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

Fixing Our Soul’s Gaze on the Hero

Written by: on January 30, 2024

Joseph Campbell’s, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, is a book about comparative mythology that reveals all great heroic tales share a common narrative arc that has shaped stories across space and time. Once you see it, it will be hard to unsee.

As I reflect on the stories that have been told in my home, and ignited my imagination, I can see Campbell’s trellis at play and its effect on me. My grandfather was a great storyteller who could pull myths out of the air or make heroic characters, like Robin Hood and Mowgli, come to life out of the pages of a book. As a child, I always imagined myself as the hero of the story, never the villain or some marginal character. I don’t think that this sprung from an elevated view of self but rather from the desire to become a better version of who I already was. My heroes were courageous, kind, and self-sacrificing, and I wanted to become more like them. Somehow this didn’t materialize in my teen years.

While Campbell reveals the monomyth in various cultures and religions, I was most compelled by his lament over the loss of a monomyth in a secular society. “Hero” was not simply written to reveal a universally compelling storytelling trellis, but to warn us of the danger of losing our ability to recognize the role of symbolism, ritual, and myth in shaping our lives and our societies. Campbell pinpoints three significant developments in modern human history that caused the demise of the monomyth and its symbolic world. He writes, “All of which is far indeed from the contemporary view; for the democratic ideal of the self-determining individual, the invention of the power-driven machine, and the development of the scientific method of research have so transformed human life that the long-inherited, timeless universe of symbols has collapsed.”[1] What remains is a mechanistic secular society that is driven by power and money rather than the desire to become transformed so that we can make the world a better place.[2] Hauntingly he writes, “But there the meaning is absolute unconscious. One does not know toward what one moves. One does not know by which one is propelled.”[3]

On the one hand I understand the desire of the West for individualism, particularly to correct the abuses of societies in which duty to the group supersedes all individual needs and preferences. In these cases, the unique image of God in each person is diminished beyond the point of recognition. However, I deeply resonate with Campbell’s angst over the modern human condition and echo his concern. It’s a matter of prayer, almost daily, as I think about neighbours and friends who live in this fragmented reality.

Columnist, David Brooks, also believes that the antidote for the pathologies of our individualized society is greater exposure to art and mythology. In a New York Times column titled “How to Save a Sad, Lonely, Angry and Mean Society”. He writes, that by being exposed to culture, “…you are lured by beauty and deeply pierced by myths that seem primeval and strange.”[4] He describes his own experience of reading a particular novel, “I had travelled in time back into some primeval world of bonfires, dancing and Dionysian frenzy, and it left a residue, which I guess you would call a greater awareness of the metaphysical, the transcendent. Life can be much wilder than it seems growing up on a suburban street.”[5]

As I think then of the world into which preachers proclaim the gospel, I wonder what it would look like for us to leave our listeners with the kind of soul residue that they might describe as a greater awareness of the transcendent. The temptation of the preacher is to unintentionally appeal to secular individualism by presenting a pragmatic gospel. I have heard multiple sermons that have preached biblical stories as a kind of heroic example that we should all follow. We find the positive traits of leaders in scripture and compel people to become better versions of themselves. For example, in a message about David, the congregation might be challenged to become “David-like” to slay the giants in their lives. Preachers have done this with Moses, Abraham, Nehemiah, and Elijah. Even a geriatric like Caleb has been touted as a hero because at 85 years old he asked for the toughest land to take when Israel was receiving the land.[6] I think it would be fair to say that we share an obsession with heroes in evangelicalism. We often tell hero stories from the Bible, like my grandfather told fairy tales, with the intent of encouraging people to become like the hero in the story. In doing so, I wonder if we preach the Christian message as a form of self-actualization. We proclaim that we can be the hero of the story, the best version of ourselves, a sort of self-savior.

However, in doing so, we could inadvertently neglect to point people to the real hero at the centre of the Christian story. The writer of Hebrews continually calls us to “Fix our gaze on Jesus”[7]. They want us to fix the gaze of our souls on what is happening in the heavenly realms, so that we are drawn out of our mundane, sometimes troublesome lives, and into the story and world of our Hero King, Jesus. To do this, the writer of Hebrews presents a stunning, dramatic picture of Jesus and his ministry. This idea of fixing our gaze on Jesus is far more significant than a quick glimpse at the bible. It is stronger than simply spending an hour a week taking in corporate worship. It’s a moment-by-moment awareness of the reality of Jesus. It is taking our attention and fixing our inner gaze on him so that who he is, what he has done, what he’s doing currently, and what he will do in the future, transforms this present moment for us here on earth. His kingdom comes in us. We experience life in all of its fullness. Heaven collides with earth. A heavenly residue. And once this is seen, it can’t be unseen.

In our preaching and disciple-making, perhaps what is needed, and what our hearts are truly longing for, is more revelation of the Ultimate Hero.

[1] Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 3. ed., with rev, The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell 17 (Novato, Calif: New World Library, 2008).p.333

[2] Campbell, 334.

[3] Campbell, 334.

[4] David Brooks, “Opinion | How to Save a Sad, Lonely, Angry and Mean Society,” The New York Times, January 26, 2024, sec. Opinion, https://www.nytimes.com/2024/01/25/opinion/art-culture-politics.html.

[5] Brooks.

[6] Numbers 14.12

[7] Hebrews 12.1,2

About the Author

Graham English

I was born in Cape Town, South Africa 30 minutes from Table Mountain, the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean. My family immigrated to Vancouver, Canada where I spent my teen years, met Wendy, and got married. We now live on the Canadian prairies in northern Alberta. I think God has a sense of humour. I'm a follower of Jesus, work in leadership and church development, love my family and walk a lot.

18 responses to “Fixing Our Soul’s Gaze on the Hero”

  1. Christy Liner says:

    “In our preaching and disciple-making, perhaps what is needed, and what our hearts are truly longing for, is more revelation of the Ultimate Hero.”


    Indeed we need more of the Ultimate Hero.

    I think there is a part of our prideful selves in which we want to be the hero, but I don’t know if this is a universal truth. However, I do think most people find that they are in need of a hero. It seems to be a modern, western phenomenon where some people can grow up wealthy, trauma free, and not see a need for a hero. But I imagine that throughout history and across cultures, most people find many things outside of their control and in need of a higher power to help. What do you think?

    • Graham English says:

      I think you’re right about the western, secular phenomenon of not requiring a hero. We have developed a society in which it’s hard to really recognize our needs. However, there does come a time in most people lives when the bottom falls out. The church has opportunities in these moments to share the gospel through presence and power.

  2. Debbie Owen says:

    Graham, what a frightening thought that so many sermons call on us to be our own heroes. You point this out… and I recognize it. It’s such an easy trap to fall into. It’s a real secularization of the gospel. I wonder what we can do about it?

  3. mm Ryan Thorson says:

    Thanks Graham! I appreciate your insights and a reminder of the lament of campbell’s book, not just his observations.

    It is interesting as cultural observers to watch how heroes change and shift over time. Your comment about how much we love our heroes in evangelicalism was insightful. It made me think about a book written by Kristin Kobes DuMez, “Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation” where she says:

    “Although Wayne occupies a prominent place in the pantheon of evangelical heroes, he is but one of many rugged and even ruthless icons of masculinity that evangelicals imbued with religious significance. Like Wayne, the heroes who best embodied militant Christian masculinity were those unencumbered by traditional Christian virtues. In this way, militant masculinity linked religious and secular conservatism, helping to secure an alliance with profound political ramifications. For many evangelicals, these militant heroes would come to define not only Christian manhood but Christianity itself.”

    I’m curious about not just the loss of heroes but how we define heroism dramatically differently perhaps, based on our view points and beliefs in the West.

    Any thoughts on her statement?

    • Graham English says:

      That’s quite a quote. I’ve heard about the book but never read it. I guess I’ll have to now. It seems the kingdom of God is always upside down. It’s never in sync with our cultural ideals. When our heroes reflect western culture more than Kingdom culture, we have a problem. “For many evangelicals, those militant hero’s would come to define not on Christian manhood but Christianity itself”. I’ll push it even further and say that these militant hero’s actually come to define Jesus. I heard a message one from a pastor that compared Jesus to a MMA fighter. Seems like we’re creating Jesus in our own image when we do that.

  4. mm Glyn Barrett says:

    Great blog, Graham. Love the insights by David Brooks. How do you think the incorporation of art, mythology, and the recognition of a transcendent reality, as emphasised by Campbell and echoed by columnist David Brooks, be strategically integrated into preaching and disciple-making practices within church to foster a deeper awareness of the Ultimate Hero, Jesus, rather than inadvertently promoting a self-actualisation narrative?

    • Graham English says:

      You ask such great questions, Glyn.
      Here’s what I’m wondering…
      1. What if preaching awakened thirst by painting a compelling vision of Jesus and asking questions rather than providing all the answers?
      2. Many disciplemaking movements (DMMs) are using a discovery method of bible study. They read the gospels and ask questions that lead to a response. Rather than teaching the basics they invite people to engage Jesus in the gospels and ask the question, “How are you being asked to respond to what you are learning?” I wonder if we should create more opportunities for this kind of engagement between new and more mature believers.
      Of course, we need practical teaching, exposition and theological basics. I’m not excluding these but just wondering if we could have more opportunities engage the story and awaken hunger rather than simply tell.

  5. Nancy Blackman says:

    I love your grandfather and how he was such a rich storyteller! I believe beautiful storytellers have the ability to make their audience want to either root for the underdog (protagonist) or become the hero, so kudos to your grand dad!

    I also love that you noticed Campbell’s reference to a “hero” as being a person who shapes their own lives and society. In other words, it’s not about the monomyth journey but how their journey makes the world a better place.

    That’s downright brilliant!

    And also brilliant is your point of making sure to fix our gaze on Jesus lest we lose sight of what is truly important.

    What are some ways that preachers can weave hero stories into their sermons without taking the gaze away from Jesus? Is that even possible?

    • Graham English says:

      Thanks, Nancy.
      I wonder if stories of heroic action more reflected the character and work of Jesus rather than the cultural ideals of heroism.

      Our heroes tend to be strong, independent types who become a “success” as we define it.

      Hebrews 11 names people of the faith and ends with a bit of a summary of the unnamed heroes….
      “35 Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. 36 Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were put to death by stoning;[e] they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.
      39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, ”

      I wonder if we should be telling these kinds of hero stories.

  6. mm Chris Blackman says:

    Great thoughts, Graham! I loved your final statement: “In our preaching and disciple-making, perhaps what is needed, and what our hearts are truly longing for, is more revelation of the Ultimate Hero.’
    I will be thinking about your words tonight. You are right; we have all made heroes of the big names of the bible – it is easy to do. It’s probably why I love the writings of Teresa of Avila, as she has such a low opinion of herself and is very humble.
    I wonder how the “hero worship” that I might have of Paul or Moses changes the lens of what scripture is trying to tell me. I don’t have a question for you, just wanted to thank you for challenging me in the way I have read the bible, and to focus on it differently. Thank you.

    • Graham English says:

      Chris, thanks for the reminder of Theresa of Avila. A few years ago I went to Avila, just outside of Madrid, and learned a lot about her. I’ll have to refresh my reading on her.

  7. Adam Cheney says:

    I have been reflecting on the hero ideal in our postmodern culture. Do we still have the same ideals of what a hero is supposed to do? I also find it fascinating that in many cultures which are more collective than individualistic, they still have the individual hero, someone who may help the group but gets individual acclaim.
    I have also been dismayed at the way in which our Christian community makes a hero out of each character in the Bible as though we are to emulate them. We also put on a pedastol as a hero, any athlete that also claims to be Christian. Next week the Super Bowl is going to be played. (For those Canadians it is where the best football teams, not soccer, play each other for the ultimate glory). The quarterback for one team, the 49ers is a Christian and seems to be a solid guy. This is a great thing. But Christians want to try to idolize him and make him a hero. However, just because he knows how to throw a football (not kick the football) well does not mean that he should become the next Christian hero. What are your thoughts? Does Canada elevate Christians to unhealthy levels in sports as well?

    • Graham English says:

      Adam, a couple of things… In Canada, we have what has been called “the tall poppy syndrome”. That is when someone grows up above the rest of the field, Canadians tend to cut them down. So, people are less inclined to want to be heroic. Most people want to fit in. We say, “sorry” a lot, even when we shouldn’t say it.
      I think the church in Canada tends to elevate Christians who are in the spotlight. We love athletes and actors, mostly American, who call themselves Christians. I can’t think of too many Canadian celebrities who are openly Christian other than Bieber. Although Beiber is arguably more affected by American culture. https://www2.cbn.com/news/entertainment/justin-bieber-shares-simple-gospel-message-then-demonized-woman-finds-jesus

  8. Akwése Nkemontoh says:

    Amen, amen, and amen! I couldn’t agree more with this last bit where you highlight how it’s about “a moment-by-moment awareness of the REALITY of Jesus… and fixing our inner gaze on him so that who he is, what he has done, what he’s doing currently, and what he will do in the future, transforms this present moment for us here on earth…” to birth a heavenly residue that once seen, can’t be unsee!

    I’m curious how we get here? How do we support people to truly have revelations of the Ultimate Hero? What needs to change to enable that? Are most pastors equipped and if not, what would it take to equip them? Do they want to go that deep or are they comfortable playing the role they play?

    A mentor of mine was once asked why more pastors don’t talk about Kingdom principles and unlocking the spiritual realms here on earth. His response was that many pastors are unaware of it for themselves and you cannot teach people what you have yet to know and believe in yourself…

    Would love to hear your thoughts 🙂

    Also, is your NPO focused on discipleship amongst pastoral training? I do hope so because I’m fascinated by your question of “what it would look like for us to leave our listeners with the kind of soul residue that they might describe as a greater awareness of the transcendent.” Do you already have any thoughts on this?

    Side note: your grandfather sounds like mine! Reading that opening bit made me smile a smile of gratitude for the gift of being able to experience fabulous narrators. Thanks!

    • Graham English says:

      Thanks, Akwese.
      I think that Kingdom now is one of those threshold concepts. Many Christians are saved for eternity and only consider the Kingdom as something you experience after you die. Whereas, Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of Heaven as a present and available reality. Dallas Willard has great material on this!
      If we think of Kingdom as only future, rather than already/not yet, we will miss out on all that God has for us in this life.
      My NPO is not focused on disciple-making but rather on developing co-creative/collaborative leaders. However, this idea could find its way into my study as I think that a primarily directive model of leadership diminishes participation in God’s life and mission. A co-creative model, in my opinion, empowers people to participate fully in the mission of God as Spirit-empowered followers of Jesus.

  9. mm Shela Sullivan says:

    Hi Graham,
    Your reflection on Campbell’s trellis and its impact on your imagination, especially through the stories told by your grandfather, resonates deeply. It is captivating to hear how you envisioned yourself as the hero of the story, aspiring to embody the virtues of courage, kindness, and self-sacrifice from your childhood heroes.
    The exploration of Campbell’s concern over the loss of the monomyth in a secular society is compelling. His warning about the dangers of a mechanistic secular culture driven by power and money, lacking transformation and a desire to make the world a better place, is thought-provoking. I share your prayerful concern for those living in this fragmented reality.

    • Graham English says:

      Shela, Even before reading this book I have wondered and prayed about how to communicate the story of the gospel to those who are more secular in their thinking.

Leave a Reply