The Nature of the Feast: First Meditation on Manna
Before reading this, please know that it is awkward and simplistic. I hate the voice and I don’t believe that it gets to the heart of what I am trying to say. This isn’t just because I did a bad job, but because I don’t believe that writing an essay about the purposes of fiction is ever entirely appropriate. The content does not match the form. The only appropriate way to explain the purposes of fiction is to write a story. What follows is less a dogmatic declaration of what I would like to accomplish and more my attempt to photo-copy a thought process. It is awkward, because it would be awkward to see someone naked. It is simplistic, because if you looked at someone’s skeleton, you’d ask, “Is that it?”
This thought process, and all the things I am trying to do in my fiction, is simply too overwhelming for me to ever get down on a piece of paper. I can never capture all of it in nonfiction and it is always a very frustrating process to make sense, in an essay, about what I would like to accomplish. Nonfiction is not clear enough to point in every direction.
If ever I was going to talk about my “project goals” it would only be most appropriate in a conversation. It would involve someone asking me a question about a piece here or a bit there and me getting the chance to reply to each question. The problem is that only I know what questions will get to the heart of things at the theoretical level. If their question was too large, or if it was about my main goals in writing, the only thing I could tell them was that they need to just read a story I’ve written. Even my own words in conversation would be insufficient in capturing all the goals. My answer to the question, “What were you trying to do?” is best answered by all the words that make up a story. It is a bad story if any one word does not contribute to answering that question.
All of that ho-hum aside, the biggest question with a bit of nonfiction like this is, “Why write fiction theory at all? Why photo-copy your thought process?” I only have one reason to write fiction theory like this: to prove to myself that I have thought about my stories and that it is therefore necessary to write them.
It is very important to be clear about what I am trying to do with the magical visions I will insert in Manna. There will be a lot of scenes in Manna that are invented from the ground up–cars levitating in the sky and still rivers and (the titular experience) a dough snow fall mixed with the falling of manna from the sky. I won’t make it clear in the book when I’m “writing fiction” and when I’m returning to “what actually happened”, because all of Manna will be fiction. It is going to be my attempt at giving an accurate portrait of American spirituality, in all its convictions and devotions. But part of this picture is to show the deep longing and dissatisfaction that spiritual-seekers I think feel in America. Those who consider themselves spiritual will also consider that nothing really spiritual seems to happen here among the ruins of freeways and Burger King and Netflix. I myself doubt it. And my instinct is to think that the only reason “spiritual” stuff happens in other parts of the world is because those parts of the world just need to get-it-together. But how sad. If America is the country that has it together, we are of all people in the world most to be pitied. If America is the country with a keen eye for what is a strong and true metaphysical foundation, then why the hell do the vast majority of Americans kill themselves with indulgence? Are we at the highest pinnacle of mankind? Part of me would much rather live secluded in a third world country, not for the comfort, but for the discomfort of having to come to terms with my flesh and how prone it is to casting off the true as superstition. My counter-instinct is that we living on our couches live in greater fear and metaphysical discomfort than the secluded tribesmen do. On this particular line of ranting, I won’t go further.
We don’t seem to get a lot of ghosts here, or a lot of supernatural visions, or many dragons. Mythical creatures don’t roam around, seeking whom they may impress. Thank God, too. I hate unicorns. We don’t get much evidence of the supernatural in our time and place. It can feel like reality has been swept clean of any kind of perceptive evidence of the supernatural. And a lot of people here (who would like to be spiritual) settle for a general humanism instead of a sincere belief that there are, in fact, two worlds. These are the worlds of the seen and unseen. These people, who consider that the easiest way to account for the supernatural in past times or far places is to conclude that those earlier or simpler humans are more primitive. It seems like we have grown out of a sensational way of looking at the spiritual realm.
There was a time, let me say, where it seems the spiritual realm impressed itself on us in all sorts of perceptive ways. It wasn’t that we believed in a god within our hearts, but that we believed in a god—and he might be walking among us, shrouded in a cloak of humanity. It was a world haunted with the possibility that the other world was not invisible, but invasive. It was the world of the other, because when it appeared it would infest and disagree with our visible world. This is very different from how we consider the invisible. For us, the invisible never infests itself in our world. The invisible world never manifests itself in the forms of our world—or so it seems.
And we would very much like there to be some evidence that there is another world at work. Even the freshest atheist can see appeal in the divine. The appeal to him might seem saccharine and he might accuse it of being a medicine for the weak, but he recognizes it as some kind of medicine. He only decides he doesn’t need it. And this atheist is right; we don’t need that kind of saccharine medicine. The freshest atheist denies that there is a God who is somewhere else that cares for us very much. And it’s a fair thing to deny. Where is he? Well, no one knows. No one has seen him walking down the street. Show me the God that cares for me and I will believe in him.
There are two things to point out here: even if God himself did walk down the street, no one would believe in him. Everyone would like to think that they would believe in the invisible world if it made itself manifest. But this kind of evidence does not convince everyone. The other thing to note about it is that Christ was this manifestation. Though I believe there have been other manifestations of the other world in the form of what we can perceive in our world, I do not think that any witch, ghost, spirit, demon, disembodied voice, floating head, or non-natural movement of bodies would be any more convincing to the contemporary mind than Jesus himself. The evidence of Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection two thousand years ago was the clearest manifestation of the divine presence that man needs in order to believe. This is just as true for us two thousand years later as it was for those who witnessed him performing miracles. And even those who saw him perform miracles walked away in disbelief. The other world would not have been made any clearer if Christ had come and acted for every generation in the same way that he did for the generation he was born into. For us to say that we need more evidence of the divine intervening into our world in order to believe is another way of saying that we have not considered the evidence of Jesus. But the accounts of the divine intercession through Jesus are there and they have been confirmed and tested and approved since the beginning of time. The Word was made manifest, not just in Jesus, but in many times and many ways to the people of God throughout the ages. God did not invade our world once through Jesus. God has invaded the visible world so many times that there is a theological term for it: sustenance. God sustains our world by constantly acting to support it.
Since he knows our desire for sensory evidence, he gave us Jesus. Jesus was more than enough. Giving us Jesus was an abundant, unnecessary grace. The only reason the incarnation of Jesus might look like a divine invasion is because we don’t yet believe the invisible world had been there. If we believe that the invisible world is there, then the appearance of Jesus makes complete sense in the divine economy. It was simply one more way of God moving to support us by putting a finality to our salvation. We are saved when we see that the visible and invisible realm are created brothers. We see this in Jesus. We know we are saved when we see in all places the universal evidence of the divine presence of God the Father. For the person who believes, it is reasonable to see the divine acting everywhere, sustaining everything. Whoever now believes in Jesus is an eyewitness account of his death and resurrection through their new life. The resurrection of the flesh at the end of time will be the final proof that the unseen sustains and preserves the sticky, plastic forms of the seen.
All of this is a prelude to a defense of surrealism. The invented scenes in Manna when I have non-natural experiences (supernatural visions) are simply my way of revealing what is the longing of American spiritual-seekers. Those who consider themselves spiritual in this generation wish for signs and wonders—and I will show what kind of signs and wonders this generation craves. I will show what I myself would like to see or experience, so that my faith in the unseen could be made certain (a terrifying word: there is no certainty for those who love God). I want to show what a skeptic desires to see. This ought to create a tension in the text, where it is unclear what the purpose is of the visions. The reader should find themselves asking, “If this is a journalistic treatment of American spirituality, then why does he take such liberties with facts?”
One of the points is that all of Manna is itself a fiction—and this is nothing but a good thing. I want to show that a fiction is the mixture of invention and experience. I will, however, have a chapter that will bring an end to all of the surreal experiences—a chapter on Jesus. And it will be nothing new. In that chapter, I plan on giving the Gospel and showing what I believe about the world in clear terms. I know the Gospel and it has been that evidence I will crave for my entire life. The Gospel will always be the divine invasion that I wished were true.
To summarize, one of the main reasons that Manna is magical realist journalism is because that is what the Gospel accounts are. We long for a magical realism that is more than just a fiction—and we have it in the Gospels. Fiction is an invented accounting patterned on the experienced world. That means that fiction is an invention used to account for what the patterns are that take place within our world. We might experience these patterns, but we cannot really see them without the aid of some kind of invention. This is how in part the four Gospels are inventions. It would be an error to call them fictions, however, because it is the Gospels that make the pattern for fiction to follow. This is why my fiction should ideally have some kind of divine invasion. Although this might be an invention, it is patterned on the experience of the disciples with Jesus. It was no invention; it was their experience. After experiencing the divine invasion of Jesus, they went and invented the four Gospels as aids to understand the pattern that Jesus finalized. The pattern is that of the invisible world coming down to the visible world and dwelling with us. When the invisible world dwells with us, we are given the sight to see that the entire visible world is in union with what cannot be seen with the eyes.
By definition, what we have faith in cannot be seen. Even at the end of time, when all the corpses of all the faithful and faithless claw their way out of the earth, those taking their first breath of the new air do not see what they have faith in. Perhaps in the PostLunarity Office (a fiction I invented to be described later), the sad accountants of matter will come up with their mechanistic explanations for why the resurrection happened on materialistic terms. That would be an interesting thing. Some of those who will witness the resurrection of the flesh imperishable will still not believe that the unseen realm exists.
My hope is that when fiction is written by those who can see, it lets the blind see the world through their eyes. When the blind see the world through the eyes of the healthy, the real picture they get ought to invade the world of their illusion. They had for their whole lives, like the rest of us mortals, longed for the spiritual and believed it never to be there. But when they see for the first time that the chairs walk and the trees speak, the materialist illusion of their world ought to melt.