Monday, July 28, 2014

Hart's Amibition

As I'm reading and quoting from David Bentley Hart's Atheist Delusions, I thought I ought to include a brief explanation of just what the book is. The book's subtitle is The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, and essentially what Hart has written is a polemical "historical essay."

Hart's book overtly responds to the ridiculously bad version of history the New Atheists are promulgating. Given how notoriously terribly New Atheist versions of history tend to be, this is neither difficult nor particularly ambitious. The New Atheists constitute Hart's explicit target, and they certainly formed the inspiration for this volume, but he's actually up to something significantly more ambitious. What the New Atheists tend to present is a cartoonish caricature of triumphalist history permeated by immense self-satisfaction and deep scorn for the past--and the people who inhabited it. It is patently ridiculous. But in reality it's just an absurdly exaggerated and excessively simplistic version of a narrative of history that is much more common, perhaps even universal, in the contemporary West.

So while Hart ostensibly takes aim at the historical misconstruals of New Atheists, his real target lies behind them. He's really taking aim at the whole modern account of itself: "the reigning historical narrative that most of us imbibe from school, the press, popular entertainment, even frequently our churches--in short, the entire fabric of our society."

So. Yeah. Ambitious.

Hart recognizes that serious historians have mostly abandoned the modern self-account of triumph over superstition, but he also notes, correctly, that this tired narrative retains most of its cultural cache. In contrasting the two--serious history versus popular accounts--he paints a portrait of the academic historian that is at once marvelous, heroic, sad, and more than a little pitiful. Which is to say he pretty much nails it:
For everyone whose picture of the Middle Ages is shaped by the dry, exact, quietly illuminating books produced by those pale dutiful pedants who squander the golden meridians of their lives prowling in the shadows of library stacks or weakening their eyes by poring over pages of barely legible Carolinian minuscule, a few hundred will be convinced by what they read in, say, William Manchester's dreadful, vulgar, and almost systematically erroneous A World Lit Only by Fire. After all, few have the time or the need to sift through academic journals and monographs and tedious disquisitions on abstruse topics trying to separate the gold from the dross. And so, naturally, among the broadly educated and the broadly uneducated alike, it is the simple picture that tends to prevail, though in varying shades and intensities of color, as with any image often and cheaply reproduced; and the simple picture, in this case, is the story that Western society has been telling about itself for centuries now.