The new historicism wants to deconstruct the past in order to show us that all the values, all the institutions, all the cannons, all the truths, and all the texts by which we live our lives are simply imprisoning fictions that were created by some people in the past (usually white males) for self-serving purposes. These fictions are, therefore, readily susceptible to being destroyed by us in the present, in preparation for the emergence of a new, more just, more democratic order.This chapter was previously published in the New York Review of Books, November 1990.
Such a Rousseauian view, which assumes that knowledge of the fictional character of custom will itself free us, severely underestimates the power of the past and the power of culture. All the beliefs, values, and institutions of the culture may indeed be artificial fictions; but the historical fact of the matter is that they are fictions created by a process so complicated, involving so many participants with so many conflicting purposes over such long periods of time, that no amount of deconstruction, no degree of unmasking, can ever undo them. The culture, of course, can be - indeed, it will be - changed, but in ways that no one, including the radical post-Marxists and the deconstructionist literary critics, ever intended or wanted. Understanding this fact about the process of historical change is true historicism.
The New Testament at its best is a Story of how God moved in human beings in the earliest years of Jesus Christ, as he came into his Body. No matter how purely we see that Story, it will not fundamentally change the Institutional Church, as we know her. It can, however, provide a more living perspective on HOW God moves in his people, when they gather as Christians to pursue Him in his Kingdom... and THAT ought to be a benefit for anyone, whether hampered by pew sitting traditions or couch sitting conundrums.
There are many things driving change around Christendom these days. A fresher view of the New Testament Church is worth seeing purely for its own sake. And God help us all, after that.