The question that has been on my mind for the last several weeks is this: “What do we mean when we say that a story is true?” Is it just an old-fashioned way of saying that it is accurate? I don’t think so.
I have two accounts of an event to offer. Both are from Steven Spielberg’s movie The Terminal, which is about a man who is stuck for a long time in JFK airport in New York. This man is Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) who, for reasons that need not detain us here, is not allowed either to return to his native Krakosia or to go out the front doors to New York. The man keeping him in the airport is Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci); first on a technicality, then out of pure spite.
One day, Dixon comes to get Navorski out of his cell because Milodragovich, a Russian man, has been detained. The man speaks no English and when they tried to confiscate the medicine he was carrying, he threw a fit. He held a knife to his throat and would not let anyone near him. Navorski intercedes with Milodragovich on Dixon’s behalf. Then, with a sudden inspiration, he intervenes with Dixon, on Milodragovich’s behalf.
The picture here shows Novorski with Gupta, an Indian who was initially suspicious of Navorski but was eventually won over entirely. Gupta is the one who tells the story. He didn’t see it himself, but he knows it is true.
There was a 20 man.
Immigration’s gun was drawn.
The Dixon was ready to fire, to kill the little man with the pills.
But then someone walks into the room and stand in front of this little man.
“Put the gun away,” the man said. “Nobody will die today.”
The crowd, jammed into a janitor’s closet, responds to this account with a hubbub of questions. “Who? Who was it that saved him? Yeah, tell us. Who was it? Who was this man?”
Gupta goes to a table in the back and hold up two piles of papers. They are the copier prints of Viktor Navorski’s hand. They were produced accidentally when Dixon slammed Navorski up against a copier as Milodragovich escaped.
Navorski. Viktor. “The Goat.” Navorski.
That is Gupta’s version of what happened and I say it is true.
It is not, however, accurate and very often, today, we call an account “true” meaning mostly that it is accurate. It is that distinction I am trying to make clearer in this post. Here are a few things that are wrong with Gupta’s account.
1. There weren’t 20 men. Maybe a dozen. Some men; some women.
2. No guns were drawn. Therefore “the Dixon” was not “ready to fire.” He never threatened Milodragovich’s life. There was never the slightest danger that Dixon would “kill the little man with the pills.”
3. Navorski did not stand in front of Milodragovich. Ever.
4. He did not say “Put the guns away. Nobody will die today.”
Virtually everything Gupta says, in other words, is inaccurate. But that isn’t the feeling you get when you see the event yourself (thank you, Steven Spielberg) and then hear Gupta describe it. You feel more that the scene as it happens is cluttered with inessentials and that they obscure the meaning of what is going on. You feel that Gupta clears the inessentials away and tells, simply and without the clutter, what really happened.
Looking at it through Gupta’s account, we might raise different questions. Maybe better questions.
1. Were there enough of Dixon’s people to physically control Milodragovich? Yes. And they had weapons, had they been needed. Twenty, schmenty.
2. In practical terms, “the little man with the pills” was not Milodragovich, but his father. Very likely, the father would die without the pills, so the meaning of “to kill the little man with the pills” is pretty good and Gupta’s account is the only one that raises that line of effect. Alternatively, “kill the little man” can be understood as “killing” the mission, which was obviously quite important to Milodragovich. “Kill” would mean “cause him to fail in his efforts to save his father.”
3. All you have to do to save “stand in front of the little man” is to change it into Latin. That gives us interpose. There is no disagreement that Navorski interposed himself between Dixon’s choice and effect of that choice on Milodragovich. Navorski “placed himself between” (inter + ponere, “to place”) in every way except physically and interposing himself physically would have been useless and inflammatory.
4. The best we can do here is to say that Navorski made irrelevant the physical force Dixon had available. He may very well have saved Milodragovich’s life and his father’s life as well. So nobody did die today. It isn’t something Navorski said; it is something he did.
The Gospel according to Gupta?
I think the realities Gupta’s account pointed us to are fundamental to what actually happened. It is an account that rings true, certainly, to the people in the janitor’s closet who heard him tell it—“little men” all. The inaccuracies I have named seem to me inconsequential, which is why I allowed myself “twenty, schmenty.”
Having heard “the gospel according to Gupta” several dozen times now, I have also had the experience of going back to the scene at watching it in detail. The feeling I have is like clearing cobwebs out of my way so I can see clearly. Was anyone trying to shoot Milodragovich? On what grounds did Dixon deny Milodragovich the safe passage of the medicines? Did they use any unnecessary violence in hauling Milodragovich away? Cobwebs. Gupta doesn’t deal with them at all and his account is clearer because of it.
This might seem like a lot of time to spend on one chapter (Chapter 18, “The Inspection,” if you have the DVD) of a movie, but it meant a little extra to me because I have been thinking about the process by which the stories about Jesus’ life come to us. Some of the stories about Jesus (like his walking on the water) and stories Jesus told, like “the good Samaritan” sound a lot like Gupta to me. You don’t see the cobwebs in the New Testament accounts. You get, instead, an interpretation of what is really important in the form of a story. I can’t tell the story the way Gupta told it, but standing in that janitor’s closet, facing that audience of “little men,” I know I would wish I could tell it that way.
Some people say the gospel accounts we have are literally true. I say the accounts we have are more like Gupta’s story than they are like the scholarly recreations that have been attempted. The “Quest for the Historical Jesus” is more than one hundred years old by now and it has engaged some very powerful intellects. Their work offers benefits to everyone who reads them, but they are not a better story than Gupta gives us and they are not a truer story.
Some people say that these stories are not the reports of actual events but, relying on Gupta again, I think it might be better to say that they are interpretations of actual events. In The Terminal, there is never any question that there was an OK Corral style confrontation between Navorski and Dixon. The question is what actually transpired in this Corral. Having seen both versions, I prefer Gupta’s.
I think what I’m going to do is to try to hear Gupta’s voice in my head as I listen to the gospel accounts. I have spent all the time I want to spend in validating and categorizing the cobwebs. I want to see the glint in Jesus’ eye when, pressed on the question of Roman taxes by his opponents, he said, “So…anybody got a coin on him?” I think in Gupta’s account, I just might be able to see that gleam and I’d like that.