We love stories. Whether it’s a sweeping epic like Les Miserables or a thirty-minute episode of The Office, we love the unfolding narrative of characters, conflict, and corresponding consequence.
We like stories because, in some way, the best stories tell our story. While we never participated in the French Revolution, and we know Krypton is not a real planet, we can identify with Jean Valjean’s struggle to make a good man grow from dark roots. We recognize the ongoing battle of good versus evil that daily plays itself out on our Twitter feed and news channels though void of red capes and laser eyes.
Even Jesus knew the power of story. He was known for His ability to communicate direct and honest truth through the medium of parables – stories that expressed greater meaning.
That is one reason I believe the Holy Spirit gave us the Bible in its form. In essence, it is a collection of stories that tell one big story. Granted, there are many genres in the Scripture from poetry to apocalyptic literature, but even those tell stories. Song of Solomon is indeed poetry, but in essence is a story of young love. This young love is the story of God and his people, Christ and his church. Even David’s psalms and Paul’s letters cannot be divorced from their relationships and circumstances. They are landmarks of their unfolding stories.
I say all of this to arrive at an interesting concept I read recently. The idea stems from a notion by mythologist Joseph Campbell. His conclusion is that all stories are essentially the same story in different forms. He calls this narrative template “the monomyth.” In his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell describes this monomyth – the story that is every story: “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 (benefits or blessings) on his fellow man.”
As I read this quote, I was struck by two things. One, I was struck by how true this is. Disney is the master of storytelling. Virtually every Disney movie involves an ordinary character thrust from the world they know into an unfamiliar setting in which they must struggle against a particular foe whom they ultimately conquer. They then return as a hero who has created, or can now create, a better existence for others.
It’s not only Disney that incorporates this model. This strand is woven across time, culture, and worldview. From Homer’s The Odyssey to Rowling’s Harry Potter, this journey is recast, remembered, and retold by every generation.
Campbell, a non-Christian, also believes this extends to religion. He believes all religions are true, but none are literal. They are simply the retelling of the same story.
Consider Mormonism. Joseph Smith, a common man, encounters the supposed angel Moroni, receives the book of Mormon, and despite persecution, relates the teachings and directives of the book to his followers establishing a new religion.
Consider Islam. Muhammad, an ordinary caravan manager goes to a cave and is thrust into a calling as “The Prophet” by the angel Gabriel. He then turns a small group of persecuted followers into a nation of people devoted to the Koran.
In virtually every religious story, we find these similar elements. We even find them in the Bible in the calling of Abraham, the life of Moses, and the conversion of Paul.
However, this leads me to the second thing that struck me about Campbell’s idea. While this story echoes in many different forms – even in our own experiences – it is not true for Jesus.
Jesus is the anomaly.
Christianity is not about a common man who encountered God, but about God who became a common man. Instead of being drawn out of an ordinary world into a world of “supernatural wonder” he left the supernatural wonders of heaven to walk the ordinary dust of earth. His victory is won through his own loss. His call is not to bravery and self-empowerment, but to sacrifice and repentance.
This is why so many had trouble with Jesus during his lifetime and why so many struggle with him today. Jesus’ message is not our story, but its reversal.
So is Christianity telling the wrong story?
The Bible is not telling the wrong story, it is telling a greater story. Many have tried to reduce Christianity to a retelling of this monomyth with people at the center. As if the Bible were a map to personal victory or a means to supernatural experience and blessing.
Yes, the story of the ordinary meeting the extraordinary is seen throughout Scripture and is relatable to us as we walk through life in faith. It is the story of our Pilgrim’s Progress. But these stories are not the ends. Rather they are the means of telling a greater story.
Whereas movies, books, and even other religions tell a relatable story (and therefore ring true with so many people), they fail to reach the greater conclusion. They point to us and our story. Christianity points all of our stories to a bigger story. In this story, victory is about sacrifice. Power is about humility. Ultimately, instead of identifying with the hero, we have to acknowledge we are the villain. We are the aggressor – the antagonist. We are without means of victory. Our sinful hearts are the force that must be encountered and defeated.
This is why Christianity is a hard sell. We like the story where we identify with the victor. We want to see ourselves as the main actor – thrust into the supernatural where we fight for our dreams, overcome our obstacles, and ultimately emerge victorious with a message of hope for others to receive the same benefits we have found.
Some of these elements are biblical. But if that is your full version of Christianity, it is an anemic version.
It is not wrong to seek God’s blessing. It is not wrong to fight sin or believe a walk with God is a supernatural journey. But while these are elements of our story, they are not THE story. They point to a greater reality of who God is, what sin has done, and how God restores this broken world to himself.
The greater story is not that we can get to heaven, but that heaven’s King came to us.
The story is not of our triumph, but of God’s sacrificial victory. Ultimately the story is not about us and our adventures at all. It is about the glory of God in the Gospel.
Let our every story point to His story.