"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Christians Hijacking History

Although this new book is aimed primarily at right-wing evangelicals in the United States, Catholics and Orthodox have no grounds for feeling smug here. In an American context, many of them--otherwise accustomed to lazy condemnations of "ecumenism"--have been only too happy to join up with their evangelical brethren in the reactionary culture wars which are currently focused on "critical race theory" which they are happy to demonize and condemn without manifestly bothering to understand it. 

More broadly, Catholic-Orthodox historiographical wars have not only kept them divided, but have also manifested many of the same dynamics described in this new book noted below. To pick just two examples at random: Orthodox regularly retail a version of the Fourth Crusade that conveniently leaves out their own attacks on Catholics in the preceding years--to say nothing of Byzantine Orthodox violence against non-Chalcedonians; or they invent out of whole cloth risible ideas about, say, Ireland being Orthodox before "the Franks" got at them. Or consider the competing histories of the Union of Brest and the Pseudo-Sobor of Lviv of 1946: about both, please God, Daniel Galadza and I will ourselves have in print a new book late this year. 

Or consider Catholics and their absurd fights over "tradition" before and after, and in relation to, Vatican II, which I addressed in part here. I looked at some of these historiographical issues in more detail in this essay. In sum, and to amend a phrase of the great historian Robert Taft, of blessed memory and the Society of Jesus, when it comes to hijacking history, nobody has clean hands!

Such historiographical issues are in for some incisive treatment in Kathleen Wellman's forthcoming book, set for fall release: Hijacking History: How the Christian Right Teaches the Past and Why It Matters (Oxford UP, Sept. 2021), 384pp. About this book the publisher tells us this: 

The teaching of history has long been the subject of partisan warfare. Religion often plays a prominent role in these debates, as secular progressives and conservative Christians disagree over which historical figures are worthy of study, how (or whether) certain events should be portrayed, and ultimately how tax dollars should be spent. But what about students who are educated outside the public schools, either in religious schools or at home? How are they learning history, and what effect does that have on our democracy?

Hijacking History analyzes the high school world history textbooks produced by the three most influential publishers of Christian educational materials. In these books, the historian, informed by his faith, tells the allegedly unbiased story of God's actions as interpreted through the Bible. History becomes a weapon to judge and condemn civilizations that do not accept the true God or adopt “biblical” positions. In their treatment of the modern world, these texts identify ungodly ideas to be vanquished-evolution, humanism, biblical modernism, socialism, and climate science among them.

The judgments found in these textbooks, Kathleen Wellman shows, are rooted in the history of American evangelicals and fundamentalists and the battles they fought against the tide of secularism. In assuming that God sanctions fundamentalist positions on social, political, and economic issues, students are led to believe that that the ultimate mission of America is to succeed as a nation that advances evangelical Christianity and capitalism throughout the world. The Christianity presented in these textbooks is proselytizing, intolerant of other religions and non-evangelical Christians, and unquestionably anchored to the political right.

As Hijacking History argues, the ideas these textbooks promote have significant implications for contemporary debates about religion, politics, and education, and pose a direct challenge to the values of a pluralistic democracy.

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