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“Myth” by Russel T. Mccutcheon

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In his article “Myth”, Russell T. McCutcheon offers many academic views on what myth is, but his own definition seems to stray far from popular thinking. McCutcheon seems to prefer the school of thought that sees myth not as extraordinary but as ordinary made extraordinary.(McCutcheon p200) He construes myth as a method of social construction used by particular individuals, groups or ruling powers to give divine legitimacy; through the use of omnipotent rhetoric, to their own desires for the function of society while simultaneously making all opposing ideologies impious. Through this, specific social values can be emphasized and adherence to these values will be made unquestionable as they proclaim themselves absolute truths upon which a right society is founded. To demonstrate his definition of myth, McCutcheon offers a unique example; the U.S. Declaration of Independence. He, discuses how the opening is worded so that it, “…effectively removes readers from the tug-and –pull of the contingent, historical world and places them in an abstract, ahistorical realm where such things as truths are obvious, enduring and self-evident.” (p202).

He then goes on to discuss how through the use of such rhetoric not only did the Declaration of Independence obscure the entire social and political history that preceded it’s creation, but it also set up it’s creators as a “…privileged class of “Constitutional framers.””, with, “eyes to see and ears to hear” conveying themselves as akin to chosen profits: Thus, legitimizing themselves and their self-serving words as ultimate truth.(p202) McCutcheon further emphasizes this point by drawing comparisons to various religious myths which were heard and conveyed to the masses only by select profits, whose words were headed and to-date stand as the unquestioned doctrine for proper living by millions of devout followers. Although McCutcheon has few good things to say about any of the other theoretical perspectives offered for interpreting myths, he appears most offended by the ‘Myth as Truth’ thinkers. McCutcheon appears to view his study of myth as an academic pursuit which should be done in a purely academic way, drawing distinct categories between ‘in’ and ‘out’.

If ‘myth as truth’ places myths as being part of the shared human experience, a way of conveying an essence of human ideal social values, common to all human societies(p198), then we are all insiders of mythology and incapable of the unbiased study of myths. He seems to view this line of thinking as erasing the categorical lines drawn between believed truth and actual truth (p198) McCutcheon states his trepidation of the impact of the ‘Myth as Truth’ perspectives on the study of religion as a whole, “If the academic study of religion is understood as something other than the practice of religion, then this sympathetic turn…has profound implications for whether it is possible to study religion in an academic sense.”(p198) McCutcheon’s view of myths as a carefully created validation for ideologies of social construct is, in-part, supported by Kessler’s analysis of myths in chapter 4 of his book “Studying Religion”.

Kessler speaks of the manifest and latent functions of myths. Although Kessler places religion as a prioritized manifest function, he holds social functions amongst the manifest functions of myth; where through their wording myths intentionally set out political and economic orders as ordained by god, but created by man. (Kessler p70-71) Both McCutcheon and Kessler would agree that the myths used for the creation of religions, such as the Enuma elish and the tale of Moses on Mount Sinai, set out specific social structure and laws for setting up and maintaining the social order. Kessler references Moses as “…responsible for the beginnings of the Hebrew nation and its laws.”, and Marduk as “…responsible for the beginnings of cosmic order, human beings, and Babylon, including its buildings, laws, rites, religion, and political structure.”(p67)

These two religious myths set out social ideologies of their people to be followed as the ‘right’ way of life, holding truth that extends beyond it’s social context into the divine truth; much in the same way that the “self-evident truths’” of the Declaration of Independence set out the ‘truths’ upon which America was founded.(McCutcheon p202) McCutcheon may find agreement with Kessler’s interpretation of the sociological functions of myths, but it is doubtful he would agree with Kessler’s prioritizing of the social aspects. Where Kessler gives value to the religious, spiritual and the messages of myth, McCutcheon idea of myth as a construction of legitimizing social ideals would be affronted. Kessler’s identifying myths as sacred stories that fulfill “…Important religious functions…”, and “…numerous psychological functions…” (Kessler p70) would draw criticism. McCutcheon would likely argue that the fulfilling of these functions is at best a latent function of myth and was not intended in their writing.

McCutcheon argues against the idea of myths as sacred, he references Barthes in his article: “…Barthes’ interest concerns the manner in which the ordinary is made to stand out, is set apart (made sacred) and made to appear extraordinary.” McCutcheon’s article actively denounces the idea that myths have any actual truth about them, pronouncing that they are held sacred because their creators have fashioned them to be held as sacred truths. McCutcheon comments, in his article on Paul Veyne’s ideas of truth as a work of imagination. (p201). McCutcheon writes, “According to this position, we do not find, discern or interpret truths and meanings. Rather, in every age and culture people actively work to selectively make some things true and meaningful and other things false and meaningless.” (p201-202) For McCutcheon the idea that myths are socially selected instead of socially constructed is simply untrue. McCutcheon’s view of sacred as being a language manufactured for giving credit to ideologies does hold ground when analyzing religion from a political stand point, but it seems that he is selectively reading myths to support his own theory.

Throughout his entire article McCutcheon has offered a very narrow analysis, pointing out (with minimal examples) where myth has offered ideas on social structure. His primary evidence in support of his argument is The Declaration of Independence, and although this U.S. document does contain myth-like rhetoric it in not something that I or I believe most people would consider to be a form of mythology. McCutcheon has outright criticized his colleagues for their analysis of the multidimensional functions of myths, but I believe McCutcheon would benefit considerably from his colleagues search for deeper meaning in myths.

Through out his article, McCutcheon has been quick to dismiss myths as bearing any semblance of truth, be it an inner and ultimate truth or simply a well told embellishment of historical truth. McCutcheon seems to be forgetting that even though myths may have been written by a select few, they have been embraced by the majority of the societies in which they were originally declared sacred. McCutcheon article gives the impression that he is discounting the intelligence of entire societies on the basis that they would be so easily deceived by linguistic trickery. I find it hard to believe that millions of people would change their values, social order and day to day lives if they did not collectively find some form of higher meaning within these stories.

Work Cited

McCutcheon, Russell T. “Myth.” Guide to the Study of Religion. Bodmin, Cornwall: MPG Books Ltd., 2000.

Kessler, Gary E. “Myth as Sacred Story” Studying Religion: An Introduction Through Cases. Third Edition. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2003.

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