Category Archives: Our Christian Heritage

Clay-Footed Heroes

If your homeschooled children are much like mine, they’ve been imbued from an early age with a passion for reading. They’ll read anything you let them read – and smile and ask for more. And, oh, the things they learn and remember from good books, things that make you and I as parents only wish we’d had that kind of education growing up!

But if your a homeschooling parent much like me, you realize that a passion for reading is not enough, for the object of the passion must be, as just noted, good books. Not just any books. Good books. Books, say, about great men and women (and sometimes children, too) of the past. Books that feed the child’s soul with images of the True, Good, and Beautiful. Images they can store up in their memory, revisit, learn from, and, hopefully, as God gives the increase, imitate in their own lives.

My children devour books, and we do our best to make sure those books are good for the reasons just stated. But every so often, on a trip to the library, a book slips in that we, regrettably, haven’t vetted sufficiently and so the precise contents of which we don’t find out about until the children bring us questions because something they read confused them.

My children recently encountered such a book which quite suddenly turned from what seemed to be an inspiring story of black nurse in the Crimean War into a simplistic, emotion-laden tirade against one of the greates heroines of the time, Florence Nightingale.

The book in question is Mary Seacole: Bound for the Battlefield, by Susan Goldman Rubin. It tells the story of Mary Jane Grant, a mixed-race girl from Jamaica. From the start of the book (showcased by our library during Black History Month), much is made of Mary’s skin color and how proud she was of it and how from her early teens she encountered nasty people who judged her because of it. (You can see where this is going already).

Mary’s major interest beginning as a child was practicing medicine, a love she got from her mother, who trained her in such arts as she possessed. At 31, she married an Englishman, Edwin Seacole, who unfortunately died of sickness despite all her nursing of him in 1844. A series of events led to her becoming widely recognized in Jamaica as very knowledgeable in the healing arts. Yet all was not sweetness and light. Bravely battling bigotry all the way (it’s mentioned six times in 8 pages), she plied her healing arts in various places, at last ending up in Crimea in 1855, determined to set up her own convalescent home for soldiers dying more from disease than bullets.

It is while relating this process that the book begins its not-so-subtle attack on Florence Nightingale, noting that although she, a white woman, had little trouble getting into the War as a lead nurse, no one in authority wanted a “yellow woman” to do the same. Upon arriving in Constantinople, she met Nightingale, who, as the book has it, was extremely rude to Seacole and refused her services because of her skin color and certain medical practices she had (giving sickly soldiers swigs of sherry or wine-lemonade) which Nightingale said made Seacole a “woman of bad character.”

Nightingale, we are told (on a page picturing a compassionate looking woman-of-color confronting a prim, sour-faced white woman) flatly refused even to allow the exhausted Seacole a bed among the other nurses, since such “associations” were “absolutely out of the question” (a purported quote from a letter of Nightingale’s). Later on, Seacole was successfully treating many diseased men in Balaclava when Nightingale, recently arrived there, herself fell ill with a form of typhus. As the book has it, Nightinglae “was revolted by the idea” of allowing a woman-of-color to treat her illness with “quack” Creole medicines.

This is the final image of Florence Nightingale that we receive from Mary Seacole: Bound for the Battlefield. Although at the outset of the account of the War, the book does mention that Nightingale is justly famous for pressing for greater sanitation in the sick wards, the overall effect given is that she was in reality just another nasty, privileged-and-prejudiced White Woman looking down on a member of an “inferior race” despite the latter’s clear competence in the medical arts.

What to say about this, especially since Florence Nightingale is often held up as a great heroine of reforming battlefield medical practices? I’m no expert on the Crimean War or Nightingale herself, and I’ve learned that Nightingale’s collected works, including numerous letters from which a more accurate picture of her person and work might be built, run to 16 volumes. A small bit of Googling (not recommended as a substitute for actual serious research, and I don’t represent my Googling here as counting for that) turns up that there’s been a fairly learned controversy for some years now over the Nightingale-Seacole rivalry. (National Geographic, for instance, isn’t quite as glowing in its account of Seacole’s medical prowess and motivations – but as I haven’t researched the topic, I can’t say myself.)

What concerns me – and I think what should concern you, homeschool parents, as well – is how this apparently very complex situation from the past is now being marketed to young children as a political weapon aimed at destroying someone justly famed as a heroine merely because she (might have) had some views on certain issues now considered sacrosanct by a palpably self-righteous segment of our degraded society. Here are some take away points in need of further consideration, then:

(1) There’s a subtle irony in a book like Mary Seacole: Bound for the Battlefield attempting to destroy a major example of a strong woman making her own way in a male-dominated world. For Mary Seacole does this by orienting attention to skin color rather than merits, and so tries to use one strong woman to destroy another. In other words, the great cause of Women’s Rights, which otherwise needs all the heroines it can get, is in a book like this being summarily fed to the great cause of Racial Justice – and apparently the incongruity is not supposed to be noticed. Why ought it to be this way? Why not simply supplement acquainting children with the greatness of Florence Nightingale with also acquainting them with the greatness of Mary Seacole? Leave self-righteous, virtue-signalling, destructively cynical political crusades out of it entirely, thereby enriching the childrens’ store of images of greatness to imitate in their own lives.

(2) Should someone attempting to tear down a hero / heroine’s legacy need to demonstrate a thorough competence in all the relevant sources before being taken seriously? Consider that as noted earlier, there are sixteeen volumes of letters and other materials extant from Florence Nightingale. From what I have found, these are very expensive volumes (upwards of $90 each), and some run to over 1,000 pages. The book I’ve been referencing, Mary Seacole: Bound for the Battlefield, cites a few choice, seemingly damning phrases from Nightingale in reference to Seacole, but aren’t we entitled to ask for more context? Of course, it’s a children’s book, not a scholarly tome – but that’s all the reason to be eminently careful in the selection of material so as to not damage young minds and hearts. If all one read was this book, one would get a very negative picture of Florence Nightingale. But I wonder what’s in those sixteen volumes of original material of hers. What qualifications might we find about her views on race? How can we be sure this very obviously politically-motivated book, showcased during Black History Month, is accurately representing Nightingale’s views?

(3) And yes, what of selection? Owing to the overwhelmingly vast amount of historical material available on all manner of issues nowadays, every historian must select what to include, what to leave out, what questions to organize an account around, what directions to pursue an inquiry, and so on. It follows from this that no historical account will ever be “just the facts,” but will always be a relatively-accurate reconstruction of the materials used. It may be that other books on Nightingale have not emphasized racial issues in play during her era, and so we should acknowledge that they existed and be honest if we find them operating in a hero or heroine. But the answer to a selectivity that never tells children about a great person’s Flaw In Area X ought not to be a simple mirror-image selectivity that seeks to just destroy the great person, period, and inculcate in a child a dark cynicism that the world always has been only about prejudicial power relationships. Stories should feed the soul, not rot it.

(4) And from a Christian point of view consider this: the Bible, at least, is one book about ancient heroes that never scruples to tell us directly about the great flaws of the men and women it holds up as examples of faith. Whether Noah’s drunkenness or Abraham’s mistreatment of Hagar and Ishmael or Moses’ cowardice and anger or David’s adultery and subsequent indirect-murdering of the woman’s lawful spouse or Solomon’s massive idolatry or Peter’s reckless impetuosity, the Bible doesn’t present us with Ideal Heroes so that later we can be all shocked and become cynical when someone says, “But did you know that this ‘great hero’ was guilty of ____?” The upshot for my topic here is that even were we to discover that Florence Nightingale harbored views we now call racist and did treat a competent nurse in a rude and prejudiced way, we should just say, “Oh, so now we have direct evidence that she’s like all our heroes: a sinner in need of grace.”

In short, what I think a children’s book like Mary Seacole: Bound for the Battlefield wants to do – encourage children to broaden their acquaintance with the world, get a larger, more holistic picture of the wonderful diversity of virtuous human examples they can imitate, is quite laudable and ought to be done more. Add new heroes to the stock of old heroes, and there’s so much more to celebrate! But there’s just no need for a vast project of cynical revisionist history that is only going to issue in a sort of reverse-bigotry against Whites, and really just hollow out kids’ souls by teaching them instead that all the older heroes were just Bad People Who Arbitrarily Got Power and Shamefully Oppressed Others.

Heroes are special people who do extraordinary things. But whoever said they aren’t humans just like the rest of us? Why should we be so astonished to find out that they, too, had feet of clay?

Father Fancies (2): The “Mystique” of Fathers

Having set the stage by talking about the very real *need* for Fathers in the Faith, let me now start to outline why Rome’s view of fathers in general, and the Fathers in particular, is at best only a half-truth, and so is unable to actually fill that void you may be feeling as someone not currently “connected” in any significant way to the deep and wide patrimony of our Faith.

In the sense that we’re dealing with here, fatherhood has a certain “mystique” hovering around it. There’s no doubt that we live in a time when fatherhood has fallen on hard times. Broken families are the norm for far too many children growing up, and they carry the burdens of the emotional and intellectual and relational damage from their earthly fathers’ failures for the rest of their lives. Yet still, something within craves a proper father figure, one who (mostly) always says the right things, (mostly) always does the right things, and (entirely) always keeps the “child” safe from all the monsters he never learned how to fight by way of a proper earthly father’s example.

How much more, for those who come from whole families, with good, strong fathers, must the example of such a figure weigh on the consciousness! If those from broken families find themselves as adults desperately wanting something they were, in essence, owed by their failures-of-fathers, how much more must those who had excellent dads admire and desire more of the same even once they are no longer children?

This mystique surrounding fathers is powerful, and I think it is a design-feature of the world, made as it was by the Heavenly Father who dwells in unapproachable light (1 Tim. 6:16) and so naturally draws our minds and hearts upward to Him.

And so, what is true in the earthly realm turns out also to be true in the spiritual realm. Because we human beings are composites of bodies and souls, the mystique of biological fathers easily maps onto spiritual fathers, creating a built-in attraction to, and in no small way, deference to, those who preceded us in the Faith and introduced us to it.

For many of us, this may only be people in the here-and-now: the good friend from work through whose testimony oneself came to Jesus; the kind, always-approachable family pastor who has been a fixture in our lives from earliest childhood; the foreign missionary who inspired us to take up our cross, too, and follow Him. Well and good.

On the other hand, when one begins to become aware of the very long, fantastic history of the Christian Faith for the last 2,000 years, it often becomes clear that the word father really does need to be given a vastly more rich connotation. One may have before simply glossed over 1 Cor. 4:15-16, in which Paul says, “Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me”, content with a bare “literal” reading of it. But such glossing may no longer seem sufficient in the light of such elementary facts as that the very existence of the Bible itself is due entirely to a lengthy historical train of Christians whose work in innumerable ways small and great led right up to one’s own conversion.

What of these “fathers”? Don’t they deserve the same admiration – and perhaps even submission – as fathers on a more mundane sort of level? Hebrews 11, the famed Scriptural “Hall of Faith,” quite interestingly weaves together stories of such “fathers” that are explicitly told within its own pages and stories of such “fathers” not explicitly told within its own pages (compare most of the chapter with verses 36-38: some mentioned there are not “biblical” heroes, yet they are commended to us for our example anyway). The more history one becomes aware of, the more one comes to realize that one has many, many more “fathers” than at first seemed obvious.

Thus does the natural, God-made, essentially healthy mystique of fathers provide, for many, a compelling rationale for expanding their spiritual horizons by digging into the history of the Church, particularly the several centuries of theological and practical writings produced by the broad class of post-Apostolic writers called “the Church Fathers.”

The question may quite easily and naturally arise that, if 1 Corinthians 10 deliberately recounts negative theological history for us with the admonition, “these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did,” might it just not be proper and God-pleasing for us to get to know the numerous positive examples in Christian history “as examples urging us to set our hearts on good, true, and noble things as they did”?

For both those who had awful earthly fathers and for those who had good ones, the deep and wide patrimony of our Faith can – and, I think, should – become an important way of drawing the heart further up and further in toward God, since, after all, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17). The mystique of fathers leads easily and naturally to the Mystique of the Fathers, and it will be to that topic that I turn in the next segment.

Father Fancies (1): The Very Real *Need* for Fathers in the Faith

Let’s face it. One of your main reasons for thinking seriously about converting to Catholicism is the historical fact of the Church Fathers, especially how the things they say about religion are often so very different from what so many Protestants say.

There’s just something about fathers, isn’t there? Fathers can be good or they can be bad. Smart or not-so-smart. Strong or weak. Ambitious or indifferent. Worldly-wise or impractical. Godly or godless. And so on. Regardless, there really is just something about fathers that most people find difficult to downplay, let alone ignore. After all, it was fathers who brought us into the world, so don’t we owe them more than we could ever repay?

And if we owe our earthly fathers, how much more might we owe our spiritual Fathers in the Faith? If it came down to disagreement between us and them, shouldn’t we give them the benefit of the doubt and change ourselves to match? They were here first, after all, and so would have to have a lot more experience of truth than we do. How arrogant, right, for a child to presume to know more than his father!

After the last Apostle, John, died near the end of the 1st century, the still diaper-wearing Christian Church needed competent leaders to carry it forward. And indeed, we see in the New Testament. particularly from Paul’s writings, that the Apostles did work hard to raise up a new generation of godly, sober-minded pastors to take up their mantle when they were gone. Those of the immediately post-Apostolic generation of leaders whose work has come down to us in writing are often called “the Apostolic Fathers,” and includes such worthy names as Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, and the authors of the Didache and Shepherd of Hermas. Men such as these guided the Church well through the last part of the 1st century and just past the middle of the 2nd. They truly do deserve the appellation “Fathers,” since they generated some of the key ideas that have profoundly animated Christian thinkers ever since.

As you consider converting, leaving your current faith behind and embracing something radically different, it is quite likely that you’re bothered by the fact that most Protestants seem to know nothing about the early, post-Apostolic days of the Church, and probably mostly blow off the very idea of “Fathers in the Faith” as just one more “tradition of men that makes the Word of God of none effect.”

Such an attitude rightly seems flippant to you. Doesn’t Scripture tell us to Honor our fathers and mothers, that our days may be long upon the earth? Doesn’t Proverbs tell us to Hear, O sons, a father’s instruction, and be attentive that you may gain insight (4:1)? And also, Listen to your father who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old. (23:22)? Doesn’t Jesus say that only those who are like little children can enter the Kingdom of God (Mt. 19:14)?

Surely just as it is not only unwise, but also unbiblical, for Christians to treat their earthly fathers with disdain, to willfully refuse to heed their advice, it must be dangerous to fail to follow our spiritual Fathers! And since most Protestant groups have little to no knowledge of, let alone little to no care about, what the Fathers of the Church had to say about Christianity, that is reason enough to begin moving away from such places and towards a place where the Fathers are revered and heeded!

The argument seems airtight. That’s why you’ve likely sought for material from the Church Fathers and run across a wide array of sources excerpting their writings – perhaps even ones that conveniently arrange numerous sayings of theirs under headings that already tell you the meaning of the quotes before you even read them. From such sources you have likely been astonished to find out that so many of the early Christians (say, within the first 300 years or so after Christ) advocated episcopal government, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the primacy of the Bishop of Rome over other churches, baptismal regeneration, praying to departed Saints, the need for special teachers to explain the Bible so it won’t be misused to generate heresy, and so on.

How, you keep wondering, could so many who “had the teachings of the Apostles ringing in their ears,” have gotten so many important things so wrong that Martin Luther had to come along many centuries later and sweep the errors away so the plain and simple truth of the Bible could once again be seen by every ignorant plowboy? It seems so much more likely, doesn’t it, that Fathers got it right and the later children got it wrong. And how can you honor your Fathers by willfully remaining so very far away from the most basic, early form of Christianity practiced by them? The real wonder is that you haven’t already converted and are now here reading this little essay!

In the next part, I’ll start making the argument that your basic instinct to honor the Church Fathers is entirely correct, but that the way I’ve outlined the issues above is far too simplistic to be useful in making such a radical, life-altering move as converting to Roman Catholicism. For the major problem with how Rome views fathers in general, and the Fathers in particular, is that it’s at best only a half-truth, and so unable to actually fill that void you feel as someone not currently “connected” in any significant way to the deep and wide patrimony of our Faith.