Myth is a very potent form of discourse. Insofar as myths provide insights into the ways things are and/or the way things ought to be, they are helpful. Insofar as myths serve to justify the exercise of power against those with less power or no power at all, they are harmful.
If that is the case, an even-handed definition of myth is worth formulating. In this post, I present excerpts from a book by Chicago scholar Bruce Lincoln entitled Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999). The excerpts describe myth in neutral terms. Page numbers are given in brackets.
“Isn't scholarship just another instance of ideology in narrative form? Don't scholars tell stories to recalibrate a pecking order, putting themselves, their favorite theories, and their favorite people on top?” [quoting an imaginary student; p.207]
Ideology is a part of scholarship but not the whole. [p. 208]
Scholarly texts result from a dialectic encounter between an interested inquirer, a body of evidence, and a community of other competent and interested researchers, past, present, and future. [p. 208]
If mythology is ideology in narrative form, then scholarship is myth with footnotes. [p. 209]
Lincoln does not draw the comparison, but myth as deployed in religious traditions of Judaism and Christianity is myth with footnotes; the myths of Jewish and Christian scripture are continually rethought in light of new evidence or old evidence revisited; primary and secondary sources are distinguished; the results are subject to peer review in the community.
As David W. Frauenfelder puts it in a sparkling review, Lincoln’s understanding of scholarship as “myth with footnotes”
is scholarship, now, as theology, the taxonomic narratives of a kind of catholic church: that is, of a whole body of believers who come to their ideological conclusions by dialogue and mutual submission.
On the epistemological plane, the difference between a community of scientific faith and a community of religious faith is not as great as many make it out to be.
Lincoln, Bruce. Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.