Historiography: Creating Christian Historians

Every year I teach my historiography course. The uninitiated will immediately respond, “What does that mean?” This is a required course for all history majors at Southeastern. The goals are the following:

  1. Provide a history of the writing of history throughout the ages (different perspectives and schools of thought);
  2. Think through how a Christian should understand and interpret history;
  3. Become proficient in researching, writing, and documenting papers on historical subjects.

Although some may think that sounds like a “dry” course, I actually enjoy teaching it and inspiring history majors to see history through God’s eyes and to be the best they can be in their thinking and writing.

I use a number of valuable sources to help achieve those goals listed above. One book I give students is Carl Trueman’s Histories and Fallacies.

Trueman writes in an engaging way and aids in showing how general theories of history can sometimes lead us astray. His focus there is on the Marxist interpretation, which doesn’t allow for any falsification at all. One must agree with the theory regardless of the facts presented.

He also does a fine job of showing how groups like Holocaust deniers attempt to gain respectability in the historical profession. Students learn how to analyze this particular movement and see why it lacks credibility.

Further, Trueman highlights some of the most common fallacies historians may fall into as they research and try to offer explanations. All in all, this is a valuable resource.

Ronald Nash’s Christian Faith and Historical Understanding (another out-of-print book I use—copies can be obtained online in other ways) lays out an argument for the development of a Biblical worldview on history as it critiques various schools of historical thought.

I especially appreciate his takedown of individuals such as Rudolf Bultmann, who try to say they have a Christian understanding of history even while they deny all the basic doctrines of the faith and promote the view that it doesn’t matter whether there was a real Jesus or not, and if there was, there really wasn’t a physical resurrection. Nash’s logic in the book is impeccable.

Then there’s an outstanding chapter from another book that is essential for the course. Herbert Schlossberg’s Idols for Destruction has one chapter called “Idols of History.” It concentrates on how people turn history into an idol and somehow believe that everything is historically determined.

This argument basically says that whatever happens in history is what was supposed to happen—therefore, one must get on the “right side of history.”

That “right-side-of-history” cliché is one that I despise. It omits human free will and makes our choices in life insignificant. Whatever is going to happen will happen, according to this view.

To help round out my students’ contemplation of how a Christian should view history, I also offer them my book called If the Foundations Are Destroyed: Biblical Principles and Civil Government. Although the subtitle centers on government, the principles in the book are applicable to all areas of life.

I go through them one-by-one with the students in the hope that they will generate further thought. I don’t claim that the principles espoused in the book are the only ones, but they are pretty fundamental and should guide students into the practice of evaluating whatever they read through Biblical principles.

And then, of course, there is that Turabian manual that becomes their guide into all of their writing techniques, from how to choose a topic, to how to develop an outline for writing, to the proper way to document what one has found (footnotes are a must), to even the rules for spelling, punctuation, use of numbers and abbreviations, and everything dealing with correct, scholarly writing.

I joke that we should refer to the manual as something handed down to us from St. Kate.

While students often struggle with all these details in the manual, it’s imperative they get the basics and then make it their reference work for all future papers.

Historiography is a course that is so fundamental that it is the gateway for taking the upper-level courses. I’m glad to provide the guidance these history majors need.

But more than merely a preparation for upper-level courses, the historiography course is a way to help each student develop a Christian philosophy of history. That’s a goal worth the time and effort.

Lewis: Knowing the Past for the Sake of the Present

Politics. Is there anyone else besides me who wishes he/she could turn it off for a while? I’m a professor of American history, though, so it’s important for me to keep up with political developments and provide analysis—for my students, of course, but I also feel a responsibility to help others understand the principles we need to follow.

There is a temptation, though, to be so immersed in politics that one sees it as all-consuming. C. S. Lewis recognized that temptation. In his day, WWII was one of those potentially all-consuming events. Some people, at that time, were saying that all other activities, including Lewis’s own profession as a professor, should be set aside so that all thought and energy would be concentrated on the war.

Lewis said no to that. One of his most enlightening essays, “Learning in War-Time,” addressed the complaint that some had about allowing normal day-to-day activities to continue uninterrupted.

Lewis wanted to be sure he was not misunderstood: the war was a righteous one and every citizen had a duty to support it. “Every duty is a religious duty,” he believed, “and our obligation to perform every duty is therefore absolute.”

Rescuing a drowning man is a duty, he continued, and if we happened to live on a coast, perhaps we should be well prepared as lifesavers. But even such a laudatory effort as lifesaving needs to be seen as only part of one’s overall duties.

If anyone devoted himself to lifesaving in the sense of giving it his total attention—so that he thought and spoke of nothing else and demanded the cessation of all other human activities until everyone had learned to swim—he would be a monomaniac.

The rescue of drowning men is, then, a duty worth dying for, but not worth living for.

Lewis then opined that all political duties were like that. Politics is not the sum total of life. Seeking to put the right people in political office is a worthy endeavor, but it should never consume one’s life.

He who surrenders himself without reservation to the temporal claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering to Caesar that which, of all things, most emphatically belongs to God: himself.

For Lewis personally, God had charted a course for his life that pointed to intellectual activity, something that was not to cease simply because a war was going on. One of his most famous quotes comes from this essay: “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.”

He then offers me, as a historian, this encouraging word:

Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.

A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.

There continues to be a “great cataract of nonsense” in our day. The America of 2018 suffers from a type of myopia, forgetting what has gone before, never learning from the past. History offers us tremendous lessons if we are willing to learn from them.

The reason I am so focused, at times, on the current political situation, is that I am disturbed by our ignorance of the past and our apparent unwillingness to correct what we have done wrong previously. We think we are charting a new course that will lead us to some type of utopia when, in fact, we are simply following some of the same old ruts that have caused misery before.

Lewis concludes his essay with what WWII should teach his generation. His conclusion applies to our generation as well if we think political programs or putting the right person in office will be our savior:

If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon.

We must never forget that we are pilgrims on this earth, and that the pilgrimage goes on regardless of what happens in politics and government.

The New Paganism & the Christian Response

American Christians have had it pretty easy for the past few centuries. Whether or not the majority of the population was actually Christian at any time (only God knows for sure), the society, as a whole, always recognized the value of Christian belief and held a certain degree of respect for it.

Even during the debate over slavery that led to the Civil War, both sides were claiming to be following Scripture and used the Bible to argue their points.

That appeal to Scriptural authority no longer appears to be operative in the mainstream of American culture. The disdain for and rejection of Christian morality has now come to the forefront. It is most painfully obvious in the militaristic (I use that term advisedly) agenda that attempts to force everyone to embrace homosexuality as normal and legitimate.

I was teaching a Bible study last week where I used a passage from the Old Testament prophet Hosea, chapter 4, as he chastised his people for their faithlessness, and I believe it speaks to what we’re experiencing now:

Hear the word of the Lord, you Israelites, because the Lord has a charge to bring against you who live in the land: “There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land. . . .”

My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge. “Because you have rejected knowledge, I also reject you as my priests; because you have ignored the law of your God, I also will ignore your children.”

That last line is not God being callous; rather, it’s simply pointing out that the faithlessness of the people has led to no real knowledge of Him, with the consequences naturally falling on the next generation.

The sins of the fathers definitely do reverberate through the generations. As I look at America as a historian, I can see the beginnings—the first generations—where knowledge of God was pervasive in the culture. Then I survey what has happened since. Here’s how I explain it:

  • First Generation: The nation began with vision and zeal based on Christian faith, whether we are referring to the early settlers or the Founders who fought for independence and set up the government.
  • Second Generation: The knowledge of God and the true faith continued in the society, but that initial vision and zeal began to abate. America still believed that Christianity was the bedrock of the culture, but the heart was not the same—head knowledge, not as much from the heart. When did this occur? I place it as starting after the Civil War with the introduction of new philosophies like evolution and new movements like progressivism.
  • Third Generation: This is when the true knowledge of the faith began to diminish and society operated primarily on the tradition that had been handed down. We continued to think certain things were moral and others were immoral, but we lost our rationale for why that was so. We stopped explaining morality from a Biblical foundation and just declared that some things were right and others were wrong. We had “Biblical memories” without Biblical knowledge.
  • Fourth Generation: As things progressed (regressed?), we then began to toss aside even the traditions that kept a certain morality in place. We lost our moorings and constructed different foundations with an entirely new concept of right and wrong.

That Fourth Generation is what we are now entering with a vengeance. “Who says that abortion and homosexuality are wrong? Sin? What an outmoded term. Those who continue to harbor those old ideas are narrow, bigoted, and need to be coerced into accepting our new enlightened age that rejects those silly restrictions.”

Yes, we’ve come a long way.

Many Christians are shocked by what they see developing. We have to fight for civic rights that we once thought inviolable. Businesses run by Christians are under attack for not bowing to the New Enlightenment.

Is there a Fifth Generation coming? If so, what will it be? Are we going to get even further from God’s truth in the next generation, or will there perhaps be a backlash as the consequences of accepting immorality as normal become more evident?

Like you, I would prefer a society that respects Christian faith. However, we need to see this time of spiritual stress also as an opportunity. As those who enter into the New Paganism (which is the more correct description) begin to suffer for it, we need to be ready to offer the hand of healing and direction back to Biblical truth.

Are we ready to do that? Rather than spending our time bemoaning the loss of what once was, are we willing to follow our Lord into this new field of harvest for Him?

An Encouragement to All Who Teach

As a professor for nearly thirty years, my aim has been to instill solid Biblical principles and sound historical teaching based on original sources and insightful secondary works, with the ultimate goal that students would be able to see for themselves how those principles and sources reveal truth.

The trendy phrase is “to develop critical thinking.”

Professors/teachers sometimes wonder how successful this endeavor has been, especially when teaching a class that few of the students seem to care about or when mired in all that grading.

Despite discouragements along the way, I’ve never doubted God’s call on my life for any serious length of time. And then there are those encouragements that pop up unannounced, like the e-mail I received from a recent Southeastern history major who graduated and is now teaching high school at a classical academy.

With his permission, I’m going to share what he is experiencing.

He began by commenting that my blogs this past week on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn were “wonderful.” That was the first encouragement, but it was only the beginning.

He just finished teaching an American history/literature class based on a Socratic method of questioning. He then related that he began the course with a thoughtful quote from the book I use in my American history survey courses, Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People. He used it to spur their thinking; it became the cornerstone of everything they studied during the semester. Here’s the quote he used:

American history raises three fundamental questions. First, can a nation rise above the injustices of its origins and, by its moral purpose and performance, atone for them?…

The Second question provides the key to the first. In the process of nation-building, can ideals and altruism—the desire to build the perfect community—be mixed successfully with acquisitiveness and ambition, without which no dynamic society can be built at all?…

Thirdly, the Americans originally aimed to build an other-worldly “City on a Hill,” but found themselves designing a republic of the people, to be modeled for the entire planet. Have they made good their audacious claims? Have they indeed proved exemplars for humanity? And will they continue to be so in the new millennium?

Is that typical fare for a typical high school? I doubt it. My former student was up to the challenge of helping these students think through American history with that as the backdrop.

What he described next stirred my heart:

My class spent a full two hours dissecting this quote in an attempt to mine its meaning and see what kind of answers we could put forth. To say the least, the students’ answers were antiquated and bereft of any deep historical knowledge.

So, for the rest of the year I used Paul Johnson’s work as a supplementary guide to my lectures, and tried my best to emphasize the principles you taught me in undergrad about self-government, constitutionalism, the need for citizens of a democratic-republic to adhere to moral/religious principles, etc.

I had students read and discuss the Mayflower Compact, Plymouth Plantation, the Declaration, the Federalist Papers, Jefferson’s anti-federalist essays, the Constitution, Democracy in America (which we spent two weeks on), the Lincoln-Douglass debates, Fredrick Douglass’s Narrative Life of a Slave, Walden, and much more.

Note two things here: first, the principles he saw as important; second, the original sources he used to explore those principles.

But he didn’t stop there with just the first part of American history; he went on to examine the philosophies that arose to undercut those founding principles:

Along with all these great works of American literature and political philosophy, I also spent a substantial amount of time teaching students about Marxism, communism, the eugenics movement (including Margaret Sanger’s contributions), and the advent of progressive welfare politics.

My students were horrified and amazed that although they had heard many times about the 11 million people killed by Hitler’s regime, they had never heard about the 19 million (or more) killed by Stalin’s regime, the 40 million (or more) killed by Mao’s regime, and the 200,000 (or more) killed by Pol Pot’s regime.

They were even more surprised to learn that “Nazism” stood for “National Socialism.” Our all-too-brief lesson on Whittaker Chambers and the Hiss Case was also a big hit with the students. Although most of my lectures focused on the overall narrative of American political/social history, I couldn’t help going off on these very important tangents.

What a joy it was to learn that these students were being exposed to facts, ideas, and principles that weren’t the focus of their thinking prior to his class. What did the students actually learn? What did they take to heart?

Yesterday was our very last class of the year, and I asked students to discuss Paul Johnson’s questions again to see if they could arrive at different answers based on what we learned this year. Their responses were absolutely fascinating.

They pointed out (without any prompting from me) that the ideals of human rights, the dignity of the individual, the fallen nature of man, private property, and self-government were principles that truly made the U.S. a “city on a hill.”

They also pointed out that nearly all of the many failures and injustices that our country has perpetrated were violations or rejections of these founding principles. I then asked the class “where do these ‘rights’ come from? What gives us the impression that all human beings possess intrinsic dignity? What grounds these American ideals?”

The answer to his question?

One of my very intelligent students pulled out the Declaration of Independence and read the opening words aloud with an emphasis on “our Creator.” It was a very fulfilling moment for me, and a confirmation of how important these lessons are.

The final encouragement—a personal one—concluded his e-mail when he wrote, “I just thought you would like to know that your lessons did not fall on deaf ears, and are already being reproduced in the minds of my own students. Thank you for your commitment to Christ-centered scholarship and education.”

For all you teachers reading this, please know that what you do is significant. Even when you don’t see immediate results, you don’t know what’s going on inside your students. I had no doubts about this former student; I knew he was solid. But there are others you may never hear from who have been impacted by what you have said and, even more important, how you lived your Christian faith before their eyes.

Be encouraged today.

Far Side’s Fractured History

I like to spice up my classroom presentations with appropriate cartoons. In my post yesterday, I mentioned some of my favorite comic/cartoon sources: “Peanuts,” “Calvin and Hobbes,” “Mallard Fillmore.” I failed to mention another one that deserves recognition—Gary Larson’s “The Far Side.”

Larson’s humor is often zany, but so much the better when he chooses to rewrite history. Now, normally I’m not a fan of revising history without solid evidence, but for the sake of humor, I can laugh along with certain comic revisions. It’s like being able to enjoy a National Treasure movie even though all of the history is pure bunk.

Sometimes Larson’s humor is subtle, and you have to know some of the history yourself to appreciate it. For instance, we know Manhattan Island was sold for what we now consider a mere pittance. Here’s how Larson envisions the native chief explaining that decision:

Then there’s Patrick Henry’s iconic “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech. Larson imagines he practiced it first:

“Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes,” cautioned an American officer at the Battle of Bunker Hill. That advice was not welcomed by one particular British soldier:

Then there is the famous painting of Washington crossing the Delaware. Perhaps he crossed other things as well:

And haven’t you always heard of this famous expedition being called “Lewis and Clark,” never “Clark and Lewis”? If only Clark had listened to his mother:

No, Lincoln didn’t throw together his Gettysburg Address as a last-minute jotting on the train to Gettysburg, but if he had, he might have gotten some help with it:

Everyone’s heard of Custer’s Last Stand, but why do we focus on that one? His parents were probably more interested in this instead:

For the more literary among us, here’s a take on the problems that can overcome a writer:

And if you’re a military man not used to writing as much as someone of Poe’s stature, the wording may be even more difficult. Gen. Douglas MacArthur was looking for just the right words to inspire the Filipinos that he would one day come back and free the islands from the Japanese invaders:

I’m glad he came up with something better.

Hope you enjoyed this little foray into fractured history. In our day of cultural and political polarization, we need to be able to step back once in a while and simply smile.

Lewis on the Ancient vs. the Modern

C. S. Lewis exchanged Oxford for Cambridge in 1955. He never received the recognition he deserved at Oxford; Cambridge offered him a special professorial chair designed with him in mind. It was a major event when he gave his inaugural Cambridge lecture, speaking to a full house about the distinctions between the ancient and the modern.

It’s in that lecture, De Descriptione Temporum,” that he made his oft-quoted comment about being a dinosaur because he was an Old Western Man, a type he claimed would not be around much longer.

Another passage in that lecture that is well worth contemplating is the part where he critiques the idea that just because something is new it must naturally be better.

“How has it come about,” he queried, “that we use the highly emotive word ‘stagnation,’ with all its malodorous and malarial overtones, for what other ages would have called ‘permanence'”? He continued,

Why does the word “primitive” at once suggest to us clumsiness, inefficiency, barbarity? When our ancestors talked of the primitive church or the primitive purity of our constitution they meant nothing of that sort. . . . Why does “latest” in advertisements mean “best”?

Acceptance of Darwinian evolutionism as applied to all aspects of society was one answer, he affirmed. We are all supposedly evolving and getting better all the time. But along with that, the coming of the age of the machines helps explain it more fully.

It is the image of old machines being superseded by new and better ones. For in the world of machines the new most often really is better and the primitive really is the clumsy. And this image, potent in all our minds, reigns almost without rival in the minds of the uneducated.

Technological improvements, Lewis opined, become milestones in people’s lives. He used examples from his day: the development from an old push-bike to a motorbike to a car; from gramophone to radio to television. Today, we can use other examples: the latest I-Phone simply must be purchased because it’s so much better.

This way of looking at things—this approach to life—has left “footprints on our language,” Lewis asserted, and is the very thing “that separates us most sharply from our ancestors and whose absence would strike us as most alien if we could return to their world.”

What if those ancestors could somehow make a trek into our modern world?

Conversely, our assumption that everything is provisional and soon to be superseded, that the attainment of goods we have never yet had, rather than the defence and conservation of those we have already, is the cardinal business of life, would most shock and bewilder them if they could visit ours.

As a historian, I love Lewis’s analysis of the differences between the past and the present. I agree that we have changed our language and definition of terms sometimes in a downward direction.

As a Christian, I resonate with his attachment to the permanent. Our society lives for the new, the more advanced, the latest novelty. Yet our society has little regard for that which needs to be preserved—ideas that permeated an earlier era: we are all made in the image of God; there are moral absolutes given by God; man, in society, needs to get as close to those absolutes as possible, and attain the moral character that they embody.

Will we see that kind of society again? It’s an open question.

Lewis’s Apologetic for Historical Knowledge

Many readers of Lewis are familiar with a comment he made in his “Learning in War-Time” essay with respect to the importance of knowing history. As a historian, it truly resonates with me, and I was reminded of it again when I assigned the essay to my students last week. Lewis wrote,

Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.

A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.

In other words, we need perspective—historical perspective—to properly understand our own time and to, as he says, make us somewhat immune to the “cataract of nonsense” that emanates from our media. In Lewis’s day, that was mostly via magazines and radio; what would he say about the vast social media networks that exist now?

I have The Quotable Lewis, a very useful volume edited by Wayne Martindale and Jerry Root, in front of me right now, and under the category of “Prejudice,” I discover that Lewis said something very similar in his Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature in a chapter on the poet Edmund Spenser. Here’s how he described the same concept in somewhat different language:

There is a great difference between rejecting something you have known from the inside and rejecting something (as uneducated people tend to do) simply because it happens to be out of fashion in your own time.

It is like the difference between a mature and travelled man’s love for his own country and the cocksure conviction of an ignorant adolescent that his own village (which is the only one he knows) is the hub of the universe and does everything in the Only Right Way.

For our own age, with all its accepted ideas, stands to the vast extent of historical time much as one village stands to the whole world.

A key message I always want to communicate to my students is that just because we are farther along the historical timeline, that doesn’t automatically mean we are smarter. Sometimes, the things we believe and the actions we take are more foolish than the beliefs and actions of those who came before us, and that it might be wisdom on our part to study them and find out what they have to offer us.

We are an arrogant age, thinking we know so much better than our ancestors, yet we are also a historically ignorant age. We have much to learn.