Eternity in our hearts
According to Time Magazine, Joseph Campbell wrote one of the 100 most influential books of the 20th century in “The Hero With A Thousand Faces.” I had been exposed to Campbell’s work through a Psychology course I took as an undergraduate; we were assigned to watch “The Power of Myth”, the 1988 series of PBS interviews between he and Bill Moyers.
Long after that class, I encountered the Monomyth again: A story developer at Disney named Christopher Vogler wrote a memo he called “A Practical Guide to Joseph Campbell’s A Hero With A Thousand Faces.” In the memo (that would later be developed into an important book on screenwriting called “The Writer’s Journey”) Vogler outlined stages of the Hero’s journey and explained how it could be embedded as the template for the story arc of an epic film. That memo quickly circulated all over Hollywood and since then it has directly influenced hundreds of screenplays as diverse as the Lion King, the Matrix, Harry Potter, Toy Story, and Die Hard.
When I realized that movies like Star Wars (before Vogler’s memo), and most every epic film I loved (since the memo), were ultimately based on “The Hero With A Thousand Faces”, I was all in! As a lover of legends, myths, films, and stories, the understanding gained through Campbell’s scheme was helpful in recognizing why I relished these narratives.
So, with great anticipation I prepared to dig into the original source for myself, only to realize upon reading the book that I didn’t enjoy it, at all.
I found the writing itself to be dense—full of details about and connections between individual myths—but there seemed to be little evidence to support the claims Campbell made about each stage of the Hero’s journey. Additionally, much weight was put on the work of Carl Jung (and to a lesser extent Freud) interpreting legends and myths through the lens of now-suspect psychoanalytical theory, often in ways that stretched credulity at best, and at worst applied a narrow western interpretation to elements of beautiful stories that are as diverse as the world and history itself.
In short, like a rare instance of a movie being better than the book it’s based on, I was much more benefited by other people’s commentaries and interpretations of the book than I was with the book itself.
However, it wasn’t just the writing style I had challenges with: Though I have long appreciated the idea of a nearly universal pattern for a hero’s journey, and must give Joseph Campbell credit for that, I disagree with his conclusions in this book about what that pattern means for humanity.
Campbell starts off by stating the book’s goal: “it is the purpose of this present book to uncover some of the truths disguised for us under the figures of religion and mythology”. It became clear to me that he believes the Bible, including Jesus’ redemptive story, is simply another myth (though not entirely denying some of its historicity, as he claims a myth can contain elements of historical truth).
Campbell postulates that the similarities in myths that also show up in the Bible (creation, virgin birth, resurrection, etc.) are universal precisely because they are all part of some deep human longing that gets manifested through legend: “The symbols of mythology are not manufactured; they cannot be ordered, invented, or permanently suppressed. They are spontaneous productions of the psyche, and each bear within it, undamaged, the germ power of its source.”
So, as a believer in a real, personal God who is revealed through Scripture and in the unique historical person of Jesus, what am I to make of Campbell’s works?
I find encouragement in C.S. Lewis understanding of Myth. As a significant 20th century mythmaker, Lewis believed that “the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened” . His embrace of this truth—that was part of his own conversion story—was because of a conversation with another friend who was also a great mythmaker and storyteller; J.R.R. Tolkien.
Both Tolkien and Lewis were influenced by the writer and apologist G.K. Chesterton. He wrote against the reasoning that because myths had similarities with the Bible, that the stories found in the Bible were simply copies of those other myths. Chesterton argued that myths containing elements of Biblical narrative were signs of God working in the hearts of humans to foreshadow the truth. That when humans express a universal longing through myth, it doesn’t disprove the truth of the Gospel, but proves there is a God who created everyone with that common yearning, preparing in us a way to recognize the fulfillment of that hunger when we encounter it in truth. An example of his reasoning he writes:
The story of a Christ is very common in legend and literature. So is the story of two lovers parted by Fate. So is the story of two friends killing each other for a woman. But will it seriously be maintained that, because these two stories are common as legends, therefore no two friends were ever separated by love or no two lovers by circumstances? It is tolerably plain, surely, that these two stories are common because the situation is an intensely probable and human one, because our nature is so built as to make them almost inevitable.
Ecclesiastics 3:1 says that “God has set eternity in the human heart.” Maybe part of our eternal longing, and the God-shaped hole Blaise Pascal talked about, gets expressed through Myths that point to the truth of God’s engagement with humanity.
 Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With A Thousand Faces. xii.
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15 responses to “Eternity in our hearts”
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Ecclesiastics 3:1 says that “God has set eternity in the human heart.” I have always loved this verse.
I also found Campbell a bit alarming.
I actually discussed the book with my daughter who is at the US AF Academy. I have watched her grow and wondered (sometimes out loud) about the direction of some of her choices. At the Academy they are all about inclusivity. While that is a discussion for another time, I was pleased that she was holding true to the “gospel” as a real element of her life. Not a myth, not just a story her parents told her.
I imagine that Campbells work influenced many a writer and movie maker. I wonder what his impact was on those who see “all paths lead to God (god?)”
I see the belief in Christ interwoven (or diluted) by a generation desiring spirituality but religion. I don’t think Campbell helps in pointing to the creator of the universe. He instead is tied up in the “almost ran” theories/stories/myths that are a distraction for those who must travel through “narrow gate.”
Russell, I think that Campbell was reaching for a ‘theory of everything’ that tried to make sense of all religions and legends… I think he came up with some good things that if we contextualize from a Christian Faith perspective can explain what a lot of people experience. However, reading it from a Christian faith perspective leaves us wanting; maybe because we have lived into the ‘true myth’ those false myths that are foreshadows seem that much more lacking? I tend to look at it from the other end, that any foreshadowing can be used for good, but I certainly understand your concerns.
If one didn’t read the book critically, I could see how Campbell’s references to Christ could be misleading. I too wonder what his response would be to the statement, “all paths lead to God?”
Cathy, I read somewhere (can’t remember where) Campell said, “All religions are true but none are literal.”
That seems to get pretty close to the “all paths lead to God” question you asked. He didn’t claim to be a Christian so I wouldn’t expect anything different.
Tim…I also found the writing dense and some difficulty following some of the themes. I love your insight into the influence of the memo based on the book. It is absolutely fascinating that the memo “influenced hundreds of screenplays as diverse as the Lion King, the Matrix, Harry Potter, Toy Story, and Die Hard.” These are some of my favorite movies. The book felt “too much” for me. I appreciate your perspective.
The book was too much for me, too. Like so much we read, though, we get to chew the meat and spit out the bones (is that the saying?). Thanks for the encouragement.
Yes, thank you, you’ve articulated exactly what I was trying to get at in the first half of my blog post but you’ve done it much more clearly!
I guess it matters which way you come at understanding these big, universal truths. Either the Bible is just one of many similar myths because the Monomyth is the ultimate truth. OR the Bible is true and many similar myths have been created over time because of God’s very real working in the human heart (as you mention from Chesterton). In the end, I think Campbell just came about it the wrong way.
Kim, I think you wrote the clearest thought I’ve seen on this: While both have value, either the Bible is the ultimate truth or the Monolith is… which way you approach this matters. Brilliant. Thanks!
First: Well written post!
Second: I laughed when I read: “I was much more benefited by other people’s commentaries and interpretations of the book than I was with the book itself.” because it is one of those rare times when the movie was actually better than the book!
Third: Thank you for brining Lewis and Chesterton into this. If you read my entry, I am reflecting on several of the same ideas in my own limited way, and so I found your summary of their rational responses to Campbell’s work grounding.
Thanks for the encouragement, Jennifer! I was reaching for a ‘grounding’ myself, so glad it helped someone else.
Tim, you quite articulately communicated what I think many of us students, myself included, felt while “reading” Campbell. I appreciated the level of critical thinking brought to bear, and the insertion of Lewis and Chesterton.
Knowing what you know now, would you recommend this work to others, especially your storytelling kids?
GREAT question: I had told both Johnny and Caleb they should read it BEFORE I read it, and now would say “get the 7 page memo”, instead. 🙂
Not that as filmmakers and believers they shouldn’t read Campbell…I actually had a good conversation about truth and myth with one of them; but I honestly think most creatives are going to get more from the ‘cliff notes’ than the book itself.
“That when humans express a universal longing through myth, it doesn’t disprove the truth of the Gospel, but proves there is a God who created everyone with that common yearning, preparing in us a way to recognize the fulfillment of that hunger when we encounter it in truth.”
The statement above nicely expresses how I view Campbell’s work. I mentioned in response to Russell, that it is comforting to know God has been speaking to the hearts of people all over the world while the Judeo-Christian religion was still forming and inaccessible to the rest of the world.
I agree, these mythologies don’t need to diminish our faith in any way, but validate and expand it. I also think we can shift from competition to contribution. The Christian faith has something valuable to share with the rest of the world, but I believe other cultures have spiritual contributions as well. One of my professors at Oral Roberts would always say “Truth is truth no matter where it is found”. Books like these expand my horizons and bring me to a place of awe and wonder.
Tim, I really appreciated your take and critical thought on this book. I think I stayed very surface in that I was comfortable in living in his intentions as an author and didn’t look closer to what he was say about the Bible and Myth. I have a Chaplain who works for me who fully believes Bible as myth (yes there are many non-christian chaplains out there). I think you really nailed it on the head for me with your closing statement “Ecclesiastics 3:1 says that “God has set eternity in the human heart.” Maybe part of our eternal longing, and the God-shaped hole Blaise Pascal talked about, gets expressed through Myths that point to the truth of God’s engagement with humanity.” I believe fully in a God who is always at work and reaches our hearts in very diverse ways, and that other cultures and beliefs have a “God shaped hole” they are trying to fill. I really understood this book more through you blog post. Thank you for writing this.
A similar question came to mind when reading Campbell’s writing: Where do the stories in the scriptures stand compared to other mythical stories in human history, particularly the story of Jesus in the Bible? I formed the belief that mythical stories with universal values are actually expressions of God’s work and love that seep into the human heart which desires guidance from good morals. God’s goodness and truth are also evident in these stories. The story of the Apostle Paul in Athens highlights this, as he says, “For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.” (Acts 17:23)