Chronicling and Creating History

Being a history teacher, I sometimes come across articles and studies detailing various forms of bias in history textbooks. Most of the time this bias leans in a liberal direction, but I have also seen Christian texts that are just as bad in the opposite direction. Two wrongs do not make a right. History textbooks are notoriously wretched things in any form, one of the worst examples of design by committee. You can solve the problem partially by removing textbooks altogether and simply rely on primary sources in the classroom, as I do. But of course bias still remains in which texts I select, how I present them, and so on.

The answer to “bias” is not to remove it, which would be impossible in any case, but to recognize that we have bias and to use it rightly. As to what “right” bias might be, well . . .

When we read ancient and medieval historians we can see this crafting of narrative openly. The authors seek to make a point about their universe. Herodotus shapes the story of the Persian Wars around the idea on heeding the limits of nature, be they physical or moral limits. Polybius looks for universal laws of the rise and fall of nations and explicitly applies that paradigm to Rome. Plutarch dug and found moral lessons in his parallel lives, and so on.

Father Patrick Henry Reardon made a point I had not considered before in his excellent commentary on the Books of Chronicles. The Books of 1 & 2 Chronicles covers the same era as parts of 2 Samuel–2 Kings, written some centuries prior. Father Patrick made the point that the author of Chronicles selected his material and his emphasis differently, a perfectly obvious point. What really got me thinking was his assertion that,

This spiritual exegesis of the sacred Scriptures, however, always takes place in history and pertains to the movement of history. . . . Understanding of the Bible must not be abstracted from the historical movement of the Bible itself. Its continuous line, which records history, is recorded within history, and gives form and shape to future history (emphasis mine).

I had never considered this idea that the narrative focus of Scripture would necessarily shape the way people acted in the future, and thus create history. But why else would the author (which the rabbinical tradition believed was Ezra, but Reardon thinks probably not) write at all? For he wrote not just to record events but to try and convince people of the centrality of Davidic Kingship and Temple worship, intending that the Jewish people would cling to these truths and be blessed accordingly. He wanted to shape history through his narrative.

We can take Thucydides as an example. Many see his brilliant work on the Peloponnesian War as a pioneering work of political realism. He almost entirely avoids standard historical tropes involving the gods, myth, heroes, etc. I don’t think Thucydides necessarily reflected the general mindset of the Athenians of his day,* but his philosophical concerns certainly shaped many in the future. It is no coincidence, for example, that Thomas Hobbes translated Thucydides. Thucydides also had a great influence on George Marshall’s thinking about the Cold War. It seems that Thucydides truly did both chronicle and create history.

Accepting this premise gives me great pause. I entirely abhor the “safe space” culture of many campuses, the shouting down of speakers, and so on. But–might they have a point? Their contention that words have power to mold and shape not just thoughts but future actions, seems born out by Reardon’s analysis and history itself. They would have us believe that all we are left with are words and action, in short–power. And if power is all that exists, then we should fight to have it used in service of our narrative (I suppose they could not even call their narratives “good” things if all we have is power).

We cannot live in a world of abstract facts as the modern age would have liked–that world never existed. We have our biases, and words and narratives have more power than we might have thought.** But I am convinced that neither are we left with the wasteland modern campus radicals would leave us. They promise liberation from oppressive structures (or something like that), but the real result is a narrowing of human thought and experience, and a demand to toe the party line without thinking.

Language theorists could likely comment on this question far better than I. But I offer that, as a start at least, we need to rethink the meaning of boundaries itself. We naturally think that boundaries restrict freedom, but not always. G.K. Chesterton had a wonderfully helpful analogy, in which he asked us to imagine children at a playground perched on a cliff. With the security of a fence keeping them from disaster, they will happily roam about the whole area. Remove the fence, and watch them huddle in the middle, fearful of falling to their doom. He writes in his famous work, Orthodoxy that,

. . .the more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild.

In the Book of Chronicles, the author devotes a great deal of space to Israel’s construction of the temple. David passed on to Solomon a whole host of specific instructions. We might initially recoil at the specificity, the restrictions on freedom of thought and design! And yet, the second half of Chronicles details what happens when Israel is deprived of temple worship, and Judah deviates from it and squanders their inheritance—corruption, war, division–all such things as restrict our freedom.

When we write history, then, we will know when have hit upon the proper bias, the proper orientation, when that bias leads to an enhancement of the human person. A concentration, yes, but a concentrated vitality. St. Augustine understood our dilemma. The Roman idea of freedom meant freedom from others determining your actions–the more options, the better. The Christian sees dissipation in such a idea. Rather, God means for us to share in His life. This involves a conformity, to be sure, but one that makes us far more than we are by nature, not less. Pressing home his point, he writes in the City of God that,

Nay rather, it will be more truly free, when set free from the delight of sinning to enjoy the steadfast delight of not sinning.  . . . This new freedom will be the more powerful just because it will not have the power to sin; and this, not by its unaided natural ability, but by the gift of God has received from him the inability to sin . . .   It surely cannot be said that God Himself has not freedom, because he is unable to sin?

Such can be the healing power of the right “bias.”

Dave

*The Athenians must have cared about religion enough to put Socrates to death for impiety in 399 B.C. Those dying of the plague during the war went to the Parthenon (dedicated to Athena) to die. But I do not say either that Thucydides was a complete outlier. There is a noticeable difference, for example, between the plays of Aeschylus written a generation before Thucydides, and Euripides, his contemporary.

**Understanding this might give us further insight into God creating in Genesis 1 through speech..