A conversation with Matthew Lickona about transcendence, Mel Gibson, and Catholic fiction.
There has been much talk of late regarding the state of Catholic fiction. Dana Gioia and Paul Elie find the landscape bleak; others like Greg Wolfe and Nick Ripatrazone have argued that, to alert readers, secularization in literature is little more than a myth. The conversation, which was kicked off by Elie last year with a New York Times essay has continued across a wide range of outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, First Things, The Millions, Everything That Rises, The Jesuit Post, and, of course, Dappled Things. Though at times the discussion has devolved into little more than compiling rival lists of authors, on the whole it has, naturally, been of tremendous interest to us, not so much out of a desire to see which side “wins,” but rather because it has been an opportunity to clarify what Catholic literature is, how it “works,” and, especially, to learn about contemporary authors who are working within the tradition to produce great art.
This last bit is essential. It’s so easy to get caught up in criticism—and that certainly has its place—but in the end what matters is whether willing readers can find a literature which speaks to questions of faith today in a way that feels credible and authentic. Such questions have become so privatized in the current culture that authors often find it difficult to even bring up the subject. Yet just as a godless humanism easily turns inhuman (think where all the talk about “transhumanism” comes from), art shuts out God to its detriment. When this dimension is lacking, the stakes a character faces can rarely be quite as high, quite as compelling, and there arises the literature of “wingless chickens,” as Flannery O’Connor might have put it. On the contrary, exploring this dimension within the universe of a story, bringing the readers into a world where meaning is not simply constructed butdiscovered, is one of the strengths that makes good Catholic literature so exhilarating.
With this in mind, it was a delight for me to discover Matthew Lickona’s Surfing With Mel, a quasi-fictional story written in the form of a movie script, which deals with Mel Gibson’s disastrous attempt to collaborate with scriptwriter Joe Eszterhas, a fellow Hollywood Catholic, in producing a movie about the Book of Maccabees. You may remember the headlines. Except that where the tabloids found only drunken anti-Semitic ratings, Lickona chose to look for meaning. What resulted is a heart-wrenching struggle between hope and despair in which the stakes for the souls of the main characters could hardly be higher. Now that the script has been rereleased as handmade, hardcover book from Labora Editions, we took the opportunity to talk with Mr. Lickona about this remarkable work.
Your book begins with an epigraph from John Cheever about modern celebrities: “We have a hierarchy of demigods and heroes; they are a vital part of our lives and they should be a vital part of our literature.” What role do you think celebrities have in modern life? What sort of demigod is the Mel Gibson of your fiction?
What Cheever said: they stock the cast of our mythology. Celebrities provide transcendence. They do what we do—get drunk, get sober, get pregnant, get married, get divorced, die—but since they’re special, it means more. They help us think about ourselves.
Gibson is a celebrity who is willing to talk about believing in God and trying to serve Him in spite of his own manifest weakness. He is the celebrity for believers.