Abstract

Can we trust historical “facts,” at least as we understand them? That’s the question dealt with by the school of thought known as the new historicism. The new historicism professes to be able to reconstruct a more accurate past that includes whatever or whomever was being repressed in the histories on the books today. This idea is concerned with those supposedly “marginalized” groups. While new historicists and those who hold to similar ideals may have a passion for those they consider to be marginalized, sadly, sin has marred what man views as worthy of protecting and justifying. Believers must look to Scripture to discover what is worthy of protection in this world.


Introduction

The new historicism arose in the 1980s, and the term itself tends to be an umbrella category for a couple of theories, including one known as cultural materialism. Both the new historicism and cultural materialism came about at the same time, and the work of critics in both fields examines issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality, the ways in which institutions that wield power (e.g., the church, the monarchy, and so on) enforced certain ideologies on society, and how those influences affect our reading of a text today. For the purposes of this article, the term new historicism will be used to represent both schools of thought.

The new historicism is different from most postmodern theories because it will engage the past and the cultural context of a text. However, the way these critics treat history should give pause to anyone placing their trust in a new historicist’s analysis. Bedford/St. Martin’s, a popular college textbook publisher, explains how the new historicists approach history:

They are less fact- and event-oriented than historical critics used to be, perhaps because they have come to wonder whether the truth about what really happened can ever be purely or objectively known. They are less likely to see history as linear and progressive, as something developing toward the present, and they are also less likely to think of it in terms of specific eras, each with a definite, persistent, and consistent zeitgeist (spirit of the times). Hence they are unlikely to suggest that a literary text has a single or easily identifiable historical context.1

In essence, the new historicist mistrusts history—at least as most readers today know it. And their mistrust stems primarily from the view that society today has been “conditioned” to believe certain things were so in particular time periods: “New historicists remind us that it is treacherous to reconstruct the past as it really was—rather than as we have been conditioned by our own place and time to believe that it was.”2 The new historicism professes to be able to reconstruct a more accurate past that includes whatever or whomever was being repressed in the histories on the books today.

Michel Foucault’s Tormented Life

A major figure in postmodernism is the French philosopher and historian, Michel Foucault (1926–1984). Having attended university at a time when French philosophy was considered to be at its height, Foucault’s thoughts were greatly influenced by major figures such as Friedrich Nietzsche. Later, Foucault’s ideas would have a major influence on the development of the new historicism. Foucault grew up in France and studied philosophy during his university years, ultimately studying for a doctorate in the philosophy of psychology.3

Foucault, however, lived a tormented life. Dr. John Coffey, a lecturer in history at Leicester University, England, summarizes Foucault’s life:

In 1948 Michel Foucault attempted to commit suicide. He was at the time a student at the elite Parisian university, the École Normale. . . . Foucault appeared to be racked with guilt over his frequent nocturnal visits to the illegal gay bars of the French capital. His father, a strict disciplinarian who had previously sent his son to the most regimented Catholic school he could find, arranged for him to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation. Yet Foucault remained obsessed with death, joked about hanging himself and made further attempts to end his own life. This youthful experience of himself as homosexual, suicidal and mentally disturbed proved decisive for Foucault’s intellectual development. The subject matter of many of his later books arose from his own experience . . . Foucault’s intellectual career was to be a lifelong crusade on behalf of those whom society labelled, marginalised, incarcerated and suppressed. [emphasis added]

The parallels between Foucault’s “crusade” and what the new historicism seeks to do will be fleshed out below. But first, it is worth mentioning Foucault’s end.

In June of 1984, Foucault succumbed to AIDS. Dr. Coffey concludes, “By throwing himself with reckless abandon into the bathhouse scene when the spectre of AIDS was becoming clear, therefore, Foucault may have been trying to achieve a fitting climax to his life, one which fused his great obsessions: madness, perversion, torture and death.”3 In other words, it is very likely that Foucault actually desired to contract AIDS and intentionally placed himself in a situation where he would, all to fulfill a depraved sense of what makes life meaningful. Foucault was a man without Christ and therefore without hope.

Foucault and the New Historicism

While Foucault’s influences and personal choices were unfortunate, the primary influence on the new historicism is not much better. The new historicism owes a great deal to Marxist thought. Marxism is a system of political thought concerned primarily with economics and class relations. When implemented, it leads to socialism and eventually, by Karl Marx’s own admission, to communism. While Marxist ideas have failed time and again when put into practice, the school of Marxist literary theory lives on in English departments across the United States.

In reading literature and history, Marxist theory focuses on economics and social class, and how those elements affect the balance of power in a text. Like Marxist theory, the new historicism also focuses on the exercise of power. However, new historicist critics prefer to examine social issues, marginalized groups, and institutions that wielded power (e.g., the church) in the time period.

This is where Foucault’s ideas come into play. In his book Discipline and Punish, Foucault argues that, contrary to what many people think, the replacement of torture and public execution with modern prisons is anything but positive. Dr. Coffey sums it up this way:

The modern prison, [Foucault] suggested, does not simply work on people’s bodies; it attempts to control their minds. Prisoners are categorised by experts, placed under surveillance, scrutinised and manipulated. Furthermore, he argued, the prison is a microcosm of modern society; we are all under surveillance, labelled and pigeon-holed by bureaucracies, and locked away if we are found to be deviant or abnormal.3

Foucault was especially critical of a building design known as the Panopticon. Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century created the Panopticon as a way of keeping order in schools, prisons, and other institutions. Bentham designed a prison for the English government based on the Panopticon whereby a guard could watch all the prisoners being held there without the prisoners knowing whether they were being watched at that moment or not. He was, however, unsuccessful in completing the project.

The prison, had it ever been built, would have been circular. All the cells were to face into the circle, toward each other, with a window at the other end of each cell, allowing light in so prisoners would be easier to see. A watchtower was placed in the center of the cylinder, and a guard was hidden inside the tower, unseen by the prisoners even in his coming and going. Bentham believed that in theory the prisoners could be entirely unwatched at times, because they would never know if a guard was present or not. They would be forced to act (or “perform,” as many postmodernists prefer to say) as though they were being watched at all times.

This, for Foucault, symbolized a form of oppression that could be seen in other aspects of society: “Foucault claimed to unmask the universal norm as nothing more than a tool of oppression being wielded by the powerful.”3 The new historicists, seizing this idea, examine history looking for forms of oppression whereby people are allegedly forced to act out an ideology whether or not they agree with it, because the powers that be are always watching. Everything for new historicists comes down to authority.

Who’s the Authority?

Remember, for the new historicist, authority is key. But it is not always authority in the way we would expect. To illustrate, imagine that you received a letter from a friend. Let’s ask some questions: Who wrote the letter? Your friend did, making him the “authority” over the letter. Would you trust that the contents of that letter are accurate? Most likely, unless you had compelling reasons to believe otherwise. Would you search for hidden meanings in the letter? Probably not. Generally speaking, the meaning of the letter would be apparent; you would not need a scholar to decipher it for you. Sometimes there are exceptions to that rule. We know that there are times when people have to communicate in code in letters, because of government powers or other reasons.

Now let’s say that your friend wrote the letter from a prison, where all the mail is read by guards and censored before it leaves the building. Again, who wrote the letter? Your friend did—but he was writing it knowing that he could not share certain information with you. He was being watched and had to “perform” the part of a prisoner well. Knowing that, would you trust that all the information in the letter was accurate? Probably not. Would you search for hidden meanings in the text? Almost certainly. If a new historicist were reading this, he would say that the “authority” over the letter was not your friend, but the institution of the prison, because they had control over what he communicated.

In the latter example, a new historicist reading is beneficial to understanding the letter. But this is a rare exception in the new historicism, because the new historicist will read virtually any text—a play, a book, and so on—and argue that there is a meaning or history that has escaped humanity until now. He would say that the circumstances under which the text was written created a situation where the authority was not the author but some institution with power. And in most cases, the new historicist is driven to do this by his own sympathies for certain groups of people, rather than by any reasonable evidence that the author’s words are not entirely trustworthy.

D. G. Myers, a literary historian and associate professor of literature at the Melton Center for Jewish Studies at The Ohio State University, summarizes the real motivation of the new historicism:

. . . the aim of scholarship is to square the artist’s intentions with the scholar’s own sympathy. . . . The sympathy is treated as a fact of equal importance (and comparable ontological status) with the design. No effort is made to ascertain whether the design really is at odds with anything; it is simply treated as a donnée of interpretation that it must be. The critic knows because of the way he feels.4

Essentially, the new historicist is driven by feelings, which is not, as Myers correctly points out, conducive to objectively assessing history.

New Historicism and Biblical Hermeneutics

In relation to biblical interpretation, some Bible scholars and Christian leaders, whether or not they realize it, have embraced a view of history similar to that of the new historicists. One baseline fact every believer needs to accept is that the Bible is inerrant in its original manuscripts (and what we have today is incredibly accurate), so no amount of reinterpreting history can change the meaning or force of the clear words of Scripture.

In one obvious example of one’s personal beliefs driving interpretation, John Shelby Spong, a retired bishop of the Episcopal Church and a somewhat prolific author, attempts to reread the history presented in the Pauline epistles based on his own support for same-sex relationships. His goal in his analysis seems to be to show that the religious institution in power at the time (i.e., the scribes, who were experts in the law, and some of the Pharisees who were part of the ruling authority) was oppressing homosexuals. Furthermore, Spong makes the claim that Paul himself was homosexual but repressing his desires; therefore, Paul was forced to speak out in opposition to homosexual behavior:

Yes, I am convinced that Paul of Tarsus was a gay man, deeply repressed, self-loathing, rigid in denial, bound by the law that he hoped could keep this thing, that he judged to be so unacceptable, totally under control, a control so profound that even Paul did not have to face this fact about himself. But repression kills. It kills the repressed one and sometimes the defensive anger found in the repressed one also kills those who challenge, threaten or live out the thing that this repressed person so deeply fears.5

Spong has adopted, unwittingly or not, a Foucauldian view of Scripture (see the Panopticon scheme above): the Apostle Paul spoke out forcefully against homosexual behavior; homosexual behavior was condemned by the law, which was overseen by the Pharisees and scribes; therefore, Paul was very likely homosexual himself but was over-“performing” the part of the heterosexual because he was being “watched” by the religious authorities.

There is no textual evidence for Spong’s claim that the Apostle Paul was homosexual or that Paul had any sympathy for those participating in homosexual behavior. In fact, there is even some indication that Paul was married at one time.6 However, just as Myers fleshed out above, Spong “knows” because of the way he “feels” about practicing homosexuals today. What’s more, Spong admits he does not believe the Bible is the Word of God: “I don’t see the Bible as the Word of God. I see the Word of God as that which I hear through the words of the Bible. There’s a very big difference.”7 Spong’s feelings-driven interpretation of the Bible makes the words of Paul untrustworthy, apparently to favor an allegedly “marginalized” group today: practicing homosexuals.

A final example that also demonstrates a great similarity to a new historicist reading is the movement to show that the creation account in Genesis is nothing more than the product of ancient Near Eastern (ANE) cosmology. While an understanding of the history and surrounding culture of the ancient Israelites is undoubtedly helpful to any reader of Scripture, the ANE method of interpretation is often carried too far.

For instance, John Walton, professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, looks at Isaiah 53, an oft-referenced prophecy of Christ, from the ANE perspective. Richard Averbeck, professor of Old Testament and Semitic languages at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, summarizes Walton’s claim as follows:

Christian interpreter John Walton, however, has recently argued that the Babylonian background for Isaiah 53 and its application to Jesus can be drawn from certain motifs found in the substitute king ritual . . . According to this Babylonian practice, when a king received a bad omen that put him in danger, another person would assume the throne as a substitute until the omen was resolved. . . . According to Walton, Jesus is our substitute who suffers on our behalf according to some elements of the pattern found in the substitute king ritual. Unfortunately, the parallels drawn in these kinds of interpretations are often dubious at best in terms of basic method and content. The contrasts are ignored in favor of the comparisons. In too many cases, the applications are forced and stretched beyond recognition.8

If Walton’s handling of Isaiah 53 is any indicator, it would not be unreasonable to expect him to sacrifice the historical trustworthiness of Genesis on the altar of ancient Near Eastern mythologies, just as he has done here with one of the most well-known prophecies of the Messiah.

And indeed, Walton makes a case for why Genesis cannot be taken seriously as a creation account, in light of the “current scientific consensus.” While Walton says he does not seek to promote any one set of scientific ideas over another, he is clearly sympathetic to evolutionary ideas and those professing Christians who promote them (i.e., theistic evolutionists or evolutionary creationists). Indeed, his book The Lost World of Genesis One (2009) is not just an argument for Genesis as ancient cosmology; it also seems to be an argument for harmonizing evolutionary beliefs with Scripture. In a way, it is theistic evolutionists and evolutionary creationists who function as the “marginalized” group in Walton’s theory (and more broadly, those who follow after something other than the biblical creation view).

Walton examines Genesis 1 and determines that, based on the cosmologies of surrounding areas (Egypt, Babylon, and Sumeria), readers have misunderstood the meaning of the word create as it is used in Genesis. (See part 2 of this series for more on postmodern redefinitions of words.) Rather than Genesis 1 describing the material origin of the universe, Walton argues that it merely describes a “functional” origin. Based on this, he writes, “I propose that the solution is to modify what we consider creation activities based on what we find in the literature.”9 What is odd about Walton’s assertion is that it is not a conclusion the typical reader would come to by simply reading the text. Indeed, God did not see fit to reveal the idea of “functional” creation or the influence of ancient Near Eastern cosmologies to His immediate audience, or even to those for the next few millennia, so how is it that a minority of scholars today have suddenly unearthed a supposedly more accurate reading? It is always possible that new meanings will come to light as we learn more, but when a scholar proposes an idea that is not only new but also dramatically alters the plain reading of Scripture, it deserves to be seriously questioned.

One of the primary assumptions Walton operates on is that evolutionary ideas are valid—and this is telling, as there is no scriptural evidence to support that claim. In fact, he admits that his view of science directly colors his interpretation of Scripture when he writes, “We gain nothing by bringing God’s revelation into accordance with today’s science. In contrast, it makes perfect sense that God communicated His revelation to His immediate audience in terms they understood.”10 In other words, Walton believes that God is not the “authority” over His own words in Genesis—modern popular scientific/cosmological understanding among the ancient Israelites is.

In Walton’s view, what God revealed in Genesis 1 was supposedly dictated by the people’s ability to understand. Walton’s assertion makes Genesis 1 untrustworthy. What’s more, Walton’s premise that readers have to understand Genesis in the same way the ancient Israelites did sets him apart as one of the few enlightened enough to tease out some sort of hidden meaning in Genesis that was unknown to anyone prior to perhaps Darwin’s day. If he can demonstrate that the ancient Israelites did not understand Genesis to be literal, he can easily fit evolutionary ideas into Scripture. As he pushes his redefined history of Genesis, he writes, “If Genesis 1 does not require a young earth and if divine fiat does not preclude a long process, then Genesis 1 offers no objections to biological evolution.”11

In sum, because of Walton’s sympathy for the ancient Near Eastern understanding of Scripture and for evolutionary ideas, he argues that God is essentially constrained by the understanding of a people at a given time, assuming the ancient Israelites were not capable of understanding scientific ideas, which is a common fallacy among many academics. Therefore, for Walton, God could not have intended to reveal a timeless history of creation. Instead, despite all appearances to the contrary, Genesis does not mean what it says (it is not literal history), but contains a meaning (i.e., “functional” creation) that can seemingly only be discovered by those with evolutionary beliefs today.

A final question to ask, in light of the goals of the new historicism, is what group stands to benefit from Walton’s reading of Genesis? For Spong in the above example, it was homosexuals. For Walton, it is most obviously those who wish to mix evolutionary ideas with Scripture, or those who deny the authority of Scripture on creation. They are certainly “marginalized” by churches that accept Scripture’s authority in every area. Sadly, Walton’s sympathy for evolutionary ideas compels him to look for wisdom in the cosmologies of civilizations that followed other gods, as he argues hard for a reading of Genesis that simply does not find support.

Conclusion

C.S. Lewis, writing long before the new historicism had become an accepted school of literary criticism, insightfully detailed the consequences of taking Christ’s words in the “unqualified sense” that many with an agenda demand:

. . . we shall then be forced to the conclusion that Christ’s true meaning, concealed from those who lived in the same time and spoke the same language, and who He Himself chose to be His messengers to the world, as well as from all their successors, has at last been discovered in our own time. I know there are people who will not find this sort of thing difficult to believe, just as there are people ready to maintain that the true meaning of Plato or Shakespeare, oddly concealed from their contemporaries and immediate successors, has preserved its virginity for the daring embraces of one or two modern professors. But I cannot apply to divine matters a method of exegesis which I have already rejected with contempt in my profane studies. Any theory which bases itself on a supposed “historical Jesus” to be dug out of the Gospels and then set up in opposition to Christian teaching is suspect. There have been too many historical Jesuses—a liberal Jesus, a pneumatic Jesus, a Barthian Jesus, a Marxist Jesus. They are the cheap crop of each publisher’s list . . . It is not to such phantoms that I look for my faith and my salvation.12

While Lewis himself may not have gone as far, the context of his quote could easily be expanded to include not just Christ’s words, but also the words of the entire Bible. If the Bible is not handled seriously, with each passage being read in its natural context and genre, then there is no hope for the person reading it to discover truth. With the influence of the new historicism and other postmodern ways of thinking, the Bible becomes a playground for misinterpretation because of man’s propensity for reading his own thoughts into it.

Elements of the new historicism pervade many other postmodern ideas, like queer theory and gender studies. The new historicists and others like Michel Foucault may have a passion for those they consider to be “marginalized,” but sadly, sin has marred what man views as worthy of protecting and justifying. James tells us some of what is worthy of protection in this world:

Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world. (James 1:27)

Mark 12:30–31 tell us that we are to love God and to love our neighbors. Offering acceptance of actions like homosexual behavior, abortion, and so on violates both of these commands. People who flagrantly engage in sinful behaviors deserve no special status of “marginalization.” To carry this one step further, would it be appropriate for a serial killer to read his sympathies for mass murder into Scripture in an effort to free his “marginalized” comrades wasting away in prison? True love and sympathy requires that we confront sin and share the gospel with unbelievers. God has given us His Word, and the plain words of Scripture are clear—there is no mistaking the truth of the Bible when it is taken for what it is, without appeal to personal agendas and feelings.

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Footnotes

  1. “Definition of the New Historicism,” Bedford/St. Martin’s, bcs.bedfordstmartins.com/virtualit/poetry/critical_define/crit_newhist.html. Back
  2. “Definition of the New Historicism,” Bedford–St. Martin’s, bcs.bedfordstmartins.com/virtualit/poetry/critical_define/crit_newhist.html. Back
  3. For a more detailed biography of Foucault, see Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. “Michel Foucault,” plato.stanford.edu/entries/foucault. Back (1) Back (2) Back (3) Back (4)
  4. D. G. Myers, “The New Historicism in Literary Study,” Academic Questions 2 (Winter 1988–89): 27–36; available online at dgmyers.blogspot.com/p/new-historicism-in-literary-study.html. Back
  5. John Shelby Spong, The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love (New York: Harper Collins, 2005), p. 140. Back
  6. “Spong on Paul,” YouTube, www.youtube.com/watch?v=563jJbf9DKY. Back
  7. Richard E. Averbeck, “Christian Interpretations of Isaiah 53,” in The Gospel According to Isaiah 53, Darrell L. Bock and Mitch Glaser, eds. (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2012), p. 42. Back
  8. This is not to make Walton’s argument simplistic. His argument is nuanced and complex, but for ease of reading, this article will deal only with one aspect of it. John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2009), p. 35. Back
  9. John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2009), p. 35. Back
  10. John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2009), p. 17. Back
  11. John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2009), p. 138. Back
  12. C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (New York: HarperCollins, 1980), pp. 87–88. Back