Teaching History As Story
Real, vital historical understanding requires someone to bring the facts “to life” through the animating power of proper interpretation.
—E. Wayne Ross, The Social Studies Curriculum (2006)
One has to go back, behind what appear to be the “facts” of history … to a discussion of the meaning of history.
—Cornelius Van Til, The Psychology of Religion (1961)
Why History Matters
Teaching and learning history once stood near the very heart of education. The study of history provided perspective, context and meaning for the rest of the curriculum. It was a road map to show students the origins and growth of Western civilization, or better, of Christendom. Only the study of theology provided the super-structure necessary to insure a cohesiveness that supports all learning. After all, theology itself has its roots in Holy Scripture, the inspired history of God’s covenant dealings with men. From Augustine to Newton, those who wrote histories in terms of God’s kingdom either began with or assumed the history and chronology taught in Scripture. This allowed Christian writers to move forward with a kind of metaphysical confidence and certainty when it came to telling all stories … great and small … that always assumed the present reality of Christ’s reign in history.
Since the Enlightenment, however, the concept of “social studies” has replaced history classes in almost every school in America. (Christian and Government) Social studies, in theory, are supposed to draw from the unbiased, objective work of social scientists working in sociology, economics, political science, anthropology and the like. Social studies, for the most part, is designed to prepare students for the fight against Christianity. In fact, many educators see social studies as a means of transmitting values and culture from one generation to the next. The goal is to create good citizens who are socially competent and politically correct. Other educators see social studies as a means of teaching students to question and critique the culture of their parents, their church and their forefathers. Here the goal borders on social revolution. But in either case, the values of the educators, like those they hope to inculcate in the students, come from what they call “empirical sciences” … not from Bible. These are usually urgent, pragmatic and utilitarian.
Oddly enough, the use of social studies in the classroom to brainwash America’s youth toward a social revolution has been met with limited success. There are likely a number of reasons for this. For one thing, social studies is just plain boring. Charts and tables and random facts pulled out of historical context really don’t encourage learning or excite learners. For another, social studies classes attempt to impose empirical sciences on human psychology … at least in theory. Thus, it lacks any sense of transcendent purpose, direction or meaningful theme. The whys and wherefores are missing – leaving us with “so what?” reactions.
Now, don’t get me wrong, history can be boring, too. History classes and history books also can suffer from a lack of plot and purpose. Only if we tell stories from history for what they really are — in the context of God’s great story of creation, fall and redemption – does history make sense. In this case, God’s narrative of mystery, action and even romance becomes the truly challenging, exciting and meaningful communication it’s meant to be.
Here, then, are some aspects of storytelling that anyone teaching history needs to presuppose and actively confess as we tell God’s Story to the next generation.
Creation, Sovereignty and Providence
We must presuppose and teach the biblical doctrine of creation (creatio ex nihilo).
The Triune God of Scripture made the whole universe of time, space and matter by His sovereign word. Without this ontological starting point, there’s no framework for the Story. Rather, the divine Story Teller becomes completely immersed in the Story, and the Story itself becomes a complete illusion without significance or real development. We are left with pantheism or materialism (atomism). There is no history and no Story — only fluctuations in a semi-sentient monistic reality or in the chaos of meaningless energy particles in motion.
The doctrine of creation always leads us to God’s providence. So, it’s important that we presuppose and teach the sovereignty of God in all of history. God has decreed from eternity all the details of history. And by His providence He executes His eternal plan and personally causes all things to work together for His glory and for the advancement of Christ’s kingdom. God’s providence was at work when, for example, Washington and his army escaped from Long Island under the cover of fog. It was also at work when Washington’s doctors bled him to death. God works all things together for His people’s good. There is no chaos and no accidents, only eternal purpose. But God’s purposes are deeper than mortals can imagine.
Sin and Redemption
Because history is real, we must teach it in terms of chronology, beginning with that presented in Scripture. Chronology is order and sequence. It is the backbone of plot and story and, therefore, of identity, both personal and communal. Without chronology and sequence, we don’t know our story and we don’t know who we are. Secular chronologies are horribly askew for the times before Christ. We must reject them for the explicit and implicit teaching of Scripture.
Now that we have the scaffolding of chronology, order and sequence, we can look at plot and theme. We must teach the reality of sin and the nature of divine redemption in Christ. Think about it: Every story rises out of some type of conflict. The nature of the conflict, then, determines the task of the hero and the nature of the resolution. Adam’s covenantal rebellion brought sin and death to the whole human race. Adam’s fall was ethical, not ontological. That is, he broke God’s covenant law. God’s salvation is therefore covenantal … it is judicial and Spiritual. It addresses both man’s legal guilt as well as his need for a new ethical nature (his need to love and serve God). Jesus died as an atoning sacrifice, rising again in the flesh to restore believers to obedience and covenant fellowship with God. Through Christ, God justifies and sanctifies His people so they can meaningfully participate in His program of evangelism, discipleship and stewardship. Salvation isn’t escape from history but the redirection of history toward the kingdom of God, the New Jerusalem (Isa. 60; Rev. 21—22).
We must, then, teach the Advent of Christ as the most important turning point in all of history. That means all ancient history was preparation for the coming of Jesus Christ. Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension marked the end of the Old Covenant age and made possible the coming and spread of God’s kingdom to all nations. All history since Christ’s advent must be understood in terms of Christ’s advancing kingdom and its final victory described in biblical prophecy. (See Ps. 2; 72; 110; Isa. 2; 60; Mic. 4; etc.)
But until the end, the conflict continues. So, we must speak of the ongoing conflict between Christ and Satan when we tell stories. History is a spiritual and cultural war between the Serpent and his seed and the Church and her seed (Gen. 3:15). Though Christ has in principle won the battle (Rev. 12), His people are still engaged in the “mopping up” operation. The conflict continues, and involves every area of thought and life. And so our studies of history must pursue this conflict … through wars, discoveries and revivals as well as times of cultural decline and rebirth. We must tell stories about art, music, science, mathematics and economics. All of man’s experience are defined by this great divide … this great Antithesis … but the final outcome is certain. Jesus wins in time and space.
The Kingdom of God
Now that we understand the nature of the conflict, it’s important to teach the central role of God’s covenant people in history. National Israel is not the center, and neither is Europe nor England. Neither is America. We must be very clear that God’s “holy nation” is His people … the Church, and that is where our main historical concern must primarily lie. We are tracking the City of God in its conflict with the City of Man. Man’s kingdoms, empires and republics come and go … and yet the kingdom of God endures.
We must measure the success of God’s kingdom and its representatives in terms of God’s Word. Christ’s kingdom advances through the preaching of His word. Sound doctrine and the preaching mission of the Church are key factors in the development of history. Because of this, the orthodoxy or doctrinal soundness of key figures within the Church matters greatly. Not everyone with a reputation for piety has, in fact, been a blessing to Christ’s Church. Specifically, we need to give a high place to the Apostles, the more orthodox Church Fathers, the first six ecumenical Councils, the pre-Reformers, the Reformers, the English and American Puritans, and the Presbyterian and Reformed theologians of the 19th Century. But we must also confess that even the most faithful of Christ’s servants have come short of His glory and often in very significant ways.
As we consider telling stories with the backdrop of Christ’s growing kingdom, we should especially emphasize the key role of the gospel in shaping Western civilization (Christendom). God’s grace is, by definition, discriminatory. He gives it to some and withholds it from others based wholly on His sovereign will. And, so far in history, God’s redemptive grace and the fruit of the gospel seem to have been most evident in Western culture than elsewhere. (Then, again, we generally define the West in terms of the influence of orthodox Christianity.) This westward spread of the gospel owes nothing to race or ethnicity or bloodline and gives us no reason to glory in the flesh or presume upon God where the future is concerned: History isn’t finished. But it would be gross ingratitude and blindness not to recognize what God has, in fact, done in our history. We must acknowledge cause and effect.
More generally, our teaching must link ideas to their consequences. We need to teach the connection between Christian doctrine and Western liberty and culture on the one hand, and the connection between humanism in all its forms and tyranny and cultural decay on the other. We need to emphasize the great intellectual, doctrinal and cultural movements in history, connecting root and fruit.
We must also remember that we may not be standing at the end of history. Since the Church hasn’t yet fulfilled the Great Commission, it makes it hard to believe that history will end any time soon. That means we may not be facing “the end” of all that God has been doing. Even in drawing “end times” time lines, it might be wise to extend them beyond our present time lest we give the wrong impression: that we absolutely know when the end will come. (Only the Father knows this after all) Who knows … maybe the best may be yet to come.
History, then, is the development and ripening of cultural fruit toward the great harvest. But there’s more. Earth’s history is a winnowing process. Christ’s kingdom grows and develops over time. We can’t expect the Church of the past to know everything we know today. We can’t return to the past … to Camelot, or the Reformation, or colonial America. Indeed, we shouldn’t want to do so. The New Jerusalem lies in the future. We learn from the past, but in doing so we shouldn’t try to repeat what doesn’t work. This is an age of differentiation and polarization … the tares becoming more obviously tares, the wheat more obviously wheat (epistemological self-consciousness). When harvest comes, when Jesus returns, everything will be black and white without exception.
A Practical Conclusion
Finally, we need to tell the Story of history as a real story, making use of all the enthusiasm, imagination, oratorical skill and preparation that story-telling actually demands. Story-telling can be hard work. It requires us to be well-read, to have our thoughts and facts in order, and to be genuinely passionate about our material. It’s imperative that we love and respect our audience. This perspective allows us to genuinely demonstrate a desire to inspire, educate and even entertain. After all, any stories we tell are woven into the fabric of the greatest story ever told — and all efforts of this nature deserves our best efforts.