Keeping History Human

Justin Taylor in his blog on The Gospel Coalition site writes of one of the founding fathers of the United States and his work on the first English translation of the Septuagint- the Greek Translation of the Old Testament. What I found especially interesting was the beginning of the blog entry in which he cites a book that includes a founder, Charles Thomson, and the fact that he very well may have been one of our country’s best historians in his role as Secretary of the Continental Congress. In the piece is a quote from Thomson that states his account of the machinations of the Congress would, “contradict all the histories of the great events of the Revolution.” This was eye opening to me since much of our national history, and especially the early history, has become enshrined in the minds of most Americans, and that colors almost everything in how we think of our nation. While I don’t think that means the common understanding of history of the early United States is wrong, I do think we have simplified and maybe even elevated aspects of its beginnings in order to glorify it or for some people, vilify it beyond reality.

I have found that most written and even oral history tends to hyperbole at times, for lots of different reasons, but often because we have our own opinions on how things should have worked.  I’m a bit of a WWII buff and I have found that there are many perspectives on how events during WWII affected or didn’t affect the outcome of the war. Many times this is because people and even historians don’t give enough credit to human frailties, idiosyncrasies, and even their personal circumstances in evaluation of events. We like to think of events happening in a sterile field or even a vacuum but that never, ever happens. There are usually many different contributing factors in how history unfolds, with many of these things never coming to light, or if they do,  are not given enough weight in evaluating them.

We also usually import our own biases or prejudice when we think about these events. Last night I was watching a lecture on Art History on C-span 3 in which the lecturer was presenting opinions on the work of a well-known American artist from the turn of the 20th century. I found it interesting he seemed to ascribe modern thoughts to an artist that lived over one hundred years ago. I would imagine he was trying to bring relevance to an older work for current students but in my opinion, not only was it not effective, it did a disservice to the artist and to the students. 

History is more than events….it is the interaction of people and how they live and thought, which is why it is so important. Knowing these interactions helps us to understand historic events better and how it might impact our lives as well.

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