The Hero Behind the Mask Is…You!
What do Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, Neo of The Matrix, and the Blues Brothers have in common? Author Joseph Campbell pioneered anthropological and sociological research producing the premise that diverse fictional hero tales share the monomyth or, in other words, all heroic stories tell the same tale. “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” a work of comparative mythology, details a global study, demonstrating that all myths follow one pattern of structure. In reference to the universality of the monomyth, Campbell writes, “…it will always be the one, shape-shifting yet marvelously constant story that we find, together with a challengingly persistent suggestion of more remaining to be experienced than will ever be known or told.” Beneath the many “faces” found in stories lies a desire common to all human hearts. Campbell concludes, “The differentiations of sex, age, and occupation are not essential to our character, but mere costumes which we wear for a time on the stage of the world. The image of man with is not to be confounded with the garments.” Drawing from multiple streams of psychology, Campbell asserts that unique myths give expression to “unconscious desires, fears, and tensions that underlie the conscious patterns of human behavior.” Every hero story tells the saga of us, our history, and our understanding of reality.
The first half of the book details the journey of the hero. First, a hero receives a call, often from a divine being. That call leads to a departure from their comforts into an uncertain, often dangerous, realm. Second, the hero undertakes a perilous quest. Initiation in that quest involves trials, temptations, and the need for wise decisions. Finally, the hero returns after a decisive victory. The journey transformed the protagonist in ways shared with others for their benefit. The second half of the book unpacks creation myths and various ways in which heroes become transformed.
Two themes from this book caused me to reflect on life and ministry. One, Campbell’s research demonstrates that hard-wired into the soul of humankind exists an innate sense of something and Someone beyond us that beckons people to a calling, to a mission, and to transformation. Campbell rhetorically asks, “Why is mythology everywhere the same, beneath its varieties of costume?” Some three thousand years earlier, the writer of Ecclesiastes stated, “…(God) has put eternity into man’s heart…” (Ecclesiastes 4:11, ESV). On some level, we know there is more than here, now, and what we see. For the pastoral communicator, universal observations like Campbells’ offer the opportunity to persuade a skeptical culture beginning with researched observations that illustrate a biblical truth. In a time of distrust or dismissal of biblical authority, communication that starts with human longing or need offers a means to engage the spiritually cynical.
In contrast, my homiletics training imparted a deductive methodology, beginning with biblical truth and ending with personal application. Like Paul on Mars Hill in Athens in Acts 17, this day may better be reached by starting with the connection to the human longing seen in many heroic, godlike figures and, ultimately, presenting the God of the Bible. The constant stream of superhero movies signifies a strong allure of the hero’s journey in this day. The age of Christendom allowed for an Acts 2 approach, where Peter begins by interjecting numerous prophecies fulfilled in Jesus to those familiar with biblical content in Jerusalem. Both presentations in Acts end with Jesus and putting faith in Him, but the starting point of engagement differed greatly. In the current shift to a post-Christian culture, we live Athens, not Jerusalem.
The second relevant theme emerges from Campbell’s reference to the biblical account of Job. While the author identifies the universal elements of story in Job, he notes the lack of complete knowledge revealed to this hero under initiation. Job does not know how Satan and God spoke before loss and pain entered Job’s life. In the context of Job’s story, Campbell states, “…man cannot measure the will of God, which derives from a center beyond the range of human categories.” Like Job, in any hero’s journey, a certain amount of mystery exists. For the leader, less than total control over self or circumstances can produce anxiety. In the times of struggle, the common question asks, “Why?” As it did for Job, that question often remains unanswered. Job’s story argues for a better question, namely “Who?” In a relationship with the God of the Bible, certain aspects of our journey reside with God alone. Comfort in mysterious adversity comes from a trusted relationship with the Divine and confidence in God’s purposeful work even through the struggles.
Life with God follows a true version of the hero’s journey. The many heroic faces reveal the human heart’s desire to join a story bigger than ourselves. The Blues Brothers expressed that human longing by saying, “We’re on a mission from God.” That yearning for purpose and transcendence lives in every human heart. May leaders help many to connect their story to God’s story.
 Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 3rd edition (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008), 1.
 Ibid., 332.
 Ibid., 219.
 Ibid., 2.
 Ibid., 125-126.
10 responses to “The Hero Behind the Mask Is…You!”
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Hi Roy, I appreciated your connections and reflections. I always gain new perspectives reading over your posts. I also feel the important need to start with connection first. You mentioned that “starting with the connection to the human longing” will serve well in connecting. What are some human longings that you touch upon in your message in your ministry context and audience?
The longing for purpose, meaning, direction, and being a part of actions that help communities have proven effective in our context. I believe people were made to be part of something bigger than themselves.
Roy: I must admit I laughed to myself with your introductory question as another commonality between the characters is that I couldn’t tell you anything about them (gasp!). I really appreciate you reflection and connection to Paul at Mars Hill. It’s one of my favorite locations to travel to as the topography of the area provides such a clear contrast between worship in God and worship in the man-made. I enjoyed your take and reflection on Campbell.
Kayli, sure, rub it in that you’re young! I hope to make it to Mars Hill one day. I’ve been to Ephesus and that was a powerful experience.
Roy, thank you for sharing your pastoral engagement with Campbell’s book. So many great points that you raise. I really appreciate how you zeroed in on Campbell’s thesis captured in this sentence: “Every hero story tells the saga of us, our history, and our understanding of reality.”
This couplet also stood out to me: “For the pastoral communicator, universal observations like Campbells’ offer the opportunity to persuade a skeptical culture beginning with researched observations that illustrate a biblical truth. In a time of distrust or dismissal of biblical authority, communication that starts with human longing or need offers a means to engage the spiritually cynical.” I’d love to hear more about how you engage human longing and need in your pastoral work and how that engages the spiritually cynical. What stories are you sharing that connects to the cynicism and invites them to consider something more?
Roy, I heard a very interesting sermon a few months back about Paul in Acts 17. More or less, that he really dropped the ball in trying to engage/connect as he shared the gospel with the people of Athens. I will see if I can find the sermon and send it to you, but I have to say, it was fascinating to think about, namely in that his approach was from a humanistic/what-Paul-can-do to reach the people of Athens vs what God can do.
I could not agree more with your summary at the end; the desire and prayer that very “hero” understand that their story is intimately connected to His story.
Roy: You articulated well the hardwiring of man for the Divine and a how Campbell brings that out. I found it fascinating and faith-affirming. How Campbell handled the story of Job also was so insightful. He is a deep thinker and I don’t ever think I’ve heard a sermon on Job that dug as deep that Campbell does. He has a knack for explaining deep, mysterious experiences of humanity while also describing similarities in the interpretation of myths. I could re-read this book every 5 years.
Roy, The thing I like about what Paul did in Athens was that he started with the things they thought they knew…started where they were “at” in order to lead them to a deeper place with Christ.
22 So Paul stood in the middle of the leadership council and said, “Respected leaders of Athens, it is clear to me how extravagant you are in your worship of idols. 23 For as I walked through your city, I was captivated by the many shrines and objects of your worship. I even found an inscription on one altar that read, ‘To the Unknown God.’ I have come to introduce to you this God whom you worship without even knowing anything about him.
Paul leads the Athenian leaders on a journey through their own history to give them a new understanding!
How would you compare/contrast Campbells definition of the Hero’s Journey and what Paul models?
Great question – I agree with your understanding of Paul’s approach on Mars Hill. He starts with where they are and what they understand and introduces Jesus. I would call that an inductive approach. I fear a deductive approach would begin with biblical, propositional truth that would only create walls, not bridges. I see that as an application of Campbell’s work of a grander narrative found universally. As an over-generalization, deductive communication on Mars Hill could sound like, “You’re wrong in what you believe, here’s what’s right.” Inductive communication can sound like, “We all want to be part of something that’s bigger than us, there’s a God who wants you to be part of that story.”