On “Mythology” versus “Truth”: Bulfinch on the Bible and Pagan “Myths”

Most semesters I have a last-minute class. It’s characteristic in Korea for things to be done at the last minute, including scrambling to find someone to teach a new or otherwise “specialized” course. Of course, teaching a new course takes a lot of preparation… but in every case where I’ve taught a new class, I’ve had it dropped in my lap (with my tacit acceptance, yes) at the last minute.

What this adds up to is me being on a constant crash course every semester; one semester, it was the intersections of politics, business, and culture. Another semester, it was critical topics in media. This semester, it’s Greco-Roman Mythology and Biblical Narrative.

Which, to be honest, is an insanely broad course. Common sense dictates one course be set up for Greco-Roman Mythology, and the other for Biblical Narrative in a literary context. After all, the course is conceived of as a fundamentals in literature course, which is not unusual: most English departments have courses like this, though, like I say, usually it’s two courses.

The problem–and it is a very telling one–is that there is nobody qualified to teach such a course in the English Lit Department.

(Or at least, if there is someone qualified, he or she is not willing which I suppose amounts to the same. The department is also lacking a Shakespeare course, which… well, it’s pretty hard to explain that. While I’m not sure I consider Shakespeare the be-all and end-all of English literature–some of Harold Bloom’s declarations on his work strike me as kind of ridiculous, for example–you can’t deny its place in the literary canon. If you’ve given a choice between postmodernist theory and Shakespeare, you offer Shakespeare. If you’re stuck between Greco-Roman Mythology and Shakespeare, you teach Shakespeare. Or at least, that’s my perception.

(But teaching Shakespeare is demanding. It takes a significant investment of time and energy. The reluctance to teach demanding courses like a Shakespeare survey is, of course, unsurprising. It’s a sad truth that those committed to achieving tenure do everything in their power to teach the same classes, in almost the same form, year after year, while devoting their energies to publication and to money-making side projects. The latter is something university admins can do nothing about, but the former is a serious problem directly proceeding from the bureaucracy’s policies.)

As in any organization, it’s easy to know where you are on the totem pole: undesirable tasks–such as teaching a brand-new course with no time for advanced preparation at the last minute starting a week after you hear about it–always tumbles all the way down to the guy on the bottom.

Which, of course, is me.

That said, I’m finding the admittedly unfortunate (for the students) juxtaposition of Greco-Roman Mythology and Biblical Narrative interesting. For one thing, why not call the course Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian Mythology?

Well, I work at a Catholic institution, for one thing. But there’s also the attitude that Thomas Bulfinch himself expresses early in his The Age of Fable:

The creation of the world is a problem naturally fitted to excite the liveliest interest of man, its inhabitant. The ancient pagans, not having the information on the subject which we derive from the pages of Scripture, had their own way of telling the story, which is as follows…

A version for the 21st century would more appropriately read:

The creation of the world is a problem naturally fitted to excite the liveliest interest of man, its inhabitant. Ancient pagans and Jews, as well as Christians living at any point up to the middle of the 20th century (and indeed, even those alive now who stubbornly cling to superstition), not having the information on the subject which we derive from radiotelescopes and the Hubble telescope and modern cosmology and astrophysics, had their own similar ways of telling the story, which are as follows…

And that is, of course, precisely what I thought as soon as I read the passage in Bulfinch’s Mythology the other day. But it’s more revealing than that: culturally, the attitude of “Fuck y’all’s mythology, it’s wrong and my club’s story is the right one” is a very Western one… though not eternally so; I think it was less visible among the pagans, who tended more towards a syncretic approach.

In East Asian traditions, there were all kinds of conflicts and doctrinal disputes and all that, but there was also a strong tendency to this kind of syncretism, often resulting in a synthesis of different religious philosophies and traditions. (For example, Taoist deities have their place in Korean Buddhist temples, and Chinese folk deities are represented in the modern practice of Korea’s “indigenous” shamanic religion that, in its original form, predates the arrival of all the other religious and philosophical traditions on the peninsula.

Hell, even Korean forms of Christianity, as much as they attempt to distance themselves from other religious traditions, have important syncretic features. Evangelical Christianity has a conspicious amount of material that seems derived from (and to actively democratize) shamanic religious practices, and more mainstream forms of Christianity are subtly Confucianized… that quote about how, if you are to follow Jesus, you should be willing to turn your back on your family? It’s not so popular here. Honor thy Father and Mother? One of the biggies. While I always knew that Christianity had been weirdly gendered, even when i was being raised in the tradition, absolute clarity hit when I heard Korean Christians god-talking among themselves once. They kept saying, “Abeoji” (Father) in Korean, and the patriarchality of Christianity, and the familial structure of it, interlocked in my head with the strongly paternalistic familial structures in Korea, with the paternalism of other institutions, and so on.

(All that is true of Christianity in the West too, of course, and I’ve been aware of it for decades; but it was more clear, more explicit for me–still more impossible to ignore or excuse–when I heard it expressed in a different language.)

In any case, I’ve gone off on a tangent, when my point was: Eastern cultures tend to work syncretically, mashing together different religions, philosophies, and belief systems. But Western ones–at least, concerning those traditions that are still alive–tend to be pretty insistent about one paradigm not reconciling and fusing with another, but rather with one paradigm overturning and replacing the other. This is something we see with all of the so-called “Religions of the Book”: Judaism, in the “Old Testament,” is constantly proclaimed as the shiznit, while other religions of the area were depicted as horrible, bad, or otherwise unacceptable. Christianity and Islam have similar threads running through them, scripturally and culturally.

When you study Greco-Roman Mythology and Biblical Narrative, what you’re doing is you’re engaging that divide–tickling that uncomfortable schism–that Bulfinch notes in passing: here are two traditions, both of them featuring deities and fantastical events and inspiring heroes. Both of those are understood as foundational for Western civilization, and both are integral to the knowledge-base for a cultured, educated Westerner.

But one of  those traditions we’re supposed to reject as false, as entertaining and perhaps instructive stories but essentially a pack of fibs, fantasies, and occasional lies; the other, we’re supposed to accept as literally true, as a sensible and absolutely unquestionable representation of the truth of human history, the universe, and everythingness.

Never mind the similarities between the two sets of narratives. Never mind the overlapping content. One is fairy tales, and the other is truth claims we should honor unquestioningly.

That central irreconcilability is probably one of the great energizers for the rise of science, of deism and then agonisticism and atheism in the West; modern Westerners, increasingly, are reacting to Christianity’s claims the way Christians reacted to the claims of the Greeks; and meanwhile the refusal to syncretically reconcile science and Christian cosmological mythology among the most extreme Christians is just as unsurprising as the refusal among atheists to have scientific explanations littered with Intelligent Design rhetoric.

I’m starting to wonder whether this fundamental cultural/narrative schizophrenia might have something to do just how radical a change the Renaissance led to in the West. I’m not sure, but I kind of have a feeling it might be.

I should go, though: I have other work to do.

gordsellar: Your host on this site. I'm an SF writer, homebrewer, and expat teaching at a university in South Korea. My policies for commenters on this site can be read here.

View Comments (4)

  • Regarding the Korean Christian "abeoji" thing ... I felt the same way when I started paying more attention to religion in Europe in their original languages. For example, how Pope is "papa" in Spanish.

    Which in turn reminds me of that great line from KILLING ZOE... When Eric Stolz is asked by a French taxi driver what his name means, and he answers "I'm American, our names don't mean anything." For all the religion in America, I'm amazed how much nothing really means anything over there.

    • Noah,

      Yeah, it's something I've also been noticing as I read Ezra Pound, what these religious ideas in their original language mean. There's a line somwhere in the Cantos that runs "il Papa i mori" and it hit me that, yeah, Pope is Papa. Which, you know... brrrrr.

      As for names (and other markers) not meaning anything, yeah, that's interesting. When they imagined it as a New World I don't think they really grasped to what degree that meant lopping off history and roots and all the hidden meanings. Hell, even the their spelling of English was simplified, suddenly obscuring all kinds of etymology.

      But maybe this isn't despite all the religion: maybe the hyperreligiosity is a kind of compensation for being so cut off from history and the grounding weight of all that accreted meaning? You gotta anchor yourself to something, after all.

      Side note: I've seen KILLING ZOE but can't remember it at all. Is it worth a re-watch?

  • "...undesirable tasks–such as teaching a brand-new course with no time for advanced preparation at the last minute starting a week after you hear about it–always [tumble] all the way down to the guy on the bottom. Which, of course, is me."

    Why you? Aren't you a veteran teacher at this point? How long can The Man keep you at the bottom of the totem pole?

    • How long will I not be Korean?

      (Sort of) Kidding. Well, not really. It's complicated.

      I'm in a small department. Everyone else except the new-new guy is above me, will be for the duration of my stay. The new-new guy is basically a placeholder: six people have held that position since I started here (six years ago). Plus, of course, there's the sense that foreign teachers should be "more flexible" (ie. willing and able to teach any random thing at the last minute, ie. to be a warm body at the front of any room) since they're not saddled with administrative duties.

      Which is primarily because the administrative duties we could carry out are not reserved for us, but instead given to people who could be doing stuff we can't; but also because all kinds of things we *do* do over and above our teaching duties are not recognized as administrative duties--by admin, or by our colleagues.

      It does no good to point out we have a heavier teaching load, because the majority of Korean profs have no idea what that actually entails for a Western teacher who is trying to do the job right by Western standards. (ie. written feedback on all written homework, and exams that actually evaluate students' learning, rather than their multiple-choice-test-taking skills. Four classes for us is more like six or seven by Korean prof standards, it just doesn't compare... and when there's an extra class, guess who always gets it dumped on them?)

      That's not to mention that we're nowhere near the payscale of even Korean profs of equal qualifications in terms even of their starting salary... let alone our higher-ranking colleagues. (Which is something I suspect is probably a human rights violation of some sort -- the systematic underpayment of foreigners than Koreans of equal qualification--but I can't argue that in my case: I only have an MA, and though in creative writing that is basically a terminal degree, Korea doesn't get it about terminal degrees other than PhD; I do think my PhD-holding Western friends could probably fight it, but then where would they ever find work again in Korea?)

      Of course, The Man didn't keep me at the bottom; I kept myself there. (Just like I let myself have this class be dumped into my lap. I could have refused outright. But then, you know, I'd be the inflexible, uncooperative, selfish... it's an argument I can't win.) But if I'm the one who locked myself in this room, I'm also the one who can let myself out.

      Wish I knew what lay beyond the door, though. I keep telling myself to focus on the "freedom" out there, as I sit here on top of the key, waiting for the changing of the guard. Which is, like, the optimal time to escape.

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