January 13, 2011

excerpt: History and Heritage

"Correcting the heritage that distorts and violates the authentic history of persons and documents in the past is presumably what critical historians are supposed to do. That may be appropriate when we are correcting obvious myths like the stories of Parson Weems about George Washington. But what about the uses that Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., made of Jefferson and his statements about equality? By the precise standards of critical history, these uses were part of a false heritage that is presumably the responsibility of historians to correct.

Yet these distorted heritages are precisely what many people want and perhaps need in order to keep the past alive and meaningful. Should we critical historians tamper with this popular memory?  Can we... Is it even possible to do so?"  (From Gordon S. Wood's The Purpose of the Past, Chapter 13)
I've been meaning to get back here. I do so love this book.

Wood went on to quote historian Nell Palmer, who reportedly proved that Sojourner Truth never spoke the famous words, "A'n't I a woman?" but Painter concluded (in 1966) that "the symbol of Sojourner Truth is stronger and more essential in our culture than the complicated historic person... [and] still triumphs over scholarship."  Woods' conclusion:  "We haven't yet worked out the precise role of critical history in the culture.

Take a moment and process all that as you might.  Now, here's my take.

A wise old man once said that culture is stronger than anything, including God.  Probably by definition, ALL cultures must to some degree deliberately reinforce their preferred view of the past.  In New Testament scholarship, that goes equally for the subcultures of liberal criticism and conservative apologetics.  And the normal question is this:  can we ever be anything close to objective when fighting these Battles for History?

Maybe not.  Maybe.  But my question is different.

I think I get why Americans today need to re-envision Thomas Jefferson to support cultural trends... and I guess that's fine for America.  But we're supposed to be God's Kingdom.  And so, my question is - Why should Christendom ever attempt to re-envision [or re-frame] the New Testament to support, well, to support whatever it may be that some Christians are wanting to do next?

Of all people on Earth, can't we be honest with ourselves?  I'll go first.  I admit that I've never been part of a group that tried to "do church" in precisely the same way Peter or Paul did.  Likewise, I've never been part of a group that tried to build up community just like Jesus or John the Baptist did.  But by the way, just in case you don't know this, whoever you are, neither have you.  There is no Christian group today, anywhere in the world, whose living together is perfectly modeled on any one of the New Testament's churches.

We have a Christian History, that begins in the New Testament.  And that Heritage is what ought to inspire us to make God's Way into our ways, in our lives, for our time.  Viewing this History as our Primary Heritage, and giving all due respect to the King whose Name blesses our Kingdom, Christians should go on and feel free to do all the things on their hearts... for the sake of the Glory of God.

But Christians should NOT try to revise History for the sake of any particular heritage.

1 comment:

Sam said...

It is interesting what you say about culture being more powerful than god - it certainly makes me think about how we are guided in our lives.

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