If you’ve haven’t had an opportunity to read Part 1 and Part 2 of my interaction with Keith Jenkins’ Re-thinking History I recommend reading those post first. In the third and final chapter of this book titled “Doing history in the post-modern world” Jenkins presents his logic for still doing historical work, even though he has shown himself to be very skeptical about one’s ability to accurately “know” the past. He addresses the definition of postmodernism, the implications of postmodernism, and how to do history now. (p. 59)
Jenkins follows Lyotard’s “death of centres” and “incredulity towards metanarratives”. He explains it as such:
“…all those old organizing frameworks that presupposed the privileging of various centres (things that are, for example, Anglo-centric, Euro-centric, ethno-centric, gender-centric, logo-centric) are no longer regarded as legitimate and natural frameworks (legitimate because natural), but as temporary fictions which were useful for articulation not of universal but of actually very particular interest; whilst ‘incredulity toward metanarratives’ means that those great structuring (metaphysical) stories which have given meaning(s) to western developments have been drained of vitality.” (p. 60
There is much right and some things wrong with Jenkins’ argument in my estimation. First, he is right to criticize the convolution of our unique perspectives into universals. Some like Kant thought this or that was self-evident in all humans because we share humanity. This may be true in part, but it is false in part as well. We do bring our socio-political, socio-economic, linguistic, biological, and other presuppositions to the world. This shades how we understand things.
For instance, if a Spaniard wrote a history of the conquistadors it may look very, very different from if a Native American sat down to tell the story. This doesn’t mean some “objective facts” like dates, names, and that one civilization “defeated” another aren’t obvious, but how that story is “framed” is relative.
I agree with Jenkins on the relativity of history telling, but he can easily, easily be misunderstood as ignoring any form of sure knowledge when we do historical work. We must remember that Jenkins doesn’t deny that some things can be “know”, but he questions whether the overarching story or message in which those facts are placed can be anything but subjective. As long as we realize subjectivity isn’t “bad” or necessarily “wrong”, but simply angled and limited, we can move forward.
Of course, we find ourselves with one major problem. If certain ways of telling the story of the world cannot be “true” why is Jenkins call to utter subjectivity “true”? He side steps this to say “Post-modernism is the general expression of those circumstances. Post-modernism is not a united movement. It is not a tendency which essentially belongs to either the left of the centre or the right…” At the end I still wonder what makes this “description” truer than other descriptions. Can postmodernism’s definition automatically kill this understanding of postmodernity? Or maybe the relativity of postmodernity proves its own point?
When we say that there are “histories” instead of a “history” we admit that our telling may be unique and limited. It doesn’t explain the world. On a side note, how does this jive with a Christian description of the world? In part we can affirm it. We know that the Christian way of explaining the world is our own. We can’t speak of God’s redemption through Christ as an active reality for those who believe. It isn’t “obvious” and “universal” for those who don’t believe. This doesn’t mean it isn’t “true”, but that is where eschatology comes into play.
Jenkins “steps” toward doing historiography in a postmodern world are helpful. First, he emphasizes a “reflexive methodology”. In other words, be self-reflective and self-critical. (p. 69) You must realize your work is an “act of interpretation”. (p. 70) Second, remember that when you write a history you are selective. You chose the data to present and the data to ignore. In doing this you control how your hearers understand “the past”. This makes it most obvious that what you are doing is not universal or objective, but it can be “true” none the less.
Let us imagine we are one of the Evangelists writing a Gospel. Is our historiography objective? No. We intend to tell the story of Jesus and we are intentional about tying Jesus to the story of the Hebrew Scriptures. Does this mean history is lost? No. It is framed and shaded. There are some things that will easily convince most people (Jesus of Nazareth existed) and other things you will work hard to prove (the resurrection). This is why the Four Gospels tell the same “Gospel” differently. They are subjective “histories” of Jesus.
That said, scholars mostly recognize they are better sources than some other later “gospels” because even if subjective and skewed to convert readers they are closer to the events, closer to eyewitness accounts, closer to the land and people. This doesn’t make them universal or faultless, but it does make them more reliable.
Now imagine you are a modern historical Jesus scholar. Your presuppositions and worldview concerning Jesus will inform whether or not you reject or accept the claims of the Gospels. One can hardly pretend to be the “objective” agnostic against the “subjective” Christian. Both are subjective. Both look at the data through a lens. Both may recognize some “truth” though it will be angled and not objective. I think realizing this is helpful moving forward. Acknowledging presuppositions never hurts…except those who want to pretend they don’t have any.