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History, Accuracy, Myth and Truth

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Invariably, when I go to a comic book movie some one asks me, “Is that how it really happened?”  By that question they are asking me if the story in the movie matches the comic book source material.  It is; however, very hard not to laugh at the question because in this instance the source material is entirely fictitious and the use of the word “really” in such a question imbues the source material with far more authority than it deserves.  Not to mention that fact that in the comics the same story has been told hundreds, if not thousands, of times until there simply is no definitive narrative, just a personal favorite.  Nonetheless, the invariable question reveals that most of us are interested in the truth of a matter.

The “what really happened” question is far more applicable to a historical biopic like “Darkest Hour.”  In case you have missed it there has been a raging debate on the internet about the historical accuracy of the film.  (Of course the internet has raging, and enormously silly, debates about the “historical accuracy” of the comic book films too.)  Before I get any deeper into this, I want to make clear I am no Churchill scholar.  I have read a few biographies and visited a few of the requisite Churchill sites in the UK, but compared to guys like Larry Arnn, or even the host for that matter, my knowledge of Churchill is paltry.  I will not begin to debate the historical accuracy of the film.  My comments here are inspired by an entry in the historical accuracy debate by Steven Hayward over at Powerline.  Hayward looks at the film in light of personal correspondence, in his possession, from a British ancestor that is contemporary with the events of the film and concludes:

“Darkest Hour” gets this aspect of the story just right, if not with perfect historical accuracy.

Which raises a tantalizing possibility – that you can tell a story rightly while being less than completely historically accurate.  Such a possibility flies in the face of this seeming “scientific age;” for science is all about accuracy and precision as the doorway to truth.

If we buy into the possibility raised by Hayward, that useful things can be discovered through means other than complete and precise accuracy, then we must conclude that there are many different paths to truth.  Some truths, like the the truth embodied in Newton’s laws of physics, are best revealed through precision and accuracy.  But some truths, particularly metaphysical truths, are revealed in a different fashion.

Which brings me to the idea of the “myth.”  Webster offers several interesting definitions that include:

  • a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon
  • a popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone; especiallyone embodying the ideals and institutions of a society or segment of society
  • an unfounded or false notion

It would seem then that a myth contains elements of both fiction and truth.  Hence myths have been powerful devices in the formation of any culture, for they embody certain valuable and useful truths about the culture, even if they are less than entirely accurate.  Myths can also be used for wrong-headed purposes, but that is about the greater truth embodied in the myth, not the use of myth itself.  Thus one could conclude, based on Hayward’s assessment of “Darkest Hour,” that the film is mythological. But given that the truth it does give us a) matches the truth given by the genuine circumstances and b) is good, then it is a myth well worth holding dear.

Perhaps comic book movies and “Darkest Hour” have more in common than we first thought.  Superheroes are in many way America’s national myths.  At their best they play the same role in our culture that “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” did in Greek culture, or “The Aeneid” in Roman culture.  There is a big difference in that the comic books follow culture far more than establish it, but when someone asks me the “What really happened” question about a comic book film I will invariably default to evaluating the values embodied by the film.  But this is a discussion for another time.

The film “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence” is a myth supporting the power of myth.  The film is the slow telling of the story upon which a great senator’s reputation was built and revealing that the reputation is, in fact, a falsehood.  But the senator has done so much good in his service to his state and the nation that the newspaperman to whom the truth is revealed refuses to print the story.  The myth it seems is worth more than the facts – the same conclusion Hayward draws about “Darkest Hour.”

Which brings me to Christmas – the season in which we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.  So many consider Jesus a mythological figure.  There have been great projects devoted to finding the “historical Jesus,” which Wikipedia defines this way:

The term “historical Jesus” refers to attempts to “reconstruct the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth by critical historical methods,” in “contrast to Christological definitions (‘the dogmatic Christ‘) and other Christian accounts of Jesus (‘the Christ of faith’).” It also considers the historical and cultural context in which Jesus lived

Such efforts generally start by attempts to debunk the miracles reported about Christ, of which His birth is the first and one of the most foundational.  Whenever I am confronted with such efforts I always ask why people undertake them to begin with.  I am not blind, I know that Christianity has made mistakes, sometimes with terrible consequence – as undoubtedly did Ransom Stoddard (the man who shot Liberty Valence) and most certainly as Winston Churchill did.  But, also as with Stoddard or Churchill, we need to ask if the myth is not worth more than the accuracy, and with Jesus the question is a resounding “YES!”

This Christmas I am going to ignore the specials on TV that try to tell me “the truth” about Bethlehem, and will avoid the countless articles trying to tell me what “really” happened 2000 years ago.  I am going to embrace the myth – even to the point where I believe fully, completely and wholly in the miraculous birth by a virgin.  My life has been made better by doing so in the past and I think it will be again this year.

I think the nation’s life will be better by embracing the many myths of Christmas.


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