Revisionism and Reductionism

This is the second post in a five-part series on Aesop’s Fables. You can read this post independently from the others or you can also read the introduction here for more background on the history and use of Aesop’s Fables.

THE MAN AND THE LION

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A Man and a Lion once argued together as to which belonged to the nobler race. The Man called the attention of the Lion to a monument on which was sculptured a Man striding over a fallen Lion. “That proves nothing at all,” said the Lion; “if a Lion had been the carver, he would have made the Lion striding over the Man.”

One story is good, till another is told

Most homeschoolers have run into this problem at one time or another in their education: revisionist history.

It’s what distorted Christopher Columbus’ voyage of discovery and evangelism into a revolutionary attempt to prove wrong the flat-earthers.
It’s what distorted the Pilgrims into Indian land-thieves.
It’s what distorted “the War of Northern Aggression” into “The Civil War”.
It’s what distorted the long legacy of creation scientists into an embarrassing lineage of frauds and anti-progressives.

The list could go on and on. True is it said that “he who wins the war writes the history books”.

And those who have been a faithful student of history will also have recognized a sub-category of revisionism that is subtler, and that is: reductionism.

Revisionism is the complete refabricating of a historical event. In brief: it’s making things up. The men of Christopher Columbus’ crew did not believe in a flat earth–no one did–they were starving to death and feared their supplies would run out before they reached land. So much for battling against Christian anti-progressives.

But reductionism on the other hand, involves the telling of true facts…selectively.

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This problem plagued me when I studied American History in homeschool. “Founding Brothers” by Joseph Ellis, demonstrated by many proofs and direct quotations from the founding fathers the heavy influence of the enlightenment on their ethics, values, and worldview, but also quietly discredited the Christian faith of these men. This wasn’t a prominent discussion in the book–more like something running in the background. There was one section where the author claimed that Jefferson and Adams looked forward to Heaven not because they would be with God but so they could continue to debate. The author quoted several of their letters. Then there was one off-handed, unsupported comment about George Washington believing that Jesus had possibly been buried alive. I almost missed the comment because it seemed to come out of nowhere. I kept thinking that Joseph Ellis would bring it back up later but he never did. So I looked it up online. Though I could not find any source material about George Washington’s stance on the resurrection I did discover that Joseph Ellis believes that George Washington was not a Christian.

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George Washington in Prayer at Valley Forge (public domain)

I then pulled out “Christianity and the Constitution” by John Eidsmoe, thinking to lay the matter to rest once for all. But I was shocked to find that one of Mr. Eidsmoe’s primary sources for his statements about Washington is the Rev. Weems! Weem’s biography on George Washington is where “The Cherry Tree” and other anecdotes originated.

In “Rediscovering George Washington” Richard Brookhiser points out that “the only problem with these stories is that, in order to tell them, Parson Weems had to first make them up, since we know very little about Washington’s education or his father.” He said that Weems responded to the needs of the public for an emotional bond to the austere president and that he assumed, like many people over the course of history, that George Washington was born with the qualities we so admire rather than that they were cultivated over a lifetime. “We treat what was a result as a natural condition, as if Washington had been carved from the same stone as his monument” says Richard Brookhiser.

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Gilbert_Stuart,_George_Washington_(Lansdowne_portrait,_1796) Public Domain

Yet, John Eidsmoe uses Parson Weem’s book as one of two primary sources for his chapter on George Washington, arguing that just because Weem’s account is unsubstantiated does not mean it is false.

This is an unpardonably sloppy assertion for a historian to say, an argument that would hold no ground amidst serious historians. Yet John Eidsmoe’s book remains a popular source among many Christian homeschoolers because it gives them the Christian nation they desire to claim as their heritage and uphold as a precedent in modern politics.

I am just as wary of Christians with an agenda as I am with secularists. When you have an agenda, you will always see what you want to see.

But this is an instance of reductionism not revisionism because there were, in fact, enlightenment thinkers and Christians both among the Founding Fathers. I believe that there is no denying the strong humanistic convictions of Thomas Jefferson and the lesser influence humanistic ideals had on others of the Founding Fathers. But, that is not all there is to the story because you also find Christian men seeking to apply their Christian principles to the constitution and establishment of America. It’s not one or the other but both. Any position that denies the influence of either Christianity or humanism in our nation’s founding is guilty of reductionism.

History is rarely as clear-cut as we’d like it to be.

My favorite book on George Washington ended up being “Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington” by Richard Brookhiser quoted above. Though written by one whom, as far as I can tell, is a secular author, I found in it the historical integrity I was looking for. The author pointed out the opposite errors of historical traditions in making George Washington the epitome of piety on the one hand and on the other, renouncing all marks of a Christian worldview on the man.

It did not personally matter to Richard Brookhiser that many historians say George Washington “never referenced the Bible” but because he desired truth, Mr. Brookhiser took these historians to task for their suppression of the truth–then went on to discuss the famous president’s lesser-known affiliation with the Freemasons, a back-door entry to enlightenment principles blended with Christianity, a fact which best explains the duality of ideas present in George Washington, evidenced by this famous quote:

“[Americans] are, from this period, to be considered as the Actors on a most conspicuous Theatre, which seems to be peculiarly designated by Providence for the display of human greatness and felicity.” GW, First Farewell Address, Circular to the States, June 14th, 1783

Christians leap on the references to Providence and the stage metaphor but sail over “the display of human greatness and felicity”, a statement which, if closely examined, demonstrates the blending of enlightenment ideals with Christianity that marked both the man and his time.

What is the solution to overcoming revisionist and reductionist history? –Reading the history books of both man and the lion. Read original documents. Look for historians who love the truth too dearly to sacrifice it on the altar of their agenda. This gives them credibility because it demonstrates integrity. If a man defends a lion’s show of strength though he ultimately disagrees with his mission, mark him, for that is a man of integrity.

In addition to the proverb: “the story depends on the teller,” I would also add: “An honorable man acknowledges the truth even when it’s not in his best interests.”


You can read the rest of the series here:

The Snail and the Statue – The Injudicious Eye

Wisdom, Virtue, and Reputation – The Guardians of Reputation

The Redbreast and the Sparrow – To Imitate the Strains I Love

It’s Ok to Ask For Directions (Reflections on The Scarlet Letter and Reading Classics in General)

Are you ready to hear something possibly surprising about this book reviewer? Here goes: sometimes, I read a book and I weigh every word, I analyze the themes and motifs, let the plot sink in, evaluate the characters, then I close the book and…have no idea what I just read means. Sometimes the scenes of the book tumble and jumble in my head, noisily knocking around like Mexican Jumping Beans and I can make no sense of them. I can grasp no common thread or foundation to build on.

This must mean, you might say, that it’s a badly written book. But what if this book is a classic? What if this book is universally recognized by literary scholars as a Madonna of American Literature? Then, you would be forced to say what I was forced to see, that this blogger was missing something and needed help.

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The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Butterfield

A teaser review (minimal spoilers)
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If someone could have told Rosaria Champagne: successful English Professor, vocal gay-advocate, feminist and religious scoffer that in a decade and a half she’d be the wife of a Reformed Presbyterian Pastor and homeschool mom of four cross-ethnic children she would have been the first skeptic of this incredible story.

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