“Based on a True Story”: An Approach to Reading the Scriptures
A film inspired by a true story often has a good chance of receiving positive reviews and winning viewers’ hearts—along with high profits. But a film based on a true story often also engenders a great deal of controversy. There are the connotations of the term true that are at stake. What does it mean to tell a true story? Is it about achieving complete historical accuracy, or it is about conveying a message the truth of which is tied to historical events?
In a film based on a true story, the primary message is about a happening: something or someone happened at some point in history and left a traceable mark that’s worth telling about. The film uses fiction to deliver this message. In this case, fiction is neither lying nor denying the truth. Using the power of imagination, fiction creates infinite options for grasping the message conveyed by historical figures and events. It involves imagination about the possible meanings and the outcomes of that happening, not about the historical facts themselves; it is imagination in the sense of exploring possibilities, not in the sense of inventing realities. It is imagination in the sense that all viewers can find themselves in the story, can become the heroes they want to be. It is the kind of imagination proposed by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in The Little Prince, or by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his “I have a Dream” speech, or by John Lennon in his song Imagine.
What if the Bible were “viewed” as a film based on a true story?
I choose this metaphor knowing, of course, that the complexity of the Scriptures cannot be reduced to a film. My suggestion is not that in the Scriptures one can find only fiction or just history; the two are undeniably interrelated and intermingled. As I will show further, historical facts found in the Covenants may support or contradict the fiction provided by the same text.
First, though, I need to make a detour through Orthodox iconography. The ground rules of a film based on a true story are found in some festal representations. While depicting the story of the Nativity, the classic Orthodox icon represents many characters in one image, like on one stage. The shepherds hearing the angels outside on the fields are depicted alongside the wise men bringing their gifts and adoring the Child who lies in the manger. Yet according to Matthew’s Gospel (2:11), the wise men brought their gifts inside the house where the Child was. Here one can see that the iconographer does not seek to present the historical facts but to bear witness to the “happening” of the Incarnation and its first outcome: diverse people are drawn together around the New Born.
Similar things are present in two other icons: the Resurrection and the Ascension. In the first, which expresses the Orthodox understanding of Christ’s descent into Hell as the utmost image of his Resurrection, introduces several personages around the triumphant Jesus over the gates of evil’s dungeons. The antique Christian imagination required such a gathering of emblematic people in order to express the whole human race as subject to Christ’s redemptive death on the Cross. It uses fiction to illustrate the redemptive significance of a historical “happening.” In the second example, twelve disciples are depicted around the Mother of God, all being under a small but dominant image of Christ ascending to Heaven on a kind of cloud. One of the Apostles is Paul, who was converted by Christ himself after his historical ascension. There is no historical accuracy here, but full ecclesiological correctness.
Let us leave iconography and return to the Scriptures. Let us take the example of Joseph’s dreams (Genesis 37) to see whether in the Old Testament one could find the pattern of a film based on a true story. At the time Joseph had those dreams, his mother, who is depicted as alive in the dreams’ interpretation, was already long dead (Genesis 35). The truthfulness of a dream in antiquity was marked by the historical accuracy of its fulfilment. By no means was it possible that such an exact fulfillment could ever take place. Yet the biblical narrative takes those dreams as formative for Joseph’s destiny and for Israel’s history, and the early church saw in his story the prefiguration of Jesus and his willing sacrifice and victory. The author of Genesis seems to be underlining the meaningfulness of Joseph’s story while leaving aside chronological precision. Yet the biblical story finds relevance in the historic accomplishment of those dreams. There are also other dreams/visons in the Old Testament that are pure fiction but with deep theological historicity: Ezekiel’s and Daniel’s visions, to name just two cases.
In relation to dreams and visions in the Bible, we also should consider the notion of “inverted fiction.” Inverted fiction is the reverse of a film based on a true story. It is the “how it should be,” the expectation of the way the history will cope with the message told in an unworldly realm. That realm generates the story that is supposed to be taken for an example, like the inverted fiction which can be found in Hebrews 7-9 [Melchizedek and Christ as high priests]. In such a case history is driven by fiction engendered in an out-of-sight reality. Historical truthfulness is based on fictional message coming from the dwelling of Truth.
Orthodox theology still struggles with historicity within the Bible. I am arguing for the necessity of taking fiction as a possible pattern within biblical narrative, and the necessity of allowing imagination as a hermeneutical tool for comprehending scriptural messages. Systematic theology could provide us a useful instrument to cope with these features by using its teaching on eschatology, or as Andrew Louth put it, “the theology of in-between.” There is a way to go there, to “in-between”: lectio divina and celebration.
One step further would be looking deeply into inverted fiction in order to see the danger of idolatry, which is taking a self-made fictional image and then building history around it. Here comes to mind an example of bad inverted fiction: films and video games with superheroes. As a fan of such films and games, my intention is not to criticize them but to note the distorted way superheroes can be perceived. Emotionally driven dreams from such entertainment can push young people into escapism in relation to their social, cultural, and spiritual responsibilities. The unworldly and impossible become a source of behavior, potentially leading to social or psychological failure. Instead of a human becoming a legend, a fictional legend engenders desire for humans to become what they are not supposed to be. Positive inverted fiction, by contrast, could be found in analyzing Jesus’ parables and stories. Such consideration could uncover the way-around of the pattern set by fiction: drawing on fiction in order to reach reality, using imagination for the purpose of facing history. That would be exactly the opposite of idolatry. The last step forward on this ladder would be to ask if the very creation of heavens and earth were not “inspired by a true story,” the true story. I mean here the theology of Sophia and its consequences for ecclesiology. That would bring us back full circle and would be a subject for further analysis.
Cristofor Panaitescu is an Orthodox monk and priest working and celebrating in the South of France. His areas of theological interests are lectio divina, ecumenism, and ecclesiology, especially the crisis within Orthodox biblical hermeneutics and the crisis within church.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.