Monthly Archives: September 2013


I hope soon to find time to post one final meditation on the Battle of Gettysburg, but I want to interrupt that thread for the moment to recommend a book that I just finished yesterday.

The book is Why Study History? Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, by Professor John Fea of Messiah College.   Some of you may recognize the author from his book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?–a work that I earlier recommended in this blog.  (See “Summer Reading on Faith and the Founding.”)  In other places I have lamented how infrequently historians try to write accessibly for a broad audience, as well as how seldom Christian scholars make an effort to write for the church.  One of the things that I admire about Professor Fea is that he is making a concerted effort to do both, and I applaud him.


I don’t agree with every detail of Why Study History?–but to be fair, the history book hasn’t been written yet that I’ve agreed with in every detail.   The book is full of valuable insights, and if you are interested in the question of how and why we should value the study of history as Christians, this would be a great place to begin.  Fea explains that the primary audience he had in mind as he wrote was history students at Christian colleges, but I think that the book should also appeal to life-long learners.

Fea concludes the book with a provocative proposal for a “Center for American History and a Civil Society.”  The mission of the center, as Fea envisions it, would be “to foster civility, strengthen democracy, and serve the common good through the teaching and promotion of the American past.”  Among a range of possible activities, such a center could coordinate  public lectures around the country, sponsor workshops for educators , and offer “summer academies” for high school students.  Significantly, Fea hopes that part of the work of such a center would involve reaching out to churches.

What a marvelous idea.




Back to Gettysburg.

Two posts ago I began a series of reflections prompted by my visit to the battlefield there.  These meditations are meant as illustrations of what I mean when I suggest that we make our hearts vulnerable as we contemplate the past.  So far I’ve shared two examples.  The first involved the weight of the past that overcame me at Gettysburg, its palpable reminder of the innumerable host of image-bearers that have gone before us, and the way that this can jolt us out of our own small, comfortable, and self-centered worlds.  The second concerned the enormous chasm that separates us from those who clashed on this field a century and a half ago.  Realizing this leads us to marvel at the omniscience of God in contrast with how little we actually know of what transpired there.

I’d like to share another meditation.  This post will be a bit longer than usual, and I hope you’ll bear with me.  The reflection is rooted in the recognition that our inability to recapture what happened on the battlefield isn’t only a reminder of the chasm that separates us from the generations preceding us.  It also foreshadows how our own lives will fade from view in generations to come.  We all know that life is short, and if we were inclined to think otherwise, the Scripture would insist on bringing us back to reality: “My life is a breath,” sighs Job (Job 7:7).  “Our days on earth are a shadow,” his friend Bildad agrees (Job 8:9).  Moses observes that our days are numbered (Psalm 90:12), David likens them to a passing shadow (Psalm 144:4), James compares our life’s span to a “puff of smoke” (James 4:14), and Isaiah is reminded of the “flower of the field” that withers away (Isaiah 40:7-8).

Deep down we get this, even as we conspire not to talk about it or acknowledge it.  But the wispy, smoke-like, breath-like quality of our lives is not only a matter of length; it is also a matter of legacy.  It’s a question of what sort of imprint we will leave behind when we’re gone.  The answer, to put it bluntly, is not much of one.  It’s not that our lives are without effect.  Because we have lived, any number of others lives may be touched.  Family members and neighbors, clients and coworkers, patients and students, customers and friends may all be affected, in some cases profoundly so.  I’m not discounting that.  But once we have passed, the memory of who we are (or were), the knowledge of those inner qualities that define us as unique individuals, will fade quickly into oblivion.  How many of us have any more than a faded picture’s acquaintance with our great-grandparents?

The English poet Thomas Gray felt the weight of this.  In his famous “Elegy in a Country Church Yard,” the eighteenth-century writer placed his narrator in a cemetery at twilight, where he considers the terse entries on the gravestones and meditates on “the short and simple annals of the poor.”  The lives of the “rude forefathers” sleeping there have faded with time, Gray realizes.  Humble headstones are all that remain, silent markers that preserve only “their names, their years, spelt by th’unlettered Muse.”  It’s not just that our lives are so short, we may read Gray as suggesting.  From retrospect they seem so insignificant.  We leave but the faintest of footprints for posterity.

Thousands of years before Gray, another writer confronted the same troubling truth.  “There is no remembrance of former things,” wrote the Preacher in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes.  “Nor will there be any remembrance of things that are to come by those who will come after” (Ecclesiastes 1:11).  Indeed, the Preacher went on, “there is no more remembrance of the wise than of the fool forever, since all that now is will be forgotten in the days to come” (2:16a).  This was one of many reasons convincing the writer that life is empty, meaningless, pointless, absurd.  “Vanity of vanities,” he laments in the book’s very first sentence, “all is vanity.”

Through eyes of faith, we read the Preacher’s bitter lament as an example of what Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft calls “black grace,” by which he means God’s revelation to us “by darkness rather than light.”  Ecclesiastes hardly captures the true meaning of life.  Rather, it brilliantly exposes the futility of life lived “under the sun,” of an existence shorn of all eternal perspective.  As we read, we are reminded repeatedly that all of our efforts to deny God and manufacture our own meaning and purpose for life are merely so many acts of self-deception or distraction.  Our hope lies not in crafting our own stories, but in realizing that we were born in the middle of a far larger story.  The path from despair comes through embracing the One True Story and seeing ourselves rightly as characters in its narrative of hope and redemption.

Intellectually, I understand this, but when I am honest with myself, I realize that the story of the Preacher is often my story, too.  I struggle with the desire to manufacture my own meaning, to be the architect of my own immortality.  Too often, my drive for accomplishments and reputation are less about a desire to hear “Well done, good and faithful servant” in eternity, and more about erecting monuments to myself in this present age.

Here, too, Gettysburg speaks to me.  Visitors to Gettysburg not only get a glimpse into the battle that raged there in 1863.  They also see evidence of how those who survived the battle wished to be remembered.  The ten square miles of Gettysburg National Military Park constitute the largest statuary garden in the world.  There are monuments and markers galore (somewhere in the neighborhood of fourteen hundred all told), the vast majority erected in the late-19th and early-20th centuries as the survivors of the battle were entering old age.

Monument to the 140th New York Infantry., Little Round Top

Monument to the 140th New York Infantry., Little Round Top

It would be interesting to undertake a systematic study of the inscriptions on these monuments.   I did not, but I did stop to read a fair number as I walked the battlefield.  One of the things that struck me is how mundane their perspective generally is.  The vast majority simply repeat the same kind of details that would go into an action report after battle.  A typical monument explains that the military unit being commemorated was positioned at such and such a spot for such and such a purpose, with such and such a result.  An enumeration of casualties invariably follows, and sometimes the names of those killed.

Attempts to speak to the motivation or values of those involved are far in fact extremely rare.  They usually involve brief references to “duty,” “valor,” or patriotism.  None of these is intrinsically Christian, of course, and a pagan soldier in ancient Rome would have welcomed them on a monument to Caesar’s legions.

What seems lacking in these monuments is any effort to connect what happened at Gettysburg to some larger narrative that would give the battle transcendent meaning.  Such a narrative had been provided years earlier, however, in the most famous effort to commemorate those who fought there, although this commemoration was not a monument but a speech.

We rightly remember the Gettysburg Address for its eloquence, but how deeply do we think about it?  I may offend some in saying this, but to think Christianly about it is to see it as deeply flawed.  Like the Preacher’s contemplation of life “under the sun,” its perspective is relentlessly earthbound, and at least one of its claims is vaguely blasphemous.

Probably the Address’s best known passage is its opening sentence: “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation: conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”  We live in a talk-show culture in which contemporary political rhetoric is relentlessly parsed and dissected and critiqued unmercifully, but let a few generations pass and chisel the rhetoric in granite on the mall in Washington, and it becomes sacrosanct in our eyes.  It might free us up to re-examine the Address afresh if we remember that it was roundly denounced when it was delivered.

As in our own day, much of the criticism was politically motivated.   We forget that, like so many other politicians before and since, Lincoln used a public appearance before a large crowd as an opportunity to make a political statement.  In November, 1863, the North was badly divided over the president’s recent Emancipation Proclamation.  The Republican Party supported it, while the Democratic Party unanimously denounced it.  And so the Republican leader wasted no time in defending his administration when he helped to dedicate the new military cemetery in Gettysburg, even though he never once referred to emancipation explicitly.

His argument was essentially historical.  At worst misleading, at best debatable, it rested on a highly selective reading of the country’s founding.  For years Lincoln had been insisting that his desire to end slavery was in keeping with the original vision of the Founding Fathers.  “The fathers of the government expected and intended the institution of slavery to come to an end,” he proclaimed repeatedly during the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858.  In advocating the restriction of slavery and its ultimate demise, Lincoln informed the audience that “I have proposed nothing more than a return to the policy of the fathers.”  Lincoln’s view was a libel on the Founders, Democrat Douglas rejoined.  Offering his own reading of American history, Douglas informed cheering Democrats that “our fathers made this government divided into Free and Slave States, recognizing the right of each to decide all its local questions for itself.”

And so when Lincoln began by telling the assembled throng at Gettysburg that our fathers had been “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” the politically savvy among them immediately recognized a familiar refrain in a long-standing partisan debate.  And when, a couple of minutes later, Lincoln concluded his brief remarks by implying that the Union dead at Gettysburg had died so that the nation might have “a new birth of freedom,” the crowd understood that he was enlisting the fallen at Gettysburg in the controversial cause of emancipation.

Republicans saw nothing exceptional in this.  Democrats were livid.  It was to uphold the Constitution, the Chicago Times assured its readers, “and the Union created by it, that our officers and soldiers gave their lives at Gettysburg.”  What the president had done at Gettysburg was simply despicable.  “How dare he,” thundered the Times editor, “standing on their graves, misstate the cause for which they died, and libel the statesmen who founded the government?  They were men possessing too much self-respect to declare that negroes were their equals, or were entitled to equal privileges.”

As a historian, I see northern Democrats’ response to the Address as understandable (although their reading of history was just as one-sided as Lincoln’s).  As a Christian historian, I am more disappointed by the way that Republican evangelicals across the North embraced Lincoln’s speech, for it contained elements that they should have found troubling.

For one thing, the Address is a classic example of rhetoric that conflates sacred and secular.   Read broadly, Lincoln’s address was a masterful effort to situate the tragedy of the American Civil War in a larger story of redemption.  The thing being redeemed, however, is not God’s Church but the United States.  The author of redemption  is not the Lord but “the people.”

The story Lincoln tells begins with its own creation account.  “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” the opening verse of Genesis declares.  In the beginning “our fathers brought forth” the United States, Lincoln proclaims.  Their values now bind us.  Their vision–as interpreted by Lincoln–obliges us.  Ever since Lincoln’s death there have been countless efforts to “baptize him posthumously,” as Christian scholar Allen Guelzo notes in his marvelous biography, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President.  Guezlo argues persuasively, however, that although Lincoln was biblically literate  and far from an atheist, he nevertheless died unconvinced of the gospel.  What is more, although he employed biblical rhetoric and adopted biblical cadences in his speeches, he rarely if ever referred to the Bible as authoritative.  As late as 1863, at least, the bedrock of his argument against slavery was not scripture but the Declaration of Independence and its assertion–penned by an apostle of the Enlightenment who owned 150 slaves–that “all men are created equal.”

Lincoln goes on to make two other assertions that ought to have troubled the thinking Christians in his audience.  The first is his statement that “the brave men who struggled” at Gettysburg–presumably he meant the Union men–had “consecrated” the ground. To consecrate is to “set apart as sacred to God.”  Something that has been consecrated is now “holy.”  When the great “I AM” spoke to Moses from the burning bush, He informed the trembling herdsman that he was standing on holy ground.  Lincoln told his audience the same thing.  In what possible sense could that be true?   It makes little difference whether you believe that Lincoln was speaking literally or figuratively.  In his choice of words the president was draping the state with religious imagery and eternal significance, and that, however well-intended, is a form of what Christian scholar Steven Woodworth aptly labels “patriotic heresy.”

Second, Lincoln suggested that the blood of the Union dead justified the Union cause.  He urged his audience to renew their commitment to the struggle precisely because others had given “the last full measure of devotion” on its behalf.  My grandfather served in WWI, my father in WWII, and my son is currently in the Marine Corps, so I want to be very careful in choosing my words here.  We can rightly respect, admire, and appreciate those who, through suffering and great danger have risked their lives in our defense.  But that is a different thing from maintaining that the spilling of blood necessarily ennobles the cause for which it is shed.

We would not accept that view with regard to the storm troopers who died in the service of Adolph Hitler, nor the Islamic terrorists who knowingly went to their deaths on 9/11.  And as American Christians we ought not to swallow the argument as applied to our own soldiers.  If we accept the view that death in war automatically justifies the perpetuation of that war–so that the “dead shall not have died in vain,” as Lincoln put it–we abdicate our calling to live as salt and light.  When we do so, the church forfeits its prophetic voice and becomes merely an extension of the state.

Thinking Christianly about the past requires that we make our own hearts vulnerable, so my purpose in sharing these thoughts is not so that we can smugly condemn those who have gone before us.  Instead, we are called to identify with them.  Their example reminds us, warns us, of the ever present temptation to confuse our identity as Christians with other loyalties and attachments, whether nation, race, class, or party.  This is but one manifestation of the more general seduction that the Preacher of Ecclesiastes knew well: the illusion that we make our own meaning in life, satisfying our souls on our own terms, in our own way.  Others have unknowingly succumbed.  Why should we be immune?

Search our hearts, O Lord . . .


I am a Christian and a historian, and I began this blog out of a desire to be in conversation with other Christians about what it means to think “Christianly” about history.  I do this partly out of a sense of burden for the church, but also in part from self-interest.  Writing is how I think through things, and I freely confess that I am still trying to figure out what it means to think Christianly as we contemplate the past.

The adverb Christianly seems to be everywhere these days, and I am beginning to wonder whether it’s one of those words that we find useful without being able to define precisely.  I first came across it in a work that is little read these days, Harry Blamires’ 1963 book The Christian Mind.  Blamires, a student of C. S. Lewis, lamented a half-century ago that Christians had effectively succumbed to secularization.  The book is a clarion call to the church, calling us to regain a way of thinking that “accepts all things with the mind as related, directly or indirectly, to man’s eternal destiny as the redeemed and chosen child of God.”  I’ve never been entirely confident that I understand what this calls us to, practically and specifically, but the book made an impression on me nonetheless.

There were two main take-away points for me.  First, I was struck by Blamires’ haunting allusion to “the loneliness of the thinking Christian,” and I was persuaded by his contention that the one who strives to think Christianly must expect opposition not only from unbelievers but from other Christians as well.  Second, I finished the book convinced that if my vocation was truly to be a Christian educator–a follower of Jesus called to pursue the life of the mind and facilitate the same for others–then thinking Christianly lay at the heart of that calling.  Figuring out what it meant to think Christianly might be a life-long quest, but it wasn’t optional.

This will explain why, as I walked the field of Gettysburg last month, one of the questions that I wrestled with is what it might mean to think Christianly about what happened there.  At this point, my understanding of what it means to think Christianly about history rests on a few key premises.  (I’m still working through how they all fit together.)  First, following the author of the proverbs, surely central to the practice is a desire for wisdom.  “Get wisdom,” Proverbs 4:7 exhorts us matter-of-factly.  “Wisdom is the principal thing.”

But the Biblical concept of wisdom is far more than the head knowledge of the Greek philosopher; it changes not only our thought but also our behavior.  It is knowledge that is transformative, life-changing.  This is why I am also convinced that thinking Christianly necessarily involves the heart.  In some way, it is a discipline that teaches us more clearly and convicts more deeply of who we are and of who God is.

Finally, when we engage in thinking Christianly, I think we should expect to see at least three results: It should bear fruit in reverence and awe, as we see God more clearly.  It should evoke greater  humility, as we see ourselves more clearly.  And because God blesses us that we might bless others in turn, it should enhance both our desire and our capacity to love others.

“This is all well and good,” I can hear you thinking.  “But what does this mean concretely?”  Good question.  I’m not sure.  But here is what I think.  Somehow, someway, when we study history, we have to make ourselves vulnerable.  We need to let the historical figures that we encounter ask us hard questions, put our lives to the test.

In sum, thinking Christianly about history may involve many things, but I think a salient feature is a scrutiny of the past that prompts scrutiny of the heart.

In my next post we’ll return to Gettysburg.


I apologize for being away for so long.  The beginning of the new school year is always frenzied, and it’s been hard to find time to rejoin our conversation.  Sorry about that.

In my last post, I had begun to share a series of reflections or meditations prompted by my trip to Gettysburg last month.  By way of introduction, I first tried to explain why I thought it was important to engage in such reflection.  (Don’t you hate it how academics take so long to get to the point?)  I shared my view that “our highest goal is not to understand the past for its own sake, nor to learn lessons from the past that help us get what we want in the present.  Rather, our ultimate goal is to understand both God and ourselves more clearly, to the glory of God and our sanctification.”  Toward that end, I suggested that we should strive to study history in a way that ultimately exposes our hearts.

One of the potential benefits of posting to a blog is receiving feedback from readers that helps to sharpen your thinking and how you express it.  That was the case with this latest post.  One comment in particular convinces me that I was not nearly as clear as I might have been.  Although I am not ready to agree with “clisawork” that my view “does a disservice to all of humanity,” her concerns are important enough that I want to interrupt my meditations on Gettysburg for this post and try to clarify what I had in mind.

As I understand her response, “clisawork” understood my post as arguing that the only legitimate objective for studying history is to understand both God and our own hearts more fully.  Any other motive is selfish, even sinful.  She rightly recoils against such a contention, and lists a variety of other motives for studying the past that are noble and generous.  I think she has read too much into my post–and rather uncharitably–but my wording was poor and she has definitely helped me to see that.

To begin with, I did not mean to imply that the three motives for studying history that I mentioned constituted an exhaustive list.  When “clisawork” alludes to the important role that history can play in helping us to make sense of the present, as well as avoid the mistakes of the past, I am right with her.  It is axiomatic with historians that the present is, in some sense, a product of the past, which means in turn that a knowledge of history can aid us immeasurably in understanding our own day.  I wholeheartedly concur.  (See my post “The Preciousness of the Past.”)  Similarly, I agree with “clisawork” that historians can play an important role in uncovering the stories of people who have “lived and died and suffered.” Giving voice to the voiceless can be an expression of love for neighbor, and history that broadens its focus beyond presidents and politicians and generals and celebrities can be effective in calling our attention back to “the least of these.”

Nor did I intend to disparage such objectives by placing them under the general heading of striving to “get what we want in the present.”   If I could step back and try again, here is how I would re-state things.  Please understand that I am speaking in very broad categories, and my goal is simply to give us some questions to ask ourselves about our own motives for studying the past:

To start with a sweeping generalization, I would contend that our motives for studying the past can be boiled down into two basic categories: we either seek knowledge that changes things or we seek knowledge for its own sake. Historians call the latter “antiquarianism.”  Antiquarians find the past fascinating, intriguing, or entertaining, but they don’t ask knowledge from the past to make a difference in the world.   Many of the Civil War “buffs” that I have met would fall into this category, to give one example.  These are the guys (and they are almost always male) who know Jefferson Davis’ middle name, the weight of the standard 1861 Springfield rifle, how many horses Nathan Bedford Forrest had shot from under him, and how many men were on the field on the afternoon of the second day at Gettysburg.  Let me be clear: I am not denigrating their interests, but I don’t think it is a stretch to liken this  approach to the past to a hobby, say stamp collecting or model building.  To the antiquarian, history is just a form of wholesome entertainment, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  There are certainly a lot worse ways to spend your time.

But what if we expect more from the past than entertainment?  What if we want it to “do work,” to change something, to somehow make a difference?  This is the second broad category of motives for studying history, and if you’ll allow me, I want to subdivide it further into two subcategories.  When we study the past in search of historical knowledge that changes something, we can either have in mind change outside ourselves–in the world around us–or change inside ourselves, in our very hearts.  These are not mutually exclusive–we could aspire to both–but my sense is that we almost never think of the latter.

So what would it look like to seek historical knowledge that might change the world around us? There are a range of possibilities.  In the worst case, such an approach might be self-interested and even manipulative.  I have previously written about the temptation we face to approach history merely as a source of ammunition, an arsenal of arguments that we can wield to persuade others to support our predetermined agendas.  At the opposite extreme, as “clisawork” pointed out, we might study the past with the most disinterested of motives, searching for clues about how to promote a more just world, bringing historical knowledge to bear  on behalf of the weak and marginalized.  Studying the past to understand the roots of racism or how best to combat discrimination might be one such example.

In between these extremes lie a host of pragmatic possibilities in which we honestly search the past for helpful insight.  One example would be the way that economists and government policymakers study history for clues about how to deal with economic fluctuations.  When the saving and loan industry took a dive in the early 2000s, for instance, experts reviewed earlier government responses in the 1930s and 1980s for evidence of what might work in the current crisis.

Another common example is from the field of foreign policy.  Historically, government policymakers have routinely looked to the past in determining the proper response to contemporary challenges.  Influenced by what was viewed as the futility of World War I, diplomats and statesmen responded meekly to aggression from Germany, Italy, and Japan in the 1930s in the hope of avoiding a repetition of a costly and unnecessary war.  In the aftermath of WWII–and convinced that 1930s appeasement had been a disaster–American politicians called for a firm stand against Soviet aggression as the best way to preserve the peace.  And ever since the conclusion of the Vietnam War, policymakers and military strategists have sought to apply lessons from that conflict to avoid its repetition.

These approaches to the past have at least two things in common: 1) they view history as a storehouse of knowledge that can help us shape the world around us, and 2) in their focus on external results, they overlook the part that the study of history can play in promoting what one writer calls “inner work.”

Setting aside the history-as-ammunition approach, the approach to the past that emphasizes change outside of ourselves is not wrong in and of itself, but it is incomplete–badly incomplete, I would say.  If authentic education (as opposed to vocational training) changes who we are, then “education” that leaves the heart untouched is but a shadow of what it should be.



The morning after I returned from my road trip to Gettysburg, I took my wife and older daughter out to breakfast to catch up with them and share a bit of my experience.  As soon as we had placed our order, my wife leaned across the table and asked, “So what spiritual insights did you come home with?”

She knows me well.  History is an almost inexhaustible storehouse of compelling human stories, but I am convinced that if the study of history is to be truly educational, it must be much more than that.  Authentic education does not merely put knowledge into our heads that wasn’t there before.  It alters the way we think.  It challenges our hearts.  It changes who we are.

At its best, our encounter with the past should be a seamless part of a larger quest for a heart of wisdom, a “conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live,” in the words of historian David Harlan.  We shouldn’t settle for less.  Genesis 32 tells how Jacob wrestled with God the whole night through, telling the Lord, “I will not let you go unless you bless me!” (v. 26).  I can’t begin to plumb the depths of that story’s meaning, and yet I think of it often in my role as a historian and a teacher.  Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury and an accomplished historian, encourages us to believe “that there will always be gifts to be received from the past.”  We must seek them persistently, insistently.  Like Jacob, we must resolve not to turn loose until the Lord has blessed us.

What I am NOT suggesting is that we pray for special revelation from God, asking him to disclose hidden meanings from the past.  This summer I have been re-reading the “God’s Plan for America” series by the late Peter Marshall Jr. and David Manuel (The Light and the Glory, From Sea to Shining Sea, and Sounding Forth the Trumpet).  I have lost track of the number of times that they claim God’s supernatural intervention in their historical research: “The Holy Spirit gave us insight after insight . . .”; “The Holy Spirit reminded us that . . .”; “thus did the Lord bring to our attention . . . “; “the Holy Spirit went on to show us why . . .” etc.

I do not question their sincerity.  But note that Marshall and Manuel are not just saying that God blessed their research by sharpening their minds.  In his prayer “Ante Stadium” (“Before Study”), the thirteenth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas regularly asked God to grant him, among other things, “keenness of mind” and “skill in learning.”  The Christian historians I know would all readily echo that prayer and long for the Lord to grant it.  Marshall and Manuel go much farther, however.

Repeatedly, they identify particular moments when God supernaturally intervened to direct them to just the right source at just the right time , in the process leading them to a more accurate understanding of American history.  I don’t doubt for an instant that God could do this if it pleased Him, but I find no scriptural basis to expect this sort of revelation.  When such insight comes, if it comes, it is a form of special revelation, and those who receive it are really exercising a prophetic role.  This is why books like The Light and the Glory are not really historical at all–they are works of prophesy.

While I find no promise in scripture that the Holy Spirit will reveal American history to us, the Bible is clear that the Spirit is given in order to convict us of “sin, and righteousness, and judgment” (John 16:8).  So when I propose that we wrestle with the past until the Lord blesses us, I have in mind studying history in such a way that it ultimately exposes our hearts.  Our highest goal is not to understand the past for its own sake, nor to learn lessons from the past that help us get what we want in the present.  Rather, our ultimate goal is to see both God and ourselves more clearly, to the glory of God and for our sanctification.

The point, in other words, is to get wisdom.  As Proverbs 4:7 puts it, “Wisdom is the principal thing.”And if wisdom is our goal, we must figure out how to make scrutiny of the past lead to scrutiny of our own hearts in the light of God’s revealed Word.  That, I am almost ready to conclude, is the essence of what it means to think “Christianly” about history.

I am still trying to work out what this looks like concretely, but I would like to share with you some of the thoughts that I had while roaming the ground at Gettysburg.  They are examples of the kind of reflections I have in mind.  You may be able to come up with other, better ones, and I welcome your suggestions and reactions.  For now, I’ll share just a couple of observations, with more to follow soon.

First, the palpable weight of the past at Gettysburg is jarring.  As I mentioned in my last post, as I walked the battlefield I felt the almost tangible presence of the nearly 170,000 men who clashed there a century and a half ago.  I don’t mean literally that their spirits hovered there (although there are a number of “Gettysburg Ghost Tours” that claim precisely that).  As I observed last time, there is something about being physically present at the site of a famous historical event.  The experience enlivens our imaginations; sharing a common landscape somehow seems to connect us viscerally to those whose footsteps we follow.

That sensation, at least for me, has the effect of jolting me out of my own narrow frame of reference.  For all the current talk of “globalization,” most of us really live in tiny worlds, don’t we?  The universes we inhabit don’t have room for much: home, work, school, the mall, perhaps church.  We pretend to expand our worlds through “virtual” reality but only isolate ourselves even more.  It’s comparatively easy to believe that the world revolves around us when the island kingdoms that we rule over are so miniscule.  And then we walk the field at Gettysburg, or some similar locale, and the landscape reminds us of the hosts that have gone before, and suddenly we can feel very small.  That’s a good thing.  If an integral component  of wisdom is self-knowledge, “the first product of self-knowledge,” as Flannery O’Connor realized, “is humility.”

Second, as I thought about the men who fought there, I was immediately struck by the chasm that separates us from them.  I’d love to be a tour guide at Gettysburg, but I wouldn’t be a very popular one, because I think one of the most important things to tell tourists is how little we know about what happened there.  That’s not a message we care to hear.  We want history that makes the past “come alive”–what I call You Are There history–and being reminded that “we see through a glass, darkly” when we peer into the past interferes with our fantasies of omniscience.

But call to mind what C. S. Lewis wrote about the vast disparity between the actual past–which is dead and gone–and history, which is not the past itself but our halting efforts to reconstruct it.  “The past,” Lewis observed, “was a roaring cataract of billions upon billions of . . . moments: any one of them too complex to grasp in its entirety, and the aggregate beyond all imagination.”  The difference between the past and history, then, “is not a question of failing to know everything: it is a question (at least as regards quantity) of knowing next door to nothing.”

This is always true when we try to reconstruct an episode from the past, even an event of such scale and significance as the battle of Gettysburg.  Take, for instance, the battle’s famous conclusion–Pickett’s Charge.  As historian Carol Reardon has shown, even the most basic factual claims about the attack are actually just educated guesses.  We don’t really know precisely when the bombardment preceding the attack began, how long it lasted, or why it proved ineffective.  We don’t know exactly how many men were involved in the charge, and we certainly don’t know which Confederate unit got the farthest or precisely where on the field they were turned back.  (At least three southern states claim that their troops advanced the farthest, and each has installed historical markers on Cemetery Ridge to position their sons at the “High Water Mark of the Confederacy.”)  We don’t even know for sure what George Pickett was doing during the charge.  (There were even controversial claims after the war that he had skulked in the rear until the bloodbath was over.)

When we move beyond establishing the factual details to the thornier tasks of explanation (why did the attack fail?) and re-creation (what was it like to take part?) our dearth of knowledge becomes all the more apparent.  As Reardon explains, each kind of existing evidence about the battle has its own problems.  Official reports were biased, self-serving, and frequently not composed until months afterward.  Most of the letters and diaries of common soldiers at Gettysburg were never preserved, and those that survive are less revealing than we would hope.  Individual soldiers saw only a tiny part of the battlefield, and in the stress of battle they often retained a kaleidoscope of impressions and sensations more than a coherent narrative of their experience.  In writing to loved ones, they often gave up on the possibility of conveying what they had seen and experienced to civilians.

Newspapers covered the battle extensively (there were dozens of correspondents at Gettysburg), but reporters typically knew little about military matters and, like modern historians, were faced with the daunting task of trying to bring some sort of coherence to the myriad of conflicting individual perspectives that they could glean from interviews.  To compound the challenge, they were under great pressure to rush their stories into print in order to scoop their rivals.  As a result, “wishful thinking ran wild” and “no bit of hyperbole seemed excessive.”

But why stress how much we don’t know?  The author of Proverbs  provides our answer: “For as he thinks within himself, so he is” (Proverbs 23:7).  It would be an oversimplification to say that what we think reflects our hearts and how we think shapes our hearts, but it’s not far from the truth.  From best-selling popular works to the boring textbooks we’re assigned growing up, much of the history that we consume exaggerates our capacity to know the past and  unwittingly promotes intellectual arrogance.  Herbert Butterfield, one of the premier Christian historians of the last century, trenchantly identified intellectual arrogance as “the besetting disease of historians.”  Christian writers are not immune to this malady, and we cannot guard against it unless we are aware of it.

More to follow soon.