My Four Criteria for Evaluating Historical Movies and TV Series

Okay, my turn to weigh in on your question for this week. By which criteria should we evaluate historical movies and TV series? I actually wrote a three-part series on this last summer for the Patheos Evangelical blog, The Anxious Bench. I started with the Civil War film Free State of Jones, then recommended two cable TV series: the feminist time-traveling drama Outlander and the Cold War spy thriller The Americans. Here are the four criteria that I suggested:

Is it entertaining?

Like several of you, I thought we had to start with the fact that the task of the filmmaker is not to be a historian: “…historical or not, any good feature film does need to be entertaining, in ways that aren’t required of histories published by tenured academics through nonprofit presses. It does need to be ‘gripping’ — and moving, evocative, engrossing, and more.” In short, historical filmmaking is first and foremost a kind of entertainment. But I added that we should consider the other meaning of that word: “…to entertain is also ‘to have people as guests,’ and I think the two meanings converge in a well-done historical movie, since it diverts our attention from our world by inviting us into another — perhaps in ways that an academic history cannot.”

Is it truthful?

Here I was less concerned than many of you about “accuracy” and more interested in another way of describing truth — one that’s closer to Shawn’s emphasis on “details”:

This doesn’t mean that historians do wrong to point out inaccuracy in such movies and suggest complementary reading that will provide a better understanding of “what happened.” But ultimately, filmmakers and novelists are after a different kind of truth than historians.

I do think it’s reasonable to expect verisimilitude. Put negatively, a lesser historical film will tend to ring false less because it condenses a timeline or overstates a character’s role than because something about the acting, writing, costuming, sets, etc. will be anachronistic or otherwise fail to evoke a sense of what it felt like to live in that place among those people at that time.

Is it actually interested in the past?

To my mind, historical movies and TV series can have “deeper problems than inaccuracy.” Namely, “when filmmakers just don’t seem all that interested in the past on its own terms…. a film or TV series can look and sound as much like its historical setting as possible, succeed in entertaining the audience, yet also make clear that its makers are simply using the past as another dimension of the set.”

Does it prompt the audience to engage in historical thinking?

While I think we err if we confuse the calling of a (historical) filmmaker with that of a historian, I do think it’s fair to expect that a good historical film will get the audience “to think historically about the past.” First, by making them want to turn to the work of actual historians to learn more. Second, by starting to get viewers to engage in at least one or two of our “5 C’s of historical thinking.” For example, I noted that many reviewers of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln appreciated how it showed historical complexity.

Do you think I’m on to anything with these criteria? What would you add, remove, or modify? Or, which movies and TV series fare best by these standards?


“The Conscience of His Nation”: John Hope Franklin on Historians in Society

In a 1974 lecture at the University of Chicago, the great historian John Hope Franklin (1915-2009) lamented the existence of “some rather strange and quite unlikely notions of the role of the historian in society” — some propagated by historians themselves. For example, he complained that some historians have seen themselves as “[promoting] the interests of a particular political party”; one, Claude Bowers, was so good at doing that for Democrats that Franklin D. Roosevelt rewarded him with an ambassadorship.

John Hope Franklin

From the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation

But while he found “essentially partisan and defensive” the notion of historians “supporting causes or offering explanations after the fact,” he did believe that historians could “assist in the search for solutions to difficult problems in the area of public policy,” since that reflected an interest “in how historical events can provide some basis for desirable change.”

(This seems to fit with what many of you see as the chief use of history: that it provides “lessons for the present.”)

As one example, Franklin recounted how he and other historians had helped NAACP lawyers argue key Supreme Court cases on desegregation:

The historians and lawyers were an unusually effective team. The historians provided data that traced the evolution of the concept of equality, with its culmination in the writing and ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment. They showed how the pre-Civil War views of the radical abolitionists dominated the egalitarian thinking of the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment. They were able to show, moreover, how the intent of the framers of the amendment had been frustrated and vitiated by the separate-but-equal doctrine which, the lawyers contended, was conceived in error….

Using the findings of the historians, the lawyers argued that the “history of segregation laws reveals that their main purpose was to organize the community upon the basis of a superior white and an inferior Negro caste.” (pp. 312-13 in Franklin, Race and History: Selected Essays, 1938-1988)

Woodward, Strange Career of Jim CrowLikewise, historian C. Vann Woodward wrote The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955) in order to demonstrate that “segregation was neither as universal in origin nor as venerable in age as many on both sides of the argument assumed that it was.” Franklin doubts that Woodward’s scholarship “converted many segregationists,” but it did make a “significant contribution to the discussion and, perhaps, helped to prepare the ground when the segregation statutes slipped largely into disuse after the passage of the Civil Right Act of 1964” (p. 316).

Since then, most government departments have hired historians, and other such scholars speak into important public policy debates, whether in Native American affairs or foreign relations (two examples Franklin gave in 1974).

Of course, this also means that historians sometimes serve as critics of their nation’s policies, but Franklin memorably concluded that

As a nation views its history and the various positions that it has taken, it is not difficult to conclude that its postures have been mixed and exist on several levels of morality. At times, in the case of the United States, at least, its public policy has been humane, healthy, and worthy; at other times, it has been bereft of many or any praiseworthy objectives. It is the function of the historian to keep before the people, with as much clarity as possible, the different lines of action that have been taken, the several, often complicated reasons for such action, and to point to the conflicts and inconsistencies, the contradictions and the illogicalities, and to the defects and deficiencies where they exist. One might argue that the historian is the conscience of his nation, if honesty and consistency are factors that nurture the conscience. Perhaps that is too much to claim for the historian who, after all, is not in the business of protecting the morals of a people. But the historian, as the servant of the past, is in the best position to provide a rational basis for present actions. (pp. 319-20)

Do you agree with Franklin that “the historian is the conscience of his nation”? Should historians actively enter into debates about public policy?

Summer 2017 Internships at the Minnesota Historical Society

AC 2nd

One of the great things about studying history at a university in the Twin Cities is that you have access to the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS), one of the largest and best organizations of its type in the country. For example, MNHS runs a significant internship program for college students and recent graduates, with cohorts recruited for the fall, spring, and summer.

If you’re interested in pursuing an MNHS internship for the summer, applications are being accepted all throughout the month of March, with intern orientation in May and jobs starting on June 1st. As usual, the program encompasses a wide variety of fields, with over twenty positions available in everything from digitization to web design, oral history to textile conservation, youth camps to special events.

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Five Rival Versions: Jay Green on Christian Historiography

So how do Christians engage in the discipline of history? In a recent book, Covenant College professor Jay Green suggests “five rival versions” of Christian historiography.

Two you’ve encountered already: Historical Study as Search for God is Green’s version of what John Fea means by “providential history,” and Fea’s discussion of integrating Christian belief in incarnation, Imago Dei, and sin is an example of Green’s Historical Study through the Lens of Christian Faith Commitments.

But Green suggests three other models:

Historical Study that Takes Religion Seriously doesn’t require or preclude Christian belief among its practitioners: an atheist can write a serious history of, say, the Puritans (he mentions Perry Miller and Edmund Morgan), just as much as a Christian could write a history of Buddhism, even if they didn’t consciously try to see that religion’s history through the lens of her own faith commitments. (Talk to Prof. Poppinga about how she studies the history of Islam.) But it does view religion as a significant category of the human experience that can be studied via historical questions, research, evidence, and analysis. One open question here: do historians who are themselves religious have any personal insight into the religion they are studying (or religion in general) that might elude their non-religious counterparts? Or does their own religiosity produce blind spots?

Historical Study as Applied Christian Ethics sees “the past through the lens of value-laden commitments informed by Christian faith” and suggests that Christian historians can and should render “specifically Christian moral judgments on the past.” While this was and is frowned on by other historians who view “moralistic” as a negative term, it shows up in a wide array of histories written by Christians, from both the left (Dick Pierard, Randall Balmer, Richard Hughes) and right (Roger Schultz, David Barton, Larry Schweikart) of the political spectrum. Others argue that the study of the past is at least a means of moral reflection and moral formation.

Finally, Historical Study as Christian Apologetic attempts to use disciplined study of the past to make the case for Christianity: e.g., defending the historicity of biblical accounts or crediting Christianity with the flourishing of civilizations and nations (e.g., Rodney Stark’s The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success).

Do any of these other models seem more promising to you than providential history, or the “integration of faith and learning” modeled in Fea’s fifth chapter? What problems do you see with them?

Mark Noll on the Possibilities of Providential History

Probably no Christian historian has been as influential as Mark Noll, whose recent retirement from the University of Notre Dame is the occasion for a major research conference later this spring. At the end of ch. 4 in Why Study History?, John Fea quotes Noll’s statement that providential history only made sense to “people who already shared your very specific religious position. If someone said the Reformation was God’s way of bringing about a reform in the church, I knew that person wasn’t a Catholic.” Perhaps America’s most famous evangelical historian, Noll couldn’t point to good examples of providential history.

Noll, Jesus Christ and the Life of the MindIn his own award-winning book, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (which Fea relies on for his discussion of Incarnation in ch. 5), Noll says that while “the doctrine of providence is an indispensable dogma of orthodox Christianity… problems abound when believers put providence in play for history writing. Most obvious is the problem caused when believers rely, not just on the fact of God’s universal rule, but on their own ability to understand the detailed means by which God rules the world” (pp. 85, 86).

But Noll did write the foreword for Steve Keillor’s attempt at serious providential history, concluding “…I am not sure he has entirely convinced me. But I know that he has made me think, and think hard.” And as Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind continues, Noll suggests that there might actually be room for history shaped by special revelation.

Kalu, African Pentecostalism: An IntroductionFor example, he cites the pioneering work done by the late Ogbu Kalu, who “challenged the ordinary procedures of Western historiography with an appeal to recognize that much of the dynamic history of Christianity is now being enacted in cultures where Enlightenment notions of the possible never took root.” Writing about African Pentecostals who believe in miraculous healing and speaking in tongues, “Kalu suggests that a history of Christianity that is faithful to the ordinary experiences of believers in the Two-Thirds World must somehow combine the sort of natural analysis well honed in Western historiography with a species of supernatural analysis shaped by the day-to-day realities of Christianity in the developing world” (p. 92).

Such histories, decided Noll, “are most persuasive for audiences that share the same theological convictions as the authors of these histories.” By the same token, Fea “can imagine that a form of providential history might be useful in helping a religious congregation or some other community of Christians to make sense of the way that God has led them through the days, months, and years” (Why Study History?, pp. 82-83).

To the extent that either Fea or Noll is prepared to leave room for such history, they emphasize humility. Noll praises scholars like Keillor for attempting providential history of this country in a way that “is self-conscious, sophisticated, or qualified by a willingness to engage research and interpretation from those of other points of view…” (p. 94). Fea allows for the possibility of providential history within the church, but only so long as it is “written with a sense of humility and a commitment to the mystery of God. It must be seasoned with words like ‘perhaps’ or ‘maybe’ or ‘might.'”

Beyond Writing: Objects as Primary Sources

When historians talk about primary sources, they tend to mean documents: written artifacts of public processes (e.g., census and tax records, trial transcripts, wills, debates and speeches) or written records kept by private persons (e.g., letters, diaries, memoirs). Important as they are, such sources have important limitations.

Above all, they tend to reflect the perceptions and priorities of the most educated and (generally) most powerful members of any society.

Consider this chart, which shows the estimated literacy rate for the world’s population going back to 1800:

Graph of world literacy, 1800-2014

In 1800 only one person in eight knew how to read and write. A century later it was one in five. Despite rapid advances in education in the 20th century, it wasn’t until the 1960s that a majority of humans alive were literate. And even today, 15% of the population stands no chance of producing a written source for future historians (unless their lives are documented by those who are literate). That number is even higher in the Global South.

To some extent, historians have filled this gap through oral history projects (e.g., check out these slave narratives, recorded between 1932 and 1975) or by learning to interpret the oral traditions of premodern societies.

But increasingly, historians are exploring the potential of objects as primary sources: everyday items that reveal something of the lives of those who used them. For example, curators at the British Museum developed a popular series called “The History of the World in 100 objects.” Or read this recent blog post by a women’s historian who thinks about the political implications of textiles and clothing.

So as you’re curating primary sources for your digital timelines, think outside the box. Perhaps there’s an object or two that you can include alongside the written evidence.


Video of Haley’s Talk on Digital Curation

For those who couldn’t be there last Thursday, Haley was kind enough to share a link to the video of her presentation (with Art professor Michelle Westmark Wingard and digital librarian Kent Gerber), on her experience in J-term curating a digital exhibit and her ongoing work with Bethel’s digital library. It certainly dovetails with several of the themes we’re considering this week with our digital history/digital humanities unit.

Finding Primary Sources for Your Digital Project

As you’re putting together your digital timeline this week, remember that each event should “[incorporate] evidence from relevant primary sources — e.g., as a background image, an embedded video, a quotation from a diary or government document, a link to archived materials, etc.” (And that each source should be cited properly, using Turabian’s footnote format.) Given the impact of digitization on the preservation and accessibility of historical evidence in virtually every field, I think it’s reasonable for me to expect any timeline to feature a diverse array of sources.

So where can you find primary sources that are fair use for educational purposes? A few suggestions…

Bethel library research guides

A great place to start is our own library website. In addition to searching using Summon and other databases (and always try adding “primary sources” or “documents” to a search string), our research librarians have been working with faculty for several years to develop Research Guides for different subjects and specific courses. Click here and look under History. Each guide will have links to secondary and primary source collections. (Thanks to Earleen Warner for all her help on these!)

Bethel Library research guide for HIS354 Modern Europe

For example, here’s the top of the Online Primary Sources section of the research guide I put together with Earleen for HIS354 Modern Europe


It’s perfectly fine to use Wikipedia to help facilitate your work. (Again: this is not meant to be a research-intensive project.) Be sure to check any relevant Wikipedia page for a section on “Primary Sources” and “External Links.” To go back to the example I used in our research tutorial, here’s what that looks like for Charles Lindbergh:

Screenshot of Primary Sources and External Links sections for Charles Lindbergh page on Wikipedia

Notice also that, in addition to whatever images are already incorporated into that Wikipedia page, there’s a link for all Lindbergh-related images and other media at the companion Wikimedia Commons. Generally, if such images appear on Wikimedia, you can treat them as fair use for educational purposes. Sometimes you’ll also see a link here to Wikisource, which is an archive of digitized historical documents.


I doubt I’m suggesting anything you haven’t already thought of, but there’s nothing easier than going to Google and typing in a search string that includes your topic and words or phrases like “primary sources,” “documents,” “archives,” “artifacts,” etc.

Also, to find fair use images… Go to Google Images, click on the Tools tab, and limit your search to images “Labeled for noncommercial reuse.”

screen shot of Google Images search for Charles Lindbergh limited to noncommercial use

libraries and museums

Finally, be sure to spend some time browsing the digitized collections of a major library, archive, or museum relevant to your topic. A few that might fit the topics you all are doing for your timelines:

Further Thoughts on Primary Sources

While we’re focused on digital history for the next couple weeks, your upcoming group project will also give you a chance to work some more with different types of primary sources. So I’d thought I’d pick up where Prof. Magnuson left off and share a few ideas to chew on (or to discuss for your blog comment this week).

• In ch. 1 of The First Thanksgiving, Tracy McKenzie describes primary sources as “vestiges of that vanished reality” — that is, the past — “artifacts such as diaries and memoirs, newspapers and correspondence, legal records and census data, architecture and archeological remains” (p. 26).

Gaddis, Landscape of History• Another way to think about how we get primary sources is to liken history to the fields of geology and paleontology, as Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis does in The Landscape of History. Unlike other scientists, geologists and paleontologists are — like historians — unable to run lab-based experiments in order to test their theories. (Well, outside of Jurassic Park.) Instead, they need to work with the evidence that’s left in stone by the movement of time. “It’s here,” says Gaddis,

that the methods of historians and scientists — at least those scientists for whom reproducibility cannot take place in a laboratory — roughly coincide. For historians too start with surviving structures, whether they be archives, artifacts, or even memories. They then deduce the processes that produced them. (p. 41)

So if we think of primary sources as “structures” produced by historical “processes” that have — unlike most such structures — survived the passage of time…

• It’s worth thinking about the nature of the processes that produce primary sources. Some, like the U.S. Census records that Prof. Magnuson studies, result from political, legal, or bureaucratic processes that are intentionally seeking to preserve evidence of a moment in time. What other types of primary sources are created by such processes? What are the problems and possibilities that come with such documents and other sources?

But many primary sources were never intended to serve such a purpose — they were produced by ordinary human “processes” that unintentionally left behind “structures” that archivists decide to preserve and historians decide to interpret. For example, when I was down at North Park University this week, their 125th anniversary exhibition included physical artifacts — a football from the first game their team won, the bell that rang to announce dinner time for the women’s dorm, the typewriter used by the school’s founder — that were relatively mundane items (in these three cases, mass-produced) resulting from routine processes. But they help us to understand that institution’s past, which otherwise would be lost with the passage of time. What other kinds of primary sources are created in this way? Are they more or less useful than legal or political documents like the Census?

• As a final way of thinking about the nature of historical evidence…

Imagine if someone were to write a history of Bethel, say, fifty years from now. And for some reason, they wanted to understand what happened in HIS290 Intro to History in the third week of February in the year 2017. What evidence would remain of our week in class together? Any artifacts? Anything archive-able?

The processes of our class have produced some structures that might survive, but the evidence would be pretty fragmentary. But remember that Gaddis says that “surviving structures” can include not only archives (that is, intentionally curated collections of evidence) and artifacts (like football helmets and typewriters), but “even memories.” Let’s assume that all of us — well, all of you — are still alive and available to a researcher. How might your memories yield historical evidence? How reliable is such evidence?

A New TA for the Course

Just wanted to let you all know that I’ve recruited a new TA for the course: Justin Brecheisen, a sophomore double-majoring in History and Business. Justin took this course last spring and will help me with grading response papers and blog comments. Right now we haven’t scheduled a regular office hour, but once we get to the two longer essays for the course, I’m sure that Justin can serve as a helpful resource if you need help with writing. (He’s a terrific writer himself, as you can tell from his memoir of our recent World War I trip.)