What is the point of history?
For a Christian in the 21st century, this should hardly be a question worth answering. The Christian faith is built on real, historical events and it stands or falls upon them. The Apostle Paul recognises this very fact in his letter to the Corinthians where he explains that if the resurrection has not happened, then we are “of all men most miserable“. We are pitiable creatures, he tells us, if we only have hope for this life. If the resurrection did not really happen, then may even be true to say that our life is more vain than even the life of pagans.
Christianity depends upon historical realities – things that actually happened in time and space, from the sands of Egypt, to the river-set city of Babylon, to the palaces of the kings of Persia, to the hill country of Israel, and of course, to Jerusalem the city set on a hill. Our Faith is a unified story with many constituent parts and many human agents, and it unfolded across many different geographies. But the key point is, it is a story that actually unfolded. It is real. It is true. These events happened.
I have noticed over the last decade or so that there has been an increasing flippancy toward historical truth. Sadly, this has been so among some Christians as well as the unbelieving world. And in this area, historical filmography bears a heavy load of blame. The pile of historical movies – including religious historical titles – that have hit the screens since Gladiator (2000) have done a great disservice to people’s understanding.
This is because historical movies promote falsehoods that have entered into common acceptance. There are both major inaccuracies and minor tropes that offer a misleading impression of the past to the uncritical viewer. Some may argue this is immaterial. A mere triviality.
Does it really matter, some ask, if most people are convinced that swords removed from a scabbard make a “schiing!” sound? Or that the British burned Americans in their churches during the American Revolution? Or if the use of modern petrochemical products in movies teach people that castles were illuminated with flaming torches? Does it matter if people believe that military helmets can stop a bullet? Or that William Wallace was an honourable patriot who never spilled a drop of innocent blood?
Does it really matter if most movie audiences have come to believe that men in the ancient and medieval periods habitually wore perfectly useless leather bracelets? Can you imagine the sweat build-up underneath those things? Ugh. Clearly, people in the past must have been happy to be dirty, unlike us moderns who are intelligent enough to keep scrubbed and clean.
Yes, I contend, it does matter, because it moves history by increments into the realm of fiction and in so doing, evacuates the Christian story of meaning and power too. People start to think of history has having less to do with the discovery of objective facts and more about a ripping good yarn. But a ripping good yarn often requires the death of objective facts.
Modern historical movies tend to promote the attitude that the past was not entirely real; that it is merely a story to which we must give slightly more gravity than we might to one that is made up. That history is just a species of fiction, albeit with a few more limitations and rules that must be observed.
It is for this reason that I think movies made about the Lord Jesus are, in the main, dangerous. For they tend to strip him of the regal majesty evident in the text of scripture and the urgency of his words, and instead render him a benevolent, long-haired 60’s hippie who goes about with a wry smile on his face, dropping pearls of wisdom that nobody at the time could properly comprehend. His life hits the screen through the filter of the director and script-writer who never quite seem to be able to resist adding to the divine narrative, or deleting parts of it.
(Beginning of axe grinding.)
(As an aside, the classic portrayal of the Lord with long hair is one of the most prevalent historical fictions. It arose chiefly from the iconography of the early Medieval Period and has been perpetuated through countless stained glass windows and by Hollywood. So effective has this promotion been, that it is broadly accepted without question.
In contradistinction to the Hollywood view, however, the earliest images of Christ do not show him with long hair. In fact, possibly the oldest image of the Lord dated to around AD 235 in Syria shows him as having cropped hair, as does another image found in the Roman catacombs from the same century, which portrays Jesus as the Good Shepherd.
Ancient Jews did not wear their hair long. It was seen as a Hellenistic affectation. The idea of the Lord wearing his hair in a manner associated with the Greeks is implausible. Likewise, St. Paul takes a dim view of men wearing their hair long. For men to do so, said St. Paul, is a shame to them.
Neither was the Lord bound to a Nazarite vow, as some have argued, for this prohibited drinking wine and the Lord most certainly consumed wine. This has not, however, stopped some people pressing history through a sieve of preconceptions and going so far as to contend that the Lord only drank grape juice and that when he miraculously produced wine, it was non-alcoholic. This is a view so lacking in meaningful historical support, and so eisegetically governed by an external tradition, that it can be safely dismissed.)
(End of axe grinding.)
If we are going to talk about a truly Christian historiography, then the first principle must be service to the truth. I have learned through long years of historical study at university, that there is nothing at all to fear from a truthful examination of history. For while history occasionally turns up material that is inconvenient to some cherished traditions, it never overturns the scriptures, which remain the single-most accurate historical text, corroborated by countless archaeological discoveries and even computer modelling (historical cladistics, for example, modelling the popularity of names in the ancient world shows that the scriptures reflect the relative popularity of those names).
The only thing Christians must worry about from history is incomplete evidence. But, as time progresses and the historical picture is filled out with newer discoveries, old anti-biblical beliefs come crashing down. One such example is the once-common view that there was no evidence that a Roman procurator called Pontius Pilate ever served in Judea. Archaeological discoveries have delegitimised that view so completely that only the ignorant and fringe-scholars now disseminate it.
A second principle is provided for us by a Roman Catholic, John Dalberg-Acton (1834-1902), more usually referred to as “Lord Action”. He was enlightened enough to oppose the promulgation of the dogma of papal infallibility, rightly seeing that it would result in the suspension of normative moral evaluations about any man who would become pope. Not to judge a pope as we would another man, Acton reasoned, was contrary to moral reason and plain sense. In writing about this issue, he furnished us with one of the most memorable passages in the modern age about power and the role of historical science:
But if we might discuss this point until we found that we nearly agreed, and if we do agree thoroughly about the impropriety of Carlylese denunciations and Pharisaism in history, I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong.
If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.
There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. That is the point at which the negation of Catholicism and the negation of Liberalism meet and keep high festival, and the end learns to justify the means. You would hang a man of no position like Ravaillac; but if what one hears is true, then Elizabeth asked the gaoler to murder Mary, and William III of England ordered his Scots minister to extirpate a clan.
Here are the greatest names coupled with the greatest crimes; you would spare those criminals, for some mysterious reason. I would hang them higher than Haman, for reasons of quite obvious justice, still more, still higher for the sake of historical science.
Lord Acton finished his letter with this statement about the science of history:
The inflexible integrity of the moral code is, to me, the secret of the authority, the dignity, the utility of history. If we may debase the currency [that is, set aside the integrity with which historians should judge the past] for the sake of genius, or success, or rank, or reputation, we may debase it for the sake of a man’s influence, of his religion, of his party, of the good cause which prospers by his credit and suffers by his disgrace. Then history ceases to be a science, an arbiter of controversy, a guide of the wanderer, the upholder of . . . [high moral standards. Then history] serves where it ought to reign; and it serves the worst better than the purest.
Lord Acton, of course, failed to stop the machinations of the First Vatican Council in affirming papal infallibility despite his visit to Rome to lobby against it. It would have been better for the Roman Catholic Church had they listened to him, for in ascribing characteristics of deity to an office-holder of their church they have doomed themselves to papalolatry. Eventually – one inch at a time – the pope has become the heart and centre of the Roman Catholic religion, with a great deal of adoration now centred on him. If you need a recent demonstration of this, you need look no further than when Francis visited the Philippines in January 2015. Prior to his visit, the Vatican literally had to tell local Roman Catholics to stop making images of Francis and instead to make images of Christ!
In his letter, Lord Acton lays down another principle, however, that I think characterises a properly Christian historiography: a principle of moral judgement. This, of course, is the very thing that students of history are told to suspend, although this only applies to historical science – any “study” that promote a social agenda like Feminist Studies courses have no problem in launching a bizarre fusillade of judgements against a whole range of historical figures. But in the main, students are taught – as I myself, indeed, once taught many students – that we must simply hold our moral horses when history shows humanity in its ugliness. Though a hecatomb of bodies pile up, we shall not be moved!
I have revised this belief. It is not incompatible with objective inquiry to retain a moral sense – and to apply it fulsomely. And since Christians have received objective moral information from God – a unalterable benchmark with which to judge rightness and wrongness of human conduct – Lord Acton is quite correct to point out that not to use it debases the human mind and the field of history itself. Indeed, to do so makes history merely a clamour over competing interpretations over processes, facts and events, rather than a process of resolving and judging in the stream of human thought the myriad conflicts, disasters and errors into which the human race has so often plunged. History must judge prior generations on some moral basis. Is there any firmer basis on which to judge than what has been infallibly given to us in the scriptures?