I want to see a lay person in the church write an epic. Unfortunately, fiction is either written to be sold or to be mysterious. There are the writers who have a message and there are the writers who have a vision. The story is sometimes used as honey for the medicine or is conflated with the truth itself. There is the marketer and the mystic and I think that the next epic will be written as something like magical realism.
I do not like to talk about genre or to put more into one genre than another. All things are pure to those who are pure and this is not only an ethical claim but also an aesthetic claim about form. The point is that content ought to determine form, not vice versa.
The content for an epic ought to come from a writer who has a vision after hearing the message.
A writer whose motive is exclusively spreading a message will pick a form that will sell, so he writes science fiction or erotic fiction or young adult fiction or whatever it is that the mass market enjoys.
A writer whose motive is exclusively to spread his vision, however, will pick a form that will prove his status as a cultural prophet, something like free verse or unedited postmodern schlock. And he will remain the most active member of the local writing group, revered for his depth of vision and the trouble in getting others to understand what he sets up as mysterious. The farthest he will get professionally, perhaps, is printing off one hundred copies of his free verse poetry about finding Your True Self and asking the local coffee shop if he can put five or six copies on their shelf next to the coffee mugs. Or, she will become a professor of English at a community college and get tenure after a few years and teach her students to express themselves exactly as she wants them to.
The next epic will not be a postmodern one nor will it be a “rational” one. I am about to make a grand claim that deals with how to change culture, so let me first defend myself.
__________Personal Defense: Skippable__________
This is a blog. A blog is a public journal and I feel it can be as fruitful to have a public journal as a private one. The difference does not lie in motivation, but in content. A private journal can be used for anything–and so can a public one–but you can say anything in a private journal. You are either writing to your future self, Journal, or Jesus and these three people already know everything about you.
A public journal, however, is a place to share your opinions on things. A gigantic marketplace has existed since there was culture and it is called public opinion. It is a marketplace in which it is free for everyone to participate. The blog is only one tool used in this ancient marketplace.
Some modern people look at the internet and blogs and think it is some new invention, but the infrastructure has been there as long as people have had voices, ears, and something to say. The internet only speeds up the process of disseminating information, news, and opinions between people. The written word is the child of recorded speech.
My grand claim about changing culture is that the goal for a “culture-changer” should never be to change culture. I do not mean that the goal is too vague. Frequently, someone who wants to change culture knows of a way to do it. The goal of changing the culture is dangerous, instead, because it is frequently too specific. When someone becomes a vendor in the marketplace–whether they are spreading a message or sharing a vision–they try to do the new thing. And new things are frequently repetitions of old things that were once new. The specificity of their goal is often a way for them to provide an extreme alternative to the “old” things that they see as “problems” in culture.
And then they are pumped and thrilled (!) to oppose big businesses with small businesses or big churches with small churches or Christian fiction with dark realism (this is a dark world; not that dark) or consumerism with asceticism or their parents with radical discipleship or church programs with Eastern Orthodoxy.
But history has proven that swinging the pendulum the opposite direction is not enough. To oppose something extremely is not enough to change culture. The more violently we support extremes, the more violently the pendulum will swing right back to the problems we once opposed. All it takes is for the visionaries to die and for the rebels, our children, to be the next visionaries who will die.
A true visionary will not just oppose one extreme and not just both extremes and not just the balance. He will oppose the entire idea of a pendulum. He will oppose the fable that history is a cycle and that the current age has to be cycled through and that we have to play some part in the battle between Yin and Yang, to bring in the New Age.
He will be pleased that he lives in the age in which he has been put. He will embrace all of history, not as a power play between two truths or the fruit of men who once struggled with dichotomies, but instead as something very good all the way through and increasingly being made perfect.
A true visionary will live contentedly with all men of his age and of the past age and, instead of addressing their present cultural hungers (and his own), addresses the ancient hunger for a relationship with mankind’s Father. He will not look past in history and see one age that he wishes we could go back to, nor does he see that our cultural hope lies in the future (for the present, oh how it is so woefully terrible! No goodness! Dark realism! No one sees things the way I do! Oh, piety! Somebody whip my back, I am too perverted to even enjoy potato chips with a clean conscience).
He will speak through all extremes of past ages. I mean this in both senses. He will draw from past cultural extremes, knowing that he is not the first man who craved peace. They are not only tools for him, but things to cut through, to destroy and look past. This can only be done if he uses them as tools.
Somewhere inside here lies multiculturalism, intertextuality, the idols of postmodernism, surrealism, the avant-garde, and magical realism.
All past epics spoke through the ages in this way. Epics are so strongly rooted in a place in both space and time that they are set free from their age and considered ageless. A contemporary epic would have to do this. It would have to be so well-rooted in this postmodern age (this post-postmodern age?) and in the tools that postmodernists use that it speaks through postmodernism into the realm of ageless epics alongside Paradise Lost, Pilgrim’s Progress, The Divine Comedy, Don Quixote, etc.
In my opinion, this epic will be considered a masterpiece of magical realism. It will be written by a man whose spiritual life is a field so well-tilled and so rooted in the Gospel, that his conviction pervades the visions that capture him. And from these visions, he carves an epic because he loves to.
Good cannot be done by those who are not good, a church cannot grow if there is no integrity, discipleship cannot be done by those who have not yet been discipled, and form cannot be perfected if there is not first content.
Our Father grows his church, not by more programs or by extra forms, but by people who have been indwelled by the Spirit of Christ. This is essential to understand for writers just as much as it is for pastors as much as it is for the lay person who is an ordained electrician.
A writer cannot write to change something, unless he has first been changed.
This is why St. Benedict in his rule said that if a brother becomes proud or begins to self-identify himself in his craft, then the abbot should take away his craft until he has again forgotten himself. This is why pastors, if need be, should sometimes take time off from their ministry and ordained electricians should take time off to go into ministry. This is why we set time aside to stop what we are doing and, instead, spend time in silence with God. This is why we fast from good things. This is why we do not works ourselves to death, as if our salvation was through the realization of our ambitions. This is why we, if we find that we have four kids under us (I do not) and a wife beside us, sacrifice our thoughts and ambitions and visions to pour love into them until they can do nothing else but pour love into the next generation.
And this is why ambition is something that must be cultivated. I am tired of writers in the church compromising their ambitions for distractions. I am tired of elders condemning ambition as if it was something foreign to the saints of God. The restoration of the church will not just come from nuclear families and from wives who think that submission to their husbands means that they cannot have opinions.
The restoration of the church will come from those who are pure and from the forms that they choose, which become pure. And these people, if they find themselves bursting with ambition either for missions or for shifting the cultural landscape of America through film, have to forsake distractions and instead embrace discipline, cultivation, and glory to God in their ambition. Ambition is no enemy of the church. Ambition is the God-given desire to create, which is the most reflective action of our Father in which we can participate. And because it is mightily powerful in doing the work of God, it is mightily attacked by Satan and all of the enemies of the Church behind him. Hollywood heteroclites who are completely ignorant of the forces of good and evil that use them as vessels of battle (Pharaoh with his wooden heart: a pawn of God) will go unopposed if we champion silent chastity over the virtue of ambition. Adam had a paunch and Eve had curves and they enjoyed making things and had ambitions of filling the earth and multiplying. Adam and Eve wanted to change the world and the first person who opposed this ambition was Satan who wanted to silence their desire by offering them an opportunity to just sit down for a minute. We cannot even sit down rightly and take a break from our race, if we are not first running towards something, pursuing ambitions that our Father has given us.