The Power of Myth: A Book Review by Douglas Groothuis and Star Wars

As many of you know I have been (past tense) in discussion with a coworker. He has recently informed me that he thinks we have exhausted our capacity to speak about “religion” in a way that is any longer fruitful. Nevertheless, through my discussion with him, he has introduced me to one of his teachers who I have highlighted here before, Joseph Campbell. I have since (and just yesterday) been in contact with an acquaintance (we share a mutual friend, actually, Mike Gurney) and friend on Facebook, Dr. Douglas Groothuis. Groothuis has his PhD from University of Oregon, and is professor of Philosophy of Religion at Denver Seminary; he is an expert on New Agism and Eastern Mysticism, so I mentioned to him the name, Joseph Campbell. It just so happens that Groothuis has done a book review of Joseph Campbell’s book The Power Of Myth; which was published in the Christian Research Journal way back in 1989. I am going to reproduce the full snippet (there is a longer version of this) here at the blog; with the hopes that all of you, my dear readers, might be further enlightened by understanding the thought of Joesph Campbell (fun fact: did you know that Campbell had an influence on George Lucas … you know, Star Wars). Here is the review (this is quite long, but can be read in about 10 minutes or so):

The Power of Myth, by Joseph Campell with Bill Moyers

A book review by Douglas Groothuis

from the Christian Research Journal, Fall, 1989, page 28. The Editor-in-Chief of the Christian Research Journal is Elliot Miller.

A Summary Critique

One of the surprise best sellers of the late 1980s has been The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell (1904-1987). The book takes the shape of a warm, wide-ranging, engaging dialogue with veteran journalist Bill Moyers and is richly illustrated with examples from world mythology and religion.

The Power of Myth is drawn from a series of interviews done in 1985 and 1986 and first shown on public television in 1988, about six months after Campbell’s death. The work serves as a summation of Campbell’s thought as a long-time literature professor at Sarah Lawrence College and a prolific writer on mythology and literature. The eight chapters range over such subjects as the role of mythology in the modern world, the journey inward, the hero’s adventure, and tales of love and marriage.

Campbell’s appeal lies in an encyclopedic grasp of world mythology and religion, winningly presented with a masterful storytelling ability. He was one who, in his own words, “followed his bliss” — and his enthusiasm for the subject can be infectious.


For Campbell, the “power of myth” is the power of metaphor and poetry to capture the imaginations of individuals and societies. Myth supplies a sense of meaning and direction that transcends mundane existence while giving it significance. It has four functions (p. 31): The mystical function discloses the world of mystery and awe, making the universe “a holy picture.” The cosmological function concerns science and the constitution of the universe. The sociological function “supports and validates a certain social order.” Everyone must try to relate to the pedagogic function which tells us “how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances.” America, Campbell believes, has lost its collective ethos and must return to a mythic understanding of life “to bring us into a level of consciousness that is spiritual” (p. 14).

Campbell defends the benefits of myths as literally false but metaphorically true for the broad range of human experience. But certain myths are (at least in part) to be rejected as “out of date,” particularly the personal lawgiver God of Jews and Christians. Biblical cosmology, he thinks, does not “accord with our concept of either the universe or of the dignity of man. It belongs entirely somewhere else” (p. 31).

Campbell’s own mythic commitment is to the “transtheological” notion of an “undefinable, inconceivable mystery, thought of as a power, that is the source and end and supporting ground of all life and being” (Ibid.). He rejects the term “pantheism” because it may retain a residue of the personal God of theism. Campbell repeatedly hammers home this notion of an inefq fable ground of reality: “God is beyond names and forms. Meister Eckhart said that the ultimate and highest leave-taking is leaving God for God, leaving your notion of God for an experience of that which transcends all notions” (p. 49).

Despite such an epistemological veto on our ability to conceive of anything transcendent, Campbell draws on Carl Jung’s theory of a collective unconscious to help explain the common ideas (“archetypes”) that recur in the mythologies of divergent cultures worldwide. “All over the world and at different times of human history, these archetypes, or elementary ideas, have appeared in different costumes. The differences in the costumes are the results of environment and historical conditions” (pp. 51-52).

But not all archetypes are created equal. Campbell singles out the notion of sin as especially pernicious because it stifles human potential. If you confess your sins you make yourself a sinner; if you confess your greatness you make yourself great. The “idea of sin puts you in a servile position throughout your life” (p. 56). He later redefines sin as a lack of knowledge, not as an ethical transgression: “Sin is simply a limiting factor that limits your consciousness and fixes it in an inappropriate condition” (p. 57).

It seems, to steal a phrase from Swami Vivekananda, that the only sin is to call someone a sinner. Campbell believes our challenge is to say, “I know the center, and I know that good and evil are simply temporal aberrations and that, in God’s view, there is no difference” (p. 66). In fact, “in God’s view,” you are “God, not in your ego, but in your deepest being, where you are at one with the nondual transcendent” (p. 211).

The thematic richness of this work could occupy several reviews. This review will consider some of the philosophical, religious, and societal issues it raises.


A salient feature of Campbell’s world view is a pronounced inconsistency, which — unless flushed out — may remain under the wraps of his winsomeness.

According to Campbell, myth opens us to the realm of transcendental mystery where awe and inspiration energize and permeate our beings. But given Campbell’s epistemological veto of any knowledge of the transcendent, we can say nothing concrete of it. It is beyond concepts, names, and thought. It is metaphysically mute. Campbell wants to vindicate myths by saying they are not to be taken concretely, but metaphorically. Yet even metaphors are incorrigibly conceptual; poetry says something. Propositions are pesky things. They are difficult to fumigate. The Hindu myth of a blood-soaked, skull-adorned Mother Kali destroying the world carries the nonmetaphorical meaning that God is as much Destroyer as Creator. That’s the theology of it, even when taken as myth and not history.

Campbell himself enthusiastically disregards his epistemological veto by issuing many conceptual statements about that which (supposedly) transcends concepts entirely. He affirms that the ground of all forms is impersonal, not personal. This assumes definite knowledge of the ontology (i.e., mode of being) of divinity. He sees this impersonal source of all being as beyond ethical categories, so we must say Yes to all of life, no matter how degraded. Yet this too assumes definite knowledge of the character of the transcendent as amoral, not moral. The transcendent is also “nondual” as opposed to dual or triune. All myths, he affirms, point to an invisible world beyond the world of visible form. Further, “we are all manifestations of Buddha consciousness, or Christ consciousness, only we don’t know it” (p. 57). (We are, then, not conscious of our divine consciousness.) Again, specific propositions are affirmed, and in quite nonmetaphorical language. Campbell’s “transcendental silence” has a habit of speaking out. The explicit epistemological veto is overridden by an implicit theology that welcomes pantheism and filters out theism. Despite his statement that “the person who thinks he has found the ultimate truth is wrong” (p. 55), Campbell repeatedly and dogmatically asserts the ultimate truth of an impersonal and amoral divinity.

Campbell also rejects the idea of God as “Absolutely Other” because, he says, we can have no relationship with that in which we do not participate. Yet, how we — as personal and morally responsible beings — can conceptualize or experience a religious relationship with an impersonal and amoral ground of the univq erse is less than clear.


Campbell is ever at odds with a religious literalism which reifies mythic themes into concrete facts. He refers to the biblical creation story that teaches an actual beginning of the universe as “artificialism” and chides Bill Moyers for considering the resurrection of Christ in historic terms. He says such a view “is a mistake in reading the symbol”; it is to read “the words in terms of prose instead of in terms of poetry,” and to read “the metaphor in terms of the denotation instead of the connotation” (p. 57). In fact, Jesus’ ascension into heaven, metaphorically interpreted, means that “he has gone inward — not into outer space but into inward space, to…the consciousness that is the source of all things, the kingdom of heaven within” (p. 56).

Given this method of interpretation, Campbell much prefers Gnosticism over orthodoxy. He quotes favorably from The Gospel of Thomas where Jesus is portrayed as teaching that “he who drinks from my mouth will become as I am,” and properly notes that “this is blasphemy in the normal way of Christian thinking” (p. 57).

Campbell’s approach to mythology has the appearance of profundity. He uses it profitably to construct interpretations of a vast body of literature. He likens mistaking a metaphor for its reference to eating a menu instead of the meal. Yet when Campbell addresses biblical materials, such as the Gospels or Acts (which were written as history, not poetry or visionary literature), it becomes painfully evident that his metaphoric interpretation is forced at best. Certainly, the significance of the ascension of Christ for Christians is not exhausted by spatial location, yet the physical reference is intrinsic to the significance that Christ is not bound to earth. He has ascended to the “right hand” (this phrase, of course, is metaphoric) of the Father where He now reigns. Campbell may not believe the Ascension to be literally true, but the apostles did and the church still does. A more judicious reading would note that a miraculous truth claim is being made, to be either accepted or rejected — not reinterpreted by a mythical hermeneutic. Instead of eating the menu, Campbell misreads it and fancies a meal never mentioned.

The classic Christian text on the historicity of the resurrection of Christ is Paul’s insistence to the Corinthian church that if Christ be not raised, Christian faith is in vain (1 Cor. 15:14). Moreover, if the Resurrection is factually false, apostolic preaching is futile and misrepresents God, Christians are left in their sin, departed Christians have perished, and Christians are of all people most pitiful (vv. 15-19). Paul had no mere mythic symbol in mind here. Neither would the early Christians have died martyrs’ deaths for metaphors. The apostle Peter, in his second epistle (1:16), went so far as to say that “we did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”

Campbell is pleased with diverse mythic expressions so long as they refer only to the unknowable transcendent. But he strongly rejects the concept of a fallen creation in need of external redemption made known through an historically grounded revelation from a personal God. He expresses amazement at the Hebraic commandment “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Such militant monotheism curtails the mythic imagination. Campbell chokes on the hard historicity of Christianity, and is not comfortable until he recasts it in metaphorical terms.


Yet evangelicals need not entirely dismiss Campbell’s mythic concerns. Christian writers like C. S. Lewis have argued that the world’s mythologies present a dim imitation of the redemption made historical through Christ. Mythologies worldwide speak of lost innocence, cosmic conflict, and redemption. In this sense the mythic dimension can be seen as part of general revelation, not in itself salvific, but pointing beyond itself to what Lewis in God in the Dock called “myth become fact:” “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens — at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by debatable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to an historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate.”

Campbell largely dismisses the historicity of Christianity by saying we don’t know much about Jesus, given we only have “four contradictory texts that purport to tell us what he said and did” (p. 211). He adds that, despite these supposed contradictions, we know “approximately what Jesus said” (p. 211). If Campbell would have taken seriously the idea of a basic historical record of Jesus’ words, he might have been less inclined to recast Christianity in mythic terms. The wealth of historical material provided by the Gospels, while not without some complexities, reveals a concern for historical accuracy and integrity, (see, e.g. Luke’s prologue).


How would this mythic world view describe public life? He expresses concern that hollow rationalism and literalistic religion are inadequate to meet modern needs. Although he doesn’t develop a social philosophy, we can infer some clues.

First, Campbell’s ethical evaluations remain unrelated to any enduring moral order. He states: “The final secret of myth [is] to teach you how to penetrate the labyrinth of life in such a way that its spiritual values come through” (p. 115). The sociological function of myth is to validate a given social order. Yet these spiritual values are relative to various cultures and historical epochs. Myths are all “true” but some must be adapted to modern needs and realities. Campbell deems unecological the Christian cosmology of the earth as separate from God, and instead opts for a not-yet-fully-developed “planetary mythology” that resacralizes the universe along Buddhist lines.

Given such cosmic amoralism — God as beyond morality — it remains to be seen how any judgment or mythical imperative could be ethically binding or normative. The Good is not based on God’s unchanging moral character as a personal being; it is not knowable through His self-disclosure. The transcendent is ineffable and therefore morally as well as metaphysically mute. Any mythic recommendation for people or society is simply an inexplicable archetypal upsurge of the ultimately unknown and unknowable. Campbell’s advocacy of a “planetary mythology” is mere vision with no vindication of its value.

Second, Campbell’s ethics are further eroded by a tendency toward monism, so often tied to pantheism. In explaining the heroic deed of a policeman to save a man attempting suicide, Campbell invokes Schopenhauer’s notion that “you and that other are one, that you are two aspects of the one life, and that your apparent separateness is but an effect of the way we experience forms under the conditions of space and time. Our true reality is in our identity and unity with all life” (p. 110). But if the subject-object distinction is not ultimately real, the very idea of self-giving or self-sacrifice must itself be sacrificed on the monistic altar. Any action could be justified in terms of cosmic selfism. If all is one, how could we violate others’ rights? Social ethics would be rendered sociological solitaire.

Third, the monistic model is at odds with Campbell’s praise of the West’s positive emphasis on the individual’s worth and freedom. Individualism (in the positive sense of the dignity of individuals) can only be praised if one adopts an (nonmonistic) ontology of actual, singular entities (humans and otherwise) and a corresponding ethic that respects the right of individual expression. Individualism historically has not fared well in nations such as India where monism monitors morality.

Fourth, although Campbell has many harsh words for Christian theism — which has served as the foundation for so many Western individual liberties — he reserves judgment on extreme tribal practices such as head-hunting and initiations requiring sexual debauchery and even human sacrifice. He sees these ritual acts simply as enacted mythologies vital to cultural life.

Fifth, in a telltale passage, Campbell contrasts the ancient religion of the Goddess with that of the Bible: “You get a totally different civilization and a totally different way of living according to whether your myth presents nature as fallen or whether nature is in itself a manifestation of divinity, and the spirit is the revelation of the divinity that is inherent in nature” (p. 99). Campbell clearly chooses the latter and says that “one of the glorious things about Goddess religions” is that “the world is the body of the Goddess, divine in itself, and divinity isn’t ruling over a fallen nature.” This, in fact, seems to be Campbell’s model for society: a social order uninhibited by any supernatural authority or by any recognition of pervasive human fallibility and moral aberration.

Sixth, unlike the historic American ideal, Campbell’s mythic world view allows for no appeal to “inalienable rights” granted to all by their creator. That would be too literalistic and absolutistic. Nor could there be violations of human dignity because we have no law above the sociologically functioning mythologies that inspire social order. Instead of a universal Law above human law we simply have the ineffable — in the collective unconsciousness — below the mythological manifestations.


It might appear at first that Campbell’s mythic permissiveness (no one mythic understanding is ultimately true) would serve as a solid platform for pluralism. At one point he says that mythologies are like individual software; if yours works, don’t change it. But the classical liberal (not the modern, relativistic liberal) understanding of pluralism is deeper and wider. It assumes truth has nothing to fear from a plurality of perspectives; it can compete with and triumph over error in “the marketplace of ideas” by virtue of its own merit. Western liberty of expression is premised on the right to be right and the right to be wrong and be proven wrong through dialogue, debate, and discussion. Mythic pluralism assumes no truth to be discovered, debated, or discussed. The merit of any mythology is not its objective veracity but its subjective pull and social power. Mythic pluralism endorses a relativism that ignores the possibility of uncovering the absolute, the universal, or the objective. If the software works, keep it — just so long as you delete any religious literalism.

Campbell may not have countenanced it, but it may befall him to become a posthumous prophet for New Age sentiments. Although more of an academic than a popularizer, his world view is in basic agreement with New Age celebrities like Shirley MacLaine, Werner Erhard, and John Denver. All is one; god is an impersonal and amoral force in which we participate; supernatural revelation and redemption are not needed. Campbell’s erudition and sophisticated manner may attract those who are less impressed by the metaphysical glitz of a Shirley MacLaine, the rank superstition of “crystal consciousness,” or the cosmic hype of the “Harmonic Convergence.”

Campbell is correct: the power of myth in its various functions is potent and pervasive. Human beings need a comprehensive world view capable of undergirding and integrating individual and social values, engaging the imagination, activating the intellect, and energizing the will. Yet it must also be true. Campbell abandoned what he confessed he could not understand — “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” — and affirmed gods many and lords many. One can only hope his readers will harken to the words of another person conversant with the power of myth, G. K. Chesterton. He said in “The Unfinished Temple,” “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” [Copyright 1994 by the Christian Research Institute]click here for original source.


The ‘New Age’: Joseph Campbell, Some of His Influences

This post will interrupt our regular broadcasting to address an issue that has been prompted by my interaction with someone at my place of employment who is quite the fan of a guy named Charles Eisenstein, and now I have come to find out, another guy named, Joseph Campbell. Both of these thinker/communicators can be classified as New Age thinkers. James Sire provides five distinct characteristics that help us identify some core contours, that give what can be called New Age teaching its shape; he writes:

  1. Whatever the nature of being (idea or matter, energy or particle), the self is the kingpin—the prime reality. As human beings grow in their awareness and grasp of this fact, the human race is on the verge of a radical change in human nature; even now we see harbingers of transformed humanity and prototypes of the New Age.
  2. The cosmos, while unified in the self, is manifested in two more dimensions: the visible universe, accessible through ordinary consciousness, and the invisible universe (or Mind at Large), accessible through altered states of consciousness.
  3. The core experience of the New Age is cosmic consciousness, in which ordinary categories of space, time and morality tend to disappear.
  4. Physical death is not the end of the self; under the experience of cosmic consciousness, the fear of death is removed.
  5. Three distinct attitudes are taken to the metaphysical question of the nature of reality under the general framework of the New Age: (1) the occult version, in which the beings and things perceived in states of altered consciousness exist apart from the self that is conscious, (2) the psychedelic version, in which these things and beings are projections of the conscious self, and (3) the conceptual relativist version, in which the cosmic consciousness is the conscious activity of a mind using one of many nonordinary models for reality, none of which is any “truer” than any other. [James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door, 146-58]

This is not an exhaustive attempt to index all of the features of the ‘New Age movement,’ but indeed it is an attempt, obviously, to provide broad contours which folk like Eisenstein and/or Campbell could potentially fit into; and thus why I see them as ‘New Age’ teachers.

Furthermore, Joseph Campbell, has also been influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860). He was a German philosopher who worked in the wake of Immanuel Kant; of course Kant has had an seismic impact on intellectual history, and thus his influence is broad and deep; an influence that we all still live through—even in the sense that we have language like post-Kantian. I digress. Kant essentially placed a dualistic disjunction between our capacity to know ‘things in themselves’; since, basically, we cannot get beyond our subjective intuitions about reality. Here is how the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarizes of  Kant’s perspective:

  • In some sense, human beings experience only appearances, not things in themselves.
  • Space and time are not things in themselves, or determinations of things in themselves that would remain if one abstracted from all subjective conditions of human intuition. [Kant labels this conclusion a) at A26/B42 and again at A32–33/B49. It is at least a crucial part of what he means by calling space and time transcendentally ideal (A28/B44, A35–36/B52)].
  • Space and time are nothing other than the subjective forms of human sensible intuition. [Kant labels this conclusion b) at A26/B42 and again at A33/B49–50].
  • Space and time are empirically real, which means that “everything that can come before us externally as an object” is in both space and time, and that our internal intuitions of ourselves are in time (A28/B44, A34–35/B51–51). (see original source)

And here’s a short description of Schopenhauer:

Among 19th century philosophers, Arthur Schopenhauer was among the first to contend that at its core, the universe is not a rational place. Inspired by Plato and Kant, both of whom regarded the world as being more amenable to reason, Schopenhauer developed their philosophies into an instinct-recognizing and ultimately ascetic outlook, emphasizing that in the face of a world filled with endless strife, we ought to minimize our natural desires for the sake of achieving a more tranquil frame of mind and a disposition towards universal beneficence. Often considered to be a thoroughgoing pessimist, Schopenhauer in fact advocated ways — via artistic, moral and ascetic forms of awareness — to overcome a frustration-filled and fundamentally painful human condition. Since his death in 1860, his philosophy has had a special attraction for those who wonder about life’s meaning, along with those engaged in music, literature, and the visual arts. (source)

For both of these German philosophers the emphasis is on the absolutized self as the knower, and thus access to the outside world (as it is in itself) is not possible. We can see then how some of this can be appropriated and overlap with some of the description provided by Sire on the so called, New Age.

Since this post is running long (for a blog post), I am going to cut it short, and will pick up on a Christian response to this hopefully in the next couple of days. I didn’t really get into Campbell’s thought, but it should be noted that he is quite eclectic (another aspect of the New Age synthesis of East and West) in his approach; and thus he is a child (somewhat paradoxically, which is par for the course of a New Ager) of the modern era. Which of course we all know that buy now we have moved into the Post-Modern, Post-Kantian era; but no problem, a New Ager would simply see this as the natural evolution of human consciousness to the next level. In my next post, beyond a Christian response—before I provide that—I will take a brief look, and provide a small critique of Campbell’s use of myth (again, another modern tool invented to cope with the fall out produced both by German idealism and existentialism).

PS. Let me say something, though (since this post is kind of fragmented—that’s because I am exhausted, but I wanted to get something up and going on this because I said I would); the basic Christian response to New Age teaching in general, is that as we are under the teaching of Jesus Christ we quickly realize by his person-and-work that God is exclusively One (and of course Three … One being, Three persons-Three persons, One being). Jesus cannot be assimilated into the ‘New Age’ compass as another guru, myth, or self actualizing teacher; Jesus claimed to be ‘… the way, the truth, and the life; no man comes to the Father except through me’ (Jn 14.6). There is no other way, according to Jesus, to experience spiritual enlightenment, or union with the ‘source’ and ground of our life; except through a personal union and relationship with him. He is the bridge between God and humanity in his God-man person; his existence, his resurrection, and his testimony through his Church (over the last 2,000 years) demand, at least, that folk take notice, and like Mary sit at his feet and actually listen to his teaching in context. It is when the seeker sits under Jesus, that the seeker understands how his life creates its own categories and conceptualities for understanding and knowing God; that the seeker, will ‘taste and see that God is indeed good’ and that there is no other. The original lie found in Genesis 3, the one that Satan whispered to Eve, was that humanity could be like god; ironically, this is one of the core teachings of the New Age movement; and what serves as a major premise of both Eisenstein’s and Campbell’s teachings. If my meta-narrative, or grand scheme story (the Christian Bible) out narrated your story; and I were you,  I would at least stop and wonder if maybe my story might be the wrong story. In short, if my grand-scheme story explains your story better than it explains itself; then, again (if I were you), I would seriously consider switching stories 😉 .