Thursday, June 15, 2006

Don't Even Know Where to Begin

This has been one of the stupidest fights in recent memory. After Kentucky's (my beloved home state) state board of education passed a resolution to allow (not require) schools to use the "new" way of dating history, B.C.E. and C.E. alongside the Christocentric B.C. and A.D., conservative and evangelical Christians pitched the hissy-fit to end all hissy-fits. The idea that schools teach students the dating system used in almost all universities and preferred by almost all historians along with the overtly Christian way of dating history was offensive to those whose idea of religious freedom is the state endorsing their own views and imposing it on the public in the name of the majority.

I've marveled at the outcry since it began. To me, the decision to expose children to a way of marking history that shows up on - among other things - the national standardized tests which evaluate them, is a no-brainer. It certainly doesn't challenge anyone's religious beliefs to acknowledge that not all people view the life of Jesus as the defining point in the history of the world. But it does, it turns out, deprive evangelicals of one mode of evangelism.

While I was trying to get inside the perspective of the large and vocal segment of my state's population up in arms about how we date history, I remembered my past infatuation with Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College and author of a number of apologetic and evangelistic books. I was introduced to Kreeft's work through my passion for C.S. Lewis. Kreeft wrote an intriguing dialogue in response to this quirk of history: Lewis, Aldous Huxley, and John F. Kennedy all died on the same day, November 22, 1963.

That coincidence gave rise to the witty and wonderful Between Heaven and Hell: A Dialog Somewhere Beyond Death, with John F. Kennedy, C.S. Lewis & Aldous Huxley. I read the whole book in an afternoon, and for a time was hooked on Kreeft, who was able to reduce complex religious and philosophic ideas to manageable (and readable!) chunks. Of course Kreeft was guilty, like Lewis, of oversimplifying the complex so that the average reader could understand it. But, I'm not so sure that's a bad thing. If you wish to be an academic you don't want to stop with Kreeft or Lewis. But if you are an average person who doesn't have the luxury of devoting your life to contemplating the metaphysical mysteries of the universe, Kreeft, like Lewis, does a good job of filling you in on how the conversation has gone on so far, and allows you to catch up and join it.

But Kreeft, like Lewis, has an agenda which is not limited to just inspiring reflection. Kreeft desires to convert his non-Christian readers, and to arm his Christian readers with some intellectual ammunition. And this is where the way in which we date history comes in. One of Kreeft's most interesting books is another dialogue, Socrates Meets Jesus: History's Greatest Questioner Confronts the Claims of Christ. The book asks what would happen if Socrates suddenly woke up on the campus of a major university and enrolled in its divinity school.

The delightfully improbable plot unfolds on the campus of Have It Divinity School, a not so subtle stab at a certain Ivy League institution. Socrates goes to classes and converses with both students and faculty, asking the same sorts of impolite, probing questions he was famous for in ancient Athens. In doing so, he confounds the wise, and cuts straight to Kreeft's idea of the heart of the claims of Christianity.

In chapter seven, titled Jesus: One of a Kind Socrates finally visits a Christology class, where, of course, the discussion centers around the question of who Jesus was, and what it means to say that Jesus is or was the Christ. At one point in the discussion Socrates asks what the terms B.C. and A.D. mean, setting up an exploration of how we date time and why we date it that way. As the conversation begins to shift away from how we date our history to who exactly the class thinks Jesus was, Socrates asks this pointed question:

So why was Jesus so much better than the others [great philosophers and religious figures to whom Jesus has been compared] that you date all of history around him?

Dating our culture's history by Jesus is an overt public acknowledgment of the Lordship of Christ. But, of course, not everyone does affirm the Lordship of Christ, which presents a real problem for those who wish to be involved in public life without saying something which their conscience or their intellect rejects.

Dating public history by Jesus is in and of itself an evangelistic act - an attempt to impose the statement "Jesus is Lord" on an entire culture, regardless of the religious beliefs represented by that culture. No wonder evangelicals are upset that this tool is being slowly removed from their box. They phrase their objection in many different ways, but I fear that this is the real issue at stake. Not the rights of the majority (which hardly need protection) or religious freedom (which is being subverted by the tyrant majority rather than protections for minorities), but instead public support for Christian evangelism.

I say this as a Christian, someone whose own personal history is in fact ordered around my experience of God through Jesus. I say this as an evangelical Christian (even if a liberal one), someone who tries to share that experience of God as revealed through Jesus with others. The uproar over exposing kids to another way of dating history is nothing short of religious tyranny, the relentless imposition of majority views on a minority whose beliefs and concerns are simply not respected. And worse still, it makes for bad education. And education, not evangelism, ought to be the concern of public schools.


Liam said...

This is interesting, and not surprising. Part of it has to do with the theocratic outlook tendency of the religious right and part of it has to do with conservative suspicion of any change. The right has been very successful at making any acknowledgement that this country consists of people besides white Protestant males appear nothing more than trendiness and weak-mind slavery to the political correct. Issues like this become an emotional lightening rod for people who fear change (another example would be all the absurd to-do that rose up against the singing of the national anthem in Spanish).

Don't bring up the fact that we academics use the BCE/CE dating system! We're just a bunch of elitists. Another boogieman that the right has created has been the elitist academic or intellectual -- Stephen Colbert has parodied that "anti-elitist" position brilliantly.

Brian Cubbage said...

I don't understand the uproar either, Sandman. (Well, I understand it, I guess; I just know that it comes out of motivations I can't imagine sharing.)

After all, I think that Christians still have all sorts of reasons to see themselves reflected back when they look at the calendar:

1) The system of numbering years in the U.S. and the Western world is still Christian. We haven't, for instance, adopted the Jewish or Islamic system of numbering years, or the Japanese practice of counting years from the beginning of the current emperor's reign, or the ancient Greek practice of dating events by olympiads.

2) The designations "BCE" and "CE" mean, I take it, "before the common era" and "common era"-- the era, that is, common to Christianity and Judaism. All that the change does is send a signal that Judaism is worth including in our way of thinking about history. It certainly isn't religion-neutral.

3) The calendar itself-- especially the exact length of the solar year, the leap years, and so on-- is due in large part to the efforts of the Christian church in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to convert to a true solar calendar so as to fix the precise date of Easter. (Of course, modern science has carried that project further forward.) This is a fascinating story that historian of science J.L. Heilbron writes about in his book _The Sun in the Church_ (University of Chicago Press, 2001).

The state of Kentucky certainly isn't advocating that we adopt the French revolutionary calendar or anything. (If you're interested in what that would be like, surf on over to My birthday would be 5 Thermidor CLXXXII. Go Thermidor!!!)

You've got it right, Sandman: The uproar is not at all informed by anything like an appreciation of any interesting facts or value-commitments. It's just disappointment at being deprived of a tool to enforce a narrov version of Christian belief.

Sandalstraps said...


I think that, at least among evangelical leaders, the theocratic vision of America is a strong motivator. While these leaders often whip small minded people into a frenzy by convincing them that their religious freedoms are being challenged, they do so not because they have any love or appreciation of religious freedom, but because they wish to impose a theocracy on America.

Your point about elitism is also well taken, though not getting cable I haven't seen the Stephen Colbert parody.


Once again, no surprise to see that we are in complete agreement. Now if only we could agree on the really important things, like what makes for good rock music!

Liam said...

Try medieval dating. A document can be dated using the incarnational year (like we do); the reign of a king, emperor, or pope; the indiction (the Roman tax cycle used for dating long after the Empire fell in the West); or in Spain, the "era Hispana," starting in 38 BCE.

It looks like I'm a Thermidorian myself.

Brian, why is the Common Era common to Judaism? I think a good argument can be made for saying that using common era for dating is only pretending that it's not based on a Christian dating system. The counter-argument would be that it is impossible to find a base for a dating system that was neither specific to one group or arbitrary, so it makes sense to keep the system we have, but to rename it out of respect for the non-Christians among us.

You can go to to get a good dose of both Stephen Colbert and the Daily Show.

Tom said...

Once again, no surprise to see that we are in complete agreement. Now if only we could agree on the really important things, like what makes for good rock music!

I think I can help you guys there.

Brian Cubbage said...

Tom, I think you underestimate the depth of our disagreement. For starters: I consider the Beatles an unholy abomination that I would expunge from history had I the power to do so. (Except for the song Hey Jude, which I would re-credit to the Rolling Stones or the Kinks.)

Liam, I don't quite get what makes the "common era" "common." I'm not entirely sure if I have the origins of and intent behind the abbreviations right; I just remember reading this somewhere. As my remarks indicate, I view it as something of a half-hearted measure if its motivation is to be religiously neutral. It's just an improvement over the BC/AD system that is explicitly and exclusively Christian.

I am glad to hear that we were both born in Thermidor. We brothers and sisters of Thermidor must unite.

Tom said...

I guess forcing Abbey Road on you wouldn't solve your issues. Seriously, The Kinks over The Beatles? You are truly lost.

Brian Cubbage said...

So you and Chris say, Tom. And you can keep right on saying that. It doesn't make either of you right.

Tom said...

At least we can all agree that my music is awesome, right?

Sandalstraps said...

Yeah, Tom. We can't agree on the Beatles, but we both think you rock!

I was so inspired by the upcoming revolt of the Thermidors that I decided to see where my family stood. Here are our birthdays in the French Revolutionary Calendar:

Chris: 2 Prairial CLXXXVII
Sami: 4 Germinal CLXXXV
Adam: 7 Pluviose CCXIII

It looks like we can't band against you, so we will be unable to oppose your might.

Liam said...

I suppose "common era" just means "this is the dating system we happen to be using here in the West -- in common."

Here's a way one charter of Queen Urraca (r. 1109-1126) had its dating: "This charter was made in the era 1148 (1110), the year Al-Mustae died at Valterra, and he was killed by knights of Aragon and Pamplona."

Let's not let our Commander-in-Chief know that you can date things according to who you killed that year.

As far as music goes, Velvet Underground, anybody?

Brian Cubbage said...

VU all the way, baby. And Sonic Youth, too. Screw the incense and peppermints.

Sandalstraps said...


I think that you're probably right about what makes the Common Era common. It really isn't a very radical change in our approach to history, and still keeps Christ at the center of the history if not the language used to describe our history.

As for the Velvet Underground, they're alright but I prefer the Doors.

Lately, however, I've been recapturing my teenage years, listening to too much REM and Soul Asylum. I hadn't heard any Soul Asylum in more than a decade, and had consigned them to the bin of stuff that will never get remembered. A couple of good songs, I thought, but never a great album. Not particularly talented, not particularly creative, and not really different enough to stand out from the other post-punk rock groups of the early ninties (never mind that they were playing for almost a decade before the nineties started - music history doesn't begin until your first hit!).

But I found a couple of their albums (I threw all of mine away in an ill-advised fit of piety, having been persuaded by an evangelist that "secular" music was evil) for really cheap at a used record store (I know, using vinyl language to discuss digital material again), so I had to get them, since they were my musical obsession from about 1992 to 1994.

I think that I was right that they won't be remembered, and right that they have a hard time standing out from the early ninties crowd. But I was decidedly wrong about their quality. The entire Grave Dancers Union album (you should remember it for the irrepressible hits "Runaway Train" and "Black Gold," though most of the rest f the album shows their pre-country punk roots) is great - music which speaks to my soul. Maybe I'm biased because it was the music I listened to as a teenager, the same way my Dad can't accurately judge, say, the Turtles' place in the pantheon of music history. But I swear that album, long forgotten by the masses, 14 years later still stands up.

As for REM, why I've been listening to them lately should need no explanation. If you've ever listened to REM and wondered what the fuss was all about, I feel for you, I really do.


Sonic Youth?!?

Yeah, I guess I see where you're coming from there. I used to be way into Nirvana, for reasons which I think I've explained here before. (If I've never posted on Nirvana, then I absolutely have to. We'll have to see if I've ever posted on Nirvana.) But I never made the leap from them to Sonic Youth. Maybe I should have, but I just stopped at Nirvana. I'm willing to admit that that omission could be my fault, just like Yo La Tenga.

But it's your fault that - even though (or is it because?) you were surrounded by their fans in college - you never really got into the Vigilantes of Love. There is a gaping hole in your music collection where VOL ought to be (unless I misunderstand your history with the group).

By the way, has anyone noticed that we've now spent way more time talking about music than the subject of this post? Not that that's a bad thing, mind you.

Tyler Simons said...

As for the Velvet Underground, they're alright but I prefer the Doors.

*sharp intake of breath*


I stand with Brian on the Sonic Youth/Yo La Tengo side of the fence. That's one of the places out-jazz breaks into the rock scene. I love it. I saw Susie Ibarra play a whole concert with Yo La Tengo! Soul Asylum is fine.

Sonic Youth just released its 21st album. People will still be listening to them in fifty years. The expressway goes to yr skull, too, Strapped, you just can't find the on ramp!

Did you know that at one point in about 1965, the bands that would become the Grateful Dead, the Velvet Underground and ZZ Top were all called the Warlocks?

Brian Cubbage said...

"Did you know that at one point in about 1965, the bands that would become the Grateful Dead, the Velvet Underground and ZZ Top were all called the Warlocks?"

I have no response to that. You've utterly blown my mind.

Troy said...

Nirvana, Bikini Kill, The New Bomb Turks, Rage Against the Machine, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, also Violent go back in the day, Led Zeppelin, for me, remains unequalled.

Now that was fun.

I read Kreeft also, many years ago, but don't have the time to jabber now as I'm on a friend's machine as we vacation. Enjoyed the latest posts, though, Chris, good luck with the job search.