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Applying the Monomyth from a Christian perspective on film

by David Lichty

Joseph Campbell's Monomyth is used to analyze stories generally, but often Christians reject it because it seems to point to un-Christian worldviews. Does it necessarily, though? David Atwell considers how it may be an effective tool for anyone to look at films, and that it may fit around or in the Christian worldview quite well. These are his notes.


RPC Film Class: Acts 17 and the Monomyth

Intro: I’m going to tell you the plotline of a film. It’s a film you’ve probably seen before, so as I describe it, go ahead and picture the characters and scenes in your mind. I’m not going to tell you the name of the main character, but you know their name.

When we first meet our hero, we’re out in the boondocks. They’ve grown up far from all the action, and they’re not really satisfied with the provincial life. It’s been a tough life, after all, so when an older man shows up and tells the hero that reality is far greater than they had ever imagined it being, our hero is immediately intrigued, but resists following the old man.

A dramatic scene forces the hero to cross over into a fantastical world beyond everything that they thought they knew, a world that they had only imagined before (in dreams, or perhaps in nightmares), and the hero learns many amazing things about this mystical world beyond from their mentor, all the while facing a series of trials that they deal with more and more effectively.

Everything comes to a head when they face their final confrontation - their most difficult yet - with an incredibly powerful villain that the hero would have had no chance of defeating had it not been for the mentor’s training. Eventually, the hero is victorious, and returns home to a joyous celebration with loved ones.

All right. So, that’s the movie. I told you that you’d all seen it. On the count of three, shout out the name of the film.

(see what they say - expect different titles)

It’s beautiful that you all came up with a different film, because that’s kind of the point. You might have said Star Wars, or The Hunger Games, or The Matrix, or The Lord of the Rings, or The Wizard of Oz, or Casablanca, or even Hamlet or the Iliad, or thousands of other stories from cultures around the world.

The fact that this is so ubiquitous around the world proves that this is very powerful stuff. The cultural touchstones we interact with daily are powerful, and we (as Christians) can use that to join a conversation that we can’t get into any other way.

We’ve been talking in this class about that “conversation,” but what is it, why is it so powerful, and how do we put Jesus in it?

Joseph Campbell: The Hero’s Journey (Monomyth)
Screen: “The Hero’s Journey”
Thousands of cultures in all times, places have written stories with this pattern
His conclusion: these are stories we like because they awaken some shared experience within us
C.S. Lewis took it a step further: “True Myth.” These are stories we like because they echo a story that God put into our hearts
God of Story
Screen: “A God of Story” - subtitle “Colossians 1”
Lots of story imagery in the Bible surrounding God.
Genesis 1:1 - “In the beginning…” sounds a lot like “Once upon a time…”
Genesis 1:3-29 - “And God said…” - 9x! - God is telling a story!
Isaiah 55:11 - “My word … shall accomplish that which I purpose...” - an effective story!
John 1:14 - “The word became flesh…” God wrote Himself into the story.
Matthew 13:10-17 - Jesus taught using stories. Explains that it’s easier to understand; even before people’s hearts have been opened, they can see Him through the parables He tells!
Even wrapped up in the Bible itself - God reveals Himself in a story!
God is a God of Story - and we’re made in His likeness.
Like all of His traits, He put some of His story into us.
What story? Colossians 1:15-23 -
creation, fall, redemption, restoration - and a story He allows (inspires) us to help Him tell!
The narrative works we most resonate with - the best films, books, TV shows, music, artwork, medieval tapestries, rock ballads - echo God’s story most strongly or uniquely.
Consciously (JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis) or Unconsciously (Wachowskis, JK Rowling, Cohen Bros)
C.S. Lewis: “Our stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there; while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real’ things.”
Joseph Campbell saw this in cultures around the world! This is not just a Christian thing.
What does this mean for us, here and now?
Screen: “Paul in Athens” - subtitle “Acts 17”
To answer that question, I’m going to tell you another story from the Bible.
Acts 17
Paul: missionary journey with Silas and Timothy
Waiting for them to join him in Athens
(Read Acts 17:16-34)
Paul addresses 3 major pieces of Greek culture that he’s seen while he was in Athens:
Screen: “Redeeming Greek Culture” (this is the headline; the next three points appear below it)
Idols and Altars, “to the unknown God”
Screen: “1. Idols and Altars”
Recognized: They display what the Athenians worship (obviously), but also where that worship hasn’t fulfilled them
Didn’t want to offend a god they hadn’t considered
Heart of Athenians: We’re still not satisfied, even with this pantheon of gods! There must be another one we’ve missed.
Paul: “You’re right, and he’s different.”
Epimenides of Crete, in a poem to Zeus (only a fragment remains):
They fashioned a tomb for you, holy and high one,
Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies.
But you are not dead: you live and abide forever,
For in you we live and move and have our being.
Screen: “2. Epimenides of Crete”
Paul: “Right sentiment, wrong god! You’re seeking a God that you haven’t found yet.”
“Zeus was made by human hands, but God was not.”
From “Phaenomeneia,” by Aratus (introduction):
From Zeus let us begin; him do we mortals never leave unnamed; full of Zeus are all the streets and all the market-places of men; full is the sea and the havens thereof; always we all have need of Zeus. For we are also his offspring; and he in his kindness unto men giveth favourable signs and wakeneth the people to work, reminding them of livelihood.
Screen: “3. ‘Phaenomeneia,’ by Aratus”
Paul: again, right sentiment, wrong god.
“We’re fully dependent on God, and He is always with us.”
“Zeus is a fiction, but the true God actually does give life!”
Christians of the 1st century might have objected! “But it’s about Zeus!” “But it’s about shrines and temples!” “But it’s about polytheism!”
Screen: blank
but Paul pulls out the truth and uses it to enter a conversation about Christ. I call this (stolen phrase) “Redeeming Culture”
Finds the germ of truth that the Greeks unconsciously placed there and explains what it says about them and about God.
NOTE: The conversation was not over! “We will hear you again about this.”
Some were saved, but for others, this just got him in the door.
From “babbler,” “preacher of foreign gods,” “strange things” to “we will hear you again about this.” Impressive change!
Power of meeting people where they are: namely, in the culture they’re steeped in.
How do we do what Paul did in our modern world?
Screen: “Redeeming Modern Culture”
We don’t have altars and shrines, as such.
But we do have Starbucks! (Tomorrow morning, people will line up to worship and give offering, and they will have a ‘religious experience’)
We do have Lucas Oil Stadium! (This fall, worshippers will pack it out, weekly, wearing their vestments, and they will sing praises and fall prostrate and worship!)
We have movie theaters.
More to this class:
We don’t have Epimenides’ poem, but we have Marvel and Star Wars.
We don’t have Phaenomeneia, but we have Citizen Kane, When Harry Met Sally, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, War of the Worlds, Apocalypse Now, The Godfather
Popular books, music, TV - and, of course: films - are the cultural touchpoints in our modern world.
This is where we need to enter the conversation.
3 clips: what do they tell us about what we worship, where we aren’t fulfilled? How do they echo The Story of God’s creation, our rebellion, and His rescue?
Screen: Clip #1
Clip #1: From Star Wars: A New Hope - "What is The Force" - https://youtu.be/Wneb2IOp-wM (from 0:03 through 1:23) and from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back - "Luminous Beings" - https://youtu.be/HMUKGTkiWik (from 0:00 through 1:12) spliced end-to-end

(Note: Sci-fi & Fantasy have a tendency to do this better than a lot of genres, because they already address a more fantastical “world beyond”)

The nature of the world beyond the visible; a power we cannot see. Luminous beings! Personal to Luke! His father was a part of this massive, cosmic story.
Screen: Clip #2
Clip #2: From Casablanca ( https://youtu.be/rEWaqUVac3M )

Also in classics.

Noble sacrifice as Rick gives up his seat on the plane, “where I’m going you can’t follow” - something bigger!
Screen: Clip #3
Clip #3: From The Lion King ( https://youtu.be/O7fXfCZ4sB4 - from when adult Simba meets Rafiki to when Mufasa’s ghost disappears)

Silly kids movies too!

Identity: When we remember that our father is within us, we reflect Him; being part of His work, completing it even though it is hard
Screen: blank
These are the low-hanging fruit; very simple to pull themes from that. But it can be done with any movie. It won’t end the conversation, but it can start it.
So, how do we do this? Questions to ask:
**Maybe it goes without saying, but… What is the movie about, at its core?
Screen: “Questions to Ask:” (this is the headline; the next four points appear below it)
What do I like/dislike about it?
Screen: “1. What do I like or dislike about this film?”
The story God has placed in your heart will resonate like a tuning fork when it hears the echo!
Universal desires/dreads?
Screen: “2. What universal desires and dreads does this film address?”
Heard about “The Human Condition”? That’s this!
Response can tell us about how God made the world to work. (because they’re doing it right - or wrong)
Interesting questions raised?
Screen: “3. What interesting questions does this film raise?”
Does the movie need answers?
Does God have answers to those questions? (yes, of course) Does He offer those answers to us?
How does it echo “The Story?”
Screen: “4. How is this story like ‘The Story’?”
How do the characters echo the characters in The Story?
Is there a Christ figure? A humanity figure?
Does it remind you of other echoes of God, e.g. in the Bible?
Things to Remember:
Screen: “Questions to Ask:” (this is the headline; the next two points appear below it)
There is no perfect analogy.
Screen: “1. There is no perfect analogy.”
Even Jesus’ parables break down after a point.
(Parable of the Builders, for instance: If our lives are buildings, what do the stones represent? Who lives there? Not Jesus, he’s the solid ground it’s built on!)
Human “parables” are going to be even weaker. Difficult to find!
Don’t make up things that aren’t there.
Screen: “2. Don’t make up things that aren’t there.”
Don’t make things up in the Bible that aren’t there.
(The meaning of a film might be “God helps those who help themselves,” but that’s not in the Bible.)
Don’t make up things in the movie that aren’t there!
-Disingenuous
-Weakens your point, doesn’t strengthen it
For RC: have outlined entire articles and even written up a large chunk before realizing that the movie never said something that my article’s premise hinges on!

Christianity and Film part 3 (of 7): Acts 17 and the Monomyth

How does Christianity apply the Joseph Campbell approach to analyzing storytelling?

from Christianity and Film (2016)
Creator: David Atwell, W. David Lichty
Distributor: RedeemingCulture.com
Posted by David Lichty
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