Saturday, July 24, 2010

Thou Art That by Joseph Campbell

Thou Art That:  Transforming Religious Metaphor by Joseph Campbell is actually a posthumously collected transcription of several of his lectures.  Some chapters are even pieced together from more than one lecture.  With chapters like "Metaphor and Religious Mystery" and "The Experience of Religious Mystery," the sweeping knowledge of Campbell's scholarship is evident. He comfortably quotes from various people, sites a wide range of myths, and weaves them all together as he explores the ideas and themes.

However, because this book is pieced together from a lot of different lectures, the chapters often read as such.  There are subtle shifts in tone or occasional redundancies that the careful reader will find odd although understandable given how this text was put together.  I think if I had read the book more slowly, over weeks or even months rather than in a few days, I might have noticed it less but even so I saw evidence of the piecemeal way in which the material was put together within individual chapters.

Still, the content is interesting even if it feels like a mishmash at times.  Campbell argues that reading religion as anything but metaphor reduces the meaning from something personal to merely a moment in history.  He even suggests that in doing this, by making the metaphors more literal, religion is reducing the experience of mystery.  Not that the atheists get off any better than the theists, asking the rhetorical question "Which group really gets the message?"

The obvious answer is neither.  The point is not what you believe but how what you believe informs your life.  And that is an important idea to ponder, epecially in this day and age when so many can so easily pick and choose from a variety of spiritual paths without ever committing to a single belief long enough to put anything into practice.  Not that this book will actually offer a detailed explanation of what it means to "follow your bliss" but it will provide some ideas about how one can approach spirituality and how mythology can still have meaning in a technological age.


  1. I like Campbell but had not seen this book. Odd title. Thanks for the review.

  2. From what I can see in the book jacket flap, this is the first in a collection of "collected works." As I mention in the review, it is mostly a collection of transcriptions from various lectures. There is redundancy in content, which is unfortunate and unnecessary, as a result of piecing together lectures that often overlap in content. I think it would have been more interesting and probably offer more variety if they had simply transcribed several different lectures from beginning to end.