Making History

The Bible’s honesty makes it a model.

-Noel Weeks-

One of the interesting things about the Old Testament way of writing history is the putting of two different versions of the same history side by side. Compare Genesis 1:1-2:3 and 2:4-10; Genesis 6:13-22 and 7:1-8; Judges 1:1-16 and 2:6-23; 1 Samuel 16:13-23 and 7:1ff. Each account brings out different aspects of the truth, for example the transcendence and the immanence of God in creation, or in the 1 Samuel example, that there are two clearly different aspects to the deficiencies of Saul, first his mania and second his fear and lack of faith in war. To both of these David is the answer.

This biblical approach, recognising the complexity of history and the difficulty of encapsulating all the important points in one narrative, is an interesting contrast to the modern traditions of history writing. That tradition, including as it is exemplified in our National Curriculum, is now caught between the old and the new fashions.

The old springs from the Enlightenment attempt to banish revealed religion from intelligent conversation. The motivations of man in that view are purely material. One could reduce them to the lust for power and the lust for wealth; or in more academic language, politics and economics are all there is to history.

The West’s approach to the Middle East and the Islamic world is founded on the premise that there is no such thing as religious motivation: all is political and economic aspiration. We can judge the truth of the Enlightenment’s materialism by the obvious “success” of the foreign policy founded upon it.

The new is based upon the postmodern notion that there is a different truth for everybody, and thus logically everybody will write his/her/herhis/ his-her/its own history. That is very difficult to translate into a national curriculum.

We do see a form of it in the shape of the whole curriculum. Instead of working to make the child realise that there is a whole world out there, the curriculum starts with the child as centre and gradually works out from there, fitting the premise that we are the centre and meaning-maker in our own universe.

In the whole history curriculum there is very little room for anything outside the history of Australia since European settlement. Since not much can be covered in the earlier years it is hard to put exact figures on it but roughly the 4000 years of recorded history before modern Australia receives two years of study and the 200 years since about five years.

Yet there is logic in the disproportion. If nothing is real outside the individual and all that matters is what the individual experiences, surely the same is true for the nation. Australia is the world. A foreign policy based upon this premise is likely to be equally disastrous.

We need to follow the precedent of Scripture and present an additional history, one that reflects more of the realities of human life.

Thus the fact that the curriculum does not highlight the Christian role in early Australia is just part of the problem. There is a much deeper problem of fundamentally incorrect understandings of human history. That confronts the Christian teacher with a major problem. The lust for power and greed are realities and thus one can justify a role for politics and economics in any history curriculum, and yet they are not the only realities. The popular press may delight in the power plays in the major parties as various roosters fight for the right to crow from the top of the dung heap, but the average student finds a history of pure politics to be boring. Who really cares who was prime minister in 1905?

We need to follow the precedent of Scripture and present an additional history, one that reflects more of the realities of human life. For that we need to take Romans 1 seriously. There is a knowledge of truth, an evaded, suppressed, but yet real knowledge, even in pagan cultures like our own.

Real history is about the human struggle, forced by the way the providence of God brings unwilling men to confront that truth. In that struggle ideologies play a major role because they are what sinful men use to justify their departure from the truth. It is ridiculous that the National Curriculum expects study in the last years of schooling of only “progressive ideas and movements”.

Of course the omission of communism and fascism could be excused by saying that the course expects students to study the two world wars and their background. However that part of the course is slanted towards Australians’ experience and participation. In the post-modern world all that matters is your experience.

False ideas, even when presented by seemingly moral men, have tremendous power to harm. Adam Smith’s quest for a moral and legal system, apart from the Bible and based upon a conjectural history of human civilisation, led to the idea that nomads have no legal right to land. In that lay the nucleus of the Australian tragedy, as European settlers and administrators used theory to blind them to their cruelty to the original inhabitants.

Marx’s commitment to the determinism of history allowed his followers to punish those who stood in the way of their version of progress. Hitler’s espousal of genetic determinism made inevitable the removal of those who carried bad genes.

The history of the church and its impact on national life in Australia or in the world is not always a glorious history.

The modern world cannot have a history of the impact of these false ideas because in transmuted forms they still rule. Programs for behaviour are still based on conjectured theories of the human race. Those who stand in the way of “progress” are still decried and it is not just in a commitment to genetic determinism that the Greens resemble the Nazis.

Yet if we are honest about ourselves and about biblical history, it is not just ideas, which are bad in their origin, that become the cloak for sin. We as Christians can be presumptuous of the grace of God. The history of the church and its impact on national life in Australia or in the world is not always a glorious history.

I fear that the call for a greater recognition of the role of Christianity in the national history will be seen as a Christian triumphalism which does not accord with the facts. The fact is that many Christians were opaque to the origins and evil consequences of the false ideas I have mentioned and many others.

Our danger now is that a similar obliviousness to the false premises that are in the National Curriculum, because they are in the national life, will make even Christian schools the agent for penetration of false ideas into church and community. I have touched on the foreign policy implications of some of these because they provide an obvious way in which God may punish the nation for its foolishness, but I suggest there are many other ways. I suggest that we as history teachers have a duty to God, church and nation to do something to point out such falsities.

Professor Noel Weeks is a Sydney University historian.

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