Encouraging the Christian Hero
by Dwight Longenecker
The mortal sin of the movie maker is to bore. His business is entertainment and if he bores his audience he terminates his career. At first this sounds like the recipe for bigger explosions, more lurid sexual adventures and flashier special effects. But the audience isn’t stupid. Titillation, pyrotechnics and gore only entertain them so long. If the film isn’t driven by a powerful and compelling story line even the most immature audience will yawn. In fact, the more immature the audience, the more impatient they will be of a bad story line.
In this high-tech age one of the most enduring truths is that everyone loves a good story. Hollywood story consultant Christopher Vogler has outlined the formula for a good story in his book The Writer’s Journey. Basing his ideas on the work of the mythologist Joseph Campbell, Vogler shows how a good story is structured. Sound story structure is based on a model which is as old as human communication itself. It is a structure which is woven through all the great myths, fairy tales, sagas and folk tales of humanity in every culture and in every age. The good story follows the path of the hero on his extraordinary quest to find some great treasure. Understanding how story works can help ordinary families tell stories and relate the stories they see in film and in storybooks to the spiritual quest.
The classic story can be outlined in ten stages. 1. The hero is in his ordinary world. 2. The hero meets a mentor figure 3. The hero hears the call to adventure 4. The hero refuses the call 5. The hero steps out on his adventure 6. The hero faces death 7. The hero is resurrected 8. The hero claims the prize 9. The hero returns home 10. The hero offers the prize for his home people. These stages enormously vary from story to story, but the rough outline provides a plan for stories which are reflected not only in the world’s great myths and legends, but in the great sagas and stories of the Scriptures as well. The spiritual journey requires a departure from our comfort zone to step out into a world of unknown realities. It involves danger and the loss of ‘not less than everything’ in order to experience new life. To spiritual hero is on a quest to discover the treasure buried in field, a lost coin or the pearl of great price. Once the hero discovers salvation his role is to journey home and share it with others.
This story line is reflected in all the Old Testament sagas. Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Joseph, and Joshua all have to step out in faith and leave their old world to follow God’s promise. The Old Testament heroes face conflict and death only to experience forgiveness, new life and resurrection. The mythic story line is there in the basic outline of the gospel itself. Jesus steps out of his little world of Nazareth to embark on his divine mission. He faces the enemy, dies and is resurrected to bring salvation to the world. The gospel story is mythic in this powerful way, and works on us like every other myth. As Tolkien said to C.S.Lewis, ‘Christianity works on us like any other myth, with the difference that it is actually true.’ If Jesus’ own story follows the outline of the mythic hero, he also calls his disciples to the same heroic quest. They are to leave their nets and follow him out of their ordinary world and into a world of faith. They must face darkness and difficulty if they are to succeed. They will have to take up their cross and die with Christ. With him they will also have to rise again in order to experience salvation. The dynamic of this universal story is woven into the Christian message and into the fabric of human experience. Understanding it helps us and our children to make sense of the whole sweep of the Judeo-Christian tradition, as well as the eternal longings of each human heart.
This mythic story line is abundant throughout popular culture. It occurs in comics, novels, film and fiction. Wherever it occurs it can help to enlighten the truths of the gospel story. I can remember watching Disney’s classic The Jungle Book when my children were four and five years old. At the climax of the film Baloo the Bear sacrifices his life to save the boy Mowgli. As he lies seemingly dead the panther Bagheera actually quotes Scripture saying, ‘No greater love has any man than he lay down his life for his friends.’ At that point the Bear winks and wakes up. Professional theologians and high brow Christians may throw up their hands in horror at such a trivialisation of theology, but when Baloo woke up my four year old said, ‘That’s what Jesus did.’ This example from a children’s classic shows how the storyline of redemption runs through stories in popular culture. Hollywood has understood how the great stories work and so the same heroic quest permeates many films. Most Disney classics follow the formula, and with creative permutations the same story line is there in films as varied as Alien and The Matrix through to Jerry Maguire, Wizard of Oz, Saving Private Ryan, Shawshank Redemption, Indiana Jones, the Terminator films and many others. These stories may not teach the faith explicitly, but they keep alive the storyline which runs parallel to the authentic religious quest.
For faith to be kept alive and vital for the next generation story must be revitalised. In our intellectual and academic approach it is easy to forget that the Scriptures are not primarily a collection of theological treatises; nor are they simply a law code. Neither are they historical liturgical documents. The scriptures are the story of God’s relationship with his people. The most ancient and the most relevant way to keep the faith alive for our children, therefore, is through storytelling. We sit down to share secular videos and storybooks with our children, do we trouble ourselves to use the media to help them nurture their faith? There are excellent Bible story books for all age groups in the bookshops. (Often the evangelical bookshops are better supplied with a good variety than are the Catholic bookshops). In addition, there are a whole range of videos which tell the Bible stories and the lives of the saints.
Keeping stories alive help to nurture the faith at many practical levels. In Catholic worship I am astonished at how infrequently we hear stories within homilies. Stories from real life help to incarnate the faith. They hold the congregation’s attention. They apply the spiritual truth in practical ways. There are many resources for preachers which incorporate stories and illustrations to make spiritual points, and yet I rarely come across preachers who use story and anecdote in their homilies. Within children’s liturgy, catechesis and school lessons there is often a worthy emphasis on imparting doctrine, morals and spiritual principles, but how often are these incarnated in a vital and challenging story of faith? Bible stories, the stories of saints and the stories of heroic men and women of faith like Edith Stein, Martin Luther King Jr, Maximillian Kolbe, Mother Teresa are all available to keep the faith of our children alive.
A Faith Worth Living
Our parish priest is fond of telling us that faith is supported by the three legged stool of family, school and parish. Our worship at Mass will not be vital and absorbing for us or for our children if the faith is not also nurtured in the school and especially in the home. How can we expect the Christian faith to be exciting for our children if we are not excited by it? Perhaps Mass is boring for our children because we are bored by it ourselves.
At the end of the day stories of faith are all well and good, but each one of us need to be living the story of faith in our own lives. Do our children ever see us make a real sacrifice because of our faith? Have they ever known us to take a step of faith and obedience which may cause us hardship? Have they ever seen us risk anything at all for the faith we profess? Can I expect my children to be have a heroic faith if my own faith is a yawning matter?
For the story of faith to be real it has to be real in our own lives. Week by week, day by day in the most ordinary ways our families and our communities must witness the faith story living through our social involvement, our ethical decisions, our moments of natural daily prayer, our love for one another and our commitment to truth no matter what the cost. When our lives become faith stories the realities of the Church become our realities.
In other words, the Mass is boring for those who put nothing into their faith outside church. For those who make an effort, Mass becomes the place where the stories of faith are focussed and expressed through the ritual of the liturgy. It might be imagined with my emphasis on sacred storytelling that I am an advocate of the Mass as sacred drama and making the Mass as ‘entertaining’ as possible. Certainly there is room for a better quality of liturgy. We need more vibrant, inspiring preaching and well played hymns that are not ashamed of inspiring a fervent and heroic faith. However, I believe it is a mistake to turn the Mass into either a meaningful family meal or an ornate dramatic performance. Whatever our proclivities, it is a mistake to try to make every Mass entertaining.
Heaven in Ordinary
It’s a sad fact that people who are easily bored are boring people. To appease those who are bored by making mass more entertaining is to pander to the problem. Instead the Mass must be maintained at the ritualistic level which the liturgy demands. This is important because ritual is at once below us and above us. People complain that mass is boring, but most people are bored both by what is beneath them and by what is greater than them. We might think Mass boring because it is beneath our attention, when in fact the opposite is true and we are beneath it. In fact everything worth doing is hard before it’s easy. Playing an instrument, learning to ski, learning to like opera, building a business or making a family all require dedication, discipline and commitment. Like all these things, the mass is above us. It is the most sublime expression of the eternal truths of our faith made real day by day and moment by moment. We must come up to its level. It should not be brought down to ours by turning it into entertainment.
But in saying this, the Mass is also below us. It is simple. It is real. It is ‘heaven in ordinary’. The ritual of the Mass becomes like the rituals of family love. They operate at a profound—almost unconscious level within our lives. If the Mass must not be brought down to the level of entertainment, neither must it be brought up to the level of entertainment. While it takes us to the very threshold of heaven, it is also as ordinary and dutiful as going to school, visiting Granny, leaving for work each morning, going to the dentist or shopping for the weeks’ groceries. For the Mass to be real it must be ordinary, and it is the ritual of the mass which keeps it so. To turn it into entertainment is to draw attention to that which is more powerfully lived at a much deeper level.
In conclusion I believe faith is kept alive by a renewal of the sacred stories of faith wherever they exist in our culture. With an understanding of the hero’s quest we should be able to see the gospel dynamic within a whole range of popular stories. We should also keep alive the Bible stories, the stories of the saints and the stories of heroic men and women in our age and our communities. Most of all, we must strive for the heroic Christian life in our own lives and families. Christopher Vogler writes, ‘The hero is one who is willing to sacrifice his own needs.’ So if we are to live the heroic Christian life, then part of the sacrifice may be the ordinary routine of attending mass together. It is there as we take part in the ritual sacrifice of Christ that our own faith story is empowered and we share in the mystery of redemption at a level that is deeper than our understanding and higher than all we can ask or think.
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Copyright © Dwight Longenecker. All rights reserved. Dwight Longenecker is a Catholic writer and broadcaster working and living in England. Check his website
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