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Communicating the Complexity of Faith as a Historian

"This is what the Lord Almighty says: 'Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other" Zechariah 7:9–10

"I am suspended. My arms and legs are held aloft in the still, muggy air and I close my eyes. I keep them closed, afraid of what I'll see if I dare open them, because at the precise moment I open them, I open the world. And I don't know if I'm ready for it.

I am suspended between peace and excruciating tension. I float in repose in this disembodied world, aware of nothing, and it feels heavenly. The deep, depressing, endlessly complicated questions of life, faith, philosophy, and history, float away dreamily and I don't try to catch them. I wouldn't be able to anyway. They don't matter here.

But this dreamy state cannot and should not last forever. In this simplified, floating dreaming state lies a tension that thickens the air and turns it into something that is a swampy solid. It is what brings me down to earth, half-willing, half-not, to sing the hymn from underground. Maybe it is a holy tension, a holy complication, a holy force reminding me that I am called to embrace the pain of the earth as Christ my redeemer did. I can't forsake earthly, dirty complexity for a dreamy life in repose. So perhaps my in-between life, which is both, is a life after all."

I wrote these, admittedly dramatic, words as a journal entry in January 2018, at the beginning of my second semester as a grad student in history at the University of Oklahoma. It was an exceptionally cold January in the central plains by my Southern Californian standards, and I sat down in my chilly apartment with a steaming cup of coffee to write as a momentary escape from the panic and stress that consistently creep in my peripheral vision as a grad student. I was reading through Zechariah at the time and I struggled to see past the judgment and violence that the people of Israel call down upon their enemies. I asked myself, "How could God prefer some as 'chosen people' over others? How can I love a violent God? How can a violent and vindictive God love me when I mess up over and over again? How can such violence and rage also contain mercy and grace?" This journal entry is my attempt at that time to address these questions. As you can see, I didn't and perhaps couldn't answer them at all. But I got at something, a truth for my life, that I have carried with me ever since.

As a budding historian, I have been trained to seek out nuance in all that I do, from the multiple books I read a week for my seminars to the documents I find in the archives for my own research. My faculty mentors and peers have trained me to recognize that things are almost always more complicated than they appear. Perhaps more than any other field, history is equipped to demonstrate this truth. Historians look at multiple levels of past–the looming structural forces that shape human life (industrialization and technological change, for instance); the ideas those structural forces bring to the fore (ideas about consumption in the aftermath of mass manufacture, for example); and the contingency of people's responses to these changes on the ground (allowing people to be people and to respond differently, or irrationally to the changes going on around them). At every one of these levels there is ample room for different analyses: class, race, gender, environment, economic, intellectual, cultural, social or some combination. The list is never-ending and is what makes the task of writing history so daunting and rather heroic. Thus, simple explanations are rarely sufficient in history. Things are complicated, and they always have been and always will be.

So when I think about the rather extreme discourse that has seeped into every level I have just described, I am reminded why history matters. We live in a time when nuance has been forgotten in favor of a simplified explanation that can fit into 280 characters. I am convinced that social media platforms such as Twitter are chronically adverse to nuance, and it worries me when I see #Twitterstorians (yes, that is a real hashtag) and people of faith using it to communicate some of the most complicated ideas that knit together the varieties of the human experience, especially with God. This line of thinking is also applicable to how we treat each other and forgive.

The loss of nuance in explaining things–both the past and the present– has made it more difficult for us to forgive one another and see one another as more than the most dreadful evils we carry inside us. In the extreme and simplified discourse of today, people are permanently and publicly shamed for those evils. Of course, this is not to say that we are off the hook in calling out and combating hate and evil when we see it–our God is also a God of justice. Rather, I am interested in recalling a sense of complexity to human beings as God has created them. Without it, the radical redemption (grace) that God brought into this world through Christ has its limits, which means that God's love similarly has its limits. I can't abide that thought.

Some things are simple. Hate and love, in their simplest forms, are easy to understand, and we are absolutely called to "administer true justice" as God commands the Israelites in Zechariah 7. But we are also called to follow the second part of that verse, to "show mercy and compassion to one another." It is not a zero-sum game. For all our sakes, it cannot be.

Abagail M. Gibson Abby M. Gibson is an alumna of Seaver College at Pepperdine University (Class of 2017), Abby is a second-year master's student in Western American history at the University of Oklahoma. She studies Civil War memory among the diverse peoples of the American West, combining two strands of scholarship that are usually kept separate. Abby will graduate with her master's degree from OU in May 2019 and will continue on to a doctoral program at USC beginning in the fall.