Santa, The Easter Bunny, Gods – Critical Thinking and Mythological Ritual

April 15th, 2012   by   Andrew

Part of the series God: From Magic to Motivation

This is an unfinished post. It contains one of the most important videos I may have ever posted (part of a Joseph Campbell interview). I think I’m trying to say Santa and the Easter Bunny may be understood as attempts to correct some of the inconsistencies surrounding our use of ‘beliefs’ (whatever assistance ‘beliefs’ may have given to our rapid flourishing and this 10 000-year-old thought-experiment).

Dale McGowan of The Meming of Life  has a great story about how his youngest child figured out “the truth” about Santa. His youngest daughter loved Santa. But this winter, she got bit by the bug – she just had to know. She kept asking questions, kept testing and probing to see how certain inconsistent things weren’t adding up. Dale McGowan refers to it as reaching a tipping point between the desire to believe and the desire to know.

His response to his daughter’s momentary disappointment with reality was to praise her process of thinking and reinforce the feeling of pride for figuring things out for herself.

The tradition of Christmas may be a little different next year, but it looks like even his youngest daughter wants to still participate in the holiday fun. In McGowan’s words, “all the fun, all the family stuff, the presents, the yummy food, the lights and music and doing nice things for other people — we still get to have ALL of that. But now you know where it all really comes from.”

By allowing our children to participate in the Santa myth and find their own way out of it through skeptical inquiry, we give them a priceless opportunity to see a mass cultural illusion first from the inside, then from the outside.

Joseph Campbell explains a similar but more confrontational ritual that came about partly from our long years of mythological consciousness:

The young person becomes a responsible member of the community by facing up to the greatest fear and the possibility of loss, and then adopting the constructed masks themselves.

My niece has figured out “the truth” about the Easter Bunny. She is reluctant to say anything out loud, but this year she was insistent about asking her mom if she could “help with the eggs.” Her desire is not to run to her younger brother and tell him. He is still quite young and would not likely understand. Instead, she wants to take part in the ritual, but with the added responsibility and duties of the adults.

Something often shared amongst ministers is the serious joke: “No one should get through seminary believing in God.” It’s a comment about how the simple, or in Campbell’s words, infantile understanding of the world can’t survive direct and bare exposure to the frightening reality and complexity of “the truth.” And in fighting with that Mask of God in that academic environment, they are supposedly becoming worthy of the masks themselves, responsible enough to wear a constructed mask and bring their congregations to that wrestling match with God.

Here’s my question – kids come to understand “the truth” about Santa and the Easter Bunny realtively early. Often enough the reaction is to adopt or participate in the adult’s side of the ritual. And often enough, the family tradition adapts to fit the new situation, the now-shared information. Entrance to seminary or college usually takes place in the late teens or in full adulthood. But isn’t it really the same ritual, just dressed up in a different aesthetic?

And if that’s the case, then what does this mean for “belief”?

The most important thing in all these traditions seems to be the moment the mask comes off. Could this ritual not be adopted once again? Or is it?

What do you think?

Final word from Dale McGowan this time:

“I wouldn’t have mythed it for the world.”


Mythologizing Capitalism

December 22nd, 2011   by   Andrew

My dad was telling me about the history of Santa Claus in Christmas. He got the story from Lorna Dueck’s Context.

How did Santa Claus become so important? Santa is a dominant fictional character in our culture, due in part to his grandfatherly, gracious and generous nature. The measuring stick for his grace is vague and quite polarized (are you naughty or nice?). He seems to have an infatuation with indulging in sugary baked treats, decorating with green or red, and lighting ancient-tech candles, all at a the darkest and coldest time of the year (for us northerners, at least). But it should be remembered he’s made a lot of money for some people too.

Gerry Bowler, author of Santa Claus: A Biography, uses the phrase ‘the moral economy’ to describe the importance of Santa’s role in our present-day culture. (here is the wiki for ‘moral economy’). Parents make incredible investments of time and energy and money for the benefit of their children at Christmas, but for the most part they deliberately avoid taking credit for any of the help they give the sweet old elf. It would seem a little strange if parents demanded as much attention or as many presents. If parents did demand such things, probably the whole thing would fall apart.

Shannon and I recently got thinking about the 70s TV special, Twas the Night Before Christmas. We haven’t been able to find it on TV for years and years. Do you remember the story? A little mouse named Albert wrote a cynical letter to Santa. After reading it, Santa returns the letters of the entire town and takes the entire town off his “nice list”. There is a scramble to get back into Santa’s good books. The song was catchy although laced with some religious undertones.

With a little bit of digging, Shannon uncovered that a Santa with such a reactionary temper doesn’t sit well with today’s audience. The audience buys the story less and less, and so the networks use the special less and less.

Stories change over time, I guess.

I’ve been thinking about debt lately. I’ve been incredibly lucky in that I’ve never carried a large burden of debt. I was born to parents unimaginative in terms of investments and unambitious in terms of lifestyle. They didn’t get a credit card until they were retired!

I’ve never trusted debt, but that might be because I didn’t grow up with it and I was never told to let the future pay for today. Be a good boy, earn it first, pay your dues, then get your cookies.

I don’t think that’s the story we’re told today. For one thing, what is meant by being a good kid is pretty vague. And I think a lot of people have learned new definitions for ‘earn it’ and ‘pay for it’.

Nassim Taleb worries a lot about economics. It seems to come in some small part from never buying into the story about debt and the fragility it can create. In his notes on his website, he has made this comment:

I am afraid to conclude that the only form of stable society, outside of the hunter-gatherer environment, & one that does not blow up, is an artisanal one. Complexification drives institutions — and societies — to maximal fragility.

What I find most interesting in this comment is that both the hunter-gather society and the artisanal society have mythological foundations, not ideological foundations. Both rely on an apprenticeship model of transmitting skills and responsibilities from the old masters to the young students. It’s about what you make and what you give as much as what you take or what you hold.

Can capitalism work without taking advantage of debt, or taking advantage of people’s (current) inability to manage debt? We can’t really predict our future, no matter how ambitious or certain we may feel, and so we must learn not to burden it with the price of today. Debt management, financial responsibility, is a skill that can be learned, but if our leaders and parents don’t prepare us properly, or if they tell us to buy into the wrong story about it, then it might all fall apart.

There are a lot of religious and mythological stories about how the sins of the father are paid for by his children. We inherit a lot from our parents, in terms of DNA, mannerisms, worldviews, sometimes even property, and sometimes even debt. That’s the nature of our actions. We don’t always see or manage the long-term consequences all that well. I don’t know if it’s always fair to put that weight on a child, but I do think a lot of those stories were meant for our leaders as much as they were for the public audience.

Be good leaders, earn the trust and love of the next generation, and then you might receive it.

Any father worth his salt won’t burden his children with his own debts. Or at least he will try to lessen that weight.

The past set the cost for the present. The present sets the cost for the future. Any ideology, any ism, any system that convinces you the future can carry the burdens of today along with its own is going to eventually crash over the brink. It must be doubted, resisted and rooted out. It must be educated on the nature of responsibility.

What do you think?

A little preachy this time, maybe?

Ah heck, here’s Jingle Bells. Have a wonderful Holiday Season!

If you meet your worldview on the road, kill it!

May 25th, 2011   by   Andrew

[Something I wrote a while ago, but never published and never really got back to fully. But since I haven't been posting much lately, we'll let this one out of the cage. In a strange way, it's about dragons, which is going to be my next theme (Dragons and Mythology, really)... that is, if I ever get my head back into this place.]

The Freshly Pressed of WordPress served up a post by Sarah Lacey about Peter Thiel and the problem of bubbles.

We’ve had an equities bubble, a tech bubble, a housing bubble, and even a too-big-to-fail bubble. And Peter Thiel thinks we are cruising along nicely to the next big bubble – conspicuously expensive education.

His focus is business, entrepreneurs, and economics. However, his wording really caught my attention because I thought it could have a lot of implications for religion, philosophy, beliefs and reason.

A true bubble is when something is over-valued and intensely believed. Education may be the only thing people still believe in in the United States. To question education is really dangerous. It is the absolute taboo. It’s like telling the world there’s no Santa Claus.”

Some people spend a lot of energy trying to convince the world there is no Santa Claus. Meanwhile, Santa checks in with the air force officials on December 24th every year to make sure his flight route is secure.

Surely there’s a better way to understand all this.

Do we have an idea bubble? A thinking bubble?

What I mean is, this crap that’s going on in our heads, this push to get things right, to figure s%$# out, to hold the magic lens that solves out all the world, to wield the mighty tool that ruins all adversaries… history is showing us, again and again, that all our precious beliefs and ideas are over-valued. All of culture is temporary, an illusion to keep the dragon of chaos far enough away so we feel secure and safe. Those intensely-held beliefs are all being questioned, and all can fall under examination. And all we are left with is each other.

And yet, we can renew ourselves, and our communities, and each other, when we face our problems openly.

Maybe it’s time we leashed ideas much more securely than we have ever done before. Tie them down. All ideas. Throw out all the models, or at least quarantine them so as to restrict their consequences.

Can we start with what is, instead of what’s in our heads? Can we examine our actions, instead of our justifications? Can we ever make our ideas quiet, make them servants to the world, so as to never give them the authority they so treasure?

Even if we could, I fear the consequences… but I can imagine…

What do you think? What bubble do you over-value or intensely believe in? And what would you do if it popped? I ask because more than likely it’s gonna happen, or it already has, to every one of us.

Thanks goes out to Sarah Lacey for her post.