In going through N.T. Wright’s Simply Jesus, I was quite interested in his discussion of the two currently competing myths of Jesus. Wright defines myth as a story which we hold to be true or historical which defines our beliefs, values, decisions and character. The stories he noted which were currently in competition were the one from the atheist view that Jesus was not the son of God, and therefore the stories about him are not true, but fiction, and possibly no person named Jesus ever existed, and the one from the theist perspective, where Jesus existed and was the son of God, and so on. Both stories, of course, can be broken up into multiple different versions of the story themselves, with Wright noting the two versions in contention today, that of the “liberal atheist” and the “conservative fundamentalist” have one striking thing in common, which is that they have little to do with the man represented by the current scriptural/historical record.
Another example of this use of myth could be taken from my last post, where the prophet, John the Baptist, had a particular story or set of expectations in his head for who and what the Messiah was supposed to be. This was different than what Jesus himself was and expected himself to be.
Both of these examples illustrate the importance of very clear myths which can then help us define our reality. They are the underpinnings of who we are, the maps by which we guide our lives. Stephen Covey called them paradigms.
Wright points out that one such myth that underpins most of life in the 20th/21st century is the need for progress in all things. Everything can be improved upon and be made faster, better, and more efficient. What this progress entails is constantly changing, but the constant idea of progress is pervasive.
In the 1960s the church began an effort to correlate its own story into one clear and coherent myth. It published new manuals, and consolidated various texts into a central corpus which not only connected with the stories of Joseph Smith and Jesus Christ, but also tapped into some of the progressive themes of the 50s and 60s such as globalization and volunteership, and acting as a counter-cultural foil to others, such as the hippy movement.
At any rate, this was very successful for the church, helping it achieve its highest compound annual growth rate in terms of members for any decade since the life of Joseph Smith. (5.6% per year from 1960 to 1970). This was pretty much sustained throughout the 70s and 80s. In the 90s, when I was baptized, this growth rate began to decline, and now, in the last completed decade, growth is down to where it was in the 1930s.
My own story for Mormonism is greatly shaped by the myths which I encountered as an early member. My Wife’s grandmother being “The Meanest Woman in the Mormon Church” (long story short, she cancelled primary from the pulpit one week because the Bishop wouldn’t call her any teachers. He called her teachers the next week), her grandpa being the doctor who had taught the Presbyterian church from “Jesus the Christ” for months before joining, her father’s large stack of Nibley books, and her own devotion to serving a mission all helped me define what it meant to be a good Mormon. This was added upon by branch presidents, mission presidents, members, and the online community.
I am sometimes surprised to discover how far my beliefs and understanding are from some other members. Take the recent Randy Bott scenario (poor guy) as an example, or when a friend wrote that God was a republican, or etc etc.
In all this I am wondering if it is time to take another look at the story of Mormonism and whether it could do with a full scale modern correlation. Steps have been taken towards this, with Mormon.org being a new fresh face for the church and Preach My Gospel being a partial step in this direction. But these items have been mainly geared toward messaging what the story is to non-members. What I am talking about is members. Are the myths of the church creating the character, value, and beliefs we believe God would want us to have? What values and beliefs do we believe should be primary for our members? Are they central in our messaging? Do we have good answers for the concerns perpetually facing the church and it’s members?
One modern Mormon myth is that somehow the idea of having a unified correlated front is somehow a bad thing. As for me, I am wondering if we don’t need more of it.