For this week's online essay, try Knowing History, and Knowing Who We Are, by David McCullough (a repost at Meridian Magazine). McCullough, of course, provided the narrator's voice for Ken Burns' documentary The Civil War. I see his photo, I hear "the voice." Here's a line from the first paragraph: "Lord Bolingbroke, who was an 18th century political philosopher, said that history is philosophy taught with examples." Here are a few notes I made applying McCullough's thoughts to Mormon history.
1. If history is philosophy taught with examples, perhaps Mormon history is theology taught with examples. The "foundational truths" of Mormonism tend to be framed as historical events ("the Resoration") rather than creeds.
2. McCullough said that "it seems to me that one of the truths about history that needs to be portrayed — needs to be made clear to a student or to a reader — is that nothing ever had to happen the way it happened." It seems to me that the official LDS view of its own history is that everything had to happen the way it happened; there is no big-picture contigency allowed. In that sense, the LDS view of history is unhistorical. It assumes that things simply couldn't have happened differently.
3. McCullough said: "We [Americans] have a gift for improvisation. ... Improvisation is one of our traits as a nation, as a people ... ." This, I think, is one of the strengths of the thoroughly American LDS Church. It is not always evident in day-to-day experience, but the Church can change and adapt with surprising flexibility. It did 180 degree turns on central doctrines like polygamy and the priesthood ban when it was needed. Doctrinal and organizational guidelines are generally open to negotiation when circumstances require.
4. Turmbell's painting of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Ah yes, the difference between art and photography. Art is graphical narrative, a filtered or even fictional view seen through the eyes of the artist. Photography may be framed or angled, but at least it's the real thing (excluding a faked photo). "Faithful history" is a form of narrative art filtered through the eyes of the Church. I prefer history that strives to be more like narrative photography, giving real views as opposed to filtered ones.
5. McCullough said: "We are raising a generation of young Americans who are by-and-large historically illiterate." Likewise, we may be raising LDS members who are, by and large, historically illiterate. I've noted before, for example, how LDS histories keep shrinking: There were multi-volume treatments by BH Roberts in the early part of the 20th century, a one-volume Essentials in Church History at mid-century, and now we're down to tiny booklets like Truth Restored and Our Heritage.
6. McCullough quotes a child psychology professor who "said that attitudes aren’t taught, they’re caught. If the teacher has an attitude of enthusiasm for the subject, the student catches that whether the student is in second grade or is in graduate school." Good analogy for the successful LDS seminary program, which is really hoping students catch an attitude about the Church as much as the details of LDS doctrine or scripture. And it is taught by people with a lot of enthusiasm.
7. "Tell stories." LDS teaching and speaking culture takes full advantage of this advice. Some stories, of course, are better than others, but it beats dry doctrinal discourse, at least from the pulpit.
8. "I discovered books and read forever." He's quoting John Adams. Nice thought, Mr. Adams.