Call it coincidence, but planning a look at Pontius Pilate on Good Friday got interrupted by watching Alan Bennett’s History Boys (again) with American friends who are staying with us. Out of the blue comes the question – in relation to literature and history – about truth: “What’s truth got to do with it?”
Good question. In the film (about education and learning and poetry and identity) truth is irrelevant to playing the right game and getting the exam results you need to get into the university of your choice – box ticking does the job nicely. And Pilate – though obviously not terribly preoccupied with the sort of educational sausage-machine nonsense we have had to put up with from successive governments in England – is puzzled by the same conundrum: not only is truth questionable, but it also isn’t clear what truth looks like or whether it matters.
Pilate, faced by one in whom the truth about God, the world and us is embodied, is rendered impotent. The judge stands judged; the powerful is neutered. All he has left is violence and populism. But, truth isn’t shaped by either of these.
Later in the film Hector, the teacher who inflames the imagination of his students, is being told to resign by the philistine snob of a headteacher who just ‘doesn’t get it’. Hector starts to quote poetry. The boss stops him, spitting out: “This is no time for poetry.” Yet, Hector has been trying to tell his students that poetry gives us a language – a vocabulary – for expressing an understanding of experience. Poetry learned and absorbed now gives us a language later when we do experience the things represented in memorable and imaginative language.
Perhaps Pilate might have fared better if he had learned a bit more poetry. Perhaps, if he had been teased by the parables of Jesus, he might have been driven by less functionalism. Maybe.