I don’t take your interest in history for granted. The late Christopher Hitchens was wrong about a lot of things, but he nailed it when he described ours as a “present-tense culture.” Americans live in a society in which thinking deeply about the past is rare and becoming rarer. Two generations ago (in 1971), 5 percent of undergraduates across the country majored in history; today about 1 percent do so. We still pay lip service to the teaching of history in our public schools, but middle-school and high-school students across America have less than a 1/5 chance of learning history from a teacher who actually majored in history in college. “Anybody” can teach history, after all.
I haven’t done a scientific survey, but my sense is that the vast majority of Americans fall into one of three categories in their thinking about the past. The first category, almost certainly the largest, consists of unwitting disciples of the late Henry Ford. The early-twentieth-century automobile tycoon once famously lectured Congress on the irrelevance of the past. We sometimes remember his curt dismissal of history as “bunk.” Ford went on to declare that “the only history worth a tinker’s dam is the history we make today.” The second category, also large, is comprised of individuals who think of history first and foremost as a form of entertainment, a vast repository of amusing anecdotes and oddities that come in handy when watching Jeopardy. Sadly, the history-as-entertainment mindset now even dominates the horribly misnamed “History Channel,” with its ridiculous lineup of “reality shows” such as Pawn Stars and Ice Road Truckers, interspersed with hard-hitting exposés on UFOs or the paranormal. (Past programming has included features such as Ghosts in the White House and Zombies: A Living History.)
Here’s the bottom line: our society wants us to choose between history as fundamentally irrelevant and history as a storehouse of trivia; the latter is still fundamentally irrelevant, but it has the capacity to amuse us whenever nothing better is on TV.
As Christians, we must wage war against either dismissive approach to the past. I’ll come back to the following reasons in the weeks ahead, so for now I will do little more than list them. For starters, we must remember that Christianity is a religion grounded in history. The most fundamental tenets of the faith rest on theological interpretations of real-time, historical occurrences. Beyond this, if we sincerely believe that God reigns sovereignly over the unfolding of human history, then we ought to think of the past as a sphere that God has ordained; this makes taking the past seriously analogous to appreciating any other aspect of the divine creation. In this sense, studying history is one expression of obedience to the divine command to love God with our mind—as well as with our heart, soul, and strength. Paying attention to the past also enables us to glean wisdom from our ancestors, and in this respect it is a logical extension of the biblical precept to honor age. Because appeals to the past are so common in the public square, furthermore, cultivating historical discernment is also crucial to our broader responsibility to “take every thought captive to obedience to Christ” (II Corinthians 10:3). Finally, knowledge of the past provides us with much needed perspective. James tells us that our lives are like puffs of smoke that appear for a short while and then vanish (James 4:14). With this brevity of life comes lack of perspective and narrowness of vision. As Job’s friend Bildad the Shuhite put it, “we were born yesterday and know nothing” (Job 8:9a). History gives us a memory before birth, enabling us to see our own day with new eyes and providing perspectives that transcend the brevity of our own brief sojourn on earth. In sum, when we pay attention to the past for the glory of God, in response to Biblical dictates and principles, the study of history can become both an act of obedience and an expression of worship. May it be so with us!