Do Gospel Authors Owe Us The “Truth”?

I read the words below in an article in today’s New York Times about the blurriness of the lines between history and historical fiction in recent movies. How do you think its points relate to the depictions, reworkings, and interpretations of history in the Gospels? I for one doubt that the majority of people in the audience of movies about historical events, any more than the majority of readers of the Gospels, have the kinds of historical discernment and sensibility that the author of the article suggests…

Audiences are used to reading the words “based on a true story” as a hedge rather than a promise (or a threat!). And we are often in the dark about just what has been changed or omitted. Even devoted history buffs may not remember the tally of votes in Congress nearly 150 years ago. But thinking adults can tell the difference between a fiction film and a nonfiction one, despite the worried warnings from politicians and others who have recently been moonlighting as movie critics. Behind some of the most inflamed concern over works like “Lincoln” and especially “Zero Dark Thirty” is a thinly veiled distrust of the American public — that, well, moviegoers are just not smart or sophisticated or schooled enough to know the difference between fact and fiction, on-screen lies and off-screen ones.

Given some of the stories that politicians themselves have peddled to the public, including the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, such concern is understandable. It can often seem as if everyone is making stuff up all the time and in such a climate of suspicion and well-earned skepticism — punctuated by “gotcha” moments of scandal and embarrassment — movies are hardly immune.

But invention remains one of the prerogatives of art and it is, after all, the job of writers, directors and actors to invent counterfeit realities. It is unfair to blame filmmakers if we sometimes confuse the real world with its representations. The truth is that we love movies partly because of their lies, beautiful and not. It’s journalists and politicians who owe us the truth.

 

  • PorlockJunior

    How fitting to have a sanguinary illustration for such a sanguine view of the entertainment-going public. The NYT bubble must be more opaque than I thought.

    Look, we had an actual President once who spent the War doing patriotic war movies and couldn’t distinguish between events in the war and ficititious events that he himself had acted from a script.

    Just agreeing with you here. Historical discernment? The first step of discernment, of course, is to recognize that it’s needed, that what you see in a movie (or, horrible to say, in a book) is not reality or necessarily close to it. It’s also the hardest step, one often missed even by people who ought to know better, and actually do know better, except when they don’t.

    PS the visually superior new format leaves it quite unclear what’s your contribution and what’s being quoted, until we hit the MORE button and see the color change and all. Good thing we all have the Internet discernment to avoid being misled.

  • http://www.facebook.com/brettongarcia Bretton Garcia

    So it’s OK for kids to grow up believing they don’t need to go to school and learn to build boats; they can just pray and walk on water?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Who on earth are you talking to?!

  • Gary

    Two motivations for the authors, hard to separate.
    1) “Embellishment”. Human nature, we like to hear a good story. Based upon us setting around a camp fire, hearing a good story. Story tellers always embellish to make a better story. Do you want to hear about John suffering with bed bugs, or John commanding them to leave, and they actually wait at the door?

    2) Political spin, same now as then. Did the Assyrians leave Jerusalem standing because God killed 185,000 soldiers in one night, or because Hezekiah paid tribute to Sennacherib, in a military standoff with the city surrounded. Kind of obvious.
    The bible authors don’t owe us anything. Since the bible isn’t a science book, or a history book, we owe it to ourselves to interprete what the heck they were trying to say, and why.

    • Gary

      BTW, for my generation’s rememberance, I want to add something about body counts, like the 185,000 Assyrian soldiers. In the 60′s, everyone would watch Walter Cronkite and the CBS Friday night news, and hear at the end of it the body count, xx# of Americans killed, xxx# of Vietcong killed for the week. Two problems. Believe the numbers? And in some strange mind set, as long as the ratio was a good 10 to 1 in our favor, everything seemed to be OK. Hezekiah, or his scribes, knew how the game was played.

  • http://www.facebook.com/parker.whittle Parker Whittle

    I agree wholeheartedly that the average moviegoer may not exhibit such discernment. This, of course, doesn’t mean that the average person doesn’t have a responsibility to be discerning, such as it goes. Could it be that idolatry of the text has bled over into our assumptions about popular culture, and the obligation of writers and filmmakers? Shakespeare, for example, did not think he was doing “history,” and few people read him as such. In our obsession over historicity, we’ve lost touch with the power of a mythic or allegorical retelling….


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