REFLECTIONS FROM THE ROAD: WHY AMERICANS DISMISS THE PAST

Can seventeen hundred miles of driving by yourself qualify as a personal “retreat”? If so, then I recently enjoyed one.

Last week was spring break at Wheaton College, and I took advantage of the time to visit family in Tennessee and Georgia. I’ve now made the trek more than thirty times since moving to Wheaton in 2010. In addition to the pleasure of reconnecting with several generations of relatives, I’ve also come to enjoy the pleasures of the drive itself.

That’s not something I could have predicted, as I’ve been known to get irritated when I drive. I blame this on my father and take no responsibility. Dad hasn’t been able to drive for years, but in his prime he elevated impatience on the highway to an art form. He rarely used profanity to express his displeasure (although he had a creative assortment of euphemisms), but he did like to label the miscreants who violated his rules of the road. These tags had nothing to do with the culprits’ ancestry, by the way. Dad classified drivers by their age. If a teenager was tailgating him: “Dadburn it, I got me a young buck right on my tail.” If a senior citizen was slowing him down: “Dadgummit, we’re behind an old codger.” And if someone his own age was inexplicably less than perfect? “Doggone it, that scutter’s old enough to know better.”

As a rule, I struggle with the same impulses when driving close to home, but I enter a different state of mind on road trips. The difference, I think, is psychological. These trips come during school vacations. I’m in less of a hurry. I’m able to relax enough to savor the solitude and relish the opportunity to read (books on tape) and reflect. Relaxing, reading, reflecting—that sounds like a retreat, doesn’t it?

Parker Palmer says that your true vocation is not an obligation you strive to fulfill but a natural expression of how God made you. One of the reasons I believe I’m called to be a teacher is that my mind naturally turns toward the classroom even when I’m away from it. And so as the miles passed by, before I consciously realized it I was meditating on the conundrum that defines my vocational life: how to convince inhabitants of our present-tense culture to see—or perhaps, more accurately, to feel—the power of the past in their lives.

We are creatures who live in time. “Time is the very lens through which we see,” as C. S. Lewis puts it in The Great Divorce. Unavoidably, as humans we make sense of our lives retrospectively—from hindsight. And yet Americans are “stranded in the present,” to use Margaret Bendroth’s wonderful phrase, and what is more, we’re content with that soul-impoverishing isolation. We’re not just ignorant of the past. We’re contemptuous of it.

This is just as true of American Christians, although we have even less excuse than our secular neighbors. We claim to stake our lives on a faith that, at its heart, is “a vigorous appeal to history,” to quote Georges Florovsky. The core tenets of our faith rest on theological interpretations of historical events. If history is the story of humanity, we believe that God has ennobled that story beyond measure. God Himself set the story in motion. Its central characters bear His image. The Lord of the Universe actually entered into the story, identifying with its characters and walking the earth as one of them. He continues to be involved in the minutest details of the story, an epic that is unfolding according to His design and decree. And yet for the most part we mirror the culture’s debilitating presentism.

Why is this?

The answer is surely complicated and beyond our ability to nail down completely. But here are some likely culprits. First, as numerous historians have pointed out, as Americans, we remember our founding as a radical rupture with the past. Our Founding Fathers, we like to say, turned their backs on the Old World and brought something entirely new into being: a “new order for the ages” as those strange Latin words (novus ordo seclorum) declare on the back of our dollar bills.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the view that all but the most recent past was irrelevant had become a truism. “We are the great nation of futurity,” trumpeted the journalist John L. O’Sullivan, popularizer of the catch-phrase manifest destiny. “Our national birth was the beginning of a new history . . . which separates us from the past and connects us with the future only,” O’Sullivan informed readers of the Democratic Review. “We have no interest in the scenes of antiquity, only as lessons of avoidance of nearly all their examples. The expansive future is our arena.” It was an arrogant, ignorant, anti-intellectual, and popular assertion.

Second, if we’re evangelical as well as American, we’ve also been trained to be skeptical of most church history. As heirs of the Protestant Reformation, we’re suspicious of tradition and tend to think of the millennium and a half between the time of the Apostles and the arrival of Martin Luther as an enormous black hole. But even that’s probably too generous. The reality is that most of us think of Church history as starting with Billy Graham (if we’re “old codgers”) or even Rick Warren or Joel Osteen.  The growth of non-denominational churches has only heightened this sense of disjuncture with the past.

A third factor, I suspect, is technological. Relentless technological change conditions us to view anything from the past as inferior. The pace of change, furthermore, compresses our definitions of time. We describe a year-old phone or laptop as being from a previous generation. “How can you get by with such a dinosaur?” we ask. As Bendroth notes, one of the easiest ways to dismiss historical figures is to imagine how lost they would be in our present. As I write this, a popular cable TV company pitches its services by likening consumers without the latest technology to quaint nineteenth century settlers who churn their own butter and spin their own yarn. Looking for a symbol to represent ignorance and backwardness? No problem. The past is full of them.

My recent road trip drove home another cause of our present-mindedness: the relentless movement that has characterized American life for much of the past two centuries. This is because, in addition to visiting my father in Tennessee, I also made a quick overnight trip to see my father- and mother-in-law in southwest Georgia. Hunter and Brenda were living in the Atlanta suburbs when I first met them thirty-two years ago, but from our first conversation I understood that Hunter’s heart was in the rural community where he was born and raised. As soon as he had the opportunity, he left suburbia and built a house in the country only minutes from the farm he grew up on.

Living in this still rural community, Hunter sees reminders of his past in every direction. The church where his family worshipped (established in the 1830s) is a mile away. The school where his friends and neighbors all attended and his mother taught is just down the road. His best friend from childhood lives across the highway.  As we drive to dinner, he tells me who is buried in the cemetery off the road, explains who used to own the abandoned store we just passed, points out the house where the president of the senior class of 1956 still lives. In Hunter’s world, so different from my own, the past is a tangible frame of reference for the present.

In The Spiritual Practice of Remembering, Margaret Bendroth observes that another reason that we disregard the past is that we simply don’t think of it as real. As our communities become revolving doors—ever-shifting conglomerations of strangers—we lose the sense of physical connection with a personal past. The generations that have gone before us become abstractions. It becomes easier to ridicule them and, eventually, to ignore them.

Driving home, I began to wonder whether the alienation that we feel from the past is inseparable from the isolation that we feel in our present. Surely the two are reinforcing. After all, in addition to a shared love, isn’t a shared history one of the things that characterize our richest and most rewarding relationships? Might our rootlessness be reinforcing our present-mindedness?

I welcome your thoughts. Back in touch in a bit.

5 responses to “REFLECTIONS FROM THE ROAD: WHY AMERICANS DISMISS THE PAST

  1. The settlers DirectTV ad really resonated with me. I started kindergarten in 79. Throughout the 80s, me and my classmates were told repeatedly how our imagination, attention span, and ability to distinguish reality from fiction were under threat by the TV. Unlike my classmates, I lived in a household where this idea was taken seriously to the point where there was no TV in the house until I was 9 or 10. It always struck me as insulting as a kid who, if I had been at a friend’s house with a TV that morning, would have watched and enjoyed a cartoon show and had no difficulty understanding that it wasn’t real.

    As a 43 year old adult who takes free will seriously, it strikes me as hilariously self destructive. A teacher at the front of the classroom asking for the students’ attention is relying on them exercising their ability to willfully comply with that request, and then he opens the lesson by telling them that they have no such ability.

    For every example of the past being used as a symbol of ignorance and backwardness, you can find one directed at the present day and its generation of youth. What really makes my brain explode is how now I see my 40 something contemporaries wringing their hands about the sorry state of today’s youth with their technology. They use the exact same language that our teachers used 30 years ago to describe the exact same deficiencies. Today’s kids have no attention span. They have no imagination. They are sure to lose the ability to distinguish reality from fantasy. My 19 year old stepkid’s friend got this lecture on the first day of a college anthropology class. The proff opened the class with a rant about how their generation always glued to their smart phones . . . .

    When we otherize the youth because of their different technological experience, we otherize ourselves. If they take us seriously, the world of our childhood is a magical realm where people had great imaginative capacity, better attention span and everything was better and they just missed it by being born too late. On the other hand, when I was 7 and heard a teacher tell me just how bad things were today (in the 1980s) due to TV, I concluded that there was something fundamentally wrong with anyone over the age of 12. There were times in my life where I flipped over into the other attitude toward the recent past. These attitudes are opposites in one respect, but exactly the same in the barrier they create between me and the past.

    In Ken Follett’s novel The Man From St. Petersburg, there is a scene where a young woman around 17 and a 30 something man witness a suffragette demonstration in London and a mob starts beating on the women. The man helps the young girl escape and when she asks ” . . . why do those men enjoy attacking women?”

    He explains that the way the society of that time put women on pedestals expecting good men to worship them, when they find that women are not godlike, they hate them.

    I think this is a perfect metaphor for what we do to the people of previous generations when we describe the present day in a fallen broken state with respect to the past, or the reverse. We sabotage any chance of a productive conversation with the people who lived in another era by either looking down on them or worshipping them.

  2. Two comments…

    I like your sentence that begins, “My recent road trip drove home…”

    Based on personal experience, I think that one of the challenges to giving greater weight to the past is simply finding time to read, and deciding what to read with the time that is available. I read a lot, but my stack on unread books and magazines seems to grow faster than it is depleted.

  3. Reblogged this on Buffalo Doug and commented:
    Wheaton College historian Robert Tracy McKenzie offers some insight here on the peculiar ahistoricism of our time. Take a read and ponder …

  4. Jack Be Nimble

    As a history teacher myself I recognize the problem – the present mindedness that rejects meaning from the past. I am probably guilty of it too. But recently I have become acquainted with two interesting intrusions from the past into my life. The first is rather commonplace. My wife and I used to watch the Johnny Carson show before retiring, mainly for entertainment value. However, we discovered the reruns of that show that go back 30 or 35 years and now we watch to recapture those years and the events that marked them. We play a little game – guess the year from Johnny’s monologue. What memories this all brings back and what interesting people he managed to snag for his show. Nothing like it today. The second is my decision to revisit the Old Testament in a study with a Torah class located in Florida. The have put on computer lessons on each chapter of the Torah and have enlisted the expertise of Jewish scholars as well as Hebrew language expertise and cultural studies to present an interdisciplinary study. We modern Christians often think of the Old Testament as outdated and secondary to the New Testament. Nothing could be further from the truth and this study has opened up a whole new way of looking at my faith and the world around us. After all, the only sources Jesus and the Apostles had for their preaching and teaching was this First Testament. That was the main source for the early Christians, many of whom were Jews, until the Bible was canonized. In fact, it is in this testament that the Gospel is first revealed! Well, from the ridiculous to the sublime the past keeps intruding and I can’t seem to resist its appeal.

  5. Pingback: That Was The Week That Was – The Pietist Schoolman

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