“Thou Art The Man”

We’re going to examine a Bible story but -- surprise! surprise! -- not for its theological content. Rather, we’re going to look at the way all stories convey deeper, hidden truths; and how the best stories pull us in to get us to identify & empathize with the core theme.

The story in question is actually a story within a story, so we’ll start with the broader context:

King David, from his palace, spies a woman bathing on her rooftop. He asks his servants who she is; they tell him she’s Bathsheba, the wife of one of his soldiers, Uriah.

Instead of saying “Whoops! Married lady -- no can touch!” King David invites her up to the palace to, y’know, chat & whatnot.

The whatnot results in her getting pregnant.

No biggie, thinks King David. He calls Uriah back from the front, purportedly to have him report on the situation, but in reality hoping he’ll spend his off duty hours boffing his wife Bathsheba so David’s genetic contribution will be overlooked.

Only Uriah is a real straight arrow and refuses to go home, saying he can’t betray his fellow soldiers by enjoying his marital bed while they’re slogging it out in the field.

So King David sends a secret message back with Uriah to his general, telling him to launch an attack but leave Uriah in an exposed position.

The general does so, Uriah gets killed, and David moves Bathsheba into the palace to “comfort” her.

He thinks nobody will know about his shenanigans, but if you want to keep a secret from your political enemies, don’t employ a palace full of servants. The word spreads, and discontent rises in the kingdom. Murmurings of civil war start circulating, and people outraged by David’s behavior go to Nathan, the prophet on duty, and ask him to do something about it.

What Nathan does is to tell King David a story:

“There were two men in one city; the one rich, and the other poor. The rich man had exceeding many flocks and herds: But the poor man had nothing, save one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and nourished up: and it grew up together with him, and with his children; it did eat of his own meat, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a daughter.

“And there came a traveller unto the rich man, and he spared to take of his own flock and of his own herd, to dress for the wayfaring man that was come unto him; but took the poor man's lamb, and dressed it for the man that was come to him.”

And David's anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan, “As the Lord liveth, the man that hath done this thing shall surely die: And he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”

And Nathan said to David, “Thou art the man.”

thou-art-the-man_peter_rothermel_david_nathan_bYowza! Were there ever four words with a more chilling impact than that? And again, we’re putting theological implications aside; what Nathan did was to present a fiction that David identified so closely with from his humble beginnings as a lowly shepherd boy that his heart instantly leapt in outrage and a cry for justice --

-- and then Nathan lowered the boom on him and made him realize he was judging himself for his own crime.

That is what fiction is meant to do.

Not specifically convict us of our own sins & shortcomings, but to make us identify with another point of view so that we are then drawn to an inescapable application to our own lives.

If Nathan had approached David with a straight on attack as to why betraying a trusted subordinate by schtuping his wife and then having him killed to cover it up was A Very Bad Idea, David would have produced a battalion of priests / philosophers / poets who would have explained that oh no not in this case; in this specific case it was not only justifiable for David to boff Bathsheba and kill Uriah but it was actually a good thing -- a very good thing! -- and that Nathan was a party pooper for even daring to bring the matter up.

Don’t believe me?

Spend five minutes scanning political headlines; see how many people justify behaviors they decried as crimes the day before.

All great stories do that. Call it the moral of the story, the theme, the subtext, the point; whatever it is, it’s the underlying unspoken truth that lays unseen below the surface, but like great rocks in a flowing river shape the current of the story.

Recently there have been calls by some to stop promoting stories that openly tackle certain topics and themes.

It’s one thing to criticize a story for being so ineptly written that the theme jarringly intrudes on the narrative -- though truth be told, you can do anything you want in a story as long as you do it entertainingly.

It’s another thing to say the only stories worth reading or viewing are those that strip away all moral & ethical content and are just paper thin mono-dimensional characters engaged in a series of spectacular but ultimately pointless conflicts with other paper thin mono-dimensional characters.

I got in trouble a lot when I was writing Saturday morning cartoon shows lo these many years decades in the last century moons ago, and vey often it was because I would rather insistently demand to know why our characters were doing what they were doing.

“What difference does it make to Batman and Robin if the Joker steals the Eiffel tower? Are they going to miss a meal if he does so? Is anybody going to suffer because of it? I’ll grant you’re the Joker is crazy and does crazy stuff, but why would that involve Batman and Robin?”

The suits would look at me and say “they’re superheroes” and I’d say “yeah, so? What motivates them personally to get involved?”

Because that’s where the theme, the moral, the subtext comes in. It’s all a pointless chase unless the characters’ actions reflect some deeper symbol of truth. [1]

You cannot escape subtext; it will be there no matter how hard you try to drive it out. The human mind craves meaning, and even a random arrangement of images will spark some linkage in our brain, some sequence that conveys some sort of deeper meaning than the mere arbitrary arrangement of pictures.

Indeed, the more you try to drive it out, the more you will reveal what causes you to fear subtext.[2]

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art by Peter Rothermel 

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[1] Too often the shows we did were crap because we’d try to shoehorn a motivation in after the fact; we’d come up with a great gimmick and then try to find a way of justifying it. You see that in overly clever murder mysteries and sloppily plotted superhero stories; characters who go to insane lengths to commit not-very-profitable crimes when applying the same effort to a non-criminal endeavor would enrich them greatly.

[2] Back in the 1970s/80s there was a concept among fans of psychotronic films called Bad Truth. Bad Truth was what occurred when there was no censorship between the brain and what ended up on the screen. And by censorship I’m not referring to the morality police, but rather the inhibitors of taste brought about by adequate time and money. Most Bad Truth films were ultra-low budget / no budget affairs hastily thrown together with no time to polish the extreme rough edges; as a result they tended to be pretty naked reflections of their film makers’ ids. Bad Truth can be found at the far other end of the economic spectrum as well; big budget productions helmed by a film maker with enough clout not to be answerable to the studio funding them.

Thinkage

"Black Sheep" by Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs