Mythos

One of the most prominent tasks that the redactor of the Bible undertook was teaching the lessons of monotheism, at least the monotheism of the Israelite Cult. His pedagogic skills are phenomenal. The redactor did not teach by pasting sermons and lectures into the text because he knew lecturing is a poor methodology for explaining to the illiterate masses who would hear the verses but not read them. (Most of the world, perhaps  98% or 99%, were illiterate.) The redactor taught using the method of storytelling, embedding the lessons within the tale. Theology, history, life lessons, and even genealogies could be recalled if the Israelite could remember the story.

Certain motifs or storylines were repeated to reinforce or to emphasize lessons. When the redactor repeated these motifs, they became mythos, recurring narratives that take on significant meanings above and beyond individual lessons.

Not only can mythos be found across the entire Hebrew text, but the narrative will appear from the most simplistic plot to some of the most complicated depictions of Israelite belief. The easiest example of a simple plot motif is the famine story forcing our patriarchal family to go to a foreign kingdom for food only to have the matriarch taken to the royal harem. Abraham and Sarah go down to Egypt in Gen. 12:10-20 and to the kingdom of Gerar in Gen. 20:1-18. Isaac and Rebecca go down to Gerar in Gen. 26:1-11.

All three are essentially the same story. If they are the same, then why did the redactor keep all three when one telling without contradiction would have been just as clear? First, he had three stories and he chose to keep all three. Second, the mythos of the three stories – the merit of worshipping Yahweh, the power of Yahweh God, and the reward of obeying Yahweh – are three fundamental lessons taught in the Book of Genesis about the belief system of the Israelite cult. Hearing these stories repeated, the Yahweh believers learned that these lessons have an emphasis over other teachings.

The use of mythos is one of the fundamental building blocks of the redactors of the corpus. Consider how almost every religious system begins teaching children the tenets of the religion – by telling stories. Therein lies the power of mythos in human culture across time, generations, and geography.

Skepticism or Ignorance

On one of the more academic message boards I follow, someone asked, “How do we know the First Temple (Solomon’s Temple) actually existed? Those who took the man’s question at face value gave proof texts from many different books in the Bible while admitting that there is no archeological evidence. There is no archeological evidence because one cannot/should not excavate under the Dome of the Rock. No matter, the skeptic was not convinced; he became belligerent.

His belligerence only confirms the status of this person – the man is ignorant. The stupidity of the question is easily explained by the course of Israelite history. Solomon’s Temple and his palace was a turning point in Israelite history but not because of a standing House of Worship dedicated to the One God. The excesses of slave labor and the territorial ceding of twenty-three towns and villages in the northwest corner of the country to the Kingdom of Tyre to pay for these buildings led to civil war and a split of United Kingdom into the minor kingdoms of Judah and Israel, kingdoms that never reunited. If the skeptic had studied the Biblical history of the First Temple just a little bit, then the question never would have been asked.

A cliché that has been tossed about for years, usually to encourage shy students, is “there is no such thing as a stupid question.” For a shy student who is afraid to ask, asking any question is a pedagogical success because the content of the question does not matter as much as the new interaction with the teacher. A first question becomes a starting point for teaching a student how to engage the material. However, the cliché is not always understood from a teacher’s point of view but is assumed as a broad statement of academic integrity, that is to say, any question is legitimate. Perhaps in perfect world but in our day the cliché is just a “feel good” sentiment that permits ignorant questions that suck time, effort and life out of a lesson or conversation. When questions and challenges stop the learning process, they are stupid questions. Belligerence on the part of questioner is one of the symptoms of destructive pedagogic behavior.

Skepticism, a philosophical tool of the Greeks, was developed to test the soundness of an argument and its assumptions. Skepticism uses questions as tool to test the soundness of an idea, like using your finger to thump a watermelon to test its ripeness. Like the cliché above, skepticism is great when used in this limited sense but as a broad tool used to challenge everything, skepticism is destructive and debilitating to the process of learning or decision making. Using skepticism as a broadside is meant to attack rather than create.

For anyone who has come prepared to a class and listened to another student who has not prepped ask an ignorant question that the first sentences of the assignment answered, the sense of dismay is powerful. Yet this is not the destructive skepticism that destroys a lesson but statement of pervasive ignorance. Correcting ignorance, no matter its source, can be used as a part of teaching. Pervasive skepticism is not redeemable.

How many times have teenagers exclaimed, “Why do we have to study this? I’m never going to use it.” This is not a teachable moment. If the student has exclaimed, “When am I ever going to use this?”, only then is the opening to teach available. Overindulgent Skepticism kills learning.

Then again, there are some people whose agenda is to do just that.

Sledgehammer Literature

Sledgehammer literature is a phenomenon in modern publications of over-the-top manipulation of emotions or actions in the text to elicit a reciprocal visceral response from the reader. While sledgehammer writing is the preferred style of political opinion writers and advocacy pundits, the same “all faucets on full” writing appears to have migrated to fiction and not political non-fiction writing as well. Authors assume that wringing every last drop of emotional pain from an event is good writing or good for sales, perhaps. Good for one or the other, the prescription of pain, wrenching emotions, brutal self-evisceration and physical manifestations of such pepper the populist lit and literary lit with gut-twisting passages.

This is not bad writing. In fact sledgehammer literature is excellent writing that produces powerful reactions in readers, leaving them shifting uncomfortably in their chairs and on their couches. Typically the purpose of walking a person through a wrenching experience is conclusion of catharsis once the resolution is complete, like the ancient Greek plays that excelled first at presenting wrenching emotional circumstances. The unique characteristic of sledgehammer literature is that there is no catharsis at the end, only relief that the passage is done or disbelief that one stuck with the text and read through it. This type of literature beats up the reader for the sake of demonstrating that the writer can beat up the reader.

Sledgehammer literature is the epitome of technique by an author. Indeed, the mark of such literature is pure technique; missing is many of the other elements of the art of writing. While an excellent novel may have a particularly painful scene, the elements of plot, pacing, character development, and description will also be well pronounced. A novel of the sledgehammer variety relies on the visceral reaction to mask the deficiencies of the other ingredients.

Sledgehammer literature is best identified by its weak appeal to suspend disbelief. When elements are missing, when characters have no more depth to them than the pain they evince in the reader, the reader is left with little else but the pain. And who wants that much suffering really?

Lazy Binary

In an interview on NPR, Charles Blow was discussing his recently published memoir that contains traumatic subject material. He dismissed a great deal of the commentary that has surrounded the subject matter, labeling it “lazy binary.” The binary refers to the digital world of “0’s” and “1’s” that excludes the use of any other terms. The literary practitioner of the lazy binary is guilty of ignoring shades and subtlety, but also of a logic fallacy of insisting that there are two equidistant views of a controversy that resides in the middle between them.

Subtlety is not convenient. In the tl;dr (too long; didn’t read) world of digital media, readers skim rather than read through the text. Subtlety requires paying attention and following an argument step by step as it moves from broad statement to specific points of explanation. Subtlety takes time and focus. Subtlety is the victim of sound bites and twitter. Most would agree that the world does not need more sound bites.

Subtlety has a long history of being ignored or denigrated but the logic fallacy is actually more pernicious. This insistence that there are two equally worthy opposing views on any given assumption is a favorite tool of partisans, ideologues, fanatics, and hell bent capitalists. In a given circumstance, there may only be one legitimate point of view but an opposing view is given equal billing because it seems fairer or reads better. Given a forum, a self-serving ideologue can do a lot of damage.

I feel like we are discussing elementary school. Subtlety does not exist because the young minds have not developed enough. The idea that a controversy may have more than one side is also an early academic grades lesson too. So is the corollary that not all sides are equal.

Why then do we have to constantly remind ourselves now of these early lessons? Lazy binary, indeed.