One Story to Rule Them All
The Hero’s Journey.
You may not be familiar with the theory, but if you’ve watched any movies in the last few decades, you probably know the story. An unlikely hero receives a call to leave home and enter into a bigger world, finds guidance from a wise mentor, overcomes obstacles and opposition until achieving a goal, and then returns home—forever changed—while the world benefits from the hero’s deeds.
The “Hero’s Journey” (or monomyth) was introduced by mythologist Joseph Campbell, with Time Magazine naming his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces one of the 100 most influential books ever written. It was later popularized by Christopher Vogler, a creative development executive for Disney who,during the making of The Lion King, circulated a 7-page memo applying the theory to film. Hollywood executives went nuts over it, and they’ve been sending cinema’s greatest heroes—Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins, Katniss Everdeen, Nemo, Spider-Man, Simba, Luke Skywalker—on the journey ever since. In fact, Star Wars was so deeply influenced by the idea that George Lucas referred to Joseph Campbell as “my Yoda.”
A Universal Human Yearning
The Hero’s Journey story cycle is hardwired into humans on a deep, subconscious level. Myths from throughout history and across cultures universally tell (in full or part) the same archetypal story. In other words, storytellers did not start with a template and then create plots to fit it; they simply told stories and, amazingly, a unified and shared narrative—a monomyth—emerged.
The reason these stories resonate with people as much as they do is because they hit on something deep within us. Star Wars is timeless not because of the spectacle or revolutionary special effects but because we connect with Luke Skywalker’s coming-of-age journey. In 1997, The Lord of the Rings was voted the greatest book of the 20th century (and rightfully so!). For almost seven decades, readers have resonated with Frodo’s journey from the peaceful Shire to the dark land of Mordor, with his perseverance and sacrifice, with good prevailing over evil. These and so many other beloved stories connect with people because they contain timeless human truths and yearnings. The hero’s journey is, in a sense, the human journey.
The True Myth
The existence of so many parallel myths has led numerous people to discount the story of Christ Jesus as just another face of the archetypal hero, following the same fictional path as so many others, many of whom predate Jesus by thousands of years. And yet, this universal story must have a source. The hero’s journey is as anti-Darwinian as possible, leaving little room for an evolutionary origin. So, where does it come from?
It comes from the realization that Jesus is not just one of a “thousand faces,” nor is the Gospel merely another version of the timeless tale. Rather, Jesus is the hero whom all lesser heroes reflect, and the Gospel is the one true myth.
This realization was the essence of C. S. Lewis’ conversion to Christianity. Lewis believed that the great myths were merely “lies breathed through silver.” J. R. R. Tolkien, however, argued, “We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God.” “You mean,” said Lewis, “That the story of Christ is simply a true myth, a myth that works on us in the same way as the others, but a myth that really happened? In that case,” he said, “I begin to understand.” Several weeks later, Lewis converted to Christianity.
The truth that C. S. Lewis and many others have discovered is that humanity’s universal stories do not discredit the truth of the Gospel; they are a result of it. The fact that there are so many “Christ figures” in popular stories is because there was a true Christ figure whose sacrificial actions reverberate deep in our soul. The heroes in stories yearn for deliverance and a “happy ending” (or a eucatastrophe, to borrow Tolkien’s word) because human history is itself the story of God’s redemption and deliverance of His people and an eternal future hope.
The reflection of Christian truth we find scattered throughout Hollywood films and popular novels is not only due to the influence of the Christian religion on society; it is the result of Christ’s influence on eternity. Stories have always been humanity’s method of understanding ourselves and the world in which we live. The good news is that, unlike our imperfect fictional narratives, the Gospel story is the one true and perfect myth.