One of the most common complaints that I hear from Christians who are interested in history concerns the prevalence of “revisionist” history within American higher education. When I was teaching at the University of Washington and would mention that fact when introducing myself to folks at church, a common sympathetic response was, “Bless your heart–it must be awful working in the midst of all those revisionists!” I would always smile and thank them, but inside I would be groaning: the truth is that popular understanding of revisionism is generally way off base.
Let me explain what I mean by sharing an extended quote from my forthcoming book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History, due out in early September from Intervarsity Press. Although it focuses on the origin and evolution of the Thanksgiving holiday, my real goal in writing the book was to use a concrete historical topic as a context for exploring what it means to think Christianly as we engage the past. The book is full of concepts that are broadly applicable to the study of history more generally, and one of those is this misunderstood concept of revisionism. As you will see from the excerpt below, I find the concept almost worthless.
The extended quote below comes from Chapter Seven: “Understanding Revisionism: How the First Thanksgiving has Changed Over Time”:
“Let me begin this chapter with a personal plea: please don’t use the word revisionist in discussing history. I’m serious. Promise me. If you are enslaved to this ugly habit, seek help. If you’ve never taken it up, don’t start.
“Here are three reasons why the world would be a better place if revisionist disappeared from the English language. First, as an assessment of historical interpretations it has become meaningless. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term first appeared in the 1920s to describe ‘a person who questions or revises a previously accepted version of historical phenomena or events.’ Today, for all practical purposes, Americans apply it to ‘anyone who remembers the past differently than I do.’ ‘Revisionists’ lurk everywhere. Evangelicals see them in the secular academy. President George W. Bush found them among Democratic critics of the Iraq War. Tea Party supporters smell revisionism among moderate Republicans. Atheists berate Christian ‘revisionists.’ Liberal bloggers hand the tag on Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. NBC Sports applies the label to New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning. (No kidding.)
“Second, in purporting to speak to the motives behind an historical assertion, revisionist can be mean spirited and insulting. Make no mistake; outside of academic circles, this is the term’s primary contemporary function. According to popular usage, revisionists not only disagree with us about the past, they also intentionally distort the past to promote personal agendas such as political advancement or the downfall of western civilization. In sum, as we wield it today, the expression is typically a character attack. Had it existed in the Old West, a hush would have fallen in the saloon whenever a black-hearted villain uttered it across the poker table. (‘Ya better smile when you say that, pardner.’)
“Are there individuals who deserve such condemnation? Sure. But we need to realize that rejecting an interpretation as revisionist is more schoolyard name calling than serious critique. As Christians, I would say that, before we condemn the motives of people we have never met, we need to be very sure that God is calling us to engage the culture in that way. At a minimum, we must be wary of the air of self-righteousness that so often comes with the revisionist accusation. Google it, and you’ll see that revisionism is always something that the other guy is prone to, in contrast to our own noble commitment to truth whatever the cost. ‘Lord, I thank you that I am not like other men.’
“Third, in contemporary parlance, revisionist reflects a basic misunderstanding of what history actually is. It makes no sense to view revision as intrinsically wrong unless we understand history as akin to Scripture, a special revelation delivered once and for all to the saints to be guarded and transmitted unchanged across the generations. Viewed in this light, any change to the original corpus becomes, quite literally, an act of unfaithfulness deserving of condemnation. . . . Such an understanding of history is badly off the mark. The past in its pristine purity has not been revealed to us, and history is not the past itself but the results of our efforts to make sense of the past in the ever-changing present. Because ‘time is the very lens through which’ we gaze on the past, the passing of time necessarily influences what we see in the past.
“Historical interpretations may evolve for nefarious reasons, as when ideologues consciously rewrite history for political ends, like the clerks in the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Yet they change far more frequently for natural reasons related to the human finitude and fallenness that define us all. . . .”