By Mark Rodgers
Walking through Comic-Con in San Diego last month was like walking through the streets in Athens with the Apostle Paul. Myth stories were told in every book, displayed on every table, discussed in every panel and worn almost on every person.
Comi-Con, for those of you who are unfamiliar, is a gathering of comic book and pop culture enthusiasts that is organized regionally throughout the country. The mother ship lands annually in San Diego, and to attend this year it is estimated that over a million people tried to purchase one of the 130,000 tickets needed. In 2008, Comic-Con sold out for the first time ever. Last year, it sold out in 75 minutes, and for this year in just 40 minutes.
Comic-Con is known by most people for the costumes, called cosplay, which make for great photos on the web and in the news. It is interesting to see Captain Americas, Hagrids, zombies and Kylo Rens intermingling at the convention hall Starbucks. But Comic-Con is really about the myth stories that attract their followers. It is interesting that there weren’t any Moseses, Davids or Jesuses that we saw. For the record, I dressed up as Mr. Fred Rogers (my tee-shirt read “It’s All Good in the Hood”) and my wife as a very understated Wonder Woman.
You don’t have to be a card carrying geek to be familiar with the modern myths that dominate our culture. Greek myths are being retold through Thor. Supernatural myths through Twilight and The Walking Dead. Science fiction was in full force with the relaunch of Star Wars and the 50th anniversary ofStar Trek. The new Harry Potter book release reminded us of the fantasy myth. Of course the superhero genre is the modern myth, born in 1938 when Kal-El was sent to earth, Moses-like, to be found and raised by an unsuspecting family. There were also myth universes less familiar to many of us, such as Steampunk and the many franchises that come from Asia, such as Avatar.
Why the attraction to myth? C. S. Lewis wrote that “reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.” Although I agree with Lewis (how dare I not!) I do think Joseph Campbell has a point when he said: “people say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”
Lewis agrees that myth can revitalize the mundane: “The value of the myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by ‘the veil of familiarity.’ The child enjoys his cold meat, otherwise dull to him, by pretending it is buffalo, just killed with his own bow and arrow. And the child is wise. The real meat comes back to him more savory for having been dipped in a story…by putting bread, gold, horse, apple, or the very roads into a myth, we do not retreat from reality: we rediscover it.”
And for Christians, myths serve another purpose. Tolkien told Lewis that myths foreshadow or point to the One True Myth, and this bold claim proved to be a critical juncture in Lewis’ faith journey. In fact, his autobiography Surprised By Joy points to the power imagination (joy) had to awaken his hard soil soul.
These are reasons why Lewis and his friends, called The Inklings, developed modern myth stories in different genres. Tolkien of course virtually invented modern fantasy, Lewis himself dabbled in science fiction, Charles Williams in the supernatural (horror), and Owen Barfield in experimental poetry (think 1960’s myth).
And their impact was on full display at Comic-Con. Perhaps the most influential myth writer of our day is Neil Gaiman, whose novel American Gods was literally the centerpiece of the grand hall at Comic-Con to promote the Starz series based on it. Gaiman wrote: “I think, perhaps, the genius of Lewis was that he made a world that was more real to me than the one I lived in; and if authors got to write the tales of Narnia, then I wanted to be an author … Chesterton and Tolkien and Lewis were, as I’ve said, not the only writers I read between the ages of six and thirteen, but they were the authors I read over and over again; each of them played a part in building me. Without them, I cannot imagine that I would have become a writer, and certainly not a writer of fantastic fiction. I would not have understood that the best way to show people true things is from a direction that they had not imagined the truth coming, nor that the majesty and the magic of belief and dreams could be a vital part of life and of writing.”
As a Christian, what struck me at Comic-Con was not the absence of faith, but the poverty of myths written by with the Christians that will inspire the next Neil Gaiman; to till the soil of the soul, make the old new and inspire millions. I agree with Lewis’ conclusion: “The world does not need more Christian literature. What it needs is more Christians writing good literature.”