Some years ago in Delhi, India, I listened to a Muslim friend describing how he had only seen his wife-to-be through a veil before the wedding night. He had also shared only a few words with her. In a minority culture of Northwest China as pictured in the scene above, the bridegroom uses a stick to lift the veil and see his new bride. In both of these cases, the reality of the one viewed was very different than what could be seen with the veil still in place.
It is similar with history. We can often have a flawed view of history, flawed because it is incomplete. Not necessarily wrong, but not the whole story. As in the case of the new bride, the view is limited with the veil in place. The veil that keeps us from seeing a fuller view of history can come from our national or cultural biases, our ethnocentric grid that limits and contains.
One of the greatest dangers of having a flawed and incomplete view of the past is that it can dictate the view we have of the future. If we see our nation as being the center of history in the past, as somehow being privileged in a different way than others, we may then see the future as defined in a similar way. This can of course also happen to us as individuals. When we only see our own personal history through a grid of how right and correct we were in every situation, that framework can often guide our future as well.
In my last blog post, Peter Frankopan and the Sogdians, I mentioned a book titled The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. The author, Peter Frankopan, had an experience as a teenager that others of us may have had as well. One of questioning history we were being taught. Is this really the way it was? Is this the whole story, or even most of the story? Frankopan writes that he had “become uneasy about the relentlessly narrow geographic focus of my classes at school, which concentrated solely on western Europe and the United States and left most of the rest of the world untouched...I would look up at my map and see huge regions of the world that had been passed over in silence.” (pg. xiiv) (emphases mine)
Growing up in the United States, I can remember times when I felt odd that the maps always seemed to have my country in the center. Much later when I began to live in India, I realized even more starkly that all roads did not in fact lead to Washington D.C. or my home town in Washington state. As I studied the history of the Christian Church, I also began to see the strong bias to a “westward” story of the spread of the faith, disregarding or heavily minimizing the stronger spread to the East by a Church that did not have the power of Empire behind it.
Frankopan quotes an anthropologist named Eric Wolf about “the accepted and lazy view of history.” Maybe not necessarily wrong, but certainly flawed in its incomplete nature. The veil remains in place and needs to be lifted for there to be fuller understanding. Wolf goes on to write about this view of history, one where “Ancient Greece begat Rome, Rome begat Christian Europe, Christian Europe begat the Renaissance, the Renaissance the Enlightenment, the Enlightenment political democracy and the industrial revolution. Industry crossed with democracy in turn yielded the United States, embodying the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Ever heard this view of history? Not necessarily wrong, but certainly incomplete, leaving out the world outside the Roman Empire and having a Eurocentric/United States centric focus. Frankopan goes on to write “I immediately recognised that this was exactly the story that I had been told: the mantra of the political, cultural and moral triumph of the west. But this account was flawed; there were alternative ways of looking at history–ones that did not involve looking at the past from the perspective of the winners of recent history.”
Yes, there are alternative views of history. But often we need to work hard to let go of our own biases and national self-perceptions to be able to see behind the veil. If we do not do that, we will miss understanding what is unfolding before our eyes in the 21st century. It is neither the completion or dissolution of a narrative of the “triumph of the west”, because that narrative was never the complete one anyway. There were always compelling stories coming from Asia, Africa, Latin America in earlier centuries. Stories in history that if listened to will change our perspective of the future, because our ideas of the past have changed.
Anyone want to look behind the veil?