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History channels

Is it really "impossible" for people to give an accurate account of events?

Issue: "2004 Election: Dubyafest," Sept. 11, 2004

You might think that either a certain swift boat was getting shot at in Cambodian waters during a covert mission on Christmas Eve in 1968, or else it wasn't. But it isn't that simple. It hasn't been that simple for centuries.

Editorial page editor Chris Satullo of The Philadelphia Inquirer knows it isn't simple: The word he uses is "impossible." Commenting on John Kerry and the PCF crew and Mr. Kerry's former commanders (all of whom either share a recollection opposed to Mr. Kerry's or decline to comment), Mr. Satullo lectures the reader, with astonishing certitude, about the impossibility of certainty in history: "No one is telling the precise, complete truth. No one is because no one can. It is not possible."

In case you excused that last predicate adjective as a self-indulgent flight of rhetoric, Mr. Satullo removes all doubt: "The most any historian can do is piece together a passable mosaic from the fragments of fact that different people offer." And if you happened to be merely skimming the editorial over café au lait, you didn't notice that the fella just declared history dead. There is no truth. There is no history. There is only your truth. There is only your history.

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If Mr. Satullo believes what he is saying he should retire his byline immediately and take a job house painting, because every week his column grapples with the stuff of history as if this were a meaningful line of employment.

Outlandish statements like Mr. Satullo's feel original when you say them at a cocktail party, but they always turn out to be old as the hills. At least the history-is-impossible bandwagon has been trundling down the parade route since Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) suggested that the glut of Jesus biographies of his day told us more about the writers themselves (their interests, views, and aspirations) than about Jesus. That was the kick-off to "historicism," a friendly sounding name that means the death of history.

It gets worse. Not only are historians trapped in their own subjectivity, but the Messiah Himself could not escape the mindset of His times. We're told that Jesus couldn't help but teach apocalyptically because He was a product of late Rabbinic apocalyptic thinking. Paul couldn't help but talk about being "in Christ" because he was a product of Hellenistic mystery religions. Karl Lamprecht (1856-1915) said long ago that we should give up the idea of history as a sequential narrative in favor of a more socio-psychological phenomenon.

Which brings us again to Chris Satullo (1953-20--), who lets Mr. Kerry off the hook by invoking psychology ("each person goes through emotions during and after an event that color memory") and even neurology ("the precise neurological record of what a person saw or experienced begins almost immediately to fade, edited unintentionally but ineluctably into a 'story' used to lodge the event in memory and make sense of it").

It's Kerry's truth, OK? Leave him alone! Hey, you gonna criticize a man's truth? (I wonder if Mr. Satullo would have opted for a less subjectivistic and more absolutist view of history if it had been George W. Bush on the PCF-94.)

Mr. Satullo cites "the Rashomon effect" to prove that history is impossible, but cites it wrongly, I think. In the 1950 Kurosawa film Rashomon, four eyewitnesses come individually before an unseen judge to give their accounts of a murder/rape, and the four versions are completely different. Mr. Satullo says that proves men are faulty rememberers, but Kurosawa is saying that men are liars. (Excerpt: "Men are men. That's why they lie. They can't tell the truth even to themselves. Because men are weak, they lie to deceive themselves.") Big difference. There is culpability.

(Interestingly, Kurosawa, a man with no hope in the gospel, cannot bear his own conclusion and ends the movie with a wishful leap of faith in man.)

The latest whittling away of the credibility of history is a Dec. 11, 1968, entry in Mr. Kerry's own journal-stating his crew "hadn't been shot at yet"-that undermines the believability of a Purple Heart supposedly won for combat Dec. 2. On this note, then, do we despair of truth altogether? Is it "impossible"? Or do we look for a phoenix rising from its ashes into a hopeful irrationalism, like the theologian Karl Barth, who wanted so much to believe in Jesus, but felt he could not do it on the basis of real history?

"None is righteous, no, not even one; they use their tongues to deceive," says Romans 3:10,13. This is undeniably true. But history is not dead, just being prostituted. The rest of the news that's fit to print, that saves history, and shores up faith, is this: "Let God be true, though every man a liar" (Romans 3:4).

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again. Follow Andrée on Twitter @Andreespeterson.

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