It is almost a given today that history is oppressive. That is why there has been so much hoo-ha about how it is taught over the last 30 years. Everybody wants their say: if you're a woman, you need a woman's history; if you're gay, you need a queer history; if you're black, you need a black history, and so on and so forth. The making of many histories is itself a reflection of the priorities and, on occasion, the pathologies of modern society. How long, one wonders, before we get a history written from the perspective of Frank Sinatra impersonators, ginger haired people and compulsive hand-washers?
Joking aside, the point behind so many of these ‘histories’ is the suspicion that history—the dominant stories we have been told about the past—are not really about the past at all; they are about the present—they are part of an overall explanation of the world designed to keep particular groups (usually wealthy, white heterosexual males) in positions of dominance and to give everybody else the permanent status of second class citizens, at best.
Now, without wanting to go down the trendy postmodern route on this one, I want to suggest that, in their efforts to write these new, alternative histories, these groups do point us to a helpful truth—not simply that history can be oppressive (which is their attitude to the dominant narratives, as they see them), but that they can also be liberating. For many of these groups, this liberation comes in the form of establishing an identity and thus, sometimes, the traditionally understood ‘truth value’ of the narrative is not as important as the moral purpose.
For the Christian, there is an obvious problem here: the tearing apart of fact and value is simply unacceptable in a world that does not simply exist, but that, by its very existence, means something. After all, how can one tear apart, say, the fact of the death and resurrection of Christ from the meaning or the value of those events? But that is a discussion for another day. Here, I would like to argue that the truth itself is liberating.
Take repetition of the Apostles' Creed on a Sunday in church. Now, the Apostles' Creed is not part of the Bible; it is not divinely inspired the way that Genesis or Romans is inspired. But it is a brilliant synthesis and summary of the basics of the Christian faith, and, in repeating it each Sunday, the church engages in an act that affirms its own identity—and act that, at the same time, constitutes an act of countercultural rebellion at a variety of different levels.
Firstly, by reciting these clear, doctrinal claims, the church affirms God as creator and as sovereign, and also declares the basics of the gospel. That is as ‘stick it to the man’ as you can get (in the most ‘in your face’ manner possible)!
Secondly, by using words passed down through the ages, the church affirms that Christianity is not reinvented every Sunday, it does not depend for its existence solely upon this generation, but rather that the church learns the faith from previous generations and is called to be the steward who passes on the form of sound words to the next generation.
Thirdly, in affirming the value of their history and the sovereignty of their God, the church stands as a witness against the wider culture, which throws off the claims of God and, from science to teen culture, despises the past as any source of wisdom for the present, let alone the future.
Thus, stuffy and archaic as some would see it, the recitation of the Apostles' Creed is potentially the most dangerously subversive act of cultural terrorism one might engage in on a Sunday. Far from being a hidebound exercise in dusty conservatism, it is potentially an act of absolute rebellion and revolution against the system, the man, the company, the establishment, the corporation or simply ‘them’—however one wishes to characterize those who hold the levers of cultural power.
And what is true of the Creed is surely true of history in general. The historian of the church (the one who is committed by conviction and equipped by training to study the past—the one who is committed and equipped to demonstrate that, despite the received wisdom, we are connected to the past, that studying the past enables us to understand the present better, and that learning from the past helps us to articulate the faith with more self-awareness and self-reflection)—the historian of the church is the one who has a key role to play in the unit of countercultural resistance that is the local church.