I have just completed a book titled Rethinking a Nation: The United States in the 21st Century. Yes, that’s 21st, not 20th. The whole project raises some interesting questions about just what history is, how we define it, and how we separate it from (for instance) journalism or political science. This has important implications for how we define and study contemporary religious history, the kind of endeavor that concerns most of us at the Anxious Bench.
What a historian has to do, of course, is to rise above simple reportage to supply broad themes and identify key trends by which the larger story can be told. Often, that means making unsuspected connections between different forms of study – social and economic, political and technological, cultural and sexual.
But writing any history of “Only Yesterday” has potential pitfalls, as it can be difficult to rise above strictly contemporary concerns and obsessions to arrive at a balanced long-term perspective. When today we write the history of the 1850s or the 1950s (say) we know exactly the topics and individuals that demand to be covered, so that to some extent our narrative framework is pre-set. We know where the story is going, and the script is already written. That is simply not the case for the most recent era, where we rely on our individual judgments to determine the critical trends, and the most significant events. In a sense, I really am making it up as I go. Not, I hope, in a bad way.
Read the rest here.