Is There Any Value in Historical Novels?

Books and PenWhen I have the opportunity to read outside of my field of study (which is not often these days), I gravitate toward my favorite author, Kenneth Lewis Roberts (shameless plug: see my website devoted to his works here). Roberts’ heyday was between the early-1930s to early-1950s when he published several best-selling historical novels centered around the time of the American Revolution.

Roberts did not write historical novels to satisfy his craving to write. Rather, in his autobiography I Wanted to Write, Roberts recounts his literary journey. He began his writing career as a correspondent for the Saturday Evening Post. However, he wanted to do more and eventually came to the realization that his passion was found the history of his people in Maine. Roberts states:

I had tried to get some of these things straightened out in my mind by reading histories that purported to explain them; but in every case–not in most cases, but in every case–I found that the books explained nothing fully or satisfactorily.  They were drab, dull, unconvincing, rich in omissions, and crowded with statements that couldn’t possibly be true (Roberts,167).

I had tried to get some of these things straightened out in my mind by reading histories that purported to explain them; but in every case–not in most cases, but in every case–I found that the books explained nothing fully or satisfactorily.  They were drab, dull, unconvincing, rich in omissions, and crowded with statements that couldn’t possibly be true (Roberts, 167)

That, it dawned on me, was what I must do.  Even though nobody read what I wrote, it ought to be done, because nobody had every done it before–and there ought to be at least one book that would give the good people of Maine an honest, detailed and easily understood account of how their forebears got along.  I hadn’t the slightest desire then to write what is known as an historical novel, not have I ever had any intention of doing so.  In fact, I have always had a profound aversion to most historical novels, because the people in them aren’t real people, and neither act nor talk like anyone I’ve ever known (Roberts, 168).

(see my post on Roberts and his historical novels here)

For Roberts, historical novels served as a medium through which history is brought to life. While there have been others who share Roberts’ view about historical novels, the genre is still widely misunderstood.  At the website for the Historical Novel Society, an adaption of a speech given by Sarah Johnson of Eastern Illinois University in 2002 titled Defining the Genre: What are the rules for historical fiction? provides her assessment of where the genre of historical novels stands today. In short, there is little consensus over how to define the genre and over the value of such literature. Yet, as the genre of historical fiction grows, attention is required as to how one defines it; hence one of the reasons the Historical Novel Society exists.

In a web article titled “What is Historical Fiction” (2006), H. Scott Dalton attempts to provide a definition of historical fiction. While his definition is somewhat helpful, his foray into the value of historical fiction captures Kenneth Roberts’ vision for his historical novels and the potential for well-written and well-researched historical novels. Dalton contrasts the historian with the historical fiction writer. While the historian writes to lay out the events as they occurred, analyzes the facts, and provides for the reader how the puzzle pieces of the past fit together. In short, “A good historian helps us imagine the roar of battle, the spectacle of ruined earth littered with dead, giving us a safe vantage point between and above the lines of battle” (Dalton). The historical fiction writer, however,

puts us in the battle. We do not watch the young Marine slog his way up Mount Suribachi; we feel his heavy pack digging into our shoulders, curse as our feet slip in sand and mud, hear the snap of passing rounds and feel his fear as we hit the dirt with him and scramble for whatever cover we can find. We pray with him in the moments before he raises his head from the sand and looks around. We care about the things he cares about: not expansionism or oil embargoes or national strategy, but his brother who lost a leg at Pearl Harbor, his girl back home, the buddy who was right next to him, but now lies in the dirt not moving. We’re not just watching the fight; that’s our buddy, our girl back home, our brother. The writer of historical fiction is first a writer not of history, but of fiction, and fiction is about characters, not events.

So historical fiction is a close relative of history, but not simply a retelling of the lectures we learned to dread in high school. We write historical fiction, and read it, not to learn about history so much as to live it. It is the closest we can get to experiencing the past without having been there. We finish a history and think “So that’s what happened!” We finish a work of historical fiction, catch our breath, and think “So that’s what it was like!”

Dalton does not seek to discount historical works (neither do I); rather, he highlights how historical fiction can enhance what we learn in the works of historians. The historical novel helps one to experience in some way the events of the past. Such an approach appeals to one’s various senses and one’s emotions, bringing in the whole person into the work.

Take for example Leon Uris’ Trinity, an historical novel about the struggle between the Irish and Britain in the late-1800s to the early 1900s. By placing historical events in the context of a narrative, history unfolds through the lives of the characters. The reader connects with the various characters of the novel, experiencing their trials and successes, their inner turmoils and interaction with the world at large. Such an approach takes the reader from their perch as an uninvolved observer and places them in the thick of the action. By experiencing history in this way, one can then better understand the why and how of history as told in more technical works. (One problem with historical novels is the use of real people of the past and fictional characters; this is another topic for another time. For now, I am assuming that the historical novel writer is attempting to portray historical events as they occurred though employing dialogue that is of the author’s invention but based on solid research).

The idea of experience building upon knowledge is not unfamiliar to us. Most colleges today require students to do some sort of internship work to go along with their classroom work. One can learn as much as they want from books and lectures; however, that knowledge is of little use until it is put into practice. The experience the student gains in their internship ties together all that they’ve learned and turns their “book learning” into something that is lived and is real.

Historical fiction, if done well, can enhance one’s learning and knowledge in a particular area of study. Further, historical fiction can reach a wider audience than that of more technical works. One only has to visit a book store to know that fiction is, by far, the best-selling genre. Frankly, fiction is more appealing to the majority of readers. As such, the potential is great for the use of historical fiction to present significant idea and to teach a wider audience vital lessons.  In particular to the circles I run in, there is great potential to use historical fiction in teaching solid biblical theology. Deep questions and ideas can be explored in such a way that the reader is drawn into life’s ultimate questions without feeling like they are trudging through a text book.

Much has been said already, but there are many unanswered questions I leave before you. What this post does not serve as is the “end all, be all” declaration on the value of historical fiction; rather, it serves as the fruits of my ruminations on my favorite genre and it’s potential in theology and philosophy. I hope to write more on this in the near future.

[It should be noted that historical fiction is not the only genre that can be used to teach theological and philosophical ideas in narrative format. See my recent post on Dan Dewitt‘s “The Owlings: A Worldview Novella.”  I will also be posting an old review I did on a sci-fi book that discusses the use of sci-fi in discussing theological and philosophical ideas.]


Gavin Ortlund on Pre-Reformation Theology

Gavin Ortlund pens an excellent article at on the resurgence of interest among Protestants and Evangelicals in pre-Reformation theology. The context behind this article is a “marked movement” of Evangelicals and Protestants to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. This movement is not limited to the layperson in the pew, but includes such figures as Francis Beckwith (former ETS president). Such conversions have also garnered attention from secular media such as The Washington Post and their story on two former Southern Baptist twins – one who converted to Catholicism and the other to Anglicanism (see a summary here and the link to the article).

Ortlund notes one reason for this movement, particularly among younger generations:

I think one significant factor is the sense of rootlessness and restlessness many younger postmoderns feel today. At the heart of my generation is a profound emptiness—a sense of isolation and disconnectedness and consequent malaise. We’re aching for the ancient and the august, for transcendence and tradition, for that which has stability and solidity and substance. And it’s driving many of us out of evangelicalism.

The thrust of Ortlund’s article is that Protestant Christians can find much value in the study of ancient Christianity. One can be Protestant and still read medieval theologians and the church fathers.  Even John Calvin appealed to Augustine in his works. While one must be careful not to lose the distinctions between Protestantism and Catholicism,

it’s also possible to so bask in our particular denominational enclave that we lose touch with the entire Christian tradition. We contemporary Protestants need a balanced historical identity. We need to engage with both the last 500 years and also the previous 1,500, recognizing areas of discontinuity as well as encouraging points of overlap. As an African Christian in the patristic era remarked, “I am a Christian, and nothing which concerns Christianity do I consider foreign to myself.”

Ortlund’s article is a timely encouragement to those in Protestant and Evangelical circles rediscovering pre-Reformation theology. It mirrors a growing interest in ancient Christianity at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary as a result Dr. Michael A. G. Haykin‘s influence. One way in which Southern Baptists have joined in the growing interest in early Christianity is the formation of the Center for Ancient Christian Studies by Shawn Wilhite and Coleman Ford. According to its website,

The Center exists to provide an evangelical voice to the academic fields engaging ancient Christian literature. We aim to provide material, coalesce sources, and encourage the scholarly enterprise of ancient Christian studies (2nd Temple Literature, New Testament, and Patristic).

May the Lord bless this movement of rediscovering early Christian theology, and may it strengthen our roots to historical Christianity in the ever-shifting sands of our culture.

Review: “The Owlings: A Worldview Novella” Part II


Dan DeWitt, "The Owlings: A Worldview Novella" (Theolatte Press, 2014)

The Owlings’ main character, Josiah, is a young boy who lives in rural America. Nothing is given by way of information about Josiah when it comes to his age and location. What is said of Josiah gives the reader a glimpse into his interests, of his observations of his small world, and his family life. For instance, Josiah and Addi (his best friend) note their bus driver’s peculiarities in order to detect his mood and tendencies. Also, when Josiah and Addi arrive at her house after school (Chapter 3 “Bad News and a Scary Owl”), the children note the somber mood in the air, making the distance between their parents in the kitchen and the front door seem like “a country mile.” DeWitt’s development of Josiah allows the reader to step into his world and to connect with the issues he’s facing. Unbound by age or geographic location, anyone can relate to Josiah.

As I stated in my previous post, The Owlings is reminiscent of C. S. Lewis, particularly his Chronicles of Narnia, in that throughout the book, Josiah encounters talking owls. Where this book departs from Lewis’ Narnia series is that it lacks the adventure and action of battles, travel between worlds, and mysterious lands and castles. But such aspects would not fit with the dilemma in which Josiah finds himself. Rather than facing evil cronies of the White Witch, our young friend encounters reality of a harsh world (losing his home to eminent domain) and of competing worldviews. It is the seemingly mundane, every-day life issues where finds the greatest tension and the impetus behind Josiah’s transformation.

DeWitt’s novella opens up with Josiah sitting in his thinking spot. On this particular night, the young lad thinks back upon his day at school, particularly his science class. With his regular science teacher out on maternity leave, the substitute teacher (Sam) introduces the class to
naturalism – that nothing exists outside of nature. Though the students seem confused, Sam patiently and respectively answers students’ questions. Josiah Is not sure, though, whether what Sam claims is true; Josiah likes nature and had hoped there was something beyond what we perceive in this world.

Josiah’s world is soon rocked with the news that he and his mom would be required to move from their family farm to make way for a highway expansion. Once Josiah receives the bad news, The Owlings is dominated by his family’s concern about and planning for the move, as well as Josiah’s strange encounter with a bespectacled, caped owl. Sam and his naturalist message takes back stage to Josiah’s impending move until he is visited by three owls on one fateful night.

DeWitt’s juxtaposition of the two dominating themes in Josiah’s life mirrors contemporary culture. Josiah’s concern about Sam’s claim that “nature is all there is” takes the back seat to his family’s impending move and loss of their family farm. Josiah has to come to the realization that not only is he going to lose his home, but he will also have to move away from his best friend Addi, whom he has lived next to his entire life. In fact, as the book progresses, Josiah’s home situation and his curiosity about the owls dominates the story. It lulls the reader into placing greater emphasis on the housing problem as opposed to the worldview clash taking place in the classroom.

And so it goes in the Western culture (particularly American culture) – life’s ultimate questions are typically brushed aside as everyday struggles and decisions are given greater attention and prominence. Questions about the origin of the universe, the nature of mankind, ultimate reality – among others – tend to be relegated to the arena of “personal beliefs” or for those interested in such “academic” questions. Such questions have little (if any) relevance on the goings on and problems of the modern world and do little in solving problems such as that faced by Josiah and his mother.

A significant twist occurs in the story when Josiah is greeted by three owls one evening. They sought to help Josiah with his very serious issue. Josiah – as well as the reader – is taken aback when the owls seek to discuss what Mr. Sam is teaching in science class as opposed to Josiah’s impending move. According to the owls, one’s worldview – how they understand and view the nature of the world – is a far more important issue as it affects how one approaches all of life, including issues like losing one’s home.

Josiah is confused at first; he thought the owls would help him figure out a way to get his house back. Yet, as the owls discuss the importance of one’s worldview, Josiah comes around to understanding the issue at stake. The morning after his late-night conversation with the owls, Josiah and his mother are surprised with the news that their farm home would be saved because their land is home to a rare owl.

The Owlings does not end with Josiah accepting Jesus Christ as his savior. It does not end with him at least going to church to learn more about what the owls shared with him. But, this was DeWitt’s intention. The purpose of the novella is to get anyone – believer and un-believer – to acknowledge at the least that life’s ultimate questions are very important – more so than many are led to believe.

DeWitt intends his book to be a conversation-starter. Unlike the atheistic naturalist who holds that all answers are found through science, DeWitt’s books points one to the need of going to Scripture to know more about the answers to life’s ultimate questions. They are not found in a novella – or any other work of literature; rather, the answers to these vital questions are found in the Bible. As such, DeWitt’s book intentionally leaves the reader with more questions than answers so that they are spurred on to search out those answers from the Wise One Himself – God as revealed through His Word.

DeWitt’s use of literature to illustrate the importance of reflecting upon life’s ultimate questions and on worldview thinking helps make what many feel to be a dry academic topic more accessible. The message is more readily received through connecting with realistic characters than through dry or technical textbooks. The Owlings is an excellent for parents to share with their children as a means to introduce the all-important task of developing a thoughtful and, Lord willing, biblical worldview.

Review: “The Owlings: A Worldview Novella” Part I

Dan DeWitt, "The Owlings: A Worldview Novella" (Theolatte Press, 2014)

Dan DeWitt, “The Owlings: A Worldview Novella” (Theolatte Press, 2014)


In a day and age where more pragmatic and results-oriented careers drive universities to offer degrees in the hard sciences, institutions of higher education offer fewer and fewer degrees in humanities and liberal arts. In particular, philosophy is a discipline that has seen its better days when it comes to its perception and reception by not only academicians, but by the public as well. Over the last half-century, philosophy has been relegated more and more to a peripheral area of study – one that serves to merely fulfill an elective or to satisfy the philosophical itch some may have. As a result, our society is increasingly populated by those who lack any basic knowledge of philosophy (or, at the least, have a very minimal working knowledge) and how it under-girds various aspects of human life, including disciplines of study, public policy, economic policy, among other areas.

However, the blame for contemporary attitudes toward philosophy ought not to be placed only on universities – the reasons for the malaise in which philosophy finds itself are numerous and varied (something that’s been written about in many a book and article). Philosophers themselves shoulder some of the blame because of the obtuse, dense, and technical nature of many modern philosophical works.

One of the few things that I remember from my writing courses in high school and college is the maxim to write clearly – write so that your point comes across to your audience.  Unfortunately, this basic maxim is forgotten or neglected by some philosophers with their works requiring specialists to decode their meaning. But, this situation is not as prevalent as some may think; rather, the dense, obtuse,  and/or technical nature of philosophical works is due to the dense, obtuse, and/or technical nature of many philosophical subjects. Thus, without a sufficient background in the basics of philosophy, the non-philosopher finds philosophy uninteresting and difficult, to be ready only by those who are “super-smart.”

So, how does this apply to Dan DeWitt’s new book, The Owlings: A Worldview Novella? DeWitt, Dean of Boyce College, approaches the philosophical and theological concept of worldview in a manner reminiscent of C. S. Lewis – through the medium of narrative. The primary way to communicate philosophical ideas in Western philosophy is through monographs, treatises, journal articles, and other forms generally preserved for academic and professional realms. Such avenues, though effective for the student and professional philosopher, have inevitably isolated philosophy from the general public.[1] If one seeks to communicate philosophical concepts beyond the walls of academia, narrative literature has the potential to make philosophy more palatable and easier to understand for those uninterested in or unable to pursue philosophical study.

The use of narrative is not unique to DeWitt, and not even to Lewis for that matter. One can go back as far as Plato, who presented his philosophy in the form of dialogues between Socrates and misguided or unsuspecting individuals. Jumping forward one millennium and several centuries, Hume, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard employed dialogue in some of their writings, while Sartre, Rand, Camus, and C. S. Lewis utilized fiction.[2] The benefit of writing philosophy in narrative form is that it appeals to our proclivity to connect with stories, it lowers philosophical concepts from the ivory tower into the nitty-gritty of everyday life, and it has the potential of appealing to the whole person – heart and mind.

In The Owlings, DeWitt illustrates in story-form the life-impacting value of worldview thinking as he takes the reader into the life of young Josiah who, in a matter of days, faces the reality of leaving the only home he knows and of the weightiness of life’s ultimate questions. More to come in Part II…. in the meantime, visit Dan’s blog Theolatte to get to know him more.


[1] This is a rather loaded claim here that can be misleading. What I intend to communicate here is that while various philosophers have decried the apathy toward philosophy exhibited by many non-philosophers, they have not helped out the situation by making difficult philosophical issues more accessible to the non-philosopher (whether it be through popular works and other non-technical avenues). This is changing, though, in some ways through sites like 8-bit Philosophy and philosophy presented in comic book form ( Nevertheless, such efforts appeal to a very narrow demographic and do not have the mass appeal needed if philosophy were to gain a wider audience.

[2] This list is by no means exhaustive; rather, it lists the names of those who have transcended academic circles and therefore recognizable by the general public.

VanTil “History and Nature of Apologetics” on iTunesU

I’m teaching Apologetics I this semester at Boyce College and, in preparation, I’m brushing up on presuppositional apologetics (something of which I’m not too familiar). I’m approaching the course by studying the history of apologetics (using Avery Cardinal Dulles’ History of Apologetics and Sweis and Meister’s Christian Apologetics: An Anthology of Primary Sources) so I’m not going to focus comparing and contrasting the various apologetical approaches. However, it’s helpful to approach the history of apologetics by connecting it to contemporary discussions, particularly one that’s rather prevalent in my circles – the classical approach to apologetics vs. the presuppositional approach.

On a general note, iTunes U has many free lectures on a wide range of topics, so be sure to check it out!


A New Resource: Center for Ancient Christian Studies

A new center for the study of ancient Christianity was launched yesterday – The Center of Ancient Christian Studies. Independent from the North American Patristic Society, the Center serves as an opportunity for Evangelical scholars to present current work on issues dealing with the 2nd Temple, New Testament, and Patristics. The Center’s website ( houses the Center’s blog, book reviews of books related to the Center’s focus, interviews, and the Center’s journal – Fides et Humilitas.

In an article titled “What is Ancient Christianity?”, Coleman Ford, Shawn Wilhite, and Michael A. G. Haykin explain why the Center’s focus is on ancient Christianity as opposed to Patristic studies. The term “Patristics” was first used in the nineteenth century to reference the study of early Christian fathers. However, as times have changed institutionally and socially, the term “Patristics” has changed as well, for it does not adequately reflect scholarly work that engages “Jewish literature, female contributors, and broader heterodox literature” (Ford, Wilhite, and Haykin, “What is Ancient Christianity?”,  accessed December 3, 2014, To include the wide range of scholarly work in the area of ancient Christianity, the Center focuses on Christianity from AD 80-700.

The existence of this Center illustrates the burgeoning interest among Evangelicals in the study of Christianity in its formative years. It’s exciting to see what this Center has in store. Feel free to take a look at the site, and if you have an article, book review, or other work related to the Center’s focus, then visit the “Contribute” page here.

Patristics Resources: Roger Pearse’s “Early Church Fathers” Page

Patristic studies is an area that is experiencing growth among evangelicals, but it’s a field where resources can be difficult to come by. Roger Pearse has an excellent website devoted to the works of Tertullian, including links to online translations of Tertullian’s writings.

Pearse’s site, however, is not limited to Tertullian. Pearse devotes an entire webpage to additional works from the early church fathers (see here). According to a brief statement in the webpage header, Pearse states that the works linked on that page are out of copyright and are not included in the 38 volume Ante-Nicene, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. The works are ordered chronologically. Included on this page are the likes of Polycarp, Aristides the Philosopher, Hermias the Philosopher, Optatus of Milevis, and more.

JP Moreland’s “Philosophical Apologetics, the Church, and Contemporary Culture”

“Philosophical Apologetics, the Church, and Contemporary Culture” is an article written by well-known Christian philosopher JP Moreland regarding the use of philosophy in the defense of Christianity in today’s culture.  Though he wrote this article in 1996, it’s words still ring true today and it matches the reason why I chose to study philosophy. In short, Moreland states:

In my view, if the evangelical community would give greater attention to philosophy—especially philosophical apologetics in both formal educational settings, publishing, and local church life—this could help a great deal in our efforts to penetrate effectively our culture and proclaim Christ and a Christian worldview to outsiders and to our own brothers and sisters. But if we continue to eschew philosophy we will continue to speak largely to ourselves, and our dialect will, I fear, be fideistic.

Moreland, J P. “Philosophical Apologetics, the Church, and Contemporary Culture.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 39, no. 1 (March 1, 1996): 123-140. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost.

Philosophy need not be something Christians shun, but a tool to use, in submission to the Gospel, for the furtherance of God’s kingdom.

You can access this article through EBSCO (SBTS students have access to this through Boyce Library).