Of all the distortions Modernity has wrought in our culture, the Gnostic transformation of the Liberal Arts into the Social Sciences is perhaps the most emblematic. It epitomizes the tragic reduction of Moral Philosophy to mechanical presumption that so marks our time. Thankfully, a small number of modern historians bucked that trend and fought for a more Christian, and thus, a more human dimension in our comprehension of our world. Three recent biographies portray the immensity of the task that such stalwarts faced.
Cosmos in the Chaos (Eerdmans) is a biography of the pioneer church historian, Philip Schaff. Author Stephen Graham has vividly captured the great man’s soaring intellect, his unswerving spiritual integrity, and his resolute resistance to the smothering humanistic ideologies of both liberal and conservative sectarianism. He also vividly portrays at what cost such a character is maintained. Though Philip Schaff’s contribution to the discipline of church history is undeniable—his works included the translation and editing of all the Nicene, Ante-Nicene, and Post-Nicene church fathers as well as seminal works on the creeds and confessions through the ages. But, his life was hardly a picture of ivory tower ease—his suffering for the sake of truth is equally undeniable. Mr. Graham has made this lonely prophet’s saga come to life for a whole new generation.
A Historian and His World (Transaction) is a biography of the conservative English scholar Christopher Dawson. Written by his daughter, Christina Scott, the book details the tensions between great minds and small agendas, between advocates of truth and advocates of conformity, and between moral righteousness and political correctness. Like Philip Schaff, Christopher Dawson was a brilliant historian who paid a great price for his insistence on spiritual, cultural, and intellectual integrity. His best-known works, including The Dynamics of World History, The Dividing of Christendom, and The Making of Europe, were informed by a rich acquaintance with the classical Christian legacy and were marked by an erudite facility in English prose. Carrying on the tradition of his beloved Distributivist mentors G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, he was a model of the Christian academic aesthetic. We can all be grateful for the glimpse of such a worldview—and its rare practitioner—Mrs. Scott has afforded us.
J. Evetts Haley: A True Texas Legend by Bill Modisett (Staked Plains) details the life and career of one of the most remarkable men of our time. Perhaps best known for his blockbuster political polemics—such as the bestselling exposé of Lyndon Johnson, A Texan Looks at Lyndon—J. Evetts Haley was also the author of several highly acclaimed historical works—including Charles Goodnight: Cowman and Plainsman and The XIT Ranch of Texas. In addition, he was a rancher, a publisher, a teacher, a politician, a librarian and archivist, a community activist, an art aficionado, and a museum curator. He was a kind of renaissance man—Texas-style (he once told me that the only thing better than a really good book was a really good barbeque brisket sandwich, to which I joyously replied, "Amen"). Like Dawson and Schaff, he stood against the tide of systemic institutionalism in the arts by refusing to reduce his pursuit of truth to the Gnostic exigencies of either patronizing reductionism or conforming pragmatism. Thus, Mr. Modisett has reminded us once again that the cost of virtue is often high—but is always worth the price.