With Jello in My Hair

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I would like to welcome Thabiti back to our discussion. I understand he was on the road, and you can’t always keep up the back and forth when you are traveling back and forth. We have both expressed our appreciation for how the discussion has fared thus far, but given the volatility of the topic (very much in evidence in the comments section at both our blogs), I want to make a point of continuing to express that appreciation. I don’t think it is possible for me to overstate my gratitude for how Thabiti has taken this on, and I genuinely admire how he taken me on. “Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another” (Rom. 12:10). The Bible is as clear about how we are to debate under these circumstances as it is on the substance of our dearly-held positions.

In this latest installment, he addresses some of the historical questions raised by Black & Tan. He begins by agreeing with what I wrote about the need for pastors to be “generalists” in history, and does not begrudge me this point at all. But having granted the point in the abstract, he has significant concerns about my application of this principle in four particular areas.

His first concern is that Black & Tan doesn’t really “do” history — it is more an expression of an historical outlook than it is an alternative rendering of the history itself. I make certain points about our current culture wars, and these points rest on the back of certain historical assumptions. The nature of the assumptions is clear enough, but a detailed historical case for those assumptions is not made.

Thabiti’s second point is that because my historical assumptions are in many areas revisionist assumptions (contrary to the received wisdom), they will tend to provoke the question “how does he know that?” Because it is revisionist, it will provoke major questions, and because it is not a full work of history, it will leave them largely unanswered. Thabiti says the worst kind of revisionism is the kind that “claims without certifying.” He believes that it was too easy for my claims to devolve into “mere assertion.”

Third, Thabiti says that B&T represented a “biased retelling of history.” By this, I took him to mean that I was retelling the story narrowly — I largely cite sources from within the Southern intellectual tradition (Dabney, Weaver), or from those who are capable of interacting with it sympathetically (Genovese). “I simply wish the book would have engaged the histories and story-telling outside the Southern conservative intellectual tradition.” The range of citations was narrower than Thabiti thinks would have been helpful in making my case stronger.

That said, under his third point, I did appreciate his understanding of the context of a lot of this: “I understand that Black and Tan was written amidst controversy and a lot of criticism and personal attack. I understand how that context could make a person pessimistic about his opponents giving him a fair shake.” Put another way, it is hard to write a book in the middle of a cafeteria food fight. It is hard to do history with jello in your hair. Just saying.

And fourth, Thabiti thinks my postmill thinking made B&T too “optimistic about the South’s history.” He doesn’t develop this point at length, but simply places it alongside the first three points.

What I would like to do is respond to each of these four points, fairly briefly, and then turn to a larger issue raised by Thabiti’s concluding mention of a “multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-everything world.”

First, Thabiti is quite right that B&T is not, and was not intended to be, a work of history proper. I agree that my book is more a statement of an historical outlook than it is a foundation for that historical outlook. This approach has its limitations, but they need not be crippling limitations. The late Eugene Genovese, one of our finest historians of this whole era, was kind enough to read the whole manuscript of B&T, making very helpful editorial suggestions throughout. In his blurb for the book, he said that I had “a strong grasp of the essentials of the history of slavery and its relation to Christian doctrine.” These words were very kind, and the words and its relation point to what it was that I was trying to accomplish. The book is about the intersection of the history of slavery and Christian doctrine – and the reasons for this were outlined in an earlier post. Genovese said that I understood that intersection better than a lot of professional historians.

On Thabiti’s second point, that my revisionism starts fights it can’t finish, I would reply that the basic firestorm claims from B&T were built on duly referenced claims. For one example, Thabiti points to the “massive claim” that slavery was more benign than the literature of the abolitionists indicated. But I believe that this point really was established by Fogel and Engerman, and I cited them as having made it.

On his third point, that of wishing I had interacted with a broader range of viewpoints in writing the book, I think this is an entirely reasonable point. I have no objection to doing something like that — in fact, that is what I am trying to do now — but I don’t think it is necessary always and everywhere. But I do agree that if I were more widely read and conversant than I am, this would have made B&T a better book.

Last, my postmillennialism. I am glad this has come up, because I think it is a major unspoken player in a lot of the controversy. I would like to just make two points about it, one on defense and the other looking to the future. First, postmill thinking doesn’t require us to believe that the past was altogether rosy. There are many historical hellholes that I believe were genuine hellholes, and this is not in tension with my postmillennialism at all. For a postmillennialist, the issue is the glory of the future, and not so much the glory of the past.

What would be in tension with postmillennialism is an assertion that there is no real progress in history, and that Christians should resign themselves to the possibility that all our current atrocities might well be a permanent fixture. This would include, for different Christians at different times, slavery, abortion, or polygamy. Postmillennialism does require us to believe that whatever kind of a mess history gets us into, it is the kind of mess that Jesus can always get us out of. This has huge practical ramifications when it comes to motivating believers to get involved to “make a difference.” I do believe that this difference is promised to us, and they will not hurt or destroy in all His holy mountain.

In his conclusion, Thabiti says that we need to learn how to deal with the reality of a multicultural world, and he believes that when we don’t do that, our tendency will be to privilege the stories of our tribe as though they were the final, ultimate and objective truth. “When that happens we fall prey to thinking there’s only one objective, infallible history—and usually we think it’s ours.” Blinkered narratives are assumed to be the God’s-eye-view of history, and we too blithely assume that our story is ratified by the official notary at the Pearly Gates. Thus far I actually agree. We believe in objective historical truth, which is good, but we too readily assume that this objective historical truth just fell into our lap. Thabiti says that rejection of competing and jockeying narratives is frequently hegemonic. He says “these rejections really serve a hegemonic purpose and refuse to admit as legitimate the counter-narratives caused by that hegemony.”

In response to this I would want us to be careful to distinguish multicultural realities, which are characteristic of our triune God’s creativity, and multiculturalism, which is a false and very postmodern way of refusing to privilege any historical narrative whatever. But such a refusal, in order to be workable at all, would have to include the scriptural narrative of creation, fall, flood, exile, return, not to mention the death and resurrection of the Messiah. Postmodernists don’t like any metanarrative – and the Bible is the biggest hegemon of them all. But then, after postmodernism has rejected all hegemonic stories, it keels over and points all four hooves toward the sky, and quietly decomposes into the future of every form of relativism.

I am as much concerned about the next hegemon as I am about the last one, and my concerns about the last one are largely wrapped up in wanting to learn the appropriate lessons so that we might not get ourselves a tyrant for the next one. In order to do this we have to assert that while we don’t have automatic access to a God’s-eye-view of history, there nevertheless is a God, and therefore there is a God’s-eye-view of history. He has given us a good portion of an inspired history in Scripture so that we might learn how to imitate it, and we should do our best to do exactly that. As we do our best, we know that we are fallible and so we should always be open to correction. We should do history with a confident humility, and a humble confidence.

At the same time, we should never allow secularists to come in and correct “mistakes” in our regular history that would also be considered (by our high gloss elites) to have been mistakes in the sacred history as well. As many professing Christians are as troubled by parts of the Bible as they are by certain aspects of Southern history – and for the same politically-correct reasons. I don’t mind confessing Southern sins at all – I believe it to be an essential thing for all Southern sympathizers to do. But that should not get tangled up with the current humanistic insistence that we confess the sins that come with being consistently Christian. That is something I will not do.

This is one of my reasons for pointing to the “angular” texts of Scripture on slavery – I refuse to apologize for any part of the Bible, and I refuse to acknowledge any principle in ordinary history that might require me (later on) to apologize for any part of the Bible. I have read “Christian” writers who empathized with the drowned Egyptians in the Red Sea, the slaughtered Canaanites in the Israelite invasion, and the women of Ephesus chafing under the misogynistic ministration of the apostle Paul. This kind of thing is common in our day and in our circles. At a certain point, you don’t have to be a doctor to tell that the gangrene is spreading.

In short, while I believe that it is valuable to hear different multicultural perspectives of different groups, especially on a subject as convoluted as this one, we must do so in a way that clearly resists every form of relativism. History is hard for us, but not impossible.

Charity makes it easier, but not easy.

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