Human beings are uniquely narrative creatures. Bees gather pollen, make hives, produce honey. Birds build nests. Whatever else we do, Homo sapiens alone curate shared and personal experiences into meaningful narratives, into traditions, religions, and great stories shared across generations.
For premodern peoples, shared story was context, a comment on social and existential needs, a source of shared values, a record of common founding and communal purpose. These needs were not overcome by the scientific project of the moderns, and even though their ascendant story replaced the role of lore with a zealous faith in science, the drive toward making meaning from a particular way of viewing the world was very much the same. In our time, the postmodern metanarrative seems to be a return to story-based, anthropomorphic meaning-making, and the pantheon of our myth system is filled with living, breathing gods we see in hi-def color. A typical breakdown of Western history says Gutenberg destroyed the oral tradition, but anyone who's ever listened to sports radio or watched the Oscars knows that we are still in the business of myth-making and transmission. In the information age, we don't simply recount the exploits of our heroes, we comment and opine ad nauseam about them. We have the greatest expectations of these idealized and idolized forms, our actors, our athletes, our pop stars and our presidents. In the time of Wikipedia and Wikileaks, myth-making has been open-sourced, no longer the domain of wizened elders or great scientific minds. We still love and need good stories, and we all expect to contribute to them through means very literally at our fingertips: we have blogs and Twitter, the status update and the 'Like' button.
Joseph Campbell argued famously for the existence of one shared human monomyth that forms the basis of all great tales and its persistence in every generation. "A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man." Being a believing Christian does not preclude me from seeing the brilliance of Campbell's work. That the Christ story fits Campbell's blueprint doesn't mean there isn't something uniquely redemptive about the life of and work God in Jesus. Indeed, it might explain the claim of a famous hymn about the hopes and fears of all the years being met in Christ on Christmas. That said, I want to use Campbell's monomyth as a lens through which to view the world's most prominent Christian that isn't named Bono, Benedict or Billy. Bracketed comments below are my connections between the narrative surrounding Barack Obama's election and inauguration two years ago and the scholarly deconstruction of the monomyth. [Quoted sections come from the holy writ of collaborative metanarrative, Wikipedia, and full footnotes can be found on the "monomyth" page.]
"A hero ventures forth from the world of common day [born of humble origins to a single mother] into a region of supernatural wonder [Indonesia, Kansas, Harvard Law, Chicago politics, the 2004 convention, the 2008 primaries]: fabulous forces [the Clintons] are there encountered and a decisive victory is won [the nomination, and then, the general election]: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man [naturally].
Other specific stages of the Hero's Journey in Campbell's taxonomy include:
- The Call To Adventure: "The adventure begins with the hero receiving a call to action, such as a threat to the peace of the community, or the hero simply falls into or blunders into it. The call is often announced to the hero by another character who acts as a "herald". The herald, often represented as dark or terrifying and judged evil by the world, may call the character to adventure simply by the crisis of his appearance." [The 2004 Illinois Senate election in which Obama was bolstered by the scandalous end of original opponent Jack Ryan.]
David Adams Leeming adds concepts like Miraculous Conception and Birth ["with a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas"] and Initiation of the Hero-Child ["she used to wake me up at 4 am to go over my lessons"] to Campbell's structure. Phil Cousineau includes The Vision Quest [Obama's trip to Kenya to meet his father and his father's family, thereby informing Dreams From My Father.], which equates to what Leeming calls the Withdrawal stage.
Heroic figures on this order rise in tumultuous days when the need for redeeming or reassuring narratives is particularly acute. John McCain's own story was compelling, but against the monomyth in anxious times, it never had a chance. That the monomyth (and the need to believe it) was affirmed in Obama's historic election is no great surprise. "Yes We Can" is, after all, the original American metanarrative, even as "Yes We Will" (yes we will make this political/military/sports myth, yes we will contribute to or oppose it, yes we will immerse ourselves in it with our time and dollars and fanhood) is the recreational credo of an era who's gods are not in twilight.
That Obama has lost effortless mastery over memes about hope and the redemptive expectations of the electorate should likewise not surprise us. By the act of governing, Obama has become a known human and political entity, no longer a canvas upon which weary people can project the greatest of their hopes for what America might be. In a real sense, Obama has been demythologized and demystified, and we hate it when we can see the wizard's feet behind the curtain. It turns out that the President might just be a pragmatist. It turns out that every President compromises. It turns out that every President moves to some extent toward politics as usual. George W. Bush was once the great outsider. Obama was once the ultimate outsider. Starting this year, charges from the feigned hinterland of American politics will be made toward the Beltway. Watch how candidates position themselves. Watch for the motifs of Campbell's monomyth and know that you are always voting, at least in part, for echos of a common journey, and for the hope that once your hero wins the victory, he or she will not be changed by it, or by the culture of political boons and their bestowing.
Obama's presidency and election are historic for many reasons, but his campaign for reelection will look more like the former than the latter by necessity. Hope is, as Carl Sandberg wrote, "a tattered flag and a dream of time." That's no less true now than it was in Sandberg's time. That's no less true now than it was four years ago. That might be a good narrative for the President's team to start promoting.