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 & Sayers Wordsmithing: The Mind of the Maker (Part 3)

Dorothy Sayers’s The Mind of the Maker, as I’ve pointed out in two previous posts, has a lot in common with how C. S. Lewis thought. Here are two more examples of why Lewis liked what Sayers had to say.

Sayers focused on the power of words to move men. Lewis was a dedicated wordsmith who knew that the right words used at the right time in just the right way, could spark the imagination and jumpstart the mind. Sayers shares that same mindset and worries that people don’t really grasp the power of words for both good and evil.

She warns, “The habit, very prevalent today, of dismissing words as ‘just words’ takes no account of their power.” Sadly, men are often moved by the wrong kinds of words. Words—mere words—can often lead to unforeseen and devastating actions.

Reflecting on the reality of 1941, in the midst of WWII, Sayers remarks, “At the time when these words are being written, we are witnessing a fearful judgment of blood, resulting from the incarnation in deeds of an Idea to which, when it was content with a verbal revelation, we paid singularly little heed.”

She then offers a critique of modern education—something Lewis undoubtedly affirmed when he read her words—noting that it seems to short-circuit the power of words too often. However, she cautions, “Pentecost will happen, whether from within or without official education. From some quarter of other, the Power will descend, to flame or to smolder until it is ready to issue in a new revelation. We need not suppose that, because the mind of the reader is inert to Plato, it will therefore be inert to Nietzsche or Karl Marx. Failing those, it may respond to Wilhelmina Stitch [a well-known newspaper columnist of the day] or to Hollywood.”

Lewis often touched on what he considered the wrong emphasis on the concept of originality in writing. “Of all literary virtues ‘originality,’ in the vulgar sense, has . . . the shortest life,” he opined. Lewis’s essay, “Membership,” includes this comment:

No man who values originality will ever be original. But try to tell the truth as you see it, try to do any bit of work as well as it can be done for the work’s sake, and what men call originality will come unsought.

In the same spirit, Sayers instructs her readers,

The demand for “originality”—with the implication that the reminiscence of other writers is a sin against originality and a defect in the work—is a recent one and would have seemed quite ludicrous to poets of the Augustan Age, or of Shakespeare’s time. The traditional view is that each new work should be a fresh focus of power through which former streams of beauty, emotion, and reflection are directed.

Although Lewis, in his correspondence, didn’t elaborate on precisely why he liked The Mind of the Maker, it’s not difficult to see the congruence of thought with Sayers on a multitude of subjects.

Leaving Ambition in the Dust

Ambition! We must be careful what we mean by it. If it means the desire to get ahead of other people—which is what I think it does mean—then it is bad.

If it means simply wanting to do a thing well, then it is good. It isn’t wrong for an actor to want to act his part as well as it can possibly be acted, but the wish to have his name in bigger type than the other actors is a bad one.

Thus wrote C. S. Lewis in a 1944 essay, “Answers to Questions on Christianity.” Written after the phenomenal success of The Screwtape Letters, his well-received novel Perelandra, and during his prominence with BBC broadcasts that were later turned into Mere Christianity, one might say that he was reminding himself not to get too proud of being recognized as a great writer.

The desire to succeed had been a driving force in Lewis’s life prior to his conversion. He desperately wanted to be known as an insightful poet. Yet his books of poetry never sold well.

In 1930, about the time God was getting hold of his life, he wrote a letter to his good friend Arthur Greeves that dealt with the subject of literary ambition. It seems to have been a response to Greeves’s hopes with his own writing. Lewis shared the dangers of making that ambition central to one’s life.

“From the age of sixteen onwards I had one single ambition [to succeed as a writer], from which I never wavered,” he told Greeves. He prosecuted that ambition with “every ounce” of himself, and upon its achievement he staked his entire “contentment.” His conclusion? “I recognise myself as having unmistakably failed in it.”

This is the pre-successful Lewis speaking, of course, but it shows that he had to get this part of his thinking straightened out before God was able to use him for His purposes.

“The side of me which longs, not to write, for no one can stop us doing that, but to be approved as a writer, is not the side of us that is really worth much,” he counseled.

And depend upon it, unless God has abandoned us, he will find means to cauterise that side somehow or other. If we can take the pain well and truly now and by it forever get over the wish to be distinguished beyond our fellows, well: if not we shall get it again in some other form.

Lewis, in this letter, is helping Greeves get to the point he has reached: set aside the goal of being well-known and “approved” by others. Only when we do that are we really free to be what God wants us to be.

And honestly, the being cured, with all the pain, has pleasure too: one creeps home, tired and bruised, into a state of mind that is really restful, when all one’s ambitions have been given up. Then one can really for the first time say “Thy Kingdom come”: for in that Kingdom there will be no pre-eminences and a man must have reached the stage of not caring two straws about his own status before he can enter it.

Lewis then projects into a possible future for someone who hasn’t learned this lesson early on. “Think how difficult that would be if one succeeded as a writer,” he mused, and then “how bitter this necessary purgation at the age of sixty, when literary success had made your whole life and you had then got to begin to go through the stage of seeing it all as dust and ashes.”

Far better to learn this lesson at an early age than to have to try to learn it when one is less open to such lessons later in life. He concludes his counsel to Greeves with these words:

I would have given almost anything—I shudder to think what I would have given if I had been allowed—to be a successful writer. . . . I am writing as I do simply & solely because I think the only thing for you to do is absolutely to kill the part of you that wants success.

Why do I focus on this particular topic today? Well, it’s because it hits home with me personally. While my early life was not one of seeking literary success, as I’ve progressed as a university professor and scholar, I’ve seen that desire Lewis talks about rise up in me.

I think I had too grandiose dreams about how something I’ve written would take the world by storm. Surely everyone who is anyone will want to know about Noah Webster. How could anyone with any political interest not want to read a book about the impeachment of Bill Clinton? Won’t all sincere Christians eagerly delve into a volume that provides guidance on the Biblical principles for political involvement?

More recently, I harbored the hope that an analysis of a famous president, Ronald Reagan, and a less-famous but highly influential man, Whittaker Chambers, would attract a large audience. And a book on C. S. Lewis? Why, it should be a national bestseller, right?

Don’t get me wrong. I believe with all my heart that God wanted me to write these books. But His idea of success may not be the same as mine. Was I faithful in my research and writing? Did I say what He wanted me to say? If so, I am to rest and find contentment in that.

Perhaps the things I have written (and continue to write in this blog) will help a number of individuals over time. If anything I write leads a person to consider more seriously one’s relationship with the Lord and others, I rejoice.

Here’s where my heart needs to be: may God be glorified in everything I do.

That Writing Urge

I am a teacher and a writer, and have been now for three decades. Earlier in life, I never envisioned myself as a teacher; in fact, I minored in history as an undergraduate, avoiding making it my major out of fear that I would end up having to teach.

Well, God had a different path for me, and I can now see that He developed that desire to teach even when I was trying to ignore the calling.

I think I’ve always wanted to write but had very little training in the art prior to my experience as a graduate student. The master’s thesis and the doctoral dissertation created a greater urge within me to express thoughts in writing.

C. S. Lewis was a great teacher and a great writer, so I naturally am attracted to his insights on both. With respect to writing, he made some thoughtful comments. In a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, early in his writing career, he noted,

I am sure that some are born to write as trees are born to bear leaves: for these, writing is a necessary mode of their own development.

If the impulse to write survives the hope of success, then one is among these. If not, then the impulse was at best only pardonable vanity, and it will certainly disappear when the hope is withdrawn.

That caused me to reflect: is my desire to write more a desire to be noticed and appreciated [i.e., be considered successful] than a natural desire to say what I think needs to be said regardless of the reception of the public?

I’ve written five books thus far. While I have had modest success in sales over the years, I can say that if my primary goal had been to enrich myself monetarily through publishing, I would now pack my bags, metaphorically speaking, and move on to something more rewarding.

If my primary goal had been to be noticed and applauded for what I’ve written, I again would be moving on to another endeavor.

Yet I continue to have the writing bug—witness this very blog. So perhaps I am one of those that Lewis was speaking of—born to write simply because God has placed that within me.

Then there’s this mild warning from Lewis about the art of writing:

To the present day one meets men, great readers, who write admirably until the fatal moment when they remember that they are writing.

In other words, the writing goes along quite well until one becomes too self-conscious of the fact that one is indeed writing. One can then fall into the trap of paying more attention to the mechanics of the craft than the message. At least, that’s how I understand this warning.

I do want to craft my words carefully, but the message itself remains the most important reason for writing. I don’t want to become too stilted in my “style” and thereby hurt the message.

Further instruction from Lewis is common sense, but not always common to us as we write:

The way for a person to develop a style is (a) to know exactly what he wants to say, and (b) to be sure he is saying exactly that.

The reader, we must remember, does not start by knowing what we mean. If our words are ambiguous, our meaning will escape him.

I sometimes think that writing is like driving sheep down a road. If there is any gate open to the left or the right the readers will most certainly go into it.

All of Lewis’s insights that I’ve mentioned could be applied to anyone who writes, but he also gives advice specifically to Christians with respect to how they can use their writing to draw their audience to truth:

Our Faith is not very likely to be shaken by any book on Hinduism. But if whenever we read an elementary book on Geology, Botany, Politics, or Astronomy, we found that its implications were Hindu, that would shake us.

It is not the books written in direct defence of Materialism that make the modern man a materialist; it is the materialistic assumptions in all the other books.

In the same way, it is not books on Christianity that will really trouble him [the anti-Christian]. But he would be troubled if, whenever he wanted a cheap popular introduction to some science, the best work on the market was always by a Christian.

That’s the challenge, but also the opportunity. Our Christian faith must be so much a part of us—not merely an appendage to who we are—that it permeates everything we touch. Christian writers, in particular, have both the responsibility and the pleasure to transmit God’s message in all they write, even when it is not blatant apologetics.

May we live up to that challenge.

On Being a “Word” Guy

I’m a “word” guy, and becoming more so after writing two books in the past two years. I’m always looking for just the right way to say things, and I appreciate writers whose originality with words makes one rethink, or think more deeply, about life.

That’s why I’m attracted to the wordsmithing of people like Whittaker Chambers and C. S. Lewis. It’s not just what they say—which is truth-hitting-you-where-it-helps/hurts-most—but the way they say it.

Most of us have a hard time coming up with anything approaching what Chambers or Lewis have written. That’s fine. They were unique, and each of us needs to find our own way of communicating. I’m not pretending to be the latest incarnation of either, but I gladly try to incorporate anything I can from them to spice up my own style.

Why am I thinking about this today? Well, first, I’m currently teaching classes on both Chambers and Lewis. As I go through their writings with students, I’m renewed in my appreciation for their contributions; I also love it when students get their first taste of that quality of writing. For some, it’s like an awakening.

And that’s the true reward of teaching.

I’m also alert to commentary on how we speak and write. Sometimes, the best commentary can come from unexpected places:

Avoiding clichés is a constant effort. Then there are words that become so ubiquitous that you almost wish they would disappear from our national vocabulary:

My goal: to use only the “best” words. You know, like President Trump. Should he be my new model?

Lord, deliver me from such thoughts.

Why Do I Do This?

This is one of those mornings. I’ve written this blog for the last eight years. Why? What did I hope to accomplish? What have I accomplished?

There are times I simply want to walk away from it and never touch it again. Why bother with being called a racist because I accurately pointed to Michael Brown’s actions before he was shot in Ferguson? Why take the arrows of being considered bigoted because I warn against the homosexual agenda?

And lately, why do I continue to highlight the dangers of a Donald Trump presidency and then get accused of helping Hillary Clinton get elected? All this does is divide people who formerly were united, right?

I’ve always been uncomfortable with confrontations. I would rather write about things we all agree on and never ruffle anyone. But—what would those topics be?

Sometimes I want to give this up and let the world go its own way. My little scribblings in a blog that has a limited audience aren’t going to change anything big, are they?

JeremiahThe problem, though, is that I have a Jeremiah issue. That’s not to say I’m a prophet; God has never told me I have that gift. But I understand at least some of how Jeremiah felt at one point when he said in the 20th chapter of his book,

O Lord, You have deceived me and I was deceived; You have overcome me and prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me.

For each time I speak, I cry aloud; I proclaim violence and destruction, because for me the word of the Lord has resulted in reproach and derision all day long.

I mean, who wants to feel like that? But he continues,

But if I say, “I will not remember Him or speak anymore in His name, then in my heart it becomes like a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary of holding it in, and I cannot endure it.”

Jeremiah was calling his nation to repentance, yet he knew he probably wouldn’t succeed in that mission. He wanted to stop telling them they were going the wrong way, but the Spirit of God within him wouldn’t allow him to quit.

As I said, I’m no Jeremiah; my voice doesn’t go out to the entire nation; most have no idea who I am, and I don’t mind that at all. But God has called me to speak to whatever limited audience He gives me, and I am supposed to be faithful to that calling.

So, if you disagree with my warnings about our culture, the education crisis, and the political foolishness that abounds, that will just have to be. I will continue to write and say what I believe God has put on my heart.

If possible, though, I would hope your disagreements can be shared in a spirit of humility. My pledge is that I will never treat anyone who disagrees with me in an unchristian manner. I seek to communicate in the spirit advocated by the apostle Paul when he told us we are to speak the truth in love.

I guess I’m going to keep on writing.

Writing Tips from C. S. Lewis

Lewis Letters Volume 3My intensive reading of C. S. Lewis letters is part of another of my sabbatical projects, with a book as the end goal. This has been no drudgery; rather, it has been fascinating to delve into them and see how Lewis responds to his American correspondents.

Often, he writes to children who have read his Narnia books. One of his regular child correspondents was Joan Lancaster, who, for her age, was quite mature and thoughtful. Lewis seemed to take an extra interest in her advancement as a writer. One of his letters to her could easily have been written to an adult writer trying to hone his/her craft. I like the advice he gives:

1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure yr. sentence couldn’t mean anything else.

2. Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.

3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “more people died” don’t say “mortality rose.”

4. In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”: make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words, (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please will you do my job for me.”

5. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”: otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

We all could use some timely advice like that—it would be “infinitely” helpful.