Every hero receives a call, an urging into action. Joseph Campbell describes it as “The Call to Adventure” in his heroic epic Hero with a Thousand Faces. A specialty under the Philosophy, Psychology, Religion umbrella, Hero is classified as Comparative Mythology with a Philosophical Literature orientation. Campbell masterfully explores cultures from both the Occident and the Orient, historic and contemporary—as of the 1949 initial publication of his work. In this exploration he examines how wide-ranging cultures and societies have understood the role of myth, religion, and spirituality in shaping their peoples’ collective self-understanding and character. “In His Life-Form the individual is necessarily only a fraction and distortion of the total image of man…he cannot be all. Hence, the totality—the fullness of man—is not in the separate member, but in the body of the society as a whole; the individual can be only an organ.” It is myth that holds the history of a society and what it means to be a member of that society. It is myth, and the wisdom contained in myth, that shapes the individual within society, even as individuals also influence the development of a society’s myths. Indeed, a hero returns from her or his Homeric journey in order to pass on their hard-earned wisdom to the community from whence they started, where they function as the “champion of things becoming,” and so the journey of how a society is shaped continues.
For this reason, Campbell wrote Hero. He was convinced that modern society has become fractured, losing its grip on “…the basic truths by which man has lived throughout the millennia.” Because of the influences of the scientific revolution and industrialization, it had lost the capacity to understand the meaning of symbolic language, and symbolic language is the language of myth. In Hero, through copious examples and explanations, Campbell sought to teach symbolic grammar, in hopes that if society learned to read symbolic language again, it could once again regain balance. To aid the modern mind in understanding once again the symbolic, he utilized the tools of psychoanalysis. This “key” is woven throughout his text.
In the first part of his book, he develops his thesis of the hero’s journey from departure, through initiation, and finally the hero’s return. It is the hero’s journey that forms the backbone of a society’s mythology and thus values and character. Campbell highlights the story of Moses and Gautama Buddha as examples of this wide influence, respectively in the Occident and Orient. In the second part of his book, as Campbell delves into Cosmogonic Cycle, he connects the hero’s journey with the shaping of society, where the hero becomes a mirror of society and society understands the truths of itself through its heroes.
My thoughts went in at least two significant directions as I read Campbell. First, in reading especially his Prologue and Epilogue, I could hear his despair over modern cultural developments in the West (and its influence in other parts of the globe). Using psychoanalytic terms, he believed modern society has lost its way—developing an almost insurmountable split between the conscious and unconscious, between the mythical and tangible, between mystery and the provable. He issues a call for today’s heroes to step into the risk of the ‘dying to self’ hero’s journey in hopes that as the heroes return to their communities as wiser people, there may be ears to hear leading to a rebirth of society (his call to step into risk parallels what we have heard from Friedman, Walker, Kahneman, and Poole). His call leaves me to wonder where Campbell would place American society on learning from the journeys of today’s heroes who are seeking to reconnect with the mythology of their roots. I think of the many Indigenous North American communities who are working faithfully to rekindle a living memory of their ancestors’ stories and language. Campbell himself was fascinated from an early age with the myths and story-telling totems of the indigenous peoples of northwest North America. I wonder if the wider White and Christian North American culture (United States in particular) yet has ears to hear the wisdom embedded in these myths, especially since so many of the early missionary encounters with indigenous peoples strove to eliminate connections with language, story, myth, and the history to which they spoke? I wonder if Campbell would find hope in the heroes’ journeys being undertaken today. I also wonder if there is space within the various parts of the Christian community in the USA to rediscover the ancient myths and cultures that shaped the telling of the biblical story? I think especially of the community in which I was raised, where many members to this day believe the Genesis account of creation speaks to a literal seven days. The ancient myths and cultures in which this account arose would challenge that understanding in profound ways. Are there ears to hear?
The second direction my thoughts went was exploring my own journey of call through the hero’s journey lens. I’m not so sure I would use the descriptor ‘hero’ for myself, and yet I did resonate especially with the opening steps of the journey he describes. I remember my first visit to the historical Protestant Church in Iraq in 2011. This trip emerged out of several years of prayer— “Lord, is there a particular people or place for whom/which you would have me share in your passion and love?” I had felt restless for a while, even though I was thoroughly enjoying the local Ohio congregation (and the missional journey we had started) I was pastoring with at the time. I couldn’t understand why I felt so restless. And then I heard a woman speak at a mission conference about her visits with the few remaining indigenous/historical Protestant Churches in Iraq. A spark was lit in me. I know I had to be on the next trip. That trip turned my worldview upside-down. I had expected to find a beleaguered church community just trying to survive. Instead, I met a band of Jesus followers who, in the middle of the cities being war zones in 2004/2005, prayerfully asked, “Lord, how may we be of service to you at this time in our country’s story?” Out of that prayer emerged vital ministries positively impacting their wider communities; ministries that cultivated reconciliation in the midst of the fracturing powers of war. I realized quickly I needed to be discipled by these Jesus followers.
I experienced a profound shift in the focus of my energy from Ohio to the Middle East (this shift from one’s own community/relative safety to the risk-filled unknown zone is a key part of the call story according to Campbell). I returned home with this prayer coursing through me: “Lord, I have no idea what you have in mind with all of this, but whatever it is, my answer is ‘yes.’” I had already learned by then that to avoid God’s call leads to bitter heartache.
Two years later, Scott and I were moving to Lebanon to work with Jesus followers and others in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Over the past couple of years, I’ve begun to feel the pull to return to the USA and live in my home country the profound lessons I’ve learned from Middle Eastern communities. This degree program is part of this ‘return’ journey. I now have a different and helpful framework from Campbell for continuing to discern and navigate this journey back to the “ordinary” community from whence I started on this hero’s journey. We’ll see what wisdom will emerge and how I will navigate the challenges of sharing this wisdom in transformative ways—I hope.
 Campbell, Joseph. 2008. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 3rd ed. Bollingen Series XVII. Novato, Calif: New World Library, 41.
 Ibid., 330-333.
 Ibid., 330.
 Ibid., 209.
 Ibid., xiii.
 Ibid., xii.
 Ibid., 49.
 Ibid., 345ff.
 Ibid., 333 ff.
 Ibid., 337.
 Ibid., 74.