Book Review

6 Modern Myths

Growing up, we hear stories that are enduringly imprinted on our minds.

 

Even years later, we are able to recount in detail the vivid

scene in the court of King Solomon when he has to rule in the

case of the two prostitutes and the one baby, or we’re able to

describe the story of our Lord and the little man Zacchaeus

who waited for him in the sycamore-fig tree.

 

But Scriptural stories are not the only ones imparted. We also

hear other “timeless tales,” stories that everyone knows

through one source or another. We all know, for example, the

story of the flat earth; in the Middle Ages, people believed that

the earth was flat and those who went too close to the edge

would fall off. Other familiar tales from the past could be

added to this one, stories told so often and so widely that they

attain the status of “myth.”

 

The Purpose of a Myth

When we say “myth,” some might automatically equate this with fiction or fable. But in a wider sense, a “myth” is a grand story, sometimes true, sometimes not, that explains who we are and how we fit into the universe. A tale told and re-told becomes part of the understanding of our past and our position today.

 

In the tale of the flat earth, we’re confirmed in our view of the Middle Ages as a period of ignorance and superstition. The church was blindly opposed to scientific progress, while intelligent sailors courageously showed the conventional understanding to be wrong – a well-known story, but one that is not true. Contrary to the details of this tale, historians have long recognized that all educated people of the medieval period knew that the earth was round, and that the account of the church’s suppression of the intrepid Columbus is pure fiction. And yet this myth is still retold, for it nicely contrasts for our minds the rational modern world with the foolish bigotry that preceded it.

 

It is the place of modern myths that Philip Sampson examines in his book, 6 Modern Myths About Christianity and Western Civilization. After providing the example of the flat earth in his introduction, he looks at other tales that are less innocuous, larger stories that influence the perception of a whole culture – myths that invariably assault Christianity and misrepresent the Scriptures, while lauding humanism and reason. Sampson has selected six grand stories, the most common value-conveying tales.

 

The Pattern of a Myth

Before beginning his work of showing how several “meaning-carrying” modern myths are truly fictional, Sampson summarizes their general characteristics. The vocabulary connotations in each diverse story are remarkably similar: religion is typically associated with belief, omens, ignorance, superstition, heresy, excommunication, torture, and blood, while science is always associated with enlightenment, scholarship, intelligence, open-mindedness, and observation. Each story will also have a plot (usually the struggle of a free-thinking underdog against the ignorant church), a hero (an independent thinker), and a villain (the representative of the powerful church). These stereotyped characteristics already betray the selectivity and bias that underlie each myth.

 

In the book, six modern myths are first retold, often in the words of the philosophers and historians that perpetuated these falsehoods. Sampson then carefully debunks these ideas, telling the real, more complex stories. In addition to Galileo, he tells of Darwin and how his ideas were received, Christianity’s impact on the environment, how missionaries treated native peoples, Scripture’s view on the human body, and the church’s treatment of witches.

Let’s join Sampson as he deals with the first of the six myths, Galileo.

 

Galileo: a story of a hero of science!

The story of Galileo tells us how we fit into the modern world: “We occupy a small planet circling an average sun of one galaxy among many.” The story is probably familiar to most of us: the setting is Renaissance Italy; the plot is the warfare between science and religion; the characters are the plucky Galileo, armed only with a telescope, and the cruel Inquisition and its thumbscrews; the story’s end is that Galileo was tortured, condemned as a heretic, and left to rot in a prison cell, while science floundered.

 

The contrast is between the high ground of reason and observation and the cramped cell of religious dogma and truth. As many schoolchildren learn, “The Bible said that everything moves around the earth but Galileo’s observations showed that the earth moves around the sun.” It’s a familiar tale, but as Sampson observes wryly, “The main drawback…is that most of it is untrue.” So what is the truth?

 

The dominant model of the universe in western Europe up to the late Middle Ages was derived from Aristotle, who reasoned that the heavens, a perfect, unchanging realm, would also be unchangeable in their physical qualities and motion. The earth is at the centre (lowest point) of a universe of concentric spheres, but while the heavenly bodies are ever-perfect, the earth is made of imperfect, changeable matter. This Aristotelian cosmology was essentially the standard view, until the “revolution” of Copernicus (who died twenty years before Galileo was born) who revived the ancient Pythagorean hypothesis that the sun, not the earth, is at the centre of the universe.

 

A common sub-plot in this cosmic myth has to do with how man’s importance was tied to where the earth was placed in the universe. It is usually asserted that the pre-Copernican men had an exaggerated and arrogant sense of human importance and that was why they placed earth as the centre of the universe. Then, when it was discovered that we are only “the third rock from the sun,” man was humbled, and simultaneously Scripture was undermined: “If man’s abode was not at the centre of things, how could he be king of creation?”

 

But the pre-Copernican cosmology was no compliment to earth’s occupants, for in that model the earth is the least important and most transitory place in the universe. Indeed, it was the Copernican system that elevated humanity, lifting the earth to the ranks of perfect heavenly bodies and its inhabitants to heavenly creatures. Far from engendering humility, the end result of the Copernican view was a glorification of man and his ability.

 

Mock the Pope at your Peril

So why Galileo as the hero? Why not Copernicus, who had earlier made the key contribution to the “new” cosmology? Sampson notes that Copernicus is not an appropriate character, for he was a canon of the church, enjoyed the support of the pope, and his book circulated without problem for many years. But Galileo – he was condemned by the church for teaching that the sun is the centre of the universe, and his book confiscated.

 

The tale features the persecuted Galileo as scientist and hero. It is said that he invented the telescope, discovered how the earth moves around the sun, conducted his famous experiment on the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and asserted, even in the face of the powerful church, that it is the earth that moves. The truth is, he didn’t invent the telescope, likely didn’t drop cannon balls from the Tower, and didn’t discover the dynamics of the pendulum. He did make major contributions to astronomy but could not prove that the earth moves around the sun.

 

Indeed, there was insufficient evidence at Galileo’s time to prove the Copernican view. Copernicus had been hesitant at first to publish his opinions, not for fear of church punishment but for fear of being ridiculed by fellow astronomers who still maintained the dominant Aristotelian cosmology. Galileo feared the same rejection, but persistently asserted that the earth literally moves around the sun, “and popularized his views in snappy Italian rather than the arcane Latin of the universities.” His book on cosmology became a bestseller.

 

Galileo’s relations with the (Roman) church at this time were cordial. Most of the church leaders favoured his view over Aristotle’s, though they acknowledged that more evidence was needed to establish his case. But Galileo then began to push the envelope; to prove that the earth revolves, he proposed an ingenious but erroneous theory of tides, he argued that comets were a form of optical illusion, and he reinterpreted certain Scripture passages in the light of Copernican reasoning. Then the last straw: he also wrote a “dialogue” in which his view and the Aristotelian view are represented by two characters. In the dialogue, he put a favourite cosmological argument of his friend Pope Urban VIII in the mouth of the conversation’s simpleton. Not a wise move…

 

The major cause of Galileo’s troubles was then not his view of the earth’s motion as such, but that he had made fun of his Holiness. The dialogue was confiscated and Galileo summoned to Rome in 1633. But the stories of dank prison cells and torture are modern embellishments; he was detained, and forced to abjure heliocentrism, but he was given his own room and servants, in keeping with his favoured position in the Roman church. In the end he did not die a lonely and broken man, but returned to his home with a church pension to live out his

years in peace.

 

It is said that a larger result of the escapade was that science long floundered under the church’s domination. But Sampson, having dispelled the modern myth of a brave Galileo resisting an ignorant church, now points out another historical fact: rather than warfare between science and religion in this period, there are direct positive connections between them. Particularly the Reformation churches replaced Aristotelian reasoning with insights from the Bible, and so provided the soil that enabled science to grow. For instance, there was a restoration of the perspective that nature is created and not divine and is therefore open to free inquiry and investigation.

 

The theme of conflict between religion’s ignorance and science’s enlightenment is at the heart of the Galileo myth. A proper historical study demolishes the oft-repeated tale that lauds free science and mocks repressive religion, and affirms instead the positive framework that Biblical Christianity affords to free investigation.

 

Postmodern stories

Modernity asserts that reason, facts, and scientific achievements underpin its self-confidence, yet it is persistently told fables that in reality receive the central place in the communication of its worldview. Indeed, it is nothing new that stories are used to pass on modernity’s core beliefs – many societies have used narrative in this way.

 

The question must be asked though, says Sampson: why do the modern myths have such a negative focus, concerned with the warfare between science and religion, reason and superstition? He suggests that this myopic view represses another story, “one less congenial to the modern mind,” namely that of the damage science has done (e.g., the Chernobyl disaster) and of the brutal reality that confronts the idea of human progress (e.g., two world wars). “Modern myths constantly reinvent a superstitious image of religion in order to brush it aside and with it modernity’s role in oppression.”

 

On the book

6 Modern Myths About Christianity and Western Civilization is bursting with the fruits of Sampson’s research. The book is a stimulating and exciting read, and Sampson clearly works from a perspective that values the historicity and authority of the Bible. Though he has much to say that is negative about modernity’s credos and their narrative expression, he also makes positive statements about the value of a truly Christian worldview, one that touches all of life and offers a proper approach to all we encounter.

 

Its appeal is broad because the stories Sampson treats are well-known to many of us – familiar stories, but ones whose values and bases are not usually recognized. With the help of this book we may continue to assert in the world the relevance of the Scriptures for everyday life and may continue to witness to the true freedom that the gospel of grace affords.

Review of 6 Modern Myths About Christianity and Western Civilization

 

Philip J. Sampson

IVP, 2001

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