THE HERO’S JOURNEY
HOLDING OUT FOR A HERO
The song “Holding Out For a Hero” by Bonnie Tyler was written over 35 years ago for the soundtrack to the 1984 film Footloose, and it has had tremendous staying power. It has been featured in countless TV shows, movies, commercials, ads and other promotions. According to one writer, it is part of our “social order.” He comments, “As a social order we may never claim we love the song. We may laugh at our friends and family if they say they enjoy it. But something keeps the song alive and well in our culture.” What might that be? He posits, “Maybe everyone needs a hero.”
Our culture’s fascination with heroes and the hero’s journey is clearly observable in the stories we produce and consume. The two most popular movie genres in North America from 1995-2019 by box office revenue are adventure, which ranked first with a total box office revenue of 62.75 billion dollars, followed by the action genre with a total revenue of 47.29 billion dollars. Four of the five highest grossing movies of all time prominently feature hero stories. Two of those five were Avengers films. Number five was Avengers: Infinity Wars, which brought in $2.05 billion dollars at the box office, and the number one highest grossing film in history is Avengers: Endgame, which made $2.796 billion dollars at the box office.
But interest in hero narratives is not new or unique to our culture. Mike Cosper points out that, “Throughout history, imaginations have run wild with hero hunger. Literature and mythology are full of it, passing on tales of men like Odysseus, Hercules, Beowulf, and King Arthur (to name just a few) who took on superhuman tasks in order to save humanity or to prove their mettle.” He remarks, “It’s as though the desire for… a hero were written on the human heart.”
IN SEARCH OF THE SERPENT CRUSHER
The human longing for a hero can be found in the earliest pages of the Bible. When sin enters the world in Genesis 3, God makes a promise. He assures Adam and Eve that one of their offspring will confront the serpent once and for all. The serpent will put up a fight, he will bruise the heal of the chosen seed, but he will be defeated. The battle ends with the serpent’s head being crushed (Gen. 3:15). “From the moment we were cast from the garden to the wilderness, we were on the lookout for the Hero.”
At its most basic level, the Bible is the story of that promise being fulfilled in Jesus. The Bible is an epic story with “all the makings of the best, truest stories—conflict, tension, and drama. It comes with that essential, ‘Uh-oh, how will this be resolved?’ ingredient that all the best books and movies have.” And it shows how all of those “‘uh-oh’ moments are resolved in Jesus Christ.” So then, Tim Keller writes, “the whole story of the world—and of how we fit into it—is most clearly understood through a careful, direct look at the story of Jesus… how beautifully his life makes sense of ours.”
This is why so many human stories both intentionally and unintentionally resonate with the biblical yearning for a hero. As Leslie Leyland Fields writes, “All our human stories of heroes, monsters, journeys, and sacrifice give voice to our universal quest for identity, purpose, and deliverance. Instead of competing with God's story, these stories gesture toward it."
THE JOURNEY OF JESUS
Mike Cosper in his book The Stores We Tell describes Jesus as the archetypal hero, and he looks at Jesus’ story through a framework called “The Hero’s Journey” developed by the literature professor, Joseph Campbell. He condenses that framework into five primary movements: 1) Called Away, 2) Tried and Tested, 3) Into the Darkness, 4) Out of the Darkness, and 5) Home Again. Let’s take some time to explore these movements in the life of Jesus.
- Called Away: The Incarnation
While we tend to think of Jesus’ journey as beginning in a manger, it actually starts in a throne room. Jesus, the second person of the Trinity lived in perfect harmony with the Father and possessed all the glory of the godhead, yet he made the decision to humble himself by taking on the form of a servant (Philippians 2:7). Saint Jerome described this movement beautifully in a homily he delivered around the 4th century:
“He found no room in the Holy of Holies that shone with gold, precious stones, pure silk, and silver. He is born not in the midst of gold and riches, but in the midst of dung, in a stable (wherever there is a stable, there is also dung) where our sins were more filthy than the dung. He is born on a dunghill in order to lift up those who come from it; ‘from a dunghill he lifts up the poor’ (Ps. 113:7).”
- Tried and Tested: The Temptations of Jesus
Throughout Jesus’ entire life he was tempted and tried in every way, but he did not sin (Heb. 4:15). This included, “everyday sins we struggle against were struggles for Jesus, too. He was tempted with pride, lust, greed, gluttony, and self-centeredness, just as we are. He faced persecution and distrust from his family and friends and from the religious authorities. He journeyed to the desert to face temptation from the Devil himself.” He endured it all, but without sin.
- Into the Darkness: The Crucifixion
Jesus’ ultimate test came in the form of a Roman cross. He was humiliated, tortured, and ultimately killed so that he might accomplish what God had sent him to earth to do: to “give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). The one who had never sinned actually became sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21), so that we might be made righteous. “In ways that we can’t quite comprehend, Jesus has won the battle. He’s conquered Satan, sin, and death, not with a direct battle, but with an act of self-sacrifice. In his ultimate humility, he’s accomplished ultimate victory.”
- Out of the Darkness: The Resurrection
Many outside observers looked at the crucifixion and assumed that all had been lost. It appeared that Jesus had failed his mission. But three days after Jesus had been buried, his tomb was empty. Jesus was alive. This is the culmination of Jesus’ work. It was his moment of victory. It proved the kingdom’s power and the reality that death had been defeated.
- Home Again: The Ascension
The last phase of Jesus’ journey is the ascension. Here, Jesus returns to the throne room. “His work continues, but it’s not the work of war and struggle. It is the work of presence (Hebrews 8). From his place beside the Father, Jesus the God-Man intercedes on our behalf, making us present to God and God present to us.”
This journey is repeated time and again in the stories we tell. It can be seen in the Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Siegel and Shuster’s Superman, Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, and Universal Picture’s The Borne Identity, along with many many others. Below is a chart which highlights a few more examples.
We are captivated by these stories. Our hearts swell “when we see Frodo escape from Mount Doom, or Iron Man cut off a portal to intergalactic invaders. We cheer when Prince Phillip kisses Aurora and the kingdom comes to life again. We weep when Harry Potter rises from the dead, lifted by a deeper and older magic than even the most powerful wizard in the world can conjure: love.” And why do we find these stories of life, death, and resurrection so compelling? Why do we tell them over and over again? Because we know in our hearts, “that it really did happen.” 
 Shane R. Monroe, “Holding Out For A Hero: The Legacy of a Song,” Medium (Medium, April 8, 2019), https://medium.com/@darkuni/holding-out-for-a-hero-the-legacy-of-a-song-b4437ea84473.
 Amy Watson, “Movie Genres by Total Box Office Revenue in North America 2019,” Statista, December 13, 2019, https://www.statista.com/statistics/188658/movie-genres-in-north-america-by-box-office-revenue-since-1995/
 Josh Jackson, “The 20 Highest-Grossing Movies of All Time,” pastemagazine.com, September 12, 2019, https://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2018/11/the-highest-grossing-movies-of-all-time.html.
 Mike Cosper, The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long for and Echo the Truth (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), Kindle, Chapter 9.
 Justin Buzzard, The Big Story: How the Bible Makes Sense out of Life (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2013), 20.
 Timothy Keller, Jesus the King: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God (New York, NY: First Riverhead, 2013), Kindle, Before.
 Leslie Leyland Fields, “The Gospel Is More Than a Story: Rethinking Narrative and Testimony,” ChristianityToday.com (Christianity Today, August 3, 2012), https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/july-august/the-gospel-is-more-than-a-story.html.
 Campbell was building on the previous work of psychologist Carl Jung.
 Saint Jerome, The Homilies of Saint Jerome, Volume 2 (Homilies 60–96) (The Fathers of the Church, Volume 57), trans. Sister Marie Liguori Ewald (Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1966), 221.
 Cosper, The Stories We Tell, Chapter 9.