Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Story and reality

In college, a friend of mine (still a friend, I'd like to think, but we haven't spoken in a while) talked to me about the Gospel of John and had an interesting problem with the story of Lazarus. Lazarus was a dead man that Jesus told to get out of his tomb, then he was a live man who came out of the tomb. My friend asked, in effect, so, what did Lazarus say? Did he know he was dead? Did he see heaven? Why wasn't this played up more in the story? He thought, as far as I can recall, that this kind of thing made the story inconsistent.

What I failed to consider at the time is that good stories have certain qualities that reality does not. A story has a beginning, middle, and an end (more or less). A story has narrative impact. A story has unity of plot, character, and theme. A story doesn't have loose ends. A story skips the boring parts.

So what's interesting about the Lazarus story is that it serves a purpose in the gospel narrative (among other things, it explains why large crowds followed Jesus into Jerusalem for his Passion: because they'd heard about Lazarus), but for my friend it constituted a loose end. But loose ends don't belong in stories: they are the stuff of reality. If anything, and sure, maybe it's not that important in the long run, if the Lazarus story has a loose end, that militates toward its authenticity rather than against it.

A similar argument is sometimes made about the story (here paraphrased) when a crowd brings an adulterous woman to see Jesus (also in John's gospel). The crowd asks if they should stone the woman. Jesus writes in the dust with his finger, then says, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." This sucks all the hot air out of the angry mob and they leave the woman with Jesus. He says, "Does no one condemn you?" to the woman. She shakes her head, so he says, "Neither do I condemn you. Go, and sin no more."

The interesting thing about this story is that there is a loose end. Never before or since has anyone determined what Jesus was doing writing in the dust with his finger. As the story stands, it has this detail that doesn't contribute to the unity. (As CS Lewis says, fulsome details used for added realism in fiction did not exist until the 19th century.) So, the argument goes, this isn't a story at all. It's just reality.

I was thinking about this on Christmas Eve. We went to a service where the infancy gospel narrative of Matthew and Luke was fleshed out in little family details. I thought to myself, we don't have this little stuff, whether Joseph said he loves Jesus so much. We don't have blow-by-blow accounts of the Creator of the Universe in Earthly Form messing himself. There are missing hours, days, months, and then most famously, a gap that is basically decades long in Jesus' life story. Talk about a loose end we would be keenly interested in!

But, and here is the trick, this is just like a conventional biography. Details are always chosen carefully for their importance, whether the story is fiction or nonfiction. Incidents are omitted or concentrated on based on the unity of the story of a person's life. Every once in a while, though, the story ends and reality peeks through a meaningless little detail.

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