In 1949, Joseph Campbell published his theory of the archetypal “monomyth” in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. His claim was that all stories follow one general plot in which the hero “ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won.” After his life-changing journey, the hero returns back to the old world, equipped to “bestow boons on his fellow man.”1

The so-called “hero’s journey” is a seventeen-step arc that Campbell enumerated based on his familiarity with ancient myths from many cultures, and especially with the stories of the Bible in mind. Star Wars, Harry Potter, the Odyssey, and the Epic of Gilgamesh all exemplify this pattern. In the Bible, the stories of Jonah, Adam and Eve, Moses, Samson, and Jesus follow the hero’s journey structure as well.

Given these striking similarities with so many mythical stories, how are we to see the truth of Christianity? Do these similarities lump the Bible with other, usually false, stories and religions?

Many critique Campbell’s theory for its extreme generality. The hero’s journey really describes every challenge, and every progression. These narrative “archetypes” are so ubiquitous because encountering and overcoming uncertain and unexpected difficulty are fundamental to human life. We all go through struggles, and we all, usually, come out the other side new and improved. If the hero’s journey is so general, of course the Bible embodies aspects of it.

This critique does not refute the fact that Christianity shares elements and motifs with many other stories, besides the hero’s journey. In Egypt, we have striking similarities of the life of the sky god Horus to that of Jesus. There is further evidence of “resurrection cults” in Egypt, and in Greek mythology we have the resurrections of Dionysus and Persephone. Zoroaster and Buddha display similar penchants for moralistic teaching.

English writer G.K. Chesterton makes a devastating response to this argument: “The story of a Christ is very common in legend and literature. So is the story of two lovers parted by Fate. So is the story of two friends killing each other for a woman. But will it be seriously maintained that, because these two stories are common as legends, therefore no two friends were ever separated by love or no two lovers by circumstances?”2

At its core, this is a probabilistic argument against Christianity: because most religions and cultural myths are clearly false, and Christianity resembles many religions and cultural myths, Christianity is false. Though most would agree this argument is not air-tight, it does seem quite convincing. If every myth we have examined so far is false, why should we assume that the myth of Christianity is any different?

On any amount of investigation, Christianity sticks out glaringly from other religions. Christianity leans not on following the proper rules and rituals—orthopraxis—but on repentance and faith: orthodoxy. The goal of Christian religion is not to appease God, but to commune with him. Most religions champion an immanent, anthropomorphized deity, or else an unknowable, transcendent one; the Christian God is at once transcendent and immanent (through the incarnation). Other religions are nationalistic; Christianity is universal. Other gods demand sacrifice; God sacrificed his own son. 

Most importantly of all these differences, Christianity differentiates itself in its profound accordance with reality. In every aspect of life—morality, justice, the afterlife—it resonates with how we live in a more profound way than can be expressed in terms of “factual accuracies.”

This is why C.S. Lewis argues compellingly that Christianity is the “true myth.” It accomplishes all of the cultural framing of a myth, and still retains its historical verity. Here, Lewis is using the word “myth” differently from common parlance. Colloquially, at least since the Enlightenment, a myth is a false story whose narrative serves to unify a culture or worldview under a common past and shared goals for the future. Campbell concurs with the historical inaccuracy of myth. For him, however, myths are made up of symbols and motifs, like the hero’s journey, that point to some truth about human psychology. The symbols are “spontaneous productions of the psyche, and each bears within it, undamaged, the germ power of its source.” Unlike his Enlightenment predecessors, Campbell finds value in myths for people today, as they communicate timeless truths about mankind. Campbell’s position is thus often summarized by, “All religions are true, but none is literal.”3

Another alternative is that the symbols are ubiquitous because they point to something true about the world. Since humans are made in the image of God, whatever humans create not only shows something about themselves, but something about God. God planted a seed of his story of redemption inside each human, so that they would be prepared for belief when the real thing took place. As C.S. Lewis sees it, “Myth in general is not misunderstood history…nor diabolical illusion…not priestly lying…but at its best, a real unfocused gleam of divine truth on human imagination.”4 This is a variation of the idea, expressed by St. Augustine, that we are programmed innately to desire God and salvation. As a later poet put it, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”5

The fact that many people share variations of stories about God does not imply either that all of them are perfectly true or that all are fully false. Many of Campbell’s school fall naturally into a subjective pantheism or a cynical nihilism. One could conclude that all these stories’ different, contradictory gods are true at once, or simply that God’s character is reflected in all things, in many different ways. Christianity avoids the irresponsible binary between pantheism and materialism, professing that God created the universe with love, imbuing it, and us, with traces of Him, so that He would not be fully alien to us.

That said, why did God present the story of mankind’s redemption to us in the form of myth? Here, an analogy will be useful. Without fail, I find that I never fully appreciate a song I am shown the first time I listen through it. It requires a second, third, or fifth listen for the harmony to resound with me, for the melody to become catchy, for the lyrics to get stuck in my head. This coincides with the fact of human nature that we love that with which we are familiar. When the echoes of a song are still reverberating in our minds, then we are truly receptive to appreciating it. To learn something consciously, we have to feel like we have always already known it. It is new, but also very familiar.

Similarly, no straightforward description of God’s character is possible or even advisable. Because of our innate tendency to sin, we are inclined towards rebellion against God. Other stories resembling Christianity’s act as bread-crumbs of reconciliation, placed by God to draw us through their beauty unwittingly to Him. A prerequisite for believing in God is wanting to believe in God. Stories are particularly effective for this.

Additionally, Christianity must retain its status as myth, or its transcendent truth would inevitably be disenchanted by the narrow scientism of the materialists. The truths that Christianity presents are ultimate ones; we cannot fully grasp them. Stories, what Campbell would call myths, circumvent our stubborn, prideful rationality and grab hold of our faculties of desire. Accordingly, they do not fit into the frame of a scientific study or a historical narrative. We see this elusiveness in the Old Testament when God reveals himself as a burning bush, cloud, pillar of fire, and even a whisper to the prophet Elijah. Emily Dickinson’s poetry expresses God’s potential motivation behind this exactly:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant
Success in circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.

We are not prepared to handle all of the truth at once, so God feeds it to us a little at a time. What does this all of this say about how we should present the Gospel? It shows that it is handicapping ourselves to refuse to engage people on the level of narrative and meaningful story. People are so attracted to myth, and “hero’s journey” myths in particular, that it is only natural to frame Christianity as the “true myth,” as C.S. Lewis describes it.

Thus, the Christian need not reject offhand Campbell’s theory of the hero’s journey. Campbell, in an interview with PBS, calls the resurrection of Christ, “a clown act, really.” This position is not inherent in his theory, but Campbell, like Jung and the literary theorists before him, is most comfortable with a truth that exists abstractly, none too personal or visceral. He is, in short, a Platonist. In the end, this aversion to physical historicity is more dogmatic than any religion.

Christianity is so powerful as an existential and philosophical system because it uniquely balances the scientific materialism of the Enlightenment and the idealism of Plato. Christianity retains the common-sense practicality of Aristotle and Bacon, and the imaginative inspiration of the Platonists. This fact is best summarized by Lewis: “For this is the marriage of heaven and earth: Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact: claiming not only our love and obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the child, and the poet in each one of us no less than to the moralist, the scholar, and the philosopher.”

Bryce McDonald ‘21 is a joint Classics and Philosophy concentrator in Leverett House.

References   [ + ]

1. Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Pantheon Books, 1949, 23.
2. Chesterton, G. K. The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton. The Ignatius Press ed., InteLex Corporation, 2002, 375.
3. Campbell, 2.
4. Letter to Arthur Greeves, October 18, 1931. Lewis, C. S., et al. Letters of C. S. Lewis. Rev. and enl. ed. / edited by Walter Hooper, rev. Harvest ed., Harcourt Brace, 1993.
5. Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur.”