To borrow a phrase from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, it is the best of times, the worst of times. That is how one might describe the current movie-saturated era. Certainly, from an entertainment perspective, it is the best of times. While I myself still prefer the classic films of the 40s and 50s, from The Maltese Falcon to The Searchers, it is hard not to be impressed by everything from the special effects in something like Inception to the sheer brilliance of acting in The King’s Speech. Yet therein lies the problem, that which makes it, in a sense, the worst of times. As our access to the past is increasingly shaped by, if not actually mediated through, such media as movies, the real past is too often sacrificed for the sake of a good story.
Take The King’s Speech, for example. As every British schoolboy of a certain generation would know, Winston Churchill, great war leader though he was, was also an ardent supporter of the pro-Nazi Edward VIII in the abdication crisis. The great British hero was not quite so heroic, or astute, when it came to the slimy Edward. The movie, however, puts Mr. C on the other side. Which version, I wonder, will become the received narrative for future generations? More egregiously, a few years ago a movie was made about the American cracking of Adolf Hitler’s Enigma Code. Great story, I guess, if you are an American. The fact is, however, that it was the British who cracked the code.
Of course, movies are not history. They are artistic constructions built (some more, some less) loosely on actual events. As I try never to compare a movie to the novel upon which it is based, since they are two separate works of art, so I should perhaps not demand too much accuracy of what are, in essence, pieces designed for entertainment — except, of course, when they claim to be “based on a true story.” The danger is that the audience might confuse a bit of fun for a factual representation of history.
What is perhaps more interesting, however, is what such revision tells us about human nature. After all, both filmmakers and audience members are somewhat complicit in the activity: they give us what we want. It would appear that we like our stories simple, our heroes relatively flawless (an unflawed hero is boring, but one with too many flaws is just too complicated), and we like ourselves, or the people who represent us, to be center stage and the ultimate measure of the good and the true.
This is a striking contrast to the kind of history we have in the Bible, and nowhere is this more graphically demonstrated than in Hebrews 11. I have been preaching through Judges for the last few years, and, frankly, the task would be much, much simpler if Hebrews 11 had never been written. The narrative of Judges is very clear on cha racters such as Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson: the first was a man who brief ly emerged from idolatry and rapidly descended back into it after his military task was done; the second murdered his own daughter, a crime he could have avoided had he known the Word of God; and the third was a womanizer whose contempt for his Nazirite status apparently knew no bounds. Yet Hebrews 11 parades them before our eyes as heroes of the faith.
The temptation is to use Hebrews 11 as the grid to smooth out the rough edges of the Judges narratives — to make it the means of cleaning up the heroes , a s i f Samson’s l ibido, Jephthah’s stupidity, and Gideon’s ephod are simply incidental to the story. But they are not; these things are central to the narratives of these men in the book of Judges. Take them out and there is almost nothing left.
So how do we handle these things in an age when we like to rewrite history to suit our tastes, especially given the apparent sanction for so doing in these cases by Hebrews 11? Well, we must first avoid the fault of too many Christian historians and biographers, who treat their chosen subjects as if they were somehow exempt from the impact of fallen human nature. Such hagiographies might be fun to read, but they can leave us verging on the worship of the characters being considered or with unrealistic — and ultimately depressing — expectations of what the Christian life should be like.
Second, we must understand what the writer of Hebrews is doing. If you know your judges, you know the faults of the men listed; and you therefore know that, whatever else the writer is doing, he is not commending these men as heroic examples of moral action. Instead, he commends them because, despite the fact that they were at best deeply flawed pieces of morally shattered humanity, they were blessed because it was not ultimately about them. Rather, it was about the kingdom and the Messiah to whom they looked. The writer of Hebrews is not rewriting history to suit his audience; he is pointing to the fact that, reprehensible though these people were, in Christ they were conquerors. And that should be far more encouraging to us than anything our own instinct to whitewash our heroes might produce.