Friday, May 30, 2008

Mything the Point

John Amos had an excellent article in the Orange Review this past week (sorry, no link -- I'll see if I can get permission to reprint it here). Amos was talking about how Bible stories are no longer a part of our common heritage, and how that stunted a modern reader's understanding of classic literature.

His column comes on the heels of a recent experience my wife had. She's a social worker and took a new worker out on a child protective services call with her. Two divorced parents were fighting (literally) over custody of their children, and my wife explained that she was going to use the Judgement of Solomon to break the deadlock. She was met with a blank look.

On the way back to the office afterward, the worker revealed that she had never heard of Solomon, and had no idea what my wife was talking about.

According to Amos, that kind of ignorance is becoming increasingly common. While most people are fully conversant with pop culture references, Bible stories are almost unknown. Ditto for Greek mythology and other bulwarks of Western civilization.

One of my favorite books in elementary school was "D'Aulaires Book of Greek Myths." I discovered it in 6th grade and read and reread it many times. It very simply (and with a lot of pictures) told the stories of the Greek gods and heroes. What a cool book. It's where I learned about Athena springing full-grown from Zeus' head, and Pandora's box, the punishment of Sisyphus, Jason and the Argonauts, Hercules, and the rest.

I've since read other more extensive tellings, but it gave me a good grounding in classical literature (just as Sunday School gave me a solid background in the Bible).

So why is any of this important?

Because these stories can still speak to us. I've used the illustration of the Sword of Damocles before -- and it was a perfect illustration of my point. I'm not a good leader, and when people insist on putting me in charge of their committee, I warn them it's like Phaeton taking the reigns.

Stomping out terrorism is likeHercules fighting the hydra -- cut off one head, and two grow in its place. Hercules defeated the monster by doing something different, and perhaps there's a lesson for us as well.

If you're not familiar with Greek mythology, pick up a copy of D'Aulaires' book, or Edith Hamilton's "Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes" and treat yourself. They're both enjoyable reads, and you'll be surprised at how much more conversant you'll be about other fields that reference Greek mythology.

The psychological condition of narcissism references the story of Narcissus (as does the flower that shares his name). Vulcanization refers to Vulcan ( the Roman name for Hephaestus) in describing this fire-based process. The Achilles' tendon is located at the one spot this Greek hero was vulnerable. The word "tantalize" comes from the myth of Tantalus -- and there's many more.

So I'm with John Amos on this one. Sure, its great to be able to catch that reference to "Jerry McGuire" (you had me at [fill in the blank]), but that's a much shallower form of cultural literacy. Having a working knowledge of Greek mythology will just make you a better-informed person in many ways.

And the Bible? Well, a thorough knowledge of that book can be even more rewarding.

- Ralph

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