Our world today is rich with the images of Frodo and Neo. And our world today loves these images. Somewhere, deep within us all, is a page upon which is written the most ancient and universal story of all. It is this story we see in the adventures of the hobbits, or the rise of a lowly gladiator. When we see the story written in our hearts being acted out, told and retold, or lived among us, we connect. It is in that moment, like no other, that we feel we have come home.
[THE MONOMYTH] This idea that a common story resonates within us all was first tackled by the late, comparative mythologist, Joseph Campbell. Over his career, he wrote numerous books on the similarities found in the mythologies of the world’s diverse cultures, but the book that truly brought the so-called “monomyth” to life was his most famous work, The Hero With A Thousand Faces. It is a brilliant work, drawing out the mythic properties of stories found almost anywhere. It also placed these mythic properties into a cohesive order, forming a blueprint to build the perfect story.
And it works. Honestly. One of Campbell’s biggest fans was a young writer by the name of George Lucas. Modeling his movie scripts on the “hero’s journey” script written by Campbell, Lucas managed to craft a story that rang true with incredible amounts of people. You can also look at other great movies, great novels and even Broadway musicals, and trace their success back to their adherence (whether intentional or not) to the monomyth.
Some sharp biblical scholars have also noticed how the “journey of the adventurer” can be held up against the life of Christ, leaving some, including C.S. Lewis, to declare Christ as THE fulfillment of the stories written in our hearts by God. In other words, one reason Christ rings so true to us, no matter the culture or time period, is that His story is the story we cling to, the story we long for. We desire desperately to see the stories written on the pages of our hearts to become reality, and in Christ, it happens. Everyone who has sought inspiration through story can find complete satisfaction in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
But is that it? Is the monomyth simply a tool through which to see Christ more clearly? Perhaps. But I think there’s more. Maybe the monomyth is also a tool through which to better see ourselves. I mean, if Jesus used the phrase “follow me” twenty times in the four Gospels, I get the strong feeling we should be living the monomythic life, just like Him. What’s more, when we begin to understand the monomythic journey of the hero and put ourselves in those shoes, our journey becomes so much clearer than ever before.
[THE HERO’S JOURNEY] The hero’s journey is a lot more familiar than you or I would admit at first. In fact, there are many stations along that journey that we, as followers of Christ, have already passed. How incredible is it that in every culture’s mythic library, exists a story involving a hero, who must first be called to a quest, or begin a journey? Look at the baptism scene of Jesus, or even our own personal call to a relationship with God … the similarities are mind blowing! According to Campbell, every mythical hero was introduced to his or her quest by a Herald, . Jesus had John the Baptist, and I had Bill the youth pastor.
There are other stations of the journey that, when named, immediately draw our minds not only to the life of Jesus, but to places in our own lives as well. The Belly of the Whale figuratively highlights Jesus’ time in the desert, as well as the deserts many Christians have faced. The Road of Trials brings to mind the constant questioning and accusations of the Pharisees throughout Jesus’ ministry. Likewise, I don’t know a single person at my church, who would claim to have never walked the road of trials and hardship. I think in many ways, we all identify ourselves with the hero of the monomyth, at least with part of his journey.
[THE NEXT STEP] What many of us have yet to take hold of is the end of the journey. It’s easy to look at Christ’s ministry and human activities as something to mimic, something all of us can do to adhere to the monomyth in our hearts. But when we get to Calvary and the tomb, we step off the hero’s trail and either sit down, or attempt to make our own way. We can’t raise ourselves from the dead, we tell ourselves. We can’t ascend at will. No, we find ourselves limited by the journey Jesus took, and for so many of us, this leaves us with no purpose, no direction.
The last two steps on the journey of the hero, according to Joseph Campbell, are brilliantly titled: Master of the Two Worlds and Freedom to Live. For all the ways we follow the journey of the hero, Jesus Christ, on His monomythic trek through life, these last two stages are the hardest for us to approach. How many friends do we have who are so weighed down by sin that they sometimes doubt whether God is even there anymore? They have forgotten that Jesus mastered both life and death and has given us the freedom to live. John 8:36 says it best: “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
[THE POINT] All in all, the monomyth is about a hero of lowly stature, who is called out of the ordinary into the extraordinary. This hero is put through trials, is exposed to the temptations of life and battles the powers of death. When the story ends, the hero returns home stronger, smarter and bringing with him the solution to the world’s ordinary problems: the elixir of life.
As heroes making the same journey as our model, Jesus Christ, we too have much to go through, much to learn and much to conquer. But we also will return to the ordinary world, to our friends, our family, our coworkers, bearing our reward, as a blessing to us and a gift to them: The elixir of life….the blood of Jesus. Some might even call that good news.
[Aaron Mahnke has worked as a campus minister, a youth minister and a retail manager. He is currently a student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. He and his wife live in New England where they attend Harbor of Hope Christian Church.