Tag Archives: Manifest Destiny

We are living with half a religion.

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Last night I had a dream in which a dear friend of mine went on an uncharacteristic rent about the soullessness of Walt Disney World. In this dream, I responded. We were at WDW, a place I long to visit (having never been), and our public debate was making cast members uncomfortable. Here is what I realized in my dream:

I maintain that there are two myths at the core of the American cultural psyche: Utopia and Manifest Destiny. Tucked under Manifest Destiny lies our relationship to consumption. For the American, there are three modes of consumption:

  1. Survival—well, duh.
  2. Power—By consuming the resources, none of the other kids can have them, making us king of the playground.
  3. Unquenhable Hunger—Our consumption is also a need to satiate a hunger, to fill some kind of spiritual hole.

I am an apologist for consumption. I don’t believe that the solution to number three is to reinfuse myth into our culture. If there is any single characteristic inherent in Americans, it’s our resourcefulness. We have been writing our own myths for centuries, albeit in nontraditional forms. I do believe, however, that the solution to number three is to rewrite the consumption myth altogether, but I’m digressing from my original intended topic.

It occurs to me that number three exists because our country was founded by Protestants. Sure, Protestants brought a strong work-ethic to this country. But Protestants also brought half a religion with them. Protestantism is Catholicism without the mystery and mysticism. I’m not sure why anyone would want to take the mystery and mysticism out of Christianity, but there you have it.

My flavor of Protestantism is Episcopalian. “The Thinking Man’s Religion.” The lineage of the Episcopal Church can be traced to Henry VIII and the establishment of the Anglican Church. Henry wasn’t trying to take the mystery out of Christianity; he just wanted power and control over the church. Oh yeah, and a divorce. As such, I grok the mystery of Christianity, but not the mysticism.

Let me also take a moment to point out that today’s Catholicism is not Christopher Columbus’ Catholicism. The Catholic Church has had to change dramatically over the centuries to fight against the allure of the Protestant Churches and, increasingly, other religions altogether. This, and the ease of establishing Protestant denominations/churches, is why Christianity is such a mess.

I’m not suggesting that America would have been “better off” if it had been founded by Catholics. Look at the history of Meso- and South America. At least the Catholic conquistadors were consciously searching for modes of consumption, but they still slaughtered anyone in their path who wasn’t cooperating. There’s that annoying relationship between consumption and power again.

I am suggesting, however, that Americans need to relearn the mystery and mysticism of SOMETHING. Perhaps “traditional” or “organized” religions is not the answer (I’m including Native American traditions here). Perhaps, instead, the secret is to disconnect from the Information Superhighway. I have to give kudos to Henry David Thoreau. While his abandonment of civilization isn’t for everyone (assuming there are still remote parts of America left), his attention to the little things is. How easy it would be to embrace the mystery the Romantic poets saw, and find even a little solace in our Soulless? world.

Myth Collection as Consumption

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A recent bee started buzzing in my bonnet. Something about people who just collect myths and spit them out to prove a point has gotten under my skin, and this has been festering for awhile and it’s part of my current disillusionment with Joseph Campbell. On one hand, it’s a very superficial way to win an argument. But on the other, it does a disservice to the myth. Each myth has a context, and it’s important to recognize this context. I sort of addressed this in a previous post. What was once a learning tool for young Greek boys is probably not a learning tool for young American women. Sure, it can work if you force it into a new context, even revising the story to fit. But have you ever tried forcing a puzzle piece into a place where it doesn’t go? It’s the same with a myth. If you pound it enough, it’ll fit wherever you want it to, but that doesn’t mean it belongs there.

In my dissertation research, I’ve been recently captivated by the idea of consumption as an inherent part of the American psyche. In fact, I have boldly come to the decision that consumption is the driving force behind Manifest Destiny, which itself is the core of the American psyche. We have been consumers since the pilgrims came to this country; since the Revolution made it our own; since the Frontiersmen, women, and settlers claimed the land; and since we started mass producing “stuff.” Unlike our Old World forefathers, it’s not enough for us to consume food, shelter, clothing and other basic necessities. It’s not enough to consume art, religion or ideas. We want to consume everything and in increasing amounts. George Ritzer terms this “hyperconsumption.”

Since consumption is the core of our psyche and since I’m a self-declared cultural relativist (a remnant of my early Anthropology training), I don’t find fault with the fact that we consume. But we’ve made consumption an addiction. We don’t just consume for the sake of consuming, but somewhere along the way we started forming the core of our identity with the things we consume: by the clothes we wear, or the brands we choose to advertise, the car we drive, etc. We consciously project to the world what we want the world to think of us based on the items we are consuming.

But there’s a neurosis in hyperconsumption. We call them “collectors,” “hoarders,” or even “pack rats.” Chances are we all either know a number of friends who we would tag with those descriptions, or maybe we have certain aspects in our own lives that others would label as such. At various stages of my life, I’ve had things I’ve consciously collected, and I’ve held onto them in the classic pack-rat mentality until one move too many and they lost any and all meaning. As of right now, if I had to claim any conscious act of collecting and/or hoarding, it would be books. But the danger to collecting depends on what you do with it.

And this is where myth collecting comes into play. It’s good to know the various myths of the world. I say it many times that myths are some of the best artifacts we have from all times and cultures. They reveal so much about a culture’s beliefs, behaviors and psychology more so than many of the artifacts that do survive the times. This is one reason why I hold a very broad definition of what constitutes a “myth.” But so what? So what if you can recite a passage from Homer for me to prove a point in an argument? Or so what, Professor Campbell, that you can find three examples from world myth that supports your claim? What do you want me to do with it?

The academic realm of mythological studies threatens to become a myth collection. More importantly, choose a few mythologists, follow their work, and regurgitate their findings and sound very smart at a cocktail party.  People turn to myth when they are seeking answers. I’ve heard many people tell me that they found the answers they were looking for to a particular crisis in the works of Joseph Campbell. But while they may find the answers, do they actually put them to action? This is isn’t easy.

This is where  my dissertation has taken me. It’s become important to me to be able to read a myth and cull from it not only a culture-specific understanding of the myth’s context but also gain an understanding of the tools of mythology so that they can be applied to the current myth spectrum. It is only through this that we can begin to unlock the hidden mysteries of American mythology, long ignored as “too popular for serious scholarship.” It is through this that we can begin to understand the phenomenon of fanatic behavior that has helped define so many modes in the past 50 years. And I firmly believe that this will help us gain a better framework to create those myths that might actually initiate the healing process this country so desperately needs.