Monthly Archives: December 2014

ON LIVING IN TIME

ball-drop

Another year is coming to an end, and that always leads me to think about how short life is. Can you relate to that? Or am I the kind of person you try to stay away from at New Year’s Eve parties? As a rule, I try to make my posts to this blog at least semi-polished essays, but right now I just want to think out loud with you. What follows are a few scattered reflections about the passage of time and how living “in time” is crucial to thinking both Christianly and historically.

As I’ve argued on more than one occasion on this blog, I am convinced that we too often have a misguided and superficial understanding of “Christian history.” We err when we define it by its focus, making Christian history synonymous with the history of Christianity, the study of Christian individuals, ideas, and institutions throughout the past.

We’re even more off the mark when we define Christian history by its conclusions. This has been one of the worst mistakes of the advocates of the Christian America thesis. Countless well meaning (but untrained) pastors and pundits have insisted that any authentically “Christian” history of the United States will determine that the United States was founded as a Christian nation by Christian statesmen guided by Christian principles. They condemn any interpretation that questions the determining influence of Christian belief as “secular,” “liberal,” “politically correct,” “revisionist,” or in some other way hostile to Christianity.

I propose instead that what best defines Christian history—history that is substantively Christian—is the way of thinking that underlies it.  My colleagues and I often talk about the “habits of mind” that we are seeking to inculcate in our students, and we are convinced that if these are genuinely Christian, the history that results—whatever its focus or conclusions—will be so as well. In his book The Christian Mind, Harry Blamires defined thinking “Christianly” as 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’ll probably spend the rest of my life wrestling with what this requires of us, but here is what I think it means for the Christian student of history. Our study will be but a subset of our larger call to “love the Lord with all our minds.” We will bring a Scriptural lens to bear on our contemplation of the past, keeping in mind all that the Bible teaches about the sovereignty of God and the nature and predicament of humankind. Our motive will be to understand God, ourselves, and the world more rightly, to the glory of God, the blessing of our neighbors, and the sanctification of our souls.

Over the course of his distinguished career, the late philosopher Dr. Arthur Holmes admonished thousands of Wheaton College students that “All truth is God’s truth.” I also find myself meditating on these words as I think about the concept of Christian history, for I have been repeatedly struck by how the habits of mind that are vital to sound historical thinking are also Christian virtues.

The study of history is an inescapably moral pursuit, although not in the way that we often think. History is disfigured when it becomes a kind of Sunday School lesson for adults, a backdrop for superficial moralizing. History is ennobled when we determine to make ourselves vulnerable to the past, figuratively resurrecting the dead and allowing their words and actions to speak to us, even “to put our own lives to the test.”

But doing the latter successfully requires that we apply several Christian practices:

  • hospitality, as we seek conversation with figures from the past;
  • considering others as more important than ourselves, as we invite them to speak first while we listen;
  • humility, as we acknowledge the brevity of our own lives and our need for the breadth of perspective that history affords;
  • charity, as we remind ourselves that the apparent contradictions we perceive in others may have more to do with our own blind spots than with those of our subjects; and
  • love, as we consciously ask ourselves what the golden rule requires of us in our encounter with “neighbors” long since passed.

This New Year’s Eve, however, I am newly struck by an even more basic overlap between the practices to which the Christian is called and those which are essential to sound historical thinking. This commonality is so foundational, so fundamental, that we can easily overlook it: both thinking Christianly and thinking historically requires us to be constantly mindful that we live in time.

What does it mean to live “in time” as a Christian? I think it begins by daily reminding ourselves of one of the undeniable truths of Scripture: our lives are short. The Bible underscores few truths as repeatedly—even monotonously—as this one. “Our days on earth are a shadow,” Job’s friend Bildad tells Job (Job 8:9). “My life is a breath,” Job agrees (Job 7:7). David likens our lives to a “passing shadow” (Psalm 144:4). James compares our life’s span to a “puff of smoke” (James 4:14). Isaiah is reminded of the “flower of the field” that withers and fades (Isaiah 40:7-8).

These aren’t exhortations to “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” They are meant to admonish us–to spur us to wisdom, not fatalism. The psalmist makes this explicit in the 90th Psalm when he prays that God would “teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12, New King James version). To “number our days” means to remember that our days are numbered, i.e., finite.   The Good News Translation is easier to follow here.  It reads: “Teach us how short our life is, so that we may become wise.” Part of growing in Christian wisdom, it would seem, involves reminding ourselves that our lives are fleeting.

American culture, unfortunately, does much to obscure that truth. Compared with the rest of the world, most American Christians live in great material comfort, and for long stretches of time we are able to fool ourselves about the fragility of life. The culture as a whole facilitates our self-deception through a conspiracy of silence. We tacitly agree not to discuss death, hiding away the lingering aged and expending our energies in a quest for perpetual youth.

Madison Avenue and Hollywood perpetuates this deceit, glorifying youth and ignoring the aged except for the occasional mirage of a seventy-year-old action hero aided by Botox and stunt doubles. If you need further proof that our culture flees from the truth of Psalm 90:12, just think about what will happen in Times Square this evening as the clock strikes twelve. Of all the days of the year, New Year’s Eve is the one on which Americans most pointedly acknowledge the passage of time.  We have chosen to do so with fireworks and champagne and confetti.

In his wonderful little book Three Philosophies of Life, Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft sums up the message of the Preacher of Ecclesiastes in this way: Everything that we do to fill our days with meaning of our own making boils down to a desperate effort to distract our attention from the emptiness and vanity of life “under the sun.” Our pursuits of pleasure, power, property, importance—they all “come down in the end to a forgetting, a diversion, a cover-up.” Isn’t that what we see in the televised spectacles on New Year’s Eve?

For the Christian, being mindful that we live in time means not running away from the truth that our lives are short, but rather letting it wash over us until we feel the full weight of discontentment that it brings.  According to Kreeft, “Our desire for eternity, our divine discontent with time, is hope’s messenger,” a reminder that we were created for more than this time-bound life, fashioned by our timeless God with an eye to a timeless eternity.  Being mindful that we live in time should heighten our longing for heaven.  In A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken goes so far as to identify the “timelessness to come” as one of the glories of heaven.

If faithful Christian discipleship requires a mindfulness that we live in time, so does sound historical thinking.   To begin with, one of the most important motives for studying the past is the same basic Scriptural truth that inspired the psalmist to ask God to “teach us to number our days.”  Put simply, we study the past because life is short.

Although Job’s friends weren’t noted for their wisdom, Job’s friend Bildad the Shuhite conveyed this truth as eloquently as anyone I know of.  In perhaps the only useful advice Bildad gave his beleaguered friend, he encouraged Job not to limit his quest for understanding to conversations with the living. “Inquire please of the former age,” Bildad counseled Job, “and consider the things discovered by their fathers, for we were born yesterday, and know nothing” (Job 8:8-9a).

As Bildad understood, with brevity of life comes lack of perspective and narrowness of vision—born yesterday, we know nothing. As Christians, we combat that limitation first of all by searching the scriptures, God’s time-transcending revelation that abides forever. But we also benefit by studying the history that God has sovereignly ordained. At its best, the study of the past helps us to see our own day with new eyes and offers perspectives that transcend the brevity of our own brief sojourn on earth.

In sum, an awareness that we live in time is essential to any meaningful appreciation of history.  It is also the foundation of what historians like to call historical consciousness.   If there is a single truth that inspires the serious study of history, it is the conviction that we gain great insight into the human condition by situating the lives of men and women in the larger flow of human experience over time.  The person who has developed a historical consciousness understands this.  He or she would never try to understand individuals from the past while wrenching them from their historical context.

But the person with true historical consciousness doesn’t merely apply this sensitivity to figures from the past.  Our lives, too, are profoundly influenced by what has gone before us.  To quote Christian historian Margaret Bendroth, “People from the past were not the only ones operating within a cultural context–we have one, too. Just like them we cannot imagine life any other way than it is: everyone assumes that ‘what is’ is what was meant to be.”  In sum, none of us is impervious to the influences of time and place, and being mindful of that is essential to thinking historically.

So where does this leave us?  We live in time.  Our culture does all that it can to obscure this.  The psalmist exhorts us to remember it, and history teaches us that it is true.

May God bless you in 2015.

 

LEARNING ABOUT HISTORICAL THINKING FROM “IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE”

For some reason or other, I have often watched the movie It’s a Wonderful Life on New Year’s Eve over the years.  The movie is actually set on Christmas Eve, but in its final scene the entire cast strangely bursts out in a chorus of Auld Lang Syne, so maybe that’s why I’ve moved it back a week.  At any rate, it occurs to me that many of you will watch, or have already watched, the movie this holiday season, so I thought I would repost the essay below about how the film conveys a number of profound truths about thinking historically.

Happy New Year, everyone!

*************************************************************************

LEARNING ABOUT HISTORICAL THINKING FROM

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE

Part of thinking historically involves learning to appreciate the crucial value of context.  Historical context is critical to historical understanding for one basic reason: none of us lives in a vacuum.  Humanly speaking, our lives are influenced (not determined, but profoundly influenced) by what has gone before us.  Indeed, if there is a single truth that inspires the serious study of history, it is the conviction that we gain great insight into the human condition by situating the lives of men and women in the larger flow of human experience over time.

Waxing poetic,  historians sometimes liken human history to an enormous, seamless tapestry.  (Imagine the wall of a European castle here.)  Although it is possible to extract and examine a single thread, it is in contemplating the larger pattern that we can best understand the purpose and significance of the individual fibers.  In sum, the particular makes little sense without reference to a larger whole.  Similarly, when wrenched from its historical context, an isolated historical fact may intrigue or entertain us (good for crossword puzzles or Jeopardy), but it has nothing meaningful to teach us.  No context, no meaning.  It’s that simple.

Curiously, not everyone finds it easy to relate to a textile analogy.  This is where Hollywood comes in handy.  When teaching on the importance of historical context, I often enlist the help of a movie that many of you are likely to watch this Christmas season.  I have in mind Frank Capra’s holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life.  Hollywood rarely aids the life of the mind–and in truth, the movie’s theology is really messed up–but when it comes to the importance of historical context this film gets it right.

It's a Wonderful Life II

To begin with, the very structure of the movie teaches that context is indispensable to understanding.  If you haven’t seen it (and if so, what’s the matter with you?), the story begins on Christmas Eve, 1945, as countless prayers waft toward heaven on behalf of the protagonist, down-on-his-luck George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart.  In response, the senior angels Franklin and Joseph call for George’s guardian angel, an “angel second-class” named Clarence Odbody, played by the marvelously eyebrowed Henry Trevor.

Its a Wonderful Life VII

Clarence appears immediately, and when Franklin and Joseph explain that someone on earth (George) is seriously contemplating suicide, Clarence offers to rush immediately to his aid, but his mentors stop him short with a sharp rebuke.  “If you’re going to help a man, you want to know something about him,” Joseph scolds, and for the next hour and a half they provide Clarence with historical context for the present crisis.  All told, fully two-thirds of the movie consists of flashback, powerfully driving home the message that we can’t comprehend any moment in time without knowledge of what has preceded it.

But not everything that has gone before will be relevant.  In briefing Clarence, Franklin and Joseph practice what one historian calls the principle of “selective attention.”  Rather than overwhelm Clarence with a flood of facts, they choose the events and circumstances in the past that have been most influential in shaping the man George has become.  In turn, this helps Clarence to comprehend what George’s current circumstances mean to him.

In reviewing George’s life, furthermore, the senior angels also remind us that our lives unfold within multiple contexts.  Some of the circumstances that they review are intimate details quite specific to George, for example his rescue of his brother Harry or his longstanding yearning to see the world and build modern cities.  Others grow out of George’s family context, for instance the centrality of the family savings and loan business or his father’s decades-long struggle with “old man Potter.”

Both categories involve the kind of personal pasts we preserve and pass on in conversation around the dinner table without realizing that we are functioning as historians  But George’s life was also touched by distant, much less personal developments that affected the entire nation or even the world–the kind of events that get into textbooks and which we instantly recognize as “historical.”  So, in the flashback we see how George’s past intersected with events such as the world-wide influenza epidemic of 1919, the Great Depression of the 1930s, or the Second World War.

It's a Wonderful Life VFinally, the movie points us toward a bedrock truth about the human condition that explains why context is always important to historical understanding.  If Clarence is initially mystified as to why it should be important, by the movie’s end he understands fully and expresses the underlying principle with eloquent simplicity.  After showing an incredulous George that the world would have been starkly different if he had never been born, Clarence muses, “Strange, isn’t it?  Each man’s life touches so many other lives. . . .”

Clarence’s insight into the unlimited interrelatedness of human experience–we could call it Odbody’s Axiom–is at the heart of all sound historical thinking.

FROM MY COMMONPLACE BOOK: SENECA ON THE SHORTNESS OF LIFE

In forty-eight hours another year will have come and gone, and that almost always puts me in a somber mood.  Unlike the revelers who will toot on their noisemakers in Times Square and elsewhere, I have always thought of New Year’s Eve as a time for reflection, a time to evaluate the past twelve months and take stock of the course of my life.  That tendency is even greater this year because my firstborn just got married on the 27th.  As I listened to my daughter and new son-in-law exchange their vows, one of the many thoughts that flooded my heart and mind during that brief moment was that it had been more than twenty-nine years since my wife and I repeated those same promises.  That’s just not possible—and yet it’s true.

These reflections take me back to my commonplace book, and to a quote from the ancient Roman author Seneca the Younger (4 B.C. – 65 A.D.).  A philosopher, statesman, and playwright, Lucius Annaeus Seneca was one of Rome’s leading intellectuals during the first century after the birth of Christ.  He was also as pagan as they come.  I have quoted primarily from Christian writers in sharing passages from my commonplace book, but that’s not because we have nothing to learn from unbelievers.  The doctrine of common grace tells us that God causes his rain to fall on the just and the unjust, and thanks to His general revelation we can often glean wisdom even from those who reject wisdom’s Author.  I think the quote below is a case in point.

Listen to Seneca’s observation in De Brevitate VitaeOn the Brevity of Life:

The majority of mortals . . . complain bitterly of the spitefulness of Nature, because we are born for a brief span of life, because even this space that has been granted to us rushes by so speedily and so swiftly that all save a very few find life at an end just when they are getting ready to live. . . . It is not that we have a short span of time, but that we waste much of it.  But when it is squandered in luxury and carelessness, when it is devoted to no good end, forced at last by the ultimate necessity we perceive that it has passed away before we were aware that it was passing.  So it is—the life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but we are wasteful of it.

Read woodenly, Seneca seems to be denying one of the most undeniable declarations of Scripture, namely that our lives are short.  Time and again, we hear the biblical writers remind us that our lives are no more than a “breath,” a “passing shadow,” a “puff of smoke” (Job 7:7, Psalm 144:4, James 4:14).  But far from dismissing this truth, he is calling us to confront a more haunting one: when our lives are at an end, it won’t be the length of our time on earth but the portion of it that we have squandered that grieves us most.

At its best, to quote historian David Harlan, the study of history invites us to join a “conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live.”  From across the centuries, the pagan Roman admonishes us: “It is not that we have a short span of time, but that we waste much of it. . . . The life we receive is not short, but we make it so.”  Not a bad reminder this New Year’s Eve.

A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS CAROL

One of my U. S. history students recently asked me what my favorite Christmas song was. There are many that I love, and I told him that I couldn’t possibly choose just one, but as a historian—and a specialist on the American Civil War, particularly—I have always been deeply moved by I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. In its original form it’s not heard too much these days, although several contemporary Christian groups (Casting Crowns and Jars of Clay, for example) have performed variations on it.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, photographed in 1868

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, photographed in 1868

The carol is based on a poem written at the height of the Civil War by the renowned American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. A native of Maine and long-time resident of Cambridge, Massachusetts, the fifty-six-year-old Longfellow was an American celebrity by that time, famous for works such as The Song of Hiawatha, The Courtship of Miles Standish, and most recently, Paul Revere’s Ride. (At his death in 1884 he would become the first American to be memorialized by a bust in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey in London.) The glow of celebrity was offset by personal tragedy, however. In 1861 Longfellow’s wife Fanny died horrifically in a fire, and Longfellow himself was permanently disfigured in his efforts to save her.  Then, in November 1863 the poet’s oldest son, Charles—a nineteen-year-old lieutenant in the Union Army—was severely wounded in fighting in northern Virginia. Still mourning for his wife, and far from certain of his son’s recovery, Longfellow sat down at his desk on Christmas morning, 1863, and penned a seven-stanza poem he called “The Christmas Bells.” Seven years later his poem would be set to music, although in its carol version several of the original verses are rarely sung.

“The Christmas Bells” opens with the now familiar passage from which the carol takes its name:

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good- will to men!

In verses 2-3 the poet reflects on how the angels’ message would repeatedly resound around the globe as the “world revolved from night to day.” But then in verses 4-5 the chaos and heartache of contemporary events crashes in. Few modern hymnals include these verses, which refer directly to the war raging a few hundred miles away:

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound the carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearthstones of a continent,
And made forlorn the households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

In December 1863 the American Civil War had already lasted far longer and exacted a far greater price than almost anyone had anticipated two and a half years earlier. After the fall of Fort Sumter in April 1861, President Abraham Lincoln had issued a call for volunteers to serve for only ninety days, and yet northern newspapers had castigated the president for his pessimism. Everyone “knew” that the dust-up down South could not possibly last that long. Zeal and a heart-wrenching naivete were the order of the day, and all across the land young men donned uniforms of blue and gray and rushed to the front, fearing that the war would be over before they could experience its glory.

Thirty-two months later all such innocence was gone, bloodily obliterated on battlefields with names like Bull Run, Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, and Chickamauga. Each casualty statistic on a regimental return represented a husband, son, brother, father, or friend and—as Longfellow knew from experience—a household “made forlorn.” The poet’s anguish in verse 6 is palpable:

And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men!”

But the poem doesn’t end there, of course. In the poem’s seventh and final verse, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow preaches the gospel to himself—and to us:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

In these final lines we find not a cry born of wishful thinking, a blind insistence that all is right with the world when that is palpably untrue. We hear instead a faithful declaration from one who sees the reality of hatred and the pervasiveness of suffering and yet finds hope in a Redeemer who would leave the glory of heaven to dwell among us.

May that hope be ours this Christmas.

LEARNING FROM THE “WAR ON CHRISTMAS”

If you are in the habit of tuning into Fox News, you will know that, for some years now, Bill O’Reilly has been calling attention each December to what he labels the “War on Christmas.”  O’Reilly has in mind the various efforts “to diminish the celebration of Jesus’s birthday,” from department stores instructing their employees to say “Happy Holidays,” to public officials banning nativity scenes, to atheist organizations erecting billboards telling children to skip church on Christmas Day.

Critics from the left have responded with a smirk and a sneer.  The smirk has come mainly from the late-night comedy shows, which have had a field day lampooning O’Reilly and mocking Fox News.  No surprise there.  Their goal is to get laughs, and they cater to an audience that views political and religious conservatives as silly or stupid.

The sneer comes from more substantive responses in venues like the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and a variety of academic blogs.  These purport not to entertain us but to educate us, primarily by teaching us some history.  If the comedians try to make O’Reilly look silly, the intellectuals try to make him look ignorant. And they succeed, at least to a degree.

When O’Reilly laments to his loyal viewers, “I cannot understand for the life of me why anyone would bother trying to diminish the federal holiday of Christmas,” he opens himself up to charges that he is woefully uninformed about the American past. As any number of O’Reilly’s academic critics are quick to point out, there is a long tradition of Christian criticism of Christmas in American history.  It was most prevalent among New England Puritans during the seventeenth century, but widespread suspicion of Christmas lingered at least as late as the Civil War.

I first really became aware of this while conducting research for my book The First Thanksgiving; What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History.  The famous landing of the Pilgrims near Plymouth occurred on December 22, and in his History of Plymouth Plantation governor William Bradford makes clear that the entire party worked all Christmas Day.

This was due to principle as much as necessity.  The Pilgrim Separatists were a subset of the larger phenomenon of English Puritanism, a movement of English Protestants who believed that the Anglican Church (or Church of England) needed to be “purified” of lingering “Popish” corruption.  They determined to be people “of the book” and sought to imitate the early church by doing nothing not clearly stipulated in Scripture.  This led them, most notably, to denounce the persistence in Anglicanism of a measure of Catholic ritual and ceremony, as well as the survival of an elaborate hierarchy of priests and bishops.  But it also prompted them to condemn the numerous holy days on the Anglican church calendar.  The only regular holy day prescribed in God’s Word was the weekly Lord’s Day, they maintained.  All other holidays–including both Christmas and Easter–were mere human inventions.

One of the most humorous passages in Of Plymouth Plantation relates an episode from the Pilgrims’ second Christmas in New England.  When the day arrived in 1621, Governor Bradford called the men out to work as was their routine.  Only a few weeks earlier several “strangers” had arrived in the ship Fortune, sent to Plymouth by the London financiers who were underwriting the venture.  These men were “lusty” enough, as Bradford described them–he meant they were physically hearty and capable of hard work–but they did not share the Pilgrims’ Puritan convictions.  When called from their beds, these informed the governor that “it went against their consciences to work on that day.”   Bradford elaborates,

So the Governor told them that if they made it matter of conscience, he would spare them until they were better informed; so he led away the rest and left them. But when they came home at noon from their work, he found them in the street at play, openly; some pitching the bar, and some at stool-ball [a game something like cricket] and such like sports. So he went to them and took away their implements and told them that was against his conscience, that they should play and others work. If they made the keeping of it a matter of devotion, let them keep their houses; but that there should be no gaming or reveling in the streets. Since which time nothing hath been attempted that way, at least openly.

Christian opposition to Christmas continued for much of the rest of the century in New England.  Next door to Plymouth, the Massachusetts Bay Colony officially prohibited the celebration of Christmas in 1659.  The ordinance below continued on the books of the colony’s General Court until 1681:

It is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offense five shilling as a fine to the county.

Puritan ministers like Cotton Mather and Increase Mather likewise denounced celebration of the holiday, noting that nowhere does Scripture identify the date of Jesus’ birth nor instruct Christians to celebrate it.  They observed that the holiday as celebrated in England made a mockery of Christian piety and was little more than an excuse for every form of carnal excess and indulgence.   Such sentiments were slow to fade, and Boston schools were open on Christmas Day for much of the nineteenth century.

So what do we make of all this?  Our temptation will be to embrace or dismiss this evidence from the past based purely on its utility.  This is because Christmas has become just another front in the culture wars, and to win wars requires ammunition.  Conservatives condemn liberals, liberals mock conservatives, and both sides reach for whatever weapons are at hand, including historical ones.  If the facts of history can be used against our enemies, wonderful.  But if the facts refuse to enlist on our side, we will be tempted either to change them or ignore them.

One of the great potential blessings of studying history is the opportunity to see our world with new eyes by entering into conversation with those who have gone before us, men and women not shaped by the cultural values that we take for granted.  The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge said that most of us live like “bats but in twilight,” blindly guided by forces that we never see.  Although I suspect that he means well, when Bill O’Reilly marvels that any American would wish to diminish the celebration of Christmas, he is unwittingly encouraging American Christians not to think deeply about the holiday.

 

 

 

THE “NASTY” ORIGINS OF HOW WE SEE SANTA

Does the name “Thomas Nast” ring a bell with you?  Specialists in U.S. history know him well, but otherwise he’s not much remembered today.  But even though we don’t recall him, his influence is all around us at this time of year.  I think of Nast every time I pass a mall Santa or tune in to yet another Hallmark movie focused on the North Pole.  The reason is simple: Thomas Nast is the artist who showed us what Santa Claus really looks like.

Thomas Nast (1840-1902)

Thomas Nast (1840-1902)

Born in Germany,  Nast came to America as a child in the 1840s and quickly showed an aptitude for art.  By his early twenties he was working as an illustrator and cartoonist for several prominent national publications, most notably Harper’s Weekly, the self-described “journal of civilization” which as early as 1860 had a  circulation upwards of 200,000.  Nast was first and foremost a political cartoonist, and he quickly became widely known for his cartoons attacking municipal corruption–most notably his campaign against New York City machine boss William Tweed, who fell from power in 1871, in so small part due to Nast’s devastating campaign against him.

I know Nast best, however, for his cartoons pertaining to the politics of Reconstruction (1865-1877).  Here are a few of my favorites that I have long used in my classes dealing with that period of U.S. history:

"This is a White Man's Country," Harper's Weekly, September 5, 1868

“This is a White Man’s Government,” Harper’s Weekly, September 5, 1868

“This is a White Man’s Government” appeared in the September 5, 1868 issue of Harper’s Weekly.  The title was inspired by the motto of the Democratic ticket in the upcoming presidential election pitting Governor Horatio Seymour of New York against the Republican nominee Ulysses Grant.  Determined to portray the Republican Party as radical in its advocacy of civil rights for former slaves, Democratic campaign ribbons proclaimed “This is a White Man’s Country: Let White Men Rule.”  Nast, a staunch Republican, suggested that Democratic rule would be built on an unholy triumvirate of objectionable elements.

Numerically the largest consisted of ignorant northern Democratic voters, most of them semi-civilized, uneducated recent immigrants who had opposed the war.  (Nast’s portrayal of Irish individuals in his cartoons is almost always grossly demeaning.  The Irishman on the left, wielding a club labeled “The Vote,” has all the features of a monkey.)  Second in number would be southern white Democrats, almost all of whom had been disloyal to the Union during the late war.  (The figure in the middle is supposed to be former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, first imperial wizard or the Ku Klux Klan.)  The third and smallest element, here represented by a New York City financier named August Belmont, a behind-the-scenes power broker in the Democratic Party, stands for Fifth Avenue types who had gotten rich during the war and who were willing to buy up the votes of the urban rabble to promote their nefarious schemes.  (Belmont is clutching a wallet stuffed with cash for that purpose.)  Underneath the three lies a prostrate black Union veteran, dressed in uniform, clutching the U. S. flag, and reaching out for the ballot box.  Nast here is making a powerful argument for black civil rights by reminding readers that thousands of southern blacks had risked their lives in support of the Union, in stark contrast to the pillars of the Democratic Party.

Harper's Weekly,  October 24, 1874

Harper’s Weekly,
October 24, 1874

Much the same message comes through in this untitled Nast cartoon that appeared in Harper’s Weekly in October 1874.  The phrases at the top of the cartoon are all pointed references to the Democratic Party.  “The Union as It Was” was a popular slogan of the 1864 Democratic presidential campaign of George McClellan.  “This is a White Man’s Government,” as we have already seen, became the primary Democratic rallying cry of the Seymour campaign four years later.  “The Lost Cause,” just above the skull and crossbones, refers to diehard former Confederates’ conviction that their cause had been just.  The two white figures that frame the cartoon (labeled “White League” and “K.K.K.”) allude to two white supremacist organizations that terrorized former slaves in the wake of emancipation and Confederate defeat.  The central focus of the cartoon shows grieving African-American parents holding their (apparently) slain child.  A spelling book lies on the ground near spatters of blood, and in the background are scenes of a lynching and a burning school house.  In describing the scene as “worse than slavery,” Nast was telling readers that a Democratic victory would mean the end of Reconstruction and the abandonment of four million former slaves to virtual re-enslavement.

But Nast wasn’t always so sympathetic in his portrayal of African Americans.  To be sure, the artist shared the predominant Republican position that the former slaves would be exploited and even brutalized if left to the mercies of the (Democratic) southern white majority.  But he became increasingly disillusioned by political corruption in the Grant Administration and increasingly disenchanted with Republican efforts to install black officeholders in the white majority South.  The drawing below, entitled “Colored Rule in a Reconstructed (?) State,”  appeared on the cover of Harper’s Weekly the same year as the previous Nast cartoon.  It purports to illustrate an alleged episode in South Carolina, the one former Confederate state where, if only for a brief period, African Americans constituted a majority in the state legislature.  However much southern blacks might deserve federal protection from white terrorism, Nast seems to be saying, they are far from ready to participate fully in their own government.

"Colored Rule in a Reconstructed (?) State, Harper's Weekly,  March 14, 1874

“Colored Rule in a Reconstructed (?) State, Harper’s Weekly, March 14, 1874

But Nast didn’t only produce cartoons about politics.  His association with Harper’s Weekly lasted from the early 1860s through the mid-1880s, and during those two-plus decades he also contributed thirty or so drawings of Santa Claus. It was only after their favorite cartoonist had brought him to life that Americans agreed on what Santa looked like.

Of course Clement Clark Moore had described “the right jolly old elf” in his 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”  Readers had learned from Moore about Santa’s twinkling eyes and merry dimples, his soot-tarnished clothes, and–how to put this delicately?–his less than rock-hard abs.  And yet it was the cartoonist  Nast who translated Moore’s poetic lines into the visual image we take for granted today.

But first Nast had to figure out for himself what Santa looked like.  His first attempt came in 1863, at the height of the American Civil War.  In “Santa Claus in Camp,” Nast sketched Santa as a large man decked out in red, white, and blue and delivering presents, not to sleepy children, but to Union soldiers.  (I call this version “Yankee Doodle Santa.”)  In an early post-war rendering (the 1866 cartoon “Santa Claus and His Works”), Nast portrayed Santa more in keeping with the description in Moore’s poem.  This Santa is clothed in a dark suit and is literally the size of an elf, so short that he had to stand on a chair in order to reach the stockings hanging from the mantle.  As the years, passed, however, Nast’s Santa grew in stature and exchanged his brown suit for a red one.  The 1880 sketch below is probably Nast’s best known Santa and is still reproduced even to this day.

This Nast illustration circulated in Harper's Weekly during the Christmas season of 1880, although appearing on an issue postdated as January 1, 1881.

This Nast illustration circulated in Harper’s Weekly during the Christmas season of 1880, although appearing on an issue postdated as January 1, 1881.

 

STARTLING STATISTICS ON WORLD CHRISTIANITY

from every tribe and nationIn my most recent post I recommended a great new book by Christian historian Mark Noll, From Every Tribe and Nation: A Historian’s Discovery of the Global Christian Story.   (See here.)  I focused on Noll’s account of how he was “rescued by the Reformation,” i.e., of how his faith was broadened, deepened, and revitalized by an encounter with Christians from the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries.  Noll’s story is a marvelous illustration of what C. S. Lewis had in mind when he exhorted us to “keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds.”

To whet your appetite further, I thought I would share a bit more from the book, this time from a chapter titled “By the Numbers.”  Here Noll shares an assortment of comparative statistics that attest to the recent dramatic changes that are remaking the map of world Christianity.  Here are a few, which I quote verbatim:

**********************************************************

* “Last Sunday, it is probable that more Chinese believers were in church than in all of so-called ‘Christian Europe’; as recently as 1970 there had been no legally open churches in China.”

* “Last Sunday, more Anglicans attended church in each of Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda than did Anglicans in Britain and Episcopalians in the United States combined . . .”

* “Last Sunday more members of the Pentecostal Assemblies of God in Brazil were in church than the combined total of the two largest Pentecostal denominations in the United States . . .”

* “Last Sunday more people attended the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul . . . than attended all of the churches in significant North American denominations, such as the Christian Reformed Church, the Evangelical Free Church, or the Presbyterian Church in America.”

* “From 1900 to 2000 the number of individuals affiliated with Christian churches in Europe, Latin America, [and] North America . . . rose at roughly the same rate as the general population.  By contrast, the number of affiliated Christians in Africa rose about five times faster than the general population, while the number in Asia rose four times as fast.”

*********************************************************

What’s your reaction to these statistics?  The first thing that struck me is how incredibly ignorant I am about the contours of Christianity in other parts of the world.  Although I am a Christian historian, I am not primarily a historian of Christianity, and so the figures that Noll shares speak to a vast field about which I have little or no knowledge, much less expertise.

Beyond that, I wonder how many of us might be troubled by these statistics, especially those that seem to indicate that the United States is declining in its significance within the larger story of world Christianity.  Ought we to be troubled?

It seems to me that there are two questions here that might easily be conflated.  The first involves the intrinsic vitality of Christianity within the United States.  Broadly speaking, is the church in this country alive and well, holding its own, or declining as a living testimony to the truth and power of the gospel?  The second involves the comparative prominence of U. S. churches in the larger story of world Christianity.  Do Christians in other parts of the world, for example, look to American churches for leadership, encouragement, and other forms of support?

These are related questions but they are not identical, which means that the answer to one does not automatically determine the answer to the other.  On the one hand, if Christianity in the United States is like salt that is losing its savor, then we should expect to see America’s role in world Christianity decline.  But why should the reverse also hold true?  If the United States is home to an ever shrinking proportion of the world’s Christians, if the world looks less and less to us for leadership, is that automatically cause for concern?  Or might it instead be cause for rejoicing, interpreted as evidence of the spread of the gospel to “every tribe and nation”?

This is a complicated question, and I won’t even pretend to try to answer it.  But as a Christian historian fascinated by the intersection between faith and American history, I do want to think about how we respond to it.  My guess is that our initial, unguarded response to the question says a lot about what we think America’s role in world Christianity ought to be.  That assumption, in turn, speaks to our sense of who we are.  It reveals something about our collective identity, in other words–our identity not just as Christians but as American Christians.  As a historian I’m convinced that our sense of collective identity both shapes and is shaped by the stories we tell about our past–the way that we remember our history.

All of this points to the conclusion that how we understand our country’s religious history will go a long way in shaping how we assign meaning to  contemporary trends in world Christianity and America’s place within it.  As I write this, I’m particularly mindful of the argument set forth in Peter Marshall and David Manuel’s The Light and the Glory. (For a previous post on the book, click here.)

With neither logic nor evidence on their side, Marshall and Manuel argued that the United States was founded to be God’s New Israel.  In the opening pages of The Light and the Glory, the authors pose the fundamental question, “Could it be that we Americans, as a people, were meant to be a ‘light to lighten the Gentiles’ (Luke 2:32)—a demonstration to the world of how God intended His children to live together under the Lordship of Christ?”

Their answer is a resounding “Yes!”  The authors relate how their research  convinced them that “God had put a specific ‘call’ on this country and the people who were to inhabit it. In the virgin wilderness of America, God was making his most significant attempt since ancient Israel to create a new Israel of people living in obedience to the laws of God, through faith in Jesus Christ.”

The Light and the Glory is the most widely read Christian interpretation of U. S. history ever published.  Readers learn from it that the United States wasn’t just founded as a Christian nation–it was God’s chosen nation.  Logically, shouldn’t those who accept this view of American history see the changing contours of world Christianity as God’s judgment against His chosen people, i.e., the United States?