July 11, 2010

The Battle for History

Here are my three favorite paragraphs so far from The Purpose of the Past, Gordon S. Wood's 2008 compilation of essays.  Commentary after the quote:
To be able to see the participants of the past in this comprehensive way, to see them in the context of their own time, to describe their blindness and folly with sympathy, to recognize the extent to which they were caught up in changing circumstances over which they had little control, and to realize the degree to which they created results they never intended -- to know all this about the past and to be able to relate it without anachronistic distortion to our present is what is meant by having a historical sense.

To possess a historical sense does not mean simply to possess information about the past.  It means to have a different consciousness, a historical consciousness, to have incorporated into our minds a mode of understanding that profoundly influences the way we look at the world.  History adds another dimension to our view of the world and enriches our experience.  Someone with a historical sense sees reality differently:  in four dimensions.  If it is self-identity that we want, then history deepens and complicates that identity by showing us how it has developed through time.  It tells us how we got to be the way we are.  And that historically developed being is not something easily manipulated or transformed.

We have heard a lot over the past several decades about the cultural construction of reality:  the so-called postmodern sense that the world is made by us.  Historians have little quarrel with this notion of the cultural construction of reality -- as long as this is understood as the historical construction of reality.  Too often postmodernists think that by demonstrating the cultural construction of reality, they have made it easier for men and women to change that reality at will.  If culture and society are made by us, they can be remade to suit our present needs, or so it seems.  But anyone with a historical sense knows differently, knows that things are more complicated than that.  History, experience, custom -- developments through time -- give whatever strength and solidity the conventions and values by which we live our lives have.  Those conventions and values, however humanly created, are not easily manipulated or transformed.  They, of course, have changed and will continue to change, but not necessarily in ways that we intend or want.

(from the Introduction, p.11-12)
Yes. History adds to our remembered sense of self. History shows us ways in which we might live. AND Historical writing must be an effort to show WHAT WAS, as opposed to what we can spin it into.

Wood is writing about US History, and Historians' place in the US' ongoing culture wars.  When I look at Wood's words, I think of the cultural wars within Christendom.  Were the first century Christians more like liberal protestants or conservative evangelicals?  Neither.  Did they exude magnificent tolerance in diversity?  Hardly.  Had they secured peaceable unity through doctrinal agreement, by Acts 15?  Hah!

The Battle for New Testament History currently has two sides.  Liberals reinterpret and redefine what the scripture says.  Conservatives support and defend what tradition tells them it says.  One side misses the truth by not trusting the text.  One side covers the truth by controlling the text.  Both sides savor their pockets of victory, but a new day is coming.

In the information age, it's getting harder and harder to build upon spin.

One of these days, History may start to fight for itself...


Josh L said...

If ever I've felt inspired, brother, I think now is the time. :)

Bill Heroman said...

Now is always best time.

Let's keep on sounding the bugle!

Andrew Gartshore said...

Awsome! Keep sounding brother, and may God continue to open our hearts to his kingdom within!

Recent Posts
Recent Posts Widget
"If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient observation than to any other reason."

-- Isaac Newton