Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Book Review: Histories and Fallacies

Over the past year, I have become increasingly aware of and interested in the need to exercise discernment in the arena of history studies. (This is largely due to following Simonetta Carr's blog which chronicles "The making of Christian biographies for young readers." It has been a lot of fun to "watch" her piece together the truth of history. I am grateful for her willingness to share her journey and for the example that she sets.)  As a result, I was excited to learn that I would have the opportunity to review Histories and Fallacies: The Problems Faced in the Writing of History by Carl R. Trueman.  I must confess at the outset of this review that I am incredibly "out of my league" with this particular title. I realized very quickly that my vocabulary is extremely narrow and that I am woefully lacking in my knowledge of basic history (and current events pertaining to said history). However, in spite of my limitations, I was able to glean a good deal from this book.

The Introduction serves as a road map of sorts ad is a very good one at that. In Chapter 1, Trueman discusses the difference between  neutrality and objectivity. While no historian will be neutral in his/her retelling of the past, there will be verifiable facts, evidence, etc. by which one may ascertain what actually occurred. Trueman walks through some of the claims of those who deny the Holocaust in order to bring to light some of the basic strategies of good (and bad) historical method.

Trueman then moves to a discussion of interpretive frameworks in Chapter 2. Call it what you will: worldview, presuppositions, ideological commitments, beliefs; we all have them, and they drastically influence how we interpret the truth, including the truth about the past. Truman chooses to demonstrate the strengths and limitations of  interpretive schemes by evaluating Marxism.

Chapter 3 addresses the problem of anachronism. This was a new term for me and really made me feel like I was back in college with a bunch of intellectuals...and a bit out of my league. However, anachronism isn't nearly as complex as it sounds; it merely refers to the fact that the historian is in the present while addressing questions to the past. This time gap creates a whole host of problems similar to a tourist visiting a foreign country. Trueman highlights many of these problems and says, "Simply to be aware of the potential problem is a crucial move toward avoiding it" (pg. 115). This chapter, like the ones that go before it, is full of helpful reminders including the need to be modest in the conclusions one draws (pg. 140).

Finally, Chapter 4 is a treatment of various issues to which historians can be prone and of which they ought to be aware (oversimplification, generalization, poor framing of questions, etc.). Once again, Trueman makes statements that are pertinent to all of life. Fox example, he spends time relaying the importance of asking the right questions.

"...the framing of a question can shape the answer" (pg 162).
 "...often, questions are clearly driven by particular ideological commitments that arguably lead to distorted answers" (pg. 163).

In layman's terms, we tend to ask loaded questions.

Mr. Trueman rightfully acknowledges that he has "barely scratched the surface of what it means to write history" (pg. 169). While I would have liked to have seen greater depth in certain aspects, especially with regard to how a Biblical worldview affects ones' study of history (as opposed to merely focusing on Marxism), I believe Mr. Trueman gives his reader a great start. In my case, he has successfully fulfilled his objective "to ignite that interest [in understanding the past] in others, to guide them away from dead ends and methodological mistakes to fruitful and creative avenues of approach, and to help in some small way the next generation of those who wish to make history come alive for future generations" (pg 181).

In conclusion, Histories and Fallacies is a book I would loved to have understood before or during my college years. However, I am grateful for the opportunity to read and process the material now and look forward to using the knowledge that I have gleaned to be a more discerning reader across multiple disciplines. I trust many others will greatly benefit from it as well.

*Many thanks to Crossway for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion!

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