Monday, June 15, 2009

Babies and big fish: the truth of stories (Sunday Reflections for June 21, 2009)

Last week the Chicago Tribune carried a front page story headlined “Blogger’s baby a hoax”. Beccah Beushausen, 26, an evangelical Christian and ardent abortion opponent from suburban Chicago, had created an online persona who was struggling with a problem pregnancy. As she told her story she developed a large following of supporters who encouraged her in her pledge to not abort her child despite its handicaps. Recently “April” was born but died shortly thereafter. Ms. Beaushausen’s mistake, however, was to publish a picture of her with her newborn. Some of her faithful followers recognized her “baby” because they had the same doll (as it actually was) in their own homes. Very quickly, everything came crashing down.

As it turns out, Bueshausen had lost a newborn son a few years ago. She began her blog this past March to help deal with the loss and to express her anti-abortion viewpoint. To her surprise, she was soon getting 100,000 hits a week and “it got out of hand,” she said. “I didn’t know how to stop…. One lie led to another.”

One of the biggest obstacles I encounter in teaching a modern critical way of understanding the Bible is the notion that many/most of its stories “aren’t true.” Characters that never existed. Events that never occurred. “You mean someone made it up?” people ask incredulously. Well, a lot of someones actually, but yes they did. And the follow up needs to be, “It happens all the time.”

Headlined reports of truth turning out to be fiction have become almost commonplace. In recent years many major newspapers have had to publish embarrassed retractions when reporters were discovered to have been using their creativity a bit too aggressively. In 2006 author James Frey was publicly rebuked by Oprah Winfrey on her TV show for fabricating much of his “memoir,” which she had promoted through her book club. Significant Holocaust biographies have been revealed recently to be largely fictional.

People make things up. They tell stories about themselves and about others. It happens all the time and has been happening for as long as we have records. Ancient “history” hardly exists except for what contemporary historians can piece together from minimal fragmentary evidence. Recorded histories from these times are almost always propaganda, promoting this or that king’s exploits or creating the mythological story of some people’s origins. In a time before PhDs or a publishing industry, who cared about “objective truth”? Were 100 killed in the battle, or 10,000? Who counted, and who remembered?

The line between fact and fiction is certainly an important one to maintain. That doesn’t mean, however, that determining that line is easy. Psychologists have shown that our individual abilities to separate the two are more flawed than we realize. Our perceptions in real-time are often mistaken and our memory of events often selective. We see and remember what we want and can filter out what is unpleasant or contrary to firmly held beliefs.

I read recently about a series of surveys of World War II vets which showed how over time the percentage reporting having killed someone in battle steadily declined. In a different direction, post-election polls always show the number reporting having voted for the winning presidential candidate to be higher than the actual vote. In the religion field, it’s now widely accepted that people consistently over-report their worship attendance to survey takers (one of countless examples of people telling pollsters what they think ought to be the case rather than what actually is).

We like to tell stories and we like to hear stories. Does it matter if they are “true”? More often than we might think, probably not. A delightful story about story telling is the 2003 movie “Big Fish” by director Tim Burton. Its setting is that of an estranged adult son coming home to the death bed of his father, a notorious “big fish” story teller. The mythology the father has spun is so thick that his son thinks he knows nothing about the real man. As the stories are retold, however, he gradually discovers that the “truth” has been there all along, hidden in the fanciful events and characters of his father’s tales. This realization finally sinks home when many of the real people who inspired the stories’ characters appear at the end for the father’s funeral.

Life is often messy, confusing and painful. Stories/myths sometimes help us make sense of life. Sometimes they help us hide from it or hide it from others. It’s also true that stories allow us to tell the truth in ways that can be less threatening or overwhelming, to ourselves or others, than if we were to tell “all the facts.” Good fiction writers are aware of all these things and good fiction can be some of the most truthful writing we encounter.

The problems seem to come when we invest ourselves too much in our stories or other’s stories. We need to remain aware of where our own fiction begins and ends. We also need to realize everyone, including our greatest heroes, is surrounded by a certain degree of fiction and mythology. Feeling personally insecure we often attach ourselves to someone else’s “certainty.” When we get a glimpse “behind the curtain” and see our heroes as they really are, we feel betrayed. Yet we really betray ourselves when we expect others to somehow be untainted by the ambiguities and imperfections that are our everyday reality. And so, pro-life idealists are hurt by attaching themselves to a seemingly perfect story affirming their beliefs, when they discover that it was . . . a story.

Is the Bible true? Sometimes. Does the Bible tell stories? Always. How do we know which stories are true? We don’t, if by “true” you mean that they happened. Based on comparable examples from the ancient world, and based on what we know about human nature, it’s probably a good bet that a lot of them, even most of them, didn’t happen. They are, after all, stories.

But whatever truth the Bible contains is largely unrelated to the factuality of its stories. While “just the facts, ma’am” was enough for Joe Friday, we’re interested in different kinds of truth. We’re looking for truth that guides and makes sense of our lives and of our world. Since our world is very different from that of the Bible, many of its truths are of limited value to us. Still, the appeal of its stories is more than the appeal of its exotic tales of camels, polygamy and, yes, big fish. Something else speaks to us in these stories through the dilemmas and discoveries, tragedies and triumphs of their characters. If nothing else, their search for hope and meaning, and their conviction that they were there to be found, encourages us to continue on our quest for these same things. The people we meet in these stories give us the faith to believe that for us as for them, life and truth will be given to those who seek them.

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