By Randy Limbird
New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote an interesting piece recently about the power of myth and the major factor that myth plays in our politics. “Myth,” in Brooks’ usage, is “a story that helps people make meaning out of the current moment; that divides people into heroes and villains.”
The role of myth as a campaign tool is that candidates will employ myth that “names a central challenge and explains why they are the perfect person to meet it,” Brooks wrote in his Feb. 20 column.
One candidate exploits the myth that all the so-called experts are liars and the media is one vast conspiracy, that self-interest should guide all policy. Another candidate relies on a myth that blames the rich for all the injustice in the world, and that every problem can be fixed by taxing them.
Like most myths, political myths have elements of truth, but at their core they are not based on reality but on what people want to believe. For the people that believe them, these myths protect and preserve what they consider most important. Typically, the myths support the believers’ status quo, including their sense of self-importance, even superiority. Once you commit to a myth, it become the lens through which you interpret everything else.
That column was fresh in my mind the other day when I was reading Acts 19, the story of how the followers of the goddess Artemis rose up against the apostle Paul during his stay in Ephesus. His success in preaching the gospel disrupted both the Jewish and gentile establishments. In particular, a silversmith named Demetrius instigated attacks on Paul because enough people were turning from pagan religion to ruin the idol-making industry in Ephesus.
For Demetrius, the myth of Artemis was just a means to an end, a way to make a living. But for the mass of people who practiced the pagan religion, it was their source of meaning and self-worth. So it was easy for Demetrius to foment the crowd, leading them to seize Paul’s traveling companions. The mob was ready to commit even more violence until a city official intervened.
The description of the crowd in full frenzy is perfect: “The assembly was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there” (Acts 19:32). If you’ve ever been part of a mob scene — including protest marches and political rallies across the spectrum — that description might fit just as well. People will join a crowd just to be in on the action.
But the power of myth fanned the flames: The story tells us that for two hours the crowd shouted continuously, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians” (verse 34).
My hero in this story, by the way, aren’t the Christians being attacked (however praiseworthy they may have been), but the city clerk who quiets the crowd. Not only are they in danger of provoking Roman wrath by their rioting, he tells them, but if arrested, “we would not be able to account for this commotion, since there is no reason for it” (verse 40). He then tells them to go home, which they did.
It struck me how easily swayed the crowd was — stirred into action by a greedy silversmith, then calmed down and dispersed by a respected city leader. We see the worst and the best of mass manipulation taking place in just the course of a few hours.
We see the same fickleness when Jesus rides into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday — the crowd enthusiastically welcomes him, not based on the truth of his message, but on the crowd’s own messiah myth of a savior who will overturn the Roman regime. When Jesus fails to deliver on that myth, the crowd becomes a tool of religious leaders who bait them into calling for his crucifixion.
That’s the problem with myth if it’s not based on truth. People hold on to it with seeming intensity, but they quickly abandon it if they’re threatened by a more pressing reality (such as being arrested by the Romans). That’s because myth often caters to superficial needs, but if it lacks a true foundation it will fail to address the deeper hungers of the soul. Fast food myth doesn’t satisfy.
Truth stands up to scrutiny. Mere myth does not. What lasts is truth that has the power of myth, truth that provides meaning and that addresses both our hearts and minds without settling for easy answers and catering to superficial emotions.
I doubt we will see that level of truth in this year’s political campaigning. But when it comes to who and what we believe concerning our ultimate purpose as human beings, we ought to seek that high of a standard.
Randy Limbird is editor of
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