I learned long ago that one of the best ways to tackle a new topic is to read a children’s book about it. Books written for adults are, of course, more comprehensive, but a good children’s book will stick to the point, keep the story lively, and will allow the exciting parts of the story to be exciting. So when my husband expressed an interest in church history, I started with these books: true, living stories about key figures in church history, all underpinned by a chronological sense of history as a story with many chapters.
The History Lives series walks through church history in five volumes, chronicling the Ancient (Peril and Peace), Medieval (Monks and Mystics), Reformation (Courage and Conviction), Awakening (Hearts and Hands) and Modern church (Rescue and Redeem). Most chapters depict small scenes in the life of a significant figure in church history, immersing the reader in the details of the figure’s life at one particular time and place in a compelling and vivid way. They read more like stories than like biographies, which makes them fun to read aloud.
Brandon and Mindy Withrow obviously chose their subjects carefully: there are figures in here that we all know, but there are many that are more obscure and whose stories I’m grateful to them for recovering. Tucked between the stories are a few topical chapters that flesh out what was happening in the church at the time and why it was significant.
The Withrows bring a balanced perspective to complex issues like the Crusades, resisting the urge to distill the lives of these very real, sinful people down into cautionary tales or glorified epic adventures. Of the medieval church, they write:
It is often hard for modern Christians to remember that the people who developed these ideas were studying the Bible in the medieval world—a world very different from today. . . . Like Christians of all eras, they made both positive and negative contributions to the church.
I appreciated this perspective.
I was less impressed, though, by the way the writers updated the dialogue of the characters to make it feel not consistent with their own time but consistent with ours. Perhaps this makes them appear more relevant or readable, but the moments when the characters quoted their own works within conversation felt refreshing, as though they’d been allowed to breath through the story rather than have to keep in step with the writer’s tone. Those, for me, were the moments when history truly lived as I read.
But that’s a small complaint, and on the whole, I loved these books. They provide a great flyover view of church history from its early days to the present, and are easy to read start-to-finish or in tandem with a more detailed history curriculum (we’re currently reading Monks & Mystics with the Veritas Press history cards, if you’re interested). In fact, they remind me more than a little of Susan Wise Bauer’s Story of the World series, but with an emphasis on church (rather than world) history. They whetted my appetite for history as well as my husband’s, and will, I hope, open up the world of church history for our daughters.
The History Lives Series
Brandon and Mindy Withrow (2012)