I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about our cultural fascination with myth-busting, as evidenced not (or not only) by the Mythbusters television program, but by all of its cultural kin, from 60 Minutes to Snopes.com to the backlash against “reality” television.
It would be easy to think and talk about this fascination as a desire for authenticity, as (I believe) others have done. To my mind, it has far more to do with another desire entirely: to win a cultural war over our relationship to stories.
The tenets of what I might refer to as a culturally conservative worldview dictate that we are intended to receive stories passively: as if they are precious containers of either mystery or wisdom handed to us gingerly by the masters who made them. If they hold mystery, furthermore, we are expected to bow before their inscrutability; if they hold wisdom, we are expected to treat it as dogma. This worldview dictates the way in which religious conservatives would have us consider the Bible. It informs the way in which legal conservatives would have us consider the Constitution.
Cultural liberals, like myself, believe it’s important for us to adopt an entirely different relationship to stories: one in which we are free to criticize them, analyze them, adapt them, translate them, refute them, refuse them, and above all else — at least for me — write new stories entirely. We are not intended to passively receive stories but to grab them as they are being handed to us, pore over them, find the mystery and wisdom, find the flaws and biases and inaccuracies, transform them, and ultimately hand them off to the next generation. That’s why we consider the Bible a set of complicated and dangerous and sometimes beautiful and sometimes really badly written stories, rather than the inerrant word of God. That’s why we consider the Constitution a dated document that must continually be renewed by modern minds.
This is what mythbusting does, at least in its best incarnations. (In its worst, it simply destroys the received story in an act of pure anarchy, and I personally have too much reverence for stories to do that, even to those I detest.) This, I believe, is why we love it… and why it’s critical to human development as well.