How to Link the Distant Past and the Present (It Involves Good Writing)

Craig Harline is professor of history at Brigham Young University, and is the author of the just-released Conversions: Two Family Stories from the Reformation and Modern America (Yale University Press, 2011; Narrative History Series).

“You people who study the past…” said the corporate executive to me, baffled and shaking his head, after I told him what I was doing in graduate school.

It turned out that he wasn’t completely against the past—the parts of the past that had to do with his family, religion, and country quite interested him, he admitted.  What didn’t interest him were those parts of the past that “obviously” weren’t relevant.  The distant past.  The faraway past.  Such as the past I preferred: the Reformation.

Every historian who studies something that isn’t recent and nearby regularly confronts the question of relevance, from legislators, benefactors, students, and, yes, corporate executives.  It’s easy to blame them for their inability to see why our particular field matters.  But this particular conversation from several decades ago first started me thinking about what historians—especially historians of distant times and places—might themselves do to better demonstrate how something that happened hundreds of years ago in places hardly heard of and starring people never dreamed of can have something to say about life right now.

In the old days of confessional apologetics, it wasn’t really necessary to convince Americans that the Reformation still mattered, for many were in one form or another still fighting the centuries-old battles that produced the churches they belonged to.  But a growing taste for ecumenism made many others weary of the Reformation’s apparently endless supply of theological disputes.  An editor even suggested to me that I leave the word “Reformation” out of any book title, because it had neither the warm nor exotic quality of, say, “Medieval,” or “Renaissance,” but instead conjured up images of tedious religious arguments—and surely we were beyond all that now.

Arguing over religion has of course made a big comeback of late, but since today’s arguers don’t usually connect their debates explicitly to the Reformation it hasn’t necessarily led to a revival of interest in that period itself.  Yet for all of its untrendiness, the Reformation (like many other untrendy fields) still holds supreme relevance for our time, and not only for churchgoers.

The problem is that this relevance isn’t as obvious as it once was, and often needs a little explaining.  Historians who treat subjects that readers find obviously relevant, such as those dealing with American history, or such perennial American favorites of European history as Leonardo da Vinci, Henry VIII, Adolf Hitler, and of course war, don’t need to do any explaining at all:  the relevance or importance of their subjects seems obvious.  But if you harbor a weakness, as I do, for such unfashionable subjects as the Reformation, and worse still for the obscure of the Reformation, and if you wish to reach an audience larger than your peers, then you might not only have to find the most appealing stories you can, and tell them in the most accessible way possible, but be more explicit than usual in what these stories have to say to us today, and vice versa.

One way to do this of course is to trace elements from a particular past through assorted centuries to the present, in order to demonstrate how that past has directly affected your own time—as my fellow historian of the Reformation, Brad Gregory, does so vigorously in his forthcoming book, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society.

Another possibility, less genealogical and more starkly comparative, has frequently been tried with opera, the plays of Shakespeare, and the novels of Jane Austen:  Update an old story in modern form.  When done well, the new setting doesn’t merely dress the characters in new clothes but shows how the new setting itself changes the nature and outcome of the story, as John Steinbeck did famously with the Cain and Abel story in East of Eden.  But all the examples just mentioned come from fiction, not history.  Could a historian do something similar in order to say to present-day readers, this old and distant and apparently irrelevant story is their story, too?

Such a translation was certainly something I was reluctant to try, and with reason.  The past is elusive enough all by itself:  it’s “Other,” as we rightly learn from the start of our training.  The present isn’t always much simpler.  If we can’t be sure we have the past (or present) right to begin with, then how can we hope to say we know how the past event might look in modern form?  Or how some past event or condition compares to a present event or condition?  The facile comparisons we often hear around us only reinforce the difficulty of the task and our reluctance to try.  But if making the past familiar is indeed important (which is not to deny the importance of “Otherness” as well), then who better than a historian to try such a translation, or conversion?

Despite the perils, I decided to try a variation of this myself—not by retelling an old history in new form, but by telling two histories side by side:  one from the Reformation, and a related story from the present.  No two stories are ever exactly parallel, of course.  The two I settled on had different details and outcomes, and of course occurred in different contexts, but ultimately they involved precisely the same dynamics and choices, which in my eyes made them companionable.  Telling each story side by side, it seemed to me, in five to ten page alternating chapters, could deepen and sharpen the meaning of both more than if each were simply told separately.

The first story is of a young Dutchman named Jacob Rolandus, son of a Reformed preacher, who converts to Catholicism in 1654 and runs away from home, devastating his fiercely devout family, causing them to disown him, despite his attempts to stay in contact.  In the second story, a young Californian I call Michael Sunbloom leaves his family’s religion for Mormonism, upsetting his parents as well—except for the religions involved, a typical Reformation scenario.  The modern twist to Michael’s story is his gradual realization that he is gay, causing him eventually to leave his new church too, and upsetting his parents again—but this time the family finds a way to reconcile, on religious grounds.

Whether the stories work together or not might ultimately be a matter of taste, of course, but for me they had surprising symmetry and power:  the Rolandus story became even more real in my mind than if I’d told it alone, and the Sunbloom story had deeper roots than non-historians might suppose.

Such an approach isn’t the only way to connect past and present, of course; and some of our work is so complex that we necessarily spend all of our time in the past, simply trying to figure it out.  But if we wish to reach beyond our special corner of the past, in an educational environment that continually questions the value of history, it’s perhaps worth putting some effort into considering how we might more effectively reach such people as my perplexed, head-shaking friend.

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