In theatre and often in literature, we’re obsessed with the human condition. It resonates deep within us. Its explanatory power is beyond words. It drives and gives arc to the stories we tell. It connects us.
I thought about this recently as a new religious historian was doing a lot of interviews about his new book on Jesus. More specifically than the broad category of history-writing, I’m fascinated by biography writing because it requires nothing less than empathy.
The act of writing a biography or of putting yourself in the shoes of another is a powerful, powerful exercise. This same act is something that helped to re-awaken Karen Armstrong who left her faith for years. If you ever encounter anyone you dislike or hate, simply begin to write his biography. Try to understand what motivated and motivates him, and the humanity--the very thing that runs in your veins--begins to fill the face of the other with colour . . .
As Lesley Hazleton, an award-winning, British-American writer, did just this while working on a biography of the life of Muhammad, she was amazed that, in Muhammad’s own words, at the moment of his revelatory vision, his first emotions were doubt. He didn’t believe what had happened and thought it was either a hallucination or a possession by an evil spirit that was trying to kill him. Afterwards, upon finding himself still alive, his first impulse was to finish the evil spirit’s job and kill himself and leap off the cliff. He came down that mountain in fear and doubt. And it was precisely this doubt that allowed Hazleton to afford him the integrity of the experience specifically because doubt is essential to faith. Strip doubt, and you’re possibly left with heartless conviction.
Hazleton has given a beautiful TED talk on doubt and her experience writing The First Muslim. You should watch it.