Scaling the Heights of Great Historians

Ferguson and Stark

Strange as it may sound, reading certain books and authors makes us feel much smarter because they make us realize how much we DON’T know.  It is the same effect that great concert music has.  When you are experiencing–of which hearing is only a part–a great performance, you may leave not knowing one ounce more about how to play an instrument or perform a piece, but you are changed.  Epic poetry, great novels, powerful works of art all create these same changes.

It is not that the mind is not more full, or the recollection of facts expanded, rather it is that the soul has been somehow touched, the vision somehow broadened.  This leads to an awareness that the universe is much bigger than we had previously expected and that our own finiteness is more finite that we knew.  This is, in my opinion, much of what real education is about.  It is the goal, and being the goal, it has to also be the process.

History is a dangerously deceptive subject.  We can be duped into thinking that it nothing “more than dates and dead people,” to use Stephen Mansfield’s book title.  We can be falsely comforted into believing that it is set of simple facts that support whatever our personal religious, economic, and political agenda might be.  Or, it can be an enjoyable escape from the plethora of cultural entertainments.  Or it can be a philosophical dead end, proving little more than the meaninglessness of “life under the sun” (borrowing from Solomon’s theme in Ecclesiastes) or the depressing words of John Maynard Keynes that “in the long run, we are all dead.”

Not only is history dangerly deceptive subject, but that last paragraph might deceive the reader as well.  Knowledge of history does entail having to learn or at least be exposed to lots of dates and dead people.  It does provide supporting evidence for religious, economic, and political beliefs. It can be greatly entertaining and much more satisfying than the soul-less, content-free, brain evaporating endlessly omnipresent, thought-dumbing world of glitz, passing fads, and drivel and swill of much of modern culture.

Doing math may create frustrations.  (I speak only from memory here.)  Having done math does not tend to leave us perplexed.  The completed math problem rarely leave the student asking himself, “How could 2 and X and the square root of 44 ever have done what they did?  Have they no moral conscience?”  History leaves lots of tears along the way.  When George Orwell said, “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever,”  he was just as accurately describing too much of the past as well as a future likelihood.

Two recent books I have read on history have created lots of mental reactions, brain synapses, and exhausting excitement.  Niall Ferguson and Rodney Stark have both taken me to the mat with a series of supplexes, body slams, and painful finishing moves.  I feel like echoing the warnings on episodes of WWE:  “Don’t try this history at home, at school, or anywhere.”  Except, we do need to try it.  We do need the bruising, muscle sprains, cuts and scraps that learning entails.

In short, I like the pain of learning from great historians.  I do feel smarter only by knowing how little I know.

The first and the most disturbing thing about Rodney Stark is that he is not a historian by training.  He is an academic and a professor at Baylor University, but his field of specialization is sociology.  Maybe it was his “preaching out of bounds” that has enabled him to see bigger pictures, collate the facts in a different arrangement, sidestep the departmentalization, and do broad sweeps of history.  I have and have read quite a few of his books.  When I first began How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity, I thought that perhaps this was a retelling, a Readers’ Digest Condensed Books-like retelling of what he has said in a previous 6 or 8 fine books.  Such a work would be useful.

For a fact, Stark does repeat his earlier books at points.  But this book is much more.  It is a recasting of the whole of Western Civilization–that politically incorrect, often rejected–course of study.  Stark argues in favor of Faith and Freedom.  I grant that many Christians have pumped out right-leaning, Christian oriented versions of history designed to set the record straight.  The beginning of this flood of books was 1976 with Peter Marshall, Jr. and David Manuel who wrote The Light and the Glory.  Christians awoke to the fact that the whole field of history had by-passed them (I should say, us).  They wrote for popular audiences, for the man and woman in the pew, and they created a cottage industry of books from a Christian perspective.

History books by Christians run the gamut.  Some are shallow, poorly researched, anecdotally weighted with dubious stories, and triumphalist.  That said, there have been Christian scholars and historians who have done the hard work of true scholarly engagement.  (See the works of George Marsden, Mark Noll, D. G. Hart, Stephen Ozment, and Thomas Kidd as examples.)  But there is always the need for big pictures and broad swathes of history designed for those in the middle.  By that, I mean those who won’t read an academic treatise arguing a minor point among specialists, but who don’t want a superficial treatment either.

Rodney Stark writes history well.  His books buttress the contentions of those of us who do believe that the Christian faith has been a building block, a philosophical non-negotiable, and a source for much that is good in this world.  Edward Gibbon blamed Christianity for the fall of Rome.  All things considered, one has to wonder whether that contention is a criticism or a compliment to the faith.  Speaking as a historian, it opens up a wide debate about the impact of faith on culture.  (See Richard Neiburh’s Christ and Culture.)  Stark assumes the positive impact of Christianity and Freedom, one of its offspring, on Western Civilization.

This book would make a fine text for studying Western Civilization.  The names, dates, maps, chronology, and end-of-the-chapter reviews that enhance or dull down history texts are missing, and one might need such a text prior to reading this.  The bibliography, always a prime concern of mine, is extensive.  If one is miffed that Stark relies on secondary resources, then the bibliography of those secondary resources can lead them back to the headwaters of the historical streams.

Remember my initial warnings:  You will be mentally numbed by reading this book.  You will be wearing sackcloth and ashes in sorrow over your historical ignorance and misunderstandings.  So, read it.

I read Niall Ferguson’s book Empire some years ago and became an immediate convert to his historical works.  This is the second Ferguson book I have read this year (the first was The Ascent of Money).  Ferguson is not a military historian, but rather an economic historian.  That being the case, we might still wonder why his latest book is a massive first of two volumes on Dr. Henry Kissinger.  (I have this book and hope to start it soon.)  When Ferguson writes on economic history, I have to sit at the back of the class and draw pictures on the edges of the papers where I am taking notes.  He loses me with his vast knowledge of economics.  (Students, don’t do what I just said I do.  If you don’t understand, sit at the front and write down everything.)

Ferguson, like Stark, is a big picture historian.  Despite the title of the book and the cover picture of a soldier, this is not a view of war from either the trenches or the command headquarters or the Pentagon or related military centers of warring powers.  Ferguson delves into hows and whys of the Western nations’ two-time plunges into catastrophic world wars.

I like to think that I understand the causes and effects of World Wars I and II.  I can, at a moment’s notice, give lectures on the major powers in the decades leading up to August 1914.  I can, with a brief review, detail both the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand and the Schlieffen Plan.  The main reason I avoid teaching on the world wars is because I get too lost in the lectures, the battles, the movies, and even the novels from those wars.  Yet, Ferguson stunned me.  As I have repeatedly said now, I realized how little I knew about the wars.

Ferguson deals extensively with issues such as race, nationality, ideologies, displacement of peoples, political urgencies of the time, and economics.  This might sound less interesting than Rick Atkinson’s outstanding Libertation Trilogy on the war in Europe, but I found Ferguson’s work to be a necessary complement or completion of the battlefield accounts.

At what point, I kept wondering while reading, do figures of death and destruction cease to jar me?  Routinely, numbers like 40 thousand or 1 million were used to explain not economic costs, but lives lost.  Genocide, that ugly defining word for so much of 20th century history, seems too mild in capturing the extent of death and destruction.  This story is of the descent of the West.  The hellishness of war in the past century was not just the weapons on the battlefield, but the evils in the hearts of men.

If it were possible for people to read history and experience true changes of heart, Ferguson’s book would be the Bible of our times.  The need is for God’s grace, not just accounts of how evil people have been.  But Ferguson’s work is not a lesson in despair.  This is not a depressing book.  This is good history.  This book is humbling and leaves the reader sorrowful.  By God’s grace, it can be godly sorrow leading to repentance culturally.

There must be a journey to the underworld before the hero can truly envision his quest.  Ferguson’s book provides just such a journey.



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