Friday, November 4, 2011

Why People Should Not Hate History

History is the least liked of all subjects studied in school.  I think that it is because it is presented as a long list of seemingly disconnected facts. But history is not what happened.  History is what we think happened; what we understand to have happened, and it always includes a “why.”  Why did these things happen? What happened that was important, even though it seems not to have been important, in 1834? Or, was there something that happened in 1834 that may have been very important, but which we have previously overlooked? On what basis do we make that judgement?

I was a history major but didn’t know what to do with it when I graduated. Several years later in seminary I was exposed to historiography. The seminary curriculum then was three courses with multiple faculty for a full year: Bible, history, and theology. American church history was taught by Tom Schafer, whose life work was to compile all that Jonathan Edwards ever wrote. (Not my cup of tea, but someone had to do it.) Tom read everything, was interested in everything, and wouldn’t let us study church history without studying historiography.

So I immersed myself in Karl Lowith and others, who asked “What is history?” We read Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History among others. Lowith observed that most of the writers of history had been Christian, until Hegel and Marx. Everyone sees the past, the present, and the future through the lens of their own preconceptions. (Wow; early post-modernism!) So, is history going somewhere? Is it guided by God? Economic forces? We had better look more closely and more broadly.

We make of history what we want it to say. The winners of various conflicts tend to grab the right to tell us what it means. We may think we are objective or that “history is history” but we aren’t and it isn’t. This is what Gore Vidal was exploring in his novels on our history. George Washington wasn’t the GW we think we know, etc.

John Adams (the President, not the composer I am listening to now) distinguished between “experiencing” the past and “remembering” the past. He was troubled by the myth that was growing about the Revolutionary period. Some things become great while other events slide into oblivion. The Revolution was about more than the Declaration of Independence, but the Declaration came to dominate the American narrative. In order to understand who Adams was, we need to watch many films and read many books. (I like both Paul Giamatti and William Daniels as John.)

So onward to the war between the states. First, the one that occurred in the mid 19th century, then to the civil war of today. But I need to digress about saxophones, also a product of the 19th century.

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