David Brooks on Myths vs. Parables

New York Times columnist David Brooks runs hot and cold with me; ostensibly a conservative, he’s too inclined to dismiss new ideas in favor of sanctified values, for my taste, yet he does read widely and responds to many new ideas.

Here’s his take on the notion of myth vs. parable, and how it’s reflected in our current culture.

NYT: The Fourth Great Awakening.

There are certain melodies that waft through history. One is the cultural contrast between Athens and Jerusalem. This contrast has many meanings, but the most germane one for our day is the contrast between the competitive virtues and the compassionate virtues.

These two sets of virtues get communicated in different literary forms. The competitive virtues of Athens are usually narrated in myth while the compassionate virtues of Jerusalem often get narrated in parable.

Myths tend to celebrate grandeur and heroic superiority; parables tend to puncture the pretensions of superiority and celebrate humility and service to others.

All of a sudden, we are surrounded by myth. As parable-based religion has receded from the public square, heroic myth, and the competitive virtues it celebrates, has rushed in to fill the space.

I’ll just mention three forms that are immensely popular today. The first is mythic movies: “Avengers,” “X-Men,” “Star Wars,” “Transformers,” “Justice League” and the rest. The Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC Extended Universe franchises alone have grossed about $20 billion at the box office worldwide.

I regularly run into people (men, mostly) who are deeply immersed in these mythic worlds, who can entertain you with long disquisitions on the merits of different characters, the moral lessons of each film, whether “Black Panther,” say, is an accurate rendition of injustice today.

And he goes on about video games, and sporting events like the World Cup. The essay ends:

There are many virtues to the mythic worldview — to stand heroically for justice, to be loyal to friends and fierce against foes. But history does offer some sobering lessons about societies that relied too heavily on the competitive virtues.

They tend to give short shrift to relationships, which depend on the fragile, intimate bonds of vulnerability, trust, compassion and selfless love. They tend to see life as an eternal competition between warring tribes. They tend to see the line between good and evil as running between groups, not, as in parable, down the middle of every human heart.

We’re spiritual creatures; our lives are shaped by the moral landscapes and ideals we inherit and absorb. I’d say our politics and our society are coming to resemble the competitive mythic ethos that is suddenly all around.

For what it’s worth, Steven Pinker’s recent pair of books, The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now, identify the abandonment of what Brooks calls the mythic worldview with the advance into a modern world of enlightenment, peace, and the decline of violence.

And this theme echoes the post recently about superhero movies.

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