Wednesday, November 14, 2007

"Based on a True Story"

One thing I’ve been thinking a lot about since coming to Fuller seminary is the problem of historicity in the Bible. Plain and simple, there seems to be plenty about the Bible that doesn’t fit the 21st People swinging toward the “conservative” end of the spectrum tend to stick to a rigid, literal reading of the supposed historical elements of the Bible while those on the “liberal” end tend to disregard its historical value entirely and spiritualize these stories. It seems to me that both tendencies are somewhat misguided. The problem I see it is that some thinkers are too Enlightened for their own good, unrealistically conflating “truth” and “history” as though the two are independent, mutually supportive and absolute objects. What moved, inspired, challenged and conveyed truth to the ancients was story, and I believe the same rings true today. Even enlightened 21st century North-Americans often convey truth in narrative form.

I had a history class as an undergraduate whose professor repeatedly insisted that true documentaries are as objective, detached and cold as possible. In other words, a proper documentary merely presents the facts. Don’t give us music, interpretation or emotion. The way to get at truth, in this professor’s mind, was to be as “objective” as possible. This approach is extremely problematic. The goal is the same one journalists supposedly hold to: objectivity. During college, I also took a news writing class that taught me how to arrange a story. So stop and think: journalism is supposed to be objective, right? But what makes something newsworthy? Good stories make good news. Narrative plays the crucial role. News is story, or in other words, truth comes in narrative form. And who decides what makes a good story? To get a bit more abstract, what makes for the truth in the first place: the words on the page of your newspaper or the reality beyond them? Clearly our language is, by nature, symbolic. The words we use to communicate only mediate, that is, connect two intangible points. But I’m getting a bit off track.

The metaphor, or “symbol” I want to use to investigate the nature of Biblical truth is one every American is quite familiar with: film story, especially movies “based on a true story.” Getting back to that history professor of mine… after reflecting on the idea of detached objectivity as the means to “understand what really happened,” I came to believe that this approach is ridiculous. Here’s why. I am an avid World War II buff. Why? I don’t really know. I don’t like violence and I may be a pacifist. Anyway, I’ve read a lot of books about this war, from objective accounts of specific battles—this unit moved here at this time and did this and suffered this many casualties—to books that take more creative liberties. I enjoyed Stephen Ambrose’s Citizen Soldiers and Band of Brothers, but not because they told me “all I needed to know” about E company of the 101st In fact, there’s a lot of boring information the books don’t include. On one level, it’s because true objectivity is simply impossible for anyone except God. The “absolute truth” of the experiences of that company could not be recorded in a thousand volumes and shouldn’t be. Any form of communication necessary sifts through the facts, edits them and transmits them via symbols—word, language, music, etc. That’s the major failure of my professor’s insistence on “objectivity,” I think. The most objective account is necessarily selective in its presentation of the facts and must convey them by symbols, which are then interpreted by somebody else. Here’s what strikes me most about this distinction between objective and narrative forms: I’ve read a lot of straightforward accounts and seen some dispassionate, “informative” documentaries—that is, I’ve received a lot of information. I’ve also watched the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima and Malick’s The Thin Red Line. Here’s the difference: the documentaries never left me in tears. So which is more true? I would contend that these feature films, complete with actors dressed up to resemble the real people, shot on soundstages and augmented by musical scores convey at least another truth, if not a greater one. This, I believe, is not something to fear, but to embrace.

Take for example, another great movie, Fargo. It opens with the words, “This is a true story,” but it’s not. The film is entirely fictional. So why didn’t I feel cheated after discovering that it wasn’t really a true story? Why didn’t I return the DVD and demand reimbursement? Why did I enjoy this untrue true story all the more for its toying with the truth? Because that’s how stories work. By design, narrative is the shaping the events to convey something about reality to its recipient. It seems truth is, in many ways, an inherently narrative thing.

All this to say: if certain parts of Scripture aren’t “historically true,” why would that get under my skin? I’ve heard a certain pastor say: “Unless something scriptural is clearly figurative, then you should believe it’s literal.” Interestingly, what’s “clearly figurative” isn’t so clear to me because the same group of people advocating this approach are the same ones trying to tell me that Genesis 1-11 and the stories of Jonah and Job are literally true, and even speculate about the mysterious leviathan in Job and the Psalms (“Is it a dragon? Maybe the Loch Ness monster?”). Instead of dogmatically demanding infallibility or some equivalent, I’d rather take the best historical, scientific and archaeological information available, accept the narrative structure of these accounts, and approach them like I do Band of Brothers. Clearly, something really did happen in a specific, concrete way in the Ardennes in 1944, and the same is true of the origins of the universe billions (or thousands) of years ago, but I’m not interested in the cold, dead facts. Instead, I want to know how it feels to huddle in a damp hole all day without proper clothing, waiting for German counterattack while ammunition dwindled. I want to hear the crunch of snow under soldier’s boots as they march breathlessly toward enemy lines. I want to see the panic on the face of a nineteen year old running desperate for his life as enemy tanks close in. This is the realm of the artist. This is where a deeper reality lies.

So my contention isn’t to do away with notions objectivity in journalism or attempts to reconstruct what “really happened” in historical events. I’m thinking these are necessary points to depart from, interpret and re-imagine. Otherwise, my analogy is useless. Obviously, there must actually be such a thing as an army, war, fear, pain, death and so on to make Band of Brothers possible. People of faith need some cold, hard objectivity to provide the framework for works of creativity, imagination and interpretation. Something as fanciful as Star Wars would be impotent if not rooted in universal human experience, that is, reality. After all, nobody ever blew up a death star or constructed a light saber. Yet, these films inspire remarkable (sometimes scary, sometimes sad) devotion in millions of faithful Jedi. Reality is bound up in story. Would it be inappropriate to label Reality itself as “narrative”? I’m not yet sure.

One thing is for certain: the Bible is not what it could be (and what some still claim it is): a statement of faith followed by a series of propositions supported by empirical evidence. Why does the Bible (or any Scripture I’m aware of) give us Truth and the nature of Reality in the form of stories, poems, parables and sermons? Why not a list of bullet points? Wouldn’t that be easier? If God really cared about getting everybody into heaven, wouldn’t it make things a lot more digestible if the Bible were merely handed down off a cosmic bookshelf with a title like Everything You Need to Know About God, Truth and Reality? The answer, I believe, is that reality comes to us in narrative form.

So is the primeval history of Genesis, Job or Jonah more like Fargo than PBS’ Nova? It seems to be the case. Does that somehow diminish the seriousness, the importance, relevance or truth of these accounts (or Fargo)? I am inclined to think, no. I say, let’s put a “Based on a true story” tag on our Bibles, open them up, and immerse ourselves in the story, just like we do Band of Brothers or Fargo. The fullness of God is not contained in Scripture, but mediated through it. After all, aren’t we invited to pass through the text and into another realm, what Jesus called, “the kingdom of heaven”? I want to make my reality congruent with this one, not the other way around.