Doing History

In this post, I consider the importance of doing history. I’ll wrap up by wondering about the ways in which speculative fiction might help us become better meaning-makers, story-tellers, and therefore interpreters of history.

I am currently reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. I have been excited about this one for a while, as I’ve read both of Coates’s memoirs (both are great, but you are in desperate lack if you haven’t read Between the World and Me). Coates’s prose-going-on-poetry will mark you. But since I’m not hip, and therefore don’t often read The Atlantic, I’ve never read any of Coates’s essays.

We Were Eight Years in Power features eight of Coates pieces published during the Obama administration. Each essay is introduced by a few paragraphs that place the essay in its original context and reflect on it in light of the 2016 Trump ascendancy.

In his essay from year three of the Obama White House, “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?”, Coates considers the competing narratives around the Civil War. He sees a turnabout in the way that Southern leaders explained the war before and after their defeat, and he says:

“In such revisions of history lay the roots of the noble Lost Cause–the belief that the South didn’t lose, so much as it was simply overwhelmed by superior numbers; that General Robert E. Lee was a contemporary King Arthur; that slavery, to be sure a benevolent institution, was never central to the South’s true designs” (Coates, 74).

He goes on to explain that this revision benefited North as well as South, of course at the expense of African Americans across the country.

There is a lot here. Still one can hear the cries–whether online or at one’s family Thanksgiving table–that the Civil War was not about slavery but states’ rights. Debunking such a maligning of history is not my aim here, though I can’t help but insert one question in response: even if one should consider “states’ rights” as more central to the cause of the Civil War, states’ right to/for what?

My aim is instead to reconsider the importance of doing history. We are an unreflective people, often with little sense of where we have been and where we’re going. Rather, we all have this sense, formed in us as we emerge as self- and culturally-aware people in this world. But we often let this sense or perspective go unchallenged. We are caught up in the present moment, with all of its debates and distinctions whose storied-pasts we often neglect.

There are many would-be prophetic voices out there who, however rightfully, make claims about the present and the future. The work of the historian is less glamorous. The historian must painstakingly deal in facts; she must also deal in narrative. The discipline is more than the presentation of neutral data, rather it is meaning-making on a grand scale. History deeply shapes one’s understanding of the present. Even more than the actual events that transpired, one’s understanding of the past shapes one’s expectations for the future and steps toward that end. Whatever other ways one struggles in the present, narrative and meaning-making are central to that struggle.

Admittedly, I have at times been skeptical of the historical enterprise, especially in relationship to theology or faith. With so much to occupy our minds right now, history can seem almost gratuitous. After all, shouldn’t we be skeptical of our ability to know the how and why of what actually happened? Perhaps the best we can do is to carry on and attempt to make sense of the present.

I’m also making my way through N. T. Wright’s four-tome Christians Origins and the Question of God series. Wright’s work is in large part a response to the last 150 years of Jesus scholarship. Many in today’s Western Christian landscape assume that history (not to mention science…) “prove” the Bible, never mind that the Bible is itself a product and a relic* of history. Yet much ink has been spent by scholars, from the “Lives” of Jesus onward, to get to the bottom of who this figure really was and what he did.

Yet more than dealing with the “facts,” Wright attempts to analyze history through images, practices, and story. In The New Testament and the People of God, Wright situates Christian Scripture within its place in first-century Jewish worldviews (clusters of practice, narrative, symbols, etc.).

History is unavoidably important for the spiritual life. Not that every faith practitioner will spend their days working through the relevant historical debates and such, but that some must. The prophets must do more than point forward. They must make meaning of the past, depicting the story that the faithful are to inhabit.

These scattered thoughts consistently point me back to one of my loves, speculative fiction. Just as the grand stories of our own world are central to “worldview,” fiction plays a fundamental role in shaping the world by shaping the attitudes and perceptions of its readers. This is not to move away from fiction as simply enjoyable and entertaining. It is surely that. But it is to point story tellers to their role, however willing, as the arbiters of narrative. Stories not only tell us about the world, however. They also teach us how to “read” our own stories–to read the past and the present.

Having said that, I think I need space to unpack it and truly understand it. How might learning how to inhabit other worlds via fiction help us inhabit and perhaps even love our own world, despite its many flaws?

*On my own stance: I definitely see the Bible as more than a relic. But despite the ways it is somehow “alive”–one might say animated by the divine Spirit–it is hardly readily accessible to the casual reader picking it up without context, for the most part.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. We Were Eight Year in Power: An American Tragedy. New York: One World Publishing, 2017.

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