When responding to Stephen Fry’s prose on a “stupid God”, Russell Brand shared a quote that pops in and out of the public consciousness: all religions are true, in that the metaphor is true. The actual quote is “Every religion is true one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck in its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble”, and as Brand rightly attributes, the quote is from Joseph Campbell. I have no intention of deriding Brand for glassing over all the nuance of Campbell’s actual quotes for his own end, you can unpick the dishonesty in that yourself. I, instead, want to look at using this line of reasoning as a defence of religions or God.
Metaphors are not true. They are metaphors. Metaphors can be used aesthetically, or they can be used to emphasis or foster understanding of truth, but they are not intended to be true. My favourite book on this issue (and perhaps of all time) is Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.
For example, we’ve all heard this one. Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast and saves his three buddies.
Is it true?
The answer matters.
You’d feel cheated if it never happened. Without the grounding real-ity, it’s just a trite bit of puffery, pure Hollywood, untrue in the way all such stories are untrue. Yet even if it did happen—and maybe it did, any-thing’s possible—even then you know it can’t be true, because a true war story does not depend upon that kind of truth. Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth. For example: Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast, but it’s a killer grenade and everybody dies anyway. Before they die, though, one of the dead guys says, “The fuck you do that for?” and the jumper says, “Story of my life, man,” and the other guy starts to smile but he’s dead.
That’s a true story that never happened.
Twenty years later, I can still see the sunlight on Lemon’s face. I can see him turning, looking back at Rat Kiley, then he laughed and took that curious half step from shade into sunlight, his face suddenly brown and shining, and when his foot touched down, in that instant, he must’ve thought it was the sunlight that was killing him. It was not the sunlight. It was a rigged 105 round. But if I could ever get the story right, how the sun seemed to gather around him and pick him up and lift him high into a tree, if I could somehow recreate the fatal whiteness of that light, the quick glare, the obvious cause and effect, then you would believe the last thing Curt Lemon believed, which for him must’ve been the final truth.
Now and then, when I tell this story, someone will come up to me afterward and say she liked it. It’s always a woman. Usually it’s an older woman of kindly temperament and humane politics. She’ll explain that as a rule she hates war stories; she can’t understand why people want to wal-low in all the blood and gore. But this one she liked. The poor baby buffalo, it made her sad. Sometimes, even, there are little tears. What I should do, she’ll say, is put it all behind me. Find new stories to tell.
I won’t say it but I’ll think it.
I’ll picture Rat Kiley’s face, his grief, and I’ll think, You dumb cooze.
Because she wasn’t listening.
It wasn’t a war story. It was a love story.
But you can’t say that. All you can do is tell it one more time, patiently, adding and subtracting, making up a few things to get at the real truth. No Mitchell Sanders, you tell her. No Lemon, no Rat Kiley. No trail junction. No baby buffaloes or moss or white blossoms. Beginning to end, you tell her, it’s all made up. Every goddamn detail—the mountains and the river and especially that poor dumb baby buffalo. None of it happened. None of it. And even if it did happen it didn’t happen in the mountains, it happened in this little village on the Batangan Peninsula, and it was raining like crazy, and one night a guy named Stink Harris woke up screaming with a leech on his tongue. You can tell a true war story if you just keep on telling it.
And in end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It’s about sunlight. It’s about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It’s about love and memory. It’s about sorrow. It’s about sisters who never write back and people who never listen.
O’Brien tells the story of comrades that drown in Vietnamese bogs, of a civilian mistakenly shot in the face and Rat (or was it a buffalo?), who stood on a landmine and died. These are all the same story, trying to say the same thing, and having read the book with the goal of dissecting it for a university essay, I still cannot say exactly what the story is: perhaps it’s about asking whether there is a point or perhaps me still having no idea is exactly the point. I don’t know.
If Campbell is right, and all religions are true in some way, then O’Brien’s The Things they Carried is equally true and can be called a religion. But the point is this: it doesn’t matter whether the stories in The Things they Carried are physically or ontologically true. In all likelihood, most of them are not (and not all of them can be). But O’Brien is simply trying to make the reader see something, to append feeling and images to the idea of war; to equip the reader with tools or exploration and understanding of something other than the physical or historical truth; if O’brien does his job correctly (and he does) the reader leaves with images of beautiful horror. Rat never stepped on a landmine and ascending skyward on a fatally white light. Rat might not even exist, and it doesn’t matter. The truth of Rat and the landmine is irrelevant, so long as you realise the story of grief and delight, ugliness and awe…
And so it is with Campbell’s religions. The truth of God doesn’t matter. What matters is the story the lie allows you to experience. There doesn’t have to be Jesus or Heaven or Hell or Moses or Genesis. “Beginning to end, you tell her, it’s all made up. Every goddamn detail… None of it happened. None of it.” It’s art; it’s metaphor. None of it is physically true because all of it tells a true story, but not about the protagonists. The story is about our humanity. The protagonists have never have been.
Some of our darkest humanity is contained in the Books. Our self-righteousness is contained in God-given permission, and our fears are expressed in the keeping of slaves and the deaths of first born sons. The horror we are capable of is written in clear black and white, with rape, paedohilia and murder littering the pages. But if the Books are a metaphor for our humanity, and not a document for what God really said, then we can actually evaluate these Books and honestly notice the horror of acts described in them. We can honestly tell the difference between Jesus’ turn the other cheek and God’s burning of Sodom, or between Mohammed’s smite at their necks and the reward of goodness is nothing but goodness.
The truth of Allah, Yahweh, Jesus and Mohammed is irrelevant here: if Campbell is right, we are meant to use our humanity to see where religions describe us at our best, us at our worst and the world we really want to live in. They were written thousands of years ago by cultures we have superseded and we are supposed to ask which bits we really want. We are supposed to cherry pick. But we are supposed to do so knowing that “Beginning to end, you tell her, it’s all made up. Every goddamn detail… None of it happened. None of it.”