Stories of redemption

Back in the 1940s, literature scholar Joseph Campbell popularized the idea that we know today as “The Hero’s Journey.” Influenced by his reading of Carl Jung, Campbell claimed that throughout history, the most important culture-shaping myths have shared a similar structure. From Homer’s Odyssey to Star Wars to The Lord of the Rings to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we are treated again and again to stories of heroes and heroines who answer a call to leave home to achieve some goal. Along the way, they struggle against overwhelming odds. But they grow through adversity and eventually return home triumphant.

Many screenwriters have been taught that it’s almost obligatory to craft their stories in some similar way. George Lucas himself has publicly credited Campbell’s ideas for the essential plot line of Star Wars. Whether the so-called Hero’s Journey is as universal as Campbell claims, of course, is a matter of debate.

What isn’t a matter of debate, however, is that people will flock to movies that tell such stories well.

. . .

Before George Lucas, however, before Joseph Campbell, before Carl Jung, there were the Psalms. The Psalms are not stories, per se, but sometimes contain mini-stories. Psalms 135 and 136, for example, call the congregation to praise by giving a CliffsNotes version of the history of God’s saving relationship to Israel.

And as suggested previously, Psalm 107 contains four short narratives of redemption that all share the same structure. It’s not quite the Hero’s Journey, though: the point of these stories is less about the people who faced trouble and more about the God who saved them.

Again, the basic structure of the four stories in Psalm 107 is as follows: some people faced a particular kind of trouble, which is described; they cry out to God, who delivers them; they are therefore to give thanks to God for his steadfast love and saving work.

Here, in brief, are the four troubles, as translated by the New Revised Standard Version:

  • Some wandered in desert wastes, finding no way to an inhabited town; hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted within them (vss. 4-5);
  • Some sat in darkness and in gloom, prisoners in misery and in irons (vs. 10);
  • Some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities endured affliction; they loathed any kind of food, and they drew near to the gates of death (vss. 17-18);
  • Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the mighty waters… They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their calamity; they reeled and staggered like drunkards, and were at their wits’ end (vss. 23, 26-27).

In each case, the people are portrayed as being at the end of their rope. They cry out to God — and God rescues them from their distress (vss. 6, 13, 19, 28). Thus, the psalmist says four times, “Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind” (vss. 8, 15, 21, 31). This is the point of the stories: not that these people went on triumphant hero’s journeys, but that God saved them through concrete demonstrations of his steadfast love.

Indeed, lest anyone miss the point, the psalm ends on this note:

Let those who are wise give heed to these things,
    and consider the steadfast love of the LORD
. (vs. 43)

This brings the psalm back full circle to where it began:

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
    for his steadfast love endures forever
. (vs. 1)

But whereas “steadfast love” in verse 1 is singular, in verse 43, it’s in the plural. The final word to the wise is therefore: Ponder God’s deeds of steadfast love, that you might know that goodness and steadfast love are God’s nature and give thanks for this!

. . .

While it’s true that I live in Southern California, I wouldn’t exactly call it a desert wilderness (some would disagree). It’s all inhabited town, in every direction, as far as the eye can see. I don’t know what it’s like to be on a ship that’s pitching so madly that I’m frozen in terror. Some of the stories the psalmist tells are to more appropriate to his time and place than mine.

But for that same reason, I believe it’s appropriate to insert our own “perfect storms” into the dramatic structure of the stories. The psalm is not about the uniqueness and heroism of my story or your story, but the shared narrative of a powerful and loving God who saves.

We need each other’s stories to be reminded of the Story of that God, that Savior, that we might praise him for his steadfast love.