Sunday, September 30, 2007

A postmodern take on historiography

I am very interested in the historical criticism of scripture. It is certainly relevant to the New Testament (the vexed question of the "historical" Jesus), and every bit as relevant with respect to the Hebrew scriptures.

For example, believers typically take David as a model for the Messiah. But then an archaeologist comes along to assert the following conclusions:
David and Solomon existed in the 10th century B.C. but as "little more than hill country chieftains." There was no golden age of a united kingdom, a magnificent capital and an extended empire.
Currently, Finkelstein's and Silberman's claim remains hotly contested. But what happens if the scholarly consensus moves in that direction? How does it affect exegesis? How does it affect faith?

Postmodern scepticism about historiography:

I am sympathetic to a postmodern view of historiography. The scholar's conclusions follow largely from his or her presuppositions.

I don't think it is entirely so. For example, I think we can conclude, on objective grounds, that the synoptic Gospels accurately capture the very "voice" of Jesus (his ipsissima vox), if not always his very words (ipsissima verba).

But over and over again, scholars' supposedly objective conclusions follow directly from their personal predilections. For example, did Jesus predict the arrival of the kingdom of God during his lifetime? Just about everyone resists that conclusion, although there are good biblical grounds for it.

Conservatives resist that conclusion because they can't admit that Jesus made a prediction that didn't come true. Liberals resist that conclusion because the image of Jesus as a wild-eyed, end-times prophet doesn't fit their preferred schema:  Jesus as a teacher of universal ethical truths.

Conservatives and liberals alike sift the data according to what is palatable to them.

Postmodernists conclude that there is no such thing as objective history. I agree that historiography is highly problematic. Some basic conclusions are objective, in my view; but you can't progress very far before scholars begin picking and choosing from the data in accordance with their personal preferences.

Ken Burns's perspective:

That was my long-winded introduction to a quote from the documentary film-maker, Ken Burns. He sat down with Jon Stewart to discuss his documentary, "The War", a fresh examination of World War II. The video is embedded below (at least, it will be until Comedy Central deletes it from their site). But here is my transcript of the excerpts that caught my interest:

The second world war has been so draped in bloodless, gallant myth. You know, it's the John Wayne war. And when you see colour [film footage], it's no longer at arm's length. It's right there, and it's the worst war ever, not the good war, cause it killed sixty million people. …

A handful of soldiers [are now] able to say, "This is what really happened. I saw bad things; I did bad things; I lost good friends. I was scared, I was bored, I was hot, I was cold."

All the things that are universal to war. A guy in Iraq today — experiencing the same thing. And two thousand years ago, in the Peloponnesian War — the same thing. …

We don't have a political bone in our bodies in this film. … But at the same time, history is the set of questions we in the present ask of the past. And so it's very much informed about our anxieties. …

We know that it takes some time from an event before you can really understand it:  that you can triangulate with the passage of time. So you're constantly aware as you're dealing with new stuff that [our perspective] is going to change.

You know, if you did something on Vietnam ten years after the fall of Saigon — when we're in a recession, when Japan's ascendant — it'd be a different film than twenty years out, when we just won the first Gulf war, that our economy was booming, Japan was stagnant. I mean, every time you change a degree from that moment, every part of your perspective changes. …

I think all of us are in a continuum. You know, somebody says, "Is this the definitive work?" Absolutely not! You know, our Civil War film, seventeen years ago, spawned hundreds of documentaries. It's just, you do what you can do in that time.

Allow me to object to one of Burns's statements: "We don't have a political bone in our bodies in this film."

In that statement, Burns momentarily falls back into the positivist trap. He speaks as if the historian floats in a heremetically sealed compartment, and is not influenced by the surrounding environment.

Conclusion:

Presumably Burns meant only that he isn't trying to support either the Democrats or the Republicans in this documentary. It's clear from everything else he said in this segment that he understands the hard truth of historiography:  that all historians are biased. We are all captives to the era which shapes us, all editing the data to respond to our interests and defend our prior convictions. As Burns put it,
Every time you change a degree from that moment, every part of your perspective changes. … You [just] do what you can do in that time.
That's why historical conclusions, like those of Finkelstein and Silberman, must always be taken with a grain of salt. One must always ask, Where does this historian "come from"? What axe is s/he grinding — what polemical position is s/he setting out to prove?

I hasten to add, it's true of everything I write as well. In one post, I'm trying to make a case for same sex marriage. In another post, I'm resisting the biblical teaching on penal substitution.

If the posts are tendentious, does that make me a liberal? No, because this idea has nothing to do with the great liberal/conservative divide. Conservatives are playing the same game, they're just grinding a different set of axes. Hence the postmodern scepticism about all historiography.

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18 comments:

Knotwurth Mentioning said...

Great look at the documentary. I always find it funny that the Daily Show is on the Comedy Network, despite the fact that it often confronts very unfunny issues!

The one issue that sprang to mind immediately for me was exactly what was asked at the ending: Who shot this footage? I guess it's because it's always portrayed in black and white, but I always assuemed somehow that colour footage wasn't available in that time to the same extent as it was soon thereafter!

As for the postmodern view, I agree that content will always be analyzed and critiqued from a specific point of view. But that doesn't mean that there is no "right" and "wrong" so much as there is no definite right/wrong. There is an underlying clump of truths that compose a work like this or like the Bible, and while we may skew it with our minds when we view it, those truths are still present to be found!

Stephen (aka Q) said...

At the beginning of the interview, they show a clip from the documentary. My immediate thought was, "But it's in colour"! So we all (you and I and Jon Stewart) reacted the same way: How is this possible?

Implicitly, Stewart's question also had a polemical thrust to it: how come no one is providing this degree of honest ("intimate" was the word he used) footage of the Iraq war?

Re postmodernism, I agree with your conclusion. Yes, there is truth and falsehood. The problem is always epistemological: how do we know what's true? Most people think they know, but actually they don't have adequate grounds for their truth claims.

The key to my perspective is the paragraph where I say that we can formulate some basic (minimalist) conclusions objectively, but we don't get very far before we are thrown back onto subjective choices. If you're searching for watertight certainty about life's ultimate issues, it will elude you.

At some point, we must decide what seems right to us, and take a stand of allegiance on it. Hence I reject the notion of faith as certainty; I prefer to describe faith as a matter of allegiance.

Cliff Martin said...

Yes! And our doctrinal choices often come down to preference: what we are ultimately most comfortable believing. This, I think, is a dirty little secret we all know, but seldom admit.

Thank you for the clip. I think I will now have to go out and buy the DVD.

So, is there a legitimate science of historical reconstruction? Is it all bogus? Does the post-modern assumption deny that there is any such thing as a "real" history that honest scholarship can at least approach?

Stephen (aka Q) said...

I'm not an expert, and I don't know whether there is agreement among postmodernists on the question you raise. I haven't read even one book by a postmodern theorist. Postmodern ideas are infiltrating biblical studies, so I have encountered them second hand.

But I think the answer to your question is this: yes, history can be written; and it can be written relatively well or relatively badly; but in the end, all history writing represents a particular vantage point. Therefore it can capture only a part of what actually happened.

Georgetown University's Po-Mo page puts it like this. There is a "shift from universal histories … to local and explicitly contingent histories." Therefore (as I said in the post) we must interrogate the history, asking: "of what, for whom, from what ideological point of view?" A history may be approximately true, but it is always less than the whole truth.

I think the postmodern view of history complements a critical approach to scripture. For example, when we read about David, Bathsheba, and Uriah, we might notice that Bathsheba's point of view is completely absent from the biblical narrative. The story is told from the perspective of the Deuteronomist historian, whose overriding interest is covenant faithfulness. Bathsheba is therefore irrelevant. She is acted upon, not an actor.

A feminist will want to interrogate the text in a way that is sympathetic to Bathsheba's experience, fleshing out the partial biblical history. In this instance, it's hard to see a difference between the postmodern take and a critical interrogation of the text — except that an earlier generation of critical scholars would have had no interest in Bathsheba.

Merely by interrogating the text in this way, we are in fact doing history. Thus postmodernists do history, of a critical sort.

I suppose that's kind of a "yes and no" answer; I hope it's sufficient to be helpful.

Steven Craig Miller said...

Stephen writes: For example, believers typically take David as a model for the Messiah. But then an archaeologist comes along to assert the following conclusions: “David and Solomon existed in the 10th century B.C. but as "little more than hill country chieftains." There was no golden age of a united kingdom, a magnificent capital and an extended empire.” Currently, Finkelstein's and Silberman's claim remains hotly contested. But what happens if the scholarly consensus moves in that direction? How does it affect exegesis? How does it affect faith?

I’m not for sure I understand your question. Affect the exegesis of what?

Stephen (aka Q) said...

How does it affect the exegesis of scripture. Not merely exegesis of the passages that purport to tell the history of David and Solomon, but also of the scriptures which take David's far-flung empire as a symbol of Messiah's reign.

Steven Craig Miller said...

The historicity (or lack thereof) of David and/or Solomon doesn’t effect the historical-critical interpretation of the New Testament. Obviously, no first century person ever meet David or Solomon, their knowledge of them was filtered through scripture, traditions, and other Jewish writings.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

That's one answer. Some people don't see it that way, of course. They think that every word of the Bible must be accurate, or the whole book is called into question.

In general, I think the Bible stakes its metaphysical claims on historical events. For example, "if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins" (1Co. 15:7).

In the Hebrew scriptures, the Exodus from Egypt and the conquest of the Promised Land become evidence that YHWH is God and Israel is his people.

As a result, I prefer to think that the events at least have a historical root. OK, the biblical authors have elaborated the story and shaped it to achieve a desired effect. But if there isn't at least a core of historicity, I would find that problematic.

Steven Craig Miller said...

Stephen writes: Some people don't see it that way, of course. They think that every word of the Bible must be accurate ...

That is the reason I qualified my statement with the words: the historical-critical interpretation of the New Testament, I wasn’t speaking for every interpretation, just a historical-critical one (which I thought was also part of your question). And historical-critical scholars accept the fact that the Bible does not always contain historicity. That is what is mean by the phrase “historical-critical scholarship.”

Later you added: OK, the biblical authors have elaborated the story and shaped it to achieve a desired effect. But if there isn't at least a core of historicity, I would find that problematic.

Neither you, nor critical historical scholars, were living during the first century, so those opinions cannot effect the opinions of those who did live during the first century. To do so would be anachronistic. Their knowledge of David was filtered through scripture, traditions, and non-canonical Jewish writings. That was the limits of their knowledge. It is the goal of historical-critical New Testament scholars to try to understand those who actually wrote the New Testament.

The problem of whether or not (or to what degree) King David had historicity is a problem for historical-critical scholars of 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 Kings, but it is not a problem for historical-critical scholars of the New Testament. This is an issue of basic methodology. My guess is that you are not all too familiar with the methodology of historical-critical scholarship. But once you understand this methodology, you will see that what I’m saying is absolutely correct.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

Actually, I am very familiar with historical-critical scholarship.

But when I speak of exegesis, I am not concerned about what goes on in academe so much as what goes on in the life of a Christian. A NT scholar may not have to worry about the historicity of the OT background to a NT passage, but my concern is broader than the writing of journal articles. Hence the progression from "How does it affect exegesis?" to "How does it affect faith?"

Pastors and Bible study teachers have to exegete scripture. So does yer ordinary garden-variety believer doing her daily devotional. Exegesis isn't just for scholars.

As a Christian, it matters to me whether David ruled a far-flung empire. Admittedly, it isn't the most important of questions for Christian faith; for example, the historicity of the "fall" of man may be a more urgent question.

But the historicity of David touches on the broader issue of whether the Hebrew scriptures are trustworthy documents. Though the question may not matter within the narrow concerns of historical-critical analysis of the New Testament, in my view it does matter to the life of faith.

Steven Craig Miller said...

I apologize. I thought I was clearing up a misconception. It appears that I wasn't.

For what it is worth, after reading many of your messages which you have left behind on many different blogs, I greatly enjoy reading them. You are very articulate, thoughtful, and fun to read.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

Thanks, Steven, and no offense taken. There's always a "feeling-out" period when you start interacting with someone new, and you figure out where the other person is coming from.

I have a Bachelor of Theology degree, but mostly I am self-taught. (It was a very basic Bible education, and I have spent another twenty years studying the scholarly literature since then.)

I get the impression that you are also self-taught. Is that a good guess?

Steven Craig Miller said...

Yes, I’m largely self-taught. I have a BA, a double major in Classical languages and philosophy (at a catholic university, Saint Louis University). I have had five years of college Greek, three years of college Latin. I did one semester at a seminary (at a UCC seminary, with the idea that I would transfer to a Lutheran seminary). I taught myself Hebrew (with help from a friend), and during my one semester took advanced Hebrew. I also studied for 20 years with my former (Lutheran) pastor, we read Greek (almost) weekly. I still read Greek, but my Hebrew and Latin has fallen by the wayside. For awhile (20 years or so) I was a member of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion, and often went to their regional and national meetings. So I’ve actually met many of the scholars I continue to read (although, only one or two would remember me). I dropped out of seminary when my first daughter was born. My wife and I have two children, both girls. Presently one is in college, and the other is a Junior in High School.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

I think it was the list of favourite books on your blog that tipped me off.

Unfortunately, I never really learned to read Greek or Hebrew. I know the Greek alphabet and some vocabulary — just enough to follow a discussion in a commentary or wherever. But I've always regretted that I can't just pick up the Greek testament and start reading.

Steven Craig Miller said...

To: Stephen,

My list of favorite books was limited to 2,000 words, so I couldn't add any more favorites.

What does aka Q stand for?

Stephen (aka Q) said...

You've read Streeter's famous work, so you already know!
;)

When I first started blogging, I wasn't writing a theology blog. I called myself "Q" as a kind of inside joke — a nod to my liberal Protestant orientation. Later I decided to use my real name, but by then a number of people knew me as "Q".

"aka Q" also helps to distinguish me from the other Stephens (or Stevens) I occasionally bump into in the blogosphere.

Steven Craig Miller said...

There is also a Star Trek “Q” as well as a James Bond “Q,” in addition to the Gospel “Q.”

And yes I know the problems associated with having a common first name. Indeed, my last name is also fairly common. In the area where I lived previous to my present location, there were three people with the name “Steven C Miller” in the area (I had sheriffs calling and asking me which “Steven C Miller” I was, as well as young girls phoning “me” at 2 or 3 in the morning—my wife would answer the phone). So I’ve just gotten used to using all three of my names in an attempt to distinguish me from others. If I had any sense, I should have adopted my wife’s name when we were married. Her name is Albi, there are not too many of those around. On the other hand, I rarely have to tell people how to pronounce my name or how to spell it. There are some advantages.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

… as well as young girls phoning "me" at 2 or 3 in the morning—my wife would answer the phone).

lol

Now that's a problem I've never had to deal with — my last name is quite distinctive.