How do we Write History?

Last year I had the honor of present a paper at the 1st gathering of the Society for Orthodox Christian History in the Americas. The conference was held at Princeton University.
Like most conferences of this type, many folks presented papers on various topics. I find them interesting but for me the conversations that go on in between these presentations is where the rubber meets the road.
The Friday night of the conference, I attended a panel discussion about how we should proceed in the study and writing of American Orthodox History. This is still a rather new field of study so the rules, so to speak, have not really been established. I have always been of the mind that history should not be written for at least 100 years after the events have taken place. Distance is needed for a truly objective look at events that will give a truer picture of what really happened.
During the panel discussion a question was raised about how we write about saints. There exists the type of historical writing called Hagiography; this is the study of the saints from what I would call a holiness perspective. Their story is told, not always historically accurate, and sometimes events are left out of their lives. So the question of how do we write about them was interesting to me.
In this media driven age when we know all there is to know about someone, should we write about them, warts and all, or do we need to gloss over parts of their life?
The example was Mother Maria of Paris. Mother Maria had children and history will show she was not what one would call mother of the year. It has been said she neglected her children, maybe for the mission, but it is unclear. But in the end, she gave her life in the gas chamber to save another’s life, she was able to step up and truly give her all. So do we write about mother Maria as a person or do we write about her as something superhuman?
My personal preference is that we portray people as they were, as real people. Part of our Orthodox spirituality is to read the lives of the saints and imitate them and their sanctity. I think to show saints in their real lives, with their real struggles is what should be written about. The saints were real people and that is how we should write about them. That seemed to be the consensus of those in attendance as well.
Thanks to the folks at the Society for Orthodox Christian History in the Americas and for the folks at Princeton for hosting a great conference. I look forward to next year.

1 Comment

  1. I agree. Writing with the purpose of inspiration and the academic discipline of history are too substantively different pursuits. It is precisely the fear (often unreasoned) that people of faith will distort science, history, etc. that is a primary engine for the scorn that non-Christians often have for those of us of faith.

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