The Power of Stories and Myths

Two of my favorite genres to read and watch are science fiction and fantasy.  I enjoy the alternate worlds and characters within these stories whether book, play, movie, poem, you name it.  When it comes to science fiction and fantasy stories, the writers and creators tackle ambitious themes related to the human condition and the ultimate big questions.  Here are some examples: how did mankind get here; where is mankind headed in the future; and what is the relationship between the individual and society?  Here is the point…science fiction and fantasy genres employ fictional worlds to comment on the human condition.  At the risk of sounding pretentious, these two genres operate from a moral perspective.

Myth is another term that intersects with the genres of science fiction and fantasy.  There are two basic definitions of the term: one deals with false notions or beliefs about people, places, and things; and the second refers to a story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon.  It is the second definition that peaks my interest.  The worlds and characters that inhabit the genres of science fiction and fantasy require the authors and creators to fashion a mythos, which forms the foundation for the actual story while being the means for examining the human condition.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is one of the best literary examples of fantasy literature that employs a complex mythology of its characters, language, and history.  All of these elements function together to anchor readers into Tolkien’s world while mirroring our own.  The complex histories of all the various peoples and languages within the fictional landscape of Middle Earth bears such striking resemblances to our world that Tolkien’s narrative transcends cultural and language barriers.  His themes or messages are universal in that they speak to the common experiences of men and women and boys and girls all over the world.  This is at the heart of the second definition for the word myth.

George Lucas’ original Star Wars Trilogy attains to even higher heights than Tolkien’s Middle Earth simply due to the immediacy of the motion picture medium.  Movies reach far more people than books, especially if the creators package their cinematic narratives with a credible mythos from the audience’s perspective.  Back in 1977, Lucas’ original Star Wars movie shattered all box office records known to the film industry.  This space-age fantasy struck a chord with audiences.  Its impact upon the culture was immediate and long-lasting. If Steven Spielberg’s Jaws announced the summer blockbuster, then Lucas’ Star Wars confirmed its existence forever.  Lucas’ space fantasy spawned a whole line of toys, clothes, bedding, stationary, magnets, and much much more.  For example, my two brothers and I owned hundreds of Star Wars figures and toys.  I can hear someone saying, “So what, Matthew?  You’re not saying anything new that I didn’t already know.”

Science fiction and fantasy stories have a way of impacting cultures and societies across the globe as evidenced by Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Lucas’ Star Wars Saga.  I see those two genres as being key for helping to shape the moral compass of the peoples of the earth.  Of course, saying that sounds awfully cheesy or idealistic, but I think there is great potential for harm and good through the genres of science fiction and fantasy.  Back in the 1950s, Hollywood released a spate of science fiction movies dealing with the reality and consequences of living within a nuclear age: The Thing from Another World (1951), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Them! (1954), The Forbidden Planet (1956), and The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).  These films not only represent bold and creative visions by their creators, but they reveal artistic and business minds working together to express alarm over mankind’s trajectory.  Is not that a good thing?

Storytellers possess the potential for being either true or false prophets.  The motion picture industry is a double-edged sword in the best sense of the term.  Hollywood’s sci-fi flicks of the 50s demonstrate the good edge of this sword.  It is my humble opinion that this current decade and the previous one represent the bad edge of the sword.  In defense of Hollywood, the executives and creatives have been releasing plenty of science fiction and fantasy about mankind’s ultimate end.  Some of these have portrayed various dystopian outlooks of mankind’s future; however, these films have lacked any staying power with the audiences and therefore the culture and society.  For example, movies like Oblivion and Elysium create vivid, futuristic worlds, but the characters and story lack emotional resonance.  Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go is better than those two previous movies; however, its portrayal about what it means to be human is too painful for viewers to watch.  Plus, it is a drama whereas the other two were mindless action flicks masquerading as clever, science fiction, adventure yarns.

In the end, there are few movies today displaying both a mind and a heart behind them.  Most of them are soulless and joyless works of automation rather than living and breathing cinematic narratives.  There are novels and short stories and poems being written that put their screenwriter cousins to shame.  Because the former work in a medium that takes much longer to influence a culture, the impression is that books are a waste.  Libraries struggle to maintain a viable presence within today’s culture and society.  Reading comprehension continues to plummet along with the ability to write in the proper grammar and syntax.  There is power in story and myth.  These should be used in service to the culture and society.  This might require business and creative minds to step outside of the box in order to examine the contents.  Is the status quo worth maintaining?  Are there harmful business and creative unions, which choke the ability to fashion narratives that speak to the human condition?

There is a real place for storytellers to influence the culture and society for its good; however, this requires a ruthless commitment to principles.  Because I stand upon God and his word, those two guide my principles.  I call other storytellers like me to stand firm upon God and his word.  This is not something that I expect of those who disagree with me about God and his word.  All I ask of them is to remain true to their hearts’ convictions.  When it comes to those in my Christian circles, my exhortation is straight from the pen of the apostle Paul, “[do] not teach any different doctrine, nor to devote [your]selves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith.  The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:3b -4, ESV).  Storytellers who claim to be of Christ must realize that their craft is an issue of conscience and faith before God and men.     

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