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I look to historians for their power to illuminate not just the invisible lineaments of the present, but also that which is not present. What are the roads that were not taken that most shape our own time? Lately, the historian who’s been doing that best is Nelson Lichtenstein, who parlayed a career writing about midcentury capitalism and industrial unionism into extraordinarily penetrating accounts of why the economic regime we live under today is so deeply unsatisfying. One abandoned idea documented in his most recent book, “A Contest of Ideas: Capital, Politics, and Labor,” haunts me. Powerful people in the Democratic Party, like Senator Robert Wagner of New York, used to insist that the job of liberalism was to penetrate the “black box” of the corporation and turn the workplace into a more democratic institution. They believed that to leave decision-making in the great firms that dominate our lives merely to owners (as opposed to, say, the system of “co-determination” between labor and management under which the German economy now thrives) was no less than a violation of the Constitution’s 13th Amendment, which outlawed involuntary servitude. Now that such thinking is rare as a unicorn — and workers all but belong to their bosses during their working day — no wonder it’s hard to win the allegiance of the white working class to the Democrats. Rick Perlstein

Jonathan Edwards changed the story of America’s God. He changed how the people of his time engaged God, editing a theology that was often portrayed harshly and dogmatically. He made strides to shape it with words into an almost beloved relationship between a grandiose God and a broken and depraved American heart. His words set the stage for what would become a steady foundation for America’s God to revolt against the Old World and bring about revolution. Historian Perry Miller suggests that America’s Enlightenment began and ended with Jonathan Edwards. And Edwards played a most defining role in bridging the space between Puritanism and what would eventually become American evangelicalism. The Hellish Sermons of Jonathan Edwards, Malign Evangelist

The notion that Christianity is the solution to modern problems is laughable. The Westphalian nation-state, which religious critics of modernity almost always single out as virtually demonic, arose as a way of quelling the hugely destructive religious conflicts that followed the Reformation. The Christian roots of capitalism are well-known, and the majority of mainstream Christian groups are either actively proud of capitalism or calling for moderate reforms at best. Christian moral formation did nothing to teach the majority of Western subjects to resist nationalistic wars, imperialism, or the slave trade. In fact, Christianity was used to legitimate both colonialism and slavery. Christians in Germany were generally supportive of or silent about literally the worst regime in human history and, as a group, did nothing to stop or even impede an unprecedented systematic genocide. In short, if you were to rack up the greatest crimes of modernity, Christianity was deeply implicated in nearly all of them On the toxic nostalgia for Christian hegemony

The one golden rule is that there was and will be no golden age. As Tolkien reminds us, history is the Long Defeat with only occasional glimpses of final victory. Even in the mediaeval period, in which the political power of the Church was indubitably greater than it is today, corruption was rife both in society at large and in the Church herself. Even as the great cathedrals were being built, there were corrupt popes and sometimes two or three different people claiming to be pope at the same time. Even as the power of Christian Rome seemed triumphant, popes were being exiled from Rome itself. Even as the great saints walked the earth, great sinners walked beside them. Even as the Church defined orthodoxy, the world was being ripped apart with heresy. For every saint in Dante’s depiction of the so-called “golden age” of Christendom, there is a saint wallowing in his self-made hell. For every good and holy parson on Chaucer’s pilgrimage, there are drunk and avaricious friars and monks; for every noble and pious ploughman, there is an ignoble and uncouth miller. What is Christendom?

People and cultures are defined by the myths they create, but also by the myths they accept and propagate. Blood libel: a short history of a dangerous myth

If there was a fatal flaw within the antislavery movement, it was one that radicals and moderates shared, and one that was closely related to the very nature of their bourgeois radicalism — an unquestioning commitment to the economic and moral superiority of free labor, a commitment that both inspired and deluded the opponents of slavery. Even the most radical abolitionists betrayed a blind faith in the magical healing powers of a free market in labor. Scarcely a single theme of the broader antislavery argument strayed far from the premise. The Real Problem with White Abolitionists

The most challenging issue for a biographer of George Whitefield (as with Patrick Henry) is his identity as a slave owner. I admire Whitefield and Henry, as well as similar figures of their time such as Jonathan Edwards or George Washington, but their owning people as slaves remains an unavoidable moral problem. How does one admire a historical figure who kept slaves? How does an author fully convey his disapproval of American slavery, while not condemning an individual altogether? I am not sure that I have gotten the balance exactly right, but we want to avoid two extremes. One extreme might suggest that Whitefield was a great man of God, and that harping on his owning of slaves denigrates his memory as a Christian hero. The other extreme might say that whatever Whitefield accomplished for God was fatally tainted by his owning slaves, so he is better forgotten or just used as a cautionary tale. George Whitefield and slavery

A Greek myth is basically a way of explaining the world, or it was a way of explaining the world to a primitive people who didn’t have any explanation of the sun or the moon or the disasters that happened — like earthquakes and floods and fire. It was easy to make a myth about it, and to say that it was down to the gods. What’s so fascinating about the Greek myths in particular is that the gods are terribly human. They’re in Olympus but they’re recognizable to us. They have a lot of quirks and foibles and they do all the things that humans do: Zeus cheats and lies and he is the most appalling serial adulterer. The stories also, perhaps, help explain how to behave and the consequences of certain actions — a bit like the Ten Commandments, “Thou shalt not…” or something terrible will happen. So, for instance, Ixion, who commits the first murder, ends up in a fiery pit, tied to a wheel, forever revolving, because that was not a good thing to do. They’re a guide to life as well as being stories. Lucy Coats on Greek Myths

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