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I SUSPECT THAT MEN HAVE SOMETIMES DERIVED MORE SPIRITUAL SUSTENANCE FROM MYTHS THEY DID NOT BELIEVE THAN FROM THE RELIGION THEY PROFESSED. C. S. LEWIS
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After nearly thirty years of Christian faith, I found myself in a crisis of awareness and understanding that led to profound changes in how I view and experience the wonderful gift of life. I was raised in a strong Christian family. Attending Sunday school every week taught me all of the familiar Bible stories and memory verses. Three years in seminary added hermeneutics, apologetics, and systematics to my theological tool kit. Fifteen years working in Christian ministry gave me confidence in the art of applying biblical principles to the realities of everyday living. The end result? My Christianity was safe, certain, categorized, defensible, practical, predictable -and dry as dust.
None of the things I had learned or achieved filled that quiet but persistent yearning within. I expected my faith to do more than answer questions few seemed to ask. I wanted it to fill me with passion, adventure, risk, mystery, and wonder-none of which were in my life. It didn't make sense. I had in my possession the most meaningful and profound message in life but found it to be rather dull, uninteresting, ho-hum. I never doubted the truth of what I believed. It just seemed too small, like I had merely touched around the edges of what is at the core of Christianity, never quite connecting with the deeper reality.
I knew there had to be more-just below the surface, slightly out of reach, or around the next corner, but definitely there. I felt like a blind man standing in a picture gallery, in the midst of something incredible and yet unable to partake of the rich beauty all around me.
Then came the crisis. It wasn't triggered by any kind of tragedy. In fact, my life had never been better-I had a wonderful wife, healthy and happy kids, a terrific job, a great church, and a better salary than I deserved. Nor was it caused by any kind of mysterious spiritual experience. I've never had one of those. There was no sudden bright light or voice in the middle of the night.
It didn't happen all at once but over time. This crisis was more of a process than a single event. Brief encounters here and there. None of them very dramatic but all of them reshaping the lenses through which I saw my life, my world, and my faith.
Like many who profess Christianity, I had done so without understanding exactly how my own life fit within the glorious story of God. I had learned to read the Bible as a collection of lessons and truths rather than the script of an epic drama that has been unfolding since before the dawn of time. I had failed to see history as more than a series of disconnected, random events or my life as part of anything bigger than my own routine.
The Curtain Raised
It was on a flight home from a business trip that my eyes began to open to the reality of the divine drama. After sorting through my usual stack of miscellaneous memos, reports, and articles, I picked up The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters, a book by screenplay-writing instructor Christopher Vogler that had been recommended by a colleague. It was one of those titles on my "ought to" reading list. I would have preferred relaxing with the latest Grisham novel. But having recently accepted the responsibility of overseeing both film and radio drama projects for Focus on the Family, I now had the responsibility of approving or rejecting story concepts and scripts. Having little experience beyond an occasional Blockbuster rental or dollar-cinema selection, I decided to learn all I could about what makes a good story.
Using illustrations from dozens of films, Vogler revealed the common pattern found in some of the most popular movies ever produced-many of which I had enjoyed without really understanding why. If I was going to evaluate story ideas effectively, I needed to understand that pattern. So I continued reading in order to enhance my professional skills. What I discovered began a journey that changed my life.
The idea is simple and, at the same time, profound. All great stories adhere to the same basic structure. When that structure is followed, a story will inspire its readers. When it is ignored, the story will bore them. These common structural elements found universally in myths, fairy tales, fables, novels, and movies are known collectively as "the hero's journey."
What is the hero's journey? Put simply, it is the quest pursued by the central character of every story-be it Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Christian in Pilgrim's Progress, or Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. The same pattern of overcoming obstacles in pursuit of a desired object found in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings can also be found in Disney's Toy Story. The heroic drives that motivate young Peter in Narnia also stir King Arthur in Camelot. The settings, challenges, characters, and details are different as can be. But the journey is the same.
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Despite the infinite varieties, every story starts with a hero-a central character living the familiar circumstances of whatever "ordinary life" he may know. But then something happens to throw life out of balance, calling the hero on a quest for some "object of desire." Overcoming many obstacles and challenges in pursuit of that object, the hero eventually faces an "ultimate confrontation" necessary to regain equilibrium in his life or world. In most cases the stakes continue to rise until the hero faces off with a supreme antagonist -up to and often including death itself. If the hero is willing to sacrifice something precious, perhaps his life, he can obtain the remedy needed to return his world to a state of harmony.
One example of this is the classic "guy meets girl" story. The hero (the guy) is perfectly content with his life until he encounters an object of desire (the girl). Suddenly "ordinary life" is no longer good enough. He's propelled into a quest, driven to face and overcome whatever obstacles are necessary to have the girl. Ultimately, he must "die" to the self-centered bachelor life if he hopes to win her heart and resurrect harmony in his life.
Another example of the hero's journey is the action-adventure story. The hero is living the "ordinary life" of crime fighter, soldier, or secret agent when an ominous villain enters the picture-perhaps his old nemesis. Before you know it, the hero is risking his life in order to save the world from some great danger. He "dies" to self-preservation in order to defeat the villain's threat. Sometimes he is literally killed, other times he is merely injured. But he always gives up something in order to win the day.
If a story does not follow the pattern of the hero's journey, it fails to connect with our spirits. Imagine how popular the Rocky series would have been had Rocky Balboa remained home instead of fighting Apollo Creed. If he hadn't taken the hero's journey, there would have been no conflict, no victory, and no audience. What if Peter, Edmund, Lucy, and Susan played their game of hide-and-seek without entering the world of Narnia? They would never have encountered the dangers of the White Witch, the wonder of King Aslan, or any of the adventures millions have enjoyed in The Chronicles of Narnia, by C. S. Lewis. The importance of this pattern is clear to Hollywood. Embracing the mythic power of the hero's journey enabled Walt Disney to capture the hearts (and wallets) of an entire generation. Screenplay writers and producers create box-office hits each year through this classic story structure. They know that films using it will find an audience. Those that don't, won't.
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As we will discover in part two, the parallels between the hero's journey and the gospel narrative are striking. A hero leaves his ordinary world on a quest to face his old nemesis in order to obtain an object of desire. Overcoming great obstacles, he eventually faces death to remedy the problems of the world.
So if stories that reflect the mythic structure of the hero's journey resonate with people and our hearts yearn for the themes they portray, could it be that these yearnings are God given? Might they be pointing us to a story he wants us to encounter? Perhaps the stories we wish were true are those that reflect the story that is true.
While asking these questions, I came across an interview between journalist Bill Moyers and the late Joseph Campbell, author of Hero with a Thousand Faces, that brought the concept of the hero's journey to my attention. Campbell believed that the answer to man's search for meaning in life resides in every story, myth, legend, and fairy tale.
Raised in the Roman Catholic tradition and familiar with the gospel, Campbell discovered the themes and patterns residing within the Christian narrative pushing their way through the myths and stories of other cultures and religions. As he discovered the similarities, he began to connect the dots. His conclusion? That all of these stories, the Christian gospel included, reflect a deeper reality of what it means to be human. Campbell considered none of them, the Christian gospel included, necessarily true in an ultimate sense. He felt that it's what they reflect, not what they claim, that's important. Campbell placed Christ in the same category as Moses, Buddha, Mohammed, and every other religious "hero" on a journey. Since the "legend" of Jesus follows the same mythic structure as other great cultural or religious stories, he felt there must be a universal truth that all of them are trying to proclaim-but that none of them completely contain. From Campbell's perspective, they don't reflect that which is beyond us but that which is within us.
Obviously, I couldn't agree. Christ is unique, and the gospel is in a different category than any other story. I could not accept the notion that Jesus was just another mythic figure, or that his life, death, and resurrection were merely symbolic of every man's quest. But neither could I ignore the fact that other cultural stories, religious leaders, and heroes looked very similar to those described in the Christian worldview. I concluded that despite his flawed conclusion, Campbell must have encountered a piece of the truth. A truth that reinforced the existence of a universal, overarching story all others seek to tell. But as I later discovered, a truth missing the more important part.
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As one who came into Christianity having already immersed himself in the rich world of classic literature, myths, legends, and fables, C. S. Lewis had unique insight into the obvious parallels existing among various religious and cultural traditions. Like Campbell, he recognized the similarities in their myths and stories. Unlike Campbell, he saw them as a reflection of the Christian gospel rather than an alternative to it. Responding to the suggestion that the images and story of Christ aren't as important as the lessons he taught, Lewis defended the gospel narrative as critical to true Christian faith-and to understanding ultimate reality.
The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact.... It happens-at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences.... By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle. (God in the Dock, 66-67)
Our generation typically uses the word myth to describe a story that's not true. Lewis used the word in the classic sense-to describe a story that reflects universal truth. In this context, Christianity is the supreme myth-the true, transcendent story that all others are modeled after. According to Lewis, we should not be surprised when other cultures, legends, and myths reflect our hero's journey. We should be surprised when they don't. If ours is the true myth, it seems likely that a yearning within all men would point them to a story that is also history. If the pattern of the gospel resides within the human heart, it should push its way out in the stories we tell.
Lewis wasn't alone in his view that the stories we love reflect the true story of the gospel. His colleague and close friend J. R. R. Tolkien created what became the most popular fantasy of the twentieth century, The Lord of the Rings. The world he created, Middle-earth, is one in which hobbits, elves, dwarfs, and men battle side by side to overcome an evil that threatens to destroy their way of life. It also reflects a greater reality, a true hero's journey revealed in Tolkien's Christian faith. In his essay entitled "On Fairy-Stories," Tolkien identified the gospel narrative of Christ's life, death, and resurrection as the ultimate fairy-story.
The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels-particularly artistic, beautiful, and moving: "mythical" in their perfect, self-contained significance.... But this story has entered History and the primary world.... This story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men-and of elves. ("On Fairy-Stories," 71-72)
Another contemporary of Lewis, playwright Dorothy Sayers, wrote this:
For Jesus Christ is unique-unique among gods and men. There have been incarnate gods a-plenty, and slain-and-resurrected gods not a few; but He is the only God who has a date in history. (Sayers, 20)
Lewis, Tolkien, Sayers, and others recognized, like Campbell, the pattern residing within the great myths and folklore of all cultures. Unlike Campbell, however, they did not see this pattern as undermining the Christian gospel. Rather, they felt that it affirms the truth of the Christian gospel-a truth based upon something much more profound than mere human experience. A truth based upon the greatest story ever told, written by God himself.
My journey led me into several life-changing discoveries: First, there is an overarching structure to every great story. Second, this structure satisfies yearnings residing deep within the human heart. Third, the stories we wish were true reveal a void that can be filled only by the one story that is true. Finally, the gospel is the drama of a hero's quest-a hero who entered history in the person of Jesus Christ.
Sadly, many who have embraced the reality of Christ have missed the story. I did. Having my theological ducks in a row may have informed my mind, but it did little to inspire my heart.
Excerpted from The Divine Drama by Kurt Bruner Excerpted by permission.
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