Writing good history takes a great deal of instruction and practice. As Gordon S. Wood shows in his book The Purpose of the Past, even some of the most well-known historians find themselves partaking in detrimental fallacies. With a list of errors to be avoided, historical writing is best thought of as an art form confined within certain parameters. As an undergraduate and graduate student, I had the opportunity to learn from a variety of historians the guidelines for this difficult yet rewarding task.
The surprising conclusion that I reached from my studies is that thinking historically is a “Godly act.” Now, there are certain misconceptions from this phrase that I don’t want to be confused. I am not suggesting that all good history must come from a Christian perspective. Some of the most fabulous history books come from atheists, agnostics, and those of other religions. In this same vein, I also do not believe in the validity of a providentialist approach to history or even a “whig interpretation” as Herbert Butterfield critiques. To suggest that certain historical events are symbolic or point to a specific end narrative is pure conjecture. What I do mean, however, is that writing history significantly resembles God Himself.
History writing is commonly taught as observing the past from a birds-eye-view. A distancing of the author from specifics allows the historian to view events in light of their larger context and meaning. Similarly, history is to be seen as a “foreign country.” This means removing one’s present bias and understanding in order to more fully appreciate the “otherness” of a particular person, event, or time period.
Somewhat paradoxically, historians are also encouraged to engage in empathy, as John Fea notes in his book Why Study History. This is a much more intimate approach, and allows the author to place him or herself in the shoes of a historical figure. In doing so, these figures are portrayed as real people with real flaws and redemptive qualities, rather than mere names on a page. Historian Sam Wineburg suggests that this kind of historical approach allows us to “take membership in the entire human race.”
This constant removal from, and placement in history is what makes crafting a historical narrative an art form. John Lewis Gaddis’s The Landscape of History summarizes this concept nicely. The notion of a viewpoint and balance is something that Gaddis emphasizes throughout the book. He states that it is up to the historian to switch between literal and abstract representation, shift perspective, and find what is significant and insignificant. The result is a narrative – a story – that moves in a linear direction and reveals the nature of causes and effects.
It is these important ideas that have caused me to see the historian’s occupation as a sacred imitator of God. As a Christian, I see God as the ultimate narrator of history. He is removed from our world and is able to see things on the largest scale. He, like the historian at times, is wholly “other” and foreign. However, as Christ, God became a human in order to empathize with his people. He came to understand us and to relate to us, much as a historian relates to the humanness of historical figures. From these two perspectives, God crafts a story that is unique to Himself and is dependent on what He deems important.
I don’t pretend to imply that the similarities between God and historians are perfect. They certainly are not, and we shouldn’t expect them to be. However, as people in the imago dei, we should expect to see similarities and reflections of our Creator. These, I believe, are expressed in our approaches to life and contributions to society. Historians fulfill part of this imago dei in many of the ways that I just enumerated. The same is true for other occupations and practices.
As many will note, it is not essential to recognize this truth for the purposes of living a good life and doing good history. Yet, for those who do hold to this truth, it brings with it a great deal of meaning, purpose, and accountability.