Sunday Meditations: Trusting History

The other night, I rewatched the movie “8 Mile.”  If you haven’t seen it, it’s a portrayal of a portion of rapper Eminem’s life that captures the span between when he was just eking out an existence and and when he finally engaged the path to becoming what the world knows him as, today.

The film stars Eminem and is no doubt based primarily on information that he supplied, himself, as well as testimony from people who knew him back then.  In fact, his closest friend from that time period – the rapper Proof – was also in the movie playing “Lil Tic.”

At the same time, the film is not a documentary, nor is it a collection of videos made of Eminem during that time of his life.  It is a dramatic representation of that time in retrospect.  As such, critical decisions were made about what material to include and exclude.  Some events were probably shortened from the recounted version or perhaps even had some things added to help them make more sense.  In fact, the aforementioned Proof is portrayed in the movie as “Future” played by Mekhi Phifer.

Let that sink in for a minute.  Eminem’s actual friend does not play himself in the movie; he plays someone else.

It is reasonable to expect that, to tell this story effectively, not everything in it happened in reality the way it is portrayed in the movie.  Did Eminem witness a rap battle by the food trucks at the plant where he worked?  Did he participate?  Were the raps in the movie the exact ones he heard?  Some crafting was necessary to tell the story in an intelligible manner and get the things across the filmmaker intended.

Knowing this – would you say that the film “8 Mile” is a completely untrustworthy ball of falsehoods that tells you nothing about the actual Eminem?  Or would you say that the film is trustworthy, but you have to accept it for what it is, which is a dramatization to get across certain points about the subject and not a live video feed or documentary?

Moving slightly closer to home, take the book Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus by Nabeel Qureshi.  If you’ve not read the book, it’s a story about how a man raised in a particular faction of Islam eventually came to become a Christian, partly through his own experiences, partly through mystical dreams and visions, and partly through conversations with a Christian friend.

In the Prologue to this book, Qureshi writes:

Since we have entered the digital age, it is unfortunately and increasingly true that people exact inappropriately stringent standards on narrative biographies. By its very nature, a narrative biography must take certain liberties with the story it shares. Please do not expect cameralike accuracy! That is not the intent of this book, and to meet such standards, it would have to be a twenty-two-year-long video, most of which would bore even my mother to tears.

The words I have in quotations are rough approximations. A few of the conversations actually represent multiple meetings condensed into one. In some instances, stories are displaced in the timeline to fit the topical categorization. In other instances, people who were present in the conversation were left out of the narrative for the sake of clarity. All these devices are normal for narrative biographies; they are in fact normal for human mnemonics. Please read this book, and the narrative biographies it references, accordingly.

Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, p. 17

From his own admission, Qureshi has tampered with a “cameralike” reconstruction of events.  Some conversations are combined into one.  Some people who participated in them have been omitted.  Some events are portrayed out of sequence to match the thematic concerns of the book.  The quotes from others are not exact quotes, but are little dramatizations that portray the gist of what was said.

So, is Qureshi’s book an untrustworthy ball of falsehoods that can give us no reliable information about Islam, Christianity, or Qureshi’s experiences?  Or, is it a trustworthy book, but we have to keep in mind the nature of what we’re reading and what we expect from it?

These contemporary examples are illustrative of how virtually all ancient history was written by ancient historiographers.  There was no genre of “news reporting,” no science of journalism, and reproductive technologies like recorders and cameras did not exist creating the standards that we now have for the reproduction of events.

It just so happens that, as worldviews and technological capabilities of changed, we now have expectations of our accounts of the past that are, at least on the stage of world history, relatively new expectations.  We evaluate a source by how closely it matches the actual events it describes, not how clearly or effectively it communicated truths to us about the subject.  For us, accurate depiction is the truth, and any deviation from that is falsehood.

But even in our own expectations, we allow that, depending on genre and purpose, films like “8 Mile” and books like Qureshi’s do not exist for the purpose of giving us a bare and strict reporting of historical events.  They are telling a story to communicate truths.  The stories they tell aren’t completely fictitious, but neither are they what we’ve come to expect as “reporting.”  They are taking historical raw materials and shaping them and the presentation of them to serve the larger purpose of communicating their message.  And that’s the primary purpose – to communicate a message, not have the watcher or reader walk away with an encyclopedic knowledge of exactly what happened and when.  Not only do we accept this, we are comfortable with it.

Until we get to the Bible.

When we get to the Bible, a little switch gets thrown in our heads.  Now, against all reasonable expectations of the ancient world, we demand that every detail is a historically accurate representation of exactly what was said or happened.  And if it isn’t, then we can’t trust it.  I have had several people make this point to me, this week, with one person using language like “putting the Bible on trial” and “finding it guilty of manipulation.”

But is “8 Mile” an extended work in deception?  Is Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus an elaborate hoax?  Is the musical “Hamilton” to have the same level of historical credibility as “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” because Alexander Hamilton didn’t go around singing everything?  Of course not.  We recognize these presentations’ genres and purposes and the value we get from them is shaped by that.  We recognize that evaluating the musical “Hamilton” with the same criteria we use to evaluate a Fox News report would be inherently silly.  And if we were to hold up the musical “Hamilton” to Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, we wouldn’t say one was true and the other was false, or that one was accurate and the other was a hoax.  We would say one was a biography and one was a musical.

Until we get to the Bible.

When it comes to the Bible, we bring expectations to it.  For example, I might bring the expectation that the Bible is inerrant, and contradictions are errors, therefore there can be no contradictory presentations of events in the Bible.

So, when Matthew 27:54 depicts the Roman centurion at the crucifixion saying, “Truly this man was the Son of God,” and Luke 23:47 has him saying, “Surely this was a righteous man,” our expectations kick in.  Maybe we have two centurions, and they each said one of those things, and the gospel writers just picked one.  Maybe we have one centurion and he said both of those things, but the gospel writers just recorded one (for some reason).  We feel like we have to come up with some way to resolve the contradiction.

The one option that can’t be allowed is that there was “in reality” one centurion who said one thing, and Matthew’s gospel depicts it one way, and Luke’s gospel depicts it another way.  That would imply that one (or both) does not accurately reflect what was really said, and we can’t have that, because if there are any historical inaccuracies in the Bible (the way we would define them), then the Bible is just an untrustworthy pack of lies.

Well, if that’s where you’re at, I would encourage you to consider that there are more options available to us than “word for word accuracy” and “totally untrustworthy,” and we use those options with texts all the time.  I would encourage you, in fact, that the narrative books of the Old Testament, the Gospels, the book of Acts, etc. belong to ancient historiography and have truths they want to share with you that may best be served by doing things like compressing conversations, leaving people out, putting events out of order, etc.

After all, John’s gospel does not say it was written so that we would have an exact picture of exactly what happened when and who said what.  “But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31)