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A Historian’s Reckoning with the Past
American religious historians like me usually do not spend much time thinking about the rationale for doing what we do. We just do it. The upside is we usually get to the point pretty quickly, without a lot of methodological throat clearing along the way. The downside is we sometimes wander around the archives, not knowing exactly what we’re looking for, or what to do with our discovery once we’ve stumbled on it.
I think it’s useful to ponder how we reckon with the past and, more important, why.
The key word is reckoning. The other substantive word, past, is rich with nuances and complexities. But for present purposes I will define past simply as anything that happened more than five minutes ago. But what is reckoning? This word conventionally holds three meanings: counting, interpreting, and evaluating.
The first meaning—counting—is in a way the most fundamental, albeit the least interesting. It highlights the role of the raw data historians deal with. Laid out and stacked up, without interpretation or evaluation, they give rise to Jane Austen’s protest in 1818 about history: “I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention.” Which is to say that shuffling around raw data, like checkers on a checkerboard, makes for deadly reading. Nonetheless, the data have to be respected. Good books must “smell of the candle,” as the saying goes.
When I was in graduate school we called those data facts. That word has fallen out of fashion, which is unfortunate, for it aptly suggests that the data are out there, independent of us, and cannot be changed. The past really is past, forever gone.
But facts never come to us naked. ...1