On blogging history: a response to some critics

On March 15, I published a short article entitled, “Bishop Joseph Zuk: A brief biographical overview.” I opened the article with this paragraph:

Joseph A. Zuk was the first Ukrainian Orthodox bishop in America, but little has been written about his life. I don’t know a lot, but from the sources I’ve collected, we can piece together a brief biographical sketch. This isn’t much, but I thought it might be worthwhile to get the very basics out there, so we can begin filling in the gaps.

For sources, I relied on several contemporary secular newspapers, Fr. Serafim Surrency’s generally reliable The Quest for Orthodox Church Unity in America, and the history on the official website of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the USA. I knew at the outset that I had produced an extremely limited and flawed article, but since Bishop Joseph Zuk is virtually unknown to most American Orthodox Christians, I thought I might at least introduce him and perhaps inspire others to do further research into his life. I must say, I have been rather shocked at the response I’ve received.

One commenter, “Jake,” offered the following:

Why invent the wheel. Get in touch with some scholars and get the real information before you put something up here. If I remember from my history class, he was born in Pidkamin or a village near Pidkamin and was influenced by trips across the border to Pochaijiv. Also he reacted against the campaign of the Polish monastery in Pidkamin that was in competition for local people’s souls. Right out of Ivan Franko!

I confess that I was not aware of earlier scholarship on Bishop Joseph Zuk. Jake, and others, went on to list various scholars for me to contact, archives for me to visit, and works for me to consult. I’m afraid I haven’t the time to engage in a full-blown scholarly study of Bishop Joseph; my aim, as I said, was merely to present the sources I had and let others dig deeper if they were interested.

On our Facebook page, a reader named Petro Melnyk offered numerous critiques, correcting certain details regarding Bishop Joseph’s educational background and commenting:

You could have checked other contemporary newspapers of Zuk’s day to verify the facts you presented, especially the church newspapers which would have his obituary. That is what a good researcher does. Also consult secondary sources such as history books to confirm facts and check bibliographies to look for more pirmary sources and other secondary sources.

A common thread in these various criticisms seems to be that I should either go all-in in researching Bishop Joseph, or ignore him altogether. What I did — publishing a brief biographical overview based on some initial sources and opening the floor to others — is, apparently, not acceptable. It’s what I do all the time, though. My writing, on this website, tends to represent a work in progress. I like to share the process of learning and discovery with all of our readers. I am not an expert who purports to teach everyone else; I’m merely a student of history trying to learn more, and excited to share my findings — however incomplete — with my readers. When I write peer-reviewed papers and so forth, of course I have to be more thorough and confident in my conclusions. But here, I wasn’t offering conclusions — merely sharing the material I’d found.

Most recently, on our Facebook page, Linda Marie Labelle gave me this advice:

I am a grad student in sociology, not history but even in my area of study we have to use proper research methods. In this case you didn’t. I think it speaks to the credibility of the web site as a whole. What is the aim? if you want to attrack other scholars to post their material then you have to set a good example of using reasonable methodology not just an article from a secular newspaper. Consult a good secondary source first as was suggested.

At this point, I’m at a loss. As I said earlier, at the beginning of my disputed article, I wrote, “I don’t know a lot, but from the sources I’ve collected, we can piece together a brief biographical sketch. This isn’t much, but I thought it might be worthwhile to get the very basics out there, so we can begin filling in the gaps.” From all the criticism I’ve received, it sounds like the information I presented was off in a couple of areas, was missing some important stories, and wasn’t based on the very best Ukrainian sources. I actually figured that that would be the result. I mean, I knew that there had to be good Ukrainian sources out there, but I didn’t have them. I knew that there must be great stories (for instance, the story of Bishop Joseph’s conversion to Orthodoxy), but I didn’t know them. And I suspected that at least something in the materials I had might have included some errors.

Does it make me an irresponsible historian for posting an article (with a disclaimer) that featured so many inherent weaknesses? I don’t know. I’m not a great historian, I don’t know everything about everything, and even what I know is imperfect and incomplete. I would submit that any historian worth his or her salt would say the same thing. If a historian doesn’t admit that he’s not all-knowing, you’re best off running in the other direction. There’s no place for know-it-alls in Orthodoxy. And when we do history, all we can do is try to be as accurate and complete as possible, while acknowleding that we will never, ever, ever be perfectly accurate or perfectly complete.

And if anyone out there actually does know a thing or two about Ukrainian Orthodox history in America, and would like to educate the rest of us, please submit an article. My email address is mfnamee [at] gmail [dot] com. I look forward to hearing from you.


Matthew Namee

5 Replies to “On blogging history: a response to some critics”

  1. I read those comments and thought them unnecessarily harsh given the caveat you began your post with. I look forward to any additional information they can provide on a figure who seems extremely interesting in the history of Orthodoxy in North America.

    Having converted from a small religious denomination, I have noticed a defensiveness regarding history and doctrine that sometimes forgets how ‘invisible’ such small groups are to the wider public – even to those with interests that would make them ‘more likely’ to have some familiarity. For instance, the average historian of religion in America may have heard of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS), but they are unlikely to have at their fingertips much in the way of specifics regarding its history and its relations to the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, for instance. I think much the same can be said of American Orthodox history, in general, and that much more for the smaller, non-Greek, non-Russian jurisdictions. Ukrainian Orthodox ecclesiological history seems to be that much more complex.

    Rather than armchair criticism, I would much rather have seen positive suggestions for further resources and corrections of the sources you utilized. I think you did a good job of positively responding to the undue criticism you received. I hope they offer more on Ukrainian Orthodox history in America.

  2. Rather than saying your are wrong, perhaps your critics would do more to the memory of Bp. Zuk by proving your wrong, with sources, article contributions, additional material etc. You just brought the tip into sight: they are free to uncover the iceberg.

  3. I’m sorry you get such huge overreactions to your article :-/. There seems to be a lot of passion involved in recent Ukrainian Orthodox history, which might explain why there have been so many different Ukrainian Orthodox jurisdictions since the Revolution :-).

  4. I think you should simply present yourself as French and be able to get away with these types of ‘unfinished’ pieces (“Namee” already sounds vaguely French–just put an egout accent on the first ‘e’ and you’re set!. I have in mind a comment the great Byzantine liturgical historian Robert Taft makes (in, I think, his book *Beyond East and West: Problems in Liturgical Understanding*) where he says : “with admirable boldness Francophone authors will throw into the agora an inchoative theory to be gnawed on by the critics before retrieving what remains and polishing it up for a second edition. They cover their flank by calling their sallies esquisses, jalons, essais.”

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