The sense that what one reads is "real," or at least realistic and believable. For instance, the reader possesses a sense of verisimilitude when reading a story in which a character cuts his finger, and the finger bleeds. If the character's cut finger had produced sparks of fire rather than blood, the story would not possess verisimilitude. Note that even fantasy novels and science fiction stories that discuss impossible events can have verisimilitude if the reader is able to read them with suspended disbelief.Note the phrase, "the reader possesses a sense of verisimilitude …". The term tells us something about the text, to be sure, but it isn't a characteristic we can define objectively. It's fundamentally about the reader: his or her subjective response while reading the text.
The word verisimilitude came to mind yesterday as I was reading this text:
Elijah went a day's journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, "It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers." And he lay down and slept. (1 Kings 19:4-5a)1I find this story about Elijah startling and deeply moving. I don't have any deep theological or psychological insight to share with you. I just wanted to say, here's a text that has verisimilitude.
Years ago, I received some training before I began to work at a crisis support centre, answering telephone calls from people in distress. The trainer was a clergyman, and he drew our attention to this passage as a textbook example of depression.
Elijah has reached the end of his rope. He can't cope any longer. He wants nothing more than to die. He sleeps.
The story is especially remarkable if you read it in context. It comes immediately after Elijah's triumph on Mount Carmel, where he had proven that Baal is a false god and the prophets of Baal were false prophets. It was the high point of Elijah's career; but immediately afterward, he was plunged into a state of depression.
The sequence is true to human psychology. Whenever you have a peak experience, you can expect to feel a letdown afterward. But the word "letdown" is hardly adequate in Elijah's case!
To be fair, I should point out that there was one intervening event. Queen Jezebel had threatened to murder Elijah:
[King] Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets [of Baal] with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, "So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow." Then he was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life. (1 Kings 19:1-3a)Elijah was also suffering from the burden of carrying too much responsibility. He lived in an era when Israel had broken faith with God. He was the point man in God's campaign to bring Israel to repentance.
And Elijah came near to all the people and said, "How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him." And the people did not answer him a word. (1 Kings 18:21)This is a heavy burden to bear. The religion of Israel mattered profoundly to Elijah. He felt that its very survival rested on his shoulders, and his alone.
Elijah came to a cave and lodged in it. And behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said to him, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" He said, "I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away." (1 Kings 19:9-10)So Elijah's depression has three2 identifiable causes: (1) the inevitable letdown after his triumph on Mount Carmel; (2) Jezebel's threat on his life; and (3) the onerous burden of responsibility he carried.
"It is enough," he says, with profound understatement. "Please — just let me die."
Sceptics deride the Bible for its fantastic stories, and I understand that point of view. Elijah is associated with a series of outstanding miracles. It is as if earthly limitations don't apply to him: rather like Jesus walking on water.
Even if faith says that the stories are historical, it's still difficult to relate to a superhuman hero.
It's worth noting that the Bible also has this other side. In most cases — Abraham, Moses, David, Elijah, and Jeremiah come to mind — the veil is lifted at least occasionally, and we see the frail, human side of the Bible's heroes.
It is then that the Bible seems truest to us: it is then that the reader experiences this subjective response, verisimilitude.
(Cross-posted on Outside the Box.)
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
1Unless otherwise indicated, scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.
2Four, if we include physical exhaustion: "And the angel of the Lord came again a second time and touched him and said, 'Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you'" (1 Kings 19:7). This, after Elijah had run a great distance to escape Jezebel's wrath.