Monday, 8 March 2010

Rewriting History

It used to be said that it was the preaching of Wesley and Whitfield that saved England from the French Revolution. it was a fairly well established ‘truth’ of history. However there is no such thing as un-interpreted history. It has also often been said that one of the spoils of victory is that you get to write the history! This means that whenever we read history we need to remember that the writer has a point of view, even if he doesn’t declare it and the prevailing culture will powerfully effect the final ‘history’.

So why am I raising this? Last night I watched the latest in a very well produced series of programmes that the BBC has created called ‘the Seven Ages of Britain’. Its host is David Dimbleby who is now an avuncular figure and a national institution in the UK, as was his father before him. The latest series concentrated on the 18th century. It traced the rise of the middle classes through art and sculpture. It focussed on the famous Hogarth series known as the Rake’s Progress and spoke of the initial sympathy of the UK for the French Revolution which turned to revulsion as the revolution descended into barbaric cruelties. Conspicuous, by its absence, was any reference at all to the 18th century revival and the involvement of Wesley and Whitfield. The methodist revival which was once said to have ‘saved England’ has now been written out of history.

I am a ‘very’ amateur history buff, and I usually have some history book on the go at all times. In truth all my study of history has one theme, I am always ‘looking for the saints’! That is to say my reading of history is always with a view to seeing what God was doing as such times and how the saints responded to the changing seasons. The old historians believed that history had a direction and retold their stories in the light of that timeline. The famous history of Macaulay is really tracing the development of the British Empire and points that get most attention are points which show that ‘development’. Modern historians are adopting a more ‘post modern’ position; there is no big story just a jumble of events which impact on each other. Henry Ford’s derisory comment that ‘history is just one d***ed thing after another’ is pretty close to the current viewpoint; there is no design and no purpose. We trace how we got here but it has all been arbitrary and random. Modern TV historians of the kind of David Starkey and Simon Schama are of this school. Their knowledge of facts is immense but they have no ‘theory of history’. In their dumbing down of history for the TV audience they both constantly make assertions and cut corners for which they have no evidence; they put little Thucididean quotes into the mouths of their characters to make their point. The history is consequently wide and flowing but not deep. We are left with generalities which are the convictions of the historian and where the historian has no conviction we are faced with wide open spaces. Starkey, Schama and Dimbleby are men with great skills in communication but they have no dimension of the divine; their histories are two dimensional.

The East Germans used to joke that whereas all countries had an uncertain future they were the only country with an ‘uncertain history’. They were referring to the process whereby their history was being constantly rewritten from a Marxist-Lenonist perspective. We are now, apparently, all East Germans. There is a famous axiom of historians that ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’. That means that just because they haven’t found it it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. With the current batch of high profile historians pursuing their set course there are set to be great gaps in the history the public and our children are learning. But those ‘gaps’ are not ‘evidence of absence’ but only evidence of the particular historian’s perspective. Modern historians claim to be more objective than their predecessors but people who convince themselves that they are 100% objective fall into the greatest trap of all, they have no awareness of their powerful subjectivity. Contrariwise the honest man who knows he will inevitably be shaped by his subjectivity has a much better chance of guarding against his own bias and thereby of writing a more objective history.

So by all means listen and watch the new historians but dig into some of the older ones too and whenever you listen or watch say to yourself ‘there is no such thing as uninterpreted history and what I am hearing is just one man’s narrow viewpoint’. Only Bible history is 100% reliable.


Robert Wurtz II said...

I have often marveled at how the world had fallen so fast from the knowledge of God with Cain, Seth unto the flood and then again from Noah to Abraham. We are only a few hundred years our from the Wesley and Whitefield revivals and already there is this problem of ignoring what God has done. I have to believe that this process is evidence of men not wanting to factor God into their reasonings. I have to believe that teachers, even in the secular arena, will have the greater condemnation. They are stewards of information. Surely God is going to require an account of that stewardship.

delboy said...

I was really looking forward to this weeks episode. but sadly the masive influence of God in our society was not even mentioned.Its a real shame because its so obvious that people high and low where certainly God concience in centuries passed