Sunday, December 30, 2018

The stories we tell ourselves are better if true

Oxford professor of History of the Church Diarmaid MacCulloch has given us several wonderful volumes which I've discussed here: Christianity: the First Three Thousand Years and Silence: A Christian History.

So I enthusiastically picked up All Things Made New: The Reformation and Its Legacy. And in doing so, I probably made a mistake -- I tried to come into MacCulloch's work on the Reformation through a wrong door. This volume could use a subtitle such as "Essays in Reformation History". That is, it it made up of interesting, often suggestive discussions of particular topics in various phases of the European and British Reformation as well as a few deeper dives into related topics such as the Book of Common Prayer, the Bay Psalm Book, the King James Bible and the fictions of the politically motivated 17th century author Robert Ware. It is all great stuff, but my weakly remembered Kings and Queens rhymes didn't provide enough background to enable me to make as much of it as I might have.

However, I did appreciate some of MacCulloch's observations on historiography, the study of how historians "do" history. At the core of his intellectual project has been to take back English Reformation history from 19th century Anglo-Catholics who, he argues, constructed a largely false narrative in order to "wrestle with the embarrassment that the Reformation happened at all." He's convincing, but I'd like to have more confidence in my background knowledge before commenting.

But I will share some of MacCulloch's thoughts about the study of history itself. He notes that too much conventional history is simply a picture of a

past is used to justify the present, and to explain how it was inevitable that we got to where we are today ... [this] is the historiography of a complacent Establishment in every age.

He aims to do more; he believes (and I share this) that truthful history serves a vital social function:

These essays reflect my belief that the proper study of history has a purpose, indeed (to be portentous), a moral purpose: it forms a powerful barrier against societies and institutions collectively going insane as a result of telling themselves badly skewed stories about the past.

I guess I'll have to find time to read MacCulloch's enormous volume on the Reformation to apprehend more of what he is arguing here.

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