The Four "Great" Streams of History

The Four "Great" Streams of History

I’ve come to see four main approaches to the writing, telling or teaching of history:  1) The “great man” approach, 2) the “great idea” approach, 3) the “great current” approach, 4) and the “great event” approach.

The key word is “great.”  The better word is “significant,” but we’ll stay with “great” as it is most used in such conversations.

Let’s begin with the “great man” approach.  Sorry for the sexist overtones, but that’s what it’s called.  In truth, it’s the “great person” approach; how could you list significant figures in history without such women as Joan of Arc, or Elizabeth I, and countless others like them?  Associated most with Thomas Carlyle, the “great man” approach to history has, without a doubt, dominated most Western thinking.  In this approach, Churchill and Constantine would rank above Plato and Plutarch.

The “great idea” approach was perhaps popularized most by Mortimer Adler and his “great books” collection through Britannica, along with its companion “Great Ideas” syntopicon.  Here, the work of Aristotle and Augustine would be elevated above the life of Alexander or Adolph.

The “great current” approach would pitch pluralism and postmodernism and their kin over and against Communism or Capitalism.  Think Peter Berger and his evangelical populizer, Os Guinness.

The “great event” approach looks at key events, such as “9/11” and the Stock Market crash of 1929, as opposed to secularization or Leonardo da Vinci.  When gold-standard historian Mark Noll wrote a primer on church history for his church, later becoming the book “Turning Points,” he took this approach.

So how best to approach history?

If you’re like me, you’re thinking “all of the above.”

And “all of the above” matter.

Because history matters.

I know, I just lost a bunch of you.

As I wrote in my book Serious Times,

Many people were forced to study history in high school under a person singularly gifted to present the subject with numbing dullness.  As a result, many of us read the word “history,” and instantly want to close the book and reach for the remote control.

As long as it doesn’t turn on the History Channel. 

But history is not simply a cascade of names and dates, divorced from meaning and relevance.  It is the story of our world.  Just as learning about your family of origin helps put the pieces of a larger puzzle together in terms of who you are now, so understanding the flow of events and ideas from centuries past brings clarity and insight to the present moment of our day. There’s an old adage suggesting that the one who forgets history is condemned to repeat it.  Perhaps more to the point is that the one who ignores history is condemned to be swept away by its directive force.

If possible, I believe that even more strongly now.  And not just for reasons of understanding, but reasons of raw, spiritual discipleship.  Why?  Because drinking deeply from the great men and women, the great ideas, the great movements and the great events confronts the ordinary human life and dares it to become something out of the ordinary.

It dares us to become makers of history ourselves.

I need great men and women in my life.

I need great ideas in my life.

I need to see the great currents attempting to shape my life.

I need to separate the wheat from the chaff and mark the great events that have affected my life.

But even more, I need to be challenged to have my one and only life count for history.

And that’s why history matters.

All four streams.

James Emery White



James Emery White, Serious Times (InterVarsity Press).

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.