Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Information, narrative, and history. Thoughts prompted by reviews of a book by Richard Holloway

I am conscious that my arguments for the primacy of narrative over facts/information might appear to licence 'anything goes', but it doesn't.

1) You can't just make up information. There has to be something underneath the trapezium and the process in the trapezium is not arbitrary.

2) Narratives are not all equal.

At some point I want to illustrate with the 'narrative' as a mathematical formula or a computer programme, but for now I want record some thoughts arising from a couple recent book reviews in the Guardian.

A review of “A Little History of Religion” by Richard Holloway in the Guardian by Tim Whitmarsh on 21st September 2016 included this:
A Little History of Religion by Richard Holloway review – God versus oppression

The former bishop is excellent on the crisis we face today, but has too narrow a concept of religion and too obvious an agenda about true believers fighting state power

As a history of religion this book is ill‑conceived. As an informed reflection on the state of faith in the western world in the 21st century … it is insightful and intelligent. But it is as a history that it announces itself, and that is how it will be judged.
Those with a little postmodern learning often opine that history can never be objective; it always tells a story. That may be true enough in a crude sense, but the writing of history remains a subtle art. Bad history is transparently ideological: it uses a crude narrative to make an obvious point. Good history, on the other hand, is based on deep learning. It surprises the reader, using the past to disrupt our expectations, or showing how what seems to be one thing in fact may be something very different. On these criteria, I am afraid to say, Holloway is a bad historian. It is not just the distortion of fact and the absence of any critical handling of sources (though it is disturbing, to me at least, to see chronological dates attached to the Biblical Abraham and Moses). The main problem is that his accounts always serve the same black-and-white agenda, painting the same picture of pious types battling monstrous state power. [My emphasis]
Now I like Richard Holloway. I like what he has to say and he also comes across as honest and kind, so I like him as a person, too.  So this negativity caught my attention and set me thinking more deeply than I might otherwise have done.

"Those with a little postmodern learning": that's me!  Well, *very* little postmodern learning.

This has led me to spend a few minutes looking further at facts and history, or historiography, I suppose I mean.  I'll report more on that in separate post.  For the moment I'll focus on this review, but also on another one. Someone else had also, earlier, reviewed this book in Observer, which is really the Guardian-on-Sunday.

Peter Stanford on 14 August 2016:
A Little History of Religion by Richard Holloway – review

An agnostic ex-bishop’s account of our enduring love affair with deities is even-handed, elegant and compelling

[...] Most writers who attempt such a sweep end up giving the religions they know best – by upbringing, culture or preference – too great a prominence. Not Holloway, though: he shows no favouritism to the various branches of the Christian family and is just as authoritative on Islam as he is on Anglicanism.
I've chosen that paragraph to quote by Stanford because it is, superficially at least, completely at odds with Witmarsh, who says:
It is a “little history” because it is written from a comfortable armchair. Holloway’s is an unashamedly, but apparently unselfconsciously, Protestant account. He takes it for granted that the only religious experience that matters is divine revelation, when God talks directly to human beings: none of that ritual mumbo-jumbo that bothers the anthropologists. So we race past entire areas of human experience. He explicitly states that Shinto, ancient Greek polytheist and native American beliefs aren’t proper religion; presumably he would say the same about the indigenous cultures of Africa or South America, since he never mentions them.
Perhaps there is no problem. Perhaps it is just that Witmarsh is reviewing it, as he says, as history, which Stanford has made no mention of. Still, it is interesting that the two accounts should be so different. In particular, that Witmarsh is critical because it is so parochial (if I may use the term), while Stanford is complimentary because it is not parochial. Alternative narratives about the same book.

So, there are two levels.

Witmarsh is arguing that Holloway's narrative is not legitimate history, because it is transparently ideological ("painting the same picture of pious types battling monstrous state power") and because of his distortion of fact and the absence of any critical handling of sources.

But then, beyond that, there is the legitimacy of the narrative of the reviews themselves. Could it be that the reviews themselves are "transparently ideological"? Could they be distorting facts to fit their own narrative?  Or, picking up on my previous post, choosing different 'facts' from the sources to support different narratives?  Of course the reviews are not objective: there's surely no such thing. But at what point might they cross some boundary and become "transparently ideological" reviews?  Among all the dross of the below-the-line comments on the reviews, someone had pointed out that Quakers are not an American development, so Witmarsh's statement that
Modernity is represented in this history primarily by America’s Christian and para-Christian developments: Quakers, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists and so forth.
is wrong about Quakers. That doesn't really matter or significantly change the argument, but it is a reminder to careful of the narrative sweeping the information along without care for the facts.

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