OK, I admit it, the title is an attempt to sound clever. Ideally, yes, a critical perspective of history is important. How to maintain it in a short biography for relatively young children (ages 7-10) is another story.
This reflection was prompted by a great review by Daniel Cooley (Jonathan Edwards Center at TEDS) of my book Jonathan Edwards. At the end of his very positive review, Cooley foresees a problem. “People who don’t like Calvinism may not like this book (for it presents Edwards’ Calvinist perspective uncritically), but Reformed Christian families will likely treasure it for generations to come,” he says.
Although it’s impossible to write truly neutral history, I have certainly learned a lot on this subject – from my first book in 2008 (John Calvin) until now. With each book, I have I tried harder to consider the subject in a critical manner and to strive for objectivity. At the same time, the limitation in space (number of pages) and level of comprehension demand that I make more choices than the author of a biography for adult readers would have to make. If I want to keep the text interesting to young readers without resorting to simplistic answers, I have to focus on one or two issues. For example, I gave only a brief overview of Jonathan Edwards’s theology, highlighting its relation to his life. I have always wanted to help children to understand that ideas are not born in a vacuum. The conclusions theologians have drawn are usually the result of years of study, reflection, and discussion with others, and are often propelled by a struggle – either with oneself (as in Augustine or Luther) or with contrasting doctrines (as with Athanasius vs. Arius, or Augustine vs. Pelagius) – or by pastoral concerns, or both.
Authors of biographies for adult readers can – and should – devote more time to opposing arguments. I need to pick and choose. In Jonathan Edwards, I limited my critical perspective to the Great Awakening, as a knowledge of this time period is important in order to understand the church today. I tried (whether successfully or not) to help children to understand the history of the awakening and why some people favored it and some opposed it. It’s a huge subject which I have tried to condense in a couple of pages. With everything else, I have just let Edwards speak. About his views on predestination, for example, I simply explained it was a doctrine he had learned as a child, struggled with it as a young man, and finally recognized as biblical, mostly thanks to one Bible verse (1 Timothy 1:17) that came to life in his mind. Then I included his description of the experience.
This is what I normally try to do. In Anselm of Canterbury, I have not spent time discussing Roman Catholic practices most Protestants oppose, such as obedience to the pope or the great estimation of monastic life. I focused on the main point of my book, which was Anselm’s explanation of the atonement.
I also found it essential to send my manuscripts to a variety of scholars. For Athanasius, for example, I sent it to a Protestant, a Roman Catholic, and an Easter Orthodox. For Jonathan Edwards, consulting with D. G. Hart and Scott Clark helped me to keep a good balance in covering the Great Awakening.
It is my hope that parents will take the time to read these books with their children and use them as a springboard for further discussion of the issues I was forced to mention in a limited fashion. If so, the books can be used by all families – Reformed, mainstream evangelical, Roman Catholic, etc. One Roman Catholic school in San Diego has purchased all my books and their history teacher is using them to supplement their curriculum.
In the meantime, I hope to continue to learn and improve. I am presently writing a biography of Michelangelo for Chicago Press for Kids and I am sure I will learn much in working with my editor, as each new editor or reviewer brings fresh perspectives and helps me to grow.