Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Getting History Right?

Some may find it surprising to read Barth's short essay on history in his Protestant Theology and find him to be so charitable. In it he cautions those who mishandle history in two different ways. The first are those who find only problems in history, and the second are those who lift up the historical on a pedestal. In short, it is to be guilty of either presentantism or traditionalism. Instead, Barth advocates an openness toward history (and specifically the texts of the past) because one may discover something new in it. This may even lead to looking at a so-called heretic anew.

Barth's thought led me to ask what do we really want with the works of the past (both its events and texts)? Do we section off parts of it to fit within the time line of our liking? Do we dismiss it as irrelevant to the concerns of the present and the future? Are we trapped by it because it is the cause behind the effects we see all around us?

There is certainly a narrative aspect about it. When I put together lecture notes I inevitably choose some events and persons apart from others (time only permits such a choice). From Deleuze I have learned that History can be stifiling when it becomes an "official" all-encompassing story, so I am okay with the conscious decision that I am creating something out of the raw data of facts that have happened in the past. This is not making stuff up, but instead trying to be creative with the historical stuff that is there. Perhaps a more open and creative attitude toward history can help avoid the useless debate over telling history as it "really was" versus the idea that there is no such thing as history but only stories/fictions.

I think one of the best examples of this is the use of film for telling historical events. It sometimes connects the audience to history in a better way than a dense textbook even though the director may not have dotted all his i's and crossed his t's when it came to historical accuracy. Frankly, who cares! A good film may push someone to then read a good book.

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