Day 5: The Hero’s Journey as a Reflection of Reality

Welcome to Day Five of my new blog series on “accepting the world.” Catch up on the idea for the series and the first four posts on this dedicated page.

In two weeks, Artefact Institute is presenting our first workshop/event in Louisville, KY. It’s our first event, but already there’s been a lot of interest, and we expect several hundred people in attendance at various points of the weekend. That interest has only been helped by the fact that we’re co-hosting the event with the Climacus Conference 2020. But even with their presence, I’ve sensed that there has been a lot of interest in what we’re talking about–the technique of culture creation.

The Gospel as Fairy Story

detail from the cover of “On Fairy Stories”

Whether it’s confirmation bias or some other mental trick, I’ve been struck more and more by the ever-presence of the archetypes of the hero’s journey in various narrative structures that we encounter, even in our daily lives. Perhaps the most exciting example of this is something that Tolkien talks about in his essay On Fairy Stories:

The story [that is, the Gospels seen through the prism of fairy-story] has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the ‘inner consistency of reality’. There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.

At first glance, this is a shocking statement. Is Tolkien saying that the Gospel is a myth? Well, yes, actually. It’s the one and only True Myth.

The True Myth

Many better people have written about Tolkien and C. S. Lewis and the idea of the True Myth. Fr. Stephen Freeman himself wrote about it recently.  Rather than rehashing their insights, I want to focus on the fact that Tolkien suggests that there is something about the form of the heroic tale, or fairy tale, that reflects the reality revealed by the Gospel about the nature of the world itself.

Tolkien argues that there is a kind of storytelling form that in its structure either foreshadows (if it’s ancient myth) or recalls (if it’s a more recent fairy tale or fantasy) the Gospel itself. That structure has appeared in slight variations of a single, repeatable form for millennia. It’s possible that the earliest stories people ever told were told in this format. Aristotle recognized this structure as essential for the story to be transformative and instructive. Finally, neuroscientists have written that the brain instinctively reacts to it.

I’m talking about the hero’s journey, which is nothing else than the structure of the story of Christ’s incarnation.

The Structure of the Hero’s Journey

There are different versions of the hero’s journey, all with their own idiosyncrasies, but they all basically follow the same pattern. Here is one of them:

  • A Call to Adventure, mediated by Supernatural aid and/or threshold guardians
  • A series of challenges and temptations, often accompanied by a mentor figure
  • A seeming victory that leads to catastrophe, then “the dark night of the soul”
  • A period of atonement or internal gathering-of-strength
  • A transformation initiated by a moment of unexpected divine aid, or “eucatastrophe”
  • The return of the main character to his home, where he passes on his wisdom to others

It doesn’t take too much effort to see how this structure mirrors Jesus’s life on earth. The Call to Adventure is the Annunciation, the challenges and temptations are the difficulties of Christ’s life on earth, the catastrophic event leading to the dark night of the soul is the Entrance into Jerusalem, the internal gathering-of-strength is the Garden of Gethsemane, the eucatastrophe is the Resurrection, the return is the forty days of preparation for the apostles’ ministry.

The Hero’s Journey in Church Services

The more one becomes attuned to the presence of the hero’s journey (or three act structure, or a host of other names) in stories, the more one realizes it is present in many more places than initially apparent. For example, the structure of our liturgical day is largely based on this hero’s journey.

There is a great deal of symbolism in the structure of all the daily services, especially the liturgy, which is a recapitulation of the New Testament. But the Old Testament, if seen as the heroic story of a nation at large, not necessarily the individual members of that nation, also follows a similar structure. And that structure is also present in Vespers.

But we don’t see it very often. We would, if we were attuned to the symbolic structure of the services. And I firmly believe that if we were aware of it, we would be more attentive to the services, in a way that would help us behold the reality that is revealed before our very eyes, outside of time.

It occurred to me that perhaps one way of illuminating this symbolic structure would be to actually tell a story based on the structure of the Vespers service. And that’s where the idea for St. Simeon’s life as the “story” of Vespers came about.

St Simeon as the incarnation of the Old Testament

St Simeon the God-receiver is a threshold figure, one foot firmly in the Old Testament, on foot firmly in the New. Although we don’t know much about his life, the small details we do know make him a perfect candidate for a hero’s journey. So that’s what I did. I wrote a semi-fictional life story for St. Simeon, based on the structure of the hero’s journey, and Benedict Sheehan and I interwove that story with music from the Vespers service.

It culminates in the eucatastrophe of the Meeting of the Lord, and it will be performed on the eve of the Meeting of the Lord, according to the new calendar.

It is my earnest hope that the performers and creators involved in this Artefact Event will be able to deepen our audience’s appreciation for the beauty and poetry of our services. I hope they will continue to seek the symbolism of other services as well, so that every time they enter church, it can truly become a transformative experience.


  1. Would it be way off to suggest that, not only do we witness the hero’s journey in the Church’s services, but that we also undertake that journey ourselves in the course of each service, especially the Divine Liturgy?

    A call to adventure: the decision to attend the Liturgy, knowing that it aids our spiritual transformation.

    A series of challenges and temptations: the repeated wandering of the thoughts as the service progresses.

    A seeming victory that leads to catastrophe: working past those wandering thoughts, then perhaps ultimately feeling unworthy, maybe even defeated by them.

    A period of atonement: the anaphora.

    A transformation: Holy Communion.

    A return: the end of the service.

  2. All this talk about the hero’s journey and no mention of Joseph Campbell? For shame 😉

    But in all seriousness, I recall Fr. Stephen de Young commenting that story itself descends from ritual and liturgy. With that in mind, it would make logical sense that the services of the year reflect the hero’s journey and that the true myth of the Incarnation would show itself in these other stories in an iconographic way.

    I can see the non-Christological feast days being a part of the hero’s journey as well. The Nativity of the Theotokos and her Entrance into the Temple are the prologue and her Dormition and the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross are the epilogue. The Dorimition showing Christ’s victory over death by coming for his Mother and giving hope to the fate of all Christians and the Exaltation as a reminder of the enduring nature of Christ’s victory.

    1. Hah. I actually dislike the term “Hero’s Journey” because of its associations with the monomyth. Thanks to Star Wars, people think Campbell discovered something special about it. Personally, I thought the most useful portions of the book were the diagrams, and much of the rest was early 20th century psychobabble garbage (and that’s coming from someone who likes to riff off of Jungian thought now and then!). Of course, the Christian interpretation that Lewis and Tolkien promoted was that Christ was the source of the monomyth— but that’s not how Campbell wrote it, or how social scientists understand or use it.

      It’s a personal thing, but I’m no longer comfortable co-opting vocabulary from other disciplines and repurposing it in a Christian context. It creates too much noise and confusion. Campbell’s book explicitly opposes the idea of the Christian narrative.

      1. Oh no, I get where you’re coming from. I’ve just always heard the term associated with Joseph Campbell and it was refreshing to hear it from a Christian perspective with no mention of Campbell. I still hold bile towards the “Hero’s Journey” from Campbell’s point of view because I recall so many atheists saying “Look the Gospels contain elements of the hero’s journey by Campbell so that means its made up!” and hearing counterarguments that The Hero’s Journey (as portrayed by Campbell and his contemporaries) was so broad that you could literally make any story fit it. I see where you’re coming from about it being co-opted and repurposing it. I guess I tend to see that archetypal story as belonging to God and others have taken it and perverted it.

        While not apples to apples, I see this archetypal story as being similar to the flood narrative found in many ancient near-east mythologies. Those who are seeking to discredit Christianity may say “Look, there are other stories like that out there, that means its made up”, I see it more as pointing to the fact that in humanity’s collective subconscious, a great flood was experienced that had some sort of connection with divine judgement.

        1. Justin, I absolutely agree with your observation about archetypal stories. It’s frustrating to talk with people who come to the idea from archetypes/monomyth *first*, and then into Christianity. Mostly because they don’t see themselves as evaluating MY religion by the standards of their OWN religion, lol.

          After reading Campbell and others like him, I swore off reading commentary about other religions or philosophies that were written by people who weren’t active practitioners. Some things you really don’t see better from the outside— though that’s a thought that offends our objectivist sensibilities…

        1. Hmmmm. I had to think about that a bit. The problem with ‘hero’s journey’ is that it’s catchy, memorable and self-explanatory, lol. And….uhh….. theosis is not. 😀

          I believe that the true, universal appeal of hero stories is that they mimic each of our own soul’s desire for salvation. So the ‘hero’s journey’ can either be used as a symbol for theosis (like what you described as doing with St. Simeon’s story)—- or it can be used as a demonic externalization and distraction that temporarily appeases and so ultimately thwarts that desire (which is most of our contemporary usage).

          I suppose the nugget I’d stick to is insisting that the hero’s journey and the monomyth are both expressions of the collective unconscious’ desire for theosis. But that’s just the introductory sentence of a much larger conversation, isn’t it?

          It makes it difficult, but I ultimately find it relieving that Orthodox spirituality resists being packaged into a marketing campaign. 🙂

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