JOSEPH CAMPBELL - MYTHING THE MARK
by Richard Pyle
Joseph Campbell, author of books about myths and subject of the
PBS series The Power of Myth, has influenced people's spiritual
views far beyond what one might imagine. Among his admirers is
George Lucas, producer of Star Wars, the movie that gave us the
line, "May the Force be with You." That sentence reflects as well
as any the New Age belief in God as an impersonal force.
Campbell, in his TV series and book of the same name, also
severely criticizes orthodox Christianity. Anyone who becomes a
critic is fair game for a critique himself and should be tested
to see whether his criticism is scholarly, honest and factually
accurate. Unfortunately, Campbell failed on all these counts. He
regularly misrepresented the Christian faith, calling a teaching
Christian that was unbiblical.
For example, Campbell says: "... good, standard Christian doc-
trine -- that at the end of the world there will be a general
supplement and those who have acted virtuously will be sent to
heaven, and those who have acted in an evil way to hell."<1> This
is not Christian doctrine. The Bible says no man is saved by his
own works. Instead salvation is found in Christ who lived a
perfect life and died to pay for mankind's sins.
Campbell misrepresents the proper Christian view of women: "...
Western subjugation of the female is a function of biblical
thinking."<2> "In the biblical tradition ... the female as the
epitome of sex is the corrupter."<3> The Bible says the female is
made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), that she is of equal
value with the male in God's sight, (Galatians 3:28) and that a
husband's proper duty toward his wife is to love her with a self-
sacrificial love (Ephesians 5:25). The woman is not pictured as
the corrupter, that's Satan's role. Adam did try to blame her
(Genesis 3:12), but God didn't accept that excuse. Some Chris-
tians have mistreated and abused women, but they have not done so
because the Bible commands or condones it.
His description of the Christian view of nature and natural
urges also is inaccurate. He says "In the biblical tradition ...
every natural impulse is sinful unless it has been baptized or
circumcised."<4> He also says "... nature is thought of as cor-
rupt, every spontaneous act is sinful and not to be yielded
to."<5> The biblical view of nature is that God created nature
and then pronounced it good. Man sinned and brought misery and
death on himself and to the creation over which he had dominion.
Creation has been marred, but still testifies to its creator in
all his divinity and power.
In the Christian view, natural human impulses are not in them-
selves sinful. God has created man with needs and appetites that
are acceptable in their proper context and proportion. Sex is
acceptable to God when it occurs within the confines of marriage
but unacceptable when it occurs during an adulterous affair that
destroys a family.
Campbell also erros in presenting his own unsubstantiated opin-
ions and assumptions as facts. For example, he says, "... there
is no physical heaven anywhere in the universe,"<6> which begs
the question, "Has he been all over the universe to verify that?"
Campbell says that for 20th century western man, the Bible "...
does not accord with our concept of the universe or of the digni-
ty of man,"<7> a statement that overlooks the millions of people
who find it acceptable.
Campbell says the Bible is mostly metaphoric, a collection of
myths and stories loosely woven around characters who may or may
not have existed. He regards Bible stories as being on a par with
American Indian legends, Eskimo myths and aborigine tales. Camp-
bell calls the virgin birth a symbolic event.<8> He regards
Christ's resurrection the same way. <9> He calls heaven a meta-
phor.<10> He says stories of Christ's miracles are poetry, not
factual accounts.<11> He considers all elements of Christian
belief to be metaphors, not facts.<12>
While dismissing much of the Bible as myth and metaphor, Camp-
bell sidesteps the literary difficulty of regarding the Bible as
such. There are portions of Scripture that are symbolic. Other
parts, however, are clearly not symbolic and shouldn't be inter-
preted as such. Biblical passages that are prose, straightforward
statements of fact or principle, some of which even contain
direct statements that the writer intends to be read that way,
cannot be interepreted otherwise. An example is Luke's introduc-
tion to his Gospel:
"Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that
have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us
by those who from the first werre eyewitnesses and servants of
the (word). Therefore since I myself have carefully investigated
everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write
an orderly account for you..." (Luke 1:1-3)
Campbell likewise does not address the difficulties archeology
presents to one who views the Bible as myth. William F. Albright,
noted archeologist and author, wrote of the Bible's historical
reliability, "Discovery after discovery has established the
accuracy of innumerable details and has brought increased recog-
nition to the value of the Bible as a source of history."<13>
Millar Burrows of Yale wrote, "...archeological work has unques-
tionably strengthened confidence in the reliability of the scrip-
Further testimony to the Bible's stature is found in its record
of fulfilled prophecy. There are numerous biblical prophecies of
events that already have taken place. In instances where they can
be checked, the prophecies have a record of 100% accuracy with
regard to specific events, places and people. Biblical prophecy
is more than primitive men sitting around campfires, making
upstories about where they came from, where they are going and
why life is the way it is.
Having critiqued Christianity's critic, let us move on to ana-
lyze what Campbell would set up in place of Christianity, a
belief system he defined in "The Power of Myth."
In Campbell's cosmology God is not a personal being, but rather
an impersonal force as energy. <15> He speaks of God as "...
transcendent ground or energy itself." <16>, or that a God is
"... a personification of a motivation, power or value system
that functions in human life and in the universe ..." <17>. For
Campbell, the creation or nature is an emanation from this imper-
sonal force <18>. Man, as a part of nature and thus one with the
divine force, is divine <19>. He says, "you are god, not in your
ego, but in your deepest being, where you are one with the non-
dual transcendent." <20>
In Campbell's view, because man is divine in his innermost
parts, man should look inward for truth, authority and guidance.
According to Campbell, we should listen to the demands of our
hearts <21>, follow our 'bliss <22>, "... rely on our intuitions,
our true being." <23>, and get in touch with our real selves
<24>. This inward journey leaves behind: fears, desires, and
duties <25>; thou shalt nots <26>; ego defined as "... what you
think you want, what you will to believe, what you think you can
afford, what you decide to love, what you regard yourself as
bound to" <27>; and rules derived from the historical needs and
tasks of society, once one is mature enough to have internalized
them to some extent <28>. In addition to these internalized
societal norms, the extent of man's inward or subjective authori-
ty is limited in Campbell's system by the requirement to be
compassionate, which he defines as seeing yourself in others <29>
and sharing their suffering <30>. Further, he indicates that
following our inward leading should not bring us into the pursuit
of bestial self-interest <31> or living to our animal nature
From the Christian perspective there are many difficulties with
Campbell's system. First, if God is an impersonal force, why is
the most complex and highly developed manifestation or emanation
of that force -- man -- distinctly personal? In Christian termi-
nology -- how can personal man be made in the image of impersonal
God? Indeed the unique diversity of all creation speaks of a
personal creator, not an impersonal force, being behind it all.
Why would an impersonal force emanate anything? Did this force
desire company or fellowship? Did it have a sense of creativity?
If so, doesn't that begin to make it personal, not impersonal?
One might ask about the poverty of life under an impersonal
force. Can it hear our prayers and pleadings? Is it moved with
compassion at our suffering? As an impersonal force does it have
any empathy with or identification with or understanding of the
fears and trials in the lives of us personal beings? Isn't it
much better to have life under the living God of the Bible, who
tells his people to boldly bring their prayers and petitions
before Him that they may "... receive mercy and find grace to
help us in our time of need"? (Heb. 4:16).
Campbell would have us believe that man's goal is getting in
touch with that divine force that spawned us all, being one with
it or "dissolved in identification" with it <33>. Is this desira-
ble? Is it a desirable thing to be dissolved in identification
with an impersonal force, balk into a great energy field, presum-
ably giving up those things that make one a personal being --
identity, individuality, and uniqueness? Isn't much better the
Christian's pursuit -- eternal life with God where individuality,
uniqueness, and identity are maintained but purified of that
which contaminates, purified of greed, hate, selfishness and
Campbell creation as being one with the force from which it
emanates. This makes him a pantheist. In the biblical view, God
the creator is distinct from his creation. While the creation
reflects God and we can learn something of Him by studying it,
creation is not God any more than a painting is the painter.
In Campbell's system, man is divine. However, human history and
experience testify that man is not divine but fallible and fi-
nite. The multiple failures and inabilities of individuals and
the corporate crimes and tragedies of society prove that man is
fallen and incapable of mounting God's throne.
The biblical position is that though man is made in the image of
God and has been given dominion over the Earth, man is not God.
As God said through Ezekiel: "In the pride of your heart you say,
'I am a God; I sit on the throne of a god in the heart of the
seas! But you are a man and not a God, though you think you are
as wise as a god." (Ezekiel 28:18-20)
Satan said to Eve in the garden of Eden, "You will be like God"
(Gen. 3:5). He used the prospect of attaining divinity as an
inducement to disobey God.
In Campbell's system, where each man is divine and looks to
himself for truth, authority and direction, there is no basis for
judging the morality of another's actions, even actions as hei-
nous as Adolph Hitler's. Under Campbell's system, one can say
that in murdering 6 million Jews that he was following his own
inner leading, doing what he thought was right.
Campbell does try to set limits on where one's inner leadings
may lead, but the limits are flawed. The requirement that one
must not act in base self-interest, for example, does not pass
the "Hitler test." Hitler may have believed he ordered the murder
of concentration camp victims not in his own interest but in the
interest of the world. Campbell's requirement that we internalize
societal norms is valueless. To what extent do we internalize
society's norms? If each man is God, what societal norm can bind
Campbell also requires that behavior be circumscribed by compas-
sion. He defines compassion as seeing one's self in others and
sharing in their suffering. Neither aspect of this definition of
compassion requires that one do anything about the suffering of
his fellowman, instead it would seem that it would be enough in
Campbell's system to mearly empathize and sympathize with
another's pain. Much better is the Christian definition of com-
passion, which requires that one love his fellow man with the
same devotion with which he loves himself and that he express
this love by satisfying others' needs.
Campbell's limits on the extent of one's inner leading then are
too vague and can't prevent harmful behavior.
The biblical records contains the history of a time when men
looked within for truth. It was one of the most sorrowful and
chaotic times in the history of Israel. It was the period covered
by the book of Judges, a time of war and turmoil and moral lax-
ity. Much of these troubles resulted from the fact that it was a
time when "... every man did that which was right in is own
eyes." (Judges 21:25).
1. Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth, Edited
by Betty Sue Flowers, Doubleday, New York, 1988, pg. 226.
2. The Power of Myth, pg. 172.
3. Ibid, pg. 47.
5. Ibid, pg. 99.
6. Ibid, pg. 56.
7. Ibid, pg. 31.
8. Ibid, pg. 176.
9. Ibid, pg. 57.
11. Ibid, pg. 142.
12. Ibid, pg. 219.
13. Albright, William F., The Archaeology of Palestine, Revised
edition, Harmondsworth, Middlesex; Pelican Books, 1960; ppg. 127-
128, quoted in Evidence Demands a Verdict by Josh McDowell,
Campus Crusade for Christ, San Bernadino, Calif., 1972, pg. 68.
14. Millar Burrows, What Mean These Stones? Meridian Books, New
York, 1956; pg. 1 quoted in Evidence Demands a Verdict, pg. 69.
15. The Power of Myth, pg. 207, 54.
16. Ibid, pg. 213.
17. Ibid, pg. 22.
18. Ibid, pp. 53, 54.
19. Ibid, pg. 210.
20. Ibid, pg. 211.
21. Ibid, pg. 147.
22. Ibid, pp. 229, 148.
23. Ibid, pg. 14 of the Introduction.
24. Ibid, pg. 143.
25. Ibid, pg. 162.
26. Ibid, pg. 154.
27. Ibid, pg. 149.
28. Ibid, pg. 154.
29. Ibid, pg. 214.
30. Ibid, pg. 174.
31. Ibid, pg. 160.
32. Ibid, pg. 174.
33. Ibid, pg. 210.
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