The Hero Is Us: Bringing a New, Religious Vision to Life Is a Great Adventure. (Essay)

By Heffern, Rich | National Catholic Reporter, January 25, 2002 | Go to article overview

The Hero Is Us: Bringing a New, Religious Vision to Life Is a Great Adventure. (Essay)


Heffern, Rich, National Catholic Reporter


It's hard not to think of Joseph Campbell while watching the first film installment of The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien's renowned fantasy trilogy, which has remained No. 1 at the box office since its opening in December. Underneath the movie's sweeping spectacle and captivating characters, it's your basic hero's story.

After a short prologue establishing the peril Tolkien's imaginary world, Middle Earth, faces as a result of the unearthing of the Dark Lord's ring of power, the wizard Gandalf visits old friends at a village of hobbits, a diminutive home-loving race. Events take place quickly, and soon the young hobbit with hairy feet, Frodo Baggins, is charged with an overwhelming task: to journey to an evil land and cast the ring back into the fire of its origin.

Campbell's fans will right away recognize elements of the hero myth: the call to adventure, the road of trials, the meeting with the goddess, the temptations to misuse power -- all components of that genre of myth, familiar territory to Campbell's readers.

Tolkien's characters inhabit a world in turmoil because it is passing from one age to another. The old ways are fading into myth and the inhabitants must struggle to find new ways to survive and thrive. Old political systems are in collapse, new ones emerging. Survival and new growth ultimately depend on one little hobbit and his stalwart friends.

The hero as world redeemer is a common theme in humankind's myth making. But the hero is not someone remote from us only found in a book or up on the silver screen, Campbell would say. The hero is us.

In 1984 Eugene Kennedy, then professor of psychology at Loyola University Chicago, published an interview with Joseph Campbell in the New York Times Magazine, called "Earthrise -- The Dawning of a New Spiritual Awareness."

There Campbell talks of the same passing from one age to another in our own world, of the peril that faces our world and of the hero's task to which we are all called -- nurturing a new spiritual awareness.

Campbell later wrote Kennedy, telling him it was that interview that brought Joseph Campbell to the attention of Bill Moyers, whose televised interviews put Campbell into the nation's living rooms. These interviews were watched by millions, and the book that accompanied them, The Power of Myth, became a runaway best seller.

The end of the world

Joseph Campbell was a serious scholar, teacher and thinker about religion who achieved enormous popularity. Campbell addressed the disenchantment of modern life with a message of renewal and hope. His message had great influence. Today when you hear someone say: I'm spiritual but not religious, Campbell is partly to blame.

In the interview with Kennedy, Campbell talks about the famous image of the earth rising over the moon's horizon taken by astronauts that first appeared during the 1970s. The space age, he felt, had brought us an awareness that is still slowly sinking in: The world as we know it is coming to an end.

"The world as the center of the universe, the world divided from the heavens, the world bound by horizons in which God's love is reserved for members of the in-group: That is the world that is passing away," said Campbell. "Apocalypse is not about a fiery Armageddon and salvation of a chosen few, but about the fact that our ignorance and our complacency are coming to an end."

Campbell further explains: "Our divided worldview, with no mythology adequate to coordinate our conscious and unconscious -- that is what is coming to an end. The exclusivism of there being only one way in which we can be saved, the idea that there is a single religious group that is in sole possession of the truth -- that is the world as we know it that must pass away, and is passing away."

Today when books about the end times and the anti-Christ soar to the top on the bestseller lists, Campbell's view is as timely and helpful as ever. …

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