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Christian Historiography and American History

February 24th, 2022 | 7 min read

By Ryan McCormick

Over the past year, parents and conservative activists have clashed with teachers and school officials over how the history of race in America is taught in the classroom. The rhetoric on both sides has been heated, with debate centering specifically on “Critical Race Theory” and its alleged presence in school curricula. The clash reached a climax in November 2021 when Glenn Youngkin, the Republican candidate for governor of Virginia, defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe in part by mobilizing Virginians in opposition to an alleged liberal campaign to have CRT taught in Virginia public schools.

In this article I don’t want to rehash the contentious arguments over CRT. Others have had and will continue to have that debate. Instead, in moments where the culture war is being waged with such ferocity, it is helpful to take a step back from the froth and fury and give the controversy greater context. Specifically, as a preface to this argument, I believe it is useful to frame the debate within a larger question: what sort of historiography should we as Christians adopt when approaching our own nation’s past?

Conservatives believe that history should be taught in a way that records the great achievements of Western or American history so as to bolster our reverence for this heritage. With this approach, conservatives can claim no less a singular figure than Herodotus, the Father of (Western) History, who at the start of his Histories described his task as “to prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time, and to preserve the fame of the important and remarkable achievements produced by both Greeks and non-Greeks.” Conservatives very much believe it is essential that public history preserves for future generations the “important and remarkable achievements” of our country’s past.

But Herodotus has another epitaph: the Father not only of History but the Father of Lies. For history often functions less as the discovery of truth than the invention and reification of myths (as perennial debates over the historical accuracy of Herodotus’s work attest). For this reason, liberals see history not as an opportunity to praise the “important and remarkable achievements” of our republican empire but to deconstruct our national myths, uncover how the putative greatness of the past often masks grievous oppression, and give voice to groups marginalized from orthodox histories.

Thus, while the conservative believes the function of history in public schools is to instill patriotism, the liberal believes that it should instead deconstruct our chauvinism.

Coincidentally, just as the debate over CRT began to crystalize last summer, I read Tom Holland’s celebrated book Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World. In his sweeping, two-thousand-year history of Christianity, Holland argues that the modern world, even at its most anti-Christian, is nonetheless a product of the Christian revolution. In this telling, modernism is a mutated – perhaps we could say heretical – form of Christianity. Holland picks out the #MeToo Movement with its condemnation of male lust as one salient example, but had he written the book a little later, he could have included the “racial reckoning” that began in the early summer of 2020, with its fiery denunciations of injustice against the oppressed that befit the biblical prophets.

Accordingly, what has struck me about American history wars is just how they are shaped by a Christian historiography – even as the progressive side sees “Christian nationalism” as the enemy and the conservative side sees progressives as anti-Christian, “cultural Marxists.” The fact is, liberal historiography owes a debt to Christianity, beginning with the Bible itself. During Israel’s exile in Babylon, the biblical books of Joshua-2 Kings were redacted into a single, sweeping narrative of Israelite history. Unlike Herodotus’ Histories, however, their aim was not to record “the fame of … important and remarkable achievements” but rather engage in a national project of soul searching and repentance. The redactors of the Old Testament came not to praise Israelite history but to bury it.

Taking to heart the prophetic pronouncement that their exile was a punishment for Israel’s breach of covenant with its God, the Jewish scribes assembled a national narrative that nearly equals the 1619 Project in its damning critique of their nation’s past. Israel, they argued, was at every point in its history compromised by sin. Every seeming heroic act was undermined by grave wickedness. Thus, Joshua’s capture of the land of Canaan led, ironically, to the Jewish captivity to the abominations of the Canaanites. The figures of the book of Judges, such as Barak, Gideon, and Samson, uncomplicatedly portrayed as heroes in most Sunday school lessons, are in actuality a testament to Israelite cowardice and faithlessness during this dark time of Israelite history. Even the two most outstanding figures of ancient Israel – David and Solomon – had reigns marred by oppression. David conducted a murderous affair with Bathsheba and Solomon’s grandiose building projects, constructed by forced labor, rendered him an Israelite Pharaoh. And these two kings were the high point in Israelite history; from there the depravity only increased.

And like liberal historiographers today, the Jewish scribes’ excoriation of their nation’s past was part of a moral crusade: only by grappling with the past legacy of unrighteousness and purifying themselves of its stain could they hope to build a truly righteous Jewish community.

Steeped in biblical history as they were, later Christian writers would adopt a similar historiographical agenda. Rome might have seen itself as the divinely ordained consummation of world history, but Christian writers would unmask a more unflattering portrait. Revelation paints Rome as a whore riding a beast, drunk on the blood of the saints, trafficking in all kinds of oppression and demonic activity. Only by recognizing this apocalypsis, this “unveiling” of the truth, and repenting can anyone hope to escape the final condemnation and enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Indeed, from Revelation on, condemnation of the past becomes something of a feature of Christian historiography. When the dynasty of Charlemagne seized power from the Merovingian dynasty in the eighth century, the Carolingians painted the history of Merovingian rule from the fall of Rome on as a dark age in which barbarism reigned. Under the Carolingian Renaissance, so the story went, a new age of light had dawned.

Holland identifies this “Carolingian Renaissance” as the first episode of reform in Christendom, an attempt to bring Christendom up to standards. From there, he records how the history of Christendom became defined by a series of attempts by Christians to purify themselves and the world from past defilements and finally build the kingdom of heaven on earth. And with each reformation, Christian historians were ready to paint the preceding age as one defiled by sin and wickedness from which Christendom was at last emerging. This process culminated with what we now call the Reformation, where reformers like Luther could portray the entire millennium between 500 and 1500 as an epoch when the church was captive to the superstition and idolatry of the papacy.

Thus, the 1619 Project and other forms of progressive historiography that aim to castigate our nation’s past wickedness follow an essentially Christian approach to history, one where the past is judged in order that repentance can take place and the kingdom of righteousness can finally dawn. And this should give pause to Christians who might initially be inclined to be outraged by the prospect of a history education that subjects America’s past to thorough critique. The desire to portray “great deeds” belongs more to Greek than to Christian historiography.

And yet, progressive Christians, who perhaps intuitively sense the legacy of the biblical prophets and Christian reformers behind contemporary progressive historical revisionism, would nevertheless be wise to forego the temptation to adopt such deconstructive historiography wholesale. Modernity might have its roots in Christendom, but it should be properly understood as a Christian heresy, and therefore approached critically. Even if Judeo-Christian historiography was committed to preserving the past as a story of folly rather than greatness, to see biblical history as purely a narrative of deconstruction is overly reductive.

Although the Jewish community exiled in Babylon sought to portray Israel’s past as a compromised one, from the historical accounts they edited together there remain stories and heroes we instinctively admire. Gideon, Samson, David, and Solomon may all be ambiguous figures, but there is a certain wisdom in Sunday school portrayals of their achievements. Our imaginations are gripped by Samson’s final triumph over his Philistine captors and David’s courageous stand against Goliath. Whatever subtle hints the narrative gives us about Solomon’s morally complicated legacy, the list of accomplishments and building projects leave us in legitimate awe. And the author of Hebrews singles out many of these figures for praise in its hall of faith (Heb. 11).

Even Christian reformers throughout the ages could not help but admire the Roman civilization they supplanted and sought ways to honor it. Medieval monks would go on to preserve the philosophy, poetry, and myths of their pagan forebears. Today we tend to applaud as enlightened those humane individuals who saw truth and beauty in the pagan past and sought to preserve it rather than those puritanical figures for who would have been happy to see it all erased – something that should give us pause before praising contemporary historical iconoclasts.

And lastly, we would be wise to remember that the Jews who brought back their histories with them from exile failed to accomplish the moral cleansing they sought. The Pharisees were their heirs as much as true Jewish saints. The literal idolatry of the past may have been finally expunged, but a subtler form of idolatry in the form of self-righteous hypocrisy took its place. When it comes to judging the past, the words of Jesus are wise: “with the judgment you pronounce, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matt. 7:2).

What I mean to suggest by all this is that a true Christian historiography gives witness to both the good and bad in human history. Sin has reigned since Adam, and under its rule every empire has rested on the blood and bones of the oppressed. And yet, at the same time, the psalmist can declare (as a present reality) that God has set humankind “a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor” (Ps 8:5), giving him marvelous dominion over the earth.

The Jewish scholar Robert Alter makes an interesting observation in his book The Art of Biblical Narrative. He argues the biblical authors chose historical narrative as their medium because it was the literary form best able to capture the monotheistic conception of the human condition, that all people are “made in God’s likeness as a matter of cosmogonic principle but almost never as an accomplished ethical fact.” Biblical historical narrative, therefore, brilliantly explores human nature as a “bundle of paradoxes, encompassing the zenith and the nadir of the created world” (144).

If we are shaped by the biblical approach to history, then when we come to our own national story, we should give full witness to this human paradox. One must be allowed to feel a sense of thrill at the American quest to settle the frontier, the subduing of the wilderness that is part of our original human vocation as God’s image bearers – while also acknowledging that pioneer culture of America is inextricably tied up with great crimes committed against the land’s native inhabitants.

Similarly, we should be proud of our nation’s founding as a country committed to the God-given dignity of each person, proud of America’s fight against fascism and communism in the twentieth century – while acknowledging that dignity has been denied generations of African Americans in this country, which makes us rather more complicated heroes in the twentieth century struggle against barbarism.

In short, our task is not to, in Manichean fashion, neatly separate the light from the darkness in history. That we can so easily separate the wheat from the tares is the great pharisaical error. Our task as Christians formed by the Bible’s history, is to see in our own national history the complicated legacy of human beings: fallen creatures who are nevertheless made after the image of God.