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

Mythology as a Tool for Understanding Culture.

Written by: on November 14, 2021

One of the greatest mistakes quoted in missions, is cases of missionaries assuming that they can impose their ideas in a cross-cultural context, understanding the culture is key to working in a new culture. Joseph Campbell is a literature scholar and professor of mythology whose works reflect more of comparative mythology. His book, ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces is a non-fiction book about the common elements of world mythology.[1] It is a popular book that combines the spiritual with the psychological analysis of psychoanalysis with archetypes of world mythology, creating the roadmap for navigating the frustrations of contemporary life.  Campbell discusses his theory of the mythological structure of the hero’s journey using the archetypal hero found in world myths. The book analysis metaphors from heroic myths around the world, giving a realistic interpretation of the myths. It uses modern psychology, not only analyzing the patterns and stages of mythology but also the relevance of these myths to our lives today and to any person seeking a meaningful existence. Campbells work has greatly influenced past and present authors, artists, filmmakers, musicians and poets.[2] One of the biggest highlights of influence on producers is the ‘Star Wars’ that was inspired by the book.[3] Campbell likens myths to a projection of culture’s dreams played out on the screen that is our world, it’s an exploration of the big-picture moments from the real-life experiences on the stage that is the world.

Campbell’s idea is that there is only one story, the grand story of our lives, the monomyth. The story is told in millions of different ways but every story ever told is just a repetition of this grand story or a retelling of a certain aspect of the complete story. For those that have been influenced by this idea of the monomyth, they judge every story for worthiness against the myth cycle. Such is the case with any screenplay submitted to Disney, that its worthiness is judged by how it agrees with the myth cycle. Campbell tells of the monomyth with artists in his documented lectures and workshops as:

Artists are magical helpers. Evoking symbols and motifs that connect us to our deeper selves, they can help us along the heroic journey of our own lives…The artist is meant to put the objects of this world together in such a way that through them you will experience that light, that radiance which is the light of our consciousness and which all things both hide and, when properly looked upon, reveal. The hero’s journey is one of the universal patterns through which that radiance shows brightly. What I think is that a good life is one hero journey after another. Over and over again, you are called to the realm of adventure, you are called to new horizons. Each time, there is the same problem: do I dare? And then if you do dare, the dangers are there, and the help also, and the fulfillment or the fiasco. There’s always the possibility of a fiasco. But there’s also the possibility of bliss.[4]

There is an outline or order in which this monomyth occurs in different steps as the hero goes through the journey that is the grand story. His premise is that the Monomyth is that all mythology follows a similar structure or story arc. The call to adventure is a fundamental piece of each story that the “heroic” epic follows as: Departure where the chosen one is called on the quest, he is reluctant to leave but by supernatural aid, he crosses the barrier to a new real where he is beset with adversity in the ‘Belly of the whale’; next the hero is initiated through a series of tests to prove his worth through which he gains knowledge and power; the hero then return after gaining wisdom, immortality, treasure and more through perils to gift the people that he left behind; and eventually the keys is about figuring out the treasures gained through the hero’s journey that is the monomyth to help him past any restricting walls.

It was not possible to finish reading the book, and I must admit that t was not an easy read since I have very limited knowledge of psychology. One thing that stands out is combination of the spiritual and the secular mythology materials drawn from the Bible, the Quran, other spiritual books, and other non-spiritual myths. I was particularly drawn by his overriding theme of hope as he analysis the different myths. Hope keeps the hero going despite the perils on the journey, and this happens to be the theme of the grand story of redemption that is the bible. I appreciated reading and getting to see through the many myths and kept wondering how to apply the concept to Christianity. Just the idea that every myth is structured the same way and it’s the retelling the same story or part of the grand story was intriguing but it has application to missions. I work in different communities that have different myths as part of their culture. As part of assimilating and working in different cultures, it is always important to understand their culture, to customize our programs to each context. Taking Campbell’s conclusion that the monomyth appears in different disguises in all the stories, mythologies, fables and folktales, is very attractive to me and worth exploring in the context of our ministry. I will also apply this knowledge and thoughts in my research on the case of holistic ministry. I will definitely test the theory of the monomyth by analyzing the common myths among the different vulnerable communities that are the context of our ministry in Kenya, and as we venture into other countries in future.

[1] Joseph Campbell. The Hero With a Thousand Faces (The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell). (Novato, California, USA. New World Library, 2008).

[2] Stephen Larsen, Robin Larsen & Joseph Campbell. A Fire in the Mind. (Rochester, Vermont. Inner Traditions, 2002)

[3] Moyers, Bill. “Cinema: Of Myth And Men – TIME,” August 25, 2013. https://web.archive.org/web/20130825045550/http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,990820,00.html.

[4] Joseph Campbell. Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation, Edited by David Kudler. (Novato, California: New World Library, 2004), pp. 132, 133.


About the Author


Mary Kamau

Christ follower, Mother of 3 Biological children and one Foster daughter, Wife, Pastor, Executive Director of Institutional Development and Strategy in Missions of Hope International, www.mohiafrica.org.

One response to “Mythology as a Tool for Understanding Culture.”

  1. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Mary, what a wonderful, concise interaction with the book. I appreciate your sensitivity to culture and I agree with you that Campbell gives a way to begin engaging any people group with the universal longing expressed through the many myths that exist. I believe ministry in America needs to think and act like a missionary does in a cross-cultural context. As you note, that cannot done effectively by imposing ideas onto a culture. Communication begins with understanding. May God bless you work!

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