Joseph Campbell was Right

It was 2:30AM. Mariner sat down in the living room with his hydrating nightcap of 12 ounces of fake sugar lemonade. He decided to see what crumbs were available at the end of a long TV day. He caught the last half of an old comedy series from long ago when comedies seemed more fresh and creative than they do today. Mariner knew, though, that ‘Your Show of Shows’, the ‘Nelsons’ and ‘Roy Rogers’ wouldn’t make it today – just like properly enunciated lyrics have gone by the wayside in modern music.

After an endless assault by commercials, a movie started. It was a generic Jesus movie – the kind where Jesus clearly is a white Caucasian with coifed hair such that the Breck women would be jealous; his eyes had that odd color of blue that seems translucent. Jesus looked about six foot three. Jesus was no Jew. Mariner watched the movie for about five or six minutes and had to turn off the TV. He sat thinking “Joseph Campbell was right:” Religions, and for that matter all other assumptions about reality, are based on myths.

A myth is something that makes sense and further, it implies a truth that is unaffected by the vagaries of daily life. Each of us at one time or another depends on our belief in a profound principle. The belief can range from the ridiculous to the sublime but the purpose is to carry us through a moment when reality seems arbitrary.

In one of his famous interviews with Bill Moyers, Campbell said the Christian faith struggles with a myth that no longer applies to today’s reality. Without the myth, Campbell says the core truths are still viable but have no common reference to daily life. One can imagine that a scruffy Jewish guy associating with the unemployed who campaigns against the law of the land doesn’t fit the role an Evangelical Christian expects today; history, like the Nelsons, is no longer meaningful. Hence a well-kept, blue-eyed, law abiding Gentile.

But what about those core truths Campbell mentioned? Do we still need them or are they part and parcel of the myth – another time in history, another economy, another place?

Just to establish a generic definition of core truths, generally they are a value system that promotes the merit of being human and requires behavioral allegiance to the value system. Let’s apply this generic definition to something besides religious doctrine:

Among the labor class and well into the middle class the entity ‘job’ is the source of salvation. ‘Job’ is the source of holistic transformation. If an individual has a job, they are righteous; if that same individual does not have a job, they are sinners – the scum of the Earth. This reads more like a prejudice but ‘job’ is sanctification in and of itself.

Further into the middle class, financial equity takes the place of job. Whether one has a job or not is less important but one’s accoutrement speaks to the truth of financial value and a comfortable bank balance is virtuous. Beyond middle class into the very wealthy, wealth is a given; it is continuous success and reputation that become the key truth in the myth.

Mariner reminds the reader that these descriptions of myth are quite general. There is a myriad subset of beliefs that are tied to the larger myths. For example, racism, nationalism, neighborhood, profession, even to the detail of how one manages their children or how well their lawn is kept. Joseph Campbell considered myths as tools for establishing the core truth of a given culture. Mariner notices, with respect to Campbell, that myths also breed prejudice. Core truths, it turns out, are easily compromised.

Ancient Mariner