Art & Dangerous Ideas: Joseph Campbell
There are few authors as influential as this one when it comes to our series on art and dangerous ideas: Joseph Campbell. Joseph is lauded in our culture as a genius whose ideas are portrayed as universally helpful because his story structure is helpful for writers, but his underlying philosophy attacks the heart of the gospel, and leads Joseph’s followers to reject religions as myths, and substitute psychology for spirituality.
Campbell’s most famous book which is used by writers and storytellers today is, The Hero of a Thousand Faces. This book inspired numerous works of fiction and non-fiction, including George Lucas’ Star Wars saga. And though we, as Christians, are free to utilize ideas and wisdom in other places, we must always come back to measuring its validity by comparing it to the truths in God’s Word. With that in mind, I am going to examine Campbell’s background, his writings, and his mentors.
The Newfound Key: Psychoanalysis
Campbell was a master storyteller who left the catholic church and created a new model for storytelling. This was no small undertaking. His passion was pursuing the idea of one myth to rule all others, and to explain all religions, myths, fairy-tales, legends and folklore as mere snippets and symbols which point to his one “monomyth”. This monomyth was in turn understood through psychoanalysis. His mentors in the arena of psychoanalysis were Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.
The Dangers of Frankenstein
In the spirit of utilizing myths and storytelling to critique and understand other viewpoints, I realized that the story of Frankenstein may have a fitting caveat in this endeavor. This is of concern because when Joseph demonstrates similarities between various myths, archetypes and story structures, this one-size-fits-everything leads to minimizing the parts of legend, myths and religions that don’t fit, easily or at all, with his vision.
In a manner akin to Frankenstein combining old body parts to create a new grand creature, Campbell assembles bits and pieces of religions and myths to create his new grand monomyth. And though it may appear to be alive and healthy for a season, upon closer reflection we can begin to see clearly how it is broken and dangerous.
Joseph’s Cultural Context
Before we continue it can be helpful to understand the life and social context of any influential artist, philosopher, or thinker. To that end, I will take time to explore why Joseph Campbell left the Catholic church and what it was he was looking for when he left.
Joseph’s Religious Background
Joseph Campbell grew up in the Catholic church, in a different era than what we experience today. As he grew up, everything in the Catholic mass was in Latin, without translation. Naturally, as the service was only in Latin, the service itself was bathed in a mystery, symbolism, and imagery only the priests could explain. Joseph loved this sense of mystery. But modernism was taking over churches. Theologians were treating the Bible like a scientific experiment to be stripped down and examined under academic scrutiny. The mystery was gone. Joseph chose to leave this deadly form of Christianity in search of more mystery.
Campbell’s Frustrations Were Right
Joseph was right to be frustrated with the modernist, reductionist approach to theology in the churches and seminaries. The Bible is not dead words written by dead men to be dissected like a corpse. That leads to dead theology and a dead church, and who would want to be a part of a dead church? No one.
They lost sight of the true mystery we are invited into when we realize, “The word of God is alive and active.” (Heb 4:12 – NIV). The God of the Bible is alive, and His Spirit penetrates our hearts, imparts wisdom, showing us what is true, and good, and worth living for. But the churches Campbell attended lost the vision of what it means to live a life “in Christ.” These churches also lost the greater vision of God’s plans for his people. Thus, Joseph did not hear about, much less was he invited into the larger story of God’s epic narrative, wherein we are transformed. Much less did he hear how both the heavens and the earth will be redeemed and transformed. This grand adventure was not presented because the church lost the beauty, mystery, and the very heart of the Gospel.
The Loss of Beauty, Mystery, and Orthodoxy in the Church
No longer were theologians looking up to God in humility or standing in awe of the beauty of the Gospel. They instead treated the Bible like an insect to be dissected and analyzed. In the process, these “theologians” began systematically dismantling and attacking belief in the divinity of Christ, original sin, the belief that Scripture was inerrant, and many other core doctrines. Reason and rationality became the core animating driver, and scientific tools the primary technique. In this era, not only was heresy allowed to flourish in America’s seminaries and pulpits, but this trickled down into a culture which lost the heart of the Gospel.
As St. Augustine clarified, the God of the Bible is the source of The True, The Good, and The Beautiful. Yet in this era many high-profile theologians and seminaries focused so much on The True, it started to move The Good to the back seat, and it nearly kicked The Beautiful to the curb. We lost an appreciation for what is beautiful in worship, in life, and in our theology.
A Missed Corrective
Catholic writers like Von Hildebrand and Von Balthasar would have been helpful thinkers for Campbell to encounter in the midst of his disillusionment with the church and modernist theologians. Von Balthasar described the error of that era in this way,
“We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance, in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past whether he admits it or not can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love”
(p. 18). – Glory of the Lord, by Hans Urs Von Balthasar
Von Balthasar was not referring to beauty as an abstract ideal, but as an essential part of God’s character. We see this beauty in God’s most beautiful act of giving of Himself through a self-sacrificial, agape love for you and me. Jesus dying on the cross was the height of love.
Had Von Balthasar met Campbell, he could have made the case that what was missing in Campbell’s experience in the church was the mystery and beauty of the Gospel. Then, the solution for Campbell could have been to reject the modernist theologians in favor of seeking an intimate and transformational life in Christ. The truly beautiful life is found in a life with Christ, who is our hope, our joy, and our very life. (2 Cor. 5:17) Sadly this did not happen. For Campbell, Jesus Christ would be seen only as a symbol, instead of Christ being the actual source of hope, beauty, and truth.
Joseph Campbell took the opposite direction of Von Balthasar and those who fought for the beauty of the Gospel, beauty in our worship, and orthodoxy in our theology. Campbell rejected theology proper, and objective truth, replacing it with the pursuit of myths, visions and psychoanalysis.
Campbell’s Brave New World of Mythology
Campbell’s new paradigm for understanding all religions, myths and stories is called The Monomyth. This is the one core mythical narrative to which all other myths and religions are but hints and shadows. It was a new metanarrative. Joseph posited that all myths, religions, and fairy tales have similarities because they are connected to our psyche. Joseph believes that these stories are explained and understood properly through psychoanalysis techniques originated by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. His best-selling book, Hero of a Thousand Faces, laid out the ideal, 12 stage, structure and path that Joseph claims our psyche longs for and in which it finds satisfaction. In this world, myth is the source of truth and psychoanalysis is the key.
George Lucas and Joseph Campbell: The Ex-Christian, Myth Makers
Dis-illusioned and dis-enchanted, Joseph left the Catholic church looking for mystery, myth and mystique. George Lucas grew up in the Methodist church, and was drawn to the spiritual stories, rituals and symbols of Christianity, but was in the end left under-inspired. The loss of a vibrant and beautiful Gospel in the church during the years of modernism, led to his abandoning any faith in Christ. Thus, it makes sense that Lucas was drawn to Campbell and that they would become friends celebrating the same ideas.
J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Orthodox Christian, Enchanted Myth Makers
Lest we start to think that the only proper response for every creative person living in the twentieth century would be to abandon organized religion and pursue myth unhinged from orthodoxy, it is helpful to keep in mind the two creative giants of the Christian creative community in that era: J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.
Lewis originally opposed utilizing myth, saying to Tolkien that myths were “lies breathed through silver”. Tolkien responded by writing 148 lines of heroic couplet, from the Myth-Lover (Philomythus) to the Myth-Hater (Misomythus). The poem came to be known as Mythopoeia (Myth-Maker). Humphrey Carpenter’s book, The Inklings, recorded the interchange. A week later, Lewis converted to Christianity, and to Tolkien’s perspective on mythmaking.
The Limitation of Myth-Making for the Campbellian
For Joseph Campbell myths do not refer to any objective reality or truth. Campbell is searching the caverns of our psyche for clues to understand life, free from religious claims, philosophical analysis, or objective truth. He is not leading you to something he claims is true. He is leading you to follow your own bliss, your own happiness, your own experience, and to find your own subjective sense of meaning. Myth is the vehicle, but not the point. Joseph put it this way in the TV show, The Power of Myth.
“God is an idea, but its reference is to something that transcends all thinking. Every god, every mythology, every religion, is true in this sense: it is true as metaphorical of the human and cosmic mystery.”
God is not real or even the point, but only an idea, a reference, or a kind of mask, pointing to something we cannot fully understand or even think about. He specifically states he does not believe in a personal God. Thus, myths for Joseph Campbell are impersonal, and untethered to any objective reality. Consider this interchange in the interview:
BILL MOYERS: You are a man of faith-
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: I’m not…
BILL MOYERS: You’re a man of wonder and…
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yeah, I don’t have to have faith, I have experience.
This fits well with his established framework. As we all know, experience is subjective. So if what he has is experience instead of faith, it makes sense why Campbell cares very little about what is real or not. Faith implies a faith in something, which may be in some object or referent of your faith.
For the Christian creative we have faith in Christ, Faith in God, etc. Campbell has no faith because he does not believe there is anything objective to put his faith in. As Gertrude Stein said famously after her old neighborhood was destroyed and she went back to visit: “There is no there, there!”
In the end, you may inspire people, encourage people, but there is no ultimate meaning. In his interview with the L.A.Times in 1987, Campbell lamented as he saw in the late 1980s that “there is no mythology today, there’s only money.” His follow-up response is telling. “People ask what is the next myth,” Campbell said. “You can no more predict the coming mythology–and it’s got to come–than you can predict tonight’s dream.” So there is no future reality to hold on to. There are no promises of what might be better in the future. This is because in Campbell’s world, no matter the story, the myth, or the movie, it has no real connection to a physical reality, or to what you can predict will happen in the real world. All you have is an experience of what is inside of you.
The Benefit and Promise of Myth-Making for the Christian
In contrast to Campbell’s views, Myth-making for Christians is anchored in what is true and what is real. The stories in Scripture are not fabricated myths to explain earthquakes and lightning storms, like the myths of the Ancient Greek gods. When I studied archaeology in Jerusalem I was surprised that even atheist Archaeologists, such as my professor, Gabriel “Gabi” Barkay insisted on treating the Bible as describing historical events. He would tell us that “One must know and respect the Biblical texts to be taken seriously in this field.“ And even as an atheist he had memorized many verses in the original Hebrew, the Greek Septuagint and an English translation. He is known for discovering the oldest biblical Hebrew inscriptions ever found – they were two silver amulets with inscriptions of the Aaronic Blessing from Numbers 6:24-26, dating to the time of King Hezekiah. The point here is that the Biblical narratives are not myths seeking to create experiences, but accounts of historical events.
J.R.R. Tolkien believed not only in objective reality and stories that point to true events and people, but he also believed in the ability of stories to expose us to truths about what is good, what is evil, and what is true about God. One of the key concepts is that of human “sub-creational powers.” In his draft letter to Peter Hastings, Tolkien writes the remarkable statement that,
“the whole matter [of my myth] from beginning to end is mainly concerned with the relation of Creation to making and sub-creation” (Letters 188,)
Our myth-making as Christians, is anchored in and inspired by The Creation of the heavens and the earth in Genesis 1. We are not equal to God, but we use our gifts of storytelling to honor God. We have the honor and the privilege of using our creative gifts to tell new stories in new ways to explore the depth of God’s love through new metaphors.
This is much like how King David kept “singing a new song” to the Lord. (see Psalm 96:1). But just as the Old Testament used the metaphors of sheep, sacrifices and tabernacles, and just as Christ used parables of sowers and shepherds in His earthly ministry, so today creatives are invited by God to use new metaphors to illuminate truths in new ways that speak afresh to their culture and their audience.
“Mythopoeia”, or myth-making along the lines of Tolkien and Lewis has become an elegant invitation for others to use their gifts to be creative, while honoring God. Storytellers, filmmakers, video game developers, and animators are at home within the Christian community.
Lewis’ Narnia and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings became epic classics for good reason. They inspired audiences and artists across the globe, and will continue to do so. And they did it without abandoning their faith, or insisting in vague myths that point to no real hope, no promise of a sustainable joy. On the contrary, they can echo the true promise of the one, true God who loves us enough to rescue us and redeem us.
2 Types of Myth-Makers in Comparison: Campbellian vs Tolkienian
Campbellian mythmakers can create spectacular stories that inspire and move readers and audiences. It is undeniable in cases like Star Wars that his theories can inspire storytelling that connects with massive audiences. But, as Joseph Campbell states, it does not connect with any truth claims about reality. The myth is only a myth, and is only a subjective, and relative concept. Those who follow Campbell may find satisfaction in experience, but if they are honest about following Campbell, they must deny any desire to know where this tale ends, for there is no real hope to offer, because “there is no there, there.”
Tolkienian mythmakers can also create spectacular stories that inspire and move readers and audiences. It is undeniable in cases like The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, that his approach can also inspire storytelling that connects with massive audiences. But here the myth awakens the audience to something greater, and when they go seeking that greater something they have hope that they will actually find something. Tolkien believed that his myths ring true because they echo the creative and imaginative beauty of God himself. Not a mere mask or another myth behind the idea of God.
This brings us to Joseph’s book, The Hero of a Thousand Faces. In the introduction of his book, Campbell summarizes the monomyth:
“A 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: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
George Lucas was not the only cinematic storyteller to have been influenced by Campbell. Steven Spielberg has also referred to Campbell’s influence. Story structure specialist for Disney studios, Christopher Vogler, ended up writing The Writer’s Journey, which became a virtual handbook for screen writers and novelists on how to integrate Campbell’s insights into their storytelling.
The 12 stages of the hero’s journey are:
1. The Ordinary World
2. Call of Adventure
3. Refusal of the Call
4. Meeting the Mentor
5. Crossing the Threshold
6. Tests, Allies, Enemies
7. The Approach
8. The Ordeal
10. The Road Back
12. Return with the Elixir
Structure and Myth Combinations
These twelve stages of the hero’s journey chart out what Campbell believed was the true structure of the great heroes of all the myths and religions of the world. The structure itself is not problematic. Christians may use it or not use it as they see fit. There is nothing inherently religious about the stages themselves either, but it is important to notice that as Joseph talks about each stage, he quotes myths and religions as if they are interchangeable.
This approach reduces religion to a story, and eliminates the idea that religions have any unique or exclusive claims of truth. He then mixes and combines archetypes from different eras and beliefs. It is all very dazzling as he moves from one motif to another, quoting snippets here and there that have a slight resemblance. Then he pulls the ideas together, proclaiming he knows the “true meaning” behind these stories.
Mixing Religion and Myth
For instance, in the creation “myth”, he combines the pantheistic stories of mother earth with biblical stories of God as the father and creator. He does this in his chapter on the Virgin Birth where he takes the liberty to claim that the phrase in Genesis, “the spirit of God moves upon the face of the water” is actually referring to the mother of earth, who is the “personification of the primal element.” (the element of water). He then proceeds to talk about a Hindu myth about a maternal creator whom he equates with this heretical exposition of Genesis 1. He then portrays Genesis and the Hindy Myth as all part of one monomyth about a mother creating the world.
Illustrations without Validations
He does not research what the verse in Genesis means, or what the Talmud and Christian commentaries have said is orthodox. No. He simply sees something similar to another myth, and calls it, “The Universal Goddess.”(Hero of a Thousand Faces, p.259). He is fond of combining opposites as well. Which is shown in his statement, “The mother of life is at the same time the mother of death; she is masked in the ugly demonesses of famine and disease.”(Hero of a Thousand Faces, p.259) It is important to note that for a book of over 400 pages, with countless examples, over 80 illustrations, and numerous cited works, he does not research or quote any Jewish or Christian Orthodox scholars to see if his interpretations fit the way people have understood these passages for thousands of years. This is because he is not interested in anyone else’s interpretation. This is due, in part, to his frustration with religion and in particular, the catholic church.
Top 8 Problems within The Hero of a Thousand Faces
While his storytelling model has proven useful for many, there are problematic issues which people have highlighted in recent years. I have highlighted the most significant ones here with a Gospel corrective to bring clarity to the difference between Campbell’s worldview and life vs that of Scripture:
1. “These are not the heroes you’re looking for.”
(I’m trusting you get the Star Wars, George Lucas reference here)
In order to pull off the Monomyth illusion, Campbell had to, by necessity, ignore the brutal nature of many myths: Many of the Greek myths contained heroes who are not to be emulated, but something of which we should be horrified. These stories are conveniently omitted when Joseph seeks to make a uniform metanarrative to contain all myths.
“One of the most troubling things about Campbell’s Monomyth is its omission of the truth of Greek heroic myth: heroes hurt people. They threaten families and cities. Herakles goes mad and kills his wife and children, triggering his famous labors as punishment. Achilles prays for his own people to die to pay for a slight to his honor, and his beloved Patroclus gets caught up in this. Odysseus returns home after losing his entire army only to kill 108 of his people and hang the enslaved women of his household.”
– L.A. Review of books. 2021.
Gospel Corrective: The Gospel on the other hand, never presents us with heroes who are grotesque. Sure, there are Pharaohs who make the Israelites into slaves and treat them horribly, but the one, true God is always the rescuer and the redeemer. There are also kings like David, who fall into sin and commit murder and adultery. But these sins are exposed, and God brings justice. There is no need to cherry-pick from stories of the Bible because they all work together as one unified story that gives us hope without sacrificing truth.
2. Where are the Realistic Women?:
As a disciple of Sigmund Freud, this shouldn’t surprise us, but it has been noted by many in recent years that Campbell’s approach is decidedly male centric. Freud believed that women had a “penis envy” that was responsible for their feelings of inferiority and jealousy. He also argued that women were inherently more emotional and irrational than men, and that they were more prone to neurosis and hysteria. These stereotypes are hard to miss in Campbell’s work.
This meant that women are never the protagonist, or if they are, they are depicted in essentially masculine characteristics. In entertainment we see this in TV shows like Buffy, The Vampire Slayer, as well as the Alien movies, or the Tomb Raider videogames which later became movies. Women as the hero are depicted without being feminine, save for a few curves and slightly higher pitched voice. The story is still about conflict and conquest, as if having children and caring for a family is undesirable or even unthinkable because it doesn’t fit the hero’s journey. Katie Martin didn’t pull any punches in her article critiquing Campbell for it in The Atlantic,
“It’s not like there are no women in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Look, there she is in the index: woman, right between wolf image and womb-image. The problem is, of the hero’s 1,000 faces, 999 are male. Aeneas, the Buddha, Taliesin, Cuchulainn … Campbell’s prose, often wonderful, never less than sonorous, actually goes a bit demented when he writes about “woman”: “Woman is the guide to the sublime acme of sensuous adventure.” She may be the muse, the grail, or the goddess. She may be the source of being, or she may be bottomless death. But the adventure itself, with its conquering of monsters and quelling of demons—that’s for the blokes. It’s linear, phallic, acquisitive. “The woman is life, the hero its knower and master.”
Gospel Corrective: The Bible is the opposite. Women are used by God to rescue His people (Esther)) and even to judge (Deborah) His people. People forget the stories of Queen Esther, who saved her entire nation. And if you notice, the Bible does not de-feminize her, or turn her into a man in order for her to be the one God uses to save His people.
It takes courage, but it is the beauty God gave her that enabled her to be in that position in the first place. She does not deny that or fight it. She honors God with the uniquely feminine beauty and grace she has been given while winning over the King by submitting to God’s will and then boldly addressing the King.
Jesus highlighted women in his ministry, and they are given key roles in the Gospel accounts, such as the first people to witness the resurrection. And the surprising nature of inviting women into that role is that other cultures and religions would never have valued the testimony of a woman. The Bible was the correction to other religions who denigrated and dismissed the roles of women. Jesus values women for their unique gifting, talents and abilities.
3. Metanarratives are not what they used to be.
Metanarratives have come under tremendous fire in recent decades. Postmodernists and many modern scholars who came into their positions after Campbell, reject metanarratives completely because they do not seem to encompass a broad enough spectrum of human experience. French postmodernist, Jean-Francoise Lyotard wrote, “I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.”
If Joseph Campbell would have written his books thirty years later they would have been attacked by academia instead of embraced. And though Christians accurately embrace The Bible as a metanarrative, the academic world and artists who embrace Joseph Campbell have been rejecting the idea of metanarratives. Thus, there is an internal inconsistency and tension for a culture that rejects the truths of scripture but wants to explain it with another metanarrative.
Gospel Corrective: The Gospel is a true Metanarrative. Whereas Joseph Campbell seeks to build a metanarrative that points to nothing necessarily true or real, the Gospel provides real hope because it points to a real savior. The story of a God who created everything with order, meaning and purpose invites us into His story of purpose. And then he gives our lives meaning as we learn to walk in His ways and as we are transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit so that we can become like Christ. Furthermore, our story does not end in death. We are promised eternal life with the one God who is true, good and beautiful.
4. Over-simplifying the hero’s journey:
Campbell’s theory reduces the hero’s journey to a simplistic, linear structure, consisting of a set of predictable stages. This approach ignores the complexities of human experience and the potential for multiple and varied outcomes. L.A. Review of Books gave a scathing, if not poetic and insightful critique utilizing a graphic myth:
“The Monomyth is the ultimate example of this simplifying of narrative patterns. It reminds us in a way of the Greek myth of Procrustes, the criminal hotelier who cut guests up or stretched them out to fit the bed of his choosing. Campbell started with a thesis and a fictive metric and then cut global myths to fit his Odyssean bed.”
Gospel Corrective: The Christian faith suffers from no such malady. We do not need to force other stories to fit within our worldview because the stories in the Bible already fit. Amazingly, the Biblical narrative is consistent throughout. Even though it is comprised of 66 books, written by 40 authors of the Bible, who did not all live in the same place or time as each other.
5. Playing fast and easy with cultures:
Campbell’s approach overlooks the vast diversity of cultures and their unique storytelling traditions. The notion that all cultures have a single, universal story is reductionist and ignores the unique cultural, historical, and social contexts in which these stories emerge.
Yet, Campbell’s theory asserts that all myths and legends from around the world follow the singular structure of the “monomyth.” If Joseph Campbell tried to promote this idea today, he might have been cancelled over cultural appropriation due to the oversimplifying of other cultures. The irony again is that the very same people who love Joseph Campbell for being anti-traditionalist and anti-religious, are the same people who would object to him using cultures and oversimplifying them by absorbing them into one overarching myth. So, we see again an internal inconsistency and tension that does not hold.
NOTE: To be clear, I do not agree with the philosophy behind cancel culture or the fomenting of hatred toward anyone with a hint of cultural appropriation. We can celebrate other cultures without being guilty of appropriation. We should also acknowledge in the west that our own culture is not one singular culture, but rather an amalgam of all the cultures within it, and cultures that came before it such as those in Europe, as well as Ancient Rome and Greece, and the Judeo-Christian Cultures.
Gospel Corrective: The apostle Paul modeled his approach to evangelism at Mars Hill. He respected and investigated the culture of those he sought to convert to Christianity. Then he helped connect their own cultural practices to the Gospel. (Acts 17:22-31).
Paul did not require the Romans to start dressing and eating like people in Jerusalem. Unique cultural traditions are not forbidden by Scripture unless they directly oppose the gospel (hedonism, cannibalism, idolatry, etc.) The Gospel is not culturally bound, nor intrinsically hostile to cultures. If you travel the world, worshiping with Christians in other nations and contexts you can experience the beauty and joy of how this is expressed uniquely in each context.
6. Narcissistic, anyone?
The Monomyth invites audiences to be focused on their own life and story as a protagonist. Everyone else is either an enemy or an aide in your journey. Imbibing this Monomyth as a primary way to understand your stories and your life (Yes, these ideas are used in life-coaching and by self-help gurus), is a nearly perfect invitation to becoming narcissistic. You are the only significant character. Everyone else are obstacles, objects, or people there to help you in your journey. This doesn’t lead to healthy communities, but to every-man-for-himself. If he was more inclusive it would also be every-woman-for-herself.
Gospel Corrective: The beauty of the Gospel is that we are not the center of the story. Christ did not come to make us our own little victor in our own little battle in order for us to feel great about our own little story. The opposite is true. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his classic book, The Cost of Discipleship, wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Christ calls a man (or woman) to admit that we need a savior. He actually bid’s us to come and die to our story, so that we can come alive to the greater story in which we are playing a role. This undermines the very narcissistic tendency which Campbell’s Hero is more prone to embrace.
7. The Always Victorious Protagonist and the Lack of Agency in Other Characters:
Campbell’s theory tends to overlook the agency of other characters in the story who may play a significant role in the hero’s journey. This perspective diminishes and ignores the complexity of relationships and interactions within a narrative. Consider the famous story of Oedipus, wherein the hero is trapped by fate. Regardless of how hard he tried to avoid it, he still ended up marrying his mother and killing his father.
The Greeks appreciated the sinfulness and depravity of man, and their gods were just divinized men. Oedipus is a classic and well-known myth, of which Joseph Campbell would have been familiar, but it goes against the theory of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Thus, it is omitted and ignored. Conveniently.
Gospel Corrective: The nature of the Bible is that the stories are not essentially about the journey of the individuals. It is not about their perfect ability to overcome obstacles and to conquer their foes. Abraham and Moses both had successes and failures. They both had moments of great faith and moments of failure and weakness. The essential point here is that God is the over-arching protagonist working in the lives and cultures of His people.
There is great complexity, nuance and subtlety because God allows us to play a smaller role, while inviting us into his grand, epic story. We don’t have to carry the whole story, nor does any other person. God is the creator and perfector of our faith. He is also the one writing the grand story of which we are part.
8. Lacking empirical evidence:
Campbell’s theory is largely speculative and subjective, relying on his own interpretations of myths and legends rather than objective analysis. While he draws on a vast array of stories, he provides little to no empirical evidence to support his claims. As Sarah E. Bond and Joel Christensen wrote in their article for the L.A. Review of Books,
“Campbell’s theory is as mythological as the stories from which it borrows.”
Campbell has to shoehorn into one metatheory the countless details of disparate myths, cultural stories, shamanistic fables, and religious narratives.
Gospel Corrective: The Bible, on the other hand is compiled of 66 books and 40 authors whose stories interweave and complement one another. Even though they did not know each other, they were governed and inspired by one author, God Himself. As we read in 2 Timothy 3:16,
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”
The Old Testament has the benefit of corroborating stories from other ANE (Ancient Near Eastern) texts. James Pritchard compiled them in his book, here. You can also find examples of Egyptian, Assyrian and Babylonian texts referring to events in the Old Testament. The New Testament too has the benefit of corroborating evidence from extra-biblical texts like the Roman historian Eusebius of Caesarea, Josephus Flavius, and even the Jewish Talmud.
The Final concern with Joseph Campbell is his inspiration derived from Psychologist Carl Jung, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and mystic priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. There is not enough space here to fully unpack and address what each of these men contributed to Joseph Campbell’s work, nor where each of their ideas become dangerous and heretical.
However, it is important to note that when Campbell left the Catholic Church in search of more myths and less structure, he found inspiration with these mystics and occultists. Here is a brief overview of his influences:
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: Mysticism, Evolution, and the Occult
Teilhard was a priest who left the faith to embrace myth, pantheism and disgustingly, eugenics. Jardin’s books were forbidden by the Catholic church in all libraries and bookstores, and Pope Pius XII described Teilhard’s works as “a cesspool of errors.” He was a theologian who sounded more like Deepak Chopra than a theologian respected by orthodox scholars. His mysticism included depictions of accounts whereby he was possessed by an evil spirit. His views of mysticism and evolution transformed any orthodox view of Christ into disturbing and heretical views.
A brief example is here where Pierre claimed, “Christ saves. But must we not hasten to add that Christ, too, is saved by Evolution?” (Le Christique, 1955). So the historical accounts and the Christian doctrines are thrown to the side, as he tries to fit Jesus into his evolutionary mystical paradigm. Campbell’s interest in Pierre makes senses due to Campbell’s desires to leave the orthodox beliefs and doctrine in favor of myth that supersedes organized religion. Pierre was an all too perfect, yet dangerous doorway out of orthodox Christianity and into the occult and mysticism.
Carl Jung: Subjectivism, Mysticism, and Syncretism
Jung was fascinated with the occult, using channeling as a path to insight and healing. Traces of these ideas and inspirations can be found throughout Campbell’s works with myth. Jung was the son of a protestant minister who left the faith and apparently collapsed in the process. Like Joseph Campbell, his disenchantment with the Gospel and with the Church was the first step toward pursuing alternative myths and the occult.
“I saw how hopelessly he [my father] was entrapped by the Church and its theological thinking. They had blocked all avenues by which he might have reached God directly, and then faithlessly abandoned him. Now I understood the deepest meaning of my earlier experience: God Himself had disavowed theology and the Church founded upon it.” (p. 93, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, by Carl Jung)
Jung concluded that God rejected the church and all the theology of the church. This led Jung to create his own alternative views, his own ‘theology’, and his own religion/myth.
Jung’s Demons and Heresies
Jung posited new beliefs that were guaranteed to shock. For example, he proposed a “Quaternity” instead of a Trinity, with Satan becoming one of the four Persons of the Godhead. He held not that good should overcome evil, but that it should reconcile with evil.
In one sense, this should not surprise us. If one is trying to incorporate the yin and the yang with the Bible, you are going to produce ideas neither belief system would accept. Jung’s theology, philosophy and psychology are all tied up in Gnosticism and the occult. Though I don’t have time to explore all of these themes here, consider this quote about being possessed by a demon:
“I have had much trouble getting along with my ideas. There was a demon in me, and in the end its presence proved decisive. It overpowered me, and if I was at times ruthless it was because I was in the grip of the demon. I could never stop at anything once attained. I had to hasten on, to catch up with my vision. Since my contemporaries, understandably, could not perceive my vision, they saw only a fool rushing ahead.” (p. 356, – Memories, Dreams, Reflections)
Jung’s Inspiration came through men like atheist philosopher Nietzsche, who spent the last few years of his life in an asylum. Nietzsche was an outspoken opponent of Christian theism, as he despised a humble Christ. Nietzsche preferred a hero who would overcome his enemy by force. The reading of Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra was “a tremendous experience” for Jung (p. 102, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, by Carl Jung). This revulsion toward Christians and their theology finds resonance in Jung and in Joseph Campbell, particularly in the core vision of the hero. For Jung, Nietzsche, and Campbell the call of all these great myths is for us to rise up and become our own hero.
While this sounds inspiring, and may work in a novel, it does not work spiritually. We cannot purge ourselves from our own sins or our sinful ways. We also cannot make atonement for our own sins. At best, we are left to our own devices. It reminds me of what my friends in AA warn about trusting in ourselves. They say, “Your best thinking got you here.” The implication: Why would your own thinking get you out?
Gospel Corrective: Within Christianity we find not a call to be our own hero, but to place our trust in Christ. Then we begin to understand how He is our hero, our king, and our savior. Our hope is not in our own strength, but in the God who is sovereign over all. Nietzsche could not accept Jesus as a Hero. He despised a man who would suffer on the cross for others. It was repulsive to him, and a core point of Christianity that he hated. He could not see beyond the humiliation to see the love and the triumph in the resurrection. Humility was not an option.
Rejecting Religions, Yet Appearing Inclusive
Jung sidestepped debate by reducing religion to personal preference and subjectivity. This avoided any debates or attempts to reconcile his ideas with any others. They don’t need to interact. Judaism is in the mind of the Jew. Christianity is only in the mind of the Christian. Hinduism is only in the mind of the Hindu. All objective truth claims in any religion became a subjective, internal idea:
“…every religion is a spontaneous expression of a certain predominant psychological condition” (p. 108, Psychology and Religion), Carl Jung.
The result of this subjectivism is the ability to sidestep and dismiss any theological questioning or debate, because theology is completely subjective. Our culture is tremendously influenced by these Jungian ideas today, which we encounter when people talk about, “my truth” or say “well, that’s not my experience.” Experience and preference always triumph over any truth claims or objective standards for one who embraces Carl Jung.
This has the appearance of being tolerant of other perspectives. But in truth, this approach is proclaiming that anyone who thinks they know what is true, is wrong. Thus, it is judgmental at the exact point where it pretends to be accepting and tolerant. Thus, Christians or Jews who believe the Old and New Testament are seen as foolish, naïve people. Hindus are wrong. Muslims are wrong. Eskimos were wrong. The Greeks were wrong. Only the gurus of the day, Jung and Campbell, can show us what no one else can see. A new Gnosticism, and Jungians have the true secret knowledge which all others have missed.
A Final Comment on “Following Your Bliss”
Joseph Campbell’s famous line of “follow your bliss” is born out of this Jungian idea that your subjective conscious is where you find truth. This is one of the most attractive and dangerous ideas Campbell promoted. It denies our selfish tendency to choose things that are wrong or bad for us (a.k.a. – sin). It denies the reality of self-deception. It also puffs up the ego, encourages narcissism and can become an excuse to dismiss constructive criticism.
Today, people use the adapted phrase, “follow your heart.” Once again, it sounds so lovely and affirming. And if it were helpful and true that would be nice. But it is not helpful. As the prophet Jeremiah wrote, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9 – NIV). We are not called to trust our heart. We are called to trust the word of the Lord, as Proverbs tells us:
“Every word of God is pure;
He is a shield to those who put their trust in Him.”
– Proverbs 30:5-6 (NIV)
And we are warned,
“There is a way that seems right to a man,
but its end is the way to death.”
– Proverbs 14:12 (NIV)
Following The Truth
Freedom does not come in finding our own subjective bliss. Jesus made it clear,
“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32 -NIV).
Though we can appreciate that Campbell and his mentors were frustrated by things within the church, we cannot embrace their alternative. They chose not to stay in the church and help correct the modernistic and reductionistic tendencies of the day that led to a lifeless, hollow tradition. Instead, they abandoned the church, and sought to build their own stories from images, myths and the occult. The Apostle Paul’s words still ring true as the inspired Word of God:
“For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.”
– Romans 1:21-23 (ESV)
Joseph Campbell’s works were creative, and His ideas of story structure have been helpful for many writers. Nonetheless, Campbell’s passion for myth, mystery and psychoanalysis led him into heresies, Gnosticism and claims that treat Jesus Christ as a mere man, or merely a symbol. At one point he wrote, “Lord Jesus seemed to me in some ways a god of death…a crucified and bloody corpse.” (p. 13, Memories, Dreams, Reflections). There is no way to read Campbell and conclude he is anything but blasphemous.
Reading Joseph Campbell to find truth may feel like digging for treasure at first. But digging through the dirt is only safe as long as the dirt isn’t filled with poison. As I read section after section of Hero of a Thousand Faces, and The Power of Myth, I found utter disrespect for Jesus, and the Bible.
Sure, Campbell sounds nice. But the deceiver never comes out and tells you he is deceiving you. He pretends to be wise, nuanced, and tolerant. Then with a dazzling, silver tongue he leads you to believe that he, Satan, is the fourth part of the trinity. And then he convinces you that Christianity is but a myth and a vapor. This is the result of studying Carl Jung or Joseph Campbell. People who reject Jesus, and who embrace mysticism and occult should not be consulted for wisdom.
The company we keep has a way of influencing us in ways we rarely notice.
“Whoever keeps company with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools suffers harm.” Proverbs 13:20, ISV
Consider also the clear warning of 1 Corinthians 15:33:
“Do not be misled: “’Bad company corrupts good character.” NIV
These are not the storytellers you are looking for!
Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, and Friedrich Nietzsche are bad company for your heart, your soul, your creative joy, and your stories. Don’t waste your precious time. Instead, spend the time to examine the ideas of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Dante Alighieri, and many others who pose no threat of poisoning your spirit in the process.
May we all love the lord our God now and forevermore,
With all our heart
With all our soul
With all our creativity
With all our stories
With all our artwork
With all our lives.
What are your thoughts?
What other writers do you recommend who do not contradict the Biblical truths?
What do you think of Joseph Campbell?
What have you found helpful and what has been a concern in your creative work?
I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments, and dialogue with you.
Copyright © 2023 Joel & Michelle Pelsue. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.