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

Troublesome Knowledge

Written by: on January 31, 2024

Joseph Campbell’s The Hero of a Thousand Faces[1] can be troublesome for someone crossing the threshold of understanding. He discusses important threshold topics, namely that the Bible follows a typical hero literary pattern, not dissimilar to other hero literary patterns throughout history and cultures. Examples range from Greek mythology on Medusa, to Buddha, Moses, and Jesus. 

For the Christian, it may be troubling that he describes Moses and Jesus as no different than other heroes of old. 

In describing how a hero typically has to leave their home place for a season of trial and testing, Campbell describes both Buddha and Moses as examples of legends. 

“The Old Testament records a comparable deed in its legend of Moses, who, in the third month of the departure of Israel out of the land of Egypt, came with his people into the wilderness of Sinai; and there Israel pitched their tents over against the mountain…Jewish folk legend declares that during the day of the revelation diverse rumblings sounded from Mount Sinai.[2]

Dr. Tim Mackie, Biblical scholar and co-founder of Bible Project[3], helps his students and listeners reconcile the similarities between the Old Testament Biblical narrative and other ancient Near East stories and traditions. One way in which he reconciles this, is by a reminder that the Hebrew Bible is an ancient text, written in a time and culture that is very different from modern cultures. He often describes reading the Bible as a cross-cultural experience. When a Bible reader comes to the text with an agenda that is different from the authors, it will usually lead to confusion and disorientation. He gives a lighthearted example from Harry Potter, paraphrased here: 

Imagine you have your nephew’s birthday party this weekend, and your brother or sister asks you to do magic tricks. And you think ‘I don’t know any magic tricks’. So what do you do? Harry Potter! So you start reading Harry Potter to learn how to do magic. Now, can you learn a thing or two from Harry Potter about magic? Yes, but are you going to learn any coin tricks? Probably not. You might learn something, but you’re convinced that this whole book is about magic and wonder and mystery. You picked up Harry Potter looking for the wrong thing. You came in with an agenda that is not the same as the author’s agenda. If the authors of the Bible knew how we’re interpreting Scripture, they would be shocked with what we’ve done with the text.[4]

This simple example is quite profound for the novice Bible reader, and yet many if not most Bible readers impose an agenda on the text that is not in line with the author’s intentions.  When this self-imposed agenda is faced with other ancient texts that follow similar patterns, disorientation is likely to follow. 

William Brown explains the context in which Biblical authors were writing, which accounts for the similarities between the Bible and other ancient texts: 

“The framers of creation in the Bible inherited a treasure trove of venerable traditions from their cultural neighbors. Instead of creating their accounts ex nihilo [out of nothing], the composers of Scripture developed their traditions in dialogue with some of the great religious traditions of the surrounding cultures, particularly those originating from Mesopotamia and Egypt, as well as those of their more immediate Canaanite neighbors”[5].

So what does this mean for the Christian today? 

First, we must approach Scripture with an ancient lens, and read on the author’s terms, not our own. If the author of Genesis was not intending to give us a scientific explanation and historical account of creation, we cannot impose that on the text. We must glean the wisdom and understanding from the text that the author intended – no more, no less. 

Second, we can understand a truth that transcends time and cultures: we are a broken people in need of a savior. Why else do we need a hero, other than needing to be saved from some sort of evil. This is a universal truth that every human can relate to and is displayed through contextual heroes. 

Third, Jesus is the ultimate hero that the world is longing for. He has rescued us from darkness and death and given us hope to overcome. One of my daughters went through a period of extreme spiritual and physical bondage. There were moments when we did not know if she would make it. As a parent, this was terrifying, and we felt completely helpless to change her situation. 

And then Jesus broke through her life and rescued her. The rescue was nothing short of miraculous. For the believer who has experienced such freedom from a loving savior/hero, the power of Jesus cannot be denied. 

For the brokenness still within us and around us, we say maranatha, come Lord Jesus, come.


[1] Cambell, Joseph, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” 2 ed. (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1973)

[2] Campbell, 27

[3] https://bibleproject.com/

[4] Mackie, Tim, “Science & Faith: Interpreting the Bible’s Creation Stories” YouTube Video, 10:56, September 30, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i62bgsy0yTs

[5] William Brown, “Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder”, Oxford University Press, 2010

About the Author

Christy Liner

13 responses to “Troublesome Knowledge”

  1. Debbie Owen says:

    Christy, I like the idea that people come to the Bible with different agendas, and even different experiences. We always bring our own frame and experience to every situation and relationship. I am grateful your daughter was rescued by our ultimate hero, Jesus!

  2. mm Ryan Thorson says:

    wow Christy this is a powerful post. Thank you for so clearly articulating the potential pathways to navigate what might be troublesome knowledge for Christians and their interaction with Campbells main points. I also appreciate you bringing in last week’s reading as well with threshold concepts.

    With the work you do at SIL and bible translation, how do you see Campbells concepts playing out in the way that translation is done and teams interact with different people and languages?

    • Christy Liner says:

      Thanks Ryan! One way this plays out, is that western organizations work very hard to make sure they aren’t the ‘hero’ of a Bible translation program. We come alongside a local church and community, but ownership and decisions come from insiders. Our intention is that Jesus and the local community are the heroes of the project success.

  3. Jeff Styer says:

    Great post, It is so hard to not read the Bible with our own motives. We publish books that tell people exactly what to read in certain circumstances. If you are feeling depressed read this, or feeling anxious, read these verses. I’m not saying that we cannot be helped by reading those passages but I probably was not the initial intent of the writer. Because of this tendency of imposing our desired meaning upon the Scriptures, where would you have a new believer start reading if they had never opened a Bible before? How would you educate or caution a new believer against imposing our desired meanings upon scripture?

    • Christy Liner says:

      Hi Jeff,

      With a new believer or seeker, I usually start with the Stories of Hope [1] in a discovery Bible study. This is done with a believer to help orient them to who Jesus is. Once they have made a decision to follow Christ, we’ll move on to Commands of Christ [2]. Actually, in doing this with an Algerian former muslim, we came to the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch, verse 31 jumped off the page.

      “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?”

      She said, “this is exactly how I’ve always felt. I’ve always wanted to know Jesus but didn’t have anyone to show me the way”.

      While I know that Scripture can speak for itself and stand on its own – it was always read in community (until the printing press). So this would be my recommendation – to read in community, and lean on believers to help you grow in understanding.

      [1] https://www.dbsguide.org/stories-of-hope/
      [2] https://www.deeperplaceworship.com/sp/spiritualdisciplines/dbs/biblestudysets/commandsofchristdbs

  4. Nancy Blackman says:

    I love that you mention Dr. Tim Mackie’s description of “reading the Bible as a cross-cultural experience.” I wonder if that is a Western World construct because of the nuances of biblical history that is steeped in ancient Middle Eastern and Asian culture and construct, which you address.

    But, as you know, the stories of the Bible cross all cultures and still have a thread of Truth that is relevant today.

    So, how does that impact your research and maybe even your personal journey? How can you take Campbell’s monomyth concept and apply it to who you are and where you’re going?

  5. Diane Tuttle says:

    Christy, thank you for your thoughtful approach to Campbell. The very statement of reading the Bible from the context that it was written is so important and yet easy to forget or ignore. Sometimes I think people are afraid to have ambiguity in their lives so create constructs that make them feel secure but miss that being in relationship with Jesus is so important. Thank you for sharing about your daughter and how Jesus rescued her. I’m sure didn’t mean there were times of anguish, but trusting God changes the outlook. Does your work offer you the opportunities to share the 3 things you mentioned to help Christians approach scripture?

  6. mm Chris Blackman says:

    Hi Christy,
    Next dinner that we have, I want to hear more about your daughter. Praise God for deliverance!
    One of my struggles with reading a book in a week is that I feel I miss a lot of things. I do my best to understand the book but obviously don’t have time to go word for word.
    Now, my take as I went through the book was that it took mythology and pointed to Jesus (and please don’t ask, for example, as I won’t be able to find them!). Am I hearing your thoughts correctly that Campbell reduced the sovereignty of Jesus? If so, I need to go back and look at the book. Thank you for your thoughtful post. I also loved the Harry Potter/magic example!

    • Christy Liner says:

      Hi Chris, yes let’s share more stories of God’s faithfulness at our next dinner!

      I agree that the mythology pointed towards Jesus, but I guess it didn’t seem like Campbell was pointing towards Jesus.

  7. Akwése Nkemontoh says:

    Christy, this was a really well-written post that made me pause and ask “How am I remembering to hold the context in which the Word was written at the forefront of my reading?”

    As humans, we can’t help but be biased so we’ll always filter through our own lens and agendas. That said, we can always slow down to pause and consider.

    While I love the idea of reading the Bible as a cross-cultural experience, my mind can’t help but wonder if one can ever be certain they are “gleaning the wisdom and understanding from the text that the author intended – no more, no less.”

    If I undstand accurately from one of the other comments, you work in bible translation so I ask this without much insight into the field. I am simply curious how one accounts for possible human errors in understanding ancient texts like the Bible? Are there measures and a system put in place that brings in “experts” not only in study but from those various cultures? Do you automatically assume a certain level of bias or misinterpretation will exist? etc..

    Would love to know 🙂

    • Christy Liner says:

      Akwése, thanks for your comments. The tough thing about bias is that it’s often unknown and it almost always exists. How Scripture is understood (and translated) changes over time and across cultures. There will always be some misinterpretation – and we often encourage revisions overtime to account for the misunderstandings that the community becomes aware of over time.

  8. Graham English says:

    Great post, Christy. I appreciate your thoughtfulness and tying in the idea of threshold concepts from last week’s reading. Even your three concluding points could prove to be troublesome knowledge for the person who holds to a very literal reading of the text. I have pointed out to people that no one reads the text literally. We all interpret. So, better to use good consistent interpretive skills rather than randomly select which texts we interpret and which we don’t, without any consistency.
    How might you help someone grasp these threshold concepts that rejects your argument?

  9. mm Kari says:

    Christy, this was a great post. As someone crossing cultures and contextualizing daily, I appreciated the points you made. I’m sorry for the challenging season your daughter went through and I rejoice with you that she was delivered! What troublesome thoughts and thresholds did you, personally, have to cross over during that time? What transformation have you seen in your life due to that experience?

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