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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

History and Message Fiction

I believe the most venerable and most frequently attacked Old Testament narratives in Genesis are genuinely historical. One reason: the moral lessons they contain are rarely driven home with a four-by-four to the reader’s noggin. I find that sort of authorial restraint persuasive. It’s what you do when you’re telling the truth rather than concocting a storyline or building a case.

Stories have always had morals; that’s not a new thing. The three little pigs remind us hard work will keep both you and your friends safe when the Big Bad Wolf comes knocking. Chicken Little reminds us that if you squawk about everything, people eventually stop paying attention. Good to know.

But history doesn’t come in such neat packages, does it?

Happy Never After

Cain murders Abel in a jealous rage. If nothing else, narrative symmetry seems to require Cain’s compensatory dispatch into eternity, and those of us who have read ahead a few chapters await the inevitable “whoever sheds man’s blood” payback with poorly disguised glee. But no, instead off Cain goes to wander the earth, protected by God, and fathering children of historic significance.

What’s up with that?

Noah finds favor in the eyes of God and becomes the saviour of mankind in his day, receives a covenant from God, and winds up drunk and naked in his tent, and cursing his own son.

Not the standard heroic ending. Definitely no “happily ever after” there.

Wandering and Dying

Abraham goes out from his kin and his father’s house to a land God has promised to show him. He wanders there, leaves a few times, comes back, dies and is buried there. The end.

Say what?

Righteous Lot miraculously escapes Sodom with angelic assistance only to end his days hiding in a cave, fornicating drunkenly with his two daughters, and siring the fathers of the Ammonite and Moabite nations, who would become thorns in Israel’s flesh for generations.

Maybe the writer could have driven home that little bit of Shakespearean dramatic irony just a little more obviously for his denser readers. No? Okay.

The Taste of Reality

All this comes across as entirely plausible to me. The Genesis account is as human and relatable as it is possible to be, the motives of its characters natural and credible; their flaws, foibles and sins coexisting alongside their godly desires and aspirations, echoing the promptings of my own heart. And more often than not, as we move through the historical portions of the Old Testament, the Spirit of God’s go-to authorial technique remains the same: letting the reader work out for himself the significance and application of the events the Spirit has faithfully recorded. The lessons are absolutely there, and the proof is that scripture has provided a sound moral template for generation after generation of believers. But those lessons are not always on the surface, and sometimes await editorial clarification that comes thousands of years after the original events.

The whole book of Judges reads like that ... and Kings, and Chronicles. You need to scan their chapters over and over again just to figure out who’s in the right, if anyone. Even the cleverest, most well-written message fiction cannot hold a candle to their subtlety and authenticity.

If the history recorded in scripture is a pious fraud, it is the single most effective literary mass-manipulation ever perpetrated, not least in that its consistency of approach has been rigorously maintained by dozens of human contributors over thousands of years. What are the odds of that happening naturally?

What Real Message Fiction Looks Like

Real message fiction, on the other hand, is a thoroughly predictable exercise. You can spot it lining you up to drive over you a mile away.

If you want to write a Story With A Moral, here’s how you do it: you do it like the two-panel clip from Marvel Comics’ The Mighty Thor that is currently circulating online. In this painfully obvious little indoctrination campaign, Thor, now a girl (don’t ask), confronts the supervillain Titania and her partner the Absorbing Man on the street post-robbery:

Titania: [hurling down her weapon] “I ain’t fighting no woman Thor, and neither is he [indicating her fallen husband]. Not today at least. I’m standing down, out of respect for what you’re doing. Can’t have been easy for you. Hasn’t been for me either.”

Thor: “Do not think this means I will allow you to flee.”

Titania: “I’m not asking you to.”

Preach it, sister!

What, Me: An Agenda?

How do you know you’re writing message fiction? Unlike the Bible (not to mention real life), your characters have to stop regularly to expound on their motivations, even if the timing is ridiculous.

How else do you know when you’re writing message fiction? Your characters behave illogically and inconsistently. Here is one of the physically strongest female criminals in the Marvel Universe volunteering to go to jail and offering her husband up on a platter, all for ... uh ... feminist solidarity and respect. Come again?

Why does this sort of thing happen in message fiction? Because believable characterization is always subordinated to the prime directive: making your ideological point. 

That right there is the genre in a nutshell. The message: the REAL enemy is not criminals or law enforcement. It’s not the person who’s keeping you from the good life, your next meal or that Mexican vacation. Oh no, the real enemy is the Evil Patriarchy®. A female criminal, Marvel’s progressive writers desperately want us to believe, has more in common with her ‘sister’ in law enforcement than she has with her own jailbird hubbie.

To boot, lining up alongside the Sisterhood is apparently worth going to jail for.

Don’t Miss the Metamessage!

You just can’t miss that ideological metamessage, can you? Like a proverbial whack in the cranium. If you want to engage in quasi-religious moralizing, folks, THAT’s how you go about it.

But in the fake narrative department, my Bible is a complete let-down.

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