There is an ancient and widespread genre of story whose plot goes something like this: Once upon a time, there was a hero. She was an ordinary person from an ordinary place. She discovers, however, that she is in possession of a special gift, a remarkable object, or an extraordinary burden that makes her stand out among her peers. Our hero goes on a quest that involves danger, self-discovery, and sacrifice--often alongside important companions or mentors. At the end of the story, she returns home a changed person.
You might recognize this narrative echoed in some of the most beloved characters filling our screens today. Think about the vibrant and brilliant story of Kamala--not the VP but Ms. Marvel—who discovers an ancient family heirloom that activates a nascent power within her and mystically connects her to her grandmother. Through Obi Wan Kenobi, Luke Skywalker learns about an ancient power that gives him a special connection to the Force. Tolkien’s Frodo, from Lord of the Rings, happens upon an ancient ring of power that he must bear, suffer under, and ultimately destroy. Even the vibrant and charming Disney film, Encanto, both inverts and perpetuates this genre in the character of Mirabel—an unremarkable girl in a family of exceptionally gifted members. Her ordinary life is ultimately what allows her to help her family in a crisis. The story of the hero’s tale is an ancient one, and it shows no signs of waning—especially if Disney has anything to say about it.
Many of these stories are beautiful and moving. They resonate in a particular way at this moment in American history that Charles Taylor has rightly called the “age of authenticity.” (1) In the age of authenticity, the Zeitgeist summons us to undertake our own hero’s journey in search of our true and authentic selves, and in the process discover that special gift we can share with the world. The age of authenticity ultimately asks adherents to look within and excavate—beneath layers of psychological trauma, oppression, false consciousness, and scar tissue—in order to uncover one’s identity, definition, and purpose. The age of authenticity still summons us to an epic hero’s journey. They only difference is that the geography we travel is ultimately internal.
Andrew Root has recently addressed these topics from the perspective of youth ministry in his insightful and creative volume, The End of Youth Ministry. (2) There he argues that the redemptive and heroic story adopted by so many in our contemporary culture involves a number of necessary steps. As a starting point, you must discover your “thing” in this world (identity) and gain external recognition and acceptance for that identity—even if only from others who share that identity. The promise at the end of this journey is the all-American reward of “happiness.” It’s the new white picket fence.
Here’s the thing about stories. Well-crafted ones in particular have a way of seeping into our souls, where they shape our sense of possibility, inform our compassion, and nourish our imaginations. But all stories—even the best and most virtuous ones--also cultivate our sense of threat, anxiety, and peril.
What if I don’t discover “my thing?” What if I turn left down the path when I should have turned right? What if I miss my one, true calling? What if I ultimately cannot find my authentic self? What if no one wants to join me on the journey? What if I never find my one, wild hope for this life? What if tragedy stands in the way of vision?
The very real impact of these anxieties is all the more apparent to me now as I spend time among college students who are often fully engaged with these questions.
The book of Ecclesiastes also has something to say about the purpose of a human life and what we should be about in this world. But in stark contrast to the genre of the hero’s journey, Ecclesiastes is decidedly anti-heroic. This is ironic given that the book associates the authorial voice with none other than Solomon, the last great king of a united Israel. Ecclesiastes is written in the voice of a sagely and royal teacher who is at the end of a storied life, reflecting on what it all means.
In the 9th chapter of Ecclesiastes, Koheleth offers this advice about how one should go about living in the world:
Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom (Eccl 9:7-10).
For Ecclesiastes, the true nature of this world—including God’s will—are largely hidden from the powers of human perception and reason (see, e.g., 8:16-17; 9:12). We may be able to perceive something of reality, but it will always be out of focus and opaque. Given the limitations of human reason, Koheleth calls upon his readers to bask in the approval of God and to throw themselves into what they can confidently see, touch, and taste. He instructs them to enjoy the fruits of their labor, delight in the love of a partner, and do whatever their hands find to do.
In a critical article on Ecclesiastes, William Brown rightly notes that Koheleth’s advice removes human toil from the realm of achievement and places it instead into a discourse of enjoyment. Enjoyment in Ecclesiastes “has the power to redeem the notion of toil amid (rather than over and against) the vicissitudes of life, the elusiveness of gain, and the ravaging power of death.” (3)
And with this clever insight, the ancient Koheleth calls us to walk a path that is quite different from the one we find on the hero’s journey into authenticity. Instead of asking us to descend into the caverns of our innermost selves and excavate our authentic identities, Koheleth offers alternative questions that point us back to the perceptible world: “What is my responsibility to the world around me?” “What does my hand find to do?” Work belongs to the realm of daily life, where we encounter the needs of those around us, and where we bump up against a myriad of things for our hands to do.
In an interview with Krista Tippett, Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen makes this important statement concerning the Hebrew phrase, Tikkun Olam (repair/healing of the world): "It's not about healing the world by making a huge difference. It's about healing the world that touches you." (4) All of us inhabit particular, intersectional contexts where suffering, joy, hope, and trauma are tangled up in complex ways. It is in that messy matrix—that vocational womb—where we are summoned into service of the world, and where our hands find good work to undertake.
Sometimes we will do this out of fiery passion and sometimes out of cold obligation, sometimes out of visionary desire and sometimes out of a sense of responsibility. In all cases, we are called into this world—not as a savior or a hero—but as a co-creator of hope, as a particular in repair, and as a partner in the building of a more trustworthy world?
When we disembark the path of the hero’s journey and begin to walk, instead, the path of vocation, we inherit a different—and I dare say better—set of questions. On the journey of vocation, the path before us goes from narrow to broad, from restrictive to free.
- Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 473.
- Andrew Root, The End of Youth Ministry? : Why Parents Don't Really Care About Youth Groups and What Youth Workers Should Do About It (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2020).
- William P. Brown, “’Whatever Your Hand Finds to Do’: Qoheleth's Work Ethic,” Interpretation 55:3 (2001): 271-284.
- https://onbeing.org/programs/rachel-naomi-remen-how-we-live-with-loss/ Many thanks to my colleague, Dr. Matt Skinner, who introduced me to this interview as part of our co-taught MDiv class, Scripture and Its Witnesses, at Luther Seminary.
Dr. Michael J. Chan is the Executive Director of the Center for Faith and Work at Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota. Prior to this position, he was associate professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University and is a graduate of Luther Seminary (M.A. in biblical theology) and Pacific Lutheran University (B.A. in elementary education).
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