February 22, 2014

The Death of John the Baptist as a Collective Memory Trauma

If you had been one of those Jews who thought the Baptizer was really somebody special, would you have stopped thinking about him just because he went to prison? According to Josephus, you would not.

Josephus says “the Jews” (and/or “Judeans”?) remembered John in a significant way when they cited “divine vengeance” for the Nabatean defeat of Herod Antipas’ army at Gamala. Granted, this defeat was merely five or so years after John’s beheading,* so these memories were fresh, but then connecting John’s death to the defeat of an army made a sensational story, much easier to pass along. Evidently, of course, there must have been some number of people passing along this version of current events around AD 35 to 37 in order for such sentiments to still be significant decades later – when Josephus last lived in Judea in the period of the war, c. 66-70 AD – in order for Josephus ultimately to pass this along in his publication of the Antiquities (c.93-94).   [*John’s arrest and eventual beheading took place around 30 AD (in 29 and 31, on the Heroman timeline) and Aretas’ advance into Philip’s territory lasted between 33/34, when Philip died, and early 37, when Governor A.Vitellius marched south from Antioch. For much more on all this, see relevant posts listed on my pages about Paul and Herodians.]

There’s a lot more to untangle here than the story of Antipas’ killing John. That’s the biblical part. Then there’s the story of Antipas and Aretas the Nabatean jockeying for the Golan Heights (while Tiberius crept toward his deathbed) because Philip the Tetrarch had died and Rome gave his territory to an absentee Governor of Syria. That’s the historical part. Then there’s the story of how Josephus collected his information and decided what to narrate about, and why it was worth sharing. That’s the literary part. But the aspect of things I want to focus on at the moment is the memory part.

People remembered John the Baptist. They knew that he was especially devoted to God, and that he had been killed, and that this had seemed unjust. Some people probably remembered a few other things, and a few people might not have remembered anything, but collectively there were enough people who remembered at least these three points that they regulated the basic structure of Josephus’ narrative, when he wrote down his own account from the various stories available, decades after the facts. Or, to invert that last point, there are details which add character to Josephus’ narration, but the basic structure of Josephus’ story about John seems to be based on three major points: John was Godly, John was killed, and his end was unjust.

If we take those three points back in time, we can reconstruct a basic social memory of John the Baptist at its organic inception, merely days after the actual beheading. The people who cared about John already knew that John had been a godly man, but once John was dead their knowledge about him grew by these additional two points, and became a final account, suitable for building upon by creating various memorializations. As the Gospels allude, there had been much talking done about John. What I want to focus on is the third point: that his death was unjust.

What would have been justice, for John? Note that I’m not asking about justice, but I’m wondering what his initial posterity – those Judeans and Galileans who cared to think about John – what had they been expecting?

Consider Nelson Mandela. On the day South Africa released him from prison, his supporters rallied and cheered, cried and shouted, chanted and celebrated. They had been hoping and praying for that day, wishing for it and imagining it, dreading that it would not come but believing that their best possible future would be for this thing that they wanted. On the day Mandela walked free, the outpouring of joy was a release of tempered but long-held expectations. For others, it may have been a day they’d long been dreading. But for Mandela’s supporters, it was – quite literally – a dream coming true.

So, again, what would have been justice, for John? To get out of prison? That doesn’t seem it was ever likely to happen, but plausibility isn’t the idea. Hope is the idea. People need hope to survive.

What did people envision? Was it possible that Antipas was going to be influenced by John, that John would baptize the Herod and God would retake the northern kingdom? Not realistically, no, but it’s entirely possible that some individuals or even whole synagogues had considered such a scenario. Did they think it was realistic? Again, not likely, no, but just to have a moment of considering such things was a delightful spark of a moment. Those kind of sparks are important to people.

What did people hope for? John’s disciples were still at large, and they had some means of communicating with him. Did people hope John might take up his work again, somehow vicariously, through his disciples? Maybe. Possibly. But the point just now isn’t for me to invent an idea so you and I might decide whether anyone else had that idea, back then, while John was still living in prison. Rather, the point is that people were probably having these kinds of ideas when John was still living in prison.

Jesus, of course, was moving around Galilee during John’s entire imprisonment. Jesus was going around, doing his thing. But people were still thinking about John. Maybe some expected that Jesus would eventually get popular enough that Herod would have to release John. Maybe some thought that Jesus would eventually claim political power and release John directly. It’s possible, of course, that nobody was thinking anything exactly like this, but it’s very probable that many people were occasionally thinking about something like this.

John was an important man, and John was godly. There were ungodly men in charge of the nation, and Jesus is going around talking about the Kingdom. And after John died, people thought it was unjust. They thought God wanted revenge. I don’t think many pondered long whether God wanted John to be killed or whether God didn’t want John to be killed. They just thought this particular death made God mad.

But none of that is my point.

Before John died, people had some idea of what would have been just. Maybe the least anyone hoped for John at that point was a long life in prison, and perhaps the most they hoped for would occasionally be some kind of earth-shaking realignment of things, but people thought about John with some sense of expectant potential. They did not expect him to die. They did not want him to die. The status quo for generations was that change was uncommon, but if the great man John was alive, then dreams were possible. While John was alive, hope was alive.

After John died, it changed the political dynamic for both Jesus and Antipas, though in different ways. Antipas soon began hunting Jesus, and Jesus began skirting the boundaries of Galilee, but Antipas realized that he’d prefer letting Jesus go down to Judea. Two dead prophets was too much blood for one set of hands, if those hands wanted to avoid trouble from his subjects in Galilee. And Jesus’ death in Judea was partly the result of escalating tensions caused by Jesus’ extended time in Judea, which had only begun since John the Baptist had died. Obiously, all of these changes were significant results of John’s death, going forward.

But none of that is my point.

Here is my point.

The biggest change after John’s death, at least the change most overlooked until now, is the way that it changed people’s outlook on what kinds of futures were possible. It was not that anyone’s lives changed in practical ways, but it was a more direct effect on people’s actual lives, because this affected their inner lives.

John’s death changed the projected storylines that were constantly being written and rewritten on the insides of everyone’s heads – or at least the insides of a great many heads – every day, day after day. While John was alive in prison, people went on carrying whatever set of hoped for or potential scenarios they might have been envisioning. For some people it may have been nothing more than John’s continued aliveness making it easier to believe God would deliver Israel. Again, it doesn’t matter specifically what they were thinking. What matters is that when John died an enormous, incalculable quantity of collective mental and emotional energy lost a big chunk of its focus. When John died, those scenarios could no longer be imagined, whatever they were. Whatever people might have been hoping for was suddenly and utterly gone. A vast number of scripts had just been wiped blank.

To some degree or another, this was a traumatic event. John’s place as a cultural figure makes it collectively traumatic, for some significant portion of the Palestinian-Jewish population at that time. And this brings me back to what I reflected on the other day, and to what I’ve been ruminating about in terms of basic social memory since last January, which I re-combobulated most recently here.

Consider the United States in November of 1963. When John F Kennedy was killed, it didn’t matter what people thought of him. Everyone was shocked. It had seemed unthinkable. That same day they swore in Lyndon Johnson as President, and many things were about to change, but it’s not a long stretch to argue that what changed most of all was the mental state of everyone in America. Whatever people had recently been imagining about the near future of their lives in this country, those scenarios all had Kennedy in them. Regardless of whatever expectations you’d hoped for or been dreading – unless you were the killer(s?) – everyone’s near-future scripts, and many people’s far-future scripts also, were wiped blank in an instant. For decades afterward, people would ask one another, “Where were you when Kennedy died?” and everyone would remember. Likewise, everyone of a certain age knows where they were when 9/11 took place, and it’s not so much because these events changed the exterior world – which they did – but because they changed people’s internal worlds. The real world ramifications from such events work themselves out slowly and gradually. When we think about civil rights law, today, do we think about LBJ replacing JFK? I don’t think we do. Thus, the actual developing results aren’t the primary thing that makes certain kinds of events so memorable.

Rather, the primary reason these kinds of events are so incredibly memorable is because of how completely and how instantly they alter everyone’s mental reality. The way we live in this world is by constantly writing scripts – large and small – about what is going to happen. Even the times we spend writing scripts about the past – those efforts are typically driven by present concerns, which are actually concerns for the future. That is, Historians call this “presentism” but technically we are not genuinely concerned for the immediate present, for the precise “present” is constantly passing away, moment by moment. No, what we care most about is the immediate future, the near-future, and for the ongoing human sense of a “present”, which – again – is how we envision the future. Thus, the primary reason traumatic events shake our lives so completely is because they put an end to whatever we’d become accustomed to envisioning, or expecting, or hoping. People even mourn the loss of predictability when its dreadful. “Better the devil you know”, as they say.

When John the Baptist died, people obviously found ways to move on. The world doesn’t end, after all, when hopes and dreams die so suddenly. But the world does dramatically pause for a moment. It takes a span of time for human beings to change mental habits. The stories we tell ourselves in our daily lives are habitual, because we tell them repeatedly. Perhaps we alter the story – or stories – a bit every day, but that changing story nevertheless remains the same story, under gradual revision. However, on the day when a central figure in someone’s common projection (their internal future storyline) is suddenly taken away, that same story cannot be told anymore. And yet, because it’s the story we’ve become mentally accustomed to telling ourselves, we keep trying to tell it. And yet we cannot.

Consider how often a widow or widower has been known to remark, “I just can’t believe they’re really gone” or “I just keep thinking I’ll walk in and see them at home”. This is precisely that accustomed expectation of our self-storying mentality, which takes some time to reset itself. People don’t talk about death very often, and we rarely talk about memories of funeral weeks, but I’ve heard many times that when you lose someone important, especially at a young age, that it never leaves you. You never get over such losses. It seems possible, then, that what this common experience reflects is that significant losses are extremely memorable. What “stays with you” is that initial shock, the circumstances of the traumatic loss and its immediate aftermath, themselves. In those days the brain goes on trying to re-learn how to write future scripts, but you don’t necessarily want it to do so. You don’t really want to begin imagining your future without the departed.

Or, for a different example, we can briefly consider the horrifying trauma of rape. A common testimony among survivors of rape is that losing one’s feeling of safety can be the worst part of the experience, perhaps because it’s the most lasting. The mind’s ability to write future scripts was working just fine before the attack, but afterwards it keeps trying to write normal scripts and it cannot. It’s as if safety itself has just died, as if safety can no longer be written into the script, as if the mind can no longer imagine a world in which people don’t try to rape you. There can’t be anything more awful, and forgive me for bringing it up, but the point is that whether someone has died or whether your safety and innocence have been stolen by a vicious attack, there are certain kinds of experiences that leave us all struggling to imagine the rest of today or tomorrow.

It is such days of blank futures, I suggest, which make the present so vividly memorable.

If all this is valid, then such was equally true for a good number of Judeans and Galileans when they heard John the Baptist was killed. The first thing, evidently, is that there had been a large group of people who focused intently on John’s life while he had been alive; on its meaning, on its potential ramifications, even when John had been rotting in prison for months, a year, perhaps two years altogether. And then, suddenly, John was dead.

If that collective re-writing of future scripts was traumatic enough, and inclusive enough – as evidently it was – then this would explain why John’s beheading is such a significant linchpin of the historical events being retold by the Gospels. What I mean by that is another topic, but in short, John’s death is like the most visible link in a chain of causality. Remember John’s death, and you start remembering what led up to John’s death. Less specifically perhaps, you also start remembering some of what followed.

In the Gospels – particularly the synoptics – the events leading  to John’s death are crystal clear. There’s a precise chain of events, each tied to corresponding circumstances. When John’s arrested, Jesus leaves Judea. While John’s in prison, Jesus travels in Galilee. When John dies, what comes next is more foggy but a pattern presents itself. Overall, from then on, the writers stop telling stories about Galilee and start telling about Jesus in other places, and soon thereafter he’s moving into Judea. While there’s no profit in taking narrative sequence as a stand-in for chronological history, these basic patterns of the narrative structure reveal an overarching chain of causality [or maybe 'skeletal chain of causality' is a more apt metaphor].

The basic chronology of Jesus’ ministry which the Gospels reflect is that Jesus’ Galilean phase corresponded to John’s imprisonment, and that Jesus’ extra-Galilean phase began after John was beheaded. This, precisely, is how ancient chronology was usually marked in historical literature: by the death of great men. In this case, John obviously was not a King, but as with the death of a king, such as Herod the Great, or the death a president, like JFK, or the release of a messiah-like figure, like Nelson Mandela, so was John’s death a significantly memorable event, in and of itself. While the memorability of John’s death does not require stories to be centered around it (the fourth gospel certainly avoided this structure) it does naturally present such a narrative structure as a convenient and helpful pattern for organizing the past.

The Gospel writers had plenty of angles, opinions, literary motifs and theological agendas, but John’s death was used as a key plot point because it was readily available as such.

The first draft of social memory is sometimes written because pages went blank.

But none of that is my point.

I began this long blogpost by asking the question, “If you had been one of those Jews who thought the Baptizer was really somebody special, would you have stopped thinking about him just because he went to prison?” And while I hope you’ve enjoyed all the fascinating avenues we’ve explored during this thought train, there’s honestly one point above all that I think we might best remember ourselves, when disembarking from this delightful excursion.

The contours of Josephus’ story, and the Gospels themselves, show that John was remembered. And the way that John was remembered reflects how people thought about John while John was still alive. That means that John was a significant person to many Jews in Judea and Galilee, even while the poor man himself was languishing, confused and desperate, in prison. We have often reflected on the gospel stories about John and felt sorry for poor John. He questioned everything and may have felt he died for nothing. But today I’m suggesting we can focus on the people who outlived John the Baptist, the ones to whom he was such a great man. We can focus on the fact that these ones who thought his death was so wickedly unjust simply must have spent many months, while he was in prison, hoping that something more just would befall him, and give them all hope for a greater portion of God's justice.

If you wish to step into that portion of History, then put yourself in that time and that place and imagine how much he meant to them all. Then imagine that moment, that week. Imagine what it was like… to lose hope for a while.

Can we take a moment of silence?

John the Baptist is dead.

February 20, 2014

The Value of Bygone Futures

The history least written about is the lives and deaths of plans, hopes and dreams, the projected narratives fulfilled unsuccessfully by history's so-called losers. Whether this means unremarkable commoners or less fortunate elites, it's astounding to contemplate how many visions were longed for and fought for, and how they impacted the world as much by their glorious potential and promise perhaps as by the negative precedent being set when those anticipations ultimately became stifled, or stillborn, or were actively crushed. 

But the opportunity here is not merely to balance traditional views or to ensure everyone's stories receive equal paper and ink. The greater opportunity is rather to let these perspectives enhance our understanding about the past as it was, as it was, as it more fully was- the grand lived experience of everyone, all at once, striving together and competing against one another, each with visions and plans, each reacting and adjusting, with everyone adapting to the raging storm of an ongoing dynamic that was larger than any one set of expectations, and yet stronger for being comprised of them all. 

The past is littered with unrealized futures but they deserve more than lament or counter-dominance nostalgia. The human condition is that to live in the present requires being somewhat absorbed in one or more possible futures. Thus, alternative visions of history's losers aren't just something to pine for or marvel about. Retrospected into past individuals' self-awareness and outlook, the non-past becomes part of actual history.

The dreams of one group were the nightmares of another, and to reconstruct those competing projections is to gain perspective and understanding about the interior and exterior lives of *all* the players who have passed from the stage, whether anyone since might declare some to be winners or not.

Anon then...

February 7, 2014

Meta-Dynamics and Social Memory Formation

Going through a mountain of scrap notes, I found these theoretical scribblings, from early 2013, when I was ruminating on new ideas I was calling "Posterity Theory" (most definitively here, with related thoughts here). All of this came about through considering how we might confidently suppose a bare minimum for whatever the original readers of Matthew 2:22 might have known - or might have been expected by a writer to have known - about their own recent history. And fwiw, the key impetus was Steve Mason's discussion of reader knowledge as a basis for literary irony (which I also blogged about in late 2012).

Yes, the day job kept me way too busy for most of 2013. But things are muuuch better now.

Anyway, here are the notes, for whatever they're worth at the moment.


[title] Meta-Dynamics
[subtitle] change in "slope" or dynamic-ness

[key idea] "measured" by how dynamic the possibilities appear to be in the general population's projected futures

[four examples]
under Herod, 5 BC [ drawing of a horizontal line, as the linear equation y=c ] stable

under Archelaus, early 4 BC [ sloping upwards, something like y=0.5x or any m < 1 ] escalating

War of Varus, mid 4 BC [ parabolic arc, heading rapidly upward ] Aaaah! what the H is going to happen, even five minutes from now?

Settlement of Varus, late 4 BC [ sloping upwards, longer not as steep as the line from example #2 ] mostly stable, but plenty of long-term uncertainty

[main body of notes begins here]
theory: events which correlate to the rapid change in the metadynamic (rate of anticipated change) state of the general population become necessarily memorable, necessarily because the one reliable constant in the onslaught of so much uncertainty, is the apparent cause of the change (abused victim syndrome). IT absorbs focus and becomes a part of the glue for all varieties of social narratives being constructed, in real time, about that time

hypothetically, this could actually be measured, if we began with some parameters about how many people have to be affected and thus how many "Major Uncertainties" were affixed to any particular "Nexus point" (need a new term here!)


Clear as mud? Well, forgive my not rewriting that but as I said, it's been a long year. Instead, it seems better to start fresh. Here's what I remember (basically) thinking...

First of all, if you don't remember anything about High School Algebra, the "slope" is a measurement of steepness in a linear equation, or a line on the x-y coordinate plane. By Calculus, the same concept is expanded. Instead of looking at slope, or "rate of change", the focus shifts to "instantaneous rate of change", which is also called "tangent" or "derivative", which measures the hypothetical slope at any given point along a [obviously, non-linear] curve. In plain language, the tangent is a straight line projection of where the curve would appear to be headed if all change of direction was suddenly stopped, at that moment.

The point of all this is that I began thinking of history and memorability in terms of how human beings actually go through our lives. We do not merely live within dynamic events as they happen. We sustain and engage ourselves with what is happening through our internal or social (that is, individualistic and/or community-based) predictions about what is or is not going to happen. It was reading Ricoeur (or to be honest, mostly about Ricoeur) that brought me to this. We project. We do it constantly.

To interact in the world while other things are happening we must bear in mind some degree of expectation towards the future. To walk somewhere, you must tell yourself a story about what will happen along the way and what will happen when you arrive. To speak to someone, you must project a general narrative in your own mind about how you think they might respond and what your own response could be to those possibilities. Even granting some allowance for personality and cultural differences in the way people focus on time, normal human beings do not live exclusively in the present. To do so much as fetch supplies or draw well water a person must anticipate the basic chain of events which will proceed from initial engagement.

One reason we don't notice this about life is that most of these anticipations are boring, standardized, commonplace, routinized affairs. By and large, we enjoy this. One might even suggest that human beings love ritual, crave routine, and are creatures of habit precisely because it provides us with a way to feel self-assured about our constant mental narrativizations (Ricoeur, again). If we cannot act in the world without projecting at least one possible future, and if we cannot feel sustained in existence without the ability to create these projections as a matter of course, if we so desperately need and rely upon the daily construction or reinforcement of these future-oriented narratives that go on in our heads... THEN what could possibly leave us more disheveled except an extreme escalation of uncertainty? It's not that we just happen to prefer a little bit of routine. It's that we need to know where at least some balls are going to be bouncing to or we cannot ever catch one. If we don't know at least some of what's going to happen, our existence is threatened - our physical existence indirectly, and our psychic existence directly.

Back to history and memory. One advantage of dictators is stability. You may not like a bad king but at least you know what to expect. But with stable expectations you get unremarkability. The reliable projections are confirmed with perfect non-memorability. At least, it's not a particular memory because it's a repetitious event. But what is predominantly memorable? When an expectation is directly contradicted. ("We're not having hot gruel today, kids. We're having cold gruel." - spoken hysterically by Carol Burnett, in the movie Annie, proving even a line of dialogue is memorable when it defies expectation. Btw, I'm tempted to compare this point with the essential nature of Irony here, but I shall leave that unexplored for now.) Again, the contradicted expectation may or may not be so pleasing, but it's absolutely more memorable.

One major point in my research that keeps presenting itself is the death of a King. There was no more precise chronological indicator in all of ancient literature than to remark that such-and-such happened at the time of King so-and-so's death. A transfer of regimes brings an abundance of small changes. You might remember this result and I might remember that result, but the commonality between all of us would naturally be the one thing that caused so many changes. And that leads me back to the notes, at the top.

The idea I had, last year, was that memory becomes more or less fertile depending on general uncertainty. If that is true, then the practical benefit for historical research could be as such: to suppose that the likelihood that a general population would remember a given event should be more probable if that particular event caused not just greater change, or a larger number of changes, but rather a greater amount of uncertainty, or a more prolonged period of uncertainty.

In my eventual publications about Archelaus in Mt.2:22, I'm going to be arguing something very much to that effect.

Anon, then...

February 5, 2014

Wright's Monolithic "Paul"

A Theologian depicting the past is not a Historian, necessarily, and a great way to understand this distinction is to read Doug Chaplin's review of NT Wright's massive new work on Paul.

What Wright primarily does is to synthesize Paul's thought. For that, he only needs to bring in historical elements that might best help to explain Paul's ideas but even those - Augustus and Vergil and cult practice and Judean customs and so forth - seen to have no intrinsic value in themselves. They are intellectual foils for our hero, props and meaningful scenery for the main character to comment on or react against in his monologues. There is no action, no consequence, no development, and thus despite the swirling dramas of these things in Paul's speeches, there is no drama on display within Paul himself. As Story, this would be an awful stage play, but a great work of philosophy.

Now, depicting the past should of course include depicting Ideas from that past. There is little of consequence in history that was not ideologically conditioned in some way or another. Thinking affects people's decisions, it prompts action, and thinking can be changed by events also. Actions and Ideas can both cause change and result from particular changes. And that is precisely the point. The "Paul" in Wright's head is apparently unchanging, reacting to but unshaped by the first century world around him.

Read Doug's review, and prepare to be enlightened. Wright's immense popularity in Christendom today helps illustrate how the church shares his fixation and blind spot. By and large, we care too much for ideas, and too little for human dynamics.

I persist in believing that non-fiction storytelling, and historically conditioned awareness of first century events, can help bring about much needed change for Christians today. But if you think of "History" in the same way NT Wright thinks of history, then please bookmark this post and Doug's review and come back to wrestle with both again some time. Your future is waiting.

Anon, then...

February 1, 2014

Progress in Historiology

The history of the study of history can be summarized in four stages of knowingness. Or at least, so I believe, as you’ll see outlined below. But first, here’s a personal disclaimer of sorts…

I set out years ago to discover why scholars of the New Testament do not write History based on the Gospels, or construct a more comprehensive History of Paul’s ministry among the earliest churches that’s based on implications of Acts combined with his letters. For almost as many years, I’ve also been trying to get past the most obvious (but grossly over-simplified) answer, which is simply that “liberal” historical-critics don’t accept enough of the first hand material, but then “conservative” Christian apologists don’t want to add things to what that material already says. Granted, that’s not necessarily wrong but it is grossly oversimplified. There must be more of an explanation for everything that is *and* is not being done, as regards History and the New Testament. Or at least, wouldn’t you think?

To this point, while I’ve not become anything like an expert historian of the historical and biblical studies professions, I may be finally grasping enough of the larger trends through recent centuries to attempt the following summation, and to consider where things may be headed. In that hope, if tentatively, here are my personal categories for the “Four Stages of the Historical Enterprise” (and a possible fifth). Note that these stages describe how professional historical understanding has advanced over time, both the general progress of the professional Academy at large and also the specific progress of individuals in the Academy, as well as some of us playing at home. So, without further ado…

The Four (or five?) Stages of Historical Engagement:

(1) Naïveté - history is everything that happened in the past

(2) Authority - history is what we, or they, or others have said about the past

(3) Criticism – authorized histories have failed to represent the past accurately or objectively

(4) Irony – criticism is the new authority; only skepticism is trustworthy; all histories are inherently unstable

(5) ??????? – ???????

Will there be a fifth stage? Can there be a fifth stage?

First, let’s consider how the first four stages interact with one another, simultaneously, still today.

Within the Academy, the fourth stage seems to have created somewhat of a self-perpetuating cycle. Any retreat to authority (2) results in further critique (3), which returns us to irony (4) which can multiply endlessly. The perceived futility (or merely natural frustration) explains the increasing attention to things like Historiography, Narratology, Narrative & Rhetoric, Reception History, Identity and Memory studies. Thus far, the attempt to account for what Y said about X has met with more agreement and less criticism,in general, though there are certainly exceptions. Meanwhile, only a few scholars along the way seem to have become hopelessly relativistic unlike most scholars, who simply acknowledge the difficulty of saying anything new in definitive ways. Overall, however, while traditional criticism still plays more effectively than straightforward history, especially narrative history, the strongest academic impulse is still a desire to avoid saying nothing. If there is nothing new to be said, they will find new ways to say something.

(Side note A: The few academics who insist that absolutely nothing can be said definitively are, themselves, firmly retreating to step two. Our progress toward abandoning metanarrative is, itself, a grand metanarrative! Thus, such theorists arguably make themselves the victims of irony, rather than leveraging it. But on such topics, at the moment, I really digress!)

(Side note B: The rise of micro-history suddenly seems more like a separate phenomenon, a new sub-field of history which appears to escape criticism largely because it treats subjects no one much cares to fight about and also partly because it builds from smaller pockets of source material that don’t leave historians with much grounds to fight over, anyway! But again, on this I really digress.)

Outside the Academy, and sometimes within it, a lot of people seem happily fixated at steps two or three. In actual practice, most people stick with chosen authors or critics, with loyalty to those voices coloring all further judgment. The need for them to be right makes the mind find ways of letting them be correct, and so those at steps (2) and (3) often stand with one foot back on step one because even criticism is now every bit as suspect as authority, and thus to dismiss the deep irony of our epistemological situation is in some way to remain partly naïve.

But the most extreme folks make a full retreat to stage (1), where those who reject all criticism outright find that doing so ultimately requires a rejection of human authority, also. That is, any attempt to enthrone Author X will eventually necessitate a defense against Critic Y, and no human author stays immune to all critics indefinitely. Thus, to reject criticism (3) in absolute terms requires a return not to authority (2) but to total naïveté (1), a position sustainable only by claiming inherently superior powers of discernment (blind arrogance) or special divine revelation (religious fundamentalism). This, of course, explains why Biblical Fundamentalism was born in recent centuries. Inerrancy doesn't support the authority of its adherents. It supports their need to be critically impervious. Contrast this with Calvin and Luther and Zwingli, each of whom made themselves little Popes – proclaiming the new order to their followers, revising but maintaining established traditions, asserting the priority of scriptural doctrines – and they did it all by the power of human authority. The Reformers knew what to do with a critic. It's the modernists, when they could no longer win, who organized a full scale retreat.

Ironically, this acknowledgement that only God's direct speaking can trump the invincible ironies of meta-criticism is, itself, evidence of Irony's (at least Earthly) supremacy. At least, one certain Truth on which everyone honestly agrees is that human beings aren't always correct. So as the fundamentalists retreated completely the academics stuck firmly in stage four made a sideways retreat, or forward progress on side trails, at least – examining things like the literary aspects of historical texts, the cultural values of memorializations, the commentaries upon commentaries upon commentaries, the marginalized and the minor local events, the appreciation of narrative, the appreciation of ways in which writers have spoken for people groups and situated their various perspectives on the world, on the past, on who’s done what, and the endless if increasingly anchorless discussions about what, if anything, all of this means. We have all that, and it’s proving substantially valuable, but about what? What we are doing here now must always regard where we have come from. At some point, we still have to reference the past – the original, actual, as-it-actually-was, imperfectly remembered, largely forgotten, gone but still causing change – past times we once referred to as History! What about that? The neo-naïve have their view of the past and these postmodern perspectives provide other views on the past (or at least views about views of the past). But what do we still possess, if there is anything, that gives us a reliable procedure for knowing things about History?

I would like to propose a fifth stage for working with History which might accurately be called:

(5) Ironic Naïveté. That is, we don’t know what happened in the past but we do know something happened, and though we may not know what it was, we can represent multiple scenarios, at least one of which may contain important aspects of the truth. 

In short, Ironic Naïveté is a position that fully embraces our knowing uncertainty but does not demand certainty before attempting to increase what we know.

This coming new stage is one I believe has already begun, or has been recently anticipated by various aspects of postmodern work being done across fields related to history and literature. In my view, this fifth stage – once recognized – will be understood best not precisely an escape from or as a way to move past the perceived impasse of the fourth stage. Rather, this “fifth stage” is another compounded response, as the previous stages each responded to one another in turn, each time compounding our understanding of how the study of History works – what it does, what it is, what it can be, what it cannot be – just a little bit more at each stage. In other words, this “fifth stage” is merely a way of embracing the proper finality of the fourth stage while partially restoring the more positive aspects of bygone stages one through three.

To summarize this idea more in terms of those categories, then, this new fifth stage basically needs to say something like this:
(1) something or other must have happened at times in the past,
(2) we can’t talk about that past without making somewhat authoritative types of claims,
(3) those claims must remain tentative at best because they might not be accurate.

In this way of attempted knowing, or proposing new knowledge, the unstable history suddenly has a chance to become more stable, both in offering multiple viewpoints (one of which is likely to be right) and also in reducing the extent to which one viewpoint must successfully ‘hold weight’. In addition, if multiple scenarios sometimes happen to possess significant commonalities, then those common aspects of the newly reconstructed and pluriform past, perhaps, may be seen to hold more weight, by virtue of holding that weight together.

At any rate, that’s what I think is already beginning to happen. And I hope it happens more and more. But if I’m at all close to correct, and if this movement does continue to take hold, and if it advances, I must also predict that it will not and cannot ever render anything like total confluence, although perhaps there will occur more significant instances of a minor confluence in particular areas.

Not that consensus is somehow the ultimate authority, it must also be noted! No, honestly and in my very humble opinion, there is one and indeed only one Ultimate Authority. So I do believe. But I also believe, if for worse or for better, that God Almighty simply does not seem to speak with us very often.

In the meantime, therefore, we must say what we can.

And so?

What will you say, to these things?????

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

-- Isaac Newton