Friday, June 1, 2012

Religion, Stories, and the Spoken Word

You know, I've long heard modern consumerism compared to or likened to a religion, our national religion. I never took this seriously, thought it was more of a clever turn of phrase or a nice metaphor, but clearly not actually a religion. I'm no longer quite so sure. I was reading this essay, "Only the Poets Can Save Us Now," by Richard Reese, and came across thses paragraphs:
Spoken stories, poems, and songs create trances. Stories are utterly irresistible. Television is a story machine. People cannot turn it off, no matter how incredibly stupid the programs are. Advertisements are also stories. They create evil trances that strip away your self-esteem. ...

An advertising executive once nicely summed up the purpose of his business. He said, "Our job is to make women unhappy." Advertising is an evil trance. And it works! People are entranced by the commercials, and then they buy the products. If you ever go to a mall or supermarket, pay attention to the consumers. They roam up and down the aisles in a glassy-eyed, zombie-like state. They are searching for the product that will remove the curse on them. They are religious pilgrims seeking salvation.
And when you think about it, how is this any different from "the Fall" and the endless quest for redemption? We are fallen, our souls tarnished and broken, the priests tell us, and we may find healing only in the love of God, through the death and the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Very convenient, to be told how evil and hopeless we are, then offered just the right solution. Provided we play by their rules. And really, it's the same as being told by the commercials on the TV that we are uncool, ugly, somehow deficient, and the only way to be whole human beings is to buy this product, the message all neatly tucked into a 20 second spot. It's a depraved, parasitic form of religion that follows the same pattern as the corrupt remnants of the Old Religion, itself long thin on real spirituality.

The only shift at all, really, is the one away from a spiritual basis to the story, to one of materialism. If we can understand religion to be not necessarily anything to do with some spirit world, that any idea of a spirit world is simply one perspective and one solution-- but instead see that religion is more fundamentally about making us feel whole, to tie us back together (religion comes from the Latin, literally "re-tie"), I think we get a better understanding. I'd say it's more a psychological thing in reality, if I didn't know that psychology is also just a perspective. A way of talking, a way of seeing.

But the essay's author also talks about the power of the spoken word. His whole thesis is, "Our world is sick and crazy, because it's under the spell of bad stories. We suffer from black magic, a voodoo curse." His point is that the stories we tell are whack, and we need better ones. He gives some great examples along the way, but I like this part, where he says, "Writing was invented to allow the accurate transmission of messages. ... Writing conveys information, but it has little power to enchant or entrance-- compared to the sung or spoken word." And as I think about it, I realize that this is true.

When I hear a poem spoken aloud, I find it easy to lose track of the meanings of the words, and simply flow with the rhythms and sounds. It becomes then like music, a song sung in a foreign language, which can still take you places you never thought to go. Sure, the meaning is an added layer, and not unimportant, and I sometimes struggle to understand on that level, those times when my mind is slipping away from meanings and into pure sound. And, reading a book can defintely blow your mind, but it usually stays on an intellectual level, it's dry, not alive.

There is a great energy associated with the spoken word that is absent in writing. Writing depends on the brilliant argument, but speaking is to the heart as well as the mind. They say the Devil can quote scripture, and can use it towards his own perverse aims. Note that he isn't writing his own scripture. It's the quoting, the speaking, that matters.

I am reminded again of that book, Orality and Literacy, which I spoke of here once. That bit about sound and hearing being that sense that is most closely allied with a sense of power, life, and being; the part about the reverence held for words among primitive cultures. We all know the start of the Gospel of John, "In the beginning was the Word..." And here, quoted from the same essay, is this quote from Jakob Grimm, of fairy tale renown. "A yet stronger power than that of herb or stone lies in the spoken word, and all nations use it for both blessing and cursing. But these, to be effective, must be choice, well knit, rhythmic words, must have lilt and tune; hence all that is strong in the speech wielded by priest, physician, and magician, is allied to the forms of poetry."

I don't know how far to take that. Do I believe in the chanted spell? Hard to say, hard in this world to rule anything out, especially not in a knee-jerk fashion. Surely the great speakers and persuaders, those with the magnetic charisma, have been able to talk people into some pretty crazy things. Hitler is the easy example, but think of the cultists who thought the spaceship of salvation was coming in the comet, and they all drank the Kool-aid. Think of all the politicians and advertisers, singers and poets, teachers and pundits. I don't know if there are spells that can unlock doors or change the weather, but to have effects like that on someone's consciousness, that's pretty powerful, and pretty real.

I'm pretty well in agreement that we need new stories, new songs, a new teaching. But, it's not going to work if we occasionally talk to our kids about recycling, the need to reduce our carbon footprint, while not just some of the time but all of the time we are humming the song of Growth and of Progress. We can't expect to have any change if we keep taking the kids to church, to hear how humans above all other living things are special and that the world was made for us, then park them in front of the TV to hear a similar message of egotism and narcissism. They may learn otherwise in science class, but the vast weight of the cultural stories we have now are against that. And as true as this is for the kids, the coming generation, it is true for us adults as well. What stories do we tell ourselves?


  1. I have a friend who worked in an real NYC "Mad Men" agency in the '70s who said campaigns were all influenced by one common element...fear.

    Also, I'm just now listening to some lectures on classical mythology...particulary concerning Minoa. There are some intriguing figurines but without readable texts, stories, we really don't know if they were "goddesses" or just Barbie Dolls. Linear A is completely uncracked, and Linear B is just fragments of inventories and shopping lists. The culture is completely opaque. (Unless you do a Joseph Campbell and make wild assumptions that this is just like that,that everything is equivalent. But that's not evidence, it's assumption.)

  2. "...cultists who thought the spaceship of salvation was coming in the comet, and they all drank the Kool-aid."

    I think you are confusing Jim Jones and Heaven's Gate. Jim Jones's people drank the kool-aid (actually not kool-aid but another brand)...Heaven's Gate put their poison in applesauce. Although I understand "drink the kool-aid" has become an catch-all phrase for "swallowing the nonsense."

  3. This is a really interesting post...

    Don't forget,
    "The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao...."

  4. Yeah, well I kinda knew I was goofing that up, but I know the Heaven's Gaters did poison themselves, so I was close.

    And what you say about the Tao is true, but the point is that, we're looking for a representation of reality that isn't totally fucked. The one we have now is suicidal, as the one the Mayans and Easter Islanders respectively had was for them. We're looking not for a verbal truth, but a new myth, which will be at best an approximation. But that doesn't mean we can live without one.

  5. Well said my friend. We are in dire need of a new story or mythology. How to go about not only creating, but substituting it for the current suicidal one is the 64 trillion dollar question, but it's good to know that more and more of us are realizing there's a problem and searching for options.