History isn’t what you’d call “straightforward.” It’s notorious for raising as many questions as it settles.
What is history, really? How do we reach sensible interpretations of it? Which criteria are most important? Are we to prioritize facts or meanings? Does history tell one story or many?
Some of these questions are more puzzling than others, of course, but it’s the question of interpretation that’s a recurring fascination for Christians. Perplexed by challenges and crises, communities of faith have turned to the past for understanding.
This turn to the past can be done well or poorly, and can be rightly or wrongly motivated. One of the more powerful instigators of today’s nostalgic attitudes—“nostalgic” being distinguishable from traditional—is novelty itself. The modern period is in many respects a purveyor of newness—new commodities, new techniques, new ideas, new lifestyles. The new is superior because of its newness. Modernists relish this sort of perpetual change. The early 20th-century mantra—“Everyday and in every way the world keeps getting better and better”—nicely captures this optimistic spirit.
Conversely, in such a fluctuating and accelerated world, some individuals will see only threats, and retreat to the familiar past for refuge. Those troubled by modern crises who feel the threats most anxiously won’t likely engage the challenge on present terms. They will instead seek to tell the story of how the challenge came to be in the first place, and so demonstrate why it isn’t a real challenge after all. For this sort of historian, there’s always a superior past to explain the inferiorities of the present.
It’s precisely this sort of historical predisposition Mark Lilla takes issue with in his new book, The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction. It’s a book about modern fear and why history, particularly Western history, doesn’t have a singular meaning or idea. Lilla’s book isn’t really about the mind of the nostalgic political reactionary, as the title suggests. It’s about bad historical storytelling he thinks typifies reactionism.
Lilla—professor of humanities at Columbia University and a regular essayist for The New York Review of Books—detects in the West a rushing crosswind of fear about the unpredictable and accelerated changes the modern world relentlessly imposes. For many individuals, that frenzy simply freshens the alienation and shock of being alive in the 21st century. Unable to comprehend the reasons for upheaval, the perplexed search frantically for points of orientation to regain sociocultural bearings, to re-establish proper course in friendly, more familiar seas.
When things seem radically new, Lilla suggests, Westerners tend toward one of two impulses: a thrill for the future to come (revolutionary), or anger for a past forgotten (reactionary). The revolutionary “sees the radiant future invisible to others and it electrifies him” (xiii). The reactionary, on the other hand, “immune to modern lies, sees the past in all its splendor and he too is electrified.” “Nostalgic” is the word that typifies the reactionary’s attitude. Confronted with novel threats and unsure of where the ideological tides might lead, the reactionary drops anchor and returns to his trusty maps.
Lilla doesn’t seem to believe history has a meaning. In one essay, for example, he references Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation [read TGC’s review] as a clear instance of what he calls “mytho-history,” of wanting “the comfort of thinking that we understand the present, while at the same time escaping full responsibility for the future” (85). He thinks the same could be said for Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. Both look for a way back to some road not taken, a juncture Westerners failed to notice or appreciate at the time but that in reality represented our original error. Some historians will go so far as to recommend a return to the imagined forms of life before that wrong way was ever taken, when things were “truly” great. For Lilla, this is a tempting but mistaken way to do history.
Lilla disapproves of certain kinds of historical storytelling, but especially the Christian kind, which he claims has “never been able to escape historical mythmaking.” Less clear is precisely which sort of historical storytelling he does approve. He offers no positive account of what a good historical story might look like—only criticism of what he’s already determined are historical misadventures. But if these are wrong, one may reasonably ask, what finally makes a story right? Lilla is content to critique what he believes is an unsophisticated style of historical storytelling.
The subtext of Lilla’s book is to question the brand of political nostalgia exploited to great effect by the Trump campaign: to make American great again. The notion is false even on its face. American history is a mix—good with the bad, bad with the good. The rhetoric works only so long as the exact moment of supposed “greatness” is never formally fixed. It succeeds, in other words, by propagating a myth, inviting individuals to supply their own preferred moments of national greatness, to which the present can never measure up. The nostalgic sees in history precisely what he most wants to see.
Where True Allegiance Lives
For Lilla, the reactionary has a shipwrecked mind, obstinately marooned on the dunes of pretense while the tides of modern life swirl about. It’s a mind unable and unwilling to reflect upon the world on its own terms.
It’s a compelling idea on its face—and if Lilla offered a consistent portrayal of who a reactionary really is, one might be inclined to agree him. Only he doesn’t. His reactionary is so opaquely defined that he could be anyone or no one, perhaps even Lilla himself. It certainly isn’t indicative of any genuinely Christian historical consciousness.
The church is by definition a traditional community, but its admiration of the past shouldn’t be confused with allegiance. Our faith and hope are vested in the God who transcends time itself and yet graciously acts within it. He is God with us, behind us, and before us.
The church is therefore a people who look to the past and announce with full-throated joy: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again!
Mark Lilla. The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction. New York: New York Review of Books, 2016. 168 pp. $15.95.