Fiction and History

James McGrath put up an insightful post on his blog today, in which he discusses the mythicist habit of superficially comparing figures such as Hercules, Sherlock Holmes, and Robin Hood to Jesus of Nazareth. His point, as I read it, comes down to this: the fact that there are fictional characters in literature does not mean that all characters in literature are fictional. James of course is right: so obviously right that it is profoundly disturbing that he even has to make such a point. What follows is an amplification of response that I made to James's post on his FB wall.

In that post I suggested that the problem with mythicists is that they simply are not familiar with either the philosophy of history or the work of historiography. It goes deeper than that, I realize upon reflection: they are not in fact familiar with even the basics of how storytelling works. The problem really is a failure on mythicists' part to distinguish between story and fiction. My late grandfather regularly told stories about his WWII service. They weren't fiction, even if at times they were probably a bit embellished. He really did meet my grandmother whilst stationed in England. He really did serve in north Africa, southern Italy, and the Netherlands. And that summary of things that my grandfather did is itself a story, however short, and still not fiction. He really did tell these stories. I know, because at least later in his life I was probably his primary audience.

In the realm of philosophy of history, Hayden White read 19th-century historiographical works as literature, examining along the way such matters as their politics and metaphysics, and yet he will hardly deny that the matters that they discuss took place. He could do this because they are in fact literature, but literature that aims to tell us about an actual past. Michelet was a great story-teller, yet he didn't make up the French Revolution, or the centuries leading up to it. He coined the term Renaissance as part of his story-telling, yet no one disputes that it is a perfect word to describe what was happening three hundred years before his time. In Whitean terms we typically describe the Nazi era as a basically romantic story, entailing a descent into darkness followed by a great triumph of light. Yet the Nazi era actually happened. And indeed Hitler and the Nazis so happened that they have profoundly impacted our storytelling. For instance, the six first six Star Wars movies, however imperfectly, draw heavily upon the storytelling motifs and imagery generated by the Nazi era. By mythicist reasoning it would be legitimate to argue that there was no Nazi era, no Second World War, because the story is so similar to other stories that are clearly fiction. Yet that is absurd.

The gospels are clearly stories, but they are not fiction. Samuel Byrskog sums this up brilliantly in the title of his monograph Story as History, History as Story. The gospels are stories, yes, but they are stories that aim to tell history, not fiction. They use all sorts of literary techniques, and of course their understanding of what qualifies as history is not the same as ours, but they do intend to tell us things that happened. That is fundamentally different from what is going on with stories of Sherlock Holmes, Hercules, or Robin Hood. Does it follow that every single thing recorded in the gospels is exactly what happened? No, that would be a non sequitur. It does mean that superficial comparisons between two phenomena with fundamentally different aims cannot be treated as if they lack such distinction. Story can be and often is fiction, and it can be and often is history. I figured that out about the time that my first-grade teacher explained to us the difference between fiction and non-fiction.


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