The Power of Demythologization

Todd Van Beck's picture

When I was a student in seminary – yes folks I went to seminary and actually graduated, the buzz word in the academic world of theology was this big impressive word – demythologization.  The meaning of demythologization is:  to rid of mythological elements in order to discover the underlying meaning.

Here is an example.  In seminary we had courses where the professor’s assignment in the class was to demythologize biblical legends – in other words take the stories in the Bible and rationally discover the underlying meaning – sounded good to me, at first.  For instance in a Old Testament course I took the professor was firm and unmoving that the story about the Egyptians chasing the children of Israel and in the end getting swallowed up by the Red Sea, was in reality nothing rationally nothing more than the topographical fact that the Red Sea is maybe a foot deep at anyone place and while the children of Israel could easily navigate the shallow waters on foot the Egyptian’s heavy and cumbersome chariots got stuck in the mud, and that my friend’s is a clear example of demythologization. It left me cold, but inquisitive. 

As you might well imagine a few students were angry as hell and some stomped out of the classroom.  This behavior however did not deter the professor and his assignment to knock down our religious “myths.”  I personally did not take him too seriously in fact I did not take much of the seminary experience too seriously – just to protect my own mental health.  You might well ask, “Why the hell did you even go?” Good question, and a quarter of a century after the experience I am still asking myself the same question – but that is fodder for another time.

Here is another example of demythologization.  When I was a child in every classroom in my school, from kindergarten to high school, in every classroom there were impressive portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.  Nobody had to say a word.  Not one word, because the message was clear – these two men were terribly important, they were heroes.  I knew they were heroes even before I knew what a hero was such was the power and influence of the myth.

In the process of demythologization however heroes are made into antiheroes, for today we know that George Washington was human, made mistakes, owned human beings, and just was probably not as great as we thought he was.  Lord knows Lincoln has been demythologized, for people are still arguing and debating his life and legacy 140+ years after his untimely and unexpected death.  This stuff still leaves me cold, and not so inquisitive.

Make no mistake, demythologizing is in itself powerful, and make no mistake about it, demythologization has consequences and consequences for our profession.

What I found interesting in listening to theological professors taking apart biblical legends is that they did not replace our time honored thinking with any type of new replacements.  It left me cold.  It was like tearing a fence down before you understood why the fence was put up in the first place.  I much preferred the stories where the myths were alive with metaphor and meaning, that left me feeling warm inside, whether the myth was based in rational, logical fact or not.  Just made me feel good.

Certainly it appears to me that our culture yearns and continues to search for heroes.  However in these contemporary times heroes seem to be illusive prey, they seem to be well hidden, and I guess for good reason, because today if a person is deemed a hero I have observed that thousands of cynics, media pundits, editors, columnists, commentators, literally scramble to outdo each other in tearing down the hero myth to such an extent that the “hero” is reduced to being just like the rest of us.  However being just like the rest of us is in mythology, in the world of hidden silent truths is simply not true.  Also what is not true is that just because some talking head on CNN bashes and tears to pieces a “hero” does not mean that heroes and/or beliefs in stories/ legends and myths do not exist, in fact I believe they have a urgent need to flourish in this cynical, sterile, skeptical culture we live in.

I am not referring to politicians, or business executives, or bankers, or health insurance officials, who clearly have been demythologized. Here is what I am referring to.

The other night I was watching the political commentator Bill Maher on television.  As with any television person I am not enamored.  I liked and miss Walter Cronkite, but I also liked and miss Lawrence Welk, so there you have it, I am a nerd.

This night Bill Maher was on a diatribe against, and bashing into the earth of all people, now get this, SULLY SULLENBERGER.  No kidding, Mr. Maher was off like a shot tearing Mr. Sullenberger to shreds.  No stone was left unturned.  I was so stunned that I left the television running.

Mr. Maher took the myth of Mr. Sullenberger being a true American hero and said publically that he had had enough of listening and watching the honors which this pilot was receiving.  Now I am well aware that Mr. Maher has the right to voice his opinions, and I suspect he makes a decent living doing so, but I thought of something that another professor mine told me years ago.


Let’s take Mr. Sullenberger for a moment.  Is it a little bit impressive that somebody could land a great big airplane safely in the middle of the Hudson River?  I mean folks he missed the George Washington Bridge, and the Lincoln Tunnel, and the Holland Tunnel and a whole lot of boats, and a side note HE MISSED MANHATTAN, NEW YORK.  Not one person was killed, not one.  So yes in the world of demythologization, my former theological professor would have claimed that probably any pilot (except for the crack pilots on Northwest who missed the airport by 150 miles) could have easily landed that plane. Yeh, sure.  Personally I think not, and while the hoopla around Mr. Sullenberger might have annoyed Mr. Maher, there is truth in the myth that Sully was and is a hero.  Not the entire truth, for he is a human being, but there is truth floating around in this legend, in this story about one pilot.

So what does all this have to do with funerals?  I believe from my travels and experiences that many people are demythologizing the dead and the funeral ritual.  They are demythologizing the rituals of the funeral ceremony.  They are demythologizing saying goodbye, and they are getting big time encouragement from the prototype “Bill Mahers” who today have a presence in our profession and who are talking about why people ought to demythologize death activities.

For centuries upon centuries, for over several millennia, human beings found the best way to have personalized death rituals were to incorporate the dead human body as best they could into these once in a lifetime activities.  I have often pondered how much more personal can any death ritual be than when a parent is in close in proximity to their dead child – where they can look, see, touch, caress the corpse?  Certainly this type of personalization is much more dramatic and much more tasking than possibly the dove release, but in heavy duty psychology the mantra and myth has been and still is that the toughest life experiences usually result in the greatest longtime growth in the neverending process of maturation.

However today demythologization has clearly taken place and gotten a strong foothold on the “myth” of the value of the corpse being essentially necessary.  In the process of demythologization the corpse has now been dubbed by the demythologizers as a “toxic pickle.”  People, many people, innocently respond to this demythologization of the dead because it seems easier, more environmentally friendly, more cool, more green.  However if my old professor is correct, THERE IS TRUTH IN MYTH.  So does a corpse possess truth?

I would like to suggest that the demythologizing of the dead, when some inherent truths about life exist in a dead person, is a slippery slope to travel.  Certainly the idea that a corpse contains truthful lessons about life is something that has to be looked for and discovered, but without time spent with a dead person in close proximity I would like to suggest that these truths about living life are missed or worse yet the significance of these truths about life for my own life are missed.  The significance of the event of someone dying is an integral part of the truth in the myth about the value of viewing the dead.

Somewhere in the myth that dealing with the dead is important, truths abound.  The first truth is that when I look at the shell of a dead person I am looking straight at previews of coming attractions for me, no getting around that truth – and today most certainly that truth in the myth can and appears to be a tough pill for many to swallow.  Second, looking at the shell of a dead person is the truth if allowed to sink in is the extremely valuable life lesson which is this:  I had better get off my brains and start living life – the myth possesses the truth concerning the urgency to live life.  Third, looking at a dead person possess the truth about the reverential and gentler side of life.  It is most always a time of reflection and discernment, both good and not so good thoughts, and this is a great truth for all of us, particularly in these dog eat dog times.  Fourth, looking at and participating in the myth of looking at dead people replaces the void created by demythologizing the dead into a rational, sterile, logical “toxic pickle” with something of deeper meaning and substance and which has been valid to the betterment of the human experience since time immemorial.

To demythologize simply for the sake of changing things, simply for the sake of change, has been proven time and again in history of humanity of going from nothing to nothing.  I am all for change, and try my best to embrace it, understand it, and change with the times.  However as a person who has been exposed to the down side of the process of demythologizing life into sterility, rationalizations, logic, and anti-heroism, and anti-legends I need to stop myself and say that myths surrounding life experience such as physical death hold deep seeded truths and it is up to me to discover them, and hold on to them, and to realize that life needs ongoing passion, beliefs, sentiments and this is most often discovered in the hidden truths which are found in all myth across the globe.

The ancient myth that having a dead body visible and present at death rituals is from this vantage point not only an essential but also possesses truths about life’s deep meanings.  I believe the myth about the value of viewing a dead human body has underlying value but it must be given a breath of life to be effective and reclaim its ancient position in the betterment of the human experience.

I know this position is not and will not be popular, but I thought it worth putting pen to paper.  Also I want to go on record that I believe firmly in the myth that Capt. Chesley Sullenberger is a true American hero.  It makes me feel good to hold that private truth close to my heart, and I hope that when my plane is starting to descend into the murky waters of the Hudson River that the hero myth of Mr. Sullenberger is sitting in the cockpit.  The other reason I like to hold onto the hero myth concerning flying of course is much more practical – I don’t know how to drive a great big airplane, and I suspect neither does Bill Maher. 

Anyway that is one old undertaker’s opinion.  TVB