The American Monomyth — a cultural emergency

In 1977, two books were published with very similar themes and analyses of American popular culture: The American Monomyth by Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence and Your God is Alive and Well and Appearing in Popular Culture by John Wiley Nelson.

I read both books in college in 1982 or ’83, at the prompting of Dr. William A. Smalley and my dad, Dr. Donald N. Larson, and their insights have been confirmed over and over again by the Hollywood movies, pulp fiction, and video games produced over the last three decades — not to mention current events.

The books have informed nearly everything I’ve observed in American culture and politics in the years since, yet I’ve never heard the books or the idea of the “monomyth” mentioned by a single pundit, commentator or so-called expert on American society.

“Monomyth” refers to the central story that American culture tells itself about itself. It is summed up by the authors (courtesy of their Wikipedia page) as follows: “A community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil; normal institutions fail to contend with this threat; a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task; aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisiacal condition; the superhero then recedes into obscurity.”

My only complaint about that summary is that it downplays the central element (which may be emphasized more strongly in Nelson’s book). That central element is violence. There is simply no other way, according to our cultural stories, of dealing with the “evil” that besets us.

This betrays a serious lack of imagination in our culture (and ourselves as individuals) about not only the efficacy of violence but also the nature of evil.

The fact is that evil is not what we think it is, and neither is violence. The vast majority of those who commit “evil” deeds are not criminal masterminds, psychopaths, or sociopaths, but sad and desperate losers. Yet we are so blinded by the monomyth that we see “demons” (see Wilson, Darren) where there are none, and we believe that violence is the only way to deal with such supernatural evil and otherness.

In fact, as many better myths than ours have shown for millennia, violence begets violence and causes more problems than it solves, whether it is committed by criminals, vigilantes, or the State.

The continuing hold of the Monomyth is the only explanation for the disproportionate levels of gun violence in our society. It is not simply the availability of guns; it is the availability of guns combined with the core belief that evil can only be dealt with through violence. And when we are quick to paint the “other” as evil and blame him (almost always him) for our personal problems, we are quick to resort to violence because our myths have taught us it is the only alternative.

The theory of the monomyth helps to explain everything from the killing of Michael Brown to school shootings to the invasion of Iraq, yet it is almost never noticed nor discussed. That just shows how entrenched this mythology is. We assume it is the natural order of the universe, not a ridiculous story imposed on us by bad Hollywood screenwriters and producers.

The monomyth is fed to us beginning in early childhood and reinforced throughout our lives by countless TV shows, action movies, comic books, crime novels, and interpretations of current events by the news media. Even our preachers, who should have a more nuanced understanding of evil and violence based on a more time-tested mythology, reinforce the monomyth with bad interpretations of the Bible, history, science, and current events.

We won’t get out of this box — the brutal police behavior, the simmering racism, the overcrowded prisons, the overseas misadventures, the neighbor-on-neighbor mistrust, the partisan gridlock, the Internet rudeness — until we face the fact that our culture is bankrupt, not because of a preponderance of evil, but because of a paucity of imagination.

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