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Shaping How We Think about History

Christians cannot afford to be ignorant of history.

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins, “Beyond the End of History,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 14, 2020.

The writing of history is changing, and the way it is changing should cause Christians to renew their interest in this discipline. More people are becoming interested in history, and historians are re-assessing the ways the research and write about the subject. As more people turn to history to understand the present, which view of history will shape their thinking?

As Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins observes, “Scholars and nonscholars alike are struggling to make sense of what is happening today. The public is turning to the past — through popular podcasts, newspapers, television, trade books and documentaries — to understand the blooming buzzing confusion of the present. Historians are being called upon by their students and eager general audiences trying to come to grips with a world again made strange.”

The danger is “presentism”, the practice of reading the past with the lens of the present. Historians have for a long time opposed this tendency, but it seems they may be giving into it. One example of this practice is the 1619 project of The New York Times, which assesses America’s history from the vantage point of critical race theory. Historians object to this presentist project, but it is not going away. In spite of the fact that “there is a blatant contradiction between the profession’s standards and the actual presentist work of many contemporary historians. Presentism refuses to go away — but the anxieties it induces continue to plague the profession.”

Its likely that “some level of presentism appears unavoidable, since the work of historical reconstruction is mediated by the present from which it is conducted.” but we must try to respect the “alterity” of history by understanding the worldviews and conditions of those we are studying, and considering whether and in what ways our own views should be reshaped by those of the past. The goal should be “to jettison crude versions of presentism without abandoning presentism altogether.”

The world is changing the way it writes history. If Christians do not want to be written out of history, because of growing present antipathies among members of the intellectual class, we’d better begin paying more attention to history, historiography, and especially our own history.

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