Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

A Gen-Xer Wrestles With the Concept of ‘Hero’

Written by: on February 1, 2023

I find myself genuinely conflicted as I engage with Joseph Campbell’s concept of a Hero’s Journey. As a result, this blog is a bit of a dog’s breakfast!

As an evaluation and summary of global mythological stories and the similar journeys each hero takes, it is clearly a distinguished work.

As a sociological concept suggesting a universal way of viewing human existence—I’m not so sure. Can you appreciate Campbell’s great research on myth in various cultures and separate that from his assertions on human psychology and meaning in life? If so, I’ll take the former and leave the latter.

Clearly the overall structure of separation, initiation, and return fits quite neatly into the life of discipleship—hearing God’s call, stepping out into faith, and being grown/transformed in the process. Christ’s call to come and die and, in so doing, find real life (Matt. 16.24-26) is a quintessential example of a hero’s journey. (I will also note that the overall journey of the hero fits quite neatly with last week’s reading regarding ‘threshold concepts.’ It seems Campbell was using the term (in the way that Meyer would define it) to describe the hero’s journey 50+ years before Meyer and Land’s work began to explore the topic) (1).

However, I couldn’t help but feel like the heroic journey was a self-determining journey of self-actualization—even if a mentor helps the hero along the way. Clearly some of the ‘power of positive thinking’ types have taken Campbell’s journey and packaged it as sort of ‘be all that you can be” framework for life (2). Others have brought it into the ‘ordinary’ so that we’re all heroes on our own journey whether we are doing something significant by our culture’s standard or not (3). I don’t know that either of those applications land well for me.

Perhaps at the core of my wrestling is my discomfort with the notion of ‘hero’—at least as we popularly use the term in North America. Everyone wants to be a hero, to be great, a celebrity, get noticed, do something spectacular.

What part of this desire is a good and God-inspired motivation to make an impact in the world for His glory…and what part of it is our sin-sick heart wanting to be something special in-and-of ourselves, apart from God?

Did Adam, compelled to be something ‘more’ eat the apple? Did the builders of Babel want to achieve something heroic (we get told the answer in that story…and it’s a ‘yes’). Doesn’t the Christian story teach us that there is one hero who did the heroic journey for us—did for us what we could never do for ourselves—and He is the one to whom all glory will be given when the grand story is over?

So, I am reluctant to simply name the innate human desire (as seen by the global hero myths) to be a hero as something inherently good. Instead, I find Mother Teresa’s famous quote to be a much more comfortable framework: We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop (4). In other words: What I am doing is nothing heroic, but it’s important.

Richard Rohr, in his book, Falling Upward, (5) speaks to the heroic journey in a slightly different way (and here I summarize): After the first half of our life is spent accumulating things, rising up, performing (and generally being heroic and feeding ego), the second half of our lives is meant to be spent ‘emptying ourselves’ in service to others. If we can make our way through that mid-life ‘threshold concept’ we spend the second half of our lives being wise mentors to the younger generation. If we don’t, we end up being angry old fools.

Perhaps it’s my Gen-X skepticism that won’t allow me to have any heroes. Or maybe I am getting to that second stage of my life where ‘doing something great for God’ sounds both tiring and dangerously egotistical. Either way, I can’t get too fired up about any sort of heroic journey—just ‘a long obedience in the same direction’ (A great book by Eugene Peterson!).

If there is a saving grace to this heroic journey, I believe it is found in the notion that the hero—changed and transformed—now turns his attention back to the ‘normal world’ from which he departed to share his learnings/wisdom/gifts (the boon) with the world. This important final step, in some senses, redeems the entire journey and ensures that the outcome to such a journey is not primarily the glorification of the hero but the betterment of humanity. I like that…I’m just not sure that’s the common conclusion to most heroic journeys of our day!

(1) Meyer, J., & Land, R. Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: Threshold concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practicing within the Disciplines. New York, Routledge, 2006
(2) Brian Johnsons Philosopher Noyes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Et_BHgP3M7E
(3) Ted Talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x8XUVqjX_IA
(4) Brainy Quotes: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/mother_teresa_121243#:~:text=Mother%20Teresa%20Quotes&text=We%20ourselves%20feel%20that%20what%20we%20are%20doing%20is%20just,because%20of%20that%20missing%20drop.
(5) Rohr Richard. Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. Jossey-Bass San Francisco, 2011.

About the Author

Scott Dickie

7 responses to “A Gen-Xer Wrestles With the Concept of ‘Hero’”

  1. Jennifer Vernam says:

    I appreciate you pulling in the frame of reference of us Gen X-ers. In my post, I reference my westernized, humanistic worldview, but I think age is a strong factor to consider here as well.

    This comment has me curious: “we spend the second half of our lives being wise mentors to the younger generation.” This makes me think of examples of people who have navigated this well and gracefully, and those who haven’t. I would love to hear more of your thinking on this. Do you have general ideas on how someone successfully navigates this transition?

    • Scott Dickie says:

      Great question Jennifer! I have been fortunate to have some people who have gone before me in my particular profession and have modelled the way well for me. I could likely list a number of things that come to mind, but in the most general terms: somewhere along the way (in the mist of our building, rising, performing) we start to go ‘inward’ and begin to unpack our soul and the things that unhealthily drive us, motivate us, scare us, etc…and we learn to ‘die to ourselves’ in deeper, more profound ways. This allows us to live ‘freely and lightly’ (to quote Eugene Peterson again in the Message) and give ourselves away for the sake of the world and Christ rather than our ego. That’s a journey with a thousand faces, because it’s unique to each of us…and it’s easier to describe than to live out!

  2. mm Pam Lau says:

    I love how you brought in Richard Rohr’s book, Falling Upward, into this discussion of The Hero’s Journey. You quote, “If we can make our way through that mid-life ‘threshold concept’ we spend the second half of our lives being wise mentors to the younger generation. If we don’t, we end up being angry old fools.”
    Might I play the Devil’s Advocate with you? I hear you saying you may control your desire to “do something great for God,” at this point of your life and ministry. But if you stop believing, dreaming, imagining yourself the best you can be (do you recall the chapter on knowing something is true but believing otherwise? Schulz, Being Wrong), then doesn’t that put you or any of us on the road to becoming “angry old fools?”

    • Scott Dickie says:

      Hey Pam…you can always play devil’s advocate or challenge me! I’m not sure if I totally understand your question as you intend it…but if you are reading me to say that I no longer am dreaming or wanting to grow by my comment…that’s definitely not the case! Instead, I want to grow in the right things and the right ways. So…to once again quote Mother Teresa who has significantly influenced my Christian expression/journey: ‘Not all of us can do great (ie. heroic) things. But we can do small things with great love.’ That’s what I want to keep moving towards…

  3. mm Russell Chun says:

    Hi Scott,
    You mentioned self-actualization and my mind hurled back to my first freshman paper to Army ROTC on Abraham’s Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

    As a reminder…Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is often represented as a pyramid, with more basic needs on the bottom (physiological needs) and higher needs (self-actualization) on the top. Maslow believed that a person’s basic needs must be met before higher needs can be addressed.

    The highest level—self-actualization—is referred to as a “growth” need. As needs are met at this top-level, a person becomes even more motivated for personal growth.

    I remember writing counter to the prevailing thought. I asked the simple question, “What about sacrifice?” Even in my pre-Christian days I saw the sacrifice of soldiers as a noble act. You can imagine my astonishment when at 33 I realized what Christ’s sacrifice meant!

    So what? I keep coming back to admiration of Campbell’s impact on our human understanding of the “Human Journey,” but it is only ONE lens that helps us view the world.

    Who said we create god’s in our own image? Is the Monomyth our way of creating the ideal image of ourselves? Man at his best?


  4. Jenny Dooley says:

    Hi Scott,
    I think you asked an excellent question, “What part of this desire is a good and God-inspired motivation to make an impact in the world for His glory…and what part of it is our sin-sick heart wanting to be something special in-and-of ourselves, apart from God?” I am wondering about the impact on leaders if they took the time to answer that question. I am thinking about Pam’s post when she mentioned leaders not “knowing themselves.” Your question gets to the heart of what motivates the leader’s (or hero’s) journey.

  5. Scott Dickie says:

    Yes…Jenny, Pam’s post gets at the heart of it for me (and for my NPO). I believe too many Christian leaders (in my world, Pastoral leaders) have not done the hard work to sufficiently address and find healing for their souls. As such, they are leading out of the same broken/unhealthy motivations of the world–only in a Christian context. Unfortunately we seem to get a weekly update on the destructive fallout for Pastors and their churches because of this unaddressed, but essential, issue. God help us!

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