Bad Influences: Joseph Campbell

“Bad Influences” is a segment in which the author pays tribute to the people and texts that contributed in specific and memorable ways to the decline of her Christian faith--or, depending on how one looks at it, the burgeoning of her authentic self. As you’ve probably figured out, the title is somewhat ironic.   

    I heard tell of Joseph Campbell and his work with mythology here and there over the years--unfortunately, though, especially considering that I studied literature at both the college and graduate levels, I never really studied him. That came later, thanks to none other than the incomparable Pete Holmes.

    Holmes mentions Campbell often on his podcast, usually referring to the way Campbell helped him understand the Christian story in the context of mythology, thus giving him (and maybe I’m projecting here) a way to sympathize with the best parts of the religion while also understanding that there’s good reason to see it as nothing particularly special in the grand scheme of things.

    Thanks to Holmes’ frequent allusions, I finally went out and got a copy of the transcript of The Power of Myth last year. What a text. One thing that I appreciate about it is that it affirms my sentiment that Christianity is not an exceptional belief system--that is, that there are many stories like it from all over the world and, given the many similarities it shares with a variety of mythologies, it seems silly for any educated person to claim that the Christian church has a singular connection to the truth.

    In addition to that, it gives us (or at least it gives me) a way to embrace religion as an anthropological reality--perhaps even inevitability--that does have its place in teaching people certain morals, and explaining certain things where science had not yet existed or remains existentially dissatisfying. This is not to say that religion hasn’t been the venue of a heap of evil, or that Christianity doesn’t need to get its shit together vis a vis science, but there is a certain appreciation--as opposed to antipathy--in Campbell’s take. This makes his work a good segway into disbelief for a person like me who has a remarkably entangled relationship with Christianity because of my past experience.

    I’ve yet to read anything else by Campbell, and I haven’t actually watched his interview with Moyers either. But even based on the transcript I did read, I have to say that Campbell has been one of the best bad influences so far. When so much of de-churching myself feels like a loss, reading Campbell feels like a major gain in terms of both empathy and knowledge. I’m so thankful that I chose to explore his work, and I’d encourage all people--especially religious people--to do the same.