Rethinking Jesus (04) The Hero’s Journey

After Jesus was baptised by John , what happened next? We’re told that he took himself off into the ‘wilderness’ for the standard biblical “forty days and forty nights”, (meaning a long, but indeterminate time), during which he was both menaced by “wild beasts” and also protected by “angels”. He was also subjected, by the Devil in person, to three specific temptations. Firstly, he was to change stones into bread, focusing on material rather than spiritual needs. Secondly, on being miraculously transported to a mountain top, he was given the opportunity to “gain the whole world” at the expense of “losing his soul” to the Devil. Finally, again transported, this time to the roof of the Jerusalem Temple, he was invited to throw himself off, forcing God to despatch angels to arrest his fall, in a compelling show for the watching crowds. Had I been there with a video camera, I don’t think I’d have been able to record any of that, for the six o’clock news bulletin.    

I see this as an example of ‘mythologised history’. I’ve no problem with Jesus, following his baptismal experience, ‘getting alone with himself’, and trying to think through what he ought to do now.  This, however, is where we must remind ourselves that what we have in the gospels are stories, and I refer you back to what I’ve previously written about the ‘archetypical’ figures and situations which rise from the human ‘collective unconscious’ when visionary stories are told. 

This one is shaped by some of the ‘hero’ archetype’s classic features. The hero hears a ‘call’ (the preaching of John the Baptist). He then opts out of the everyday world, and journeys into a realm where he grapples with testing and doubt (encountering the Devil); fear and opposition (menacing wild beasts); but also helpers and encouragers (supportive angels). If the testing and temptations are successfully overcome, the hero reenters the everyday world with a message and a mission for his fellow beings and their world.

So yes, Jesus may well have undergone a testing time in the wilderness, but that bit of history has been, consciously or unconsciously, enhanced by the age old archetypal and mythological themes that rise into the minds of creative storytellers (and gospel writers). Freed from any requirement to regard these stories as fully factual, we can simply enjoy their colour and drama and, as with all great literature, consider what insights and lessons we might glean from them.

You and I may never become ‘renowned’ heroes, but we can become ‘unsung’ heroes. From time to time we might be ‘called’ upon, challenged, or even compelled, to change our normal day-to-day functioning and settled pattern of living. Responding to that call may involve inevitable but unpredictable demands, risks, or even threats. There may be outright mischief-makers who oppose or hinder, or insensitive by-standers with unhelpful or hurtful things to say or do. The archetypal ‘hero’ story, however, based as it is on human experience since our earliest days, tells us there will also be helpers and supporters, who will understand and encourage us to the best of their ability. Having encountered the demands and dangers, and experienced the help and support, we’ll have a positive message to share with any similarly challenged fellow beings.

One of my ‘heroes’, the mythographer Joseph Campbell, tells us about a bit of advice given to a young Native American at the time of his initiation: “As you go the way of life, you will see a great chasm. Jump. It is not as wide as you think.” The appearance of the ‘great chasm’ is the ‘call’ to the adventure of the hero’s journey. It can either be accepted or rejected. ‘Go for it’, is the message of the story of Jesus’ descent into the decisive and world-changing waters of his baptism.

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