This article is a continuation of my previous article with the same title, where I discussed Stephen R Donaldsen’s essay, Epic Fantasy in the Modern World, and how fantasy fiction can inform our Faith. While my previous article focused on Donaldsen’s definition of ‘fantasy’, how fantasy speaks to the human heart, and how Jesus satisfies that desire as in C.S. Lewis’ words, ‘a myth that came true’. This time around, I’d like to focus on Donaldsen’s other definition – ‘epic’. As Donaldsen himself states, the term epic is much better understood than ‘fantasy’, and indeed, a deeper look at this term can tell us much about Faith and Scripture as well.
I’d like to preface this article by saying that it’s going to be even more… ‘technical’ than what I usually write. In an article like this, context is important, and a large chunk of this article is going to be me paraphrasing and quoting stuff from other sources. But that said, I still hope that this will be an informative and interesting read. So, let’s get into it!
According to Donaldsen, a work is an ‘epic’ because it deals with the big questions – the meaning of life, the ultimate goals of man, how we fit into the grand scheme of things, so on and so forth.
In effect, epics articulated the best religious and cultural, the best social and psychological self-perceptions of their times: they recorded the way humankind looked at itself.
In this context, I think that everyone has ‘epic’ ideas, whether they give voice to them or not. Regardless of our religious beliefs, we all have to wrestle with the question of our purpose in life, and if we want to live life to the fullest, we have to act in accordance to those beliefs. To not do so could possibly mean a slow lapse into apathy and despair.
Does the Bible contain epic tales as well? Absolutely! I’d argue that most of the narratives in the Bible contain epic elements, but the book that truly takes the form of an epic tale is Exodus. Exodus seeks to answer the following questions: who is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? What does it mean to follow Him, and why is He worth following? The telling of this story was meant to resonate with the Hebrew people, to show them why their God was god among gods, and how He had the power to deliver them from evil and oppression.
Perhaps the next question to ask is the one I asked regarding the Saints of the Early Church – are these stories true? This story took place thousands of years ago, so how do we know that these tales aren’t just some inflated version of a much more mundane series of events? I think to ask these questions is to kind of miss the point. To understand epic stories we have to learn a little from Fr. Dwight Longenecker’s description of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien is his book, The Romance of Religion:
‘Once upon a time, a professor of philology – that is to say, a lover of language – […] scribbled on the back of an anonymous exam paper, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Thus was begun a true story – one of the greatest of the true stories ever told. A true story is a true story even if it is not factual. It doesn’t just express truth or explain truth or argue for truth. It is simply true.”
A true story is a true story even if it is not factual. That’s a striking statement. While we’ll get to Tolkien’s works in another article (articles?), I should probably mention that obviously, the Exodus story is more rooted in historical fact than The Hobbit. There are records that state that the ancient Egyptians enslaved a nomadic race called the ‘Habiru’ (Hebrew?) and put them to work on building projects. But whatever the historical fact may be, the truth the Exodus writer wanted to tell was not the actual events beat for beat, but instead, the truth of who God is, and how He delivered his people from slavery. That is the overarching message, and in epic stories, the historical details are secondary.
A Catholic apologist, the late Fr. Oscar Lukefahr, explained in his book, A Catholic’s Guide to the Bible:
First of all, we do not deny God’s ability to perform any of the miracles in the Exodus story. God is God and can do the miraculous. But when we look at the Exodus material, we are led to believe that that the biblical authors intended to write not modern history but an epic presentation exalting God’s glory and ridiculing God’s enemies. These writers assembled from ancient sources a story that is truly memorable, extols God’s power, and recalls the national origins of Israel as mere history cannot.
Fr. Oscar would also reiterate:
Because of the literary form and epic makeup of the Book of Exodus, we cannot arrive at definite conclusions about the precise character of the miracles described there. Exodus gives us the essential historical core of an Israelite escape from Egypt under the leadership of Moses. Exodus teaches important religious lessons: God cares about people and is on the side of freedom. Beyond such basic facts there is much room for speculation, and the Catholic Church has not made dogmatic statements about these issues.
For me, the Exodus story is a powerful one not just because of its epic makeup, but because of the human elements as well. I was always struck by the story of Moses, and how his first reaction was to tell God that he didn’t know how to speak in front of a crowd, much less lead a whole people to freedom. But by cooperating with God, he found the strength within himself to rise above his weaknesses and become part of the epic story God was telling.
I hope you guys found this way of reading Exodus to be informative. It’s definitely not the only way to read the Exodus story – if we want to, we can believe that it mostly happened as scripture describes. It’s far enough back in history that we’ll likely never know for sure. Also, if you’re interested in learning more of salvation history from a Catholic viewpoint, I highly recommend checking out Symbolon: The Catholic Faith Explained. Till next time and God bless!
© 2017 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng