Editor’s Note: This week we begin a focus on the connection between our faith – what we believe – and our actions, particularly actions that advance our capacity to love one another and to work for a more just and equitable world. Guest contributor Natalie Heneghan, a Wisconsin native living and working in St. Paul, MN, shares how an early lesson about her faith continues to guide how she looks at current and past events. She encourages us to widen our lens and realize there is always more than one point of view. And that work for justice requires a willingness to have faith in not always knowing or being right.
There is one unforgettable lesson that I reflect on time and time again when trying to make sense of my faith journey and understanding of the world. It’s a moment from my junior year at the all-girls Catholic high school I attended. I took a Biblical Studies class with Sister Linda, a witty, straight-talking nun with a thick Boston accent and refreshingly pragmatic approach to teaching the Bible.
First semester, Sister Linda taught the Old Testament through the eyes of the women of the Bible – women whose names I hadn’t heard uttered in my 17 years as a Catholic. It was fascinating and fun. But even that wasn’t the most lasting lesson. No, that came in the second semester, when Sister Linda taught us about the Gospel writers. The Gospels are the four books of the New Testament that tell us pretty much all we know about Jesus’ life and work. As a young kid, I was taught to rattle off the names of the four writers – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – but the differences among them hardly came up. In my young brain, the four writers collectively and accurately told the story of Jesus’ life; it was a record of fact and of truth.
Sister Linda taught us differently. She taught us to study context, to be critical of the whole story. We learned when each Gospel writer was doing his writing, to understand the historic context. We learned where they were writing, to understand geographic context. We learned for whom they were writing, to understand how the stories were crafted to meet a particular audience’s needs and wants.
We learned why they were writing: to convert, to soothe, to educate, to inspire. Each writer had a different motive. For example, Mark was writing to people in Rome facing persecution in about 70 AD, so his stories are full of messages of perseverance and faith. The Gospel of John was written roughly 60 years after Jesus’ presumed death. So the accuracy of detail mattered less than the communication of values. John’s gospel is highly metaphorical and symbolic. Altogether, these four books craft our historical and contemporary understanding of Jesus’ life, but individually, each characterization offers a unique perspective.
Imagine four different biographies of, say, Abraham Lincoln. One was written in 1863 by a slaveholder, angered by the Emancipation Proclamation. Another was written by a formerly enslaved person making a new life in a northern state in 1880. The third by a member of the anti-fascist Abraham Lincoln Brigade fighting in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, and the final written today, full of fresh insights after the discovery of a new crop of archival resources. Imagine how drastically different these accounts would be, given the historical, geographic, personal and motivational contexts.
This lesson marked a profound shift in how I understood the practice of this religion. More importantly, it shaped my future identity and work as a historian. I went off to college and decided to study American history. My coursework illustrated the idea that “history is written by the victors.” When the writer of a historical record is a person with power (and probably wants to keep that power), the story is told in such a way that ensures they are presented as the good guy. Their motives are pure, and their critics are wrong. Good historians know that when you pull a document out of an archive or read an account of a major event, all these contextual questions matter: when was it written, who wrote it, who was it written for and why was it written.
Alternatives to traditional, mainstream history books lift up stories of the oppressed, ignored, or long forgotten voices. They add important complexity to our understanding of “what happened.” I’ve been thinking a lot about the harm that can be caused by presenting a particular record or story as the sole account, what we might call the dominant narrative. In my work and personal life, I’ve tried to listen to diverse perspectives and genuinely understand their source and intention. It’s a challenge to slow down, ask more questions, and seek out truth.
These days, as we fight misinformation, ideological entrenchment, and polarized media sources, the responsibility to understand the context of the information we receive often falls to the individual. I know I live in an information bubble, where the news I consume and the opinions I hear from the people around me echo and reinforce each other. It’s a constant practice for me to ask those questions Sister Linda taught me: the who, what, when, where and why behind the stories presented to us as gospel truth.