A Musing on Official Historical Narratives and Agendas

In my experience as a historian engaged in various culture wars, including the ongoing ones over the American Civil War with neo-Confederate revisionist historians and over the Church of God crisis with other revisionist historians, I have to deal frequently with the untrue accusation that I am some kind of court historian writing official propaganda history.  Rather than simply denying this or refuting it conclusively (which would be easy to do, given my volunteer and non-elite status in the academies of both church and state, to date), I thought it worthwhile to examine the problem of historical narrative in a larger sense.

As a historian often accused of having an agenda, it is sometimes difficult to figure what is meant by the accusation.  There are at least two ways to take the accusation of an agenda, and both of them lead into grounds of considerable dispute within the field of historians (or bloggers, which are in this day and age like the diarists of old, the authors of the rough drafts and outlines of history that later become part of the larger historical narratives in which their facts and perspectives are the “hard data” historians mine for their research).  I would like to examine both of these aspects in which historians are accused of having an agenda, and how those are or are not true when it comes to myself personally in how I view both the history of the Church of God and the American Civil War, which for me I see as closely related.

In one sense, everyone who writes a history has an agenda.  All of us are in some fashion historians–we try to make sense of our life and personal background, record data (births, marriages, anniversaries, important events), and we all seek to make sense of what goes on, giving a narrative of how so-and-so did us wrong, or why we believe this person instead of that person.  We are all engaged in the delicate task of justifying our beliefs and perspectives, defending our opinions and judgments, and so we are all historians with an agenda on at least one level.  Wherever there is a perspective there is some kind of mental filter [1] that we use to see the world around us.  Whether we are aware of these filters or not, we see through them, and they affect what evidence in the world around us we accept or reject, as well as how we interpret.  The facts, after all, do not interpret themselves.

It is in this sense that many historians nowadays write historians from “subaltern” perspectives, about women or peasants or lowly shopkeepers whose diaries and reflections and lives were far from the attention of kings and popes and great generals.  To the extent that these new historians seek to balance out the perspective of history and bring us an understanding of those who are not elites, I am a wholehearted supporter of this trend, whether it is to see the perspective of marginalized ethnic or social groups or to see how someone with my perspective is viewed by others given their own personal and cultural backgrounds.  Such understanding is priceless and valuable.

However, as that type of “agenda” is possessed by all human beings or any other other being capable of rational thought, this is usually not what is meant when the accusation of having an agenda as a historian is made.  This accusation I most strenuously reject.  As a historian, whatever field I am investigating, my only agenda is to understand the whole truth as best as I can uncover it and to defend the consistent application of the godly standard of God’s word.  That is the extent of my “personal agenda” concerning any issue, period.  I have zero interest in distorting accounts or perverting the record of history–I leave that sort of ungodly and deceptive work to those blinded by partisan agendas (like the neo-Confederates or Holocaust deniers) or those whose political ambitions lead them to support some sort of fashionable revisionist history.  All I desire is to know and preach the truth–all of it, beautiful or ugly, popular or unpopular, well-known or obscure.

That which I have said so far deals with the agendas of history as they are generally known and understood by those who read and write history.  Any historian, regardless of his or her perspective, who seeks the whole truth to weigh and sift and consider, is worthy of my respect and honor.  Any historian who perverts history to support a personal or ideological agenda is unworthy of the name historian.  Such people, no matter how charming or how popular their works, is a fraud and a charlatan, a scoundrel unworthy of credit or praise.  The integrity of the historical record is a matter of the highest importance–we all see only partial aspects of the truth, but we have an obligation to record faithfully that which we do see, hear, and experience, to the best of our modest abilities.

To that end, the occupational status of a historian is irrelevant.  A history is not propaganda or true simply because it is either produced by a lone historian or by an institution or government.  Simply because a work is official does not make it automatically without value or disreputable, but neither does official status mean it is necessary the truth either.  Truth and error are external standards by which the works, including the histories, of men and women are to be judged without respect to their occupational identities as court historians or private researchers.  To judge a historian simply by occupation or perspective and not by the merits of his work is unjust and wrong.

Let us now turn from that which is applicable in general to historians to examine an area of particular interest regarding the accusation concerning being a “court historian.”  Most of the people who make this accusation, as well as I, are believers in the inerrancy of the Bible, and in it being the word of God Himself.  Let us therefore take careful note of large parts of the Bible themselves as being the result of “official court historians,” so that we may permanently banish the idea in the mind of any Bible believer that an official narrative is by definition false, unless one seeks to make God and scripture a liar, in which case one is not a believer anyway.

Let us note, in passing, some of the “official narratives” used in the writing of the Bible.  We have the books of the acts of Solomon (1 Kings 11:41), the court annals of which are repeated for just about every king of Israel and Judah in the historical prophets.  In Ezra, for example, we have numerous copies of official letters from the Persian government (Ezra 4:7-22, 5:17, 6:1-12).  In Esther we have the official narratives of the court history of Persia being used to reward Mordacai by divine providence (Esther 6:1-10).  These “court histories” became part of the Word of God, and so they must have been true.  We must not judge truth because of our own bias against “official accounts,” lest we be drawn into sin and rebellion against authorities we disrespect in disobedience to divine command (Romans 13:1-5, Exodus 22:28, Acts 23:5).

Therefore, anyone who completely disregards any official history cannot be a believer of the Bible, because the scriptural record itself has scrupulous concern for the accuracy of official records and great concern as to the legitimacy of its source material and the fidelity of its transcription and interpretation.  This concern is worthy, as is Luke’s orderly account of the Gospel (Luke 1:1-4) and of the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 1:1-3), of the highest respect that can be given from one historian to another.  Those who cannot respect official sources are unworthy of being considered as Christians, because they deny the faithfulness of the Word of God and sit as scoffers, in the camp of the accuser of the brethren and the father of lies.  Such people, unless they repent, cannot be true historians.

[1] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2010/12/20/not-what-you-see-the-problem-of-mental-filters/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Christianity, Church of God, History, Musings and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to A Musing on Official Historical Narratives and Agendas

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Two Histories of England, by Jane Austen and Charles Dickens | Edge Induced Cohesion

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