The Myths Which Define Us

I heard this years ago but can’t recall from whom I heard it. If anyone knows let me know so I can make proper attribution. Thanks.

What are the three most baleful influences on the modern western world? Many would say Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. Others might say Hitler, Mao, and Stalin. There may even be other contenders. But I nominate Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.


Jefferson taught us that with just a little more self-government we can work everything out for ourselves.

Franklin thought a little more self-reliance and common sense would solve most of our problems.

And Emerson believed that if we just turned inward to that sublime and divine center within us, all things would fall into place.

We have believed them. We’ve bought into the undergirding myth of the modern world: we can do it ourselves. We can govern ourselves, figure out our own problems, or tap into an inner resource that will resource our ordering of our lives.

(So-called) postmodernity has debunked these myths but put none in their place. Indeed, there are supposedly no such “big” ideas to guide us anymore. They seem not to have noticed that this announcement itself is a “big” idea. We are supposed now to rely on “little” stories, our own narratives and experiences, to craft a life around.

In the last analysis, though, however chastened, these “little” stories are usually miniature replicas of the “big” stories they reject. Jefferson, Franklin, and Emerson are still ever-present in our world, orchestrating our lives in small letters and a minor key (so to speak).

This “pelagian” (to use a theological word) strain of western self-consciousness, this confidence, or hope, that we can find within ourselves the wherewithal to properly order our inner and outer worlds, seems to have found a permanent home with us. This, of course, forms the largest and most subtle of challenges for the church to grapple with. It is made all the more difficult (perhaps impossible) since the church itself has largely swallowed these myths too! But we must keep trying!


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