Many scholars in psychology and mythology such as Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and Jordan Peterson correctly argue that humanity needs myths and metaphors. We need stories, even fictitious ones, to communicate the truest aspects of life, including ancient myths like the Illiad or recent sagas like Star Wars. A classic named ¡Three Amigos!, however, reminds us that fiction provides limited help, showing us that we also need literal, historical truth.
When Story and Reality Collide
Set in the early 1900s, three washed-up silent movie actors look for work. As they specialized in westerns, often saving a small town from an oppressive ruler, an actual downtrodden villager finds the actors and brings them to their town in Mexico to fight the warlord, El Guapo. Misunderstanding the request, the three actors return with the villager to Santa Poco and suddenly find themselves in a life and death situation.
Towards the end of the film, Lucky Day, played by Steve Martin, rouses the crowd to fight El Guapo:
In a way, all of us has an El Guapo to face. For some, shyness might be their El Guapo. For others, a lack of education might be their El Guapo. For us, El Guapo is a big, dangerous man who wants to kill us. But as sure as my name is Lucky Day, the people of Santa Poco can conquer their own personal El Guapo, who also happens to be the actual El Guapo!
Figurative and Literal
When reading ancient myths or watching modern ones, we must apply their lessons to our lives. Slaying a dragon could mean overcoming our faults, even shyness as Lucky Day suggests. Sometimes, however, we have the same problems as the story’s protagonists. In these cases, we might need more than metaphorical advice. We need an actual solution.
Lucky Day’s speech makes fun of symbolizing everything when we sometimes need literal help. It reminds me how some people only interpret scripture symbolically, even the life of Jesus. Many want to discount anything miraculous or spiritual, but they still claim it speaks truth. (Thomas Jefferson even created the “Jefferson Bible” by removing miraculous sections from the gospels.) They treat it as myth.
While certain portions of the Bible are figurative or employ symbolic language, others are clearly meant by the authors as literal. Emphasizing that the recorded events literally happened, Luke starts his Gospel account by saying, “since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you” (Luke 1:3). This includes the miracles of Jesus, which includes his death and resurrection.
When Your El Guapo is the Actual El Guapo
When we read that Jesus calmed a storm, healed a dying person, or multiplied food, we often need a figurative application. When the storm in our life is a busy schedule and unreasonable demands, we find comfort knowing that Jesus offers peace in these circumstances as well.
But sometimes the storm in one’s life is an actual storm like a hurricane or tornado, and they need physical safety. Many experience a devastating illness that requires a miracle. During the COVID-19 pandemic, while we need to wisely take precautions like social distancing and seek medical care, many will catch the virus and need miraculous healing. Others struggle with hunger and finding food. In these circumstances, people do not need platitudes. They need a savior who can literally calm the storm, heal the illness, and provide our necessities.
While the most privileged might not require help in these areas, the Good News of Jesus speaks to two scenarios we all face:
- Having acted in ways we know are wrong, we all need forgiveness. We need a way to overcome guilt and shame.
- We will all die someday.
Thankfully, Jesus did not only model forgiveness. He did not only teach us to act mercifully. He truly died as punishment for what we have done wrong, and he extends mercy to us today.
His resurrection does not only teach us that goodness can overcome evil or that nonviolence can withstand oppression (though these lessons are true.) In addition and more importantly, Jesus literally defeated death and provides us with the possibility of eternal life with God.
The Sufficient Story
¡Three Amigos! points to the insufficiency of stories. After all, the movie highlights that actors, i.e. storytellers, could not save people with their fiction. They might inspire, but within the story, they had to become actual heroes and literally perform daring acts to save the people of Santa Poco.
Near the film’s climax, El Guapo captures the three amigos. One antagonist recognizes Ned Nederlander, and exclaims that seeing him quickly draw his gun on the silver screen motivated him to learn to do the same. But when he discovered that movies use trick shots, he felt betrayed. Notice how a story could motivate, but he wanted to be inspired by truth.
Ned exclaims that he never relied on special effects, but could in fact draw his weapon that quickly. When forced to duel, this ability saved his life and allowed the amigos to escape. In other words, people can only be saved by the truth within the story.
Similarly, myths point to their own insufficiency. They tell us we need goodness in life and that goodness must be acted out. At the same time, a metaphorical story only talks about goodness. It only alludes to what we need. It is not what we need.
Instead of a story, or in addition to story, we need history. We need good acts that continue to benefit us and others. Furthermore, while fiction can portray a moral virtue like selflessness as beautiful, a true story about selflessness can prove that it has tangible benefits.
If good can overcome evil, there must be stories in which it actually did. We can certainly expect humanity to retell ourselves these accounts. In other words, fiction has its place, but we need literal stories as well.
While we can find inspiration from scripture, we can discover much more. It provides more than positive sentiments about life or moral virtue. We can find that Jesus is an actual hero who performs miracles, forgives sins, and even provides eternal life. As he literally acted this way 2000 years ago, we know he extends the same kindness to us today.