Myth, Modernity, and Mormonism

The category of “myth” is arguably the most important for evaluating the Bible in the last few hundred years. The very earliest critics of the Bible employed the category of “myth” in evaluating the stories and histories recorded there. D. F. Strauss (Das Leben Jesu, 1835) employed the term for making sense of the life of Jesus, among the first to suggest that the gospels were not literal history.

Besides the difficulty in identifying and defining myth, the most important interpretive problem comes in trying to figure out how to understand the significance of myth. In sum, is myth a good thing or a bad thing? Basically, two different options emerged that dominated 19th c. biblical studies.

The first, the Enlightenment view, comes from Diderot, Voltaire, Paine, and others, who argued that myth is essentially useless, premodern accounts for how the world works. This view operated on a dichotomy between history and myth where one was fact and one was fiction. In the age of science and reason, myth is primitive superstition and should be discarded. With talking donkeys, burning bushes, and angels handing out gold plates, how can a modern person possibly accept such tall tales? Such a view is held by many popularizing atheists today.

The second view, the Romantic view, suggests that myth, while not literal history, it is not fiction either. Rather, it is an extremely important symbolic aspect of human experience. Myths are not premodern schlock, but express fundamental truths about life, humanity, and the world. Jesus’ healing miracles, for example, teach us about God’s love for the poor and the sick, and symbolizes healing the soul. The fall narrative tells the “truth” about gender relations and the imperfect state of humanity. Modern scholars of religion like Eliade have developed this view.

At the turn of the 20th c., Rudolf Bultmann’s demythologizing project attempted to find value in the Bible by interpreting the existential meaning of the myths in Scripture. This view combined both elements of the Enlightenment and Romantic views by arguing that the myths must be abandoned precisely because of the deeper, existential meaning.

The study of myth continued to be influential in Hebrew Bible scholarship, but mostly lost favor in NT scholarship with the repeated returns to the study of the historical Jesus. The most influential school of though is known as the Myth and Ritual school, a German movement which was closely related to the History of Religions school, both of which were conversation partners for Bultmann. This school took a sympathetic view of myth, adding a sympathetic view of ritual as further expression of great symbolic truths.

The Myth and Ritual school was related to the approach by Frazer, who had a functional view of myth. They added that rituals were expressions of these myths in the Ancient Near East, emphasizing creation myths and new years festivals. They also saw the Israelite monarchy as having a religious function as a stand-in for the divine. These scholars saw Yahweh as a dying and rising God. Though this school reached its zenith in the 1950’s and continue to be influential in some regards, Margaret Barker represents a revival of some of these themes, especially some of the more speculative. Such a view was also highly influential on Hugh Nibley who undertook a study of Myth and Ritual in his temple research.

So, with this very brief history of scholarship, I want to know what people think how such scholarship situates the history of Mormon scholarship as reflecting broader trends. Additionally, I want to know if these methods and approaches have any future in Mormon studies. In the second half of the 20th century, this rise of historicism and postmodernism have not only shifted the emphasis away from the study of myth vs. history, but cast doubt on much of the enterprise of the Myth and Ritual school. Yet, do the basic insights of the 19th Romantic evaluation of myth still hold a future for Mormon thinking?

4 Replies to “Myth, Modernity, and Mormonism”

  1. Though I’ve talked about it before with students, I have not read extensively on myth and methodology. I consider myself a babe in the woods on the topic, and from your description, it sounds like I’m an unconscious partaker of the myth and ritual school. My own (admittedly idiomatic and uninformed) definition of “myth” is something like “worldview cast in narrative form.”

    The definition and role of myth remains important for the OT in particular because of the relationship between the early Genesis chapters and other creation and flood accounts.

    Can you recommend any readings on the history of myth and interpretation in biblical studies?

  2. Nitsav,
    I wish I had done more reading myself, and someday the Myth and Ritual school deserves its own post. (I think JupitersChild has done more reading for OT stuff, so maybe we can get his take). One thing that I left out entirely here too is the psychoanalytic tradition’s approach to myth, which deserves its own post someday too. It is on my list list spring, so maybe I will get to it then.
    The Myth and Ritual school had three prongs, one in Germany, one in England, and one in Scandanavia.

    A good anthology is Robert A. Segal, The Myth and Ritual Theory: An Anthology. It seems to favor the English scholarship, but does have selections from the Scandanavian Engnell and the German Gaster. It is going on my wishlist since there is a lot I haven’t read in there.

    For a history of the English scholarship, see Robert Ackerman, The Myth and Ritual School: J.G. Frazer and the Cambridge Ritualists.

  3. Fraser was taken over by the structuralists who treated myths as structures. Most of the figures I’ve read had strong Freudian influences and often thought the structures were scientific structures of human minds. i.e. it was perceived as reflecting underlying cognitive structures. There were also the diffusionists of which Nibley was one wherein the structures were seen genealogically rather than psychologically.

    I notice that in many circles once the post-structuralist thinking emerged on the scene that such analysis was depreciated or at least opened up to new critiques. Mormon thought seems to have trailed in this trend. (i.e. the more structuralist views dominated a lot of Mormon thought – especially in apologetics although also in the more blurry area of Mormon studies) Now you just don’t see as many structuralist stuff although they still pop up. (I think Brooke’s The Refiner’s Fire and Quinn’s Magic World View partake a lot of that genre for instance)

    Nibley was weird in that he held to strong diffusionist positions yet also had this weird Platonism underlying his thought that is perhaps closer to Jung, Campbell and the more Freudian like structuralists. So there is a kind of sense of an universal mind in Nibley with attendant structures.

    I think relative to Mormon studies that myth and ritual studies have perhaps had more prevalence than they should. They are fine if also tempered with other concerns. i.e. not treated naively in terms of structure. I think LDS studies have really progressed though. Some of the recent ones I’ve read have been fantastic at not falling into the structuralist traps.

  4. I should add that I’m perhaps biased in this since the folks who study Mormonism I discuss with the most are from a more post-structuralist hermeneutic tradition. So I’m sure there’s some self-selection going on here.

    To me the mythic tradition privileges a simple structural representation as being the truth whereas the post-structuralist sees the truth as always being both more and less than any representation. Unrepresentational in a sense.

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