Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The use and Abuse of History

Phyllis Tickle, an Emergent author, has declared that the Emergent Church is 'the Great Emergence', part of a pattern of great events in the Church every 500 years (source, source).

The problem with this is that it is not an interpretation of the evidence, it is a cherry-picking of the evidence to fit a pre-conceived pattern, so as to 'conveniently' wind up with the Emergent Church as being the latest great work of God. But this is not how you do history! What about the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century? It doesn't fit into the 'pattern' at all, yet it produced the modern missionary movement, the Methodist Churches, the New Connexion of General Baptists, and so on. The revival of 1859, which also had worldwide effects, doesn't fit in to the 'pattern' either. Of course they don't, because the 'pattern' doesn't exist, it is, if I may be allowed to borrow a 'postmodern' term, a powerplay, manipulating the evidence to back up one's position. Thus it answers objections by saying: "But this is the Great Emergence. If you don't support us, then you're opposing God's next Great Work!" This is history as propaganda, as a wax nose that can be manipulated into any shape the manipulator desires.

I am an amateur historian (in the sense I don't get paid for it), and the son of a professional historian (in the sense that he does get paid for it), and this sort of pretended historical study irritates me. It has as much to do with real history as the Landmark Baptists' 'trail of blood', and as the Roman Catholic doctrine of Apostolic Succession (in fact those two are the same thing, but we'll let that pass for now). This is simply the manipulation of historical evidence on behalf of a party. It is, in the worst sense of the term, sectarian history.

So then, the reader may ask, what is the proper use of history? First of all, history must be honest. We accept our forefathers 'warts and all'. Christians are sinners saved by grace, not perfect people, and the same goes for those in the past. But then again, we cannot be like the artist who would paint a picture of the wart and entitle it 'Cromwell'. That too is wrong.

History is to the Church what memory is to individuals, it is the life-story of the Church. We read history to inspire and to teach, and we do it to learn, not to buttress our preconceived notions. Unless we read history responsibly and sensibly, we shall find that we have forgotten it.

No comments: