I have it on good authority that I was too cryptic in one of my previous posts, so I will endeavor to speak more plainly today.
Let’s start with a question: Do you ever get the feeling you are living in a movie script? Ha! See? This is what I am up against. I have no idea where to start. What was it the King of Hearts told the White Rabbit when the White Rabbit asked where he should begin reading the paper of “evidence” against Alice?
“‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.’”
But what is the beginning? I am often asked how I came to convert to Catholicism, except in my mind, I didn’t really convert; I just “came home.”* I have been studying the history of Christianity for decades, but I have been studying stories even longer, ever since I could read.
I remember asking my teacher in second grade if I could take a book home from school because I wanted to rewrite the story we had been reading in class. I think it had a zebra in it. Soon after that, I was taken out of second grade and put in third, only to be told with great authority by the other children in the playground that I would certainly fail and be sent back.
My skipping second grade didn’t fit their story of who I was—but who was I? I was only at that particular elementary school for a year, in between my father’s being stationed at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Nebraska, and his taking up a job in Louisville, Kentucky, at the medical school. (He was a professor of surgery. He served in Thailand during the Vietnam War as a trauma surgeon.) I used to spend my days on the playground looking at the mountains (the Sandias, if you know the range) wishing I could see the castle on the crest that I was sure was there.
That was 1972-73. I started keeping a diary a few years later, when somebody gave me a Peanuts day-by-day diary for Christmas. My father had already left my mom for a medical student by that year (1977). I have the diary, but not to hand. I can’t remember whether I ever wrote about my parents’ divorce, but I kept a regular diary for over a decade, well into graduate school when I was studying in England and able to visit real castles.
I spent my first year in graduate school reading William of Newburgh’s commentary on the Song of Songs and trying to understand how he could read Solomon’s love song for the Sunamite “historically” as a dialogue between Christ and his Mother, the Virgin Mary. I used what my New Testament professor in college had taught us about reading the Gospels as narratives to argue that William was thinking of the Song of Songs as a script for imagining the conversations between Jesus and his mom.
You might say I made it my academic speciality: understanding the layers of story and the way we imagine ourselves through scripts. I did the same thing on this blog (published this time last year as Milo Chronicles). I saw Milo playing a particular role, and I was fascinated by the character he had assumed as the jester or clown. How could William of Newburgh read the bride and the bridegroom of the Song of Songs as the Virgin Mary and Christ? How could I read Milo as a holy fool? If my academic colleagues thought I was crazy for writing about medieval devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary “from within,” I nailed it by writing about Milo as a friend.
I sometimes tell people that it was Milo who made me convert—“Get on it lady!” he told me—but in fact I had been “converting” for decades, trying to find that castle on the mountain I saw from the playground as a child.
“‘I wonder what sort of tale we’ve fallen into?’ [said Sam]. ‘I wonder,’ said Frodo. ‘But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale.’” What is the difference between a real tale and a movie script? Tl;dr: Real tales are written by God. Movie scripts are written by Satan.
Owen Benjamin was talking about this process the other day on his livestream. About how he started the livestream under the rubric “Why didn’t they laugh?” and how it developed into an experiment in telling the truth. Owen is not just playing the part of a fool, he really is one—a stand-up fool who had a career in Hollywood until he tweeted something about gender transitioning children being a species of child abuse, and thereafter lost his Hollywood career, many of his friends, and his previous means of making a living. Now he livestreams on DLive and posts the videos on Unauthorized.tv, the same platform where I publish my videos on Medieval History and Tolkien.
Much like professors, comedians play best to live audiences because—much like professors—comedians need feed-back to know whether they are getting their point across. I had never thought about comedy in quite this way, but what Owen said in WDTL Episode #1000 hit home: for people to find jokes funny, they have to carry an element of truth. I am starting to think it was not an accident that the festschrift I co-edited in honor of my Doktormutter was called “History in the Comic Mode.” In my teacher’s words: “A comic stance toward doing history is aware of contrivance, of risk. It always admits that we may be wrong.... It embraces the partial as partial.... Historians, like fishes of the sea, regurgitate fragments.”
2020 has been an awful year, beginning with bush fires in Australia and ending ... well, where? In civil war? In famine? We already have the plague (allegedly). Back in April, my academic department told me (for the second time) that I was not going to be promoted to full professor. (I have tenure; “full professor” is just an honorary title that comes with a raise.) My second monograph (Mary and the Art of Prayer) was “not a work of history,” they told me. (I paraphrase. Others have called it “outstanding” and “a game-changer.” YMMV.) I had gone too far into the imagination (read: been too successful at imagining myself into the perspective of a medieval Christian devoted to Christ and the Virgin Mary). They claimed that I had claimed—horrible to think!—that Mary had in fact existed from the beginning of creation, dancing before the throne of the Lord (see Proverbs 8—as read by medieval Christians, through whose eyes the book is meant to teach us to see).
Why didn’t my colleagues laugh? Why couldn’t they share my joy? Why couldn’t they admit even as an experiment that the story medieval Christians told about Christ and the Virgin Mary was true?
In Owen’s terms: because they are living a different script from me. The question is: whose tale is the Truth?