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History wars

A Christian missionary gave a Bible to an Indian Hindu intellectual. After he had read it, the man said: ‘I thought you said this was a religious book? As far as I can see it is not about religion. It is a particular interpretation of history’. So, in his own terms of ritual, etc., this man did not recognise Christianity as a religion. (John Benton, Christianity in a PC World)

Very good observation.

In the UK throughout much of 2013 a war was raging in the letters pages of the newspapers over a new history curriculum proposed by Education Secretary Michael Gove. Just Google history curriculum gove and you’ll find a ton of strongly worded articles on both sides of the argument. Who cares? Well it raised very important issues which I think are very relevant to how we read the Bible – that is if we recognise, as the Hindu intellectual recognised, that the Bible is all about history.

  1. One of Gove’s concerns was that huge number of children leave British secondary schools with no knowledge of key events and people in British and world history. They could not put the Roman, Egyptian and Greek empires in the correct order. They would have very little idea who Winston Churchill was or whether he came before or after Elizabeth I. They know virtually nothing about the English Civil War or even that there was one. (I suspect most Kenyan 8-4-4 students know far more British history than their British counterparts.) What Gove wanted was for children to get a sense of the “narrative arc” of history, the key turning points and phases from the Stone Age, through the invasions, wars and revolutions, to the present. Surely the same argument could be made even stronger for the Bible. We need to know the narrative arc. We need to be able to put David, Melchizedek, Nehemiah and Jacob in the right order. We need to know about the key turning points and phases and the shape of the whole story.
  2. There is also the issue of style of teaching. The history wars are partly between an old-fashioned teacher-led, didactic model and a newer (1970s) child-led, inductive approach. The first is usually ridiculed as boring rote learning and the latter seen as exciting and engaging. While it’s true old fashioned history teaching was often boring, as a number of commentators have pointed out, the best history teachers are those who can tell the stories. That is what is captivating and engaging. Hearing the great sweep of history and the stranger-than-fiction narratives of kings and explorers, plagues and wars, betrayals and reversals, tragedies and triumphs. And again the same case can be made even stronger for the Bible. There’s a place, a very important place, for inductive Bible reading and personal investigation but there’s also an important place for from-the-front preaching and teaching and storytelling. Half the Bible is narrative, engrossing, brilliantly written, shocking, hilarious and gripping narratives, and the whole thing is a story, the greatest story ever told. Let’s preach the story.
  3. Then there is a deeper issue in the debate. It’s a contrast between the “Imagine you’re a Viking” approach and the “Let’s learn about the Vikings” approach. In the first (the approach that’s been popular in the UK since the late 1960s) it’s about imagination and role-play and immediacy and empathy rather than the ‘nasty old fashioned focus on dusty facts and distant names and dates’. Empathy and imagination are important but the newer approach, at the end, makes history all about me. I’m not genuinely interested in the people in the past in their own right, I just want to jump into their shoes and play a computer game simulation. In the process I learn virtually nothing about history and reinforce the tremendous conceit that everyone thinks like me and I am the most important person not only now but throughout world history. Again, notice the relevance this has to Bible reading. Do I respect the fact that King David was a real historical person who is not me? Or do I jump straight into his shoes and start playing Goliath Battlefield 4? Is the Bible all about me or all about… Jesus?

More on the History Wars: here (Simon Jenkins) and here (Matthew Hunter)

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