Sunday, August 15, 2010

The “Christian Heroes: Then & Now” Collection

For decades, many have criticized the teaching of history in schools as being selective in emphasizing certain events and individuals, but overlooking many other important contributions to our society. When I was a grade school student, our study of history was typically limited to wars and presidents. I’ve mentioned before in this blog that when I took an African American history course to satisfy my undergraduate American history requirement, the knowledge I gained in that course was transformational. It opened my eyes in ways they had never been opened before. I learned so much about my own country’s history, to which I had never been exposed previously. I had a similar experience several years ago when I began to study Asian American history on my own. Again, as an adult, I was learning about fascinating parts of my own country’s history for the very first time. Such knowledge gave me a richer understanding of our country’s past, as well as its current debates and challenges.

Perhaps similar to the concerns of African Americans, Asian Americans, and many other groups in our society, some Christians feel that the secular teaching of history in the public schools has overlooked the important, positive contributions of their forbearers. The concern is often expressed that in an attempt to take a neutral stance towards religion, the schools gloss over the fact that religious faith was core to certain very positive aspects of history. Frequently cited are abolitionist efforts to eradicate slavery (e.g., William Wilberforce, Lyman Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe and William Lloyd Garrison) and women’s efforts to gain suffrage rights (e.g., Antoinette Brown, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton).

I can appreciate these concerns. In my public school education, it seemed like the positive aspects of Christian history were ignored or downplayed. My biggest recollections of Christianity popping up in the curriculum were the following: the colonizing Spaniards who seemed to have little actual regard for the indigenous people of the Americas but wanted to convert them (at least nominally) to Christianity, the (overly) pious Puritans leaving Europe for religious freedom, the tragic hysteria of the Salem witch trials, the excesses of the Catholic Church that led Martin Luther to break from Rome, and then those crazy temperance movement ladies with the hatchets.

In my secular education of history, I do also remember some passing mentions of Christian abolitionists, but even they were not portrayed in the best light as I recall. I don't remember any exploration of the impact of their religion on their views on slavery; their religion was downplayed. Per the history books, they also seemed like dishonest zealots. I remember an emphasis that Uncle Tom's Cabin was written as a piece of abolitionist propaganda by someone who had never even been below the Mason-Dixon line.

As a result of all this, my general impression from my secular education of history (of course filtered through my own teenage atheism) was that Christianity did not really add much to our country’s history, its existence was merely a parenthetical fact. I also came away with the impression that throughout history the Christians were pretty wacko folks. They often did insensitive, misguided, and even violent things in the name of their religion.

It seems my experience was not completely atypical. As a result, Christian publishers have begun to publish books in recent years to enlighten people about the positive contributions of Christians. They are sold at Christian book stores, homeschooling conventions and various internet websites. Because this is a part of contemporary Christian culture that is unknown to many, I thought it would be helpful to flag its existence.

In that vein, I recently became aware of the “Christian Heroes: Then and Now” series, which is published by a company called YWAM. Following up on the prior blog, because of our family’s interests in medical missions and different cultures, I recently bought several children’s books about Western missionaries. My kids and I are currently reading a biography about David Livingstone, which is pretty engaging. My older daughter loves science and African cultures, so she is particularly enjoying this book. I also bought my kids a biography of Corrie ten Boom, a really fascinating Dutch woman whom I mentioned in a recent post.

When I was browsing the “Christian Heroes: Then and Now” collection, I have to say I was a little taken aback. There was a similar series in a separate stack nearby called “Heroes of History.” The series had biographies on George Washington Carver, Harriet Tubman, and Clara Barton. However, they also had biographies of several of our founding fathers, whom scholars insist had deist beliefs and/or attended church services for social--not spiritual--reasons. I also was absolutely horrified to see a biography of Ronald Reagan in this collection--Ronald Reagan: Destiny at his Side. I grew up in the Washington, D.C. area at the tail end of the Cold War during a period when the rate of homelessness increased dramatically. My memories of Ronald Reagan’s presidency are much less favorable than the book seems to portray.

As I was browsing these books, I was primarily drawn to the “Christian Heroes: Then and Now” collection, and did not buy any of the “Heroes of History” series. It is not entirely clear to me from the book titles and the individuals chosen for inclusion in the series whether “Heroes of History” is attempting to portray individuals like Benjamin Franklin and Ronald Reagan as Christian historical figures. (In that throughout his adult life Ronald Reagan consistently chose to not attend church on a regular basis, and his beloved second wife was passionate about astrology, our fortieth president would not have made my short list of notable Christians.)

Because the biographies of such individuals are not included in the “Christian Heroes: Then and Now” collection, my hope is that the publishers weren’t trying to re-write history through an inaccurate Christian lens. However, I’m unsure because the publisher, YWAM, describes itself as a “resource for high-quality Christian books” that tries to “encourage Christians to make a difference in a needy world.”

The first link below provides some information about the YWAM publishing company. The second link provides information about the “Christian Heroes: Then and Now” collection.

Matthew 10:1

Jesus summoned His twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every kind of disease and every kind of sickness.

1 Timothy 1:12

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because He considered me faithful, putting me into service.

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