The History of the (Whole) World

my progress as I write, revise, send to my editor, re-revise, fact-check, galley-read, and promote my books, including (but not limited to) a multi-volume history of the world. While living on a farm, educating my kids, and teaching. And doing a few other things too.

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Life on the border

March 20th, 2011 by Susan

Whew.

Just finished two days of conferencing in which I talked non-stop about books, teaching writing, history, grammar, literature, my publishing company...and a thousand other things learning- and book-related.

I then slept for fourteen hours and just now woke up. This was a rough week. It started with a bad cold; then I spent three days with my father while he had emergency surgery (he’s much better, before you ask–home and recovering nicely), then got on a plane and went to a conference center, which (inevitably) produced bronchitis. I did the whole conference with almost no voice. The CDs of the talks sound like Gollum Does Grammar.

I spent a lot of time at this conference talking to parents and giving them personalized advice on how to get past particular educational challenges with their kids. I’m not concealing the fact that I get paid for these appearances, and that selling books at them helps keep my boat afloat. But believe me when I say that if it were just a matter of money, you couldn’t PAY me enough to do what I did this weekend. I like teaching. I like teaching writing. I love history. I want people to read more history–world history in particular. I am a Writing Zealot out to convert writers to good prose style and a History Emissary out to convince readers that they should know what’s going on in both southeast Asia and Europe during the Renaissance.

And in the middle of all this, people would come up to our booth and say, “Are you aware that other speakers are telling people in their workshops that Dr. Bauer is out to remove all Christianity from homeschooling and that’s she’s not even a Christian and that we shouldn’t buy any of her materials?” This was accompanied by Facebook and blog pots with big WARNING! headlines, explaining how I was part of a plan to destablize the kingdom of God.

Oh, good grief.

Stay with me for a little while here, because I want to say something about that.

First, for those of you unfamiliar with the home school world, let me give you a quick orientation.

PART ONE: HOME EDUCATION

There are thousands and thousands of home schoolers who teach their children at home primarily because they want to instill their faith in their children, and they are concerned that a classroom will actively discourage and destroy that faith.

There are thousands and thousands of home schoolers who teach their children at home for other reasons. Their school options are poor; their kids have particular needs that can’t be met in the classroom; they’ve had bad classroom experiences and are trying to recover; they’re travelling, or military, or just generally peripatetic; they like the flexibility and freedom of not being tied to a school schedule; they think they can do a better job than the available classrooms. (The latter two would be me. My kids are going to learn to WRITE, darn it, and I’m going to make sure they do.)

Although homeschool parents of both kinds attend education conferences, the conferences have historically been weighted heavily towards speakers and materials that teach particular forms of Christianity along with the academic subjects.

PART TWO: BEING CHRISTIAN IN AMERICA

Anyone who digs around in my website will quickly notice that I’m a minister’s wife. Yes, this means that I’m a Christian. (I guess that’s not always a given. But I am.)

This simple fact has opened me up to a ridiculous level of bashing from people who can’t see past it. Here’s an example. In The History of the Ancient World, I use stories from a number of different religious traditions–Sumerian, Egyptian, Indian, Chinese–in an attempt to reconstruct very early political history. This isn’t a perfect method, but since these texts are the only ones we have, I thought it preferable to simply ignoring very ancient political history altogether. I was pleased with the result. It’s highly speculative, but I point this out in the preface of the book; and it did produce a compelling, logical narrative for the very earliest years of recorded history.

Yet as soon as readers see anything from the Pentateuch–even though it’s nestled in there with stories from the Sumerian and Egyptian worlds–they go into high alert.

Let me quote from a couple of Amazon reviews (because those are always a great source of intemperance).

Then I got to the Hebrews in Egypt. With growing amazement I began to realize I was being treated to the story of Moses, lifted right out of the Bible, as though that were some sort of HISTORICAL document…..After having recovered from the considerable shock of seeing a supposed “historian” go to considerable length to throw her own credentials out the window, I radically revised my estimate of this book…I would obviously not be wise to trust this author with her gargantuan biases, and I would suggest that anyone actually interested in HISTORY find some other introduction to the ancient world.

Apparently he didn’t notice that Ra and Shamash make appearances in the same section.

Um, hey lady: the stories of Moses and the Old Testament have no place in a book about world history, as these things never happened. Some scholar of History you are.

(I have a book on punctuation for this guy.)

I have another book of hers on how to analyze classic literature and its fairly good but I briefly wondered if she was an idiot, just from some of the comments she made. This solves that mystery.

Oh. Well, good. (I’ll send you a copy of the punctuation book, by the way.)

What lies behind this level of invective?

PART THREE: CONVERT AS MANY AS POSSIBLE, AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE (OR, GOD AND THE FACTORY METHOD)

To be a Christian in America, particularly a Christian with any evangelical associations, is to be associated with a specific form of Christianity. Allow me to oversimplify (I highly recommend this and this for un-simplification, should you be interested). This form of Christianity has long been focused on one particular calling: converting other people.

Rescue the perishing, care for the dying,
snatch them in pity from sin and the grave;
weep o’er the erring one, lift up the fallen,
tell them of Jesus, the mighty to save.
Rescue the perishing, care for the dying;
Jesus is merciful, Jesus will save.

–Fanny Crosby, 1820-1915

Of course, it has long been part of the Christian faith that Christians should tell others what they believe. Early Christians did a lot of it.

But then came nineteenth century revivalism, in which “telling others what you believe” was transformed into “convert as many people as possible as quickly as possible because that is what God wants.”

And in order to convert as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, you have to use the proper methods.

Charles Finney stands at the beginning of this shift, but Dwight Moody, a businessman who brought business methods to evangelism, is probably the central figure. Let me quote from Paul Chilcote’s study of American evangelism:

Revivalism in many respects systematized the process of evangelism and conversion….Among the New England Calvinists of the First Great Awakening [1730s-40s], the means for revival rested with God. Evangelists might preach for revival, Christians might unite in ‘prayer concerts’ beseeching God to give revival, but ultimately only the sovereign God could grant the outpouring of revivalistic zeal….

By the Second Great Awakening of the nineteenth century, evangelists such as Charles G. Finney condemned those Christians who waited for revival while thousands remained unevangelized. Finney wrote that a revival

‘is not a miracle, or dependent on a miracle, in any sense. It is a purely philosophical result of the right use of the constituted means….There may be a miracle among its antecedent causes, or there may not.’

D. L. Moody, the great evangelist of the late 1800s, elaborated on Finney’s views regarding the means of evangelism. He urged any method which would lead to the conversion of a person, insisting, “It doesn’t matter how you get a man to God, provided you get him there.” Moody and company refined Finney’s new measures so that techniques for mass revivalism and personal witnessing were carefully systematized. Revival campaigns were planned in detail and Christians taught how to share their faith with “inquirers” before and after the nightly meeting.

Paul W. Chilcote, ed., Study of Evangelism (2008), p. 104

Let’s put this in context. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Americans had fallen in love with systemization–arranging an activity into a logical, standardized set of steps that were always carried out in the same way. Systematization was producing the factory method of manufacturing, the rigidly enforced system of K-12 grades in education, the standardization of medical licensing so that all doctors would receive more or less the same level of training, the current structure of the U.S. military.

And Dwight Moody’s method of evangelism, which so influenced American Christianity that we’re still living with it today.

This method has two presuppositions:
1. If you do everything right, people will convert.
2. The more people you convert, the better.

What’s wrong with that?

Well, I’m happy that all of my father’s doctors, this week, received the same level of medical training. But there are two big problems with standardized evangelism.

1. It’s impersonal.
2. Its success depends on getting everything exactly right.

Those two presuppositions, I think, account for both the invective I get whenever I dare to mention the Bible in my work, and for the invective I got from other speakers at this home school convention.

PART FOUR: WHEN BOTH SIDES THINK YOU’VE GOT IT WRONG

Let’s start with the invective from the secular side. Why did those Amazon reviewers (who are, unfortunately, representative of quite a few readers) react so strongly to my use of the Pentateuch and not even register a blip at my use of Sumerian myths?

Because they know I’m a Christian. An American Christian. An American Christian with an evangelical background. And so they assume that all of my work has a single purpose: it’s out to convert people.

In this context, every use of a Christian source takes on a sort of ominous quality. The assumption is that I’ve got an unspoken agenda. I’m not just writing a history of the world, I’m out to push a particular worldview on them, preferably without their noticing, so that they’ll be ready for conversion.

Why do they resent this so much?

Because it’s so impersonal. Were I trying to convert them (which I’m not; I was just trying to write ancient history), it wouldn’t be because I have a deep personal concern for their souls. It’s because I’m part of a movement that’s out to convert as many people as possible, by whatever means are necessary. That’s so…depersonalizing. And manipulative.

Thus the strong emotional reaction.

Now for the invective from the Christian side. (That would be, “Dr. Bauer is out to remove all Christianity from homeschooling and she’s not even a Christian, so don’t buy any of her materials.”)

Why on earth would this even matter to someone who’s buying a grammar book?

See Dwight Moody, above. The most important task for all Christians is to convert as many people as possible. Conversion only happens when all of the conditions are right. Influences which are not explicitly Christian (that would be me) mess up the conditions. Take that down to the unexpressed but logical conclusion: I am blocking the work of God.

Um…

Really? I didn’t know it would be that easy.

PART FIVE: FINAL WORDS TO BOTH SIDES

Dear Amazon.com reviewer: You’ve got it wrong. I’m not out to convert you. I’m not stealth-bombing you with Scripture. I’m just doing my best to write a good ancient history.

I don’t feel any need to stealth-bomb you with Scripture, because so far as I can tell, my faith doesn’t call me to convert as many people as possible. It calls me to live in love, compassion, grace, and forbearance. That’s what I’m doing down here in Virginia. I’m not plotting the most effective way to get you to be a Christian. Not my job. Hope you can relax and read my history now. But if you see any love, compassion, grace, and forbearance sneaking into the text, you can write another nasty review.

Dear worried speakers who don’t want parents to buy my writing and history books because I’m not using them to evangelize: You’ve got it wrong. If God can only reach people if all the conditions are right, he’s not much of a God. And if my grammar book can stand in the way of the kingdom of God, it’s not much of a kingdom. Please consider spending your time and energy talking about what you do and what you believe, rather than desperately protecting God from anything that might damage him.

PART SIX: AND NOW I HAVE OTHER THINGS TO DO

Now I will return to doing what I do–writing the most honest and accurate history I can, helping teach kids how to write, and trying to live in love, compassion, grace, and forbearance. That’s a pretty full plate, and things are always falling off the edge.

Usually the forbearance goes first.

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