Joseph Campbell’s Life and Work

Campbell_review_20210817

Joseph Campbell. 1990. The Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell on his Life and Work. Novato, California: New World Library.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

For those who are not writers, the Hero’s Journey is an emotional outline used in many novels and screen plays today based on tales dating back to ancient times. My novella project over the past year uses this outline, but I did not know where it came from until I learned about Joseph Campbell.

Introduction

The Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell on his Life and Work is a memoir of Joseph Campbell based on conversations with him over the years. Campbell became famous after a 1988 PBS series by Bill Moyers: Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth, which can be viewed on Amazon Prime.[1]

This book plows some of the same ground as that series, but was fashioned from interviews in a shorter, one-hour film, the Hero’s Journey, by associate producer Phil Cousineau at producer Stuart L. Brown’s request. This genesis explains, for example, why the memoir is structured with chapters beginning with background followed by questions and answers. It also explains why the text contains numerous photographs taken at all stages of Campbell’s life and career.

Background and Education

Joseph John Campbell (1904—1987) taught literature at Sarah Lawrence College (an all-girl’s school in Yonkers, New York) who worked in comparative mythology and comparative religion. He received his BA and MA in English literature at Columbia University,[2] but he was also more widely read, educated, and traveled than practically anyone in our times. Campbell’s encyclopedic understanding of literature, key authors, and alternative religions help explain why so much attention has been paid to a professor from an obscure little college.

Organization

 Campbell’s story is told in eight chapters precede by extensive front matter (foreword, preface, introduction, and acknowledgments) and followed by equally voluminous back matter (epilog, list of books, bibliography, contributors, illustration credits, index, about, and about the foundation). The eight chapters are:

  1. The Call to Adventure
  2. The Road of Trials
  3. The Vision Quest
  4. The Meeting with the Goddess
  5. The Boon
  6. The Magic Flight
  7. The Return Threshold
  8. The Master of Two Worlds (v)

For those unfamiliar, the chapter titles offer a variation on the hero’s journey, suggesting Campbell’s life itself fit the template.

Mystery of the Man

One gets the impression from reading this memoir that Campbell, the cultural Catholic, never understood the distinction between religion and theology. Religion is the study of human kind, while theology is the study of God. For all his sophistication and knowledge of world mythologies, he stayed focused on the creature and never saw the creator. His core belief from Janinas Hinduism that there are many paths up the mountain to god when, in fact, there are none—God must come down to us.[3]

Campbell’s focus on mythology never ventures outside the bounds of religion into theology. In his introduction, Cousineau observes:

“So as Albert Einstein pursued a unified field theory for the energies of the outer realms, Joseph Campbell dedicated himself to forging a kind of unified field theory of the equally prodigious energies of the inner realm, the personification of which we call ‘the gods.’” (xx)

By giving credence to the concept of the equality of religions, Campbell played a key role in the emergence of the New Age movement championed by Hollywood through people like George Lucas (Star Wars and Indiana Jones) and a major theme in the postmodern critique of Christianity. Star Wars explicitly employed the Hero’s Journey in its structure and Indiana Jones wandered the earth digging up Judeo-Christian totems, such as the Ark of the Covenant, thought by some to have magical powers.[4]

Role of Myth

Separating Campbell from the wake created by his studies, he added much to our understanding of myth. He sees my having mystical, cosmological, sociological, and pedological functions (191).

The mystical function opens up the heart and mind to transcendence. In giving God a name and referring to his goodness, he sees Judaism reducing its mythological origins to ethics, a unique cosmology (192). By structuring myth to a particular time, science is also a kind of religion (193-194). Interestingly, the role of time in Judeo-Christian culture and science links the two, science is unlikely to evolve under other religions that stand outside time in their mythologies.

Much like the mystical and cosmological functions are hard to separate in this discussion so are the sociological and pedological function. The author’s here write: “The myth guides you through the rituals, initiation rites, fertility rites, puberty rites, funeral rites.” (191) One suspects that the authors do not fully understand Campbell when he employs such distinctions, a general problem in interfaith studies.

Assessment

Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell on his Life and Work is a biography written by producers of a film, the Hero’s Journey, which chronicled the life and work of Joseph Campbell. They lay out Campbell’s life, writings, and interviews with great flair and numerous photographs. Those interested in the origin of ideas and Campbell’s work will love this book.

Footnotes

[1] https://billmoyers.com/series/joseph-campbell-and-the-power-of-myth-1988/.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Campbell.

[3] When Genesis 1:1 tells of God creating heaven and earth, we know that God stands outside of the time and space that he created. As creatures, we are locked in time and space, and cannot approach God on our own. This is the essence of transcendence.

[4] Mixing entertainment with religious icons weaves a new mythology, which both places this mythology at the service of commercial interests and chips away at the credibility of people’s underlying faith. While Star Wars has been belittled as nothing more than space cowboys, even the idea of de-linking cowboys from their historical context (the American western experience) places this new mythology outside of time. Remember that the Judeo-Christian worldview, unlike other religions, takes historical time seriously, which places ethical demands on its adherents.

A mythology standing outside of time requires fewer ethical demands and better serves the interests of masters rather than slaves. Nietzsche, you may recall, studied the classics and denigrated Christianity as a slave religion, which helped lay the intellectual foundation for master-race theory later picked up by Hitler’s Third Reich. While we cannot lay such a heavy burden at the feet of Joseph Campbell, the point here is that playing with mythology and denigrating religion is serious business with many, unintended consequences.

Joseph Campbell’s Life and Work

Also see:

Niebuhr Examines American Christian Roots, Part 1 

Friedman Brings Healing by Shifting Focus from Individuals to the Family 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com

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