Reviewing Each Other

A few weeks ago, I emailed a draft copy of my next book, Creative Historical Thinking (Routledge, 2018) to my new friend Ben House.  In return, last week Ben sent me a physical copy of his book, Punic Wars & Culture Wars: Christian Essay on History and Teaching (Covenant Media Press, 2008), along with a book of his poems, a copy of R.C. Sproul’s Biblical Economics, and a DVD of a film called The Sound of a Dirt Road. I figure there are two logical possibilities here: either Ben is clearing house and sent me dead weight, or he actually wants me to read all of this stuff.

I decided to start by reading Ben’s book.  Typically, when academics review books, they are insulated from the author by a sort of impersonal professionalism. Critics have a tendency to be critical (in the negative sense) because there are few rammifactions. Sometimes, academics who have not even published a book feel justified in criticizing the books of others on grounds of being incomplete! The irony.

At any rate, it is an interesting exercise to exchange books – to cross-review each other as it were. It is getting to know another’s mind in a deeper sense. This circumstance is even more peculiar because Ben and I have written books that are, in a number of ways, quite similar. Both of us have written a personal philosophy of history, combining historical methods and historical experience with a perspective on how to apply our views in the classroom.

I will summarize the book a bit, and tell you what I found good and bad. I trust Ben can handle the criticisms, knowing there are in good faith (pun intended). I imagine Ben can handle any praise I give as well. Everybody likes attention, and everybody likes to be taken seriously. No one wants to be lied to.

With that caveat, let me begin with my problems with the book. The biggest problem here is organizational structure. The best explanation of what the book is about comes in an afterword (which is at the end, of course, haha!).  The book’s title informs us that it is a collection of essays, which is another way of saying “this is going to be a bunch of random stuff loosely connected by the theme that I wrote it.” That’s all fine and good.  I mean, H.L. Mencken wrote a hell of a collection of essays. But I’ve been hoodwinked in the past. As I explain to my students, help the reader out by explaining, in the beginning, what the book is going to be about, why they should read it, and why they should care. The organizational trouble in Ben House’s book is compounded by a tendency to not get to the point of each individual essay until the third page of the essay, preferring instead to load up the reader with impressive quotes. Don’t hide behind other writers.

Now, the good. Could you imagine having a high school history teacher who has read as much, and has thought as much about history as Ben House? Ben laments that in his own education, he was taught some history (mostly false or ideologically biased history, see page 226), but never was taught what history itself was for, or what history itself was. Ben has thought about the nature of history, and has come to a position by way of a collection of mostly Christian writers, some of whom were historians. His influences range from Cornelius Van Til, St. Augustine, C. Gregg Singer, Christopher Dawson, Francis Schaeffer, and Rousas Rushdoony, to Thomas Cahill and Winston Churhill.

Ben’s view can largely be described as historicist, pre-suppositionalist Christian.  By historicist, I mean that he believes historical interpretation is dependent on the observer, and that we must work faithfully from the sources to build our story. At one point (pg 176), Ben writes “History does not teach plain, simple, moralistic lessons…History teaches perspectives, angles, and inquiries into the truth.” Elsewhere (223), however, he appears to contradict this a bit by speaking of the “lessons of history.” I think I know what he means, though. The lessons of history do exist, but they are not always clear, and it is unwise to claim that you have sole access to them. This is why (page 183), history teaches humility.

And yet, Ben believes that we cannot work from the sources without some presupposed knowledge, or some general theoretical framework. That is, we cannot approach evidence without some idea about what we are looking for. For Ben, this framework is a Christian sense that God reveals himself through history, and that history is best told in themes of religion and theology, where this divine message can best be seen.

I recommend that he read the work of Claes Ryn, whose “value-centered historicism” he would probably find appealing. Ryn defends universal truths while also defending a form of historicism and subjectivism.

Writing about the historian Otto Scott, Ben says “a publisher criticized him for being too readable to be taken seriously by scholars and yet too scholarly for average readers.” (164) I’m afraid there is something similar going on here. Ben has read too much, and writes too well to write bland pulp. Yet, his Christian view and his broad education has no home in academic journals, where secularism and depth of topic are what’s called for.  In the tradition of Richard Weaver or A.J. Nock, who argued that true education was not “useful” or “relevant”, Ben has written, as he says, an irrelevant book.

At any rate, some books are difficult to categorize, and even perhaps difficult to read, but yet have their moments of real strength. Ben’s humor and insight is a reward for getting through thick sections.

Who cannot relate to this quip?: “Back in the last sixties, a group of conspirators against the love of history, worked incredibly hard to produce filmstrips that made Texas history boring.” (131)

Who, cannot laugh when coming across a line about Junior High being proof of the fallen nature of mankind?

What I have taken away from this book is the knowledge that I know so little about the Christian view of history.

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