The Killing of History: Postmodernism Run Amuck

The Killing of History needs to be read by every Christian who cares about defending our faith in a hostile secular culture. This from the Amazon introduction tells us why:

For 2,500 years, since the time of Herodotus and Thucydides, historians have sought to record the truth about the past. Today, however, the discipline is suffering a potentially lethal attack from the rise to prominence of an array of French-inspired literary and social theories, each of which denies that truth and knowledge about the past are possible. These theories claim the central point on which history was founded no longer holds: there is no fundamental distinction between history and myth or between history and fiction.

If truth and knowledge about the past are not possible, then Christianity is not possible. Christianity is rooted in historical claims, but just as important as these claims are is the assumption that underlies them, that we can have real, objective historical knowledge. As Christians we claim we can know what happened in the past, even thousands of years in the past, with a reasonable degree of certainty. While our knowledge of the past is never exhaustive, it is real, and on it we can depend. Not so, claim these theorists.

For generations now, they and their followers have been trying to kill history, that is convince us that knowledge derived from history is basically unavailable to us in any objective sense. The book, written by Australian historian Keith Windschuttle, was written in the mid-1990s, which was the heyday of the influence of such theorists as Jean-François Lyotard, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida. From these and many others we get concepts antithetical to a Christian worldview like structuralism, desconstructionism, and postmodernism. I learned a lot from the book about the later term, of which more in a second.

Since the mid-1990s these schools of thought have lost most of their intellectual cache. What has happened, however, is what always happens in Western culture: ideas start in the academy and among cultural elites that are completely contrary to the basic assumptions of the masses. Then over time the ideas, and their pernicious consequences, seep into the general culture and become part of the basic presuppositions of the people. Most Americans have never heard of these ideas, or the men and women who have espoused them over the last 50 to 60 years, but their worldview is completely dominated by them.

Postmodernism is the term that has had the longest shelf life, but I didn’t link to it above because as Windschuttle says in the book, “The term . . . is used by a wide range of writers in ways that are often varied and, indeed, inconsistent.” He then outlines six separate versions. The history of how this slippery concept came to be is complicated and convoluted, and there is even some positive to take away from it, but like relativism, it is a dagger aimed straight at the heart of the Christian faith. Windschuttle doesn’t apply what he’s saying specifically to Christianity, but here is the dagger’s point:

The attempt by cultural relativism and postmodernism to eliminate the metanarrative from history—that is, to eliminate the narrative of what really happened irrespective of whether the participant were aware of it or not—would deprive us all, no matter the culture we inhabit, of genuine knowledge of our past.

As I’ve talked to people about the Christian faith in these early years of the 21st century, I’ve come to realize one of the primary reasons they don’t believe it is because they do completely believe that we cannot have “genuine knowledge of our past.” Keith Windschuttle has done an incredible service to the Church, and we ought to take advantage of his work. Unfortunately, most Christians think history is irrelevant to their lives, but that is a topic for another blog post.