There is storytelling and there is revision. The former means entwining actual events with fictional characters, and the latter includes rearranging fictional facts to suit your agenda. As a writer, I’m caught between admiration for those who do it well and horror for those who change things too much. I’m also uncertain whether or not it is disrespectful to do whatever you like with an actual historical figure or literary character.
Recently, monster mash-up books have become popular. I’m sure you have seen them. Queen Victoria and her court full of werewolves, Abraham Lincoln as a vampire hunter, and so forth. Then you have the literary assault in which Jane Eyre dispatches zombies whilst hungering for the love of Edward Rochester, or Colonel Brandon just happens to be a … sea monster? These kinds of books both amuse and offend me, because as an author it seems disrespectful to take someone else’s book and rewrite it full of zombies, vampires, werewolves, and other heinous creatures. But on the other hand, no one will ever believe the story; particularly that a young Honest Abe spent his nights hunting down bloodsucking fiends.
But what about the more subtle changes to history that we see rampant in our culture today? What about Philippa Gregory’s inferences that Anne Boleyn was guilty of every charge put against her? What about the conclusions that such television series as The Tudors draw? (Anne Boleyn was a schemer, Sir Thomas More burned people at the stake, and Catherine Howard was a slut. Historians do not agree with their representation of the facts. Anne wanted nothing to do with Henry at first, Thomas More never set a pyre aflame, and Catherine Howard may have been innocent of nothing more than love letters.) How about the subtleties of the John Adams miniseries, which manages to leave out the faith of the Founding Fathers while hinting (without coming out and saying it) that Jefferson had a relationship with Sally Hemings? Or the film Anonymous which tarnishes Elizabeth I’s reputation while stating that Shakespeare did not write his plays? Did you know James Cameron’s Titanic distorts facts? It casts the heroic actions of White Star Line officers in a dastardly light and claims that third class passengers were locked below. None of that is the truth.
Some are wise enough to know that anything on screen, no matter how historically accurate, is fiction… but really, it is just an indication of our culture’s lack of interest in the truth. We are so surrounded by lies that we do not even seek out the truth, and have come to believe whatever we are told, without consideration of the source and their agenda.
What many do not realize is that “fiction” does not end in films or novels. Revisionist history pervades our history books and taints our view of historical figures. It casts doubt on the actions of honorable men, and strives to convince us that many were hypocrites. Most would claim that the majority of the Founding Fathers were deists. It isn’t true. More than half of them were ordained ministers. The only two that were not overtly religious were Jefferson and Franklin, and not only were both far more religious than you might think, neither of them fit a deistic viewpoint. (Franklin believed in the power of prayer and asked for it regularly in Congress. Deists do not believe prayer works, since in their view, God merely set the world in motion and then sat back to watch.) If secular society is to be believed, Jefferson pushed mightily for the separation of church and state. (This is also not true; he mentioned that separation as a reassurance to a minister that the government would not interfere in his congregation.) If Jefferson was so dead set against faith in government, how do they explain him using government funds to send missionaries to the Indian tribes?
Our society has an agenda that involves removing the truth and replacing it with fiction. The tragedy is that they have succeeded. Even Christians now believe their lies about the Founders, and it reflects on our view of the Church as well. We are ashamed of some of the more notable founders of the faith throughout history, and have been trained to call them “legalistic” and “fundamentalist” while separating ourselves from the truths they embraced. What are our thoughts on the Crusades? What were their true purpose? Did you know pastors put a stop to the burning of witches? All we ever see is fear-driven ministers lighting the pyre, not preaching against it.
Have we become a culture that denies the truth in favor of lies? Have we as Christians assimilated into this culture and allowed its influence to warp our perspective? I think so. And that is the saddest thing of all.