"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, June 3, 2016

How Foreign a Country is the Past? How Can We Access it Without Abuse?

I have been having a lot of fun this summer doing a course with my students on ISIS and the Crusades. Those who read ISIS propaganda, especially their slick but tiresome magazine Dabiq, or watch their videos, as I have with studied if horrified fascination for several years now, will note how ritualistically, how constantly, and (of course) how tendentiously they invoke "the Crusades" or the "Crusaders" to justify their various atrocities--whether beheading Japanese hostages, immolating Jordanian pilots, or decapitating, drowning, or torturing many others whose background so obviously precludes them from ever having had any connection whatsoever to the Crusades as historical events rather than ciphers for current iniquities. So this has been a course in historiography as much as in studying the Crusades.

Along the way, my students have found enormously profitable the reading of two books that treat the uses and abuses of history in general, and then the uses and abuses of Crusade history in particular. In the first instance, we have Margaret MacMillan's Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History, which is short and accessible, but full of the lucid erudition that marks MacMillan's other wonderful books, especially Paris 1919 and The War that Ended Peace: the Road to 1914.

Then we have turned our attention to the doyen of Crusades scholars, Jonathan Riley-Smith, and his short but equally accessible book The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam. Re-reading this nearly a decade after it came out and before ISIS was really commanding the attention it does, is an interesting experience in itself, perhaps especially for Riley-Smith's last chapter in which he shows that a good deal of the responsibility for the problematic "re-remembering" of the "Crusades" by Muslims in the last several decades comes at the hands of Christians, especially French Catholics and German Lutherans, who wanted, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to revive the Crusades as examples of Christian glory in conquest. So by no means do Christians have clean hands in the competition to use and abuse history.

I find it striking, however, that the language of glory and conquest which many Christians used as recently as a century ago is now regarded by almost all Christians with abject horror. This was true not just in revisionist accounts of the Crusades, but in the rhetoric leading up to, and all throughout, the First World War. Philip Jenkins, as I noted on here a while ago, is especially useful in his book  The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade in showing how profoundly bloodthirsty Christian preachers were--whether in Westminster Abbey, First Presbyterian in Boston, Trinity Lutheran in Berlin, St. Basil's in the Kremlin, Notre Dame in Paris, or a thousand other pulpits of all traditions. Everybody was invoking God to crush their enemies, and using chilling rhetoric to demonize their (fellow Christian) enemies. Find me even three preachers today in an Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, or Orthodox pulpit who are willing to say such things even in the mildest terms--to suggest God wants them to smite their enemies. Indeed, for most Christians the language of enemies is itself reprobated and incomprehensible.

Instead, in 2016, we find discussions among Catholics and other Christians about even revising or eliminating altogether the tradition of a "just war," thereby testifying to how far Christians, in barely a century, have changed their assessments of the morality of violence, lethal force, and war. My operative assumption here is that a good deal of that re-assessment has had little if anything to do with theological considerations rationally worked out. Rather, most of it is a reaction-formation, steeped in guilt, to the horrors of the First and then the Second World Wars, and then a ritualized invocation of "War no more!" (as several popes have said at the UN in the last 50 years) which is little more than a species of wish-fulfillment.

All this leads me to mention a recently released revised edition of a book which, a quarter-century ago, became an almost instant classic: David Lowenthal, The Past Is a Foreign Country (Cambridge UP, 2015), 676pp.

About this book we are told:
The past remains essential – and inescapable. A quarter-century after the publication of his classic account of man's attitudes to his past, David Lowenthal revisits how we celebrate, expunge, contest and domesticate the past to serve present needs. He shows how nostalgia and heritage now pervade every facet of public and popular culture. History embraces nature and the cosmos as well as humanity. The past is seen and touched and tasted and smelt as well as heard and read about. Empathy, re-enactment, memory and commemoration overwhelm traditional history. A unified past once certified by experts and reliant on written texts has become a fragmented, contested history forged by us all. New insights into history and memory, bias and objectivity, artefacts and monuments, identity and authenticity, and remorse and contrition, make this book once again the essential guide to the past that we inherit, reshape and bequeath to the future.

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