It’s Not History Without a Story

canstockphoto14119234There is an official chronicle of the Civil War called “The Official Records of the American Civil War.” It contains formal officer reports , prisoner lists, written orders, maps, diagrams, and correspondence, from both sides, as well as first-hand accounts.

Some of it is interesting to read, and a lot of it is interesting in it’s own way (I love a good map—is that weird? Maybe I should have kept that to myself.) but it’s not the kind of page-turner that keeps you up late at night. It’s a collection of data, including some stories, but it’s not very readable. Civil War scholars and maybe some buffs might get into it, but that’s about it.

What scholars use it for, however, is to write history. Historians like James McPherson (“Battle Cry of Freedom), Bruce Catton (“The Army of the Potomac Trilogy”) and Shelby Foote (“The Civil War: A Narrative”) take the data and weave it into a narrative—a story.

They don’t use all of the data, of course. Some of it is redundant, and some is just not that important to the story. But who decides that? Well, the writer, of course. They are the story tellers, and they decide which information is important to moving the story forward, and which isn’t.

What’s important to one writer might not be important to another because they are telling a different story. Foote was from Mississippi, but he tells his story from the viewpoint of an American, not just a Southerner. A historian who is writing from a Southern viewpoint would tell a very different story, even if unconsciously. Which story would be right or most accurate? Depends on your viewpoint.

Both Ulysses S. Grant and Jefferson Davis wrote their memoirs from the war. They tell very different stories. Both are for the most part factual, so in the modern sense both are “true.” But their stories don’t match and really can’t be reconciled.

Nor should they be reconciled. They are complete in themselves, and to try to sort them out would destroy the power of their narrative. They each have a story to tell; we need to let them do it and learn from each what we can.

In the Bible we have four gospels; four different stories of the life of Jesus. They agree on many of the facts of Jesus’ life, but not all: when Jesus cleansed the Temple (at the beginning of his ministry or at the end), how many times the cock crowed when Peter denied Jesus (one time or two), and when Jesus was crucified (on the night of Passover or the day after), among many.

The number of cockle-doodle-doo’s isn’t really important, but the cleansing of the Temple and the night of Jesus’ death are both important to the story that the writers each want to tell.

There is a need among some to reconcile these accounts, but doing so destroys the story that the writers want to tell. We shouldn’t do that; we should let them tell their stories. In the end, all history is story; it’s called history for a reason.

Some people read the Bible to know what happened, which has a certain value, but ultimately is unsatisfying. I read the Bible to be inspired, and facts aren’t very inspiring. They are just there, like the Official Records of the Civil War.

Facts don’t inspire, but stories do, which is why McPherson, Catton, Foote and others wade through the data to craft for us a story of American sin and salvation, of a nation forged in freedom but with the base alloy of slavery that had to be purged through fire, of several peoples striving through fits and starts to be the United States of America.

And why the gospel writers sifted through all the data about Jesus, some of which they had witnessed, some of which they had been told or read about, and carefully crafted their stories of the King who came from heaven to challenge all earthly kings;

Of the man born in poverty and oppression to free those similarly born;

Of the One who fulfilled all the hopes and dreams of Israel but in a completely unexpected way;

And of the Word who was spoken in the beginning and cannot be silenced, but indeed will always have the last Word.

Facts aren’t very inspiring, but stories can be, and these certainly are, because they are not only his-story, but they are ours stories as well.

Photo by © Can Stock Photo Inc. / PixelsAwa

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