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is this epic or what?

Mary Queen of the World Cathedral, Montreal
I am in the middle of a playwriting course. At the same time, I am teaching a series on reading the Bible as narrative.  This means that for the past few months I have been pretty immersed in studying the aspects of story.  Below are some of the gleanings from my reading, studying, writing, and teaching.  It may be a bit more scholarly and less personal than usual, but that's all part of telling stories, as I explain below.  Here goes... 

There are different ways of telling stories.  In literature one finds two categories which illustrate the opposite ends of the story spectrum.  First there is "epic."  This is an objective approach which takes a step back from the action and looks at things from a bird's eye view.  Often an epic tale incorporates a third person narrator.  In epic tales, we often find many vignettes which cover a long period of time and tell us a grand story.  The characters are subordinate to the plot.  What is important in telling an epic tale is clarity, completeness, objectivity, systematic thought, overview, and being comprehensive.  Star Wars is an example of an epic tale.  It covers a lot of territory by linking together many different scenarios in fairly quick succession. 

The second category, "lyric," is much more subjective.  It is concerned with the inward journey, self-expression, and the present moment.  Relationship is its main concern and the lyric story is filled with intense moments that incorporate hopes, fears, doubts, and desires.  Because it is so focused on the individual, there are often loose ends which are not explained.  The lyric tale can appear messy, full of ups and downs, but also very imaginative.  We are invited to identify with the characters and plot takes a back seat.  Very often the story is told in the first person.  The television series Seinfeld is a example of stories told from a subjective viewpoint.  They have the feel of being told in the first person, one gets to know the characters intimately, and the time frame is very limited.  There is no grand overall plot; it is entirely based on the characters and what they experience.

It doesn't take much for me to extend these categories to ways that people view the world.  Dean is very much a big picture, epic kind of person.  He can take in a lot of information at once, organise it, analyse it, see a pattern, and bring clarity to a situation.  He finds it easy to step back from whatever is happening and see where things are headed; he also is quick to pinpoint where actions need to be adjusted in order to reach a certain goal.  I, on the other hand, view the world in a lyric way.  I get caught up in the characters of any story.  I notice individuals and wonder what they are thinking, what they are feeling, and how things impact them.  I am quite comfortable living with ups and downs and embracing the imaginative aspect of life.

There are some weaknesses inherent in both of these types. Epic focuses so much on the overall story that the individual can get lost.  As a result, it is usually difficult to identify with any specific character in an epic story.  Similarly, there can be a lack of compassion or empathy in people who tend to see things through an epic lens.  In contrast, lyric stories can focus so much on what is happening with one individual that other characters fade into the background and we can end up with a skewed perspective.  In the same way, people who view life in a lyric way can lose sight of their responsibility to others and to a story larger than themselves.

The combination of these two aspects, epic and lyric, is what makes drama.  Good drama embraces both the objective and the subjective.  It maintains a sense of plot and purpose without suppressing individual characters, diversity, and complexity.  It gives room for perspectives and motivations while never loosing sight of their context.  The same applies to people:  it is good for epic people to hang around lyric folks.  This ensures that the "big picture" thinkers don't lose sight of compassion and the "in the moment" people don't get stuck or lost. 

This also has implications for theology.  Over the centuries, people have tended to relegate the Divine being to either the epic or lyric category.  Some of us think that the ultimate Being is mainly occupied with keeping the universe on track and not very present or active in individual lives.  This presents a concept of a rather aloof God.  Others believe that God is very invested in their personal story, intimately involved in every detail of their lives.  This can present itself as a form of religious self-absorption.  Our prayers can reflect on which side of the spectrum we tend to fall on.

The Bible reflects a God who is both epic and lyric.  In Genesis 1 we are told of a Creator who is above all, systematically and methodically creating and ordering a world which is cohesive and complete.  However, in Genesis 2 we see a Creator who is literally down to earth, who gets his hands dirty and is concerned about human vocation and relationship.  In fact, as one reads the other books of the Bible, we continue to get glimpses of both of these aspects:  a God concerned about the history of the world and its trajectory and a God intimately involved in the details of life like eating, drinking, and the messiness of community.  The ultimate illustration of God as both objective and subjective is the appearance of Jesus.  Here we have a God who is orchestrating the healing of all of creation while at the same time living in the middle of it with all its pain and pleasure and uncertainty.  It is a role that no one else has ever been able to play and because of this, it is the greatest drama ever staged. 

And this is why it is the topic of my doctoral research.  Yay! How exciting! 

Some of these observations taken from ideas presented by David F. Ford and Hans Urs von Balthasar.

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