Re-Forming History

Mark Sandle, William Van Arragon
Published by Cascade Books, Wipf and Stock Publishers in 2019

Kevin N. Flatt teaches history at Redeemer University.

Does the discipline of history need a reformation? Mark Sandle and William Van Arragon think so. In this brief but far-ranging and thought-provoking book for students, the two historians from The King’s University, a Christian liberal arts university in Edmonton, Alberta, offer their take on what is wrong with the discipline and how Christian insights might help set it right. Along the way they address fundamental questions about the place of truth, love, and justice in scholarship—questions facing not only historians, but all Christians working in the humanities and social sciences. Though the book does not fully deliver on its premise, it does reward the reader with potentially transformative insights about the practice of history.

The authors take as their starting point the observation that the discipline of history and the historical profession are in a crisis characterized by (inter alia) overspecialization, overproduction, and a utilitarian approach to the past. These problems, the authors argue in the first chapter, are to a large degree the end result of misguided disciplinary practices from the modern era and the values of objectivity, originality, and individualism that underlie them. The solution to these problems, the authors propose, is a “theological turn” (7) in the work of Christian historians. “The rich heritage of Christian theology and Christian scholarship,” they write, “can help us think critically, creatively, and imaginatively about the academic study of the past and help us to do it differently” (7).

The second chapter, which is the theological heart of the book, introduces ideas from the German Catholic theologian Johann Baptist Metz (1928–2019) that guide the authors’ prescriptions for the discipline. The central concept the authors take from Metz is that Christians should write antihistory: in Metz’s words, “an understanding of history in which the vanquished and destroyed alternatives would also be taken into account” (44). As the authors put it, “the real meaning of history is found with the losers, not the winners” (44). Antihistory, like the Eucharist, according to Metz and the authors, is a form of “dangerous memory” (47) that subverts present political and social realities (including some of the assumptions underlying historical practices), undermines secular ideologies of progress, and calls for liberation from social injustice, colonialism, and imperialism.

The remainder of the book applies these ideas to various practical themes: the everyday practices of historical research, learning from premodern Christian historians and popular forms of historical representation, the historian’s duties to the dead, and the historian’s responsibilities when faced with injustice.

The book’s premise—the need for Christian historians to renew their approach to the discipline via a theological turn—is compelling, and will likely not need much defending for readers of this journal. Sandle and Van Arragon’s diagnosis of the discipline’s problems, though not exhaustive, is also persuasive in most respects. Scholars in other disciplines will likely recognize the problems of overproduction of scholarship no one reads, ever-intensifying specialization and fragmentation, and the elevation of speed and originality over wisdom.

The book’s careful reflection on the meaning and values of historical practices is particularly worthwhile. It serves as an important complement to other discussions among Christian historians that have often prioritized questions about how a Christian worldview should shape our understanding of epistemology, anthropology, historical causation, and so on.1 These are vital discussions in their own right, of course, but would be incomplete if they neglected the things that historians spend most of their time actually doing. Following James K. A. Smith, the authors rightly understand these practices as “liturgies” that express and shape the loves of historians.2 It is therefore essential that Christian historians pay serious attention to these practices—which are, the authors point out, not neutral but value-laden—and consider how they might be reshaped in light of Christian virtues.

It is here, in the patient work of stopping and observing these practices in action, that the book offers up its most profound insights. Two observations will suffice as examples among several that struck uncomfortably close to home for me. First is the recognition that much of what professional academic historians do is driven by the need (before tenure) and the desire (after tenure) to advance their own careers by producing original publications. In this way the reward structure of the profession—and, I would add, the disordered desires of historians themselves—“pushes historians to accumulate knowledge and use it for their own ends….When we use knowledge to support our scholarly ambitions, we are in effect using the people—the defenseless dead—for our own purposes.” (27, original emphasis). We adopt a hasty, utilitarian approach to our research, “like the extraction of mineral resources” (25).

These points lead naturally into the second unsettling observation. Here, Sandle, speaking of his own archival research into events in Soviet Moldova during World War II, relates a poignant instance of encountering a document that made a brief, passing reference to the execution of a train guard during the war. At first, he simply passed over this information as irrelevant to his project. But later in the day, he began to ask himself, “Why did I move on so quickly? After all, this was the death…of another human being. But it failed to register with me. This was troubling” (93). This experience, which many historians will recognize in our own research or teaching, raises the question, “What do we owe the dead?” (95). The beginning of an answer, the authors propose, is that when we are confronted with the fragments of another life, “We need to stop, pause our journey, and cross over to where the body lies” (109). For the same reason, the authors caution historians about the casual use of round numbers when counting the victims of some disaster or injustice, lest we erase the individuality of the dead.3 Sometimes, I would add, the best thing we can do is stop and weep—an imperative that applies to the classroom as well as the archives.

Both of these observations about our practices should stick in the hearts of historians, or indeed any sort of scholars whose work involves the study of human beings, living or dead. Perhaps a salutary new liturgical practice in light of these observations would be an “examination of conscience” for the scholar. Have I conducted my scholarship in service of myself or of others? Have I treated those I study as mere fodder for my own curiosity or ambitions? Have I failed to see the humanity of the dead?

Inevitably, the book also displays certain limitations, two of which have important implications for its stated goal of helping Christians do history differently. The first limitation is the slender theological base from which the authors take their inspiration. The book’s core theological concepts are drawn from the work of a single theologian, Metz, who represents a particular strand of post-Vatican II Catholicism developed in dialogue with the neo-Marxism of the Frankfurt School and related thinkers and allied with Latin American liberation theology. The authors acknowledge that their theological influences are “selective and unsystematic” (7), and though there are references to theologians and the occasional Christian philosopher from a range of sources, these mostly serve to buttress and deepen ideas drawn from Metz. The book does not seem to be more deeply rooted in any major Christian theological tradition. Despite the title and the playful “95 Theses” on history that begin and end the book, it does not seem to draw meaningfully from the larger Lutheran or Reformed traditions, for example. Most disappointingly, there is almost no direct engagement with the Bible. There are only three references in the book’s Scripture index (though I noticed one more not listed there).

In the same vein, even though the authors admirably champion engagement with pre-modern Christian historical thinkers, they devote little space to this—a few pages on Eusebius and one paragraph on Augustine. Moreover, premodern voices are filtered through (post)modern sensibilities in a way that forecloses the possibility of any genuinely unsettling ideas getting through. For instance, the book says we can learn from the fact that premodern Christians viewed history providentially. But it cautions readers that this idea often reflected “chauvinistic self-interest” (75)—this is how the authors read the English response to the destruction of the Spanish Armada. And it seems to think it obvious that “We should avoid the kind of providentialism that reads events (earthquakes, hurricanes, or terrorist attacks) as evidence of the hand of a judging God” (14). Instead, citing a present-day theologian, the book advises us to adopt “Figurative (not literal or scientific) interpretations of providence” (76). We are thus inoculated against much of the premodern tradition even while contemplating it.

In sum, the “theological turn” embodied in the book is one based on a few key ideas—liberation, subversion of oppressive systems, attention to the poor and marginalized—as understood by a particular current in (post)modern theology. Many other biblical and theological concepts which might arguably shape a Christian historian’s interpretation of history are just not on the radar: God’s sovereignty, the imago Dei, the cultural mandate, holiness, submission to authorities, the redemptive mission of the church, the antithesis between believers and unbelievers, and so on. To be sure, we have to start somewhere; no book can do everything; and (as Teddy Roosevelt famously said) it is better to be in the arena striving valiantly than in the stands criticizing. But if we are to have a “theological turn,” we are going to need more engagement with historic Christian theology.

A related problem, which constitutes the book’s second major limitation, is that the book’s selective pool of theological ideas aligns so well with values already ascendant in the secular academy. The claim that scholars should primarily be concerned with remembering the marginalized and undermining oppressive systems is hardly, to put it mildly, out of step with the scholarly zeitgeist. It would certainly not be shocking to the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, the largest scholarly gathering in Canada, was organized in spring 2020 under the theme “Confronting Colonialism and Anti-Black Racism.”

Indeed, it is clear throughout the book that the authors, like so many of their secular colleagues, regard the current social and political order in North America as fundamentally oppressive, and arrive at this conclusion using analytical categories that will be familiar to anyone working in Western academia. “The sins of history,” they write, “have set in place continuing patterns and structures of racial, social, and gender inequalities on which, for example, countries like Canada and the United States are built” (121). As authors they regard their viewpoint as “rightly” (139) subject to challenge because they “are embedded in colonial and academic structures, hierarchies, and practices as white, middle-class, Christian, North American cisgendered males” (138). Likewise, in terms of their theoretical commitments, the authors endorse postmodernism because it is “a liberative movement” that “lays bare structures of power and exclusion” (13), and say Christian historians should unreservedly embrace “the full implications of postcolonialist theory” (139), because to do otherwise would be to rationalize colonial subjugation. “Subversion” is thus a recurring theme of the book, with “subversive” consistently used as a positive adjective (see 42, 44, 48, among many others).

These tendencies are most strongly on display in the final chapter, which focuses on the Canadian Indigenous residential schools system, recently the subject of an investigation and report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The authors are rightly appalled by the system’s attempt to stamp out Indigenous cultures and languages and the widespread physical and sexual abuse it perpetuated, including the deaths of children who were abused, received inadequate food and medical care, or fled the schools to die in the wilderness. But aspects of the response they advocate for Christian historians seem wide of the mark, or at least needing more recognition of potentially valid disagreements. They insist, for example, that Christians acknowledge that the system carried out a “genocide” (to which they only sometimes append the qualifier “cultural”) (125). They imply that even raising questions about the evidentiary limitations of testimony at public TRC hearings is tantamount to endorsing “colonial Western practices” regarding objective and dispassionate evidence and thereby “preserving the colonial structures and ideologies that provided the frame and justification for cultural genocide in the first place” (133). They claim that “all North Americans,” apparently without exception or qualification, live on “unceded, stolen land” (142).

One can only wish that in their treatment of this crucial topic, the authors had followed their own advice in another publication about how Christian historians should think about Soviet communism. There, applying the concept of “antihistory,” they argue that our image of Lenin and Stalin as villains should be nuanced by a recognition of their humanity and even status as “victims” themselves, that we should draw inspiration from the hopeful aspects of the communist vision, and that we should avoid the temptation to use the deaths of communism’s victims (which they fully admit, but without once using the word “genocide”) to advance contemporary political agendas.4 Substituting “colonial” for communist and “Canadian political and church leaders” for Lenin and Stalin in the above would suggest a rather more qualified approach than that taken by the authors in the present book.

What is striking here is not only the authors’ asymmetrical application of moral opprobrium, but how closely their theological and political sympathies align with what Christian Smith calls the “sacred project” of the discipline of sociology.

This project, which Smith argues is aimed at “exposing, protesting, and ending …all human inequality, oppression, exploitation, suffering, injustice, poverty, discrimination, exclusion, hierarchy, constraint and domination by, of, and over other humans,”5 manifests in closely related versions across the humanities and social sciences, including in the discipline of history.

To the extent that Re-Forming History has a prophetic critique, therefore— and it does—not much of it is ultimately directed against the discipline’s sacred values. Even when it (rightly) exposes cherished but misguided professional practices, it blames them on nefarious enemies of the sacred project outside the discipline, such as “capitalist industrial modernity” (2), “neoliberalism” (61), and “colonialism” (137). The book prizes subversion, but mostly what it wants to subvert is the same thing the leading secular voices in the discipline want to subvert: the current liberal-capitalist political and social order, “Western” notions of rationality and objectivity, any kind of hierarchy, and so on. Christian theology seems to add little beyond a (somewhat tardy) “amen.” As a result, too much of what is proposed in the book is not so much a reformation of the discipline, but a wholehearted reaffirmation of its current hegemonic discourse and a legitimation of it in Christian terms. Is this the best we can offer to aspiring Christian historians, about to be immersed in this perspective in graduate school, when they ask how Christians can do history differently?

There is much of value in this book. My teaching and scholarship will be permanently changed for the better as a result of having read it—more alive to the reality and humanity of the dead, and more willing to question my own motives and agendas. At the same time, more work is needed if we are to have a full-throated theological turn in history and indeed all of our disciplines, and some of this work will need to be in a sense more radical, and more subversive, of the regnant gods of contemporary academia. And one of the ways it will become so is through deeper engagement with Scripture and premodern Christian thought that has a much different set of questions and priorities. In that regard it is hopeful that the authors regard their book, not as “the final word on the subject,” but as “an invitation to a conversation” (19).

Cite this article
Kevin N. Flatt, “Re-Forming History— An Extended Review”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 50:1 , 101-106

Footnotes

  1. For this reason, the authors think their approach aligns most closely with the third of Jay Green’s five “rival versions” of Christian historical approaches, which they describe as “study of the past as an exercise in applied Christian ethics” (16). See Jay D. Green, Christian Historiography: Five Rival Versions (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016).
  2. See James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009).
  3. For an excellent, heartbreaking example of how this principle can be put into practice, see Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (New York: Basic Books, 2010), 407–408.
  4. Mark Sandle and William Van Arragon, “Toward a Practice of Christian Antihistory: Writ- ing the Antihistory of Soviet Communism,” Fides et Historia 46 (2014); for examples of the above claims, see 92, 94–95, 96–97.
  5. Christian Smith, The Sacred Project of American Sociology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 7.

Kevin N. Flatt

Redeemer University College
Kevin Flatt is professor of history and chair of the Department of History, Politics, and International Studies. He teaches courses covering several areas of modern history in Canada, Europe, and the Middle East. His scholarly interests include secularization in Western societies and Protestantism in Canada. His research has been covered by media outlets such as CBC Radio, Christianity TodayMaclean’s magazine, the National Post, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. His history column appears in Faith Today, Canada’s national evangelical magazine. Dr. Flatt lives with his wife and two children in his hometown of Kitchener, Ontario.

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