The Power of Myth: Reflections on Campbell

Ever wonder why Star Wars did what it did?  We have Joseph Campbell to thank.  Back a couple of decades, this dinosaur taught concepts from a lectern that would shape, and still shapes, the generations.  Recently, thanks to a proper introduction via brother Doug Welch, I dove headfirst into The Power of Myth.  The book originated as a dialog.  Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell started talking in ’85 and ’86 at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch, and then again at the Museum of Natural History, NYC.  The material captivated audiences during twenty-four hours, total, of filming which they edited, and purified, into a six-hour series on PBS.  It was then formatted, and expanded, into this book (Campbell, The Power of Myth, ix).

It has been a whirlwind, and what follows overflows from a summer’s worth of mastications, musings, and marinades on myth.  For the sake of discussion, I mean “myth” as in  “a traditional or legendary story, usually concerning some being or hero or event, with or without a determinable basis of fact or a natural explanation, esp. one that is concerned with deities or demigods and explains some practice, rite, or phenomenon of nature” (see  Other people might refer to something untrue, like Bultman who believes parts of scripture to by “myth”, or Mythbusters, but I mean the previous definition, and everything that comes with it.  I’ll break it up by chapter and try my best to stay off soap boxes, unless he’s selling soap.

FEATURED DOWNLOAD: G.K. Chesterton illuminated Joseph Campbell’s religion. Click to view it.

Myth and the Modern World

“Why Myths?” starts Moyers (pg.1).  Campbell’s response was that we don’t need ’em.  At all.  His thought is that if someone thinks a subject’s important, so what?  If it doesn’t grab you, if it doesn’t just yank at your attention, then why worry about it in the first place?  Took me awhile to come to terms with the fact that not everyone likes literature, but to those terms I’ve come.  He’s right.  Leave it alone if it leaves you without any feeling of loss or regret.

But if it snags you, if it pulls you, if it beckons a little finger and says, “Check this out!”  If you’re from the Show Me State and find yourself asking “showme” about myths, then what?  What do you do when it yanks you around like a hook does a fish?  Then we get into the “literature of the spirit” – or what he calls the search for an “experience of being alive.”   As someone keen on practicing resurrection, I like that phrase more than I should (1-3).  This chapter is all about modern use, misuse, abuse, and need for myth – and would explain the popularity of the Harry Potter series.

The Journey Inward

From here, Campbell argues that the main journey doesn’t go out, but in.  In order to be the kind of people who actively respond to the world, we must submit our passive soul to the proper influences.  The Journey Inward could be phrased, “the inside is greater than the outside.”  By going in, by working with our insides, we prepare our self for the outside world.

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At this point, Campbell and I start to split paths.  He would say, “you are a part of God because God is inside you.  When you die, you join the soul of God and get lost in transcendence,” or something like that.  I do believe God’s Spirit, by grace, sustains all of life.  I also believe, as a Christian, I have the Holy Spirit residing within.  However, I do not believe when I die that I suddenly lose myself.  Instead, I believe that I become more unique, more diverse, more like what I was made to be as a unique creation in Christ, within God’s community.  For more on this, see the early chapters of Screwtape Letters.

The First Storytellers

When did myths start?  Where did they come from?  How does one create a “myth” ?  In this chapter, Campbell and Moyer talk about the origins of myth, and the originators of oral traditions, the “first storytellers.”  This begs the question, what was the first myth?

Campbell believes that the first myths recorded were about the grave.  His argument is that you had people who knew life, saw life, and then had a buddy who had life.  Then an animal would die for a meal, and he would think something like, “My buddy is alive too.  Will he die?”  And then when his friend died, he would have to figure out what happened to his buddy.   Where did he go?  Does he exist?  Is there power beyond this?  Considering that two of the top fears many years ago were death and public speaking, it’s interesting that the early storytellers made myths about the grave. HOWEVER, this is right in line with my understanding of the first three chapters of Genesis, so no full harm done here.

What’s dangerous about this chapter is his communication that demonic possessions he witnessed in places like, say, Haiti were “not demonic” and instead “experiences of the transcendent God.”  He deifies Voodoo in this chapter, which made my skin crawl.  Don’t read this chapter if you’re not in a good place spiritually, and don’t read it in one sitting.

FEATURED DOWNLOAD: G.K. Chesterton illuminated Joseph Campbell’s religion. Click to view it.

Sacrifice and Bliss

THE BEST takeaway I received from this entire book came from this chapter.  In it, he keeps pushing that the most important part of life is “getting in touch with your bliss.”  He uses the medieval illustration of the “Wheel of Fortune.”  No, not the t.v. show – the medieval concept.  There’s a wheel:

Fate cranks the handle of the wheel bringing Cinderella into the prince’s wealth, and royalty back to rags like Nixon.  Sound familiar?  It’s  life and vanity, people chasing after useless pursuits in the world.  This is not what life’s about.  Life is not about bragging and boasting of what you have.  It isn’t about coveting with your eyes, and filling your mind with trash.  We don’t live for the flesh, and by flesh I mean the part of our spirit in rebellion – the satanic side of us.  Instead of living life at the spokes, never sure how to respond to the changing times, Campbell suggests living life from the hub, the center, where the heart of the matter lies.  We are to live “centered” lives.

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We live for life itself.  For freedom Christ set us free, right?  Author of life died so we can live?  That’s the heart of this chapter, and he gave all sorts of tidbits advising how to do that.  Some are better, some are hypocritical, but all are worth your time to read and wrestle through.

The best piece of advice he gave to me personally was to hit that point of life, to come alive, but finding an author I resonated with.  I chose C.S. Lewis.  Then read everything he’s ever written.  That hadn’t been an option for me before because I concerned myself so much with reading what everyone said I should read, or reading to diversify myself – to round my life out.  This seemed novel, so I started reading obscure Lewis articles in God in the Dock and The Seeing Eye.  From there I rediscovered his autobiography, Surprised by Joy.  In it he mentioned Tennyson, Keats, Shelley, Spenser, and Coleridge.  By the time I was knee-deep in this stuff, I had discovered a whole new world, and all from changing the way I read books.

Don’t do something because it’s “proper” or “generally accepted” or “popular” now.  Go with the true, nobel, right, excellent, the thing that makes you come alive, that makes you into the real you, the created you, the you God designed.  Jesus didn’t rise to make you clever or cute.  He arose to make you rise.

The rest of the book deals with The Hero’s Adventure, The Gift of the Goddess, Tales of Love and Marriage, and Masks of Eternity. Those are decent chapters, but all in all, I think the book’s guts hide inside the “sacrifice and bliss” chapter, primarily because he comes as close as a pagan, panentheistic professor can get to the Gospel, simply by saying, “through sacrifice, we get our bliss.”

FEATURED DOWNLOAD: G.K. Chesterton illuminated Joseph Campbell’s religion. Click to view it.

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