In the 1988 mini-series “Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth,” one of the ideas Campbell explores is that fictional media (TV, radio, movies, etc) have taken the place of traditional mythology (religious texts/rituals/verbal histories) in the American culture. He further posits that this new mythology is insufficient to support the American psyche in the same way as ancient religions. Both of these notions are fraught with interesting theoretical possibilities that are well worth exploring further. Let’s start with the first idea: are the media, to some extent, taking the place of religion/mythology in American culture?
All people, religious or atheistic, have some belief system they use to decide the worthiness of reaching for one goal or another in life and for making moral/ethical judgments (discerning right from wrong). In religions, mythological stories are passed down from one generation to the next to illustrate a particular set of beliefs through analogy/metaphor. Firstly, it should be noted that many of the fictional stories told in movies and TV shows are often based upon these old myths and legends. Sometimes they’re simply portrayals of the actual myth adapted to the screen (e.g., The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)). Presumably, however, Campbell was referring to new stories. He used Star Wars as a favorite example of a good modern myth, but I think several others would also suffice. References to, or quotes from, the stories and characters in movies have certainly become at least as common as biblical quotes/references were during the 1800s, but that doesn’t mean movies have entirely replaced the old myths. If anything, the modern media have only provided a greater variety of myths and legends from which the public can build their own narrative, based upon their own likes and dislikes. Campbell, like many, was operating under the assumption that the public was only exposed to the media currently being produced. However, this does not take into account the permanent nature of films, TV, books, etc. Like the legends of ancient cultures, media is cumulative. If I so choose, I can watch only movies and TV from the WWII era or the silent era. Or I could watch/read only media produced within the last year. Occasionally, groups of people do choose to make some particular set of stories into a weird faux religion (e.g., Trekkies), but that’s probably how some actual religions started in the distant past. The question remains: are these stories becoming the American mythology? To a limited degree, they probably are.
Consider the classical roles of churches (religious structures in general) in various societies. Going to a religious service often involves sitting in a large, decorative house of worship, watching and listening to a storyteller, listening to and/or participating in the singing of music, and socializing with members of one’s community. Now, consider going to the movies with a group of friends and/or family on… let’s say a Friday night. Such an outing usually involves sitting in a large, decorative movie house, watching and listening to a movie (recorded storyteller), listening to music (especially if it’s a musical), and socializing with friends/family (members of one’s community). I could draw a somewhat similar comparison to a weekly book club, or just about any other activity involving one form or another of storytelling. Many different forms of passing legends from one person to another have existed about as long as people have. Granted, the stories one might see from one movie to the next are often totally unrelated and, therefore, don’t appear to provide any sort of a consistent narrative upon which one could build their own personal belief system. But this is an oversimplification. In fact, Campbell, as an educated person, expressed the opinion that one could build an excellent belief system for one’s self from pieces of the numerous different religions that have existed throughout history. Is it not reasonable, then, to argue that one could do the same thing with the stories in movies, TV, radio shows, books, etc, that are still being produced today? Many religious texts already resemble compiled anthologies of short stories from various different authors. Quite frequently, that’s exactly what they are. Campbell did make the point that the (seemingly) diminishing popularity of old mythologies was largely due to the lessening of pomp and ritual involved in these religions. Indeed, he mentioned that many rituals in the more popular religions are no longer practiced because they are considered too old fashioned (in other words, they’re trying to keep the young folks interested by attempting to make their religion seem “hip” and “modern”). This, however, is likely having the reverse effect. If anything, portraying God as riffing off the “got milk” ads seems more sacrilegious than any of the atheistic campaign ads that have come out recently. But I digress. On the next point, is the vast selection of mythology produced by the media sufficient to provide a basis for constructing a personal belief system?
Because it’s possible to do so by piecing together bits of existing religions, and because many books/TV shows/movies portray the old myths, it seems perfectly reasonable to state that one could select their own system of values from any source of mythology whether it was new or old. However, it would be nearly impossible to construct a single set of beliefs to be held by an entire population – as in religions (this statement, of course, discounts Trekkies and other crazed fan groups).
So, in conclusion, modern media probably has taken over some of the territory exclusively held by religions in the past, but the different beliefs and social mores expressed in the thousands of movies and innumerable other forms of media produced each year are likely far too disparate are interpreted far too differently by individuals (much less by populations) to actually support the psyche of an entire country’s culture. Perhaps the biggest difference between the new and old mythologies is that many people still believe the old myths are (sometimes very literally) true, while it’s unlikely that more than a few highly unstable people believe any of the new myths presented in movies, TV, etc. are literally true. Consequently, instead of iron clad beliefs in specific occurrences and ideas, only general notions can be drawn from these myths. If, for example, one chose to build a warm and fuzzy world view out of movies by Capra, Jim Henson, and Walt Disney or a jerky, smug, falsely sincere world view out of movies by Bobby/Peter Farrely, Danny Leiner, and Trey Parker/Matt Stone; it’s unlikely that a great many would follow in their exact set of beliefs – even if they might share an approximately similar set of mores.