Stick with the yesterday job

by
13 April 2010

Proper history beats futurology any day, says William Whyte

The Reformation: A very short introduction
Peter Marshall
OUP £7.99
(978-0-19-923131-7)
Church Times Bookshop £7.20

“THE FUTURE is dark, the present burdensome; only the past, dead and finished, bears contemplation.” With these uniquely gloomy words, the uniquely gloomy Cambridge professor G. R. Elton begins his uniquely gloomy book The Practice of History.

You can see his point. We simply cannot know what will happen in the future, and often do not really know what is going on now. There is an undeniable pleasure in sorting out the problems of the past; for the historian is in a privileged position: you know what happened — and, what’s more, what was going to happen afterwards. The people you study didn’t. Armed with the right research and asking the correct questions, a historian can under­stand a period better than those who lived through it.

It is just such an insight that has inspired Craig Borlase’s new book. 2159ad is written from the perspec­tive of a historian in the future: someone who wants to trace the story of Christianity from the be­gin­ning until the mid-22nd century.

2159ad doesn’t quite begin at the beginning. For reasons that are unclear, it gets going in AD 64. But it rattles through the story, covering the period 700-1499 in only 20 pages. But the history is not always completely convincing. The author appears to believe, for example, that anti-popes are morally bad instead of just rival popes. His account of the Church in the Middle Ages repeats every Protestant cliché.

Most readers, though, will not turn to this book for its account of the past. They will want to know the author’s vision of the future. In that respect, it is a pity that he devotes only 60 pages to life after 2009, and that at times the narrative seems to have overwhelmed him.

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On page 147, he describes the Mormons’ “decline and eventual drift towards the fringes of anonym­ity”. On page 212, by contrast, they are “one of the dominant religious voices within America” — although doomed to decline at some point in the future. Twenty pages later, how­ever, the Mormons have not only become a superpower, but also cured old age. The long predicted decline, it turned out, never hap­pened.

In sum, 2159ad just doesn’t quite work. Its account of the past is defective and its image of the future is incoherent.

It is a relief, then, to turn to a no less ambitious, but far more success­ful, little book. Peter Marshall is a distinguished professor of history at the University of Warwick. In just 136 pages, he provides an admirably concise and thoughtful account of the Reformation — a story that overturns the story told in 2159ad.

This is history as it should be written: meticulous, provocative, and intelligent. By studying the past for its own sake, and on its own terms, it also illuminates the present and the future. Even Elton might have been pleased.

The Revd Dr William Whyte is a Tutorial Fellow in Modern History of St John’s College, Oxford, and Assistant Curate of Kidlington.

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