We understand the world and ourselves in terms of stories. Kids get hooked on stories early. We read stories to them. They see them on TV. And they eventually want to hear the story of their family, how Mommy and Daddy met or stories of what they did as a baby. Our faith is transmitted largely through stories. And Joseph Campbell noticed that almost all stories have the same structure. They start with a protagonist who is called to adventure. He leaves his home and travels to another place. He encounters various trials. He may receive help from a father figure. He may be enticed by a woman. He discovers a great boon and returns home with it, the master of two realms. And while perhaps not all stories fit the Hero's Quest, as Campbell called it, most of the great ones, the ones that resonate with us, do.
Let's take two from pop culture. Star Wars was consciously modeled after Campbell's theories. The hero, Luke Skywalker, lives on a boring desert planet. His call to adventure is the message from Princess Leia that he discovers in the droid his uncle just bought. That leads him to Obi-wan Kenobi, a father figure who aids him by teaching him the ways of the Force. They travel in the Millennium Falcon into space and are pulled into the Death Star. Luke and his companions rescue the princess. Obi-wan sacrifices himself so they can escape. They return with the rebels. Luke destroys the Death Star with the help of the Force and returns a hero.
The Godfather also fits the pattern set out by Campbell. Michael Corleone is the son of Vito Corleone, a Mafia don. Michael is a war hero, a Marine, with a college education whom his father hopes will go legit and become a senator. Then Vito is gunned down in a mob war and Michael decides to avenge his father. With the help of Clemenza, a capo and friend of his father, Michael kills the men responsible and flees the country to Sicily. There he marries a local girl who is killed by a car bomb meant for him. He returns to avenge his brother Sonny and take over his father's business. He becomes the new godfather.
Interesting how both a story of heroism and a story of a man becoming the monster his father was both follow the main points of the Hero's Quest, or to use Campbell's other name for the story, the monomyth. For this reason I rather like Dan Harmon's simplification of the story. In his version, the protagonist starts out in a comfortable or at least a familiar place. Yet something is not right. He needs something in order to fix it. He leaves to get it and goes to another place, often a place of chaos. As he searches for what he needs, he undergoes trials and learns to adapt to the new order of things. He finds what he needs and takes it but pays a great price. He returns but is a changed person.
Now you can see more clearly the parallels between the two stories. Luke is called from the farm he grew up on. Michael is called from a comfortable life. Luke needs to go get the princess. Michael needs to protect his father and avenge him. Luke joins the rebellion and goes into space. Michael joins in the ways of the Mafia and flees to Sicily. In the Death Star Luke meets Leia, who kisses him. In Sicily Michael marries Apollonia. Luke destroys the Death Star and flies back to the rebel base. Michael kills the heads of the 5 families and returns to the family business. Luke becomes a Jedi knight. Michael becomes a Mafia don.
It works with just about any story, whether the protagonist is good or bad. It works with superhero stories, coming of age stories, rags to riches stories, science fiction stories, historical romances, and detective stories. Why is it so universal? Is there an archetype deep in our collective psyche?
Let's look at the story that brings us here tonight. The Son of God lives eternally in God his Father's love. But something is not right with the earth, God's creation. It has become corrupted with sin and evil. He leaves heaven to come to earth and become a human being. Though he speaks the truth about God's love and forgiveness, he nevertheless faces opposition. He finds a few people who believe him. He is tried and crucified by those who don't. He descends into the realm of death. He returns from death to life, bestows his Spirit upon his followers and returns to the Father. It fits.
But there is something that is different about this story. Luke has a lightsaber and an X-wing jet. His quest ends in the death of the millions who live on the planet-sized Death Star, including technicians and food workers and janitors. Michael has guns and an army of mob assassins and achieve his goal by taking out his enemies. Batman tries not to kill his enemies but he is not opposed to beating them into unconsciousness and hurling sharp batarangs into them. Superman can level cities in his fights. The Lord of the Rings features several battles. Robin Hood shoots knights with his arrows. King Arthur and his knights wield their swords. In almost all of our stories the good guys win by committing violence upon the bad guys.
But that's what we see in this world, isn't it? Bad guys have no qualms about hurting good guys so good guys should retaliate by hurting bad guys, right? Of course in the real world the definition of who is good and who is bad is harder to determine. They are all human beings who can and often do both good things and bad things. And from their own viewpoint, nobody sees themselves as evil.
Let's say someone hates our president, wants to remove him from power and then invades with overwhelming force. In our eyes they are the bad guys. But let's say this is Iraq, our president is Saddam Hussein and the invaders are Americans. To most Iraqis the Americans are not the good guys. That's why a lot of their top officers joined ISIS. To them we are the evil Empire and they are the scrappy rebels. Because if both sides are using the same basic tactics—violence—it's tough to tell who is good and who is bad.
In the movies the difference between the two sides is that bad guys kill good guys whereas good guys kill bad guys. But after a while Hollywood figured out that this isn't a very useful moral yardstick. One of the things that bothered me about the Matrix movies is that they establish that if you kill someone in the matrix you kill the human person in the real world, who is, by the way, just being used as a battery and is unaware that they are avatars in a simulation. Plus these people can be taken over by Agent Smith and his ilk. So Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus are killing other humans who are unwitting pawns of the programs.
So now bad guys in the movies are robots or aliens or zombies or vampires or orcs. That way the good guys can kill a slew of them without looking like they are committing war crimes like genocide. But that also means those stories we love are not very useful in dealing with evil in the much more complex real world with human beings.
And indeed what we seldom see in the fantasy wars of the cinema are things like the ruins of Aleppo. We don't see the widows and orphans that blowing up the Death Star left. We don't see the dead children, the people with missing limbs, the soldiers with brain damage, or the survivors with PTSD that we see in real life. That's what war does. That's why real soldiers, like my dad was, rarely talk about war and what it's really like. And if they try and are honest about it, they find that family and friends are so upset they stop asking about it. That's why Frodo is not a happy hero at the end of the Lord of the Rings. J.R.R. Tolkien fought in World War 1. He couldn't even pretty up war's effects in his fantasy world.
What's different about Jesus' story is that his only weapons are truth and the power to give life. Instead of wounding others, he heals them. Instead of killing people, he raises them from the dead. Instead of establishing his kingdom by shedding the blood of his enemies, his kingdom is based on letting them shed his blood.
People say Jesus is naive. They say his way won't work. They also say one definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. People have been fighting and killing each other for 10s of thousands of years. According to the UN there are at any given time about 40 wars going on around the world. It hasn't made the earth noticeably better.
But what about Jesus' way? Hasn't it been tried and found wanting? On the contrary, as G.K. Chesterton said, Christianity has been found to be difficult and not tried. Not in any large or sustained way. When people have tried to truly love their neighbors, to really forgive others as they wish to be forgiven, to actually reach out and listen to and show love to their enemies, it has worked.
Johnny Lee Clary joined the Ku Klux Klan when he was 14 and was the Imperial Wizard, the head of the KKK, by age 30. He believed in white supremacy and in violence against non-whites. He even set fire to the church of the Rev. Wade Watts, a black civil rights advocate. But his contact with Watts, with whom he debated several times, changed him. Not only did he leave the Klan, and work with Watts and the NAACP, he eventually became a minister. He was the only white man ever ordained in the black Church of God in Christ. He was a changed man.
Joshua Milton Blahyi was a feared warlord in the African nation of Liberia. He led child soldiers into battle in the 90s when Liberia was controlled by rival militias. He went into battle wearing only shoes and magic charms he believed would protect him from bullets. He believed that cannibalism and human sacrifice was necessary for the magic to work. He claims he killed thousands of people. After one battle he saw a vision of Jesus and he left the battlefield. When the hostilities were over and Liberia had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Blahyi was the first warlord to testify. He confessed to his crimes and said he was sorry. In 2007 he founded Journeys Against Violence to rehabilitate the former child soldiers he led. He lives in modest quarters and preaches in small churches that if God can forgive him, he can forgive anyone.
When I was chaplain at the jail, the Bibles I distributed from the American Bible Society had a forward written by David Berkowitz. Yes, the infamous Son of Sam who shot 13 people, killing 6. In prison in 1987, he became a Christian. In 2002 he was up for parole. He wrote the Governor of New York and asked that his parole hearing be canceled. He wrote, “In all honesty, I believe that I deserve to be in prison for the rest of my life. I have, with God's help, long ago come to terms with my situation and I have accepted my punishment.” He has continued to refuse parole. In his introduction to the Bible, he said that he has been called to minister to his fellow prisoners.
In our stories, we divide everyone into good guys and bad guys. The story is about how the good guys get rid of the bad guys. Jesus' story is, too. But the way he eliminates bad guys is by turning them into good guys. He forgives and heals and restores them to the persons God intended them to be. Sometimes one of our stories is about a bad guy with a guilty conscience who is trying to redeem himself. Jesus redeems others by taking upon himself the consequences of what they are guilty of.
In our minds, our life is a story and we are the hero or heroine. We know something is not right and we seek that which will make things better. We look for what we are missing among the stuff the world tells us is important—money, sex, power, admiration, vindication, etc. How do we go about it? We may not use violence but do we in other ways ignore the needs of others in order to get it? And when we get it, if we get it, is it really all it's cracked up to be? Does it fill the emptiness we sometimes feel? Did what we do to get it change us? Does it make us into a better person or not?
Jesus is calling us to adventure. He is calling us to make his story our story. He says what we need is the love and healing and forgiveness and sense of purpose only he can give. But we need to leave the rut of our comfortable life, or maybe our uncomfortable but familiar life, and venture into a new life. He won't lie to us. There will be trials and temptations. There will be times when you will be challenged for doing not the wrong thing but the right thing. You will have to leave behind cherished thoughts and habits that are really unhelpful and self-defeating in order to find new ways of thinking and acting that are actually healthy and liberating. But he will imbue you with his Spirit and guide you through the dark times and hold your hand through the scary parts. And it will change you. You will become the person God wants you to be, the person he created you to be.
It may not be glamorous. After all, the one who calls you was born in a barn and his cradle was a feeding trough. He didn't lift x-wings out of swamps; he lifted people from illness and despair. He didn't battle dragons with a magic sword; he fought ignorance, indifference, hypocrisy and arrogance with truth, compassion, integrity and humility. He didn't kill the bad guys; they killed him. And then he rose again. And it is he whom we remember and revere, not them. Nobody says they want to be like Pilate or Caiaphas; they want to be like Jesus.
And that's what he calls us to: to be like him—to heal, not to harm; to build up, not to destroy; to unite, not to divide; to love, not to hate; to be Christlike.
The stories of Johnny Lee Clary, Joshua Milton Blahyi, and David Berkowitz should have had very different endings. In the movies, they would have. They would have been villains, destined to die at the hands of the hero. But Jesus is their hero. He stepped into the picture and their stories went in unexpected directions. In a major plot twist, the bad guys turned into good guys.
Where is your story headed? Is it turning bad? Is it turning sad? Is it turning scary? Or is it just meandering? It can change. You can change. Your past need not determine your future. Every second is a second chance to turn things around.
Jesus is calling. He is calling you to be part of something bigger, something greater, something nobler. Don't stay on the farm; don't stay in the Shire; don't stay in Kansas anymore. There is something wrong with this world and you can be one of those people who makes it better. You can be a peacemaker, a light to the world, a child of God, a hero. Like Jesus. Christ is born today; the new you in Christ can be too.