Interpreting the Hand of God in American History

[Hat-Tip to Millard Fillmore's Bathtub]

I am working steadily to get my classes up to speed for the start of the new year.  The course description for my survey course in American history is going through the most substantial revision since I’ve discarded the traditional textbook approach for multiple secondary texts.  As I was browsing a few of the blogs this morning I came across this post that includes a number of course descriptions from Castle Hills Baptist School in San Antonio, Texas.  You can read the descriptions if you dare, but here is their course description for American history:

Students will evaluate the past and learn from its lessons (I Corinthians 10:11), and become effectual Christians who understand “the times” (I Chronicles 12:32). Students will study the history of our country beginning with the Civil War with a biblically integrated filter as they examine the political, social, and economic perspectives. An emphasis will be placed on the major wars, the industrial revolution, and the settlement of the frontier, requiring students to critically analyze the cause and effect relationships of events in history.

Here is (I Corinthians 10:11): Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.

…and here is (I Chronicles 12:32): And of the children of Issachar, which were men that had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do; the heads of them were two hundred; and all their brethren were at their commandment.

I am curious as to whether it is possible to follow this course description and do analytical history.  According to the description the students will focus on the political, social, and economic perspectives of American history.  I take it for granted that all three categories are open to serious interpretation.  Take for example the social history of the United States.  Are we to understand American history as a society based on sharp class lines or as a relatively classless society?  It’s even more difficult if we ask the question over time.  From what perspective should we view the political structure and the central concepts contained within?  Is ‘freedom’ to be understood as wealthy capitalists understood it during the latter half of the nineteenth century or should we consider those pushing the agenda of the welfare state during the Great Depression?  How do we define all three categories if we look at antebellum America through the eyes of a slave as opposed to people heading west to start a new life? 

So, the first problem any serious student of history must come to grips with is that the past is always open to interpretation with much of it hinging on whose perspective you take.  As teachers, however, we still ask our students to draw conclusions about historical change and the characteristics of society at particular points in time.  The best students take great care in structuring their responses in a way that acknowledges the limits of their explanation. 

My question is how do you get from there to any conclusions about how all of this fits into a "biblically integrated filter."  In other words how is a student (or anyone) to know that their particular historical interpretation mirrors God’s plan or any kind of divine intervention over time?  Don’t we run the risk of turning God into an advocate for a certain version of American history: God as social conservative, laissez-faire capitalist, labor advocate, welfare state proponent, etc.  In the context of the Civil War is God a Revisionist, Lost Cause, or Progressive kind of guy?

Unless I am mistaken it seems to me that something has to give.  Either an analytical/interpretive approach is taken where the working assumption is that historical inquiry is carried out along secular lines [notice that this approach as in the case of the theory of evolution does not necessarily deny the existence of God] or we discard interpretation for theology.  Attempting to understand the past in all of its complexity is difficult enough, but adding God into the mix seems to add an entirely new challenge to the process.   

I will continue to work in the archives and worry about the mind of God later.

6 comments… add one

  • Bruce Miller Aug 9, 2007

    I wonder if the students are required to speak and write English in the King James manner, e.g., “ensamples”.

    I’m also not too sure that a phrase like “the heads of them were two hundred” is entirely coherent any more. Does that mean the number men of the Issachar clan, or the number of them who had the right “understanding”? The Revised Standard Version renders it as 200 “chiefs”.

    Maybe they can answer some interesting questions, though, like whether “ye” was pronouced the way we pronounce “you”. Are there high-school level King James-era grammar books available? I’ve never been able to keep it straight when to use “thee” or “thou”.

    Come to think of it, given the number of Bible college graduates who were placed at the Department of Justice, it wouldn’t surprise me if official court filings are using “ensamples” these days. “Thou must understand that the defendent hath verily been a heretic.” Works for me.

  • Ed Darrell Aug 9, 2007

    Thanks for taking the time to analyze that description and point out some of the problems. I think this is a serious issue that gets short shrift in Texas.

  • LarryC Aug 9, 2007

    If the Bush administration adds history to No Child Left Behind (as the AHA has requested) the Castle Hills Baptist School has a national curriculum ready to go.

  • Michael Aubrecht Aug 10, 2007

    You pose some interesting and challenging questions Kevin.

    As a devout practitioner of faith, I can say without a doubt that my religion dictates every-single aspect of my life as well as that of my family’s. So I guess my perspective would be that it is impossible to be an Evangelical Christian without having that influence (specifically in terms of a biblical view of the world – and a biblical blueprint for life) affecting everything that one does including their work.

    You used the phrase: “Unless I am mistaken it seems to me that something has to give.” That really is a mistake when looking at religion and how it affects one’s daily life. The whole point of a faith it is that NOTHING gives.

    So I guess what I’m trying to say is that those who are devout in their practices (whatever they may be) don’t look at things in the same manner that non-practicing people do. That is why private Christian Schools and Home Scholars don’t follow the same secular educational plan as the public school system. They want their kids to share that Bibilical-perspective and not a secular/progressive one.

    Of course they would use Corinthians in their lesson plan, its a Baptist school. But of course, I wouldn’t expect (or approve of) a pubic school using it. They are two different audiences, with two different philosophies on life.

    And there is nothing wrong with that. Both educational styles appeal to different folks and they should not all be required to be the same – should they? That Baptist school that you cite is doing exactly what they are called to do: Teach life according to Biblical truth, and look at things apart from man and worldly views.

    This of course does not work in the public school system, and that is why so many Christian avoid that venue. Your school may not use this approach, but why couldn’t another with students who are specifically sent there by the parents with the understanding that a Biblically-based curriculum would be taught. I would think there is room for both.

    Hope that didn’t sound too preachy. Thanks for listening.

  • Kevin Levin Aug 10, 2007

    You don’t sound overly preachy and I appreciate the comment, but you haven’t responded to the content of my post. Suggesting that this is a problem between those that are practicing or non-practicing strikes me as overly simplistic and evasive. You seem to be assuming in your comment that I or anyone who would pose this challenge lacks faith or doesn’t subscribe to a religion.

    I am simply asking a question based on my understanding of what historical inquiry involves and the the challenge of figuring out how it may or may not reflect a divine plan or any plan whatsoever.

  • Michael Aubrecht Aug 10, 2007

    Thanks for the quick reply, but I don’t think I was missing the point – or at least part of it. You appeared (to me) to be critical of a Baptist School’s lesson plan which you are quoting from, and I was just stating that there are Christian schools where that type of teaching is perfectly acceptable AND expected. As far as trying to figure out God’s Divine Plan, nobody can do that, the closest that we can come is to live everyday according to the teachings of the Bible no matter how difficult or unpopular they may be to the rest of the world. I think your ‘mixing’ a religious and secular view that don’t mix in a public or secular school system. They are apples and oranges IMO. Thanks.

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