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"These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own." G.K.Chesterton

"You cannot grow a beard in a moment of passion." G.K.Chesterton

"As you perhaps know, I haven't always been a Christian. I didn't go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that."C. S. Lewis

"I blog, therefore I am." Anon

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Why we all love and need Middle Earth

The importance of narratives
I mean by "narrative" a story. But not any kind of story. I refer to big stories - stories that are sufficiently profound and complex to offer explanations of the origins and future of a people; stories that construct ideals, prescribe rules of conduct, specify sources of authority, and, in doing all this, provide a sense of continuity and purpose. Joseph Campbell and Rollo May, among others, called such stories "myths." Marx had such stories in mind in referring to "ideologies." And Freud called them "illusions." No matter. What is important about narratives is that human beings cannot live without them. We are burdened with a kind of consciousness that insists on our having a purpose. Purposefulness requires a moral context, and moral context is what I mean by a narrative. The construction of narratives is, therefore, a major business of our species; certainly, no group of humans has ever been found that did not have a story that defined for them how they ought to behave and why. That is the reason why there is nothing more disconcerting, to put it mildly, than to have one's story mocked, contradicted, refuted, held in contempt, or made to appear trivial. To do so is to rob a people of their reason for being. And that is why no one loves a story-buster, at least not until a new story can be found. Much of our ancient history concerns the punishments inflicted on those who challenged existing narratives-Socrates was given hemlock, John the Baptist lost his head, Jesus was crucified, Muhammad had to seek shelter in a cave. Even Moses, who fared better than most, was held in contempt by his own tribe, who thought the worship of golden calves had much to be said in its favor. In our era, the great story-busters - Darwin, Marx, Freud - were anything but lovable to the mass of people whose traditional narratives they attacked. I think I may say that even today there is nothing lovable about them, even to those who give credence to their arguments. Moreover, these story-busters have not had the effects they imagined, since old stories die hard. Darwin, I think, would be amazed to know how many people still believe that we are the children of God rather than of monkeys. Marx would be astounded at the staying power of the great narrative of nationalism. And Freud, who was sardonic about the future of an illusion and thought he had discovered that Moses was an Egyptian and not a Jew, would have to acknowledge that cold-hearted reason and meticulous scholarship are no substitutes for the great narrative of Genesis.

Neil Postman, Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century: How the Past can Improve our Future New York, Knopf, 1999 pp101-102

2:58:00 pm