I spend lots of my time around Christians and/or self-identifying conservatives or Republicans. When they find out that I am a historian, one of the most common subjects that comes up is so called “revisionist history” or “revisionism.” Questions and comments usually sounds something like these:
“You don’t practice any of that revisionist history, do you?”
“What do you think about all the liberals and their revisionist history? How do you even function as a Christian in the academy?”
“Why are all these ivy-league/ivory-tower people changing our history?”
Behind all these questions is a common assumption: history, the way this person understands it, is the way it really was. There is rarely any consideration for the idea that their understanding of history may be incomplete, or even flat-out wrong.
Rather than getting offended or trying to defend all of these phantom historians (who happen to be colleagues, mentors, and pros), I have recently begun practicing a new tactic: embracing the idea of revisionism. This so-called “revisionist” history a non-issue; it is actually a GOOD thing. It is a good thing, which all people, including Christians, should embrace.
As Christians interested in history, we should be interested above all in the truth. We may never be able to get at the whole, complete truth of a particular historical person or event, but that shouldn’t stop us from aiming for it. When one historian makes an attempt at telling a story, it is then the obligation of people following to revise the story, and aim for even more truth. This would include:
1. Continual discovery of new sources, and re-interpreting events according to them
2. Retelling old stories from new angles, particularly from the point of view of people who have been ignored or marginalized by historians in the past
3. Retelling well-known stories by emphasizing different subjects, people, movements, or sources.
These are all forms of “revising” history, and they are all good. Again, if we as Christians are interested in getting at as much truth as possible in history, then we should embrace revisionism as an obligation.
I’m not talking about purposefully twisting facts, purposefully ignoring facts which contradict our stories, or purposefully misrepresenting historical actors or ideas. This isn’t revisionism. It’s just a clever form of lying. If these sorts of historians exist anywhere in the academy, I haven’t met them yet.
Unfortunately, the only place I have met such so-called historians is within the walls of the church. Many Christians, well-intentioned or not, have revised history in order to place Christianity at the center of everything, from early American history to present-day politics. This, my brothers and sisters, is the worst kind of so-called “revisionism.” It’s misrepresentation. It’s lying. Let’s dump those selfish practices and embrace “revisionism” in our understanding of history, for the sake of the truth.
P.S. – For another take on “Revisionist” History, check out the blog of Robert Tracy McKenzie, professor and chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College. McKenzie actually argues that we should get rid of the term “revisionist” altogether, because it’s simply not helpful.
(More articles at www.ThinkingThroughChristianity.com)