Book Review: Doing Things with History

January 30, 2005

Book Review: Doing Things with History

Book Title: The History Wars
Authors: Stuart Macintyre & Anna Clark
Publishing Information: Melbourne University Press, 2003, 310pp.

There was, in the recent Australian election, a distinct flavour of ‘truth’ to many of the campaigns. Campaigns such as those of Andrew Wilkie in Prime Minister Howard’s own seat of Bennelong, were waged directly against John Howard, offering to “tell the truth” about his government. Had this draw card been a bigger one than playing to the economy and our hip pocket, the election might have turned out differently.

It is this issue of the politics of truth and history that Stuart Macintyre and Anna Clark address in their now well-known book The History Wars. Perhaps that is why Bob Carr announced it as the winner of the Premier’s History Award for 2004. It is a timely book, and an important one for Australian Christians to read. It informs us about the leaders we elect to lead our country, it has import for our national identity, and it also challenges us to think as Christians about our history.

The History Wars tells the story of the role history has played in the shaping our country’s political identity from the end of the cold war until now. It discusses few of the actual historical concerns in depth, although it thoroughly canvasses the viewpoints that were in circulation, and the contexts that drove them. Possibly as a by-product of this, and also perhaps as a tendency of Macintyre’s, the book falls often into an overly polarised political view of our nation’s history. On reading the book, you could be forgiven for thinking that an historian is all politics and no history.

Macintyre, (for he wrote the majority of the book), uses Manning Clark and Geoffrey Blainey as case studies. He views them as being drawn to controversy, through their desire to “bring history to bear on contemporary issues”. They are not historians who willingly enter the political fray, but rather, in a dialogue with, and a response to, Australia’s past, see that it has great implications for its future as well.

Although the viewpoints of these two historians (Clark and Blainey) may not have coincided, they still held a great respect for each other. They undergirded their public statements with careful research, and were drawn into public discussion over the conclusions they made from it. Australian history, and Macintyre and Clark’s example, illustrate the way in which history writing is always propositional, and therefore always political. It might not always be so on the same level as, say national politics, but it has a determinative force that must be realized. History (and by this I mean the study and writing of history) does things.

It is this ability that concerns us. Macintyre portrays a government that, in its concern for the power of history to shape a person’s identity, in turn sets out to shape history in order for it to fit the identity that they propose. The concern is: where does history start and stop, and where does propaganda begin?

The point where this occurs for Macintyre is where the government, or anyone else, attempts to determine “the story of Australia”—the single and definitive story of Australia. Archaeologist John Mulvaney and historian Geoffrey Blainey, in reviewing the principles for the National Museum of Australia, comment: “the idea we had was that there was no such single story” to history.

The ‘re-writing’ and ‘revisionist’ criticisms levelled at Manning Clark and others by the government for their treatment of Australian history are naïve. The aesthetic nature of writing history is something akin to literary criticism, in that, in the writing of history the existing order, (or the history of histories) is modified by the emergence of the new history, just as it is judged in comparison to this existing order. History is always in a state of being rewritten; we never possess full and absolute knowledge of every story and every angle of a certain event or time period.

History as an attractive apologetic bridge

These are important points for Christians in building a truthful, and gospel-focused apologetic in history. At first, they may seem difficult. If we emphasize the incomplete nature of meaning in history, and its constant ‘re-writing’, how can we lay claim to the events surrounding Jesus’ life and death and resurrection? It must be clearly pointed out that the Bible is not history. Or rather, the Bible is not just history. It is not the historiographical work of a scholar. To expect it to be is to expect it to answer questions it does not ask. Nor does the Bible tell every story of its time period. Rather, it is a brilliant historical source from which we can launch our historical study.

It is important to note that the Bible story is not sitting in the past waiting to be discovered. A historical study of first century Judea is not the equivalent of listening to the gospel of Jesus Christ. However, history can do things that help people to understand the far-reaching implications of the gospel. For instance, insights from a study of the role of Jewish synagogues in the spread of Christianity might make a significant contribution to a discussion of anti-Semitism and the recent movie, The Passion. The historical perspective plays an apologetic role. Similarly, a study of the Sydney Morning Herald would reveal some of Sydney’s evangelical roots in 19th century icons like John Fairfax and David Jones. In “bringing history to bear” in our society, in using history to do things, apologetically-minded Christians can build intellectual bridges by which people can interact with the gospel.

One such bridge is emancipation. Emancipation is a theme Christians can identify readily with—the Bible story can be read as one long emancipation history, an emancipation from sin and death. Emancipation is a powerful idea, and one Macintyre readily uses in The History Wars. In his review of Paul Keating’s ‘Big Picture’ of Australian history (Keating was aided by the historian Don Watson), Macintyre comments, “his Big Picture employed bright colours of suffering and endurance, emancipation and triumph. It painted a story of redemption”. Another form is that of identity. As the old forms of identifying oneself or one’s country fade, historical forms are increasingly looked to across a range of disciplines. As Macintyre observes, our focus on historical national identity “arose at the very point when the identity politics of sex, race and ethnicity were fracturing the older, essentialist versions of nationhood”. This increasing historical focus perhaps explains the rise and popularity of ‘historical’ novels like those of Dan Brown. They give us a sense of continuity and identity that we, at the moment, are lacking.

An examination of these ideas could certainly constitute a “loving” use of history, if used truthfully. Importantly, our use of history must never border on absolutism. Rather, we should contribute to the “re-writing” of history in the sense that a continuing study of history usefully critiques the structures of our society, as Macintyre illustrates.

In philosophy, and particularly post-structuralism, historians are often singled out as those who repress differences and enforce the dominant discourse of political liberalism. However, as we have seen illustrated in The History Wars, history can prise apart the dominant discourse and open a platform from which to critique it. Thus focusing on the use of history is an important task for Christian apologetics.

The Bible can be read truthfully in ways which are engaging and interesting from a postmodern viewpoint, without damaging its validity as a special revelation from God. It is this kind of apologetic which needs to be developed. While these arguments are underscored by the traditional historical-evidential arguments, they are clothed, not deceitfully so, in a meaningful contemporary way. Such careful use of history may give one a chance to tell the truth, and the truth, as they say, sets you free.

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