Monomyth Myth

Since I’ve been exploring movies as the locus of truth, and meaning, for contemporary religious culture, I can’t avoid Joseph Campbell.  His interpretation of mythology—long discounted by mythographers of specific cultures—influenced film makers like Stanley Kubrick, the various Batman directors, and, most famously, George Lucas.  Campbell’s interviews and his eventual series The Power of Myth highlighted his work, even as specialist scholars noted the problems with it.  This is the subject of an essay in the LA Review of Books.  This story, written by a couple of professors (Sarah E. Bond and Joel Christensen), exposes the problem with Campbell’s “monomyth,” perhaps best typified by his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  This is stuff I realized as a postgrad student—Campbell didn’t footnote much and as Bond and Christensen note,  he “cherry picked” examples rather than looking at myths in context.

Image credit: Joan Halifax, via Wikimedia Commons (via Flickr)

One of my observations, when it comes to movies, is that people take their truths from movies, like they’re modern myths.  In other words, although Campbell’s method may’ve been faulty, he gave us Star Wars and the rest is history.  I rest on the horns of this dilemma.  My dissertation (and consequent first book) on Asherah was based on the idea of contextualizing myths.  In other words, I was arguing against a monomyth.  At the same time I’ve come to see that scholars don’t determine what people believe—culture does.  Consider how distorted the “Christianity” of Trump supporters is and you’ll see what I mean.  People don’t read scholars to find these things out.  Besides, wasn’t Campbell an academic?

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Without reaching out to the masses, academia turns in smaller and smaller circles.  Many of us who desperately want to be in its ranks are turned away because there just aren’t enough jobs.  At the same time, people will go to movies and they will be exposed to the monomyth, and they may even build their lives around it.  Isn’t that a way of becoming true?  Mythology, despite popular perception, is a complex subject.  There’s a lot going on in what may appear to be simple, or even naive, stories.  They have similar themes, but as I was warned—stay away from that other great popularizer of folklore, James Frazer.  His “parallelomania” was also out of control.  But Frazer and Campbell both understood something that those long in the academy often forget—people are hungry for stories that give meaning to their lives.  And these stories, even if academically questionable, become truth.

Awakening Forces


Star Wars: The Force Awakens does not disappoint. Many of us who saw the original installment recognized the archetypal image right away. Good versus evil, light and darkness, the quest for the father, and a host of other tropes backed the story in ways that made us believe we were in a galaxy far, far away. As is well known, the mythographer Joseph Campbell was closely consulted on the movie, bringing his own Jungian understanding of myth to the story. We felt that we cared about the outcome of these characters’ lives. Prequels are, of course, a hard sell. Although technically proficient, the Sith episodes I-III dulled the eyes of many original fans. It wasn’t just because the action had to be all “shoot-‘em-up” western style either. There is a logic to mythology, and yes, whether we want to admit it or not, religious imagery. The Force Awakens returns to that religious, archetypal imagery and it shows not only in box office numbers, but in the reviews.

This is one of those movies that kept interrupting my subconscious the night after I saw it, even as a matinee. There was some powerful imagery going on there. Having seen the film only once, I’m sure much of it escaped me, but even based on the trailers people were wondering about the cruciform light saber wielded by Kylo Ren. Naturally, the force does awaken, carrying the mythology further. C-3PO, however, is the one who blurts out “Thank the Maker” when the resistance finally gets a break. What would a robot know of the force? Visions and prophets, the stuff of classical conflicts of good and evil, are fully present and accounted for. Even the marking of Finn’s helmet in the opening scene has elements of the Passover to it.

What stayed with me the most is a concept traditionally associated with the Quakers—the light within. Kylo Ren is struggling to defeat that light. Others are, in effect, praying for him to realize that it is still there. The force pervades every living thing, but humanoids have the light within. Movies that understand this kind of archetypal thinking quickly draw a fan base. Part of what we are seeing on the screen moves beyond entertainment to a kind of religious thinking. The original trilogy led to the growth of an actual religion called Jediism. The tenets are almost Manichean in their duality, and despite an ending that leaves you wondering, those who know the power of mythology have no doubts who, at the end, will be victorious. It is the way of the force.

Star Lords

Things are done differently in the UK. I suppose that’s obvious, but I have always noticed on my trips between our respective countries that some things that go without saying here or there receive the opposite treatment overseas. We are, however, united by a common religious heritage that sometimes goes unrecognized. A recent opinion piece by Giles Fraser in the Guardian discusses the banning of a commercial featuring the Lord’s Prayer in cinemas. The first difference that came to mind is that advertisements for something like the Lord’s Prayer seem unlikely in the United States. We are a biblically-based, biblically illiterate society, and if someone is willing to put up the money, advertisements are a no-brainer. A second difference is, as Fraser points out, there is fear that the Lord’s Prayer might offend people. Surely there are those who will take offense, but Fraser points out that there is nothing offensive in this prayer. It isn’t an attempt to convert. It is reflective, irenic, peaceful.

The point of this opinion piece, apt when Christmas wars are in the air, is that freedom of religion requires a dose of common sense. Yes, many atheists are offended by religious practices, but the question is whether we can ever completely avoid offending one another over belief. Beliefs differ. Not even everyone agrees with “live and let live.” The problem is that some offensive ideas lead to violence. We’ve forgotten how to talk with one another. In this world of uber-security, we find difference terrifying. Religious difference especially. So the angry atheists suggest religion should be driven indoors and rendered mute. Which violates what some religions are all about.

The British ad was to take place before the airing of the new Star Wars movie. One need not be a detective to discern the deep and inherent religious message in the original series of the franchise. Indeed, people were disappointed with the prequels because they had lost that sense of mythic grandeur that Joseph Campbell had been so helpful in instilling in the original trilogy. The films were made with religion in mind. Hidden behind a mask, perhaps, but clearly there. If Yoda had uttered something like the Lord’s Prayer, it would have been accepted as merely part of a movie. And as the reboot trilogy shows without doubt, movies have the power to offend.


Jedi Night

Star_Wars_Phantom_Menace_posterIt all began with that trailer. You know, the teaser for the new Star Wars movie. I was among those many small-town boys crowding into theaters in 1977 to have their small-town minds blown with a Luke Skywalker, somehow just like us, getting to go on a galactic adventure and conquering evil. It was a transformative experience. Later I was to learn that noted Jungian mythologist Joseph Campbell had advised on the story, helping to produce image after archetypal image that spoke to deep levels of viewers’ psyches. Hungrily we watched, as even through some missteps, the franchise grew to trilogy proportions, creating its own cultural memes (has “I am your father” ever been the same since?). Then somehow I missed The Phantom Menace, or episode one. It could be that work at the time (Nashotah House) was an epic struggle in its own right. With a small child and not sure about baby-sitting options, taking a night out to watch the prequel to a story that had already nicely resolved itself felt kind of pointless. We already knew how it ended. But that trailer. Now it seems, the story will continue.

So it was that my wife and I decided to catch up. Over the weekend we watched The Phantom Menace. Of course, I’d seen clips before. I’d also read the reviews that were less than complementary (Joseph Campbell had died in the meantime and George Lucas couldn’t seem to come up with archetypes on his own). I was curious, but not curious enough to rent the video (as people did in those days). So The Phantom Menace, cast from the same die as episode 4, also has a strong religious resonance. The Jedi (and already the religion of Jediism has begun to appear) filled the backstory with near invincibility, and all the aliens seemed somehow comic, yet we are told remarkably little about the Force. Perhaps episode 4 had said enough. When Darth Vader is introduced as a prescient boy, the audience (at least this audience) finds it hard to believe he is the result of a virgin birth. Indeed, Lucas throws us the midi-chlorians as a sop, but we know that when a woman gives birth with no male intervention we’re in messianic territory. And of course, non-Muppet Yoda tells us straight up that he may be the chosen one.

Introducing the Sith, who are the embodiment of the dark side of the force, we are treated to a devil in only a thin disguise. The red and black greasepaint warn us that when he removes his hood he will have horns. Although we’re not shown, I suspect he has cloven feet as well. So through the movie with its gratuitous cameos of creatures we already know from episode 4, we come to an end that is strangely familiar. We’re back where we started. The Jedi favor earth tones over white, however, and the Sith is neither all red nor all black. The evil of the galactic empire seems to be no more than the very real overtaxation of the poor. And yet for all my disappointment, there’s that trailer we all saw in December, and using my own version of the Force, I foresee an attack of clones in my future.

Final Frontier?

Stay away from the dark side. That’s generally good advice. Ironically, new religious movements (NRMs, in the biz) have come up in my conversations quite a bit lately. Some of my friends have suggested that I start a new religion—job security would no longer be an issue. I’ve been studying religions my whole life, and at times I’m sorely, sorely tempted. Meanwhile a friend pointed me to a story on about Jediism. Yes, there is a religion based on Star Wars—actually, I shouldn’t be too hasty here. There is at least one religion based on Star Wars; likely there are many. The question that is indubitably raised is okay, so do these people actually believe this stuff? Don’t they know Star Wars was written by George Lucas? How can it be a religion? I can only respond with: Have you ever heard of Scientology? Religions do not have to be believable to be believed in. History has shown that time and again.


Jediism is based on the teachings of saints like Yoda and Obi Wan Kenobi. What they are teaching is straight Joseph Campbell. Served neat. Good versus evil. A sense that a cosmic force surrounds us. The hero’s journey. The same thing can be found in the Bible. Wrap it up in a Jedi cloak or in a Galilean robe and the end result isn’t much different. I’ve seen bumper stickers suggesting that Obi Wan died for my sins. Just as long as good wins out in the end, who’s to complain? Does it really matter if it happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away or just away in a manger?

The problem with religion is that we lack a proper definition. Christianity clearly uses the word to describe itself. When looking at those who thought differently (adherents of Judaism, Roman paganism, the great goddess of Syria) early Christians had to call them something. If Christianity is a religion, so must they all be. Some religions, however, are not based on belief, but practice. To be is to do. Some religions are based on historical people, some on fictional people. Some are very serious while others are difficult to tell. Some religions are ancient, but looking at the state of the world it’s hard to say that they’ve been terribly successful. So when a bunch of sci-fi fans think they’ve discovered the truth in the mind of George Lucas, who’s to argue? And I really do mean that about keeping away from the dark side.

Campbell’s Swansong

InnerReachesofOuterSpace Joseph Campbell may not be the best reading for the bus. Despite the many signs and placards gently suggesting to passengers both in the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and on the buses themselves, that keeping quiet is courteous, we are a people in love with noise. We are used to annoying electronic beeps, squawks, and farts. People find it difficult to sit more than 20 minutes without talking. I’m trying to read. At the Hunterdon County Library Book Sale I picked up Joseph Campbell’s last book, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space. It requires some concentration. Campbell was a brilliant comparative mythologer. I was reared in the scholarly hermeneutics of doubt, however, especially when it comes to comparing myths from different cultures. Campbell has a great appreciation for Jungian concepts, and soon minor details are blurred and the similarities stand out in stark relief. Still, as I always do with Campbell, I came away with plenty of rich concepts over which to mull.

Campbell, the great inspirer of Star Wars, the original series, was that rare breed of scholar who appreciated without participating. He is recorded as stating he was no mystic, and certainly not any kind of conventional religionist, but he couldn’t get enough of mysticism or mythology. Religion, he implies, is just mythology taken literally. He is, I believe, very close to the truth here. What we know of indigenous peoples today is that they don’t have that sharp and hard line between literal reality and story that marks much of western civilization. We tend to think fact and fiction cannot be of a kind. Looking around, we find no gods, so our choices are not to believe, or to believe too literally. And those who believe literally differently, we tend to want to kill. This is the history of religion in the western world, in a Campbellian nutshell.

Apart from the little gems I located scattered throughout The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, the main theme I found applicable was the driving force of chapter two, Metaphor as Myth and Religion. Metaphor is our way of interacting with a reality we just can’t experience directly. As human beings, we experience the physical world through the mediation of our senses, filtered by our brains. If there is something deeper, more profound than nature, we are even further removed. Our experience of meaning is metaphor. Joseph Campbell may have been a little too swift to spot congruities that are probably best left apart, but he clearly recognized the fact that our religions are not so different from our mythologies, and that both are narrated in the form of metaphor. This is not to devalue them, for metaphor is one of the most potent substances in our chemistry set. Now if only I could find the vial that has the stuff to make people want to keep quiet on the bus, we might all be able to get a bit more reading done.

True Metaphors

I have a bad habit of taking road signs metaphorically. Not that I ignore the instructions, it is just that I consider their wider implications. While I was a tormented layman at Nashotah House I was pleased to see a road sign go up along the county lane that led directly to the main campus entrance. “Detour Ahead” it read in its reflective orange glory. I knew immediately that it was a metaphor for my life.

Yesterday as I drove to New Brunswick (New Jersey) for a student’s thesis defense, a large traffic sign that allows its message to be programmed and changed easily sat beside the road. “Expect Delays” one screen read. The next tersely stated, “Church Services.” Yesterday was, naturally, Good Friday, but I couldn’t help reading a bit more into this curt nugget of truth. My mind wandered to Galileo, Bruno, and Darwin. And to thinkers who nudge conventions outside the sciences. In fact, to societal progress itself. I thought of how often human good has been blocked by the agency of religious believers. When something new and beneficial is discovered it has to go through an approval process longer than that of the FDA – by the Church. Is this new information dangerous to doctrine, to preconceived notion? Will it damage our power structure? Can it be permitted?

Back to Joseph Campbell. Raised in the context of a Christian culture, Campbell did not believe any one mythology – he believed all mythologies. He keenly felt the loss that society incurred when it forfeited its mythic heritage and jettisoned its gods. Are we better off without them or not? The answer is still unknown. Perhaps the most appropriate traffic sign of all is “New Traffic Pattern Ahead,” and the most damning is “One Way.”

The ultimate heresy

Smile, You’re Condemned

Yesterday at Montclair State University, I was sitting in the hallway (my office) prior to class. (Office hours are required, but space is limited for adjuncts such as myself.) While I was reading my book a student walked up and handed me a business card. “For you, sir,” she said politely. The card had a smiley face on it, and was designed to bring cheer.

Then I flipped the card over and found out I was going to Hell. A bit of a downer when you’re about to start class!

It isn’t the first time people have attempted to convert me without bothering to find out what I believe. It seems that if you already hold the zealot’s view you’ll appreciate the gesture of being condemned just to make sure your soul is saved. It is the thought that counts, after all.

The book I was reading was Joseph Cambell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces – a book I’ve known since college but from which I have only taken a tipple until this year. Many scholars of mythology fault Campbell on being too much of a generalist and looking too much for connections where they are not obvious. His language can be florid and mystical, verging on “believer,” for those uncomfortable with any kind of faith. I find Campbell to be a welcome guide, although, as for any guide, I do not believe all he says! One nugget in particular stuck out at me: “Wherever the poetry of myth is interpreted as biography, history, or science, it is killed.” As we find ourselves on Good Friday, only those with eyes firmly shut will disregard Campbell’s wisdom.

I still remember my shock when I first learned that gods, centuries before Jesus, had been dying and rising. What had always been presented to me as a unique historical event actually had a long and venerable prehistory. It suddenly seemed as if the ministers I’d known hadn’t done their homework. Or perhaps they lacked the cognitive finesse to understand Orpheus, Adonis, Baal, Osiris, and even Ishtar, as types of either blatant or obscure resurrection. It is the Campbellian, or nearly universal hope: life prevails over death. As the young lady walked away, I sincerely wished her happiness in the quest she’s only beginning.


Mythology is beyond any single individual. I was reminded of this recently while discussing Joseph Campbell with a colleague. Joseph Campbell was an unconventional academic who exploded to public prominence largely through the immense influence of Star Wars, the original episode. George Lucas had famously latched onto Campbell’s Jungian use of archetypal imagery as the basis for good story-telling, and thus, by extension, good movie-making. With his books written at a level that is accessible to the average reader, Campbell assured his fame in a world starved for mythology. Others have interpreted mythology quite differently, but often more quietly. The fact is, mythology is alive and well in our culture. We simply fail to recognize it.

Joseph Campbell, mythographer

We are in the midst of the Christmas season, a period of intense mythopoeia in modern American culture. As can be seen in the Christmas Complex essay under the Full Essays section of this blog, the growth of Christmas characters and stories has been intense over the past several decades, and it shows no sign of slowing. Although not everyone will recognize Heat Miser or Zwarte Piet, many cannot imagine Christmas without Frosty the Snowman or Jack Frost, although they are not specifically associated with the holiday. This is the nature of mythology – it grows to encompass the many concomitant features of its immediate culture. Northern European and northern American experience of Christmas includes the snows of winter, so they become part of the Christmas myth.

While many this year, and every year, protest leaving the “Christ” out of “Christmas,” they fail to recognize that the snowballing Christmas myth has rolled far beyond the control of Christianity. The origins of Christmas predate Christianity, and the birth of Jesus is yet another element that has adhered to the mythology of the winter solstice. As the days grudgingly grow longer, and light begins to return into the chillingly crystalline days of January in the northern part of the northern hemisphere, mythological souls everywhere breathe a sigh of relief. Our fear of the long, dark, cold night is primal and very deep. C. S. Lewis, another mythographer, at least got it right with the Narnian concept of winter without Christmas being a kind of hell to northerners. The mythology of Christmas in the southern hemisphere is another complex mythopoeia in the making. How it grows will be an interesting exercise in the ongoing human quest for meaning as summer’s heat is just beginning.

C. S. Lewis, mythographer

Towers of Babel

Yesterday I ran across a graphic on the Awilum blog that juxtaposed the tower of Babel with the Burj Dubai, the world’s tallest structure, to be completed next month. Perhaps it is a “guy thing,” but I can’t stop being fascinated by very tall buildings. An inveterate acrophobe, I avoided New York City until I was in my twenties and I was gritting my teeth the entire visit the first time I went to the top of the Empire State Building. Although they frighten me, I can not keep away from them. Driving through Chicago while living in the Midwest, I always kept a wary eye on the Sears Tower, lest it should fall my way. When the Society of Biblical Literature met in Toronto, I braved the CN Tower and even stood on one of the thick glass plates that give a bird’s eye view of the ground far, far below. Now there is an even taller building that fully deserves the name “sky-scraper.” At 818 meters, the Burj Dubai in the United Arab Emirates soars far beyond other efforts at the ultimate masculinity. It will be nearly twice as high as the Empire State Building when it is completed.

Gnu view from Wikipedia

Joseph Campbell, the late mythographer from Sarah Lawrence College, has had an enormous impact on the study of myth. As a specialist in Ugaritic mythology I find many points of disagreement with his assessment of mythic symbiosis, yet he once said something that has stayed with me ever since. In his Power of Myth video, he states that societies show their values by their tallest buildings. This statement is perfectly justifiable — the amount of resources required to erect enormous buildings does show a dedication to a quasi-divine purpose on the part of a society. Campbell’s example was the medieval cathedrals, and for anyone who has visited a medieval town this is easily affirmed. (St. Vitas Cathedral in Prague and St. Andrews Cathedral in Scotland confirmed this for me.)

The Hebrew Bible, however, casts another view on tall structures. Buildings such as the Tower of Babel are the ultimate in a Judaic assessment of hubris. Genesis 11 makes short work of Babel, stating that God has to stoop down to see this great effort, yet he feels threatened by it nevertheless. Our towers today demonstrate our conspicuous consumption, yet I can’t help but be impressed. Where some see only shifting sand atop endless pools of petroleum, other visionaries see the tallest structure on the planet. Just thinking about it, I find myself clenching again. I don’t plan a visit there anytime soon, but it is in the neighborhood of Babel, for those who speak the language.