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Mytheme and Parable

Posted on: January 27, 2013

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Reading: Gospel of Thomas 97 (c) David Galston


Can’t Jesus just be a normal person, sometimes?

Being normal means being a participant in a cultural mytheme (or meme). The Greek root here is mimos and it means imitation. Automobiles are an example of a modern cultural mytheme. We assume we need them, and with them comes a structure we all participate in that includes traffic, red lights, traffic circles, gas stations, GPS’s or lack thereof, long journeys, cottages, getting kids to school, meeting at a coffee shop somewhere, etc. A mytheme is a cluster of cultural experiences around an assumed truth.

For Jesus to be “normal” in his time he would have participated in cultural mythemes, which he no doubt did: a) he went to the temple, b) he talked about sowing or day labour and was likely a day-labourer himself, c) he knew about class divisions, d) and he probably understood that Caesar was a god. He would have done a thousand normal things a thousand times over.

The places where the normal plays out.

Literature is one of the places where the normal plays out. Some stories, even very interesting and engrossing ones, play out a cultural mytheme. Poverty or prejudice, which emerge as the underside of the mythemes of success and wealth, can centre a story and make it worthwhile reading. But they still depend on the mytheme to work.

Parables as Counter-Mythemes

The parables of Jesus are also literature, but they are of a second kind. They are counter-mytheme literature where the normal mytheme is deliberately exposed as false. The mytheme is exposed in parable like the king who does not wear any clothes. 

Sometimes what Jesus says is a mytheme; sometimes what Jesus says is just a saying of common sense. The saying, "no one lights a lamp to hide it" is an example. But in many parables Jesus offers a counteri-mytheme. 

The empty jar parable is exactly this. A woman fills a jar with meal and carries it home on her head. She doesn’t notice the jar is broken and all the meal is draining out as she walks. When she gets home, the jar is empty. It seems like an atheist’s parable: nothing happens. There is no miracle. Life is real, not magical. 

Perhaps the best way to describe this parable is as a counter-mytheme parable. What is interesting is that in being so it is counter-religion. It builds up the expectation that something fulfilling will happen, and then it delivers this expectation to emptiness. Religion as magic is deflated. Suddenly we have to ask, what is the point?

Maybe the point is to face life honestly as a real human being who does have to accept disappointment as part of the course. Maybe the point is reality.

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