Tag Archives: History

R = Revisionism

It turns out that I am a revisionist. I rewrite history, correcting the standard view, particularly the standard view of the history of the interpretation of the Bible. Generally I’m all about remembering that women also read, interpreted, and wrote about the Bible. Women also did theology, wrote about it, and their books were published.

Not so long ago, I used the word “revisionist” as a derogatory term for some historical fiction, those that had a character that seemed to reflect twenty-first century views rather than those of the time period where they lived. I need a new word for that, because I think that reading our times back into history is a trap that anyone revisioning the past can fall into. It seems legitimate to revisit our understanding of history as we look at the data differently, as we find new data, and as we see ways earlier historiography was biased. It does not, however, seem legitimate to impose new or late concepts backward in time. It is difficult to avoid this as we read old texts from our present with our categories, with our own understandings of the way the world works. It seems, however, that attempting to avoid imposing our view of the world upon old texts is a key discipline in reading old books well. I refer you to C.S. Lewis The Discarded Image for some thoughts on reading medieval texts well.

In other revisionist news, I’ve just finished this book:

DODO

It is wonderful. Quantum Theory. Time Travel. Changing History. Ridiculous Acronyms. What more could you want? And Neal Stephenson. Seriously. Go get the book. Have fun.

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M=Methodology

Methodology refers to the philosophic & theoretical underpinnings of research methods. It is the systematic discussion of research methods, often the methods common in a particular field of study. Unfortunately, in common use, it slides toward use as a synonym for method. When writing up one’s methodology, one discusses WHY one chose a particular method of research. A method is what one actually does in the research process.

When researching history, researchers have to think about what sources to use, and how to handle these sources. I’m reading two books which would claim to be History in some sense. Because the authors are working with different bits of history, they use different kinds of source material, and approach these sources in different ways.

In The Bletchley Girls, Tessa Dunlop’s editor decided that it was best to tell the stories of living women who worked at Bletchley Park during World War II. Dunlop’s research was carried out quite recently, more than 70 years after the beginning of the war and the conversion of Bletchley Park into a code-breaking facility. This meant she was interviewing women in their 90s. It also means that the stories of many women who worked at Bletchley Park were not accessed because those women were dead, or were suffering from memory loss. Deciding to interview living women about their war-time experiences limited the data Dunlop used in her book. Any methodological discussion of this method of gathering history (oral history, interviews of participants long after an episode of their life is concluded) must include a discussion of memory, and how memory is shaped both by later events and later understandings of the past.

In The Resurrection of the Son of God, N.T. Wright discusses the meaning of “resurrection” in the ancient world, and what it might mean that Jesus was resurrected. Wright uses ancient documents, both biblical texts, and texts from times before and after the biblical accounts were written. He attempts to access and understand the different ways the concept of resurrection was understood by different groups of people, including ancient Christians. Wright accesses history primarily through documents. Any methodological discussion of Wright’s work must include reflections on which documents survive from the ancient world, and how to best understand the writings which do survive. Further, if language use shifts over time, how do current readers access ancient use of particular words and concepts?

Methodological discussions of historical research involves all kinds of complications of memory, shifts in language, social changes, and imaginative expectations of historians. How do we best gain access to the foreign country that is the past? Time travel is ruled out at the moment, so a balance of other methods with their inherent difficulties must do for now.

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H=Historiography

Historiography is the fancy-pants word for the writing of History. It also means a theory of how to do this writing of History. Since I’m working on writing about a woman who is dead, that means I do historical writing. Historiography, both the method I should use and the writing of this History, plagues me.

How do we access the past? Memory. And then if the past we access is outside living memory, we used documents and artifacts, things left over from the past that can be studied and read. All documents and artifacts require interpretation, which will require another entry in this alphabet. It’s a good thing I comes after H.

There are all kinds of ideas about and practices of writing history. One way of writing and thinking about history is the “Great Man” theory of history. This theory turns history into biography, where only some biography counts – the lives of Great Men, whatever and whoever they may be. Note the non-inclusive language. Only Men need apply for greatness in most versions of this theory. While many historians have turned away from the Heroes Make History! way of thinking about the past, I think this kind of historiography infects many of our ways of thinking about the world. When defining “greatness” in humans, we think about history and how history will evaluate people. Those who are remembered are great. The rest of us are not so much. If history has not remembered a person, then they must not have been great, or had much influence. I’m not at all sure that this is true. I’m also not at all sure how to counter this reduction of history into biographies of the great.

Other ways of thinking about history include the shape and trajectory of history. Is history circular and thus repeat itself? Or should we picture history as a line moving toward some future end yet to be revealed? Does the line trend upward (progress!) or downward (doom!)?

This entry took me ages to write. I’ve been thinking about it and writing it and re-writing it (both in my head and on paper) since the last entry in this alphabet was published. I have several ideas of metaphors that undermine and counter the Heroes Make History! line of thought. There’s also quite a lot to say about memory, documents, and artifacts. In the end, I’ve talked most about the historiography that I think is faulty and infects our thinking, but given you nothing to replace it. Keep reading.

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G, Great.

Great starts with G. Please don’t confuse GREAT with GRATE, we aren’t going to cook today. (That was grating but it got the urge to make that pun out of the way. Finished groaning? Good, let’s go on.)

In this academic alphabet, Great will also stand in for other often-used evaluative words, including, but not limited to, the following: significant, important, pivotal, seminal. Most people who think, teach, and write about their thinking have some fond idea of being evaluated by their peers and successors as a great, or significant, or important person in their chosen field. They’d like to be outstanding in their field, though they are not farmers. (Sorry, pun filter slipped for a moment there. Got it back. Let’s go on.) But what does it mean to be Great?

There has been some thought lately about what might or might not make a nation great. I’ve written previously in this blog about the Great Men theory of history. But no one seems to be able to clearly say what it is that makes a person great. Is it what they do? What they think? Who they influence? And why do we strive after greatness? Or do we strive after fame, and think that means we’re great? Is greatness equivalent to fame? Or is something else going on?

So many questions, and the answer probably is “it depends.” In the dictionary something or someone who is called great has qualities significantly above normal or the average person. So a great book is significantly above the average or normal book. A great thinker is significantly above the average or normal thinker. In order to figure out whether anything is great, we have to know what the average or normal level is for that thing. I’m not sure we do that well at all. What criteria do we use in our evaluation? Do we call something great just because we LIKE it? And, since no book or person or idea is perfect, what imperfections might topple the item from our pedestals of greatness?

I think it might be more helpful in historical writing (which is what I’m working on at the moment) if things were just allowed to be interesting, and we didn’t always have to argue that something was Super Significant or Great or Seminal. Are average or normal events not worth speaking of?

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F=Force

Last summer I read a book called Woman as Force in History. I have an old, worn, paperback edition printed in the 70s (the cover design gives it away), but the book was originally published in 1946. In it, the author, Mary R. Beard, argues that women have always been part of history (the events that actually happen), they are just neglected or forgotten when the stories of what happened were written down. I will probably come back to Mary R. Beard’s views on history later in this alphabet. Today let’s talk about her use of the word FORCE.

As you may or may not recall, my first degree is in engineering. Aerospace engineering even. Rocket Science. This means I did a fair bit of physics, and even taught physics to high school students for a while. I keep finding physics words popping up as I read theology and history. I find I am not particularly fond of the way physics metaphors are slung about in these other disciplines. Beard’s title is my way into this particular rant.

I will concede that Mary R. Beard may not have thought of her phrasing “woman as force” as provocative or even having anything to do with some guy Newton and classical mechanics. She wrote this book in the shadow of the second world war, when forces deployed meant armies and navies and air forces. Air FORCE – that word again. Possibly she meant Woman as Force! to suggest an army of women acting through history. She does not, however, clarify her particular use of the term. I kept thinking of physics and F=ma and W=Fd and vectors. (To translate briefly: Force equals mass multiplied by acceleration and Work done equals force applied multiplied by displacement. One notes that if one combines the two equations, Work=mad. Hmmm.) Beard’s use of the term FORCE was slightly distracting and reminded me of all the other times I’ve seen physics metaphors that don’t quite work when one knows something about the physics.

Other physics concepts that have been more distracting than helpful out of context:

Quantum anything. Most recently, I’ve noticed a book called Paradoxology: Spirituality in a Quantum Universe. This appears (I’ve not read the whole thing) to take up the idea of quanta, discrete bundles of energy, and talk about this idea as if it explained God. The author is a woman of some talent and energy, but I’m not sure why she thinks it necessary to dabble in quantum metaphor, something physicists themselves claim is difficult to understand well. (I had a flashback moment when the author turned out to have written the songs and been part of the nuns singing on “Joy is Like the Rain” one of the few vinyl records available to play at camp when I was growing up.)

Uncertainty, as in the Uncertainty Principle (is the cat there?) or Relativity. These ideas are so often poorly used in general conversation and thought that I hesitate to talk about them here. Please do note that in physics, uncertainty applies at the atomic scale, that is, when things are very very small. Relativity applies when things are moving very very fast, at speeds approaching the speed of light. Despite what the movies say, we don’t know how to travel that quickly.

Centripetal and centrifugal forces. I encountered these two in a book I otherwise liked very much. I tried to find other words to substitute for them to get past the fact that I kept using physics to shoot down the author’s literary arguments because of his poor choice of metaphor. I think his arguments had merit despite the metaphors.

Possibly no one else finds the poor use of physics metaphors distracting. Let me know what you think. I think people should stop using these metaphors unless they know the physics.

May the Force Be With You.

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FIVE Non-Fiction Books!

(Sing the title to the Five line of the 12 Days of Christmas. Ok, it doesn’t quite fit perfectly, but that’s what’s in my head.)

I mentioned in my 4 reasons for not posting for a while that I went on a road trip last month. I listened to two non-fiction audio-books on the road, one for the way there, and one for the way back. Let me tell you about those two books and three other non-fiction books that I read after that road trip.

  1. Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe by Thomas Cahill. I’ve read Cahill before. I quite enjoyed his How the Irish Saved Civilization in the “Hinges of History” series. This book also fits into that series. I’m afraid I didn’t find Mysteries as well argued as How the Irish. I read the Irish book and came away convinced of the importance of the Irish monks in preserving historical documents in the early Middle Ages. Mysteries I found over-ambitious in its reach and without a clear-cut argument. I think Cahill was trying to show that good things came out of the Medieval Catholic Church, but I didn’t need convincing of that. He also elevated the expression “vox populi, vox deus” to scriptural status, which I find unwarranted. I am pretty sure that the vox populi can be misguided. Witness Rob Ford. The book contains interesting stories about interesting people, but its overall argument is not strong.
  2. The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum. I rather enjoyed this tale of murder and death in New York City, despite the general sense that it is in essence a tract on the evils of prohibition. Besides railing on the US Government and its misguided prohibition amendment, the book tells the story of NY City’s first medical examiner and his colleague, who developed the field of forensic toxicology. It is pretty interesting stuff. You should read it. Or listen to it.
  3. The Lion’s World by Rowan Williams. This is Rowan Williams’s reflection on Narnia. Reading this short book made me want to read all the Narnia books again. I am still not convinced that one should read the Narnian books in chronological order as Williams suggests (and yes, I know Lewis suggested it too) but Williams did give me different ways of looking at some parts of the books that I’ve never really liked, including seeing the value of The Last Battle, my least favourite book in the series.
  4. Time’s Anvil: England, Archaeology and the Imagination by Richard Morris. This is a fascinating book. I read it over a very long time, more than six months, and it talks about understanding the data of archaeology in different ways, so that the past can be accurately heard in the data. I thought about finding Richard III a lot when I read the chapter on digging up battles and seeing that the story told by the remains doesn’t match the written historical record. The aerial survey photos and the writing about new techniques in archaeology are extremely interesting.
  5. Reflections on the Psalms by C.S. Lewis. I’d not read this particular Lewis book before. I found his reflection on Praise the best part of the book. It is a nice short book, and easy to access.

What non-fiction books are you reading?

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Mysteries in the Vortex

Here we are in another Polar Vortex. In honour of the cold, a list of 50 essential mysteries to read when you cannot possibly go outside has been posted over at Flavorwire. This list is an entertaining read, though it is heavy on USAian Noir, and light on the British mysteries I like. I have noted a few books from the list to hunt down.

In the meantime, I’ve got a lovely pile of books to get me through any vortices that might spin my way this week. I got both Atwood and Atkinson (MaddAddam, and Life after Life respectively) for Christmas. I’m also slowly making my way through a really interesting library book called Time’s Anvil: England, Archaeology and the Imagination by Richard Morris. I first heard about the book on a podcast, and it is fascinating. The book won a prize for non-fiction books in the UK, and I am not surprised. It is quite good. It also riffs off on the philosophy/idea of time. I like it when a book does that.

What are you reading?

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Women’s education

Thoughts published in 1827 on educating women, from Conversations on the Bible by Sarah Ewing Hall, a book of conversations between Mother and her three children, Fanny, Catherine, and Charles. Here they are discussing Judges 4 & 5.

Fanny. Difficult as it is to reconcile our present notions with the conduct of Jael—or indeed to the participation of women in warlike exploits at all, I must plume myself on Deborah. The appointment of a woman to the dignity of a ruler and a prophet, by unerring wisdom, is in favour of my opinion, that the mental powers of the sexes are naturally equal.

Mother. That is a question my dear, which we can never determine until their natural powers are alike cultivated by education. So long as one and twenty years are unremittingly given to the improvement of the mind of one, and not more than half that time to the other, and that besides, in a desultory manner, it will be altogether unfair to estimate the minds of men and women by their subsequent conduct.

Go Sarah Hall almost 200 years ago.

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Great Men/Women Theories

I am currently reading Dorothy L. Sayers again. I’ve made it to Gaudy Night in the Lord Peter Wimsey series. Gaudy Night is one of my favourite of these books. Once, when I had it with me at church, Fee, an elder now with Jesus, informed me that it was one of her favourites. I know I liked it because of the interesting female lead. I think Fee might have liked it for similar reasons. As I read last night, I came across a passage that I don’t think I’d spotted before. I’ve been interested in the “Great Men” historiography of the nineteenth century because I’ve worked with women writing in the nineteenth century who had to deal with that kind of thinking. In Gaudy Night Harriet mused on a counter theory of great women. Here is her musing

“Though of course,” Harriet reminded herself, “a woman may achieve greatness, or at any rate great renown, by merely being a wonderful wife and mother, like the mother of the Gracchi; whereas the men who have achieved great renown by being devoted husbands and fathers might be counted on the fingers of one hand. Charles I was an unfortunate king, but an admirable family man. Still, you would scarcely class him as one of the world’s great fathers, and his children were not an unqualified success. Dear me! Being a father is either a very difficult or a very sadly unrewarded profession. Wherever you find a great man, you will find a great mother or a great wife standing behind him—or so they used to say. It would be interesting to know how many great women have had great fathers and husbands behind them. An interesting thesis for research. Elizabeth Barrett? Well, she had a great husband, but he was great in his own right, so to speak—and Mr. Barrett was not exactly—The Brontes? Well, hardly. Queen Elizabeth? [Note: no number as book written in 1935.] She had a remarkable father, but devoted helpfulness towards his daughters was scarcely his leading characteristic. And she was so wrong-headed as to have no husband. Queen Victoria? You might make a good deal out of poor Albert, but you couldn’t do much with the Duke of Kent.”

Excellent. I rather liked this line of thought.

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Reading Older Theology Books

I’ve just finished reading History, Sacred and Profane by Alan Richardson. The book is the published version of the Bampton Lectures for 1962. (These are the Bampton Lectures at Oxford, not the ones in the USA.) At the end, in an appendix, Richardson says that Christian theology is closer to history than philosophy, and to think that dogmatics is metaphysics confuses categories. Here is a longish quote in which this gets says. (The italics emphasis in the quote is Richardson’s, the bold emphasis mine. I’ve added a little gender-inclusivity as well.)

A very important corollary follows concerning the nature of the enquiry into the history of ideas which has been pursued in these Lectures. That enquiry has been historical in character, since it has been concerned with the interpretation of history. The point is an important one, because there is much confusion today concerning the nature of theology. Many philosophers nowadays are accustomed to class theological statements with metaphysical ones, bringing them into the same condemnation. This is a mistake, a confusion of categories, so far as Christian theology is concerned. If our approach has been correct, theological statements are historical, not metaphysical, in character. Such statements as ‘God is love’ or ‘the world was created by God’ are historical  in that they are brief summaries of a long and well-considered process of reflection upon historical ‘facts’, which are themselves interpretations of historical evidence. Christian dogmatics, is, in essence, the Christian interpretation of history. The verification of theological statements involves us in the interpretation of history, which is the task of the historian qua historian; verification is not the task of the philosopher qua philosopher, because the relevant evidence is historical. Verification, again, is not to be sought in the natural sciences (though, of course, the historian will have to take into account all available knowledge, including scientific knowledge, when he comes to make his interpretation). In the last resort, as in all historical interpretation, the interpreter’s own personal experience of involvement in history will be the deciding factor in his [her] judging, because all historical judgment is unavoidably personal and existential. There is no escape from personal decision by the fiction of an objective or ‘scientific’ history, which can determine the existential questions of historical interpretation in the kind of ‘public’ manner which is expected of the natural sciences. The sciences tell us much about the stage on which the drama of history is enacted; they can even help us to set the stage in such a way that the play may be better acted and better seen; but the meaning of the drama is perceived not by attending to the stage mechanism, but by involvement in the tragedy enacted under the lights focused by the historian’s skill.

Theologians or historians or philosophers do you have thoughts or comments?

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