Have you ever noticed that many of the stories that you love, all have the same core elements?
This is a reality which played a major role in CS Lewis’ conversion from atheism to Christianity, as he discussed it with his friend JRR Tolkien. I told that story in this post, called Addison’s Walk.
Lewis later articulated this concept in Mere Christianity, in which he described how the gospel story of Jesus Christ is the “true myth,” and the fundamental myth, which is written on the human heart, and to which all other myths point.
Joseph Campbell and the Monomyth
It isn’t only Christians who have observed this phenomenon. Joseph Campbell, an American professor of literature who researched comparative mythology, wrote a book titled, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he showed how there is a common structure in the mythological stories told in all human cultures of an archetypal hero. This structure has come to be known as the “monomyth.”
This podcast episode gives a very engaging description of the monomyth theory and how Hollywood has now begun to use it as a formula for writing stories that people want to watch: Imaginary Worlds, The Hero’s Journey: Endgame
I first heard about The Hero with a Thousand Faces while recording a podcast episode for the Expositors Collective Podcast at a training weekend in Bradenton, Florida last December. That episode was released this past week, and you can listen to it here: Expositors Collective, Episode 45: Telling a Compelling Story.
The discussion in that episode is based on a talk I gave at that event on the topic of homiletics (the art of preaching), about how to use narrative format in order to craft compelling expository sermons.
Why Do People Like to Read These Kinds of Stories?
Interestingly, when Joseph Campbell was asked why he thought it was stories contain these common elements, which are all present in the biblical narrative, his response was that the reason people write in this way, is because it is what other people like to read. However, in that response he fails to answer the question and get to the root of the issue, which is: Why do people like to read these kinds of stories?
As Christians, we would agree with Tolkien and Lewis, that the reason for this is because we are created by God, and this story is the true story of the world, which we intuitively know because God has placed it in our minds and put it in our hearts.
This same theme was identified by Don Richardson, a missionary to Papua New Guinea who discovered that there are common virtues and mythologies held in all cultures in the world, and that these shared stories create a basis by which the gospel can be shared cross-culturally, even to people who have never been exposed to the gospel before. He documents and explains this in his books Peace Child and Eternity in Their Hearts.
In our interview, Mike mentions a clip from the Simpsons in which Homer says something profound about the Bible: “Everybody in this book is a sinner… except for THIS GUY!” Here’s the clip:
I recently found out that at the end of the series, J K Rowling revealed that Christianity inspired Harry Potter. In an interview, she stated how she always thought that the influence of the biblical narrative was so obvious that every reader should have noticed it, and that the Bible verses on Harry’s parents’ gravestones “sum up and epitomize the entire story.”
What does all this mean for us?
It means that when you read a story that compels you, when you watch a movie that makes you cry, when you read a news story about heroism that touches your heart, there is a very profound reason for that: that story resonates with and reflects the true story of the world, the gospel story of Jesus Christ – the true story of the ultimate problem, the ultimate peril, the ultimate act of sacrificial love, the ultimate story of good overcoming evil, and the ultimate hero.
If you follow the ladder all the way to the top, it will lead you to Jesus. As you enjoy these stories, don’t fail to recognize that what you truly long for in your heart of hearts is nothing less than Jesus himself and the redemption that is found in him!
4 thoughts on “Compelling Stories & the True Myth”
Excellent piece…there are similar echoes in all great works of art I think…
Yes. Interestingly, the one podcast I give a link to in this post – from Imaginary Worlds – gives a critique of “the hero’s journey” storyline. The guy says that the problem with “the hero’s journey” storyline is that it taps into the ego-centric part of us, which sees ourselves as the hero, and others as being in need of our help or evil and opposed to our mission. While I think there’s some validity to his critique, what he misses from a biblical storyline point of view (which is obviously not where he’s coming from), is that in the biblical storyline JESUS is the hero! – we are those in need of help and in some cases the evil ones who oppose his mission.
We are all looking for true love. We want the good guy to win. We want our kindness to be noticed and valued. Christ is the only answer to all these desires.