Making sense of our past

by Stephen Wigley.

As we come to the end of this first month of 2019, it seems that we’re left facing many of the same old and apparently irresolvable problems carried over from 2018.  But amidst all the crises, there has at least been one bright spot in the news. That’s come with the success of the British film and entertainment industry in recent awards, with January’s Golden Globes, the strong showing in this month’s Bafta’s and the prospects of Oscar nominations to come.

I appreciate that this good news is not just about honours and accolades, and that behind the glamour lies a significant industry making a major contribution to the UK economy. However, for all the contributions British artists bring to the technological aspects of film-making, it seems to me that such awards also reveal a fascination with revisiting stories from our past. Last year it was Gary Oldman’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Winston Churchill. This year, Olivia Colman has already won a Golden Globe for her role as Queen Anne in ‘The Favourite’, and there are a range of other nominations coming the way of the latest historical drama to be released a fortnight ago in ‘Mary Queen of Scots’.

Now I confess to being a history graduate with a soft spot for such historical re-constructions. I’ve seen and enjoyed all three films and I can recognise some of the questions which have been raised by practising historians about them. Does the depiction of court life surrounding Queen Anne fit in with what we know from historical sources? What is the point of creating an imaginary collection of 17 rabbits (one for each child that she lost)? And what are we to make of the momentous (but fictitious) scene in which Elizabeth and Mary confront each other and their respective fates?

But then I reflect on how historical dramas work and why they retain a fascination for us. How they offer not just an opportunity to see how in earlier times people faced similar crises to those which we face today (for example the pressure to make momentous decisions at a time of national and international crisis when no outcome seems clear-cut); and also how the retelling of stories allows us to explore questions that were not able to be asked then – but are clearly important now (for example how it is that women were able to survive, thrive and negotiate positions of power and influence in a patriarchally dominated world).

To explore such questions requires a degree of creative imagination as well as a knowledge of the historic texts, in order that the stories we know can be explored beyond the boundaries of the sources available to us. That’s what’s happening in these films; and reflecting on them, it seems to me to be not unlike what happens in the pages of the Bible.

Over recent weeks our lectionary readings have been taken from the Second Book of Samuel, dealing with the complex business of succession planning in the house of David. The Old Testament is full of stories about kings and queens and their complex relationships with the prophets who advised and challenged them. Such stories take place over centuries, and yet are constantly being reinterpreted by later chroniclers and prophets seeking to find a new meaning for subsequent generations.

So it is, for example, in the book of the prophet Isaiah that we find messages warning of imminent disaster addressed to King Ahaz son of Uzziah, which are then interpreted afresh as a message of hope for a later generation preparing to return from exile in Babylon at the command of a new emperor Cyrus, and then in turn as an encouragement to persevere for yet another subsequent generation, as following that return they struggle to rebuild the city walls and restore the temple.

Nor does it end there; for in time some of those same passages will be read again to discover a fresh message of hope, pointing to a new promise of God’s dwelling with his people but in a way which perhaps the original eight century prophet could never have imagined. As the letter to the Hebrews puts it; ‘Long ago God spoke in many and various ways to our ancestors by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a son.’ For this is where God’s presence and our history meet and come alive – and who knows where that future may lead.

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