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So You Have To Teach A New Class Next Year…

Where to start your research if you feel intimidated.

With the end of one school year comes preparation for the following year, and I suspect that in the last month or so, many teachers have received assignments for the Fall.

Summer is the time I get most of my new reading done, and much of that reading is in service of forthcoming classes, especially those classes with curriculum I’m not well acquainted with. For humanities teachers, a new teaching assignment can be quite daunting. A young teacher may have read Homer and Virgil in college, and yet feel unprepared to teach “Ancient History.”

When I first began teaching, what I really wanted was a few good overarching works on this or that time period, though such books can be hard to find. Further, one can waste a lot of time tracking down the title of a good overarching text— time that could be best spent reading. I can’t count the number of times I’ve gone to a university library and come home with a dozen books about Ancient Greece or Hebrew Wisdom Literature and found that the initial impression of a book I had after a cursory glance while standing in the stacks was wrong. The books I checked out proved to be overly argumentative, or too far over my head to be of value to me, or unhelpful for one of a dozen other reasons.

To that end, I would like to provide a list of books I have found helpful so far as getting a broad view is concerned:

Ancient Greece and Rome:

  • The Oxford Illustrated History of Greece and the Hellenistic World, edited by John Boardman: Just about everything in the Oxford Illustrated History Of… line is good, though this one is a particular favorite. Robert Parker’s chapter “Greek Religion” is worth the price of admission here. Parker describes the social dynamic of pagan religion in a way that will help readers understand what it felt like to approach Apollo or Jupiter from the lay farmer’s position. Parker also does an excellent job showing differences between the way pagans and Christians understand orthodoxy versus orthopraxy. So many Greek and Roman works are concerned with heroes, but if you want students to understand the life of your run-of-the-mill farmer, start here.
  • Heroes of the City of Man, by Peter Leithart: While Leithart has established himself as a leading American theologian, I think his greatest gift is as a literary critic. Heroes is a series of short essays about the greatest Greek and Roman works, all of which are written from a sympathetic point of view. Leithart is a fine participant in the late antique patristic habit of looking for signs of the Gospel outside the cult of Yahweh. In reading this book, I came to appreciate Jesus Christ as the “desire of nations.”

Late Antiquity:

  • The End of Ancient Christianity, by Robert Markus: This short, easily accessible book is a look at the two centuries following the Edict of Milan in which Christians and pagans lived side by side, and Christians were sorting out what was and was not “Christian.” After inheriting a world which was essentially pagan, Christians had to evaluate medicine, government, art and so forth, determining what could stay and what was irredeemable. In our own day, Christians once again live side by side with non-Christians, and so the book provides a mirror for our own anxieties about interacting with unbelief. For this reason, Markus’ work would also be helpful for apologetics classes.
  • “The House of Apollo,” from David Bentley Hart’s The Devil and Pierre Gernet: The story of Julian the Apostate attempting to revive classical paganism in an increasingly pagan world. While a work of fiction, the world Hart brings to life is a nuanced picture of much of what Markus’ book describes from a purely historical standpoint.
  • The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000, by Peter Brown: This is a sprawling work, yet it is divided into topical chapters which sketch out particular aspects of Medieval life like monasticism, the role of the bishop in the layman’s life, Christian thought on empire, and so forth. In terms of expertise, Brown is one of the most decorated historians alive today. Read this book and find out why.

The Medieval Era:

  • The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity, edited by John McManners: A chronological, somewhat topical look at the whole of Christian history, the best chapters here deal with the High Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Markus’ chapter on late antiquity is a fine synopsis of his End of Ancient Christianity which is only about thirty pages long. Henry Mayr-Harting’s “The West: The Age of Conversion” is a remarkable account of the difficulties Christian missionaries encountered when preaching to pagans of the north, as well as the way Church government stabilized societies whose secular government was often changing hands. Colin Morris’ chapter “Christian Civilization 1050-1400” describes economic and social changes which paved the way for the Renaissance. Each of the chapters is short enough to photocopy and pass out to a class reading a primary work written from this or that epoch. Modern history teachers will also benefit from the chapters treat on late 19th and early 20th century American denominational evolution. Why is it that a conservative Lutheran often feels more at home with a conservative Presbyterian than with a liberal Lutheran? Pick up this work and find out why.
  • “A Stone from the Cathedral,” by Zbigniew Herbert’s A Barbarian in the Garden: A gorgeously written short essay which gives a micro-history of cathedral building projects. The cathedral is one of the primary means by which agrarian Medieval society was transformed into urban Renaissance society and Herbert explains the how and why. I’ve used this essay every time I’ve taught Medieval history.
  • The Sense of the Song of Roland, by Robert Francis Cook: Not only the best commentary on The Song you’re going to find, Cook’s book is also a fine look at unspoken Medieval prejudices about war, government, superstition and justice. If you’re not teaching The Song of Roland in your Medieval class, you should be, and this book will help you integrate The Song into a discussion of Medieval anthropology.
  • The Discarded Image, by CS Lewis: A deceptively simple book, this standard from Lewis is probably the most difficult work on this list, but it’s more than worth the effort you’ll have to make to get your head around it. The greatest value of this book, I’ve found, is in the way Lewis makes sense of the humors, the elements, the Medieval belief in fairies, and Medieval cosmology. The strangest Medieval thought becomes understandable after reading this one.

The Modern Era:

  • Solomon Among The Postmoderns, by Peter Leithart: The transition from the Renaissance/ Reformation world to the Modern world was fraught with hazards, and this book will help you negotiate how and why “religion” was placed outside the public square.
  • The Oxford History of Modern Europe, edited by TCW Blanning: Sporadically useful, though worth the cover price for John Roberts remarkable introductory essay “Revolution From Above and Below,” which investigates the place of revolution and rebellion in the modern imagination. How did we come to use the word “revolution” as an unqualified good? Roberts’ answer explains the Modern spirit with startling clarity.
  • History of Political Philosophy, edited by Leo Strauss: More than fifty fine summaries of major political philosophers’ works, especially useful when tackling new modern theorists. If you’re intimidated at the thought of teaching primary texts from Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau or Burke, read the corresponding essay in this volume before you get started and it will all be much, much easier.

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