Currently I’m reading Davita’s Harp by Chaim Potok. The stories that Ilana Davita, the narrator, is told as a child have a mythic quality that shapes her. Listening to her tell me these stories I’ve been thinking about the ones that have shaped me.
Even though I loved the fairytales I was introduced to through shows on the Disney channel and the books my mom read me, those weren’t the myths that shaped me. The mythic characters from my childhood who made the greatest impression were Bible characters and figures from church history: primarily God, Jesus and Luther.
From the beginning of my memory, I heard stories about God and Jesus. I was told about them through the mouths of my parents, Sunday school teachers, pastors and grandparents. They were acted out on feltboards, on the pages of childen’s Bible storybooks and on the stage of our church. The God in the Old Testament was my favorite character. Like me, he was a creator and storyteller though much more powerful: he made the whole world, plants, animals and people included. Plus, he could control animals and the weather. He had the power to send angels to save people and bring judgment on them. He was able to turn regular people into heroes and win impossible battles. Also, he sent people on adventures. Even though he was a disembodied character in the Bible stories, he was more present in them to me than some of the actual characters.
Jesus wasn’t as interesting but I liked him too. Like God, he had the power to perform miracles (even if not as marvelous) plus he had saving power. Though I liked the Christmas story, some of the parables and the story about his miracles, my favorite stories were the ones surrounding Easter. The church we went to when I was in elementary school put on a big Easter production each year that probably contributed to this, especially since I got to be in it one time.
I remember happily singing “Hosanna” and waving a palm branch as the actor playing Jesus road into the sanctuary. I felt like I was filled with the same rage as Jesus when he knock over tables in the Temple yelling. Tears streamed down my cheeks when he was hanging on a cross and screamed “It is finished!” But the last song “He is Risen” and the Resurrection scene when the large, painted stone was rolled away from the tomb made me even happier than the Hosanna scene. Even though I didn’t really understand why it emotionally affected me so much, I loved it.
Through these stories God and Jesus became very real to me. They became my invisible friends and co-conspirators. Sometimes, I talked to them more than I talked to anyone else.
Luther entered my life later in elementary school. Unlike God and Jesus, he wasn’t a magical figure. Since he was human and not divine he had a lesser position though no less valuable. I learned about him during the week I spent each summer with my dad’s parents.
Standing in my grandparents’ dark, 1970s kitchen I would dry dishes my grandpa handed me while he told me stories about Luther, along with other church history (Though I was less interested and less attentive for the other stories). I loved hearing about the epiphany he had climbing the stairs of a cathedral in Rome on his knees and how reading the New Testament transformed him. I was excited by his bold decision to nail his 95 theses to a church door in Wittenburg and proud of his fight against the practice of indulgences: “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs”.
Luther was a mythical giant in my mind justly fighting corruption and deeply in love with God. He was my first hero. He inspired my own intellectual battles with my grandpa during my summers of middle school when I would use Bible verses to challenge the hypocrisy I perceived in his fundamentalist church and some of their views I thought were unbiblical.
Until tonight I hadn’t thought very much about just how dominate these characters and their stories were for me as a child. Of course they have influenced me religiously, but they have and continue to shape me in other ways as well. My most basic orientation to life is characterized by a deep sense of possibility, as if a miracle could happen at any moment, and an empowered fatalism (like the Muslim character in “Four Feathers” who chooses to help and befriend a Christian because God has put him in his way). Politically and intellectually I’m drawn to messianism in many forms(more on that later). Whether intending to be or not, I am polemical. Naturally I challenge systems, theories, institutions and people when I believe they are wrong, corrupt, hypocritical, unjust or misguided. These are just the dominate ways I can think of that these mythical stories have influenced me.
What mythical characters have shaped you?