Between Hagiography And Cynicism

polycarpTelling the truth about the past is more difficult than it might seem but we can appreciate the difficulties by reflecting for just a moment on the controversy in Ferguson, Missouri. It’s a contemporary event of which there are at least two starkly different accounts of what took place. Either 1) a suspect in a criminal investigation struck and a police officer, struggled for the officer’s weapon (during which it discharged), ran, and then finally charged the causing the officer to discharge his weapon and resulting in the death of the suspect; or 2)An unarmed, college-bound, 18-year old African-American was accosted by a police officer, submitted peacefully with his hands in the air but was nevertheless shot and killed without cause. These are very different accounts of an event that transpired less than a month ago. Only three people know what happened and one of them is dead. The uncertainty and the differing accounts have roiled and riveted an entire nation. We may not know for months what actually happened and it’s possible that we may never know with certainty what happened and this is, what we used to call in grammar school, “current events.”

Now, add 1800 years to the equation. Imagine there is only one record, which tells only one side of an event, which was written with the intent of idealizing his subject and implicitly to advance a particular view of Christian piety and behavior. The difficulty of determining what happened in the past and why is increased considerably. At least in the Ferguson case there are two living witnesses and it is at least possible that, through the various investigations that a facsimile of the truth may emerge but it’s possible that the event has been so polarizing, that feelings are running so high, that so many interests are, in their own view, better served by chaos and controversy that the truth may not come out.

These challenges illustrate two temptations faced by the historian: cynicism and hagiography. Cynicism says that either there is no truth or we can never know what the truth was. If that is the case we should give up all enquiry since everything is nothing but politics and the quest for power. Cynicism is not a moral option for Christians since despair is a sin. We do not know truth as God knows it (we call that the Creator/creature distinction) but we do know truth. We may not know all the truth and we are always learning—which is why histories are revised. Sometimes people joke by asking “has history changed?” The answer is, “As a matter of fact, yes.” We do learn more about the past. We find new sources. We get new perspectives. We ask a new question that helps to put an event in a new light.

Hagiography is the more common temptation faced by Christian historians. Literally it means “a life of a saint” (which is the definition given in the quite disappointing entry in the Oxford English Dictionary. The entry has  not be updated since 1898). In modern use it refers to an uncritical or credulous and idealized account of the past. This is one of the definitions given by the Oxford American Dictionary. It is in this sense that historians typically use the word. I am not certain when the first hagiography appeared but as part of our Ancient Church course I walk students through the Martyrdom of Polycarp. It’s a great and gripping narrative. An aged holy man is hunted down by secular authorities. He shames them by his piety. If you have not read it I will not spoil it for you but let it be enough to say that there are elements of the narrative that Christians have a right to doubt without being accused of cynicism. The narrator—I don’t know the text history well enough to know if there was only one but I’ll assume for the sake of this discussion that there was only one hand—repeats for our edification stories that are almost certainly false. Polycarp appears as a superhuman figure and ironically the effect of the inclusion of those elements is to blur the line between Polycarp’s Christian witness and the very paganism he stoutly repudiated all of his life.

In distinction from these two approaches, a Christian account of the past should be realistically sympathetic. We should tell the truth about the past as best we can and that includes letting the reader know that our subject was human and thus fallen. I am an Augustinian/Calvinist in the Reformed tradition. I confess a robust doctrine of human depravity  and therefore I am not surprised when our Christian family members in the past are found to have sinned. We should tell that part of the story. Need we go into gruesome detail? That might depend on the circumstances. There are instances where “saints” need to be humanized. I recall the reverence with which C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) seemed to be held (particularly by American evangelicals) in Oxford. There was a field trip to the Kilns and some even make a pilgrimage to his grave. My reading of Lewis suggests that he would think this ridiculous. Once, while I was there, Phil Ryken gave a salutary paper to the Lewis Society seeking to humanize “St Lewis.”

In my circles there is a fair bit of mythology about Old Westminster and Old Princeton. I know a little bit about the unwritten history of Old Westminster. These stories that might surprise and even shock those who only know the received mythos about their beloved profs. Telling some of those stories might not be edifying but I can see a reasonable case for telling others of them. I think Harry Stout did us a service by humanizing George Whitefield. George Marsden has done the same for Jonathan Edwards.  These were real, flesh and blood humans whom God used despite their sins and flaws.

It does no service to Christians now or in the future to beatify our forebears in the faith. An overly sanitized story is ultimately not a true story. Scripture itself is quite realistic in its portrayal of some of the great figures in redemptive history. One is repeatedly shocked by Moses’ brutal honesty not only in his portrayal of his own faults but of the sins of the great heroes of redemption. Abraham was a serial liar. This is a family column and so I should commend you to the reading of Genesis or the 1 and 2 Kings or the Book of Acts for biblical examples of stark honesty about the sins and frailties of the patriarchs, prophets, and apostles.

As an Augustinian in the Reformed tradition I also am convinced that the historian should be gracious to his subject where possible. We are not called to rubbish reputations and memories for the sake of thrills or downloads. It is ultimately better for Christians if they see their family members (Christians from earlier eras) as fallen humans who were nevertheless used by God in certain ways. There is a clear distinction between sympathy and hagiography. One review of Stout’s work was, well, shocking in its vitriol. Despite all the fulminating and anguish was Stout factually wrong? He did a good job of de-mystifying Whitefield as Marsden did with Edwards. I think Darryl Hart did a good job of demystifying Machen and thus balancing the story in the wake of Stonehouse’s biography. The point of the latter was to evoke sympathy for a man and his cause. Stonehouse was largely successful and Darryl took a little polish off the halo without muddying Machen unduly. John Muether did a good job putting flesh on Van Til’s bones. Those were sympathetically realistic portraits that did not fall into cynicism.

Hagiography has the unhappy consequence of creating false expectations for the present and the future. The hagiographical, idealized version of the First Great Awakening created a misleading picture about what actually happened and that story has since helped to has create unrealistic expectations about the sort of spiritual renewal we should seek in the church. I argued in Recovering the Reformed Confession, that the 18th-century colonial revivals were not what we have been told (often via informal, oral histories but even in print). The story was more complicated and the outcome more mixed as judged by the standard of the Reformed confessions and Reformed orthodoxy in the 16th and 17th centuries. There might be good reasons not to pray for another “Great Awakening” but instead to pray for a renewal and Reformation of the theology, piety, and practice of the church according to God’s Word as we confess it.

It is a good thing to learn not to bestow sainthood on the living and the dead. The true story, if it ever emerges, in Ferguson will likely be disappointing to partisans on both sides. It usually is. Polycarp was not a thaumaturge and Jerome probably didn’t overcome sexual temptation by learning Hebrew. That’s just not the way post-canonical life works. We’re not actors in the canonical history of redemption. We’re just Christians, sinners redeemed by sovereign grace alone, through the free gift of faith alone, trusting in Christ the obedient righteous one alone. We’re not on a ladder to glory. We’re in an ark at sea. We do not have halos and historians should not endow dead Christians with them if only to remove another opportunity for cynicism when our future brothers and sisters learn the truth about us.

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  1. That’s a good point about things not always fitting well in a dichotomy formed by the strongest supporters of two sides. Things are not always so black and white.

    One helpful way to spot Christian maturity is to see how people react to some of the sinful and evil things done by those in their traditions. It could also be the case that some have a kind of Christian perfectionism (Wesleyan?) in their thinking.

    I also remember a helpful idea from D.A. Carson. We can know some things with certainty, even though nothing exhaustively.

  2. As someone who loves reading history, it appalls me the way in which some Christians are happy to re-write history to score points in culture wars, David Barton, case in point. When the Soviets did this to their history, we all hooted about it. Christians who do this need to repent.

  3. As a history teacher, I greatly appreciate this post. Unfortunately, what I get in the materials I have to use on the Reformation is lousy; what I get in the materials on Islam is way too rosy-tinted. While it doesn’t fall to the “demonography” of Calvin I got while in High School, it still is unbalanced and fundamentally misled by secondary literature.

  4. BTW, I read both the Letter of Polycarp and the Martyrdom of Polycarp in Ehrman’s edition of the Apostolic Fathers (not quite as good as the Lake edition I consulted while at Covenant). Both are well worth the reading.

    Maybe the author(s) of the Martyrdom gilded the proverbial lily. But when all is said and done, Polycarp provided an important witness to the times not too long after the passing of the apostles, ministered to churches undergoing serious stress, and was faithful unto death. Further, I am impressed that Polycarp did not seek martyrdom, but fled, seeking to preserve that precious gift of life as long as possible, and submitted to a martyrdom forced upon him.

    Yes, we do over-glorify the suffering church. We forget that our Hugeunot brethren of the late 17th century produced the ridiculous “French Prophets” who vexed the English church early in the 18th century. The suffering Presbyterians of northern Korea in the 1940’s gave us Sun Myung Moon. China’s suffering Evangelicals have given us the Shouters and a foolish woman who claims to be the Second Advent of Christ. But there are also those who kept a biblical witness under pressure, and there example is to be taken seriously.

    • The Martyrdom of Polycarp is a great, moving story and much of it is likely true but we shouldn’t be afraid to read it critically and to reject its hagiographical elements even as we admire Polycarp’s faith and courage—and even his wit: “Away with the pagans!”

  5. “There might be good reasons not to pray for another “Great Awakening” but instead to pray for a renewal and Reformation of the theology, piety, and practice of the church according to God’s Word as we confess it.” This. Coming to see and understand this has helped me immensely in my prayers for the contemporary church. Thank you so very much for all you share.

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