Who Provides the Metaphors? Natural Mythology

I think it justifiable to say that in the nineteenth century, novelists provided us with most of the powerful metaphors and images of our culture. In the twentieth century, such metaphors and images have largely come from the pens of social historians and researchers.

-Neil Postman, Conscientious Objections, p. 15

In context, Postman is making the case that what has come to be known as ‘social science’ is really a narrative form of myth-building. This has continued on into the twenty-first century to be sure.

Where do you shelve Malcolm Gladwell? Is his work some form of ‘science?’ He deals with facts and statistics, right? Actually, he is a story teller. And he uses facts and statistics in order to support certain narratives. It’s not fiction, but it’s not really non-fiction either. Yet somehow it sells as a form of social science. What is Gladwell doing that fascinates us. I’ve read nearly half-a-dozen of his books, and I don’t think I’ve really learned anything from them. I’ve taken the narratives with me, but I don’t feel that I have a better grasp of real reality for having read him. If I want reality I’ll read Charles Dickens, or The Odyssey, or The Wind in the Willows.

This is not to say that the so-called social sciences have no value. They do. They can certainly have value. I started to say I had learned valuable things from my 15 college hours of psychology. But then I realized I actually haven’t. Bad example. It’s just bad stories for the most part. Especially Freud and Skinner. You remember the one about the kid who stopped breast feeding too early? Or about the mouse that learned to push a lever? Or about the Cat in the Hat with two Things? I’ll take Dr. Seuss. “A person’s a person no matter how small” is better than anything I got from my psychology classes. Anyhow.

Postman argues against the title ‘social science.’ He thinks it is misleading. I agree. But, of course, I think that science itself is pretty much always built on narrative. We won’t go there for the moment. The first important thing I want o note here is that he deems social science as ‘moral theology.’ I think natural mythology (or perhaps personal mythology) might be a better term.

The second important thing to note is that we have to figure out why it is that the symbols once supplied by fiction are now supplied by such down-to-earth mythologizing. We were not content that made up stories should serve as symbols of who we are; we now have to have real stories made up to form some sort of mythological narrative. Forgive the post-modernish me; I don’t have answers, just questions.

My hunch is that Postman was right in Technopoly in his point that Science speaks with the voice of a god in our culture. ‘Thus saith Science’ is the mark of infallibility. If one wants to speak authoritatively about anything, one must use the language of Science to do so. Therefore if one wants to create a convincing narrative, one must at least give the appearance that it is scientific.

Ironically, Amazon lists the Postman book I am quoting from under the categories of ‘Social Science’ and ‘Sociology’ – two of the very categories he is arguing against.

Recent Reading: Tuck Everlasting

-Natalie Babbitt, Tuck Everlasting

I think that Resurrection (what ever it exactly means) is so much profounder an idea than mere immortality. I am sure we don’t just “go on.” We really die and are really built up again (C.S. Lewis, Reference).

I thought of that quote from Lewis several times as I read this book with my children.

What if you could drink from the fountain of youth and live forever? What if drugs could extend life beyond what we presently imagine? Those are compelling questions. And it’s the question below those questions that Tuck Everlasting really addresses. I happen to think it addresses it in a beautiful way.

Winnie is faced with a decision. I think she sides with C.S. Lewis. I hope I would too.


Education as a Defense Against Culture

We can locate the origins of this tradition in some fragments of Cicero, who remarked that the purpose of education is to free the student from the tyranny of the present…

It is in the spirit of this tradition – that is, education as a defense against culture – that I wish to speak.

-Neil Postman, Conscientious Objections, p. 22

This isn’t much different from what C.S. Lewis said. I’ve written about that HERE. In short,

Lewis argues that a familiarity with the literature of the past provides readers with a standpoint which gives them critical distance from their own era. Thus, it allows them to see ‘the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective.’ The reading of old books enables us to avoid becoming passive captives of the Spirit of the Age by keeping ‘the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds’ (Alister McGrath, C.S. Lewis – A Life, p. 187).

Another point I’ve made in the past has to do with McLuhan’s ‘rear-view mirror’ analogy. It is pertinent. Some look at things like old books, or old methods of education, and say such things are like looking and living in the rear view mirror. We’ve left those things behind, why look back? But this is not what looking in a rear-view mirror actually shows us.

Looking into a rear-view mirror doesn’t show us the past – it shows us the present and the future. It shows us what is behind us now and what is coming at us in the future. It gives us perspective on where we are, what is nipping at our heels, and what is preparing to overtake us and pass us by.

This is the defense against culture that education should provide; and it starts with reading old books. Someone says, ‘they’re not relevant; you’re living in the past.’ Not quite. We’re actually going to old perspectives so that we can get a new one, or at least a foreign one. We’re being oh so totally pluralistic and democratic – letting dead people speak to us (they are, after all, the most maligned group these days).

Our culture will not defend us from itself. Future cultures cannot defend us from the present one. The past is the only place, so to speak, of finding such a defense – a defense against the tyranny of the present.

Were the Luddites Right?

We’ve had a couple of Luddite conversations here on the blog. Who knew Ludd never existed?

Anyhow, I happened to catch an interesting (and very short) take on the Luddites on NPR yesterday. It gives a more balanced perspective than one generally hears, painting them as the original ‘Rage Against the Machine.’

Were they right? Economically speaking, perhaps they were. Perhaps they weren’t as much anti-machinery as they were pro-human-economic-flourishing. Give it a listen.

Listen to When ‘Luddites’ Attack: Destroying Machines To Save Their Jobs HERE.

Blog Changes

FYI: I have changed my header categories a bit, primarily based around the amount of traffic different subjects attract. The new sections are Book Recommendations and Theology, Law & Gospel. I added a Technology & Culture section a while back. The Book Recommendations page has been in the works for close to a year and I still haven’t finished it. I thought this would come in handy when folks ask me about books that I would recommend. I include categories ranging from theology to children’s books.

These pages are works in progress and I will be adding links to them as I get the chance.

What it Sounds Like When a Camel Goes through the Eye of a Needle

Luke 18 and 19 present the contrasting stories of the so-called ‘rich young ruler’ and the wealthy tax collector Zacchaeus.

After his encounter with the young ruler, Jesus makes the famous statement, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25).

Then comes another rich man, Zacchaeus, who heeds the call of Christ:

“And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold” (Luke 19: 8).

Interestingly, the rich young ruler made the claim that he had kept the moral law from his youth; but when called upon by Christ to give up his riches, he “went away sorrowful.” Zacchaeus, on the other hand, was a notorious sinner – not a law-keeper. But he honors Old Testament restitution law in his response to Jesus:

“If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and kills it or sells it, he shall repay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep” (Exodus 22:1).

On top of this obedience to the law (giving fourfold restitution), he was willing to give half of all he had to the poor.

I can’t pin down the source of the quote, but years ago I heard someone comment on this verse saying, “This is what it sounds like when a camel goes through the eye of a needle.”

“What is impossible with men is possible with God” (Luke 18:27).

Depart from Me

In The Great Divorce, Lewis has those famous lines: ‘There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it.’

Long before Lewis penned those words, Ralph Venning (1621-1673) wrote,

What is sin but a departure from God? And what is the doom of sinners but departure from God? It is as if God should say to them, You liked departing while you lived; now depart from me. You would none of me while you lived; now I will none of you or yours.

-Ralph Venning, The Sinfulness of Sin, p. 71


Parallel Straight Lines: Connection through Contradiction

Parallel straight lines, Denis reflected, meet only at infinity. He might talk forever of care-chamber sleep and she of meteorology till the end of time. Did one ever establish contact with anyone? We are all parallel straight lines (Aldous Huxley, Crome Yellow, p. 18).

I mentioned in my post on Crome Yellow that I would comment on a couple of quotes from the book. This is the first of those quotes.

I do not want to get into the mathematical idea of parallel lines meeting at infinity. I had to take an intermediate algebra class in college. Let’s just say it’s not my forte. But the idea itself is intriguing.

Tim Keller regularly uses The Stepford Wives as an illustration of our need for contradiction. When you have a wife that cannot contradict you, then you have no possibility for an actual relationship. The same, he says, goes for God. We hear things like, ‘I could never believe in a God who would do X.’ We want God to conform to our own moral norms. We want to mold him in our own image. But, says Keller, if God cannot contradict you, then you have no real basis for a relationship. There are some holes in this logic, I think, but the point is well taken nonetheless.

The parallel lines idea makes this point in a more logical way. If you are on a parallel line with someone, if you are exactly the same, then you do not meet in this life. In order to have connection we need contradiction. In order to meet someone there needs to be some sort of perpendicularity. Hence the need for a God who contradicts us, who calls us out on our differences. I can see the case being made for people as well (not just for God).