Religious

Religious Motif in Modern Literature 

Religious Myth in Literature and Life

Big Event Ceremonies 

We have already explored how religion has been a part of western culture since ancient times. But let’s pose the question of how religion fits into our lives today even if you’re not religious. Even mildly religious people participate in ceremonies or rituals that are rooted in religion. Think of marriage ceremonies, and baptisms, graduation ceremonies, retirement parties etc. If any of you are married then you know that the ceremony and the reception don’t make you married, the signing of the marriage certificate at the courthouse makes you legally married. If you’ve baptized a child you know that a certificate from the church that says “God-parents” on it won’t give legal custody to them in the awful event of parental passing. If you’ve been to a Mexican quinceanera, you know that having a big party at age 15 doesn’t magically transform that girl into a woman. These are all symbolic ceremonies deeply rooted in cultural religions; VERY EXPENSIVE ceremonies symbolic of different events in our lives. But if we know that these wildly expensive rituals and ceremonies hold no legal value, then why do we do it? Even non-religious people participate in these various ceremonies and rituals. Why do we do it? Why not save the money and stress of planning?

Not-So BIg Events

What about not so major milestones in our lives? We can’t have a celebratory ceremony for every job promotion or good hair day. We can’t have a “funeral” for every break-up or, heaven forbid, every failed test. Typically we use religious myth to help us cope with these not-so-serious, although devastating, loses in life. A common myth used to help cope is the story of JOB (pronounced JOBE). You may be familiar, this myth originates in Judaism, but Christians tell this story too. If you are not familiar, essentially Satan tells Jesus that the only reason people are faithful and good is so they can be rewarded by Jesus with a good life. So to prove Satan wrong Jesus takes away everything that is good in his most faithful follower Job. Job loses his children, his wife and suffers disease, and yet he remains faithful to Jesus until the end. After proving his point, Jesus eventually rewards Job again. But this story in essence addresses the question “why do bad things happen to good people,” or “why me,” which we often ask when going through struggles. We want to believe that there is some sort of Divine justice where people who endure suffering now will be rewarded later. And that bad people who get away with it today will be punished later. This is what religious myth does for us. It gives us hope in the face of all the suffering that we are enduring now. We hope that there is always light at the end of the tunnel. We hope that there is Divine justice. 

The Theme of Hope

Religious myth is meant to inspire, it’s meant to help us cope, to provide comfort when there is little else to comfort us. We are supposed to take these myths, these philosophical thoughts, and apply them to our lives. The myth is a metaphor for a universal truth, something we believe in, and when we can take these metaphors and apply them to our circumstances we may feel understood as a person, perhaps less alone.

The Christ Myth

Let’s consider the Christ myth as it is one of the most widely known myth stories as it is the very foundation of Christianity. In a very watered down version: we probably all know that Christ was born through Divine conception and birth, he gave his message that he was the son of God and prophet of Christianity, he was condemned to death by crucifixion, and he resurrected three days later which we call Easter. But why is the Christ myth unique from the Job myth we looked at earlier? Why is this one more widely known? Why do we place waaay more importance on the Christ myth? Well it’s because Christ was a real human who really walked the earth. The fact that we have a real person as the main character of the story makes the myth partly and technically historical. Think of George Washington. We all know the myth that he chopped down the cherry tree when he was little even though he wasn’t supposed to, and when he was confronted by his father about it he said “I cannot tell a lie.”  This story teaches the importance of honesty just like “the boy who cried wolf,” but the George Washington story gets more weight, and children and adults really believe it to be true because George was a real person and the boy who cried wolf is, well just a nameless boy in a story. Did George really chop down a cherry tree and nobly own up to it? I don’t know, I wasn’t there, but we easily accept the story because of the one historical and factual aspect that George Washington existed. It’s the same with the Christ myth.

So we use this myth in secular (non-religious) literature metaphorically too. The Christ myth, also known as the Resurrection myth, or transformation myth, is about self-discovery. At the end of the story Christ experiences a full blending of both his conscious self and his unconscious self, both body and spirit. He ascends to heaven as his true and complete Self in mind, body, spirit, and he assumes his true identity as the son of God.

Religious Myth becomes Motif in Literature 

This story helps us to self-discover. But what about non-religious people? How do they learn to self-discover? Well they do, just in different kinds of stories. The Christ myth is one of the most common stories. It’s actually a MOTIF.  In literary terms, motif means a pattern that happens over and over again in stories. Remember how if I say “Once upon a time there was a princess…” you would be able to finish that whole story for me without me saying another word, because by the age of 5 you already knew that pattern. You already know the princess gets rescued and they lived happily ever after. This is a very easy and common pattern to follow.

The Christ motif is a pattern too. It’s also known as Resurrection motif, or transformation motif, initiation motif etc. there are many names, but the literary pattern is the same. We are obsessed with this pattern because it helps us to learn more about ourselves.  It goes like this:

Hero must leave status quo

Must face obstacles

Descends to an underworld

Must die (either real or metaphorical death)

Returns as a reborn or resurrected hero with new knowledge of the Self and the world around them.

Leaves status quo: refers to the heroes “home base” as it were. The hero is in their regular life environment here, but something happens, usually conflict, that compels or forces the hero to move, leave, or take action away from their “home base.”Faces obstacles: refers to the hardships the hero faces. The road to self-discovery is difficult, and long and not all heroes make it. The hero typically faces a few difficult obstacles before tey are ready to descend into an underground world. Entering an unfamiliar underground: refers to the hero physically going down somewhere. It can present itself as several places in a story, like a basement, or a tunnel, really anything below the surface. The hero must descend into this unfamiliar world because it is here that they will be able to gain some clarity and learn about who they really are “under the surface.”

Must die literally or metaphorically: It is here that the hero will let their old self “die” and let their new self be “reborn.” They will leave their old self there in the underground like a grave. We know they are dying because there are typically many associations with death present in the story. When the character has gained new knowledge about themselves and the world around them then their old self has died and a new self can emerge. Resurrecting: refers to the hero who then emerges from that undergrounds as their new self. Something about them has changed at this point and they have new knowledge to have and share with their community.

This motif in literature is so persistent, so apparent, that it reveals something about mankind. The resurrection is a symbol of rebirth, a new beginning for a character who is transitioning to another phase in their life where having undergone obstacles they are new, wiser, in slang they are woke. And when you’re woke, that naive part of you dies and you can’t go back.

This is why we do rituals and ceremonies!

We follow this pattern all the time in our lives, so it’s no surprise that writers will talk about it. In college there’s a big graduation ceremony because you need to let your uneducated-self die so you can be reborn as an educated person with a degree. The marriage ceremony is so you can publicly let your single-self die so your couple-self can have a fresh start. The risk of not allowing yourself to metaphorically die is getting stuck and not being able to move on to the next phase of your life. I’ll give you for instance; a friend of mine recently retired but did not want a retirement party. It’s been 6 months and she still comes in the office, checks emails, and does odd jobs. Personally, I believe it’s because she didn’t go through the ritual. She didn’t have the ceremony, have the party to let the work-self “die” so that the retired-self could be born and just enjoy retirement. She got stuck in between…

Read the short story on the next page and uncover the transformation motif. 

Look for the stages of the pattern in the short story provided in the next Module

Hero must leave status quo

Must face obstacles

Descends to an underworld

Must die (either real or metaphorical death)

Returns as a reborn or resurrected hero with new knowledge of the Self and the world around them.

Your Mid-Term is based on this short story and this pattern. Make sure to give yourself plenty of time to read it and take notes and write your paper.