Sunday, September 07, 2008

Struggling with myths and metaphor

Photo: Azusa Street Group Picture

Myth and metaphor are surely related; I'm just not sure how. The history of my school career was to skate by avoiding as much of the hard stuff as I could. As a consequence math is impossible and my knowledge of literature quite primitive. I've tried not to let my lack of education get in the way of my curiosity. But writing online about things I know little about can really show my ignorance. It's funny too how permanent what is put up seems to be. I know just wehre to look for evidence of my own ignorance. Ignorance one can hope is a temporary state of affairs, yet all of us will be forever ignorant of more than we know. I'm certain of which political candidates I'll vote for in the coming election. My purpose for thinking about religion and politics isn't to persuade anyone. I'm writing more as an attempt to become a little less ignorant about political matters all around me.

In the article in the LA Progressive about Sarah Palin I linked to yesterday she was attributed as saying upon Barak Obama's securing the nomination of the Democratic Party:
So Sambo beat the bitch.
I'm quite willing to accept the word of Lucille the waitress the reported has attributing the remark to Palin, but perhaps Palin never said it. What captures my attention about the quote is how charged the words “Sambo” and “bitch” are by virtue of the history of them. Any parent knows about how strange it is when their two or three-year old discovers profanity. Certain words are charged with a particular magic quite evident to children. Whether Palin is quoted properly or not the words attributed are magic.

As I say I'm a bit out of my element trying to figure out religion, politics and culture, at least with regard to academic discourse about them. So yesterday Keguro comes to my aid in a post by introducing me to the concept of metaphoricity. Keguro by way of explanation of the term offers: Metaphoricity pits allegiance against attachment. Googling metaphoricity, it's evident that the concept is not so simple that I'll grasp it quickly.

I wrote in my last post a little about Walter Wink and his studies of redemptive violence. The fact of the matter is that I haven't read any of his books. Nor have I read any books by Rene Girard whose ideas about violence and religion are very influential. Both Wink and Girard's ideas seem quite important to developing the idea that Pentecostalism is not inherently a vehicle for reactionary right politics. But it seems that myth and metaphor have to be drawn out a bit more plainly before that.

Myths in one sense are stories which help to unfold our worldviews. Worldviews are built from interlocking systems of metaphors; metaphors which we're often quite unconscious about, at least unconscious about how they shape our perceptions of the world. Toddlers quickly appreciate the power of profanity, but are taught not to use them. So they learn to cordon them off. As a child the story Little Black Sambo was in the house. As I child I think Sambo's blackness didn't seem particularly important. The story was loved because it told how a child like me conquered fear and ruled the day. Yet the pictures were noticed of course and the meanings of those pictures cordoned off much as those magic profane words I'd learned were. Some of the meaning of the word metaphoricity it seems to me has to do with being unconscious about this cordoning off, so that words and stereotypes are thought, consciously, to be not so different from ordinary words and concepts.

Sambo as a racial slur has a history worth considering. Hardly any Americans identify as racists, but we are very often blind to our own prejudice. Exploring online the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University is eye-opening. The Jim Crow Museum also has a YouTube Channel which is a good entry point for relevant videos.

In the center of the photo is a black man with a Bible, that's William J. Seymour. Seymour. He guided a revival on Azusa street in Los Angeles in 1906. Many trace the birth of the Pentecostal movement to the Azusa Street Revival. The story is well known among Pentecostals. While there are many strands in the American Evangelical movement which are overtly racist, at its birth Pentecostalism has believed that the out pouring of the Spirit among brown, white and black was evidence of the authenticity of the event. However prejudiced an individual person within the Pentecostal movement might be, the story of Azusa Street Revival stands in opposition to their prejudice.

If metaphoricity is important by virtue of our somehow loosing track of the conscious awareness that “this” is a metaphor, it is also noteworthy that our systems of metaphors we live by are interlocking, but in a loose enough way to allow for contradictions. The story of a universal revelation of the Spirit at the foundation of the Pentecostal Movement doesn't prevent racist and sexist views, but does provide an opening for discussion and conscious examination.

It's a mistake to think Evangelical Christians are unstudied. I've often marveled at how Christians quote the Bible from memory. But Bible study is far more in depth than just memorizing the text. Much is made of the ways that the Internet is used by fundamentalist Muslims, but Christians are sophisticated users of the new Web tools too. I'm always impressed surfing around by the use of the Internet by religious groups. There's the extraordinary collective effort, there are millions of Evangelical Christian Web sites. Christians are also quick studies when it comes to networking. But there is also the content. On one hand are quaint constructions, such as “that which we percieveth,” and on the other competent usage of the jargon of philosophy.

Back in the mid 1980's I was studying for my degree in elementary education. Quite a lot of the work was in composing behavioral objectives for lessons. The idea is to have learning objectives which can be measured and are appropriate and relevant. In reading instruction there are hundred, perhaps thousands, of objectives. The Teacher's Edition of reading textbooks are fat, because they contain a map of sorts of objectives; phonics and decoding skills; dictionary and study skills, etc. etc. All these objectives are keyed to the text the children read. It can get tedious trying to imagine ways to relate these objectives to the stories children read and to their own experience of school.

On the nightly news around that time I saw video of a woman speaking in front of a school board about their decision to purchase a new set of reading texts in her school district. She demanded:
I will not have my children forced to read books written by homosexual deconstructionists!
I was flabbergasted partly from having spent quite a lot of my time comparing various reading textbooks I found it hard to imagine how any of the series could be deemed to have objectionable content. If anything to object to they seemed all too safe. Secondly literary theory and deconstruction seemed so esoteric, I wondered when the Bible ladies had the time for it.

Mary Catherine Bateson reflects on mother metaphors for Earth in an essay an encourages us to reflect on the metaphors we employ. In the essay she uses complaints about reading texts as an example:
Not long ago, in 1988, a group of parents in Tennessee brought a lawsuit protesting that their children were being taught the religion of "secular humanism" in the schools, and objecting to the use of fantasy and mythology in education. A picture from a reading primer that showed a little boy and a little girl sitting at a kitchen table, with the little boy putting a piece of bread into a toaster, was cited as undermining traditional concepts of the family. This may seem extreme, yet these parents were right in their understanding of how people think and learn. Not only does such a picture undermine traditional concepts of the family but it undermines traditional concepts of God, for male dominance over females has long provided a model for the relationship between God and humankind. They would also be right to resist the metaphor of the dryad, along with any other suggestion of sacred presence immanent in the natural world, as undermining the idea of God as transcendent, ruling from outside and above.

Family systems, the organization of institutions, the way we run our country, the way we respond to other cultures and races, and the uses of political and military power--all these things are based on interlocking sets of metaphors. Our many relationships are isomorphic: they have the same form. There is a pattern that connects, and it is a pattern of dominance and exploitation, taught again and again in the most ordinary human arrangements. That pattern is expressed in the fierce and ultimately self-destructive attack on this planet that we cannot rule because we are a part of it.
Sarah Palin's candidacy provides an opportunity for Americans to reflect not only on sexism, racism, but on the system of metaphors which sustain them. Palin's religiosity brings forward myths which can help us to see our worldviews more clearly and to approach contradictions we've left unexamined.

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