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

Call and the Hero’s Journey

Written by: on November 12, 2021

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.[1] 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.[2] “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.”[3] 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,”[4] 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.”[5] 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.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8]

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.[9] 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).[10] 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[11]). 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.

[1] Campbell, Joseph. 2008. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 3rd ed. Bollingen Series XVII. Novato, Calif: New World Library, 41.

[2] Ibid., 330-333.

[3] Ibid., 330.

[4] Ibid., 209.

[5] Ibid., xiii.

[6] Ibid., xii.

[7] Ibid., 49.

[8] Ibid., 345ff.

[9] Ibid., 333 ff.

[10] Ibid., 337.

[11] Ibid., 74.

About the Author

Elmarie Parker

13 responses to “Call and the Hero’s Journey”

  1. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Elmarie, such great reflections on the book. I also appreciate your engagement with Campbell’s reasons for writing the book. If he was concerned about society losing it grip on basic truths back in 1949, what would he think today? Another question and I know this is just a desire, but how do we get those Iraqi believers to mentor the American church?

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Hi Roy. Thank you for your comments and wonderings. I share your question of how Campbell would evaluate the USA’s current journey. I would have loved to ask him what glimmers of hope he could see (if any) in some of the conversations where some communities are seeking to recover their ancient myths and the meanings in those myths for their current journeys. One of the Native American pastors in my denomination was recently sharing about this type of work happening among some of the indigenous tribal peoples who have become Christian and are now looking back at their peoples’ ancient stories to discover connecting points. I find that fascinating.

      To your question about ways our Iraqi partners could mentor the church in the USA…that is such a huge part of what led me into this degree program. I’m hoping to develop such a conversation. My current work has allowed for some of that type of exchange when I’ve had the privilege of coordinating church visits for our Iraqi partners while traveling in the USA. Very profound interactions have come from this. I hope there will be even more in the future.

  2. mm Troy Rappold says:

    Elmarie: That was a thoughtful analysis of Campbell’s book. You have lived the arc of the Hero’s journey with your faith guiding you to the Middle East and back to the U.S. I loved this book and I am so fascinated about how the Christian faith can guide an individual to learn all the themes and motifs found in this book. Death and resurrection, the new creation, redemption–it’s all right there in scripture and those of us who decide to live this faith out.

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Thank you, Troy, for your comment. I’m looking forward to reading what you found compelling in Campbell’s book. Indeed, his writing does open up some very interesting space for more deeply exploring the biblical story and its implications for and pull on our lives.

  3. mm Jonathan Lee says:

    Hi Elmarie! Thank you for your insightful reflection and thank you for sharing your personal hero’s journey into Lebanon. You mentioned that you “experienced a profound shift in the focus of my energy from Ohio to the Middle East.” That is significant transition and change, can you share one or two things how God has preped you into making that huge shift of departure?

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Hi Jonanthan. Thank you for your helpful and thoughtful question. In looking back, I think God’s Spirit had been preparing me for quite some time to make this shift in focus. Yearly attendance at the New Wilmington Mission Conference (held at Westminster College in New Wilmington, PA every July) was a big part of that preparation. My first summer attending (2008), a comment made by one of the speakers really stuck with me, along with the prayer I ended up praying for several years. The prayer I shared in my blog post. The comment was along the lines of: Don’t seek to do what others are or can do; listen instead for what others aren’t or won’t do. I found that thought-provoking and it opened me up to listen for a direction beyond the boundaries of my experiences up to that point in time. In praying the prayer, “Lord, is there a particular people or place for whom/which you would have me share your passion,” my spirit remained open to the Spirit’s pull. I think these two things in combination is a big part of what contributed to the restlessness I was experiencing…the Spirit was at work to prepare the soil of my spirit. I have also wondered how my growing up experiences shaped a space in me for this kind of transition. I had the privilege of risking and pushing into new territories as a child and teen-ager…I think that fueled both my curiosity and my openness to stepping into things beyond my current experiences.

  4. mm Henry Gwani says:

    Elmarie, I greatly appreciate how you connect the Hero’s journey to the current American experience and your missionary engagement in the Middle East. Indeed, we often approach missions with the idea that we will encounter a mission field laden with brokenness (and there is often some degree of that). but end up meeting people God that have been journeying with God in very profound ways. May Campbell continue to add to the light of our understanding as we seek to serve God at home and abroad

  5. Kayli Hillebrand says:

    Elmarie – I appreciate your connection between early missionaries and the intentional distance they would put on different people groups and their ancestral stories, songs, dance, and myths. A few years back I was preparing a group of students to engage with an unreached people group and the predominant focus was on sharing the gospel in story format; with that came the challenge of context. How do you describe Noah’s Ark with a group that doesn’t live near a large body of water? The story then has to shift to meet a context they can relate to. It’s interesting to see how Campbell’s work crosses cultural boundaries and points out those commonalities.

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Hi Kayli. I’d love to hear more about what that group of students discovered as they entered into the cultural space of this group. What did they learn about how their own culture has shaped their understanding of not only the Noah text, but so many other biblical texts? In what ways did their time among a different people and different culture give them a new lens for reflecting on their own culture and faith journey?

  6. mm Eric Basye says:

    Wow. So many thoughts. First off, exceptionally summary of the book. You need to post that somewhere for other doctoral students down the road!

    To your question to me, I am guessing that this theology of suffering is something you also need as missing in the Christianity of today, at least here in America. “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).” In what ways do you see this to be true?

    Secondly, wow, your work the Lord has led you all to be a part of is incredible, It would be fun to chat more about this. If you have a mailing list for the work you all are up to, please add me!

  7. Absolutely love your summary and reflections here, Elmarie! I think of the hero/heroin as an archetypal energy that fills us at specific times for specific times. I believe Christ was filled with this at his baptism. The hero archetype incarnates our lives and can transform our world.

  8. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    Elmarie, It sounds like a hero’s journey to me! 🙂 You will return back “home” transformed and bringing boon with you!
    You have already reflected a lot in responding to others questions I am not sure I have anything meaningful to ask. With the reality that many Christians get squirrelly when talking about myth in relation to God and the Bible, how might you engage from a Friedman approach to invite people to a place to have that dialogue?

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