Truth and History in Sleepy Hollow—Who needs it?

Review of Sleepy Hollow Episode 8

This week on Sleepy Hollow: Can Ichabod Crane get the Headless Horseman to spill all the important Apocalyptic beans? (“I don’t think he’s gonna talk”—Orlando Jones.) Will Harold be any help in the process? Will Ichabod’s past romantic rivalry with “Abraham” over Katrina have future consequences? Can Orlando Jones and Abbie’s sister keep from killing each other? Will the stolen 16th century Druidic artifact from Thrace be able to help the Hessians free the Horseman from Thomas Jefferson’s super special demon-holding cell before Ichabod beats the truth out of him? These and many, many other questions are answered in this week’s episode of Sleepy Hollow.

I suppose in a sense this post has been a long time coming—at least as long as I’ve been watching Sleepy Hollow. Which in retrospect, isn’t really all that long at all. And if that sounds convoluted to you, it’s because you haven’t been watching a TV show where time, history, mythology, literature, and religion are in a constant state of flux. If that seems to be a criticism, it isn’t. I am absolutely loving Sleepy Hollow. So far it has been both a delightful spectacle of what TV can (and should) be, and a scathing rebuke of the average American’s grasp of history. (Assuming, that is, that Americans don’t really know enough to understand how ridiculous Sleepy Hollow‘s claims really are—I suppose it’s possible that the masses are laughing incredulously at every one of the many historical (and other) inaccuracies boasted by this hit show, but I highly doubt it.)

With that said, I think it’s useful to remember that this kind of tenuous grasp of hazily understood history is something which should ultimately be anathema to Christians. Christianity is, after all, a fundamentally historical religion. Our faith is based on something that really happened in the past. If we could build a time machine and travel back 2000-odd years, we could see God the Son incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, as he really lived in the Middle East. We could watch him suffer under Pontius Pilate on the cross, die on the cross, be buried in a borrowed tomb, and, on the third day, be raised from the dead. If these things are not really, historically true, then our whole faith collapses. If it could be somehow proven that Jesus never really existed, or that He never really died on a cross, or that He never really rose from the grave, our faith would be worthless and no amount of hand-clapping or desperate existentialist leaps on our part will make it anything else. (No worries though—Jesus is the best-evidenced figure we’ve got from the ancient world.)

What this means that as Christians, we have a vested interest in having a very high view of history. We should want to be clear and accurate about what happened in the past and how it relates to us in the present. Of course, we don’t all need to be experts in every field of history. But we do need at least to have a healthy respect for accuracy and precision on the part of those who are. That can mean at times disagreeing with those who write bad history (even if they hold a faith that looks similar to ours), and agreeing with those who write history accurately (even if they aren’t Christians at all).

Of course, we also need to be able to appreciate whether we’re talking about fiction or nonfiction. With a show like Sleepy Hollow, I am quite happy to watch 21st Century Hessians (which the British used last in the early 19th century) use 16th century Druidic writings (despite the fact that the Druids had disappeared by the end of the 5th Century) from Thrace (which was Greek rather than Celtic) free the Headless Horseman from a holding cell built by Thomas Jefferson (does that even need refutation?). When we’re dealing with fiction, we should kick back and enjoy the show. Heck, a hefty dose of historical knowledge can actually enhance this kind of thing. Knowing the actual history and how far off the storyline is can even make the story more fun.

But, when it comes to real history, we need to be rigorous and precise. We need to be constantly equipping ourselves to shoot down both those who would make false claims about history in our favor (say, by making the Founding Fathers uniformly into Evangelical Christians—or, perhaps less controversially for modern Christianity, by making Constantine the great hope of the church), and those who would try to use history against us (by arguing that Jesus never really existed, or that we can’t trust the Bible’s historical claims).

The problem is that when face with such challenges, Christians all too often reflexively treat Christianity as if it were a TV show. That is, we accept the faith without caring whether it’s actually true; we only know that it entertains us and moves our emotions appropriately. When challenged by those who question its historically accuracy, we are too quick to reply “I believe it anyway, and the fact that my belief lines up well with my emotions is good enough for me.” So long as our response to Christianity is the same as our response to Sleepy Hollow, we are content. And as we’ve noted before on Schaeffer’s Ghost, this contentment shows how shallow our faith really is.

What we need is a generation of Christians in love with the past, dedicated to the rediscovery of the delights of history, and willing to tackle challenges to our faith not from a position of sentimental mush, but from a robust grounding in the evidence of things unseen. If you’re looking for a place to start, let me recommend the following sources:

The New Testament Documents: Are they Reliable? By F.F. Bruce

Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham

Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament by A.N. Sherwin-White

Dr. Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO, where he is always on the lookout for Greek Druids trying to end the world.

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