We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Monday, July 7, 2014

"Yankee Doodle Dandy" & the "Historical Jesus"

Among the classic patriotic films shown over this Fourth of July weekend, the broadcast on TCM of "Yankee Doodle Dandy,"the movie biography of George M. Cohen staring James Cagney, caught my eye.  In his comments on the film, Robert Osborne noted that the movie took "liberties" with Cohen's life such as having him married only once to a woman named Mary.  In real life, he had two wives neither of them named Mary.  Osborne concluded, however, that if the details were sometimes wrong the overall portrait given by the movie is accurate.

Suppose for a moment that the screenplay for "Yankee Doodle Dandy" survives for a thousand years, long after Cohen is forgotten, and future historians have only it to work with in recapturing his life.  How would they treat the script?  How much of the actual life of the real Cohen would they be able to reconstruct?  Would they be able to figure out that he had two wives instead of one?  Would they be skeptical of the rosy portrayal of his personality?  How many nuances obvious to us would they miss completely?  How accurate would their portrayal of the "ancient" world be if based on this lone screenplay?

If we turn to the long "quest for the historical Jesus" with all of this in mind, we get some sense of how difficult it is to reconstruct the real Jesus from the biblical screenplay, which was never intended to be a history of Jesus in the first place—even less so than YDD was supposed to be a biography of Cohen.  Indeed, the gospels were intended to be tributes to Jesus the Messiah in a way somewhat similar to the musical, which is a tribute to Cohen.  YDD is not biography anymore than the gospels are.  As a tribute, however, YDD still approximates "the truth" about George M. Cohen (in Osborne's view, at least) even if it plays footloose with the biographical details of his life.  Can we say the same about the gospels?  Are they faithful to the truth about Jesus of Nazareth if not the biographical details?  That is our impression—our faith, actually.  Amen.