a “myth” to one person and not to another person. My ideas on this are not all worked out yet, but I think that the primary determining factor is the role that a story plays in the life of the person or the community. I had an experience over the weekend that reminded of this.
We visited the summer camp where my wife and I met last weekend. I had a fun time playing with my four-year-old son on a treehouse playground. He was feeling adventurous but also nervous as he approached the swinging rope bridge. I held his hand and encouraged him as he inched along. He started to chant something like a mantra to himself: “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” This chant gave him the courage to finish crossing the bridge. (Here’s a photo of us on a later trip across the bridge, when he was more comfortable.)
You probably recognize this chant from “The Little Engine That Could.” I don’t know anyone who would consider that story a “myth”; I imagine “fable” is the highest status any literary scholars would be willing to grant it. But for my son that day, this story was so much more than just a fable; the little engine was so much more than just a positive example. This story had gotten under his skin and made its way to the core of his being. In a difficult circumstance, he tapped into the power of narrative to bring about a psychological transformation. For me, the story is a childish, uninspiring fable; but for my son, this story played the role of myth in his life.
I recently discovered a great short story online called “The Silver Key” written by H.P. Lovecraft in 1926. It tells the story of a young man who loses his sense of child-like wonder at the world. One passage near the beginning caught my attention. The narrator, who had not lost his sense of wonder, describes the man’s situation:
Randolph Carter […] had forgotten that all life is only a set of pictures in the brain, among which there is no difference betwixt those born of real things and those born of inward dreamings, and no cause to value the one above the other. […] He failed to recall […] that the deeds of reality are just as inane and childish [even though] their actors persist in fancying them full of meaning and purpose as the blind cosmos grinds aimlessly on.
I encountered similar ideas through other means, and I wrote a short essay about that titled “Imaginary Worlds” last month. These observations can be an compelling first step to moving from a “modern”, scientific, materialist view to a “post-modern”, subjective, spiritual view.
Beyond these opening remarks, “The Silver Key” is a wonderful story of magic and mystery with important comments on “modernism”.
Read “The Silver Key” →
I wrote this post in response to Myth Café’s July writing prompt: Moon Myths.
Crescent Moon — July 3, 2011
When I was in college, my wife and I spent one year following the lunar calendar fairly closely. We observed — in a limited way, of course — the holidays from the Hebrew Torah. (We went camping with friends for Sukkot, for example.) We would watch every month for the new crescent moon, sometimes from the top of a nearby parking garage. That year I first understood how the phases of the moon really work and got a handle on how the months, seasons, and years are all related. I technically learned all that in school, but it never really meant anything to me. In our modern technological world, it is easy to lose touch of the natural world around us.
The moon myths that I love are those that talk about the moon either in terms of wandering or in terms of chasing. The moon and sun both appear to travel around our planet from east to west in the sky, the sun going a little faster than the moon. In reality, of course, our planet is rotating. (The sun doesn’t move, but moon moves a little bit west to east each day.) This gives the appearance that the moon is traveling a little slower than the sun. If you watch the moon regularly at sunset after the new moon, you really do get the sense that the moon and the sun were traveling together but that the moon just couldn’t keep up or preferred to travel at his own leisurely pace. In Egyptian mythology, the moon god is named Khonsu, which means “Traveler” or “Wanderer,” and that makes really good sense to me.
When the moon goes from new to full, you can see it at sunset and then throughout the night until the moon sets. However, after the moon is full, you can see it at rise at night and watch it until sunrise. If you watch it from that point of view, you get the impression that the one of them is chasing the other … and gaining ground daily. I am pretty sure there are many myths from different cultures talking about the moon and the sun chasing each other, but the one I remember the most is the Inuit story. Malina and Anningan were sister and brother. Anningan forced himself on his sister one night; because it was night, she didn’t know who it was. When he came back the next night to force himself on her again, she had covered her hands with ash so that she could smear ash all over her attacker’s face and then be able to identify him. When she found out her was her brother, she ran away from the village. He chased after her, and they both ran so fast that the flew into the sky and became the sun and the moon. Anningan (the brother, the moon) still chases after Malina (the sister, the sun) to this day. (I believe the ashes on Anningan’s face represent the dark spots on the moon.)
In the Norse myth, the Sun and Moon do not chase each other. Instead, they are each chased by a wolf: Sköll chasing the sun, and Hati Hróðvitnisson chasing the moon. (The sun and moon are also brother and sister in Norse myths, the sister Sól the sun and the brother Máni the moon.) The wolves will consume the sun and the moon as part of Ragnarök.
“The Wolves Pursuing Sól and Máni” (1909) by J. C. Dollman.
Of all the moon myths that have left an impression on me, two come from modern works of fiction. First, I loved the story of the sun and the moon in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Silmarillion” legends. Tolkien must have had the same reaction to moon myths, preferring the wandering and the chasing, because he incorporated both of those:
Now Varda [goddess of the stars] purposed that the two vessels should journey […] and ever be aloft, but not together; each should pass from Valinor [the home of the gods] into the east and return, the one issuing from the west as the other turned from the east. Thus the first of the new days were reckoned after the manner of the Trees, from the mingling of the lights when Arien [the sun] and Tilion [the moon] passed in their courses, above the middle of the Earth. But Tilion was wayward and uncertain in speed, and held not to his appointed path; and he sought to come near to Arien, being drawn by her splendour, though the flame of Anar scorched him, and the island of the Moon was darkened.
– Quenta Silmarillion, XI: Of The Sun And Moon and The Hiding of Valinor
The other story comes from Avatar: The Last Airbender (the Nickelodeon cartoon series). I have only watched the first season of this series, but it is really good. The world is divided into four nations or tribes, corresponding to the four elements: fire, air, earth, and water. In each nation or tribe, there are powerful individuals who can “bend” (i.e., control or manipulate) the element of their tribe — “fire-benders”, “water-benders”, etc. We spend a lot of time with water-benders in the first season. In the climatic final battle in the last two episode, culminating in a battle between the Fire Nation and the Water Tribe, we learn that the water-benders are more powerful when there’s a full moon. The tribe’s princess explains it like this:
The legends say the moon was the first water-bender. Our ancestors saw how it pushed and pulled the tides and learned how to do it themselves.
After spending eighteen episodes in that world, this myth resonated with me and felt like exactly the kind of myth the Water Tribe would have.
I wrote this post in response to a personal writing challenge from Stephen Anderson.
We all live in imaginary worlds. This will seem to many to be a controversial assertion, so it probably makes sense to define the key term: “imaginary.” By chaining together the definitions of three different words (imaginary, imagination, and imagine) from a handy online dictionary, I have settled on the following definition:
Something is “imaginary” if it exists only in our faculty for making mental images of things.
When I was an undergraduate philosophy student, I was fascinated by the early Greek philosophers known as the “Presocratics.” The visions of the world presented by Heraclitus and Parmenides — the one, a world in a constant state of flux; the other, an immutable and immovable eternal present — both haunted my thinking and played a major role in how I understand the world today. The views of Democritus and the other Atomists provide the easiest starting point for my journey. They held that everything was made of atoms that were physically indivisible. Each atom was unchanging, indestructible, and eternal, but they were all constantly moving and constantly being re-arranged. The Atomists thought that popular opinion believed in many deceptive illusions. They had a saying that summarizes their position nicely:
By convention hot, by convention cold, but in reality atoms and void.
We often talk about “hotness” and “coldness” as if they are real things that exist as properties attached to objects. But as I wrestled through many various philosophical problems in different classes, I became convinced that a strict reductive materialism was the only logical solution to these problems. I thought about color in these terms for a long time. Scientists tell us that atoms are colorless: but then how can a large collection of colorless atoms suddenly starting having color? That’s illogical. The only logical conclusion seemed to me to say that color must not really exist. When light bounces off objects and is reflected to our eyes, our eyes perceive this light and send information about it to our brain; our brain then translates that information into a mental image of color. This may seem like a silly example — like some amateur philosopher being overly dramatic — but I wrestled with it for quite some time. The important turning point in this story came when I finally admitted the following: color was imaginary.
I felt like I had taken a step down the correct path, Parmenides’ Way of Truth. I even felt a little smug and elitist that I knew that color was just imaginary while so many mere mortals — even the mere mortals in my metaphysics class — thought color was a real thing. After color, I had to admit that many other things that seemed real were also imaginary. Traffic laws did not exist in the physical world; they were just arbitrary conventions that existed in our imaginations. (In some countries, after all, they all happily drove on the wrong side of the road!) Next up: sports accolades, stock prices, job titles, property rights, state boundaries, the value of American dollar — all imaginary. Even the value of an ounce of gold was imaginary; you couldn’t look under a microscope to find some intrinsic value there. Even physical things, like desks and chairs, were imaginary: they weren’t real objects that came into existence and then went out of existence, but they were arbitrary arrangements of atoms that we conventionally agreed to put our imaginary labels on. Finally, art and beauty had to go: we all know that no two people can agree exactly what constitutes “art” (a sure sign it is just an imaginary convention), and everyone knows that “beauty is in the eye” — or, more accurately, the imagination — “of the beholder.” The only thing that wasn’t imaginary was the physical matter underneath all our imaginary conventions.
But one thing still nagged at me. These imaginary things seemed to be affecting the real world. People would spend a lot of their time doing work other people wanted them to do in exchange for dollars with only imaginary value; they could give those to other people in exchange for real things like bread and milk. I knew of plenty of people who were about to quit their jobs and retire when their 401Ks lost half of their imaginary value; after that, they made drastically different decisions about how to arrange their lives. People make enter into imaginary agreements and contracts, and breaking them results in real consequences: people have lost their houses when they couldn’t afford to pay their imaginary adjustable-rate mortgages, and they have ended up in jail for violating federal tax laws. (People without shelter get rained on by real rain atoms, and people in jail put different food atoms in their bodies than people not in jail.) Wars have been fought over all kinds of imaginary things, to expand imaginary boundaries or to fulfill some conviction or to take possession of some object of imaginary value or in response to a dream; the death and destruction caused by these real wars have significantly changed the way that real atoms have been arranged.
I never lost my conviction that these things were imaginary, but I became fully convinced that they were also real. I stumbled on a quote from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows that summarized my own conviction perfectly. Harry asked Dumbledore if what he had been experiencing had been real or inside his head, and Dumbledore replied,
Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?
We do all live in imaginary worlds. The things we value, the things in which we find meaning and place our trust, the things we use to make our decisions, the labels and convention we use to help us understand the various arrangements of atoms around us — for the most part, they exist in our imaginations and not in the physical world. How can these imaginary things be real if they do not exist in the physical world? How do we distinguish between real imaginary things like those I have discussed and other imaginary things like unicorns or hippogriffs? I’ll leave those questions for another day. For now, I’ll conclude with this: these imaginary things are real in every way that matters.