In certain regions of the Western Christian world, the opinion prevails that historians have been behaving badly of late. This opinion, in fact, extends to academics at large. From this point of view, historians are attempting to distract the faithful from the truth by interpreting the history of the church incorrectly. This situation explains why believers are advised to heed their pastors instead of academics. It’s not enough that pastors play the role of teacher, liturgist, theologian, apologist, and organizer. Now we must also trust them on all matters scholarly and academic. It makes me sympathize even more for my friends who have entered the ministry.
I still remember, when as a child, our homeschool received a poster in the mail from National History Day which prominently displayed the line “History is an argument we make about the past.” This sentence fascinated me then, and I still believe it is essentially correct. Yet, significantly, not all arguments about the past carry the same weight. Many Americans have a shaky understanding of what history is, let alone of history itself. According to a recent study by the Association of American Historians, around 2/3 of the American populace believe that history is merely names, dates, and other facts about what happened in the past. History to them is merely a timeline of facts. At best then, it is a curiosity. We find out fun bits, like that the Pony Express started operation the same year that the fax machine was invented. But this is all history does. For better and for worse, there are historians who think this way as well. They believe they can enter the archive and simply read primary sources and write what they say. The irony in such an approach is that no human being can ever simply write something down, functioning as an essentially neutral medium. Everyone who sets out to describe the past has been shaped by a whole world and lifetime of experiences that made them who they are and thus shape how they think and write. There is never a view from nowhere. This truth might be considered a problem, but it is a beautiful problem that suggests the grandeur and madness of the human condition.
As opposed to this erroneous understanding of historical study, humans in reality study the past for four reasons: 1) To attempt to make different mistakes than our forebears. 2) To know we are not alone in our strivings and longings and failures and victories. 3) To ensure we are pursuing justice and a just society, with “justice” and “just” also shaped by all we have experienced. 4) To attempt to make sense of our own moment in time and ascertain how we arrived here. There is also a more shadowy fifth reason. This reason though, is much like Bruno: we don’t talk about it. The fifth reason is that an exact recovery of what happened in the past is not possible. Some things about the past are indeed “knowable” but not the past in its entirety or from all angles. This is why we make arguments about it. We can never inhabit the interior lives of those who went before us, which means any attempt at reconstructions of their world are at best educated guesses. I recognize this leaves us with a somewhat bleak view of ourselves and the past. It might be helpful to think of the past as an overflowing library in a language we don’t fully understand. Some (scholars) have an understanding of the alphabet and some of the words used in the library, but we can’t entirely make sense of all the figures of speech used. Think for instance of the recent joke from Sumer making rounds on the internet.
In light of this understanding of history, we might ask ourselves, what is the job of the historian amidst the mess of the past? The entire task of the historian might be summed up as the means by which a historian tries to come as close to facts from the past as possible in order to create a plausible narrative in such a way as to make sense to contemporary readers. Or to follow my earlier metaphor, historians act as both a librarian and a translator. They know their way through and around the mess, and they can help you, the reader, find volumes amidst the chaos which you can understand, and will hopefully lead you further into the grand, confused masterpiece that is the past. The problem, from historians’ perspective, is that there are intruders in the library, who rather than asking the staff for assistance, have taken volumes produced by careful translating with which they have built a campfire while replacing those volumes with ones they have written themselves without working hard at the project of translation. As one of my mentors, David Blight has written, “We all have some narrative of who we are and where we come from. Many people do not want their favored narratives disrupted by the critical tools of professional historians. But disrupt them we must.”
But how does a Christian historian fulfill this vocation and “disrupt favored narratives”? Psalm 78 gives us a concrete description: “utter dark sayings from of old… to our children… that they should not be like their ancestors.” The psalm meanders through the history of the nation of Israel from slavery in Egypt through at least the splitting of the kingdoms. The psalmist in poetic form gives us a history of the nation. The psalmist is forthright in attacking both those who do evil to Israel and the wayward Israelites themselves. There are no excuses made for why evil was done. Remember, the goal is that our children might do better than our parents. This challenge requires an uncomfortable honesty in how we tell stories, our own and our forebears. This may make some readers uncomfortable. The Psalmist clearly is exhibiting a bias in his historical writing–a bias against those of the past from what could be called a presentist perspective. However, this is clearly necessary. If we are to teach future generations to be steadfast in the faith, as the psalmist demands, we must be direct and unapologetic in our critique of those who have gone before us while not ignoring or downplaying that which is virtuous.
Hopefully, then I have convinced you that judgment is as much part of the historian’s job as the prophets of old. How might we best carry out this judgment? I grew up in the South, and my mother taught me that you always get more bees with honey than with vinegar. The historian’s job though is not to attract bees. Indeed, many times the work of the historian will be distasteful to the very ones who should be learning from it. In the book of Jeremiah, God intends judgment on his people and he commands the prophet to dictate the history of evils that have been committed and how they will be punished. Jeremiah has the scroll read before the people and then brought into the chamber of the king where it is read to him. The king proceeds to burn the scroll piece by piece. Those who have done evil do not enjoy being reminded of it or held to account. Similarly, we might think of the abolitionist movement in America. Unlike the British movement, which was rooted at least in part in evangelical theology, the American abolitionists were often motivated by visions of Manifest Destiny that saw slavery as debasing whites by threatening their self-reliance. These visions also required violently removing or killing Indigenous peoples. Truly, even our righteousness is filthy rags.
Part of the problem that many evangelicals have found with historians (going back to my own childhood) is that they “rewrite” history. Of course, to some extent, this is true of every history ever written. If a truly objective take on a set of events were possible, then the Bible would not include four gospels or the books of Chronicles and Kings with their diverging accounts. The problem that really seems to be bothering us when we fret about rewriting is that we are changing around heroes and villains. Several recent attacks opine that history now is written by activists. Of course, history has always been written by activists, but activists for what? Historians have always been shaped by their own stories and beliefs in what they write. Marxist historians often do us the favor of being honest in their ideological bent. Christian historians sometimes do the same thing. But this is the question postmodernism poses. It refuses to accept enlightenment claims of neutrality. Towards the end of my time in undergrad as I wrestled with what precisely my own philosophy of history was, I came across a scholar named Arnaldo Momigliano. I discovered him through the eminent historian of the early church and believer, Peter Brown. Momigliano had been his mentor and shaped his philosophy of history. In a rather obscure essay, he writes
“But the moral conscience which requires the historian to do research with a view to better society must be able to resist claims that its values are as historically conditioned as the values of the ruthless adult white male slave-owner. The True answer I believe lies in a dilemma. Either we possess a religious or moral belief independent of history, which allows us to pronounce judgment on historical events, or we must give up moral judging…Even the notion of transforming history by studying history implies a metahistorical faith.”
This description of the historian’s underlying task should resonate with any Christian. We do possess both a historical faith and a metahistorical faith. This universality and particularity cannot be separated from each other. The co-constitution of these pieces of Christianity is part of what makes it unique and truly global. This is a gift which missiologists were the first to discover as both Mark Noll and Kristen Kobes DuMez point out. However, such a perspective has been used by historians to great effect. We need historians because they are the ones who have done the work to be able to tell the difference between questionable and reliable stories about the past. Of course, this doesn’t mean we are flawless, but professional historical study holds up the ideal that careful research can be self-correcting, even for the values that historians bring to their works. Too often, the critics cherry pick what they respond to. As DuMez says herself in a Twitter thread responding to part of this controversy, “By all means examine my networks, sources of influence, conversation partners & supporters. But don’t just cherry-pick ones you don’t like. Include the complementarians, conservative pastors, Nicene-confessing Christians & scholars who attest to the truth my book contains.”
This combined attention to both historicity and metahistoricity should excite Christians because it’s something we have done since the very beginning of our own story. Noll points this out brilliantly in his chapter on Missiology in From Every Nation and Tribe: A Historian’s Discovery of the Global Christian Story. He writes that “In other words, Christianity has always been adapting to specific times, regions, and cultures, but with a recognizable measure of commonality wherever it appears…To understand that all expressions of Christianity represent both indigenization within local cultures and potential critique of that culture is to grasp something extremely important about the unfolding of the faith in history.” Thus, Christianity has not looked and should not look the same among the Lakota, the Franks, the Rohingya, the Maasai, or the Guarani. Or as Lesslie Newbigin puts it, “Every statement of the gospel in words is conditioned by the culture of which those words are a part, and every style of life that claims to embody the truth of the gospel is a culturally conditioned style of life…Yet the gospel…calls into question all cultures.” Thus the Gospel is always converting cultures and being converted to cultures. It is becoming enculturated while fundamentally reshaping what it is becoming. Here, I think a mathematical analogy may be helpful. When attempting to graph a function, one may find that it’s impossible to directly measure the curve. In order to get as close an approximation as possible, we can plot lines that intersect the curve at various points. The more of these lines we draw, the closer our approximation comes to accurately measuring the curve.
Similarly, no human culture is precisely shaped to the Gospel, but each of them carries pieces we can learn from. Now can we ever simply say the exact measure of the curve? No. Nor can we say we fully understand the Gospel perfectly and have attained an ideal Christian culture; this is impossible until the New Heavens and New Earth. This is simply not the way nature or history functions. Similarly, for historians, every primary source we read is shaped by the context it was written within. No source simply “tells it as it is.” Thus, the history of North America looks different when told from an Indigenous or African perspective than does the prevailing European settler understanding of the same history.
The historian then has two tasks: first, she must ascertain a method by which to choose those facts to include in her narrative (we might call this a strategy for carrying on research to discover material to include), and second, she must faithfully connect these facts into a coherent narrative that is faithful to the facts she has chosen. Borrowing from Momigliano, I want to call the method of these tasks a metahistorical faith—that is, a means of judgment and narration shaped by values and beliefs which transcend history. For Momigliano, this stance is necessary to differentiate the self-consciously critical historian from anyone else who simply writes haphazardly about the past. In this sense, postmodernism actually requires a religious faith (in the broadest sense) in order to write history. If we understand this precondition as the basis underlying the writing of any history, we start to realize that the disagreement is not actually about history per se. DuMez, as an example, has written wonderful history; not without its problems, but remarkable nonetheless. Evangelical pastors and seminarians’ disagreements with DuMez, Beth Allison Barr, and Jemar Tisby (among others) is not primarily about the histories. It’s about the metahistorical faith underlying the writing. In essence, many if not most of the evangelical pastors angry with historians are angry because the history, they think, was written with a different underlying philosophy (of history): one rooted in deconstruction.
In a famous interview with the French newspaper Le Monde, Jacques Derrida wrote that “Deconstruction never proceeds without love.” This raises several questions for how more conservative Evangelicals as well as those who claim to be “deconstructing” perceive the term. I will not here enter into a full defense of Derrida and his use to Christian thinkers and especially historians. Instead, I want only to briefly note that he held St. Augustine was the greatest mind western civilization ever produced and saw the work of deconstruction as following in the saint’s footsteps. Derrida continues by differentiating between destruction and deconstruction.
Because deconstruction proceeds from love it is inherently about rebuilding that thing which one loves into a better, truer, and more beautiful version of itself. Given this original definition of deconstruction, we can begin to recognize that deconstruction has gone the way of critical race theory. The term itself has become next to meaningless except as a dog whistle in the public consciousness. None of the historians being criticized are performing deconstruction in a technical sense, just as none of them are critical race theorists. Nevertheless, they are accused of these “crimes” as shorthand for not being sufficiently politically conservative. Furthermore, deconstruction, even postmodernism, is not a philosophy of history or worldview. Rather it is a tool that can be helpful in rethinking how narratives fit together. Bernard Bailyn was by no means a postmodernist or an advocate of deconstruction, but when asked about bringing together Indigenous and colonial narratives of history, he wrote “To say there are many truths in the same series of events, that the story can be told, accurately, from different points of view, is not to say that there is no truth at all or that false stories are as legitimate as true ones.”
A story from a previous generation of pastors and historians may be useful here to elucidate the situation. As Francis Schaeffer reached the apotheosis of this career in the late seventies and early eighties, he turned his eyes towards politics. He was rightly horrified at the abortion crisis in America. He hoped that by marshaling what he saw as the best of America’s Christian past, he and others might be able to galvanize Americans to reform the country. Unfortunately, his grasp of history was not particularly accurate. A group of young, conservative, evangelical historians began correspondence with Schaeffer and his son Franky because they were alarmed by some of the claims the Schaeffers made about American history. They viewed themselves as part of the same project—co-laborers, as it were, with the Schaeffers—and wanted to lend what assistance and expertise they could. Unfortunately, the Schaeffers were not interested in dissent.
Schaeffer fired back to Marsden that “I am increasingly convinced that this stream of ‘Christian historians’ is one more element, along with those who devaluate the Scripture and those who confuse the socialistic program with the kingdom of God, who really must be challenged.” As the correspondence became increasingly irate and intractable, Marsden would eventually reply (in what I believe should be a rallying cry of Christian scholars of every discipline) “Consequences of what one might say should, of course, be taken into account; but the crucial thing to seek is to get things right. Otherwise, we will be left with a pragmatic standard for what we say—a result that you lament in other contexts.
So, we cannot tailor our historical generalizations just to suit the needs of the moment—even if they be urgent needs.” Eventually, the Evangelical historians wrote their own book in order to respond directly to the Schaeffers’ alternative history. Even though Marsden and Hatch had both written monographs on the subject of Christianity during the American Revolution, the hope was that this more popular level book would reach out to those who were swayed by Schaeffer and other evangelical pundits’ books. It was an optimistic undertaking as Maxie Burch notes, “The Search for a Christian America was written with the assumption that evangelicals were critical of their beliefs and could be persuaded to test the historical assumptions of those beliefs.”
In short, the historians assumed that others who shared their same background and beliefs would be willing to take the same intellectual journey they had. This is the difference between competing metahistorical faiths within Evangelicalism. The historians believed history must be critical, even prophetic, following the scriptural examples I have cited. Others have seen long-term political goals as more important than the truth of history. Francis Schaeffer wrote to Mark Noll in 1983, “In summary, I am sorry but I do think unless you change the direction of your writing toward the direction I have suggested above that you will prove to be as destructive in the midst of the severe needs of our day…” This seems to be precisely how Evangelical critics expect scholars today to perform: there are political needs, and scholars must, regardless of the consequences, follow what these pastors and activists say are the needs of the church. But the historians have, at times quietly or more loudly, dissented from this required consensus.
All of this is why we need historians, and why we desperately need historians who are Christians: because Christian believers are singularly equipped to look at the world and the church and their history in all of its darkness without turning away in despair or nihilism. Of course, the church has failed in these many ways from massacring Indigenous peoples to sheltering sexual predators. The world has done as much and worse. However, Foucault was correct that where there is power, there is resistance, and often that resistance has been succored and shaped by the church. History is no fairy tale, particularly as we discover how its stories have been mistold and rewritten. Some things which have been done cannot be undone. But they have been resisted, and they were and are contingent. In telling the history of the great sins of the world, the United States, and its empire, we must write clearly and without whitewashing—of any sort—but we must also tirelessly describe those who resisted. No matter how futile that resistance may seem to us, it is the job of the historian to tell these stories. It might be my naïve state as a poet, but I think there is no way forward except with these lines from Wordsworth: “What we have loved, others will love and we will teach them…”
- https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/september-2021/a-snapshot-of-the-publics-views-on-history-national-poll-offers-valuable-insights-for-historians-and-advocates ↑
- As Jill Lepore has written, “History is the art of making an argument about the past by telling a story accountable to evidence. In the writing of history, a story without an argument fades into antiquarianism; an argument without a story risks pedantry. Writing history requires empathy, inquiry, and debate. It requires forswearing condescension, cant, and nostalgia. The past isn’t quaint. Much of it, in fact, is bleak.” ↑
- https://popcrush.com/twitter-decipher-punchline-ancient-sumerian-bar-joke/ ↑
- The conservative historian, Niall Ferguson puts it this way: “The historian thus may very well be related to the nonhistorian as the trained woodsman is to the ignorant traveler. ‘Nothing here, thinks the traveler, and marches on. ‘Look,’ says the woodsman, ‘There’s a tiger in that grass.’ In other words, history offers something different from scientific rules, namely insight.” ↑
- We can find comfort though in the reminder of James Baldwin, that “To accept one’s past – one’s history – is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it.” Baldwin continues by explaining the danger of what will happen if we invent a prettier history for ourselves. “An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought.” ↑
- (Momigliano 1977) p 369ff ↑
- DuMez describes her debt to missiologists Lesslie Newbigin and Andrew Walls in this twitter thread: https://twitter.com/kkdumez/status/1502378711315894274. Noll describes his debt to Walls and missiology more generally in chapters 9-10 of From Every Tribe and Nation. He also notes the intrinsically postmodern piece of missiology with “Their intense focus on the diverse incarnations of the gospel in cultures very different from each other reinforces postmodern awareness of the relativity of knowledge.” p. 107 ↑
- https://twitter.com/kkdumez/status/1502378711315894274 ↑
- Newbigin explains “But one may acquire what MacIntyre calls a “second first language,” a language which is learned in the same way that a child learns to use the native tongue. A missionary or an anthropologist who really hopes to understand and enter into the adopted culture will not do so by trying to learn the language in the way a tourist uses a phrasebook and a dictionary.” This is equally true of the past, which is no less a foreign place. Part of the skill of historians is learning how to navigate the past just as an expat learns to navigate cultures and cities which are not their own. ↑
- Foolishness to the Greeks ↑
- Historians should only be carrying out preliminary judgements until they have done a great deal of research. I learned this as early as my historical methods seminar in undergraduate, and it continues to be drilled into me by nearly every senior historian I encounter. ↑
- Momigliano, Arnaldo, and Anthony Grafton. Essays in Ancient and Modern Historiography. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012. p 369ff “But the moral conscience which requires the historian to do research with a view to better society must be able to resist claims that its values are as historically conditioned as the values of the ruthless adult white male slave-owner. The True answer I believe lies in a dilemma. Either we possess a religious or moral belief independent of history, which allows us to pronounce judgement on historical events, or we must give up moral judging…Even the notion of transforming history by studying history implies a metahistorical faith.” ↑
- https://hedgehogreview.com/web-features/thr/posts/engaging-jesus-and-john-wayne ↑
- The Writing and Teaching of History ↑
- Copy of Letter in the Author’s Possession ↑
- Ibid ↑
- The Evangelical Historians: The Historiography of George Marsden, Nathan Hatch, and Mark Noll ↑
- “I’m Just Making a Point” Barry Hankins ↑
Correction: An earlier version of this essay said that the poster saying “History is an argument we make about the past,” came from God’s World News.