Compelling Stories & the True Myth

opened bible on wooden surfaca

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 Facesin 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.

Popular Examples

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!

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“All That is Gold Does Not Glitter”

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.

J.R.R. Tolkien – The Fellowship of the Ring

I remember as a kid, discovering my parents’ record collection, and listening to their albums on the turntable in our basement. My favorite album was Led Zepplin IV: the one which had all the symbols for the title.

In that album there were several references to J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, particularly in The Battle of Evermore and Misty Mountain Hop, and of course the opening lines of Stairway to Heaven: “There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold, and she’s buying the stairway to heaven.”

That is a reference to a poem from The Fellowship of the Ring, a riddle which is found in Gandalf’s letter to Frodo, which he left for him at Bree. Frodo only realizes later that the riddle is about a person: Strider, AKA Aragorn, the true king – who is the Christ figure in the story.

Yesterday was Tolkien’s 125th birthday. Born John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, the Oxford don never actually aimed to be a fantasy writer, but the fantasy literature he wrote led to a subsequent surge in fantasy writing. Tolkien did not consider The Lord of the Rings to be his greatest achievement. Tolkien’s main passion was linguistics, and he created multiple working languages over the course of his life.

As I have written about before (see: Addison’s Walk), Tolkien was very interested in the topic of what he called “fairy stories,” and why it is that they captivate people the way they do, especially in an age of science and reason. He believed that the reason is because the characteristic features of all the great stories reflect the deep human longings – and as such, they point to an underlying reality which is more real that reality as we experience it.

Upon further reflection Tolkien recognized that all these key elements are also present in the gospel story of Jesus. His conclusion was that the gospel is not just one more story which points to this underlying reality, but that the gospel isthe underlying reality to which all the stories point.

The movies that move you to tears. The stories which you can’t get enough of, even though they contain the same elements as all the other stories: heroic self-sacrifice, life out of death, love without parting, good overcoming evil, victory snatched from the jaws out death, etc… The reason we can’t get enough of these stories is because they point to THE STORY which is written on our hearts. Tolkien was the master story teller precisely because he understood this.

When Tolkien wrote “All that is gold does not glitter,” he was not only referring to Aragorn, but to a fundamental and biblical truth: that some of the most precious and truly valuable things in this world are not monetary or even material at all.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you,”

“…your faith which is more precious than gold” (1 Peter 1:3-4, 7)

Addison’s Walk

I took my family for a walk the other day down a path called Addison’s Walk: a mile-long footpath around an island created by the river Cherwell in Oxford, England. The island and the path are part of Magdalen College, one of the 39 colleges that makes up Oxford University.

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It was there on Addison’s Walk that CS Lewis and his friend Jack, AKA J.R.R. Tolkien, had a conversation late one night after dinner, which Lewis later said was a turning point in his journey from atheism to Christianity.

Tolkien and Lewis both taught at Oxford and they were both part of the Oxford literary society known as “The Inklings”. The Inklings would meet regularly at two pubs in Oxford: the Eagle and Child, which they nicknamed “Bird and Baby”, and the Lamb and Flag. Both pubs are still there today, on opposite sides of the same street. At their meetings, the Inklings would discuss literature and share their writings with each other. It was at the Lamb and Flag that Tolkien read his first drafts of The Lord of the Rings.

Lewis and Tolkien shared a love for stories. They both felt the power of stories, and Tolkien had written a book titled, On Fairy Stories, which discussed how even in a scientific age, an “age of reason,” for some reason, people still desire to hear and to read fictional stories, even stories which talk about a supernatural world. The reason for this, he said, is that the characteristics which make up all the stories which people love: good overcoming evil, escaping time, overcoming physical limitations, interacting with non-human creatures and other-worldly beings, etc.; these reflect the deep longings of the human heart.

The reason we can’t get enough of these stories, Tolkien argued, is because deep down we believe that this is the way the world SHOULD BE, even if it’s not the way it currently is. The reality of life is that good doesn’t always win, that eventually we are separated from those we love, and so on – but even if this is how things are, it’s not how we believe that they should be. And so we love to read stories which describe life the way we believe it should be.

CS Lewis agreed with Tolkien on this point, and believe that this was indeed the power of stories. However, Tolkien took it one step further that night on Addison’s Walk: he told his friend CS Lewis to consider the gospel story of Jesus Christ. This story, he said, contains all of the elements which make every great story great: love which overcomes death, life out of death, victory snatched from the jaws of defeat, overcoming physical limitations, the promise of a world where things finally will be the way they should be… Lewis agreed.

Then Tolkien went one step further: he said, the gospel story of Jesus Christ is not just one more good story which points to the underlying reality, it is the underlying reality to which all other stories point.

The gospel story of Jesus Christ is not just one more good story which points to the underlying reality, it is the underlying reality to which all the other stories point.

CS Lewis then asked how he could be sure, to which Tolkien encouraged him to look at the historical facts surrounding Jesus’ resurrection.

It was that conversation which CS Lewis credited with leading him back to Christian faith. He went on to be one of the most effective apologists for CHristianity in the 20th century, partly because he was so intelligent, partly because he had been an atheist and was personally familiar with the arguments against Christianity, and partly because he was a layman and not a Christian minister.

I walked with my kids along Addison’s Walk, along the River Cherwell, and I told them the story of how Clive Lewis and Jack Tolkien had taken that walk along the same path, and I told them how Tolkien had shared with his friend this message of the gospel, and how all the things which cause us to love the stories we love point to “the true story of the world” – the story of Jesus and what he did for us.

As I did, my voice cracked a little bit as I tried to hold it together; you see, my heart has these deep longings as well. The promise of the gospel is that these things will not only remain longings, but one day they will once again be true, because of what Jesus did for us.