Monday, December 20, 2004

A Christmas Tale - The Hero's Journey

This is a talk I gave at St Mary's Church, Bryanston Square, London, on Sunday 19 December 2004.

Here's a Christmas quiz for you:
Which famous story has a character whom we first meet in a kind of shed, who is persecuted by men in authority, has a special affinity with children, is gentle and meek, performs healing miracles, whose message can be summed up in the words 'be good', who sacrifices his life to save another's, who dies, is resurrected to joyful cries of 'he's alive!', reappears dressed in white, promises to be with his friends always and who finally returns to the heavens from whence he came?

The famous story is the 1982 film E.T. the Extra Terrestrial.

Think about it: Eliot first meets ET in a shed-like garage, finds he's being hunted by scientists who want to "dissect him or something"; ET is "seen" only by children, at first. In one scenes he heals Eliot's cut finger by touching it. He tells Eliot's sister to "be good". He and Eliot become so empathically linked that when E.T. starts to die, Eliot sickens, too and so E.T. cuts the link to Eliot – essentially his life support – and allows himself to die, thereby saving Eliot. But when E.T.'s "family" come back from space his heart begins to glow again and he comes alive again. (Think of those pictures or statues where Jesus is shown with a glowing red heart!). Before E.T. leaves, he touches Eliot's forehead with his finger and says, "I'll be here". Then he ascends into the heavens, leaving a rainbow-like star above.

E.T. was directed by Steven Spielberg, who is of course Jewish and had no conscious intention of re-creating the Christ story. In a recent interview, Spielberg told the story of how some Jewish kids who played extras on the film said to him, "This story's about Jesus!"

"No, it isn't," said Spielberg, then paused, frowned and added, "At least not consciously."

Isn't that amazing? That one of the highest-grossing films ever made tells the Jesus story, but the director wasn't even aware of it?

Martin Scorsese, another film director, came up with one of my favourite quotes: He said, "I have a hard time telling the difference between going to the movies and going to church."

Scorsese, a New York born Catholic, directed such films as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas and the controversial Last Temptation of Christ. I think Scorsese means that when you've seen a good film you come out of the cinema feeling inspired, encouraged, warned, loved, and with a renewed sense of awe for God's love and grace.

That's how some films make us feel, and I'm not just talking about so-called "religious films" like The Passion of the Christ or Ben-Hur. Many secular films can inspire the sort of feelings we'd like to have when we leave church on Sunday.

I won't bore you with films that have inspired me, because that's very subjective. But I will mention a book called How Movies Helped Save My Soul by Gareth Higgins. It's a Christian film-buff's affectionate look at some of his favourite films. I don't agree with all his choices but it's a thought-provoking and entertaining book.

In the forward to this book, Tony Campolo says: "Gareth Higgins... finds messages in movies that God wants us to hear – messages that are either seldom heard from church pulpits or, when preached, are expressed with insufficient drama."

Campolo is saying that movies sometimes reach the parts that church can't!

Why is it that movies often transmit God's message much more powerfully than sermons?

I think it's because of the huge power that stories have in our lives.

Jesus knew the value of stories. He illustrated almost all his teaching with parables, which are stories.

C.S. Lewis, author of The Narnia Chronicles, wrote a lot of essays on Christianity. Then one day he had a revelation about the power of story from Tolkien and he never wrote an essay on Christianity again. He realised that stories are far more powerful than even the most beautifully presented argument. And stories can reach more people.

If written stories are ten time more powerful than essays, movies are a hundred times more powerful than written stories. You could argue that movies are the most powerful way of storytelling ever invented. I love reading, but scenes I remember from books just can't compare in power with the scenes I remember from films.

As a writer, I'm deeply interested in story structure. Recently I've been doing some screenwriting classes with an organisation here in London called Raindance. Every so often they bring over some of the best Hollywood Screenwriters to give weekend screenwriting courses. Recently I attended one by Christopher Vogler, who used to work for Disney Studios in the 70's. Shortly after he left film school, Vogler read a book that changed his life. It was a book called The Hero With a Thousand Faces by a man called Joseph Campbell, an anthropologist who studied myths from different cultures. Campbell noticed that people from different parts of the world – without contact with each other – told very similar stories.

In other words, the human mind – or heart, as the Hebrew speaking writers of the Old Testament would say – has an inbuilt sense of meaningful story. A scientist would say the human brain has been hardwired. A psychologist like Jung would talk about "archetypes of the collective unconscious". A Christian would say God has planted the truth in our hearts.

As Vogler read Campbell's book, he identified 12 steps common to every hero's journey and realised it could provide powerful plot structure. His revelation was confirmed when he was invited to an early screening of Star Wars. With a shock of recognition, he realised that George Lucas had been reading Campbell, too. Vogler left Disney not long after that screening of Star Wars, and for the past 25 years he's been teaching these 12 steps of the hero's journey, which are now foundation material for any would-be screenwriter or writer.

These steps are not found in all stories, but they are found in what I call "Myth-based" stories. (The word myth comes from the Greek word mythos which means "story" and you could say myths are the most basic stories.) I'm going to use the term "Myth-based" for modern books or films that follow the same steps as the myths of ancient cultures. A recently published book by Christopher Booker claims that the first recorded story, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, is essentially the same story as most James Bond films!

Myth-based stories are usually hugely successful across the world because they are based on steps common to humankind. Examples of modern Myth-based stories are Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, The Matrix, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz, The Sword in the Stone and The Polar Express.

I'm going to tell you the 12 steps from the 1977 film that started it all, Star Wars.

1. The Hero's World
The story often opens by showing the world the hero inhabits. Often it is not the hero's real world but he doesn't know that yet. He is restless. He feels there is something more. In this world there are sometimes clues about another more important world, a world where he has a destiny. Often the hero's father is absent. Luke Skywalker is a perfect example. He longs to fly jets and fight the evil empire. His parents are dead, so he lives with his aunt and uncle, but they don't really understand him.

The Herald - the herald is not one of the steps, but rather an archetype. He is usually the one who introduces the next step in the hero's journey. In Star Wars the Herald is R2D2 a little droid with a holographic message on his hard disc.

2. The Call to Adventure
In Star Wars, the holographic message by Princess Leia is the Call to Adventure. "Help me," she says, "you're my only hope." The Caller usually asks the hero to leave his world and go on a quest to save an object or person of great value. Lord of the Rings seems to contradict his, because Frodo's goal is to destroy the ring, not bring it back. But think about it: if he succeeds, then he will save Middle Earth.

3. Refusal of the Call
The hero has been longing for this chance to seek his fortune and go on a quest, but like all of us when faced with such a choice, he is reluctant to leave his comfort zone. Despite his dreams and longings, his initial instinct is to refuse. Luke tells Obi-Wan: "I can't get involved! It's not that I like the Empire. I hate it! But there's nothing I can do about it right now."

4. Meeting the Mentor
This step can come earlier. The mentor is another archetype, a wise teacher or wizard who is not always around but comes when most needed. The relationship of Mentor to hero can be that of wizard to apprentice, parent to child, teacher to student, doctor to patient, God to man. The Mentor can even be electronic: a TV or computer. This character's function is to prepare the hero to face the trials awaiting him. He may offer advice, guidance, give objects of power or even a swift kick in the backside... But the Mentor can only go so far with the hero. Oh, and nine times out of ten the mentor is a man with a beard. Think about Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Star Wars. However, the mentor can be a woman, like Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz.

At this point in many stories the Mentor often gives the hero a talisman. The talisman is an object of value which shows the hero he is chosen. Frodo gets the ring, Dorothy gets the Red Shoes, the boy in The Polar Express gets a gold return ticket. Luke gets his father's sword. The sword this is the most common talisman of Greek Mythology. In the Greek myth, Jason also gets his father's sword. Jason's mentor is his mother Aithra, who leads him to the rock under which it is hidden.

5. Crossing the Threshold
In films this is the turning point between Acts I and II, often called the point of no return. It's at this moment that the story really gets going. In Luke's case, he decides to go with Obi Wan after discovering his home has been burned by the Empire. Crossing the Threshold is often a visually stunning moment in movies. Think of how Dorothy crosses the threshold from black and white Kansas to technicolour Oz. Often at this point the hero encounters Threshold Guardians who try to stop him or her from crossing the Threshold. My favourite Threshold Guardian is the old bridgekeeper in Monty Python's Holy Grail. He stands by a terrifying chasm and each of King Arthur's knights must answer five– I mean three questions before he is allowed to cross:

Old Bridgekeeper: "Stop! Answer me these questions three, ere the other side ye see... What is your name? What is your quest? What is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?"etc...

Many Myth-based stories have several thresholds, each crossing becomes more dramatic. As far as structure, after this point the steps are slightly movable.

6. Allies, Enemies, Tests, Training & Oracles
Once across the first threshold, the hero encounters new challenges and tests. He often make enemies and allies and he begins to learn the rules of the special world he has just entered. According to Vogler, this scene often takes place in Western Saloons or Seedy Bars. In Star Wars, Luke encounters tests and makes allies in the cantina at the spaceport called Mos Eisley. According to John's gospel, Jesus' first test was at the wedding in Cana. I wonder if it was a rowdy crowd…

7. Approach to the inmost Cave
The hero finally reaches the place where the object of the quest is hidden. Often it is the headquarters of the hero's arch-enemy, the most dangerous spot in the Special World - the Inmost Cave. It doesn't have to be underground but it is often confined and dark. Reaching it often involves crossing several more thresholds. In Star Wars this step comes when Luke and his friends are sucked into the Death Star, and end up in the garbage crusher in the detention area. This is called "out of the frying pan into the fire".

8. The Supreme Ordeal or Visit to Death
This is where the fortunes of the hero seem bleakest and most hopeless. Sometimes he comes face to face with his mortality. In Greek myths the hero literally goes down into the underworld. In some stories – like ET and Buffy – the hero actually dies.

9. The Reward
Having beaten the monster and survived death, the hero takes possession of the thing he has been seeking, the Reward. It could be an actual elixir or treasure, or it could be some special knowledge that leads our hero to greater understanding of – or reconciliation with – the hostile forces. Most often however, it is a person, as in Star Wars, where the reward is Princess Leia. Remember, that was Luke's original goal. She knows how to access other files in R2D2 so that the good guys can destroy the Death Star and save the Universe.

10. The Road Back
But the hero is not safe yet. If he has not had reconciliation with parents/gods/hostile forces, they may come raging after him. This is often the beginning of Act III in a movie or screenplay. In Star Wars, Luke and friends are tracked and pursued by The Grand Moff Tarkin in his Death Star to the fourth moon of Yavin, a lush jungle world where the rebel base is hidden.

11. Resurrection
In many stories the hero's ultimate test involves him being willing to sacrifice his own life. His death (or near-death) is followed by resurrection. This is where the forces of darkness get in one last shot before they are defeated. It is the hero's final exam. Often it is the love of an ally that saves the hero or brings him back.

12. Return with the Elixir
In the final step of his journey the hero returns to his world, but his journey will be meaningless unless he returns with some elixir, treasure or lesson learnt. You could say that in Star Wars the elixir is the plans to the Death Star. But the real elixir is Luke's knowledge of who he is and what his capabilities are: he is a Jedi Knight. The hero has come full circle but now he looks different and usually has new powers, too.

If you are not familiar with Star Wars IV there is another hugely successful film based on this same mythic structure: The Matrix.

1. The Hero's World
Although the first scene is like the opening scene of Vertigo, (a chase across rooftops which resemble waves of the sea), we first see Neo when he is sleeping in front of his computer. This is his world.

2. The Call to Adventure
The computer screen says WAKE UP NEO. then... FOLLOW THE WHITE RABBIT... then KNOCK, KNOCK. NOW. Neo soon meets the Herald, his soon-to-be ally and lover, Trinity.

3. Refusal of the Call
Neo gets a phone call at work and follows the instructions for a while, until he is asked to go up the outside of a skyscraper onto the roof. "This is insane," says Neo, dropping the phone. "I can't do this..."

4. Meeting the Mentor
Neo's phone call was from his Mentor, Morpheus. The mobile phone was the Talisman. Neo's refusal means he does not Cross that particular Threshold. But he is given another chance.

5. Crossing the Threshold
Trinity calls Neo and asks him to meet her by the Adam Street Bridge. Note that it's called the ADAM street bridge and that Trinity says to Neo, you already know what's at the end of that road. Following Adam's choice is the road mankind has taken but Christ offers us another road. This is when Neo Crosses his first Threshold. The next Threshold Neo crosses is when he takes the red pill. Having crossed this terrifying Threshold, Neo discovers the world he knew was a construct, and completely different from the real world.

6. Allies, Enemies, Tests, Training & Oracles
After Crossing the Threshold, Neo meets some allies... and some enemies: the evil Agents. He also undergoes training. He learns more quickly than any of the others and this strengthens Morpheus' belief that Neo is The One. Finally, Neo visits an Oracle who tells him he must make a choice which will involve sacrifice.

7. Approach to the inmost Cave
As in many Myth-based stories, the quest is to save the life of a friend or ally. To do this, Neo must go to the heart of Enemy Headquarters to rescue Morpheus.

8. The Supreme Ordeal (or Visit to Death)
Neo is shot and killed by Agent Smith. He has sacrificed his life for Morpheus and his friends.

11. Resurrection
Trinity's faith in Neo and her belief that he is The One brings him back... stronger and better. He is saved by the love of an ally.

9. The Reward
After a stunning battle, in which he uses his newfound powers, Neo rescues Morpheus.

10. The Road Back
Neo simply returns.

12. Return with the Elixir.
New improved Neo is indeed The One. He looks different and has new powers. He can now fly and do other cool stuff and we know he will lead his people to freedom from The Matrix.

In the 1930's, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were dons together at Oxford. They were both Christians and both writers, and they met regularly with others to discuss various aspects of writing in a literary group called the Inklings. On one occasion, Lewis, Tolkien and another friend were up all night discussing Myth and its relation to Christianity. Tolkien and Lewis both loved ancient myths, particularly the Greek and Norse myths. But Lewis disapproved of Tolkien using myths in the books he was writing. He called them "lies breathed through silver" and suggested that a Christian shouldn't use so-called pagan stories.

But Tolkien argued that pagan myths point to the truth of Jesus Christ.

This was a huge revelation in Lewis's life and he suddenly realised that the "story of Christ is a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference: it really happened." In other words, myths prepare us for the story of Jesus.

The Twelve Steps in the Story of Jesus.

1. The Hero's World
The gospel writer Mark and Mel Gibson in The Passion of the Christ, begin when Jesus is an adult. Jesus seems to be the ordinary son of a Jewish carpenter in Nazareth.Then one day the Herald comes. 'And so John came, baptising in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins...' This Herald is someone known to Jesus. His cousin John, called the Baptist.

2. The Call to Adventure
As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Holy Spirit descending on him like a dove, and a voice came from heaven: 'You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well-pleased.'

3. Refusal of the Call
The moment Jesus comes up out of the water and hears God's voice, he realises what he probably never consciously dared to think: he is the son of God, the Messiah. He may have suspected it before, but I don't think he knew for sure. This is a HUGE revelation and he needs a month in the wilderness to wrestle with the implications. I don't know if you could call this a refusal, but he certainly has a struggle. It's interesting that Satan, the Threshold Guardian as well as supreme enemy, challenges his revelation. "IF you are the son of God", he says repeatedly, "then prove it by doing such-and-such."

4. Meeting the Mentor
Although angels ministered to Jesus in the desert, Jesus' mentor is God the Father speaking through the Holy Spirit. In a way, the Holy Spirit is also a sort of talisman, something given not just to Jesus but to all of us to equip us for our journey.

5. Crossing the Threshold
Jesus returns from the desert and begins his ministry. He Crosses the Threshold when he comes out of the desert across the Jordan into Galilee. Just stop to think how many people in the Bible crossed rivers. Crossing a river is a symbol of baptism. When we are baptised, we cross a threshold from our old life to a new life.

6. Allies, Enemies, Tests, Training & Oracles
As soon as Jesus leaves the wilderness and crosses the Jordan, his ministry begins. He meets and calls his disciples, he is opposed by religious leaders. Various people prophesy about him. He undergoes many tests and trials. He teaches, heals, casts out demons, forgives, and performs many miracles. Miracles like the raising of Lazarus must have given him courage for the Supreme Ordeal. At times, he must have wondered whether he was mad to think he was the Son of God. He was human, after all.

Perhaps Jesus' hardest Test was the night in Gethsemane. Here again he had a chance to Refuse the Call. But he didn't. He went forward, across another terrifying threshold when he let Judas and the Temple Guard lead him away.

7. The Approach to the Inmost Cave
For Jesus there will be an actual cave, and a literal visit to the underworld. That journey which so many heroes took in the Greek myths, Jesus did in reality. According to 1 Peter 3.19-20 he went to the underworld for three days and preached to the spirits of the unsaved. But that is still ahead. First he must face

8. The Supreme Ordeal or Visit to Death
Jesus submits to torture and crucifixion. Films like The Passion of the Christ give us some idea of the agony he went through. But we can never really grasp the horror of his mental and physical anguish.

11. Resurrection
After three days in the cave – in the underworld – Jesus is resurrected.

10. The Road Back
Galilee was never Jesus' real home. He returns to his real home when he ascends to heaven.

9. The Reward
Just as the reward in most Myth-based films is rescuing a person or persons, so Jesus' reward is rescuing us from Death. Holman Hunt's famous painting The Light of the World shows how Jesus becomes a sort of Herald to knock on the door of our life. We can Refuse the Call if we wish. This image reminds me of The Polar Express. The conductor on the train holds a lamp and invites children to join. But he never insists. The Conductor says this: "The thing about trains... it doesn't matter where they're going. What matters is deciding to get on."

In that film, the Conductor is like Jesus, The Hobo Ghost is like the Holy Spirit and Santa is like God the Father.

12. Return with the Elixir
Finally there is the return with the elixir. Remember how the hero often looks different and may have new powers? The elixir in the Story of Jesus is salvation for everyone, Jesus reconciling God and Man outside space and time.

This is the life arc of Jesus. Within this arc there are other journeys. In Jesus' case there is never a real refusal of the call, only a struggle with it, as in the desert after his baptism and in the Garden of Gethsemane after the full revelation of what he's called to do. Interestingly, Martin Scorsese's film The Last Temptation of Christ considers what would have happened if Jesus HAD refused that final call and taken the easy way. But even in that film Jesus knows at the end what he must do.

Think of all the other stories that occurred that first Christmas. Mary's call, Joseph's, the Wise Men, the Shepherds...

I once heard an interview with Anthony Minghella. He said every character -– no matter how minor you the author consider them to be – is the hero of their own story.

Some of us are being called to go into places which are spiritual deserts to bring the love of God to those who don't know him. This is our Call to Adventure. God did not plant this mythic structure in our hearts just to prepare us for the Story of Jesus. He also planted it because he's calling each of us to be heroes on the journeys in our life.

One of my other favourite quotes is from the chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks. He said: "Why did God create man? Because God likes stories."

J.R.R. Tolkien said an amazing thing. "...only by myth-making ... by becoming a 'sub-creator' and inventing stories, can Man ascribe to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall."

When Christopher Vogler came to London earlier this year, he described how he had problems getting through customs and got very depressed. Suddenly he realised: "These people are just Threshold Guardians."

Our lives are like the Hero's Journey. Stages of our lives are like the Hero's Journey. In fact we can have a dozen per day. For some of you, getting to church this morning might have involved Threshold Guardians, Allies, Tests and Trials. Be encouraged. Look for your mentors and allies. Recognise if you yourself are a mentor. Be alert for the threshold guardians and don't be afraid of them. Remember that every death is followed by resurrection. Let God equip you. He has given us armour and weapons. He has given us divine and human mentors. And our talisman is a person, The Holy Spirit.


  1. This is a extremely good essay. I'm always impressed when someone can explain something profound in a simple clear manner. Shows you really know what your talking about. Thank you.