From our friend and occasional guest-blogger Jared Burkholder, associate professor of history at Grace College (IN)…
Dear David (and now Tim) Barton,
Maybe you can clarify something for me. Why do you continue to insist that because you read primary sources you have a unique voice when compared to professional Christian historians like me, who you say fail to make use of original sources?
I am hardly the first to be annoyed by this, but suffice it to say this is utterly incomprehensible to me. Primary sources are to historians what hammers are to carpenters; what keyboards are to composers; what language is to writers. They are the tools of our trade, the most basic implements we learn to use.
We wrestle with their complexity. We wade through mountains of them. We have realized that using them with integrity requires difficult work and a whole lot of time. Often, we don’t just read and use primary sources, we live in them. We spend so much time with them they become part of our present reality. They show up in our dreams at night and in the space of our daydreams. We ask other people for grant money so we can go and see them. We cross oceans to handle them — maybe just to decipher the notes in the margins. We struggle with foreign languages so we can break their codes and take courses in paleography to learn how the ancients made their letters. Visit any of our classes and you’ll find we not only use original documents for our research, we assign them to our students. We might print out digital photos of documents crammed into our hard drives from our research trips so students can practice with them. We take joy when we inspire in our students the same sense of awe we ourselves feel every time we step into the archives.
So it baffles me why you believe that your use of primary sources gives you a corner on the truth, or that the reason historians like me disagree with you is because we’re too lazy or “indoctrinated” to use original sources. Perhaps it is because you have found that since many people do not get the precious privilege of handling original documents they are easily impressed by your own claims to have read these sources. Perhaps it’s because an appeal to primary sources has a gnostic attraction that induces your audience to believe you’ve gained access to some privileged knowledge. Perhaps it is because you believe one can use original sources like some people use the Bible: as a reservoir of proof-texts. Or maybe you see historians framing their work within the context of what peers and colleagues have written and mistakenly assume they’re just borrowing from each other. Perhaps it is because you’ve never gone through the painful process of peer review for a legitimate academic journal where you open yourself up to criticism from specialists who are also steeped in original sources. Probably you mistakenly believe reading from original sources removes the potential for interpretive bias.
Whatever the reason, stop lying. Stop using this absurd line that citing primary sources and original documents somehow means you are unique or magically makes you an authority. We all use original documents. It is so routine that it’s difficult to believe this requires being said at all. It is literally what we do for a living.
Dr. Jared S. Burkholder