July 7, 2017

Some Advice on Reading History & Scripture

Yes, this applies to both, and little do some folks know, most scriptural texts actually do include at least some history.

An old saying goes, “history is written by the victors.” However, when it comes to history or any account of events (including history and scriptural texts) there’s also the effects at work of plain old human nature and our near impossibility to read or record history in a total vacuum. For example, in scriptural (not just of the Judeo-Christian Bible, but of any religious text) interpretation this is a constant problem that never goes away and just has to be combated at all times since it comes with the territory (you know, kind of like as long as we eat delicious cooked food, we have to brush our teeth—unless we don’t mind them popping out over the years). The issue there is that text interpretation is ideally done in a neutral vacuum (as opposed to following the moral or cultural standards of a specific tradition) in order to draw out the meaning as was intended by the writers in their time, place, and language, rather than what it means to modern readers in their context.

It all sounds great in theory, and is very similar to historiographical ideals (i.e., analytical, unbiased study of history), but the sad truth, just like constant plaque buildup on our teeth after a heaping bag of orange slices, is that we all can only record and read history from the platform of our own historical-cultural context. So, the best we can do is be as informed as possible on the context we hope to interpret to come as close as we can to a sterile vacuum (e.g., for scriptural interpretation, we should learn the original language, study geography, local customs, etc.; for historiography, well, a lot of the same stuff really). It sounds daunting for normal folks who don’t have that kind of time, I know. Luckily, there’s Wikipedia…
Now, here’s where the kids say, “Of course, what else?” while the learned adults likely just turned there noses up at me and moved on. But, you academics shouldn’t worry and you kids shouldn’t be too confident. Wikipedia doesn’t have it all and isn’t always right. My point is simply this—we have a wealth, now more so than ever, of secondary information to help guide us into more enlightened perspectives (and something like Wikipedia is a great starting point, but it's just that—a starting point). There’s really no excuse these days to look at some bit of writing, or even the news, and not be able to at least minimally put ourselves into the shoes of the people who are writing or are being written about.
When we read stories about people doing horrific or heroic things, it often seems to me less the result of those people involved being “good” or “evil” (although I’m sure that plays its fair part) and more a combination of simple perspective influence and the human predisposition to mob mentality. Mob mentality takes over before we even know it and has been a problem for as long as we know (more accurately, ever since we held up the first rock to bash another one of our kind in the head for whatever he had that we wanted). We tend to think of it was something that only happens in times of great turmoil (e.g., wars, riots, fanaticism, etc.) but it creeps up in bed with us at night while we read the news on our smartphone, it eats Cinnamon Toast Crunch with us at the breakfast table while we talk with our family about what happened at work, and it even sits down and poops with us as we read a magazine on the toilet. Anytime we take a stance at all while reading or hearing about an event, we’re influenced by mob mentality, whether it’s burning witches or ridiculing presidents. And, it all comes down to perspective in the end.
In historical accounts of the Crusades, for example (or any war for that matter), we read about warriors mowing down women and children indiscriminately, all in the name of whatever cause they were rallied to from the onset, depending on which side they were on, many of them (with more sound consciences) very likely having massive regrets afterwards, as do many ex-soldiers even today. Inversely, we see their hapless victims, the bystanders, victims, and “collateral damage,” naturally viewing the invaders (or even defenders) as monstrous and wicked (on account of the mowing down of women and children and such). All that being said, the best we can really do in reading any historical accounts is the same as mentioned at first: be as informed as possible and put ourselves in their shoes insofar as we’re able.
Just like addiction, awareness and admittance of the problem is the biggest step to solving it—just knowing that we all tend to perspective isolation and mob mentality makes their influence automatically weakened (though never destroyed). It can be kind of dark place to go, but it makes all the difference to really imagine having enough zealous fervor for an otherwise righteous cause that you could smash a fleeing man’s skull with fanatic gusto, or to imagine cowering amidst the slaughter of your whole community while wholeheartedly believing that killing your own children would truly be better than allowing them to be led into spiritual or moral oblivion by the invaders. Like in all situations of life: “Judge not, that you be not judged, for with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” (Matthew 7:1).