How to Read Anything That talks about What Has Already Happened

I’m reading Rodney Stark’s Triumph of Christianity in which he argues that one of the worst things that happened to Christianity was Constantine’s legacy of a “rich, powerful, and intolerant church” which suppressed religious competition (Stark, 182). It was not until the Reformation came along in the 16th century and “undid much of Constantine’s harm to Christianity” that the stage was set for the reinvigoration of Christianity (Stark, 416).

In the back of my head, I remembered reading another history of Christianity entitled Unintended Reformation in which Brad Gregory argues that the Reformation’s rejection of “central doctrinal claims” sparked the secularization and hyper-individualism of our present culture (366). Which is it? Did the Reformation rescue Christianity, or did it set the stage for Christianity’s marginalization in society? How would we even know? This gnawing question led me not so much to question the implications of the Reformation as to question the implications of history (or histories) itself. How could I assess these different historical reconstructions? Would I need to spend a lifetime exploring the pertinent data for myself? I don’t have time for that! Would I be at the mercy of the historian? While it would be simple to merely pick the one I liked best, I couldn’t with a clear conscious adopt that approach.

The conundrum deepened for me as I began to see the same set of questions applying to cultural commentary. Is the vitriolic rhetoric evidence of a new (or renewed) recognition of the oppressed in American society, or is it the inevitable result of family breakdown and moral relativity? How do we discern? Am I left to again merely pick the explanation that is most comfortable for me?

Finally, I began to see that “history” happens a lot more quickly than I at first assumed. If this set of questions applied to the Reformation and to cultural commentary as “histories” of events in the distant and recent past, why would it not also apply to the most prolific “historians” of them all? Journalists. Are they not historians themselves differing only in their temporal proximity to the events they report? News is nothing more than the history of the very recent past.

The question of how to read history wisely unexpectedly opened into questions about reading any reporting wisely. Perhaps most unexpected of all was the thought that perhaps these questions applied to history found in the Bible. Would my reading of 1 and 2 Chronicles or the Gospel According to Luke be changed if I asked questions of the human “historian” involved in the formation of the text?

Just as the question came unexpectedly, so also did help in my exploration. Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace is widely regarded as a classic of Russian and even world literature. As a high schooler, it was a heavy book that I could add to a bag and use as a homemade dumbbell. I never once actually opened the book. While preparing a leadership lesson on strategy from John Gaddis’ book On Grand Strategy, I came across Gaddis’ claim that Tolstoy is among the grandest strategists because he was able to keep in mind contradictions and still function. Intrigued, I opened the old book and found far more than muscular enhancement. In a brief essay inserted as the second epilogue, I found Tolstoy wrestling with my questions about history with stunning clarity.

Tolstoy argues that every historian, ancient or modern, will explain the actions of leaders and the movements of people by means of some “force” which they see at work driving events forward. This is a reasonable position to take since we know that things don’t move by themselves but move in relation to force applied to them. Thank you, Isaac Newton, for putting it succinctly, “every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” The question that we must first ask of every historian is “what force is moving this event?” For the ancients, says Tolstoy, it was some combination of a leader and the will of the gods. For moderns who cannot appeal to the gods to make sense of what they cannot explain, Tolstoy says that they appeal to something equally amorphous such as “culture,” “the good of civilization,” or “mental activity” to explain why an event happened. Regardless of the force, there is some element that is known, usually the leader, and some element that is unknown, the force.

Once we have identified the historian’s force, we can then ask the sometimes more difficult question. “What is left unexplained by the historian’s combination of leader and force?” For an example of this, read Rodney Stark’s The Triumph of Christianity. At 418 pages, it is no small work that covers the origins of Christianity all the way to the modern era. What is Stark’s force? Religious competition. Stark appeals to it as the key to understanding Christian origins, the dark side of Constantine’s edict of Milan, and the recovery found in the 16th century Reformation. This is simple enough and compelling. However, when we apply the second question, “What is left unexplained by the historian’s combination of leader and force?”, we see an interesting omission. Does religious competition adequately account for traditional, monotheist Jews attributing divinity to Jesus and being willing to die for Him as King even though they could not see him? In my opinion, the answer is a resounding, “no!” The New Testament writers and the early church itself attributed its genesis not in religious competition but in the resurrection of Jesus. Stark’s only mention of the resurrection is, “we know that his disciples testified that he rose from the dead” (Stark, 54). This glaring example demonstrates the utility of Tolstoy’s tool. The reader of history…and any other reported event…is equipped to ask questions that surface information about the event as well as the historian.

Tolstoy’s tool is not the only aid that I discovered in assessing historical reconstructions. Michael Licona, professor and missionary, set out to examine the historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. To his dismay, he discovered that historians did not even agree on how to define “history” much less how to “do history” (The Resurrection of Jesus: A Historiographical Approach). In response to this methodological confusion, Licona endeavored to articulate tools that helped to increase objectivity and transcend the historian’s “horizon” “which heavily influences the way in which we interpret facts” (Licona, 51, 53). What Licona points out is that each historian selectively reports data, and they select the data to report largely due to their presuppositions or “horizons” (32, 38). This should not be used to conclude that the past is unknowable. It is a recognition of the reality that we cannot know the past exhaustively, yet we can know it adequately. Licona articulates five criteria for weighing different historical reconstructions that help to limit the distorting effect of the historian’s own horizon. His criteria and their order of priority of consideration are as follows: Plausibility, explanatory scope, and power, less ad hoc, illumination (113). Helpfully, Licona highlights the need to ask questions of the historian, not just historical data. “Licona’s Leaning” can be assessed with the questions, “what in the historian’s horizon makes their identified force seem plausible?”, “is this the simplest explanation?”, “how does this explanation fit with other known reconstructions?”, and “is the reconstruction compelling?” Licona’s Leaning questions can be asked and explored whether one is an expert in the subject or not. It does not eliminate the need to work, but it does provide a way forward.

One additional note about Licona’s Leaning needs to be made. The question of the historian’s horizon applies to you or me as well. Not only do we need to explore what makes a force seem plausible to the historian, we need to know what forces seem plausible to us. For me to adequately grow in my learning, I must be aware of my own horizon and how it affects my assessment of historical data and reconstructions. For example, I believe in the historical, supernatural resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Consequently, I do not exclude the supernatural from possible explanations of events. Knowing this about myself requires me to exercise extra care that appropriate evidence for a supernatural event is present before affirming it as “history.” Whereas Stark’s anti-supernatural inclination calls for him to exercise care that an event is not dismissed simply because it is attached to a supernatural claim about its origin.

In the end, the historian must answer what feels like a very modern question, “what ‘laws’ can we deduce from history?” Are there patterns or principles that can be observed to sharpen our understanding of ourselves, humanity, and human civilization? Another Russian provides an example of reflecting on these questions and arriving at insights helpful for everyone. Aleksandr Solzehnitkn’s criticism of communism and Soviet Russia landed him in the Soviet Gulag for eight years. He would later write about his experience in a book entitled, “The Gulag Achipelago.” As he reflects on his experience, he makes the following observation about humanity:

“Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts.”

Solzehnitkn, The Gulag Archipelago (1973)

This observation helps to buffer against deifying or demonizing a leader, past or present. We expect human beings to be a complex, sometimes inconsistent bundle of both good and evil, rational and irrational, driven by reason and driven by emotion. One “force” may never explain the entirety of the movement of peoples, but Tolstoy’s Tool, Licona’s Leaning, and Solzehnitkn’s Scrutiny can help us to read history of all sorts wisely and profitably.

Questions to Aid in Wise Reading of History, Cultural Commentary, and the News:

» Tolstoy’s Tool: In the view of the historian, what is the “force” driving the events and people? What is left unexplained by the historian’s “force?”

» Licona’s Leaning: What in the historian’s horizon makes that force seem plausible to him/her? What in my own horizon makes that force seem plausible/implausible to me? / Is this the simplest explanation? / How does it fit with other known reconstructions? / Is the reconstruction compelling? Does it answer in some part, “why are we here?”

» Solzehnitkn’s Scrutiny: “What ‘laws’ can we deduce from history?” Are there patterns or principles that can be observed to sharpen our understanding of ourselves, humanity, and human civilization?

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