Out of a small stack of essays, I gleaned the following interesting insight that I’d never thought of myself:
It’s possible to argue that the main difference in the conception of the uncontrollable in Greek Mythology and Bible stories is that, for the Greeks, human problems were often a result of the gods and their machinations, while for the ancient Hebrews, humans were just as often responsible for getting themselves into a heap of trouble, out of which God would sometimes bail them, if they were good.
That’s it. Hours of grading, and precisely one idea I’ve never seen before. Usually, student essays are a little more interesting than that… and there’s a good chance that this student found that idea in a book, rather than coming up with it himself. Ah well, still an interesting thought, even if, as I consider it, I wonder whether it’s really a valid observation. But hey, you take what you can get. Until reading that, I’d settled for Erich Auerbach’s contrasting the Bible and Greek mythology stylistically, and gone no further, so this has to count for something!
There was other stuff that was fun to read, like one essay by a student who is very clearly a budding atheist (she cites Richard Dawkins in her essay) on how religion is a tool often used in the service of centralization, and that any attempt to naturalize a dichotomy between religion on the one hand (presented as true stories about supernatural beings and events) and mythology on the other (presented as false stories about supernatural beings and events) is, in her opinion, often motivated by very base ulterior motives, specifically those that serve social and political ends externally, but also connect to psychological desires to dominate and punish human freedom and joy when it is not dependent on the cleric as arbiter of morality, truth, and human agency.
That was a pretty intelligent essay… none of it new to me, and though I never came out and said any of it, I did invite the students to think carefully of how Thomas Bulfinch hems and haws about the dichotomy between mythology and religious “truth”… anyway, it was interesting to see it argued so passionately by a young Korean person, since for the most part the atheism I’ve seen here as been of the, “Meh, whatever, I don’t have a religion” sort, rather than the confrontational, critical sort expressed in this essay.
Oh, also: the most amazing demonstration of how stupefying the dominant brand of Korean nationalism is. A student seriously argued that… well, here’s how I summed it up right after reading it:
Aaaaaaaand, the next essay explains that the reason Buddhist myths and folktales are less popular worldwide than Greco-Roman myths and legends is because Hangeul was invented so late, because Korea suffered a lot in history, and Europe apparently didn’t and everyone in Europe must always have been literate so they didn’t need King Sejong there. And also Korea had no literary people in history, or literature in the past, because everyone was poor and hungry and fighting for Korean independence from invaders and trying to find food and stuff, and also China and Japan were invading and the farmers worked so hard and stuff. And because there are no folktales in Buddhism, only stuff about monks, which is too bad because Buddhism is sensible and logical and Christianity should be on the shelf next to Harry Potter because of all its illogical fantasies and stuff. Also, Buddhism is Korean and Christianity is a “religion of the Caucasian.”
Seriously, if I never seen anyone ever mention King Sejong again it’ll be too soon! And man would I love to distribute a small pamphlet showing people what Jesus and Buddha would likely have looked like… neither blond and white in the first case, nor Korean in the second. I’m sure a few brains would explode.
It does leave me wondering what kind of education in Buddhism the practicing Korean Buddhist gets, though. Even I know of the Jataka tales, those stories of the past lives of the Buddha, and that there’s some mythology linked to Buddha and his followers… but I recall hearing a talk at a conference in 2008 where the presenter basically traced a widely-worshipped figure in Korean Buddhism–one who ofteen gets offerings around University Entrance Exam time–back to a disciple of the Buddha… the catch being that none of the Koreans making offerings to him knew who were asked seemed to know who he was in Buddhist mythology, nor did the monks asked; they had to trace the development of this figure back to its scriptural roots using Buddhist texts from outside Korea, and a little mytho-historical guesswork.
Which is pretty amazing: imagine making offerings to a supernatural being for help with something you want, without even knowing who he is or why he would help you, how or why he is supposed to have these powers, and what he or she might want.
Strange, but true.