The greatest stories are stories that show in some way the drama of Creation, Fall, and Redemption-Renewal. Those three essential vectors form a Weltanschauung: the “worldview,” the purposeful framework of understanding that brings meaning. “Tell me the old, old story,” we sang in evening services. That “old, old story” is the articulate, special revelation from God that provides not only the indisputable chronicle of our history, and the self-evident mess that we know ourselves to be, but also the point of it all—and the coda. These turning points—creation, fall, redemption—converge in a feed trough in a faraway nowhere place. The beauty of the night sky—creation—, the reality of bondage under Rome—fall—, and a Star guiding us to a babe who is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords—redemption—appear as the primary pigments on the canvas. The mysterious brush of Providence is placed over the three colors, and with a water droplet of wonder, the respective pigments are dispersed, uniting the three points into a new color.
Redemption came to Bethlehem, and to every Bethlehem like it throughout history. The coming of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, as our Redeemer is the story of stories.
Joseph Campbell believed that the single-story of humanity was the mono-myth. In the “Hero’s Journey,” developed from Campbell’s Princeton University journal article, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), later a book, the protagonist moves from obscurity to be burdened by injustice. In his classic contribution, Campbell saw a common universal storyline in the mythologies of human experience. There is a wrong to be righted and a hero to be called. Scholars differ on the exact number of steps in the circle of the Hero’s Journey, from ten to thirteen, but the differences are irrelevent. The journey is the quintessential story that transcends religions, cultures, and chronologies. All this, according to Campbell, has importance in crafting an understandable ryme and reason for the otherwise apparant randomness of things and leads to purpose. Purpose leads to meaning. Meaning leads to satisfaction in life.
Back to the story.
The Hero and the journey are born out of a grievness. He becomes aware that something is wrong. One is reminded of Heschel’s The Prophets, in which these peculair men of God in Israel are, sometimes quite strangely, different from their neighbors. The Isaiahs and Joels of the community personalize the wrong that is perpetrated against God and Man. A curse against God is an assault on their very being. The withholding of mercy to a poor man is a declaration of war. Joseph Campbell’s “Hero” is like Heschel’s prophets. This awareness of insjustice, whatever it is, demands a response. The machine of malevolence must not only be stopped, its sinister creator exposed and destroyed, its violated prisoners set free, but the whole blight upon the Story must be transformed by Atonement. The Story cannot exist without the Hero who will step forward, or, more appropriately, be drawn out. Thus, the no-person-in-particular living in no-where-special, going about his “normal” life, is suddently, or increasingly, burdened by the state-of-things, the atrocity, the wrong that must be righted. The burden presses him to see a vision of good. Thus, the vision produces a “call,” a vocation that possesses him. He can do no other. The Hero is called. But is he really up to facing the great moral or social injury? “Who am I, after all, to take on such a task?” Thus, the Hero resists the call. Yet, the burden is greater than the diffidance. With unrestrained ardor, and unfettered spirit, the Hero negotiates through his timidity and the outrage. He accepts the call and departs on the journey. Strange encounters, sinister plots, and sabotage await him. For there is an enemy who seeks to destroy the Hero. The Hero’s call is tested by a series of adversities climaxing in the valley of decision. “I am defeated. I will return to home.” As Thomas Wolfe would put it, “You can never go home again.” But the Hero needs spiritual guidence.. Enter the Sage. For where grinches abound, Gandalfs and Merlins, and Mr. Beavers abound more. There is always a seer. The essential player appears and imparts the sage counsel to deliver the Hero from himself, from the enemies, and back to the pathway. The dragon that has enslaved a village by the force of his enchanted powers had to be slain. The dragon’s dark and vile despotism over the entrapped kingdom is the ever-present burden before the Hero. And that burden calls for—no, demands—the interruption of the Hero’s life, his calling, his obedience, and his steadfastness. Victories over the seductress who would sway the protagonist, and the enemy agents who would trap the Hero, are met with success. This is due to the sage. So, now back to the journey, to the mission. The battle begins. It is a cosmic contest that, if won by the Hero, will liberate the land, free the captives, and renew the kingdom. The Hero conquers. He returns home. But any hope for a satisfying denouement is left unresolved. Familiar obscurity, once cursed by the Hero before the journey, is, by then, longed for beyond the odyssey. Atonement is accomplished. Now, the Hero can never be the same again. He returns as a different person. What will he do with his transformation?
That is the mono-myth. The classical framework is present, not only mythologies but in Marvel movies, DC Comics, Greek tragedy, Shakespear, Disney, and in Germanic fairy tales. The mono-myth sells because we all want a hero.
But Advent is the ultimate mono-truth that supersedes the mono-myth. Jesus is the victorious Hero we long for. Joseph Bottum distilled the essense of Advent as a spiritual discipline, rather than a mere season. Hew rote in First Things (2017), “What Advent is, really, is a discipline: a way of forming anticipation and channeling it toward its goal.” Yet, the discipline is one that is shaped along the contouors of a story. The mono-truth is the story.
Jesus came to save. He lived with the burden never out of view. When called to renounce His mission, and to go another way, He refused the offer. When popularity risked rerouting Jesus from the intended path, He stayed true. Jesus is the one who mediated the ancient covenant by becoming the sacrifice for the sins of the world and assuming its divine punishment. Jesus defeated the enemy, who sought to destroy Him. The Lord withstood Lucifer’s seduction to rule an earthly kingdom. Through intimate prayer with His Father, Jesus moved from scene to scene. He lived the perfect life that each of us must have if we are to stand before God with pure hands and a pure heart. None are righteous but the Hero of the Mono-truth. The mono-truth story has a name. The mono-truth is called The Gospel.
How did the prodigious Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, put it in A Child’s Christmas in Wales, “Bring out the tall tales now!”
The Gospel is, in a sense, a tall tale. However, by “tall tale,” we do not mean to say that the mono-truth’s stature is suggestive of romantic embellishment. Instead, the Gospel is “tall” because it is the highest, the biggest, and the best truth-story of all. And now, “for the time being” (Auden), we get to tell that story again.
This is why we say: Welcome, Advent. Welcome the Gospel story.
[In coming posts, we will consider the Mono-truth, the Advent of Jesus Christ, and His Gospel triumph over the Fall, restoring Creation in literature, film, and art.
I look forward to sharing the story with you.
Alexander, J. Neil. Waiting for the Coming: The Liturgical Meaning of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany. Pastoral Press, 1993.
Bottum, Joseph. “The End of Advent.” First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life. Last modified December 1, 2007. Accessed December 1, 2019. https://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A171442049/AONE?sid=lms.
Campbell, Joseph. “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.” Princeton: Princeton University (1949).
_____. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Novato, Calif.: New World Library, 2008.
Heschel, Abraham Joshua. The Prophets. Vol. 2. Harper & Row New York, 1962.
Milton, Michael A. From Flanders Fields to the Moviegoer : Philosophical Foundations for a Transcendent… Ethical Framework. [S.l.]: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2019.
Milton, Michael Anthony. Finding a Vision for Your Church: Assembly Required. P & R Publishing, 2012.
Percy, Walker. “The Moviegoer. 1961.” New York: Vintage International (1998).
Slade, M., L. Oades, and A. Jarden, eds. Wellbeing, Recovery and Mental Health. Cambridge University Press, 2017. https://books.google.com/books?id=Tv_3DQAAQBAJ.
Wolfe, Thomas. Look Homeward, Angel. 1929. New York: Collier (1957).