Monday, February 23, 2015

In retrospect

A striking feature of Biblical narrative is the omniscient narrator. Unbelievers treat this as evidence that Bible stories are fictional. How could the narrator read their minds? On top of that, how could he read the minds of people who lived and died centuries before he was born?

The orthodox explanation is divine revelation: God shared some of his knowledge with the narrator. 

I'd like to illustrate that principle with some analogies. In fiction, there are two kinds of suspense. One is where the audience doesn't know the outcome in advance. An example would be a whodunit. That's why a murder mystery is the kind of thing you typically watch or read just once. As soon as the mystery is solved, as soon as the suspense is dispelled, it loses interest. 

But another kind of suspense is just the opposite: dramatic irony. That's where the audience knows something a character doesn't. For instance, the audience may be acutely conscious of the fact that a character is in danger, while the character is obvious to the danger. A viewer is tempted to yell at the screen to warn the hapless character. 

Although this is a literary convention, it has real-world analogues. Take The Diary of Anne Frank. What makes this so poignant is the ominous fact that the reader knows something she doesn't. 

This is a coming-of-age story. She's young and hopeful. If they can just wait out the Nazis, she has so much to live for.

But the reader knows that she is doomed. It's as if the reader knows how the story ends before she does, even though we're reading this decades later. And that's because, at the time of writing, she didn't know how her own story was going to end. 

The reader is like a time-traveler from the future who has a conversation with her before her family goes into hiding. We know it's futile. But we smile politely. 

Another example is Becky Lynn Black's "Our Cancer Journey." She's the late wife of David Alan Black. She was a missionary, and the child of missionaries. 

She chronicles her battle with cancer. Her first entry is 9/9/09. Her last entry is 7/4/13. 

In a sense, the reader knows that she's dying long before she does. We know when it ends. We read the earlier entries with the benefit of hindsight. She, of course, didn't have that retrospective outlook at the time of writing. She was looking forward while we are looking back. We know her situation as hopeless from the outset. That casts a shadow over the entire reading experience. 

In situations like this, the reader has a kind of God's-eye view of the proceedings. Almost as if we're above time. 

There's a classic X-Files episode ("Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose") in which a character knows the future. And it makes him miserable. Fatalistic. In a fallen world, it's a terrible thing to see the future. 

That's fiction, but as I've noted, this perspective as real-world counterparts, even apart from inspiration. 

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