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A Christian Approach to History

  • Aubrey Lively The OldSchoolhouse Magazine
  • Updated Jul 26, 2011
A Christian Approach to History

“He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” Micah 6:8)

Since last spring I have been up to my eyeballs in curriculum, planning for the Logic Stage, our second time through a four-year history cycle since we started homeschooling in 2005. In these years we have seen a lot of change, from the births of siblings to the loss of grandparents. Our curriculum has endured changes, too, from Saxon to Miquon, First Language Lessons to Michael Clay Thompson Language Arts Curriculum. The one thing that has remained a constant in our lives has been Story of the World, and seeing the horizon of its end for us scared me into a state of frantic planning. It was that planning that landed me on the minefield that is history.

The telling of a story has always been a tug-of-war between conqueror and vanquished, between husband and wife, between siblings, even between friends. As long as we believe that in this postmodern era, it is the truth, at least, that we are all after, we can discuss these different points of view in pleasant conversations over coffee or in university classrooms, but mention the American Civil War, and this Utopia dissolves faster than the packet of sugar you just tapped over your bitter black drink.

So there are different points of view regarding the causes and consequences of historical events, but if the men and women who fought over those differences are long since dead and buried, why would we who live after them care about these differences more deeply than is warranted by a lively conversation between friends? This is as difficult to explain as race relations, liberty, slavery, and love for another man’s wife, though the gods themselves make a gift of her to a Trojan prince. History is human, and it provokes us to pity, to pathos, to rage because it is not merely the past—history is also our very real present.

Academic fact can be poked and prodded without much consequence. While there are a few who will fume over the more delicate uses of punctuation, wars have never been fought over commas, and the greatest social outcry of an apostrophe is vandalism. What are we to do, then, with this thing that is at once academic and deeply human? I believe the only justice that can be done in history is to liberate the voices that populate our past so that they can tell their own stories. Their own passions and prejudices and fears are enough without our lens of explanation to try to pin them down like bugs on a tag board, as if their stories were not still wriggling and alive in our own breasts.

We have another responsibility in the telling of history. As Christians, our approach to history should reflect our faith, and that has specific implications for us as Christian homeschoolers. A Christian approach to history should be intrinsically just, rational, and hopeful.

First, if a Christian approach to history would be just, then the story must not be left to the victor alone to tell. We must be honest here: history is a courtroom where there is no double jeopardy. The accused are tried again and again by each new generation of students. We cannot equitably execute and re-execute history’s villains without fair trials. Neither can we continue to dismiss history’s victims to fall before the historians’ pens again and again, like an execution squad or a nightmare.

The testimony of witnesses in history is known as a primary source document. These include diaries, minutes of meetings, letters, newspaper articles—anything that was written down by someone who was there is a firsthand account, a primary source document. Age alone does not make a text a primary source: if it is one hundred years old, but it is referring to history two hundred years before, it is a secondary source.

Secondary sources are not always bad. These include history texts, which can be helpful for compiling and interpreting data, but even the best of these will have a film over them, the lens through which the historian sees the world. That film separates us, though sometimes only by a little, from the men and women whose stories we are trying to understand.

For a good historian, these lenses are almost invisible. Like a house of mirrors, though, these lenses can be used to capture and redirect light, obscuring sources, reinterpreting history, and shaping a population’s opinion of the present. The act of revising history, or revisionism, can be either positive or negative. Looking again at the data that exists in order to find strong female figures or minorities simply shows new facets of old information. These types of revision broaden our body of knowledge and our understanding of a culture.

By contrast, before World War II, revisionism was one of Hitler’s most powerful weapons as he rewrote the German people’s understanding of their Jewish neighbors by rewriting the history of those Jews in Germany. Instead of shopkeepers, teachers, and citizens, Jews became something from Hitler’s nightmarish imagination—thieves, criminals, the constant source of all of Germany’s struggles. By capturing the history classroom, Hitler was almost able to capture the world.

Justice in history asks that we be the judges, dismissing hearsay and improperly cited information. Where the defense has no counsel, we must assign counsel, we must ask questions, and we must find the truth. “These are the things that ye shall do; Speak ye every man the truth to his neighbor; execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates: And let none of you imagine evil in your hearts against his neighbor; and love no false oath: for all these are things that I hate, saith the Lord.” (Zechariah 8:16–17) We must make a sincere effort to hear both sides of a story, to let the witnesses speak and drop the gavel on historians who speak out of turn, who drowned the very voices they are supposed to represent, the voices they are supposed to help us clearly hear.

Besides being just, history must also be rational. History must be told in a way that is clear and logical, a way that can be understood and appreciated by a wide audience. If justice asks that we judge the sources upon which we depend for history, rationality demands that we don’t play lawyer tricks to get our clients a plea bargain. We must follow and demand academic standards, citations, and honest context to quotations.

Jesus is the Logos and the Truth. As such, the very core of Christian curricula ought always to be logical and true. Christian history should be unbiased, a story fairly told without racism or favoritism. I believe that it is the moral obligation of Christian historians to write reasonable history and of Christians to embrace the same even when it does not promote or prefer Christianity.

This is difficult for many of us to accept. It often seems to us, I think, that Christian curricula should be an evangelical tool or perhaps a faith-building exercise. But imagine a story twisted, even just a little, with terms such as savage or blanket judgments about a group based on racism or poor research. These errors are examples of carelessness at best, but what kind of testimony is offered to people whose stories and histories are thus maligned? To them, these errors often feel much more malicious than witless historians realize. History that is biased cannot win souls.

As a faith-building exercise, history that is biased in favor of Christianity also fails. When we accept a distorted view of history as a support for our faith, we are trusting in something other than the Truth, and we are setting ourselves and our children up for crises of faith in the future. If there is archaeological evidence that runs contrary to Creationism or a people group who has suffered at the hands of the Church, it is better that our children grapple with these questions in the safety of our care. For them to do this, they need us to honestly state the perspectives they will hear when they leave us, lest they go out in to the world and end up thinking us fools.

We do not need history that favors Christianity or that unobjectively identifies God’s hand in past events. In the book of Kings, we have Elijah’s example. Israel had forgotten God, had turned away to Baal and to desperation in a time of drought—a physical drought, but a spiritual one as well. For the sake of God’s people, that they might see His power and believe, he challenged the prophets of Baal to a holy “duel.” Meet me on a mountain, Elijah said. We will see whose god will respond to his prayers with fire from heaven. Elijah met those prophets on their sacred mountain: he met them on their terms. There were hundreds of them—only one of Elijah. He let them go first. They prayed all day; they cut themselves. No fire came.

When it was Elijah’s turn, he had already tipped the scales in Baal’s favor, but he increased this bias. He took buckets of water—water that was precious in a time of drought, water that itself may have been a miracle—and he poured these on the altar until the rocks, the ground, the sacrifice were all soaked, making even the smallest spark impossible.

And then he prayed. He did not pray for his own ego’s sake, and he did not pray for the sake of convincing Baal’s prophets. He prayed for a miracle, for fire from heaven, so that God’s own people would believe. The fire came. It burned up the sacrifice; it burned up the water; it burned up the very stones of the altar. It burned up the prophets of Baal.

God is big. We work too hard to protect ourselves from “enemies” who might be won by God’s grace and goodness if we were less occupied with telling our side of history fairly. Elijah did the opposite of our present inclination: he biased his situation against himself. And let us never forget who the enemy is: he is neither flesh nor blood nor historian nor atheist nor liberal.

Finally, a Christian approach to history must be hopeful. We must choose to see the best in people while still telling the truth. History has shown us historians who selectively choose unfavorable tales to tell about people groups: they are fascist dictators waiting for their opportunity to seize power.

Jesus told the parable of a good Samaritan, and His story stirred up controversy. I imagine it was much like the controversy a similar story might stir up today. The dominant culture hears a positive story about a minority group, and instead of a good example, they hear criticism of themselves. They assume that the teller is implying that the minority group is all good all the time while the dominant culture is all evil, and they begin to argue. It does not matter if the dominant culture is Jewish or Roman or white: human nature is always defensive.

Jesus’ point was simply that we need to expand our definition of neighbor. My point is that it might be nobler to look for the good in individual races and celebrate those like we celebrate the goodness and victories of our own loved ones.

Our neighbors, according to Jesus, are the very people whose worldviews most offend us. They are the Samaritans who worship on the “wrong” mountain, they are the weak and wounded in the road, and perhaps they are even sometimes liberals who write history textbooks that seem to tell a story we find unfair.

Until recently, I had only thought about my Christian obligation as a parent, to raise and educate my children well. I had only thought about my moral obligation to help the poor, to volunteer, to show patience and love and kindness on the road, at the store. While I knew that my faith must be actively infused into every aspect of my life, a moral responsibility with regard to the telling and hearing of history had not occurred to me.

As I sift through my history options for next year, however, this debt I owe—to love my neighbor as myself, to serve others as if I were serving Christ—has become more and more clearly connected in my mind to our historical approach. History is one more way in which we must lay down our lives, our preferences, our points of view, in order to reveal to our friends, neighbors, and selves, a Savior who knows our suffering.

In choosing our history curriculum, our history texts, spines, and literature, we must face this obligation. We must question our choices and be careful what we defend, because these choices are not merely our own: these choices belong to the Lord, and for better or worse, they will represent His Name to others. They will represent His Name to our children, and when these children are grown, any dishonesty or hypocrisy we have embraced will be magnified. Let us defend our faith to them with honesty and integrity, because we are raising intelligent and curious children who will ask hard questions.

Aubrey Lively is a contributor for Heart of the Matter Online and homeschooling mother to four, aged 10 to 2. She has a BA in literature and a MEd in teaching. She loves coffee, writing, books, and great curricula. In her spare time, she writes novels, tutors, scrapbooks, sews, and rearranges furniture. Visit Aubrey online[L1]

Copyright, 2011. Used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse®Magazine, Spring 2011.

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