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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
(more on the Journal)

Volume 32 Number 2
Fall 2005

Jesus, the Enlightenment, and Teaching World History:
The Struggles of an Evangelical Scholar      

Ralph E. Lentz II

How does an evangelical Christian teach secular world history classes in the Academy? How does someone who has been commissioned to "make disciples of all the nations. . .teaching them to observe all that I [Jesus] commanded you. . ."1 remain true to their faith, maintain their intellectual honesty, and yet not proselytize students? For evangelical Christian scholars these are seminal questions that are tied to fundamental epistemological and ontological debates within the Western intellectual tradition. As T. A. Roberts stated, "the truth of Christianity is anchored in history: hence the implicit recognition that if some or all of the events upon which Christianity has been traditionally thought to be based could be proved to be unhistorical, then the religious claims of Christianity would be seriously jeopardized."2 As both an evangelical Christian who believes in the inerrancy of the Bible as the inspired word of "God" and as a professional historian trained according to the tenets of Enlightenment-Positivism, I have wrestled mightily with the modern antagonism between faith and reason.3

The responsibility of teaching about the rise of the major world religions in the first part of World Civilizations courses has compounded my struggle. This is due in large part to my own faith and the uniqueness of the historical rise of Christianity itself. N. T. Wright has called Christianity "a first century messianic resurrection movement," and as such it represents a dramatic evolution/mutation within the ancient Jewish worldview.4 It also presents a number of historical questions that are well within the purview of World History classes, but which often go unasked and unanswered: Why did the Jewish followers of a first century teacher and "prophet" called Jesus of Nazareth believe that he was Israel’s Messiah? Why didn’t the followers of Judas Macabbaeus, Simon bar-Giora, and Simeon Bar-Kochba—all virtuous "sons of God" who fought to liberate Judea from their pagan oppressors believe that they were the Messiah? All four men were executed by the Romans; why did the followers of Jesus of Nazareth believe that he had been raised from the dead? Why didn’t the followers of the Macabbees and other Jewish martyrs make the same claims? Why did the followers of Jesus of Nazareth begin to equate the Messiah with YHWH himself—something totally unprecedented within the worldview of ancient (and modern) Judaism?

These questions distinguish Christianity at the point of origins from any other world religion.5 Neither Siddhartha nor Muhammad claimed to be "God’s Son" in the way that Jesus of Nazareth did. Neither the followers of the Buddha nor of the Prophet claim that their masters bodily rose from the dead. While I can certainly explore these questions with my World Civilizations students, I fear that I cannot answer them fully in class. As a Christian, I believe that the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is a historical fact; indeed it has to be, or my faith is in vain.6 Yet as a professional historian, I also believe that the resurrection of Jesus, based on the primary evidence, is highly debatable, and is the most logical and reasonable explanation for the rise of the Christian faith in the first century.7 In today’s "Enlightenment-Positivist" Academy, however, neither statement is valid. Rather, such ontological and epistemological positions are more likely to brand one with a "Scarlet F"—for "Fundamentalist."8

Over the past six years of my teaching career these lofty ontological and epistemological issues have played themselves out in the trenches of my Freshman World Civilizations courses. And they have produced in my mind a host of questions: What role has my own subjectivity played in my World Civilizations courses? Am I and other Christian scholars really more or less biased than other historians? How has the ideal of Enlightenment-Positivism shaped scholarship and pedagogy in today’s Academy?

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