Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Ultimate Boon

It’s a very curious thing. Were it possible to eavesdrop on tales told beside Aztec hearths, you would find them echoed in stories whispered around campfires this very night. Sift through the fables of the far east, and you find yarns told on the Silk Road bear striking resemblance to Greek myths. Ponder the folktales of India and you’ll catch broken glimpses of epics recited under Arctic skies.

It's a concept as simple as it is profound. When we survey the legends of mankind there are certain key themes, certain fundamental features that appear time and again. Cut across the centuries, scour every corner of the globe, and in time you’ll discern a refrain. The instruments may change, but the songs are the same.

How can we account for this? To what unseen connectivity do we owe these uncanny parallels? Whatever the answer is, I more than suspect it has bearing on the matter we raised last time: What are you? What is a human? What were you, are you, might you be? Is it not possible that important clues are to be found in the stories we tell ourselves?

One of the most tantalizing ideas in comparative mythology is that there is a common core behind many of our tales. What's more, it has a particular shape. Indeed, the similarities both structural and thematic are so pervasive that some suggest many stories are simply permutations of a single fundamental tale. The best known incarnation of this idea is in the body of work produced by Joseph Campbell. In his seminal work, The Hero with A Thousand Faces, Campbell posits that there is a single proto-story, a “monomyth” lying behind a great many of our classic stories.

In this great archetypal tale, which Campbell calls the hero’s journey, the protagonist crosses a threshold into another realm, there to face great trials and accomplish certain tasks. The greatest of these involves undergoing a death-like experience he terms ‘the belly of the whale’ or ‘the abyss.’ Passing through this supreme ordeal, the hero effects a great atonement and returns to his former world with “the ultimate boon,” a great gift or gifts he may bestow upon his fellows.

If it occurs to you this sounds terrifically like the story of Christ, I think you’re on to something. But what are we to make of this? Is his story simply one in an endless parade of tales expressing this same basic plot? Or is something else, something far more wonderful, going on here? Is it just possible that in the man Jesus Christ, myth, as C.S. Lewis asserted, became fact? Might it not be that in him the substance of humanity’s folk-stories has become actual?

J.R.R. Tolkien held that the power of myth lies precisely in the fact that, though clothed in fictional garb, they are telling us something that is fundamentally true. Yet, in the case of Christ, we’re dealing with something of an entirely different order. The gospels, wrote Tolkien, contain “a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories.” And yet, astonishingly, it is a story that has “entered history and the primary world.” He goes on, “There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits....This story is supreme, and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord of angels, and of men, and of elves. Legend and history have met and fused.”

It’s an electrifying idea. The stories we tell ourselves give expression to our deepest hopes. It might even be said that through them we intuit, if obscurely, what must take place to restore us as a race. Here we see that it has happened. One has has come, like the great Hero of the monomyth, and crossed the threshold into the realm that is our world. He journeys along a path replete with trials which culminate in the supreme ordeal of the cross and his going down into death itself.

The book of Hebrews beautifully unfolds what happens next. Passing through the rent veil of his own body, Christ dies, rises and enters the abode of the Most Holy, not a sacred space in a man made temple, but the true dwelling place of the infinite Spirit that is God. There, by virtue of his own supreme self-sacrifice, he obtains the Ultimate Boon, the Great Gift, what the writer of Hebrew calls “Eternal Redemption.”

What exactly did Christ lay hold of in his supreme hero’s journey? What are the great gifts and powers acquired by him for those who would follow? In coming posts I want to explore these things in some detail. Soon we will see that the spiritual life is made possible by Christ’s journey, indeed is a kind of participation in the journey of that great Pathbreaker who is rightly called the ‘Desire of all nations.’

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