Joan of Awkward, Part Two - Hide It Under A Footnote? No! I'm Gonna Let It Shine...
The story of Joan of Arc forces historians to deal with overtly spiritual claims and potentially miraculous outcomes in ways historians do not generally wish to do. We’ll cover the role of religion in the most general ways, if absolutely necessary, but we DON’T LIKE TO TALK ABOUT IT IF WE DON’T HAVE TO.
We don’t actually like to talk about it even when we DO have to.
But Joan, by all historical accounts, followed up the predictions of her ‘voices’ with successful action. She – a peasant girl – wrangled an audience with the Dauphin Charles VII. She shared with him secret words of God which seem to have immediately turned him from manipulative skeptic to temporary believer and gave him the strength to actually lead his nation in a renewed war for independence.
In a time of drastically divided sexual roles, she ended up leading battlefield troops to greater successes than they’d seen in a generation. And, when the same king she’d brought to power began to tire of her – perhaps fearing her popularity, or perhaps simply believing she’d exhausted her usefulness – betrayed her and allowed her to be captured and tried by the English, she held to her faith, and to her convictions regarding God’s calling for him and for France.
She refused to renounce her unusually clear and personal communication with God, and was violently executed for a combination of heresy and cross-dressing – a condemnation of her innermost spiritual status mixed with outrage over her hair length and attire, her literal facade.
Plus she’d helped France kick England’s oppressive %** around a bit. That charge was implied rather than officially recorded in court or church records.
She was burned at the stake (in some accounts calling out to Jesus), eyes locked on the Crucifix she’d requested be held up before her eyes. Extant accounts suggest witnesses cried out for forgiveness, many repenting of their role in her martyrdom. Of course, people write lots of things after the fact – so who knows?
I will take a cynical leap and dismiss accounts that her heart was left undamaged in the ashes. We simply lack sufficient documentation for something so… unusual.
Immutable internal organs or not, how can you tell Joan’s story without pondering her faith? Her voices? She was either crazy with a healthy side of lucky, a very effective liar, or God spoke to her and sent her on a miracle-laden mission to save France from the English. The idea God could like France is problematic enough – but successful wars based on divine visions? Is that something we wish to encourage?
Thus, the political intrigues and battlefield strategies are explored endlessly, while Joan’s voices are rushed past, as if we’d rather not draw too much attention to THE MOST INTERESTING THING IN THE ENTIRE ACCOUNT.
To be fair, it’s tricky territory even for those not teaching in public schools to presume to understand the spiritual realities of another – particularly someone six centuries gone. But we do our past a disservice when we circle so widely around the subject instead.
If we’re going to acknowledge the hypocrisy and cruelty done in the name of God by early Spanish explorers confronting local Amerindians, let’s recognize the good intentions and legitimate faith of many others in similar situations. If we’re going to explain the cultural destruction done by Anglo-American missionaries to the tribes in their purview, let’s be a bit more vocal about the role of faith driving Samuel Worcester and his nameless ilk who served among the Natives with little reward in this life.
Yes, people taking part in the Second Great Awakening did some weird things – the barking and the roaring and the writhing about. Perhaps we could better tie these experiences to the increased efforts to help the poor and reform society in practical ways which tended to follow the path of such festivities. I'll take some speaking in tongues of angels if it leads to better social services - especially the non-governmental type.
And this same revival movement ‘democratized’ Protestantism in a powerful way, giving the average American far more agency in their salvation than the Calvinism of the previous generation could have even considered without doing some frothing and noise-making of their own – albeit of a less ecstatic nature. In other words, it made Christianity itself more reflective of American ideals regarding personal improvement and potential, and the power of personal choice.
We don’t have to mandate any particular interpretation regarding the spiritual accuracy of this to note that it’s PRETTY DAMN INTERESTING HOW THAT COULD HAPPEN and that the shift has continued through this very day.
As we approach modern times, it makes for a rather lopsided view of Presidential paradigms when we discuss foreign policy through every lens but the one most-cited from the Big Podium. “For we must consider that we shall be as a City Upon a Hill…” said John Winthrop in 1630 – a sentiment echoed, reworked, expanded, and cited over and over and over and over by men deciding whether or not we put our best in harm’s way in hopes of spreading that light a little further, or at least holding back the darkness a little longer.
In other words, sometimes we do stuff for oil. Sometimes we do stuff for business. Sometimes we do stuff out of an exaggerated sense of noblesse oblige. But in the mix is the conviction by many that our calling is divine – that there are times standing back is not an option, lest we lose the favor of God Himself.
That’s a thing, and if we are to debate it intelligently, we must know it exists.
We don’t have to solve or resolve the ethereals in order to acknowledge them. We cover tons of other complicated stuff without feeling compelled to either exalt or belittle the veracity of those involved. I’ve heard a dozen different explanations of how and why salmon swim upstream in their endeavor to spawn in their birth waters or whatever, but none carry an awkward fear of discussing the eternal truth vs. the practical value of this struggle. There’s no implied Rod’n’Reel of Damocles hanging over the topic, waiting for a lawsuit or angry phone call. It's just fish doing part of what fish do.
Surely it's OK to allow humans to be at least as complex as Friday's dinner?
If we’re in the business of educating, however imperfectly, let’s try to educate them – about whatever parts seem relevant at the time, and without carrying around the distorted notion that somehow dancing around the unknowns makes history more legit or more clear.
If anything, recognizing the complexity and depth of mankind’s many motivations and the varied realms in which we run has at least some small chance of bringing back a sense of relevance – maybe even stimulating some interest - which our past seems to have lost for far too many kids.
RELATED POST: Joan of Awkward, Part One - Missing Voices