by Luke Baumgarten & r & & r & A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong & r & & r & Karen Armstrong is best known for two deep and systematic books. A History of God explains the life spans of the three great monotheistic religions. The War for God tries to account for why adherents of those religions are always trying to kill each other.
Her new book takes an opposite path, dealing with 22,000 years of human history in just 150 pages. That's fine, because specificity isn't what she's going for. Armstrong tries valiantly to make a case for the importance of myth by showing how similar all world myths are, how they conform to strict archetypes and how they tend to shift dramatically with dramatic changes in culture (moving from hunting to farming, for example). We use them universally, she says, and in similar ways, therefore we must need them. Interesting, but the point seems moot.
If people have tended to tell the same kinds of stories over and over, given a particular point in our evolution (as hunter/gatherers, farmers, city-dwellers, colonizers, etc.), isn't it just as likely to say that we cannot escape them? Armstrong spends the whole book suggesting that myth grows up and around humanity's changing circumstances, reacting to our changing sense of identity, only to implore us not to forsake myth. "Our modern alienation from myth is unprecedented," she says. If it's always been with us, how could we forsake it? If it's stuck with us this long, why would we think we could kill our dependence on myth now, when all previous efforts to kill our gods have failed?"
The big disconnect in Armstrong's analysis, then, is that she doesn't think we've had a big shift since the 1600s. Not the Industrial Revolution, not the Information Age, nothing has forced a shift since the move toward colonialism. Absent a huge shift like that, she's not inclined to go looking for any new myths. It seems, though, that a shift has occurred, whether it coincided with the Industrial Revolution, with the Information Age, or somewhere else. It's obvious that the colonial myths are no longer with us -- Armstrong's right about that -- but she fails to see the new myths that have grown up around and in the wake of our new factitious, globalized, hypertasked culture. They exist less in our synagogues and churches than in the secular forces we ascribe to the market economy, in the belief that technology will make us immortal, and in the way our president acts as if he has a conduit to God. No, Ms. Armstrong, the myths haven't gone away. They're just different.