When the word “myth” is used to describe foundational social or faith stories, the result is oftentimes a reaction of insult and anger. For most, that word conjures up images of fictional or embellished stories, perhaps compiled from many disparate sources – in short, myths are not considered to be truth. The word “myth”, however, is value neutral on the criteria of truth. Myths are society’s fundamental stories, usually involving heroes or major events and based on reality, fiction or some combination of the two that explain or validate traditional practices or belief patterns. Myths are the foundations of culture – every culture has them – the bedrock upon which social values, mores and norms are built.
There is, then, a tendency to romanticize myths beyond the level of ideology, adventure and chivalrous displays that already exist. Entirely common is the process of day-dreaming ourselves in the role of the mythical hero – to become so enamored with the myth, that our ability to see ourselves apart from it becomes blurred. Generally, this very act circumvents the intended message of the story, and creates a compound myth that is now approaching fantasy. Most times, this is quite harmless, but when a pastor crosses this line, faith can become a casualty.
The foundational myth of Christianity is, of course, the life of Christ. Now, please remember, that the word “myth” does not indicate truth or fiction – I believe fully in the life of Christ, but recognize its value as a social myth nonetheless. Before examining the mythology of Christianity, we shall unpack the general nature of hero myths.
FOUNDATIONAL HERO MYTH
In all hero mythology, there are essential components. They begin with the presence of a social ill, evil or natural enemy that threatens the survival of the culture. This could be as simple as the presence of a dragon in European myth, to the corruption of essential societal virtues that threatens to undermine law and life, as is often the case in Eastern myths. The population affected feels powerless to do anything about the threat, if indeed they even recognize it as such.
A potential hero is required, sometimes many who compete in some respect for the right to become the hero of myth. The potential hero recognizes a problem exists, but initially feels impotent to change the conditions which pose the threat. A very common element in myths is the reluctant hero, the person who recognizes the threat, feels that they are expected to step into the role of hero, but runs from fulfilling that duty for some period of time. For Judeo-Christians, the story of Jonah is the dominant reluctant hero myth.
Eventually, the potential hero recognizes that they are critical to overcoming the threat, but also that they lack a clear vision to make the change necessary. The initial quest is usually to find the tools, weapons or skills that are lacking in the hero. These, and not the desired outcome, are what usually comprise the “holy grail” of the myth – the ability to see the situation clearly because the grail, which has now been attained, sheds light on the darkness ahead. The conversion of the potential hero to actual hero, and gaining the Holy Grail, usually make up the longest sections of the myth.
In the pursuit of the grail, the hero encounters one or more shadow creatures or major negative presences. These can be of natural or supernatural origin, and sometimes are natural events that are supernaturally manipulated. The most overwhelming of these roadblocks to acquiring the grail, however, are the hero’s own fears, or the extreme objections of others in regard to the quest.
The hero defeats or converts the negative presences or occurrences, and gains entry into the dark kingdom where the prized grail is located. This usually involves a near death, pseudo-death or even a death experience for the hero. The more supernatural the enemy, the more likely it is that the hero will be required to experience death in order to complete the task at hand. Within the darkness, the hero is tested and/or helped by other powers. These powers are transcendental and change the hero permanently. After one final, supreme test, the hero gains the prize. Sometimes it is gifted on the hero because of her/his particularly heroic behavior, and others it is won through the repeated contests that pit virtue against evil. The story is not done, however.
Critical to hero stories is the return. This is usually done in one of two ways. The hero, having attained the grail, may simply need to return triumphantly, as is most likely when the enemy is a monster or dragon. Many times, however, the hero flees the darkness, grail in hand, fighting the same or new dark figures in the process. Either way, the hero returns changed, but usually having to leave the transcendent power behind, and brings back the prize. The hero’s world, then, sees clearly the change that is needed, and undergoes positive transformation.
MINISTER AS HERO SPELLS TROUBLE
Considering that for many decades there has been a shift in the vocational patterns of ministers, it becomes easier to see why the temptation exists for pastors seeing themselves in heroic proportions. The average minister is no longer the one who went straight from undergraduate to seminary to ministry. Rather, the average is now either a second career or a bi-vocational pastor (one who has two jobs). There has been a great deal of life lived before entering ministry – a life that many times fits well within the hero mythology.
I will tell my story of becoming a pastor, while interjecting a few general observations – see how it lines up with the hero myth as outlined above.
Until my mid-forties, I was a rabid, greedy business person who readily abandoned scruples for profit. I was, by all accounts, a very good business problem solver. I did not emerge unscathed, however, and eventually walked away from the rat race we call commerce. I began to see quite clearly that business practices and ethics had invaded the church, resulting in the church being simply a reflection of the world, rather than a reflection of Christ (the problem).
As a church administrator, many in the congregations I served pushed me to enter the seminary to become a pastor. Out of fear disguised as a “what would God want with me in the pulpit” rationalization, I side-stepped the issue for almost five years (reluctant hero – this is a very common situation in second career ministers). The more I looked at the situation of the church and talked with members, the more I realized that I had the experience and background to participate in changing the church (vision). What I lacked was the seminary education (the grail) to be able to have a voice in making change.
There were roadblocks (tests) to overcome. I had no undergraduate degree, which meant I had to prove I was capable of Master’s level academics. I had an academic advisor who was proud of the fact that the seminary I enrolled in had never made the exception for undergraduate degrees, and who told me that, as the chair of the admissions committee, she would fight against my inclusion. When I was admitted as a full-time Masters student, I was not eligible for scholarships, since I was an exception. Several times, I decided to drop out when financial burdens became too great to overcome (near death), but was helped along by the generosity of interested parties (transcendental powers). After completing work in three seminaries, one of which was at Cambridge University in England (heroic proportions), I received my master of Divinity degree in 2006 (grail attained).
Because of my educational exception, and living in Podunk, Iowa, it took eighteen months to find the right match with a church (fighting out of the dark kingdom). I am now an ordained minister actively involved in my presbytery and writing and speaking about returning the church to a higher ethical ground (return to my world).
I am now perfectly lined up to commit the sin, or give into the temptation, that is also common to mythology – the hero’s propensity to believe they are the savior – to take themselves and their roles too seriously. The overinflated ego is very often one of the last hurdles the hero must jump – and possibly the hardest to get over.
In reality, modern ministers are very inclined to see themselves in mythological proportions, especially if ministry bears fruit. That is why so much attention is given to numbers – it is so much easier to measure heroism on a numerical growth scale, rather then the amorphous “spiritual growth” scale.
We forget certain things along the journey. The minister is not just aware of stagnation (slow death), but they have likely felt it personally. The image of wounded healer is a big ego-lifting mythological figure in Christianity. Others are looking for a hero – someone with courage – to light their way. This is true of most churches – pedestals abound from which to fall. In the struggle to re-invigorate the church, the pastor has to battle with staying safe and dying, or finding the hero within and finding life. Ministry requires personal transformation – willingness to look at fears and overcome them. The minister, at least in their own mind, tends to be self-sacrificial. However, the hero is also motivated by some kind of personal gain, usually some notoriety. So, the minister is never totally altruistic.
It is far too easy for ministers to see themselves as the White Knight of the Kingdom of Change, and forget that the church already has its hero and Knight in the person of Jesus Christ. When the tendencies are examined reflectively, it becomes easy to see how we have been set up, and set ourselves up, for egoism on a grand scale – for suffering the Christ complex. As my antidote, I try to envision a conversation between myself and Christ (now, there’s no lack of ego there, eh?). It might go something like:
Christ: Far be it from me to question your accolades of my book, but haven’t you read too much into the hero’s journey aspect? Isn’t your ego involved too much?
Andy: But Jesus, you told me in your book how to be heroic, and that’s what’s made such a difference in my life, and my business. Now it will change the church.
[Built-in problem – Andy does have a history of wanting to be seen in heroic proportions. ]
Christ: Yes, but I also warned about putting too much emphasis on our role. I am the hero in the story. You are a change maker that plays a part in the transformation. The leader doesn’t base his/her actions on her/his own needs or benefits. Could it be that you are predisposed to act in heroic proportions? You NEED to be a hero, and now you want to bring that personal need into the church. The church already has a hero – me. I already took the hero’s journey, and brought the prize back to the world.
Andy: What are you saying? We all have egos. Ego isn’t necessarily bad. Are you telling me that we should be motivated to risk the hero’s dangers, but not reap the benefits or the accolades? No matter how you paint it, anyone motivated to act heroically is expecting a positive outcome for the organization, and themselves. We aren’t totally altruistic – we’re human.
Christ: I’m just saying that we need to keep a balance between our egos and the positive outcomes for the organization. The hero gets benefits, sure, but they aren’t the primary motivating factors. You need to read the Hero’s Journey (Bible) carefully to keep that balance. It would be easy to get carried away with yourself if the organization benefits from your actions. Remember, you’re nothing but a tool for God’s transformative powers – you are not the possessor of those powers.