Every religion features a process of spiritual transformation by which individuals achieve what is variously characterized as transcendence, enlightenment or salvation. This process is commonly presented as a journey from here to there, whether the destination is nirvana or heaven. Even before they were called Christians, those who would eventually be known by that name thought of themselves as followers of The Way. Taoists likewise talk about living in harmony with the Way. For Buddhists, the path to enlightenment is known as the Golden Path.
I think of The Wizard of Oz as a kind of spiritual journey, with the pathway graphically represented by the Yellow Brick Road. L. Frank Baum, author of original story, always insisted he was merely writing a children’s fairy tale, and so he might have. Yet the story unquestionably lends itself to various mythological interpretations. It is often pointed out that Baum was a theosophist, an esoteric spiritual movement founded in the late 19th century that combined elements from Eastern and Western religious traditions. He would certainly have been aware of the elements of spiritual transformation.
Baum’s story might be seen as a rough retelling of John Bunyan’s allegorical Pilgrim’s Progress, with Oz as the Celestial City, albeit painted emerald green. In the movie version, Dorothy’s mantra was, “Follow the Yellow Brick Road,” with musical accompaniment from a chorus of Munchkins. But unlike the “straight and narrow” path Christian follows in Pilgrim’s Progress, the Yellow Brick Road is anything but straight. The journey begins as a spiral; later arrives at a fork, with nothing but an empty-headed scarecrow to point the way; finally comes full circle with Dorothy back in Kansas.
Those who have ever tried to follow a spiritual path will find more in common with the spirals and forks of the Yellow Brick Road than with Bunyan’s “straight and narrow.” For example, if you fail to learn from your experience, which happens all too frequently in real life, you may notice that your circumstances have a way of spiraling back on themselves. You will find yourself facing a similar situation again and again until you accept the lesson it imparts so you can then move on. As for any fork in the road, you are apt to discover, as Robert Frost famously observed, that the one less travelled makes all the difference. The challenge, of course, is to recognize the fork when you come to it, since the actual road is not usually painted yellow. You may already be well past it when you realize your life has taken a fateful turn.
There are, of course, turning points in life that are impossible to miss. Saul of Tarsus had one such experience when he set out for Damascus with the intention of apprehending Christians and bringing them back to Jerusalem. Instead, he wound up joining those he had formerly persecuted. I suppose you can argue his spiritual journey did not even begin until he had his blinding encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. However, I would counter that his formative experience as a militant Pharisee was integral to understanding the man who would now be known as the Apostle Paul.
Dorothy’s mantra begins with the word “follow,” which means that she was not expected to blaze a trail. She was expected to put one foot in front of the other and keep to the path. Jesus expected the same of his disciples. In all four of the gospels, his message is some variation of, “Follow me” – and he could be quite uncompromising. To a rich young man who prided himself on his religious observance, he said, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” To a would-be follower who first wanted to bury his father, Jesus said, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” To another who first wanted to say goodbye to his family, he replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” In several of the gospels, Jesus is quoted as telling his disciples, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
Mythologists like Joseph Campbell speak of the hero’s journey, although spiritual journeys are a bit different. In this case, the transformation that takes place is the realization that the would-be hero of this journey is not, in fact, a hero at all in the usual sense of the term. This was a transformation that the rich young man who prided himself on his religious observance refused to undergo. Sell all that I have and give to the poor? Why, that would leave me with nothing! That would make me nothing! Exactly. Just put one foot in front of the other and keep to the path.