Discussing
Paul Revere, Sarah Palin and our habit of rewriting history

Bethany Keeley-Jonker

Paulvanderklay
June 8, 2011

I look upon Sarah Palin as a serious political comic along the lines of Stephen Colbert. She, however, is a self-parody, the purest form of political theater and occasionally political comedy.<br><br>Her Biblishness is I think the interesting part of this story. What does she do in with this "gotcha" question? (the same gotcha question grade school kids face when they return from summer vacation) She appropriates a historical event and reshape it for present (in this case) political-sermonic application. What does Paul Revere teach us? "Freedom means being able to own guns!" Sarah likely learned this from listening to preachers do it all the time in church. <br><br>The next thing to ponder is that in fact this is what Biblical writers do all the time. Look at what the gospel writers do and how they shape the details of the story for their audience. <br><br>Palin, probably one of the most regular church attenders in the political limelight today, comes by this tradition honestly.

Bethanykj
June 8, 2011

What's funny about this particular example is that the Paul Revere story really is about defending a colonial armory. It's just that Palin imported her preferred tactics!

ClayofCO
June 8, 2011

The term "Bibleish" doesn't quite do it for me. I like the idea of "Great Cliches of the Faith." They are the Bible statements of truthiness (re: Colbert) that have become conditioned axioms that we think we believe but fail to fact check. Verbal muscle memory takes over and soon the saying is a part of the theological conversation.<br><br>A few examples. One that is corrected often but still hangs in there is, "money is the root of all evil." Of course, the quite different true truth is, "the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil" (1Tim 6:10). Another is "spare the rod, spoil the child," which is often quoted as Scripture, though it is not (it is probably a mangling of Proverbs 13:24). There's also the Scripture that doesn't really mean what the person using it wants it to mean. How many parents quote Proverbs 22:6, "train up a child in the way he should go," applying it to their very small child, when the Hebrew term and context is probably more likely a "young man" (a teen). Of course, the nativity story has generated a treasure trove of "Great Cliches of the Faith" and an amazing amount of narrative conflation (how long Mary was in Bethlehem, was it an "inn" or a "guest room", was it a stable or a house, the number of Magi, when they arrived). I could go on (and on, and on...).<br><br>These axioms are less like weeds in the garden of the "mind of Christ," which would be Satan's untruths, but more like unwanted plants with attractive but non-nutritious fruit. It takes a lot of work to identify them, pull them out and keep them out, and it can be to the neglect of the real biblical plants in the garden of truth that need constant cultivation and feeding to become strong and fruitful. I guess that's just the nature of the garden in the fallen world. We need to become better gardeners.

Laura
June 8, 2011

While I see (and agree with!) the point you're making about "Bibleish" and Biblical illiteracy, I'm not sure you chose the best analogy to highlight it.<br><br>NPR (generally not a friend of Palin!) interviewed a historian from Suffolk University (Boston, Massachusetts). He concluded that although she may have overemphasized certain 2nd amendment conclusions, she got the facts of the story basically straight. <br><br><a href="http://www.npr.org/2011/06/06/137011636/how-accurate-were-palins-comments-on-paul-revere?ft=1&amp;f=1003" rel="nofollow">http://www.npr.org/2011/06/06/...</a> <br><br>It appears the news problem may not be Palin's statements so much as "the generally accepted story". In fact, if I'm understanding your article correctly, that's exactly the problem that so many people have with Biblical "knowledge". They accept (and argue vociferously about!) what they think the Bible says instead of actually reading and studying it.

Lambert Sikkema
June 8, 2011

Facinating! Sarah happens to be correct but don't let that get in the way. Who is rewriting what? The historian on NPR recently confirmed that Sarah's recollection of the event in question was on the mark. If we're going to think Christian perhaps we should do our own fact checking before jumping on a politically tinged band-wagon. <br>Lambert Sikkema

ClayofCO
June 8, 2011

Thank you! Bibleish cliches of faith are one thing. Kneejerkish judgments of people and ideas is another. I have held off saying anything about Palin's off-the-cuff remarks because I'm not a historian. In the light of almost instantaneous negative punditry and judgment of Palin, the NPR interview pretty much exonerates her. That is a caution for me. As Christians I'm afraid our quick responses to those with whom we disagree are not just Bibleish, but also to often kneejerkish. We judge and speak too quickly. Thanks for sharing the NPR piece.

Bethanykj
June 8, 2011

I wouldn't say she is CORRECT, she is closer to the truth than I initially thought, but there were still no warning shots, and his primary goal was definitely to warn the colonists. <br>I think my observation that her Revere looks a lot like Palin isn't diminished if her version is more selected than invented.

Bethanykj
June 8, 2011

Actually, I would be a hypocrite if I didn't correct myself here. I read the wikipedia article on this, and according to that, there WERE gunshots and bells that were part of warning the colonists, and Revere DID tell his British captors at the time that they were dead men and it was the rebel army. However, Revere didn't fire shots or ring bells to warn the British. Before they captured him, he was trying to avoid their notice. Anyway, my point before was that the story and character are more complicated than we make them, and this confusion definitely bears that out.

Jcarpenter
June 8, 2011

Ms. Palin is known for dealing in archetypes (Grizzly Mom, Hockey Mom, Joe Plumber, Real Patriots, etc.); Paul Revere is another archetypal figure of history and culture, of legend and of fact. She's not known for making fine points.  To me, her supposedly making a fine point between "alerting" colonists and "warning" the British  suggests she either misspoke during a sound-byte opportunity or she's creating a new archetype for Paul Revere.  What was Revere's main purpose in his ride?

Nbierma
June 8, 2011

Caveat: some Palin fans were trying to edit the Wikipedia entry to conform to her story: <a href="http://ti.me/lB46aG" rel="nofollow">http://ti.me/lB46aG</a>  Talk about rewriting history!

Rjk
June 8, 2011

I don't want to let Sarah Palin off the hook here yet.  Are we to believe that for years all schoolchildren have been given the wrong story but yet Sarah Palin has the right one and she happens to spout it off without saying "actually, even though we often hear this common story, Paul Revere was actually defending the American armory?"  I don't buy it.  I think she messed up and happen to mess up in a way that is close enough that she was able to spin it to make it sound right - to some people.<br><br>Bethany sent me the article before she posted it and I actually looked online and found a historian that ABC News interviewed who said that she basically got the story wrong so I saw no problem in using this as an example.    I'm not convinced yet because one historian - even if he is from Boston - can defend what Palin said.

Stevebrauning
June 8, 2011

This article and subsequent comments below by the author is a good example of a total ideological bent that criticizes Palin even when she is right.  Unbelievable.

Josh Larsen
TC Staff
June 8, 2011

What's been interesting to watch as I've moderated the comments for this discussion is the way Bethany's larger point about being open to the challenges of the Bible has been set aside (by both Palin detractors and supporters) in favor of a debate on Palin's statements. Perhaps that in itself is an additional commentary on the way all of us, myself included, hijack/interpret/rewrite events to serve our own assumptions first, rather than being open to what those events can teach us.

Laura
June 8, 2011

Thank you! That was my (intended) point (which I apparently failed to make!)<br><br>The idea of our culture and society mangling Biblical truth from lack of knowledge is a vitally important one. If we are to be salt and light in a dark world, we must be prepared to respond truthfully and lovingly to Biblical ignorance. It's critically important that we, as His followers, are steeped in the truth of His word.<br><br>I just don't think the recent news story about Palin and Paul Revere (and the wild controversy all over the internet regarding it) is a particularly pertinent foundation for that discussion.

Rickd
June 8, 2011

Actually Sarah Palin is a true shibboleth. Mocking Sarah Palin is code for saying I'm progressive, for getting John Stewart, for saying I'm with this tribe, not that one. Using her sort of obscures your point and brings completely unrelated ideological sympathies to the surface.

Ahauptman
June 9, 2011

Thank you for this!  InterVarsity Christian Fellowship loves to teach students how to study the Bible well through manuscripting(inductive Bible study), so we appreciate this!  We'd love to keep connected with you in blog-land: <a href="http://www.intervarsity.org/blog" rel="nofollow">www.intervarsity.org/blog</a><br>- InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA ("Transform Lives, Renew the Campus, Change the World")

Jamesggilmore
June 9, 2011

I'd definitely agree with that... Palin's a shibboleth, like Bush was before her, only she's a shibboleth for a bit more of a restricted community.<br>George Bush's big strength was identification; from the get-go, Karl Rove and Bush's other handlers constructed an image of him that told folks in the middle of the country "this guy's one of you." Every time one of us coastal liberals made fun of the way he pronounced "nucular" or any of the million other stupid things he said or did, another person in Peoria or Dallas or Lincoln said "they're making fun of me." (At the end of the day, his support collapsed when people realized "he's someone like me" isn't necessarily the best qualification for the job of running the world's largest empire and guiding the world's largest economy.)<br><br>Palin has that same sense of identification, but at the same time more intense and more limited; to those who do identify with her, that identity connection is much stronger than it was with Bush—as evidenced by their recent efforts to edit Paul Revere's Wikipedia page to reflect Palin's mangling of history—but her apparent lack of intelligence and her persecution complex have turned off a lot of people who saw the appeal in Bush. (The "gotcha question" she blamed for her making Paul Revere one of the Three Amigos was "What have you seen today in Boston and what will you take away from your visit?" Everyone say it with Admiral Ackbar: "It's a trap!") When your character is so defined by Tina Fey's impersonation of you that even Fox News mistakes the caricature for the real thing, you've got just as many problems in Lincoln as you do in Los Angeles.<br><br>Her "tribe" is a lot smaller than Bush's ever was—and the "tribe" of people who are scared out of their wits that she might ever be President is, according to polling, a pretty substantial majority of the country.

Jamesggilmore
June 9, 2011

This pretty much wraps up my issues with evangelical exegesis, the notion that "common sense" is all one needs to understand and interpret the Bible. The idea that we can take a series of documents, the most recent of which is almost 2,000 years old, from a culture and context that's completely alien to us, and somehow have any <i>clue</i> what it "really" means is, to me, rather ludicrious. <br>I think the idea of <i>sola scriptura</i> is a deep error, in that it presupposes that one can at any point actually approach Scripture in a way that <i>doesn't</i> involve one's own cultural assumptions about everything. We all look at Scripture through our own eyes—so <i>of course</i> it's going to confirm our biases by praising the people and practices we want it to praise, and condemning the people and practices we want it to condemn. It's completely unavoidable, and to pretend otherwise is to misunderstand the very nature of culture.<br><br>I like to go back to a metaphor Brian McLaren uses: he resists a "constitutional" reading of Scripture, which looks at it like a law code functioning primarily for citation in disputes or the building of propositional philosophical and theological edifices, rather than a series of narratives about the ways in which various peoples encountered God. Wrangling with Scripture is, in part, wrangling with context and culture—not only looking for the light it might shed on our own context and culture, but also looking at the ways in which it was shaped by its own context and culture. <br><br>We've already gotten very good at this, even the "sola scriptura" evangelicals—as evidenced by the fact that there aren't any American religious figures of any prominence making Scriptural arguments to justify slavery anymore. We've come to an understanding that the Bible's acceptance of slavery isn't based in some kind of timeless moral truth, but rather in the messy and complicated relationship between the people of God with the cultures and contexts of the eras in which they lived. <br><br>And that is, I think, a proper understanding—but let's not pretend that we've somehow arrived at the <i>pure meaning</i> of Scripture, any more than the antebellum Southern pastors who used the Bible to justify chattel slavery were looking at the <i>pure meaning</i> of Scripture. Our context and the contexts in which the Scriptural documents were written and redacted are in dialogue with one another. To suggest that somehow <i>this</i> example is completely based in the cultural context, but that in <i>other</i> situations—like women in ministry, or sexuality, or marriage, or government—the things the Bible says are somehow <i>timeless and objective moral truths</i> is, I think, intellectually disingenuous at best, and speaks to exactly the problem you're getting at.<br>

ClayofCO
June 9, 2011

I'm not so sure she should be ON the hook. After reading the NPR site comments, there is obviously much more historical ambiguity and nuance to the Paul Revere story than we got from grade school and Longfellow. If reputable historians are conflicted, then kneejerkish criticism of Palin by pundits is misplaced. Palin may not have parsed the detail correctly in her offhanded remarks, and perhaps reached too far in her political intent, but she reflected what is apparently a legitimate and defensible alternative historical reconstruction of the Paul Revere story. Perhaps she wasn't exonerated by the NPR piece, but her views were certainly validated and defended as not unreasonable.

Robert Keeley
June 9, 2011

Clay - thanks for your reply.  I agree that the history is far less settled than I was led to believe as a student.  <br><br>My reason for writing earlier is that, before Bethany posted this, I did, in fact, check to make sure that the Paul Revere part was right.  I objected to the commenter who said that she didn't check her facts.  The internet's Paul Revere information is much richer (or at least there is a lot more of it) than there was earlier in the week!  <br><br>But I think my point is still valid - if someone asked you about Paul Revere's ride and you were going to say something that most people thought was wrong - and EVERYBODY thought she was completely wrong at first - don't you think you would have said something about that?  Wouldn't you have said "you know, here is what people think, but actually..."?<br><br>I know I would have.<br><br>On Bethany's main point - I have been reading a VERY FAMOUS recently published book and one of my issues with it is very much this issue.  The author gives sometimes non-standard interpretations of Biblical passages without noting that he is doing so.  Then he builds his case on those non-standard interpretations as if everyone has thought this all along - or at least they should have!  <br><br>Biblical interpretation is hard work and I think God that I am part of a denomination (in my case, the CRC) who can stand with me and can help me think through what certain passages might be saying.  As a friend of mine says "Biblical interpretation is a team sport."

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