I Can’t Believe I Forgot to Include 12th-Century Theorists of Providence in *Why Study History?*

Not everyone liked my book Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  For example, Cambridge University professor G.R. Evans found it a bit too “chatty” and “scattergun.” She especially chides me for focusing too heavily on the American context.  This is a fair a critique. My audience was American Christians and other Americans interested in history.  Since I am an Americanist, most of my illustrations came from the United States or United States history.  Guilty as charged.

Here is Evans’s review.  It appeared in volume 117 (November 2014) of a journal called Theology.

This is a book with a strong USA viewpoint and written mainly for and about American university students taking ‘History’ courses. It begins with a chapter about what historians ‘do’ and ends with a chapter entitled ‘So what can you do with a History Major?’ It also has an Epilogue, ‘History and the Church’, containing the author’s personal view of the kind of work a historian can and should do by speaking in churches and to church groups, and especially for the cause of making America more acceptable in God’s eyes. The final section is an appendix containing ‘A proposal for the Center for American History and a Civil Society’. So the book’s purpose has further dimensions.

It tends to the chatty and the personal in its approach and has a somewhat eclectic, even scattergun, approach in its main chapters to the task of supporting its argument with evidence and illustration. The ‘usable past’ is sketched in terms of modern American ideas about consumerism and ‘progress’; it is barely queried that ‘the United States survey course has always been taught as a way of producing good American citizens’; ‘history for a civil society’ is said to be about ‘how to get American democracy on the right track’; and so on.

To a reader who sees the world from the other side of the Atlantic and from a broader and longer perspective, this is disturbing when the underlying themes of the book include the role of Christian history and the history of Christianity. To find a chapter on ‘Providence and History’ which barely touches on Augustine and has nothing to say about Joachim of Fiore or the other twelfth-century theorists is worrying. The author regrets American cultural ‘isolationism’, but perhaps he has some way to go in breaking free of it himself if he wants to write a book called Why Study History that will have something of value to say to a non-USA readership. 

3 thoughts on “I Can’t Believe I Forgot to Include 12th-Century Theorists of Providence in *Why Study History?*

  1. Thanks for the this helpful response, Ed. I think we are in the midst of a small renaissance of books on Christianity and historical thinking. Jay Green of Covenant College also has a book on this subject coming out soon.

    Your class sounds like a great idea. Let me know if you go through with it. I would even be willing to come and talk about the book if time and your budget allows.

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  2. Maybe she didn't catch the fact that in the intro you stated this book largely arose out of your “entry level” AMERICAN history course and that it was really just an extension of some thoughts and discussions arising out of the question of “why study history”.

    I think such a criticism suffers from “academic thinking”. Throwing in 12th century theorists of Providence might be great for folks who have answered that yes, history should be studied and has much to offer, but for those still pondering whether or not history is worthy of study, making your argument in part based on 12th century thinking might just cause them to drop the book and move on to something else. First you've got to convince folks that history is worthy of study, and that is most readily accomplished by using history with which Americans are familiar. Once you convince them history is worthy of study, THEN you can bring out the 12th century folks because they've become interested in studying history in a broader context and won't be put off by it. That's my 2 cents. 🙂

    I just received your book in the mail a few days ago. Gotten through the intro and first few pages.

    You and Tracy McKenzie keep up the good work. I'm thinking over the possibly of proposing to my pastor the possibility of putting together a series of lessons based on gleanings from your “Why Study History?” book, your “Was American Founded as a Christian Nation?” and Tracy McKenzie's “The First Thanksgiving” (primarily as an example of historical fact/thinking vs how the culture remembers/develops/embellishes history for its own purposes some times).

    I think even your encounter with Glenn Beck a few years back (which I seem to vaguely remember at the time) about your comment on Obama and Christianity is a good example that I would include of historical analysis vs “culture war history”.

    I've never taught such a series, but I'd sign up if someone else was teaching it. I just don't know how many other people would be interested in such a discussion. At least it might be worth a try.

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