Reading this new historical tome by Peter Frankopan, The Silk Roads reminded me of my favorite quote which sums up the atrocities in the Middle Ages: “Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”1 It’s a gruesome picture but in many ways accurate.
Frankopan’s project in this book was to attempt to write world history, not necessarily from the point of view of the winners, the “accepted and lazy history of civilization” but from alternative sources. He does have a point. I admit, my own knowledge of world history came from the “lazy” perspective where
“Ancient Greece begat Rome, Rome begat Christian Europe, Christian Europe begat the Renaissance, the Renaissance the Enlightenment, the Enlightenment political democracy and the industrial revolution. Industry crossed with democracy in turn yielded the United States, embodying the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”2
I suspect I’m not the only one and many of my friends, from the learned to the simple minded, especially those who grew up in the West, subscribe to this incomplete view of world history. I was intrigued and a part of me couldn’t wait to get to the end. I was patient and managed to read through the conclusion. Did Frankopan succeed in his goal to “rewrite” world history? Was he fair and objective, writing about events as it actually happened?
I am no history buff, and so anything he wrote I took at face value. To my surprise and delight I thoroughly enjoyed it. Did I agree with everything he wrote? Not necessarily, but that’s neither here nor there. No one agrees 100% with everything anyone says. We all get some things right and some things wrong—no is perfect. The following are some of the highlights I gleaned from the book which I found helpful.
- I learned a lot. This is perhaps the thing I am most grateful for. For instance I didn’t realize that Christianity in the 3rd century was being compared to other religions in Persia to see which religion was “superior.”3 Nor did I know that “the barbarians were at the gates” more than once in history. I learned about the “steppes” and the beginnings of the Low Lands. I learned about the etymology of “slaves” and a closely related word in Italian “Ciao.” I leaned about the two shots fired in the summer of 1914 that changed history and divided nations that really did not want to go to war. Much of this has given me a renewed desire to visit these historical sites and actually have something to say about what happened at these places.
- Need to be careful about bias. It should not be a shock to anyone to learn that history is written by the winners. That’s obvious. But if what is meant by “history is written by the winners” is that there is a pervading bias, a triumphalist tone in the reporting of history, then that is entirely something else. The important thing to ask is: Is it true? Are the facts being reported comport to the actual events? We all have bias. It’s unavoidable. The important question is: can we admit and set aside our partiality enough so that we can look at things objectively?
- God is in charge. Frankopan’s view of world history is more depressing than I think it actually is. He hardly mentions the great Christian movements during the Middle Ages (Dark Ages for the pessimists). There’s almost nothing mentioned about the centrality of Israel in world history, which I find curious. I don’t deny that many horrible things were done in the name of Christianity throughout history. But I don’t find that troubling because we see the same kinds of things reported in Scripture. Humanity, created in God’s image, rebelled against God in the beginning. We’ve needed a savior ever since. God has a strange way of superintending human events. For example, God used Cyrus II, a pagan king to restore Israel in 6th century BC. Or how about God allowing the Israelites to “plunder the Egyptians” centuries before as they escaped their captors.
- Abject humility. Since we don’t have God’s perspective we have to admit our ignorance about how world events shape history. Sure, we have some knowledge about it but we can’t authoritatively claim we know for certain how certain events will turn out. A practical application of this was already pointed out by Frankopan’s work. For example, throughout history, believers were sure the apocalypse was near, but it never happened. Extending this a bit further, it now becomes pointless to argue for a particular view of eschatology. When folks ask me if I’m “pre-trib, premillennial” or “post-trib,” “amill”, etc., I just shake my head and say “I’m optimistic.” Then I get a chuckle. All I know for sure is that Jesus is coming back again. Until then, I’m going to remain curious and humble about world history.
1 attributed to French philosopher Denis Diderot.
2 Peter Frankopan quoting E. Wolf, Europe and the People without History (Berkeley, 1982), p.5.
3 Peter Frankopan, The Silk Roads: a New History of the World (New York: Vintage Books, 2017). 38.