This semester I’m teaching ENGL 3280: Mythology, based on the plan laid out by our department’s veteran teacher of this subject, Mark Holland. In preparation for this semester, I sat through his entire course last fall, and my syllabus, at least for the early weeks of class, mirrors his. This means that my students and I are spending the first several meetings on Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Originally published less than five years after the catastrophic end of World War II, the book represents Campbell’s attempt to show us that, despite the brokenness left spinning helplessly in the wake of the war, the world’s myths and mythic heroes suggest to us that, as humans, we are more alike than different.
So, it’s a Sunday afternoon in January. I don’t follow professional football that closely these days, but it’s not difficult to feel that this is the dead week between the NFL conference championships and the Super Bowl. It’s cold, for the South, and snow falls from a gray Southern sky. I’m sitting here letting the Roku screensaver slide across the TV, and I’m thinking that in the next hour or so I’ll pick up Campbell and go over the reading for the coming week’s classes.
But here on the cusp of the new week, I find my mind hasn’t yet let go of some particular passages in last week’s assigned reading in Campbell’s book. It’s appropriate for this Sunday afternoon (turning evening)–appropriate and, to be honest, discomforting. He’s writing about the Christian church and its problems with the teachings of its namesake, to whom he refers in the passages that follow as “the World Redeemer.” “The world is full of . . . mutually contending bands,” he writes,
totem-, flag-, and party-worshipers. Even the so-called Christian nations–which are supposed to be following a “World” Redeemer–are better known to history for their colonial barbarity and internecine [relating to conflict within a group] strife than for any practical display of that unconditional love, synonymous with the effective conquest of ego, ego’s world, and ego’s tribal god, which was taught by their professed supreme Lord. . . . (134)
Campbell follows this with Luke 6:27-36, which begins (I’m quoting from The Message here), “‘. . . I say this: Love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst.'” Along about the middle, the passage includes this difficult command (as phrased in the Common English Bible): “‘Treat people the same way that you want them to treat you,” — yes, it’s that pesky Golden Rule. The passage ends with this (again from The Message): “‘Our Father is kind; you be kind.'” These are not suggestions, not it-would-be-great-ifs. Remember English grammar. We call sentences structures declarative, interrogative, imperative. These statements from Jesus are imperatives. And what’s a synonym for imperatives? Commands! These are new commandments that go along with that other new one: “‘Love one another. In the same way I loved you, love one another'” (John 13:34). I can’t help but take note of the period after another. No ifs–if they love you, if they’re like you, if they don’t threaten or scare you or want money from you. No buts–but love only as far as you’re comfortable, but love only as long as they don’t piss you off or disgust you, but love only if they do what I say (where I is understood as implying either our individual selves, our group, or this “World Redeemer”). The Other to be loved needs no qualifications. I can’t forget a powerful sentence I recently encountered in Albert Holtz’s From Holidays to Holy Days: A Benedictine Walk Through Advent: “The banquet of the kingdom is open to everyone who is willing to sit down with anyone.”
Back to Campbell. He has some particular words to say not just to individual followers of the World Redeemer but to the churches into which we organize ourselves. Please read it slowly, carefully:
The good news, which the World Redeemer brings and which so many have been glad to hear, zealous to preach, but reluctant, apparently, to demonstrate, is that God is love, that He can be, and is to be, loved, and that all without exception are his children. Such comparatively trivial matters as the remaining details of the credo, the techniques of worship, and devices of episcopal organization [relating to church government, particularly that using bishops; Campbell was raised a Catholic], are merely pedantic snares, unless kept ancillary to the major teaching. Indeed, where not so kept, they have a regressive effect: they reduce the father image back again to the dimensions of the totem. And this, of course, is what has happened throughout the Christian world. One would think that we had been called upon to decide or to know whom, of all of us, the Father prefers. Whereas, the teaching is much less flattering: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” The World Savior’s cross, in spite of the behavior of its professed priests, is a vastly more democratic symbol than the local flag. (135)
As Campbell writes about the “trivial matters” that we make central to our faith and worship, I’m reminded of a scene from the Robert De Niro / Jeremy Irons film The Mission (1986). Two groups of monks sit down opposite each other to debate. We hope that their topic is significant — maybe, how do we learn to love one another as Christ loves? Instead, if I’m remembering right, their topic — while perhaps important to them and their Order — was ultimately “comparatively trivial”: did Christ, or did He not, own the clothes He wore?
The Church’s trivial pursuit Campbell references also puts me in mind of something Seneca tribal orator Sagoyewatha/Red Jacket (1750-1830) is recorded as having said in response to the missionary Jacob Cram’s attempts to convert the Senaca to Christianity: “BROTHER: You say there is but one way to worship and serve the Great Spirit. If there is but one religion, why do you white people differ so much about it? Why not all agreed, as you can all read the same book?” More-than-fair questions, I think. Sagoyewatha continues: “BROTHER: We do not understand these things. We are told that your religion was given to your forefathers, and has been handed down from father to son. We also have a religion, which was given to our forefathers, and has been handed down to us their children. We worship in that way. It teaches us to be thankful for all the favors we receive; to love each other, and to be united. We never quarrel about religion.”
I don’t think it’s difficult to see that “trivial matters” cause division in Christ’s church — to which Campbell refers and which, for Sagoyewatha, undermine the supposed message of Christ. Similar “trivial matters” cause division everywhere else, too. We stand with “party-worshipers” that are like us, and we hate — yes, hate, or, maybe more fundamentally, fear — those we perceive as being against us or just different from us. Even if we don’t name or claim them out loud, all sorts of ifs and buts restrict our love — and, by extension, God’s love. Labels enable this. We are Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, white or black or brown, refugee or terrorist or patriot, piss-poor American or filthy rich American, white- or black- or brown-skinned, American or American Indian or Mexican or Turkish or Asian or Canadian. All labels. All “trivial matters.”
Stripped of our labels, we become humanized. Become human. Become humans.
We then realize that we are neighbors in this world. With a little imagination, next door is anywhere and everywhere; our neighbor is everyone and anyone. Without imagination, we continue to ask, “Who is my neighbor?” We all probably, if reluctantly, know the answer deep down, but it’s difficult to accept it. Check out Luke 10:25-37 for further guidance.
* * *
. . . And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers,
And that a kelson of the creation is love. . . .
* * *
Walt Whitman, from Section V of “Song of Myself,” Leaves of Grass