Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Lord of History

I've found myself thinking lately about the question of how to deal with the life of Christ and the origins of Christianity in a history text book setting, specifically in a homeschooling context.

At the monkeys' current age, the only history they'll be getting for a while is in narrative form. Bible stories, stories of famous people, stories of ordinary people living in different times, etc. But at a certain point (perhaps around age 8-10) a child moves from simply reading stories to needing to learn about world, national and local history in a larger narrative framework. At this point, the student begins reading that most dangerous of academic creations: the survey text. The scylla and charybdis of the survey text genre are boredom and simplification to the point of falsehood. (Or perhaps the metaphor is inapt, since many survey texts are both boring and overly simplified.)

The danger, of course, is that a survey text seeks to smooth over the questions left open by lack of sources or contradictory sources by providing the student with a single narrative through which to understand the history of a period. An author with a bias may leave out or completely distort the meaning of a event or period. (I've seen survey texts which insist the primary motivation of the crusades was an economic need to set up client states for trade.) On the other hand, a survey text is sometimes so tentative that it doesn't provide any coherent narrative, or gets bogged down in facts that provide the student with trivia, but not a general understanding of the period.

The life of Christ and the origins of the Church are one period on which many have an opinion (and also cover an intersection of history and doctrine which many secular writers feel uncomfortable with and many religious writers have strong opinions about) and so it seems a particularly sticky problem. On the one extreme, there are books like Ann Carroll's Christ the King, Lord of History, which takes as its central premise that the incarnation is the central event against which all historical events should be contextualized. On the other extreme, many texts make it sound as if Christianity was invented by Constantine, or was indistinguishable from the various pagan mystery cults that abounded from the first century BC through the second century AD.

On a side note, I think people should be a little more ambitious about the age groups the recommend a book to. Christ the King, Lord of History is recommended for grades 11-12, but the bits I've read seem to me would be totally accessible at grades 6-8. Or better yet for the same age group, I'd recommend Builders of the Old World, the text I used in Calvert back in 6th grade -- a world history to 1500 and quite good from a Catholic perspective without the excesses of CKLH. For high schoolers, I'd recommend a good set of college textbooks. Spielvogel's Western Civilization is a good for a complete history from start to finish. But like most recent single volume world history textbooks, it devotes far too much time to the period post 1700. My recommended solution would be to use an ancient text (Chester Starr's A History of the Ancient World is very good) a medieval history text (none better than Warren Hollister's Medieval Europe: A Short History -- but get the 8th edition or earlier, more recent editions include a co-author who added a bunch of stuff on women's history and similar special interest topics) and then use the single volume history such as Spielvogel to fill in the rest.

While thinking about the question of how to deal with the Incarnation in the context of a history book, I went back and read Starr's chapter on the rise of Christianity. Starr does a number of things that I think are just right. He sets the stage with a discussion of Judaism in the first century BC both in Palestine and in the Hellenic world. He also contrasts the mystery cults with both Judaism and Christianity, mentioning their similarities, but also their important differences. However, although he tries very hard to be fair when dealing with the life of Christ, he runs into what I think are inherent difficulties when trying to bring a historian's tools to bear on the topic. On the one hand, he does not fall into denying that the miracles of Christ or the resurrection happened; on the other hand he hesitates to state them as fact since such things seem outside the historian's realm. And yet, as he points out, one of the things that distinguished Christianity from the surrounding pagan cults that focused on sacrificial meals and/or resurrection was that Christianity is founded upon a known historic revelation event, not some half-imagined happening in the mists of time. So he simply says he can't touch on the question of the miraculous, and tries to cover what he considers more historical in nature.

The result is unsatisfying, but I wonder if it is inevitable, since there is nothing a historian can add to the gospel accounts of Christ other than provide secular context for the surrounding events and conditions. No degree of historical analysis will allow us to know more certainly what Christ taught, or whether he was indeed the Son of God, or whether he rose from the dead. At best, a historian might be able to research the lineage of the documents that provide us with answers to these questions, but they could not tell us if the documents speak the truth.

In books written for children who are still at the storytelling stage, none of this really matters. As Christians, we should write books for this age (say, under 10 or 11) to reflect what we believe to be the truth. However, a textbook for older children is meant not merely to be a narrative of things past, but to reflect the process of historical analysis. In history texts of this type, I think the best approach available is to state that which can be said from external analysis while leaving the question of faith up to the reader. Thus, one should cite the only sources we have, explain their origins (and thus their point of view) and then summarize those elements of them which are relevant to the reader.

Thus, a junior high or high school text might say:
Jesus himself left no written documents or artifacts, so all that is known of him comes from accounts written by his followers in the first and second centuries AD, some of which are collected in the New Testament, and others of which were not included in the canon of scripture when it was determined by the 2nd and 3rd century Church. These documents take a number of forms. The Gospels are narrative accounts of the life, works and words of Jesus. Acts is a narrative about the early period of the Christian Church. The epistles were letters of instruction written by varius early authorities in the Church. Revelation is an extended account of a prophetic dream.

The Gospels describe Jesus as having been born of a virgin, who was told by an angel that she would...
And so on. It seems to be of historical importance to convey what Christians believe about the life of Christ, and yet ineffective to provide any kind of further historical analysis beyond a description of how these stories came to us through the books of the New Testament. And by taking the "according to these Gospel accounts" approach, the book no more endorses Christianity than it endorses Islam when it says, "According to Islam teaching, the Koran was reveal to Mohammad by the angel Gabriel..."


Rick Lugari said...

I don't know how well it could be adapted for use as a text book, but Dr. Warren Carroll's History of Christendom series is excellent and would be readable for homeschooled high school students.

It is written from a Catholic perspective and covers from Abraham through the enlightenment (the recently released fifth volume which I have read yet).

As far as striking the balance between factual history and Church doctrine, I don't believe there should be much of an issue. If we (modern society) can't wholeheartedly and objectively accept the accounts of Christ's life as true, then we can't accept any element of history save what we witnessed first-hand. Simply put, Christ's life and works are very well documented and there is no reason to doubt the authenticity of the record because they were written at a contemporary time and there is no evidence of dispute. (further, within the Gospel accounts nobody questioned the reality of the miracles...they only questioned under whose power and authority He performed them)

We also have the independent work of the historian Josephus. Not to mention the fact that the "truth" of the Gospel accounts was so important that people were willing to give up everything for it...even their lives. If we can't trust the Gospel accounts as reliable, we can't accept any other historical documents. They are eyewitness accounts in which the witness has a personal stake in the truth. People don't do that for a fraud or a scam. The Gospels are far more credible historically than any other chronicle I can think of.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I don't think you should be concerned about any contradiction between history and Christianity. Simply put, there is none.

bearing said...

I think you should rethink your assumption that you need a "survey text," except possibly as a reference for dates, times, maps, that sort of thing.

Survey texts are tertiary sources, i.e., twice removed from primary sources. Most of them are loaded with agendas (as you note, from both sides of the political spectrum) and extremely boring. Yet if you walk into the "History" section of any large bookstore you will find shelf after shelf of secondary sources, written with a mass audience in mind and some of them very gripping --- mostly specific to one period, or people, or place, or unifying theme rather than a broad survey. Sometimes the older writers are better than newer ones.

I've got no easy answers for this. Right now my current plan is to start keeping a "timeline book" and book of maps on which we mark down things that we read about, so that a broad picture gradually emerges; and to provide lots of more narrowly-tailored books, entering stuff on the timeline as we go along. I plan to begin the timeline with the dates of Roman emperors, Popes, and American presidents already entered onto it, spanning world history. Survey texts are probably necessary in high school to satisfy college entry requirements (one for American Hist and one for World Hist, perhaps a survey of Church History at the same time to balance it out) but I'm hoping to completely avoid them until then. Time will tell whether this approach is working, I suppose.

BTW, if you haven't read "Lies My Teacher Told Me," by James Loewen, you really must before you start selecting history survey texts. It explains how the textbook selection process in a few states, plus political pressure, fills textbooks with simplifications, omissions, and outright errors. My recollection is that he writes about agendas that come from the left, from the right, from the "don't offend anybody" contingent, and even from the Protestant majority. An example I particularly remember is the tendency in books written for public schools to describe European settlement of the USA as beginning in the east and moving inexorably to the west, which ignores the settlements and missions begun by Catholics in the American Southwest. (He notes that textbooks written for Catholic schools usually don't make this mistake). Bias against devout people is another point --- John Brown the abolitionist is a good example --- Brown said only that he was inspired by his deep religious faith to lay down his life fighting slavery, fomenting slave rebellion, but the texts tend to depict him as an insane zealot who said God told him to do it.

Anonymous said...

One thing to check into might be All Ye Lands, a grade 6 history and geography textbook produced by the Catholic Schools Textbook Project and sold by Ignatius Press.

"All Ye Lands - Grade 6 History textbook

ISBN: 089870944X
Length: 352 pages
Edition: Hardcover
Code: CT:H6S-H
Your Price: $55.00

This is the first volume of five books aimed at grades 6-9 to teach world history and geography. Produced with the absolute highest quality in design, color, illustrations, paper and bindings, this textbook project for Catholic schools employs the writing and editing talents of a group of highly qualified teachers, authors, editors and artists to present these magnificent texts.

Produced under the direction of general editor Dr. Rollin Lasseter of the University of Dallas, this volume covers world history and culture up through the Middle Ages, as well as developments in China, Japan, Russia, Europe, Africa and the Americas up to the mid 1800's. The lavish use of color photos, drawings and maps combined with the excellent writing make this volume and series the best available today. Ilustrated"

They've also got an American history book for middle schoolers, From Sea to Shining Sea, which covers the history of the United States up to the 20th century. These two titles are part of a projected 9 volume series.

I haven't actually seen these books in the flesh. Since I'm a retired homeschooler I can no longer justify buying new materials on spec. But it sounds like an interesting project.

Here's their website:

P.S. I don't know how to use HTML tags to indicate a quote.

Darwin said...


It's not so much stricking a balance between 'factual history' and Catholic doctrine that I'm worried about -- since I'm confident that Catholic doctrine is factual. I think my point is more that a historian's tools don't really allow him to say anything additional specifically about the life of Christ, other than providing background detail about the periods before and after. It's not like lots of research could reveal deeper insights into Christ's life that the Church doesn't already have, or that aren't available in the scriptures.

Thus, there's not a whole lot for the historian to do other than relate what it is that the Church says about the life of Christ.

As for saying "the Bible says this about the life of Christ" versus "this happened" in the context of a history book -- I guess I prefer the former because I'd prefer to see Catholics write texts that are equally applicable to non-Catholic audiences. Saying "The Bible says X" rather than "X happened" doesn't mean that the Bible is wrong or untrustworthy. It just means that the Bible is our best source for that information, and that's what it says. Similarly, a book might say, "Heroditus describes the battle of marathon as...". The difference is, you could turn to other sources and archeology to get additional information on Marathon which isn't available in Heroditux, but you can't really do that with the life of Christ. What we have in the Gospels and other early Christian writings is pretty much all we're going to get.

I certainly wouldn't recommend using only a survey text, and it takes a lot of research to pick a good one. But I would tend to think that in junior high and high school it's helpful to have a single text for the period that provides your through-line, and then read all your primary source and detail studies in relation to that.

In the humanities program that my folks designed for high school, we used Starr during the first year and a half, while reading a ton of ancient source material, then use used Hollister while reading medieval and renaissance material. I forget what we used in the modern period (that was much harder to nail down) but I ran into Spielvogel later on in college and was pretty impressed with it as a general text.

That Catholic textbook project sounds really cool. I'll have to see what I can do about getting my hands on a copy to see what it's like.

Jeff Miller said...

I have read "Lord of History" and I thought at places it played fast and loose with history and was just too exuberant. Dr. Warren Carroll's History of Christendom is much much better.

Darwin said...

I'll admit, one of the things that has kept me back from reading Warren Carroll's books is my low opinion of his wife's, but one of these days I know I need to get over that and give them a try as several solid peopl have recommended History of Christendom to me.

Darwin said...

For a good laugh... Check out the Amazon reviews of Dr. Carroll's History of Christendom. One doggedly opinionated reviewer has gone through and reviewed every volume, informing the reader that Carroll is clearly a supporter of the "Judeo/Masonic" agenda, as proved by the presence of the cross of the Knights Templar on the cover of the books.

Where would we be without these intrepid internet personalities?

Now I really may have to check out this sink of "Judeo/Masonic" and perhaps even (perish the thought) "modernist" perfidy.

Rick Lugari said...


I see what you mean.

To this day I consider Carroll's history one of the best and most influential books I have ever read. It's not just the imparting of historical information that is important, but how that knowledge affects your thinking. i.e. I look at the current crisis of the Church and realize that what we've been going through the last 40 years is minor in comparison to others.

I'll caution you though. I found the first 2/3 of the first volume to be somewhat slow and uninteresting to me. It was basically dealing with the time from Abraham up to the time of Christ. However, I'm glad I stuck with it because it is important to understand the depravity of man prior to Christ and to put Christ's centrality into focus. From there every chapter throughout the series just gets better and better. When I get Volume 5, I'll let you know whether it follows through or not (I seem to recall he relied on a colleague to help research or write it). I have a few Chesterton books I want to get through before I order it though.

And I just checked some of the reviews from that guy. Surprising that he gave the books very high marks in spite of them being Masonic and Zionist propaganda...

Fidei Defensor said...

2 things come to mind, most textbooks I've ever had don't use BC or AD they did away with those for BCE and CE to be more pollitically correct and the future history teachers that I have classes with have it very much ingrained into their minds that they are NOT to use BC and AD to religious and offense.

Second, in Middle School we all had to memorize and recite the 5 (or is it 7?) pillars of Islam, in fact 8th grade seemed like a PR campaign for Islam. 9th grade lessons about the reformation on the other hand opened the door for mocking the church.