Confessions of an Amateur Historian: Why When Seems Just as Important as What


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© 2014 Robert Osburn

I confess I’m a bit of an amateur historian.  It first dawned on me a few years ago when, for the umpteenth time, I asked a friendly storyteller when a certain event had happened.  In fact, I’ve been asking that question most of my life, and not infrequently I’ve frustrated friends and assorted storytellers who love to tell me what happened, but never tell me when it happened.

“Oh, I don’t know,” they will respond.  “Let’s see, I think it was….” And their voices will trail off into some sort of temporal obscurity, honestly signaling me that it never occurred to them to ask the “when” question, because, after all, the “what” question is so much more interesting.  Grandpa’s amazing giant tomato is much more important than knowing the year in which he grew it.

If you are like my friends who love to narrate their stories sans temporal references (like date/month/year), you are not alone.  There seem to be so many of you, and since you are likely in the majority, you may want to know why a few of us odd “historical ducks” pine until you give us a clear picture of when your story took place. 

Here goes: When you tell us your stories, often so wonderfully and imaginatively narrated, we can’t fully enter into your experience unless we amateur (and, no doubt, professional) historians can situate the experience or event relative to our experience in time.   We don’t just want to imagine how you felt when it happened to you; we want to imaginatively re-create the world as it was on the day the event transpired. 

So, when you tell me about your sister’s tragic fall on July 7, 2007, I’ll dial back in my memory and try to recover some incidents that took place in my life, or in our larger world, at that time.  I try to place the event in the stream of experience at that time in history.

This obsession with when is probably a major reason that I like old movies almost as much, and sometimes more than, current films.  Susan and I watch a film like Peyton Place (1957),* for example, and are somehow transported back in time, not merely out of sentiment (the musical score more than satisfactorily evokes the sentimentalist in me) but because I’m thinking about what was happening in American culture (the subject of the film) at the time of the film: national unity betrayed by an abandonment of first principles, loyalty to monogamous marriage amidst various forms of abuse, folks earnestly desiring to keep communities healthy and together even as disunifying storm clouds were starting to appear on the horizon, racism that stoked black disempowerment, schools where students could pray and read the Bible without fear, and a unified moral culture that longed to explore boundaries in the security of the inherited Protestant milieu.  When I see the film, I see it through that historical lens, and then compare its cultural milieu with our day.

The biblical text mercifully reinforces my historical instincts.  There is a deep vein of historical consciousness that runs through the Bible, quite unlike other sacred texts that make no attempt to connect their narratives to real history. But the Bible stakes many of its claims on real, verifiable, documented history.  Consider I Corinthians 15, for example, as Paul warns believers that if the Resurrection did not happen in history, then we Christians are pathetic losers who ought to be put out of our misery.

So, next time, dear friends, when you tell me your stories, don’t be offended if I ask you what to me is the most natural question in the world: “When did it happen?”  After all, I’m just an amateur historian.

*Please do not mistake this for a movie recommendation.  This particular film merely highlights the experience of the amateur historian.