A Modern, Christianized ‘National Epic’: It is Worth the Cost

 A ‘national epic’ such as Virgil’s Aeneid, the father of ‘national epics’, is valuable beyond its poetic form and functions as more than an artistic standard or work of celebratory propaganda. As Virgil has crafted the art, a ‘national epic’s’ intended value is far weightier than a well-crafted, masterful story in dactylic hexameter that retells stories of the ancient past, celebrates a “newfound empire,”[1] or connects a ‘newfound empire’ to the ancient past. Depending on the poet, a ‘national epic’ functions as either an apologetic tool or weapon of propaganda by which a contemporary poet can compare and contrast ancestral virtues with contemporary virtues via an etiologically driven narrative; thus giving the poet the power to either justify or correct the present age. Much more than poetic form is in mind here: there is a logical intent. As Louis Markos says concerning the moral function of Virgil’s Aeneid, “Thus, while the virtues Aeneas must learn to survive are the same virtues that made Rome great, his tragic affair with Dido, the queen of Carthage, is presented as the root cause for the Punic Wars.”[2] Whether used to apologetically critique or propagandistically bolster, a ‘national epic’ is an art form that functions as a guide to a nation’s virtues. Therefore, considering the current need of moral guidance in America, it seems logical to say that a modernized, scripturally rooted ‘national epic’ which emulates the moral function set in Virgil’s Aeneid would be a valuable apologetic tool.

Although the thought of crafting a ‘national epic’ in modern America does at first sight, due to the utter blasé attitude toward degradative morality, seem like a cumbersome and fruitless task, the need of moral guidance in America far outweighs the challenge. Even a great talent like Virgil was reserved, reluctant, and even “felt inadequate”[3] when faced with Augustus’ request to fashion an epic, and this before Virgil had himself established the important moral function that is particular to the ‘national epic’. Nevertheless, Virgil inevitably proceeded with the task; yet, according to the historical record, it does not seem that Virgil accepted the challenge for any altruistic reason or that any high-minded impetus like guiding his culture in virtue and asserting the benefits of a moral life were present in his choice. It seems that Virgil simply wanted Augustus to stop pestering him (this may be an oversimplification, but that is the way history paints it). The need of guidance behooves a Christian apologist, on the other hand, in spite of the difficulty: the fact that there is a challenge is the real reason for creating a ‘national epic’. If giving in to the task because of annoyance is to be the motive of the apologist, it must be an annoyance with their society’s degradation. Specifically, the modern American Christian apologist must realize that it is their duty to bring forth a reason for society to adhere to the morals of their ancestors, the Christian virtues that undergird the foundation of American liberty, the aesthetical, historical, philosophical, and theological legacy of their nation.[4]

Another and possibly greater task in employing the moral function of a ‘national epic’ is the actual delivery. Attempting to use actual epic poetry as the guide which, in the distracting environment of America’s technologically advanced culture, connects America with her moral, ancestral roots is the real challenge. The blinders and intoxicators that are perpetually invading the minds of society via the modern social media craze force the poet to add an innovation to the task of producing a ‘national epic’ that expands on the category of epic beyond the limits of poetry specifically and possibly literature in general. But it cannot escape the apologist that, if a genius like Virgil was afraid of making a fool of himself when advancing on Homer and very cautiously set standards to follow before committing to the task so that his work would be successfully received,[5] how much more should the modern apologist do their utmost to advance on—or at least progressively alter—Virgil’s solution:[6] the cost should be counted.

Whereas Virgil held to Homer’s epic style and merely adapted, used license in regards to, the intent to create his own epic (and thus the ‘national epic’ was truly born), the modern apologist must use artistic license on a greater scale than Virgil, even adapting style drastically, in order to produce a ‘national epic’ that will catch and keep the attention of the modern American mind. In order to successfully display the intuited and special revelatory virtues of Scripture that are the backbone of American virtue, the apologist must be willing to present the more transcendent purpose of the ‘national epic’ in a way that is more in line with the tastes of their culture. Albeit the modern ‘national epic’ will, like the Aeneid, likely be some type of historical-fiction (loosely historical), rather than using dactylic hexameter or some other form of poetry, the modern apologist will likely need to use film, comic strips, a graphic novel, or even a fantasy novel to present a modern version of “unity, power, concentration and intensity of imagination” that can be likened to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey[7]or Virgil’s Aeneid.

However, even though the artistic form of communication will likely need to be changed drastically, the inner workings of what Markos calls the “Virgilian Solution”[8] should not be sacrificed or the overall intent will be lost. The key elements that make up the ‘national epic’ and guide the ‘Virgilian Solution’ are as follows: set the “entire epic in the absolute heroic past;” [9] use “a battery of narrative devices to allow allusions to future events,”[10] especially typology in relation to the main character; and, in order to guide the story to a “purposeful end,”[11] the overall intent must be “to open the eyes of [the] readers to deeper meanings, to those unseen, divine forces that propel history along its appointed grooves.”[12]

While Virgil set his narrative in the ‘heroic past’ of ancient Rome, the fall of Troy in Homer’s Iliad, the American Christian apologist does not necessarily have much limit in what could be considered the ‘absolute heroic past’. Nevertheless, though choosing to set the narrative in the ‘heroic past’ of Rome, Saxony, Normandy, or even the founding of America might be feasible, the real source of an ‘absolute heroic past’ for America should be the Bible. And this choice should preferably be bent toward an Old Testament setting, for these characters are usually more heroic in action.

Furthermore, using an Old Testament setting with an Old Testament character will allow the apologist to develop a ‘purposeful end’ via a typological main character. Only by using Scripture can the ‘appointed grooves’ of history be properly connected to the virtues of America. A typological main character that is drawn from the Old Testament will likely be the best in guiding the overall intent of a ‘national epic’ with purposeful allusions to either the current era or the founding era of America. Also, considering their origin, such a character will likely point the narrative toward that ‘unseen, divine’ force that is the source of all history and the virtues that allow, when followed, a nation to be great.

Yet another difference to be counted when creating a ‘national epic’ as an apologetic tool is that Virgil’s choice of setting and character was safe and could be used explicitly without contention. Aeneas was a smart and possibly expected choice; so much so that Virgil was even able to have the epic end on a note of inference.[13] For Roman society, using a character that originated in Homer and using Homer as the building point of the epic would not be frowned upon. For the modern apologist, using Scripture as the building point of their narrative and characterization in an explicit way will likely prove to be self-defeating—at worst it will exacerbate the hostility of many toward such things. Only by using Scripture implicitly will the virtues of Scripture be able to sneak past the “watchful dragons”[14] of the modern mind and produce, as Tolkien has done with The Lords of the Rings, a plentiful harvest.

After the costs have been counted, the artistic format has been decided upon, and the main character has been chosen, the apologist must decide how to shape the narrative so that, by the virtuous choice of the main character, it will be shown that “nothing can stop [their nation] from reaching her telos in”[15] whichever era the apologist has chosen to allude to and that that telos is reached via virtue. If this is done correctly, it will provide a connection between the modern nation, in this case America, and her virtues that emboldened and empowered the ancestral past, from Abraham to Arthur to Adams. Such a connection will provide a source of defining and displaying virtue to many who will likely never give Scripture their attention and would scoff at any attempt to force an objective morality down their throat through some silly illusions of unevolved, ancient society (as they might call Scripture).

This task is not for the faint of heart and the apologist who takes it on must, first and foremost, consider their reasons: should this be a task of self-glory or God’s glory; should this be a work of indulgence or compassion; is it a varied mixture? The apologist must be honest with themselves. If such an undertaking is not done for God’s glory primarily, it will be a vain effort. If such a work is not artistically and philosophically up to par, it will be nothing more than an epic waste. It is a fine line to walk, but a noble line as well. As Thomas Aquinas baptized the virtues of Aristotle and Virgil progressed on Homer, the modern literary apologist must baptize and progress on the ‘Virgilian Solution’ in order to create a modern ‘national epic’ that adheres to the principles of Scripture. This is an epic undertaking that, when done in adherence to the right guidelines and in line with Virgil’s moral function, will be a powerful apologetic tool whose value is worth the cost.

[1] Louis Markos, From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Myths (Downers Grove: IVP Academics, 2007), 207.

[2] Ibid., 208.

[3] Ibid., 207.

[4] Ibid., 202.

[5] Ibid., 206.

[6] Ibid., 202.

[7] Ibid., 206.

[8] Ibid., 202.

[9] Ibid., 207.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 209.

[12] Ibid., 208.

[13] Thomas Bulfinch, Bulfinch’s Greek and Roman Mythology: The Age of Fable, ed. John Berseth (Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc., 2000), 230.

[14] C.S. Lewis, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say What’s Best to Be Said,” in On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature (Orlando, FL: Harvest Books, 2002), 47.

[15] Markos, From Achilles to Christ, 209.

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