Monthly Archives: December 2015

THE YEAR IN REVIEW: WHAT YOU COULD HAVE READ HERE IN 2015 (BUT PROBABLY DIDN’T)

Yesterday I listed the most frequently read posts from Faith and American History in 2015.  Before the clock strikes twelve, I thought I would also make a plea for a few posts that I wish more of you had read.  As I’ve shared before, I started this blog because I wanted to enter into conversation with other Christians about the interrelationship between the love of God, the life of the mind, and the study of the past.  Sharing with you through this medium is, for me, an extension of my vocation as a teacher.  It’s been said that to teach effectively is to “love something publicly,” and that’s what I try to do on this site.  It may not always show, but I love the ideas and principles that I am trying to convey here, and I long to be motivated by love as well as I write.  Below are some of the posts from the past year that I most loved writing:

HannahCoulter** In March I read a novel by one of my favorite authors, Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter.  Set in the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky, Hannah Coulter is a story about relationships: relationships with the land, with family, with neighbors–and with the dead.  Penetrating my heart as much as my head, the book taught me a lot about being a historian.  If you want to know more, read “From My Commonplace Book: Wendell Berry on Protecting the Dead.”

** April 19, 2015 was the 240th anniversary of the battles of Lexington and Concord and the 20th anniversary of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City by Timothy McVeigh.  When McVeigh was subsequently arrested, he was wearing a t-shirt bearing a quotation from our nation’s third president: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”  in “Timothy McVeigh, Thomas Jefferson, and the Lexington Minutemen,” I explored the historical context of Jefferson’s quote and its tragic hijacking by extremists who falsely appeal to American history while knowing little of its true heroes.

Timothy McVeigh's t-shirt is now on display at the Oklahoma City Memorial and Museum.

Timothy McVeigh’s t-shirt is now on display at the Oklahoma City Memorial and Museum.

Apostles of Reason** As summer approached I wrote two essays that drew on my decades-long experience at a public university before coming to Wheaton College.  Writing nearly twenty years ago, distinguished historian George Marsden famously observed that “contemporary university culture is hollow at its core.”  That was my conclusion as well.  In “Secular Education Has Its Own “Crisis of Authority,” I responded to a recent, much acclaimed work by a Duke University scholar on the “crisis of authority in American evangelicalism.”  In “The Contradictions of the Secular University,” I argued that today’s secular university (1) exalts reason but lacks a logical foundation for its dogmatic morals, and (2) exalts democracy but is averse to genuine pluralism.

** Finally, prompted by an amazing gift from a former student, in October I penned “A Tribute to Two Teachers,” a brief reflection on two educators who touched me in very different but equally life-transforming ways.  What “deathless power lies in the hands of such persons.”

Happy New Year one and all–I look forward to renewing the conversation in 2016.

 

THE YEAR IN REVIEW: WHAT YOU READ HERE IN 2015

As 2015 draws to a close, I’ve spent the morning alternately looking through my office window at the snowy campus and reviewing the WordPress statistics on what you read from this blog over the past year.  I thought I would share a bit of what I learned.  None of the posts below was exactly “popular,” but quite a few of you thought they were worth reading.

Light and the Glory I** For the second year in a row, the most widely read essay of the past twelve months was a piece that I wrote back in 2013 on The Light and the Glory, by the late Peter Marshall Jr. and David Manuel.  Marshall and Manuel began their fabulously popular “God’s Plan for America” trilogy nearly four decades ago, and their Christian interpretation of U.S. history has shown remarkable staying power.  I respect both authors and sympathize with their motives, but their approach to America’s past is deeply flawed and, I fear, has done much harm.  If you know someone who has been influenced by their interpretation and might be open to being challenged, would you consider forwarding them the link to my essay “Thoughts on The Light and the Glory?

Lewis II** The second most read post in 2015 was also from a previous year, my essay on a marvelous metaphor from C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man.  In that WWII-era classic, Lewis observed that “the pressing educational need of the moment” was not to “cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.”  Lewis’s enduring popularity among Christians interested in the life of the mind surely accounts for the success of this post.  For my take on Lewis’s metaphor and how it has informed my sense of calling as a teacher, see “C. S. Lewis on ‘Cutting Down Jungles’ and ‘Irrigating Deserts.'”

Oklahoma legislator Daniel Fisher

Oklahoma legislator Daniel Fisher

But what about the posts I actually shared this year?  (There have been 106 of them.)  The most popular had to do with my take as a historian on current historical controversies.  The first was a series of two posts last February in response to a proposal by Oklahoma state legislator Daniel Fisher to withdraw state funding from Advanced Placement U. S. History courses and stipulate the U. S. History curriculum for all state classrooms.  Although I’m no fan of the A.P. empire, I thought the proposal was colossally misguided.  If you missed them and would be interested in my reasoning or would like to know how my Christian convictions guide my thoughts about the value of history, see:

The Confederate battle flag flying outside the South Carolina capitol

The Confederate battle flag flying outside the South Carolina capitol

Next in popularity came a series of posts sparked by the tragic murder of nine congregants at Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E. Church on June 17 combined with the subsequent dissemination of pictures of the gunman posing with a Confederate battle flag.  The resulting furor led to an emotional national conversation about the meaning of one of the most controversial symbols in our nation’s past.  I wrote six lengthy reflections on the debate, calling attention to the ways that both sides of the argument tended to remember the past selectively and simplistically.  If you’re interested, you can revisit them by clicking on the links below:

Thanks for reading this past year.  I hope we can talk more in 2016.

LIVING “IN TIME”: NEW YEAR’S REFLECTIONS ON THINKING CHRISTIANLY AND HISTORICALLY

ball-drop

Another year is coming to an end, and that always leads me to think about how short life is. Does that strike you as morbid? I used to be self-conscious about this preoccupation—it’s occurred to me that I don’t get invited to a lot of New Year’s Eve parties—but I’m past that now. I think the Scripture is pretty clear that reminding ourselves of the brevity of life is something we need to do regularly. It’s a practice that can help us to follow Christ more faithfully—provided that we respond to the reminder rightly.

But did you know that reminding ourselves of the brevity of life can also help us to be better historians? As a Christian historian, it delights me to see that an awareness that we live “in time” is crucial both to thinking Christianly and to thinking historically.

As I’ve argued before on this blog, we err when we define “Christian history” by its focus, making it synonymous with the history of Christianity—the study of Christian individuals, ideas, and institutions throughout the past. We also miss the mark when we define it 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 want to suggest instead that Christian history is distinguished by the way of thinking that underlies it. 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 of the past will be but a subset of our larger call to “love the Lord with all our minds.” 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. Our approach will be to 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.

This is where the brevity of life comes in. Both thinking Christianly and thinking historically requires us to be constantly mindful that we live in time.

So 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 monotonously. “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. They are depressingly few, even for the most long-lived among us. 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 agree not to discuss death, we hide the lingering aged in institutions, and we expend billions to look younger than we are.

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 tomorrow 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 are just as 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.” 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 2016.

FROM MY COMMONPLACE BOOK: SENECA ON THE BREVITY OF LIFE (RE-POST)

I hope that each of you had a wonderful Christmas.  For me, the pleasure and excitement of the Christmas celebration gives way all too quickly to the introspection of the year’s end.  (You know it wouldn’t be this way if we were living in colonial America.  Until 1752, almost everyone in England and her colonies observed New Year’s Day on March 25th, not the 1st of January.)

At any rate, the close of the year always makes me more somber than giddy. Unlike the revelers who will throng Times Square in a few days, 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.

Seneca the YoungerThese 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.). I shared this quote a year ago, but I think it’s worth circulating again. Lucius Annaeus Seneca was a philosopher, statesman, and playwright, and by all accounts 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 Vitae (On 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 as another year comes to a close.

HOW A REPUBLICAN CARTOONIST TAUGHT US TO 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 no 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 Country,” 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 of the Ku Klux Klan.)

The third and smallest element is here represented by a New York City financier named August Belmont, a behind-the-scenes power broker in the Democratic Party. Belmont 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. (Notice that 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 was arguing 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.”) stand for two white supremacist organizations that terrorized former slaves in the wake of emancipation and Confederate defeat. These contrast starkly with the central focus of the cartoon, two grieving African-American parents weeping over their 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 southern white Democratic majority. But as time passed Nast 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.

"Santa Claus in Camp" (detail), from the cover of Harper's Weekly, January 3, 1863

“Santa Claus in Camp” (detail), from the cover of Harper’s Weekly, January 3, 1863

But first Nast had to figure out for himself what Santa looked like. His initial 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.

“FOR HATE IS STRONG AND MOCKS THE SONG”–A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS CAROL

I love Christmas carols and I would have a hard time choosing my favorite, 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 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.

“ODBODY’S AXIOM”–WHAT “IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE” CAN TEACH US ABOUT THINKING HISTORICALLY

It's a Wonderful Life IIDo Americans still watch It’s a Wonderful Life at Christmas time? I used to think that everyone was familiar with it, at least, but now I’m not so sure. I met a woman in church the other day who is “old enough to know better”—that is how my dad used to categorize anyone his age or older—and she stunned me by confessing that she has never seen this holiday classic. In case you haven’t seen it, I heartily recommend it. It’s a heartwarming, even inspiring story, but its real value is in how it teaches us to think historically. As effectively as any movie I’ve seen, it drives home the importance of historical 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.

Historians sometimes try to make this point by comparing history to an enormous, seamless tapestry. (Imagine the wall of a European castle here.) Although it’s possible to extract a single thread and examine it, it’s 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.

The bottom line is simple:

Know context, know meaning. No context, no meaning. 

But not everyone finds it easy to relate to a textile analogy. (Go figure.) This is where It’s a Wonderful Life comes in. 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-its-a-wonderful-life-32920425-1600-1202To begin with, the very structure of the movie teaches that context is indispensable to understanding. In case you don’t know the plot, 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.

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.

Its a Wonderful Life VIIBut 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.