Category Archives: C. S. Lewis on History


I’m still occasionally struck by the irony that the person who has helped me most in thinking through the nature of history wasn’t himself a historian.  But the irony that C. S. Lewis has frequently been my guide is more apparent than real.  Lewis was a scholar of ancient and medieval literature, and that gave him both an appreciation for the past and a language for expressing it that few historians have equaled.

C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis

Lewis rarely taught on literary works less than half a millennium old.  Of necessity, he spent much of his career trying to convince skeptical undergraduates that they should care about the world before they were born.  Few scholars have been more adept in exposing the arrogance that underlies “chronological snobbery” and the blindness that presentism perpetuates.  But he was also a master of metaphor and story, and he understood something we academics are prone to forget: namely, that when it comes to conveying complex truths, word pictures are often more effective than abstract theorizing.  Among his many intellectual gifts, Lewis’s greatest may have been his talent for translation, by which I mean his ability to make complicated concepts accessible to broad audiences.

It’s been a while since I’ve shared anything from my commonplace book, so I thought I’d pass along a couple of passages from Lewis that I copied just this morning.  They come from his short book A Grief Observed, a set of reflections that Lewis recorded as he was dealing with the death of his wife Helen.  I listened to A Grief Observed on tape while driving to see my father over spring break, and then I re-read it in hard copy once I returned to Wheaton.  It’s not a fun read, but it’s honest, convicting, and ultimately encouraging.  I recommend it.

Surely most of the readers who pick up A Grief Observed aren’t thinking about history at all.  They open its pages to see how Lewis dealt with death, perhaps to think about the ways that loss can challenge faith.  That’s as it should be.  But hidden early in Lewis’s “map of sorrow” are ruminations that spoke to me as a historian, for they wonderfully capture a challenge that I face every day.  When I ask students what causes them to admire a particular history book or history teacher, what I hear most commonly is that the book or teacher in question makes the past “come alive.”  This, then, becomes my challenge if I want to connect with them.  What they find engaging, I should strive to model.  Unfortunately, it’s impossible.

Only God resurrects the dead.

What do we really mean when we say that a particular work of history makes the past “come alive”?  Sometimes all we mean is that it entertains us, but often we have in mind much more than that.  With the historian as our guide, we have the sensation of traveling into the past; we imagine ourselves in another time.  Soon the historian fades into the background and we observe the drama in solitude, directly observing the historical figures that the historian has made to “come alive” for our benefit.

Early in A Grief Observed, Lewis bluntly dispels such misleading figures of speech.  Listen in as he talks with himself about advice that he should think less about himself and more about Helen (or “H”) as he deals with his grief:

Yes, that sounds very well.  But there’s a snag.  I am thinking about her nearly always.  Thinking of the H. facts—real words, looks, laughs, and actions of hers.  But it is my own mind that selects and groups them.  Already, less than a month after her death, I can feel the slow, insidious beginning of a process that will make the H. I think of into a more and more imaginary woman.  Founded on fact, no doubt.  I shall put in nothing fictitious (or I hope I shan’t).  But won’t the composition inevitably become more and more my own?  The reality is no longer there to check me, to pull me up short, as the real H. so often did, so unexpectedly, by being so thoroughly herself and not me.

Here Lewis confronts us with a disturbing reality.  Despite the clichés with which materialists comfort themselves—the dead do not live on in the memory of the living.  “What pitiable cant,” Lewis snorts.  Although Lewis loved Helen dearly and knew her intimately, he knows also that his memories of her are imperfect and selective.  And though it is heart-wrenching for him to acknowledge, he knows that the Helen who “lives” in his memory will be “more and more imaginary.”

Lewis elaborates his point by relating how he had recently met a man whom he hadn’t seen in ten years. Although he thought that he had remembered this acquaintance quite accurately, it took only five minutes of real conversation with the fellow to shatter that delusion.  “How can I hope that this will not happen to my memory of H.?” Lewis asks with palpable anguish.  “That it is not happening already?”

Slowly, quietly, like snow-flakes—like the small flakes that come when it is going to snow all night—little flakes of me, my impressions, my selections, are settling down on the image of her.  The real shape will be quite hidden in the end.  Ten minutes—ten seconds—of the real H. would correct all this.  And yet, even if those ten seconds were allowed me, one second later the little flakes would begin to fall again.  The rough, sharp, cleansing tang of her otherness is gone.

What a remarkable illustration!  And how does this help us to understand the body of knowledge we call “history”?  History, as John Lukacs puts is, is not the past itself but the “remembered past.”  And just as with Lewis’s memories of his late wife, the past as we remember it will always bear an imperfect resemblance to past reality.  We can magnify the disparity through sloppiness or dishonesty, but even in our best moments—when we labor to recreate the past with the utmost integrity—we always fall short.

Like Lewis, we can strive to immerse ourselves in the facts, we will (hopefully) purpose to invent no details, but the necessity of selecting, grouping, and interpreting the facts—figuratively breathing life into them—inescapably remains.  This means that to some degree we always remake the past subjectively.  “Little flakes” of us are perpetually, inexorably settling down on the past to obscure its real form.

So what are we to do with this truth?  Shall we throw up our hands and say the whole quest is futile, that there’s no point in pretending that we can learn anything about the past or from the past?  Absolutely not!  But if we take Lewis’s insight to heart, we’ll be more humble in the claims that we make to historical knowledge.  The exciting news is that God regularly pulls aside the curtain and grants us precious glimpses into the past.  The humbling news is that we always peer into the past “as through a glass, darkly.”


CSLewisAs a historian, one of the things I most appreciate about C. S. Lewis is his conviction that the present has much to learn from the past.  As a teacher, one of the things I admire most about Lewis is his ability to communicate that conviction in an accessible, memorable, and imaginative way.  The extended quote below from my commonplace book wonderfully embodies both of these features.

The quote comes from Lewis’s WWII-era classic The Screwtape Letters.  If you’re not familiar with the book, I heartily recommend it.  It is a great example of Lewis’s genius at using imaginative literature to convey spiritual truth.  The book consists of a series of 31 letters from a senior devil named Screwtape to his nephew, a junior devil named Wormwood.  Throughout the letters, Screwtape lavishes his nephew with advice on how to cause Christians to stumble.   The book is both engaging and convicting, as long as you remember that everything comes from a diabolical perspective.  What Screwtape is recommending, Lewis is warning us to avoid.

Screwtape lettersToward the end of the book, in letter 27, Screwtape shares with Wormwood about what he calls “the Historical Point of View.”  In context, Screwtape has been explaining to his nephew how best to undermine the effectiveness of human prayers.  He notes that an ancient writer  had shared insights that, if humans took them to heart, would badly undermine the devils’ strategy.  There is no need to worry, however, Screwtape assures his nephew.  “Only the learned read old books, and we [he means the devils of Hell] have now so dealt with the learned that they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so.”  Screwtape then goes on to explain the reason for this hellish success:

We have done this by inculcating the Historical Point of View.  The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true.  He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase in the writer’s development, or in the general history of thought, it illustrates, and how it affected later writers, and how often it has been misunderstood (specially by the learned man’s own colleagues) and what the general course of criticism on it has been for the last ten years, and what is the “present state of the question.” To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge–to anticipate that what he said could possibly modify your thoughts or your behavior–this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded.  And since we cannot deceive the whole human race all the time, it is most important thus to cut every generation off from all others; for where learning makes a free commerce between the ages there is always the danger that the characteristic errors of one may be corrected by the characteristic truths of another.  But thanks be to Our Father [i.e., Satan] and the Historical Point of View, great scholars are now as little nourished by the past as the most ignorant mechanic who holds that “history is bunk.”

Isn’t that a delightful passage?  I could go on and on about it, but let me share just a few observations.  First, Lewis is reminding us that there are moral consequences to our ready dismissal of the past.  By cutting ourselves off from all those who have gone before us, we forfeit the hard-won wisdom of experience that our ancestors might otherwise bequeath to us.  This lessens our ability to live virtuously.  Our contempt for the past is itself a sign of a moral shortcoming on our part, namely intellectual pride–or what Lewis elsewhere labeled “chronological snobbery.”

Second, while there are many reasons why western society as a whole learns little from history, be sure to notice that in this passage Lewis is focused on “the learned.”  The Historical Point of View that he describes is most pronounced among the well educated, but I think we can be even more specific:  In the United States, at least, the Historical Point of View–the mindset that finds it “unutterably simple-minded” to suppose that one could learn how to live by studying the past–is most pronounced among academic historians. At its best–in the words of historian David Harlan–the study of history should be “a conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live.”  Too often in today’s universities, however, the study of history is a closed, self-referential conversation that individuals with Ph.Ds have with each other.

Finally, don’t miss the potshot that Lewis takes at the individual who was then the wealthiest man in the world.  During WWI, automobile tycoon Henry Ford had famously lectured Congress on the worthlessness of the past. “I don’t know much about history, and I wouldn’t give a nickel for all the history in the world,” Ford proclaimed.   “History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.”

Somewhere in the Lowerarchy of Hell, Screwtape smiled.


Lewis IIC. S. Lewis was one of the greatest Christian apologists of the twentieth century, and I have long appreciated many of his better known popular works. As a young adult, I read and re-read classics such as Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, Miracles, and The Problem of Pain. Then when our children came along and they were old enough, my wife recommended that I read The Chronicles of Narnia to them. Soon Peter and Susan and Edmund and Lucy—not to mention a host of centaurs, dwarves, giants and dufflepuds—were part of our regular bedtime routine. Count me a fan.

Although I never expected it when I first began to read Lewis, he has also helped me immensely in thinking about my calling as a historian and a teacher. I was reminded of this recently in re-reading Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, a book that I was informally discussing with a small group of Wheaton undergraduates. If you don’t know the book, I highly recommend it, particularly if you are at all interested in the role that education plays in both affecting and reflecting popular values. It’s a short book (most editions come in at under one hundred pages), but it’s also a difficult book, the kind that you have to read slowly, and more than once, to get the maximum benefit. But isn’t that true of most books that change us, rather than merely entertain us?

abolition of manSummarizing broadly, The Abolition of Man is a meditation on the ways that education shapes our sense of morality. Above all, it is a powerful indictment of relativism. Although Lewis was writing about seventy years ago, his words are timely today. Indeed, his description of WWII-era England neatly captures the trends that define public education in the contemporary United States. With little sense of irony, we deny the existence of absolute moral values and then are appalled at the epidemic of drug abuse, violence, and sexual promiscuity that plagues our schools. As Lewis put it, “such is the tragi-comedy of our situation” that we “clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. . . . We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate, and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

The Abolition of Man is a jeremiad, an extended warning. Lewis’s primary concern is to call attention to the disastrous long-term consequences of an educational philosophy that denigrates moral truth. Necessarily, it is mostly critical. Yet embedded in Lewis’s negative assessment are glimpses of a very different approach to education, glimpses that offer positive ideals to strive toward. Let me share a favorite example of what I have in mind.

It comes in the midst of chapter one, provocatively entitled “Men Without Chests.” Lewis has just finished discussing a passage from a high-school literature textbook that undermines the idea of objective moral values. The unsuspecting students who read the book will think that they are only learning grammar. In reality, however, they are also learning philosophy, for the implicit message of the passage is that “all values are subjective and trivial.” Giving the authors of the textbook the benefit of the doubt, Lewis concedes that their intentions might be honorable. Even so, they are sadly misguided, for they have

misunderstood the pressing educational need of the moment. They see the world around them swayed by emotional propaganda—they have learned from tradition that youth is sentimental—and they conclude that the best thing they can do is to fortify the minds of young people against emotion. My own experience as a teacher tells an opposite tale. For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity.  The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.

I’ve found these two phrases—“cutting down jungles” and “irrigating deserts”—to be wonderfully useful metaphors. They have helped me to think more perceptively about the conventions of academic history, and they have enabled me to see more clearly how those conventions have influenced what I bring to the classroom. “Cutting down jungles,” as I understand that phrase, means helping students with passionate convictions to evaluate critically their world views, to examine what lies beneath the personal beliefs they profess. “Irrigating deserts,” conversely, involves nurturing in apathetic or cynical students the hope that there is meaning and purpose in human existence.

We academic historians are great at cutting down jungles. Read almost any reflection on the historian’s vocation by an academic historian and you will come across statements like the following: “Basically history is destructive.” “The practice of history is not comforting” but “profoundly subversive.” “Honest history” will be “unsettling” and “jarring.” It pushes people “to stand outside their comfortable . . . assumptions and to learn unpleasant lessons.” Our “proper role” as historians is to “challenge preconceptions and assumptions,” “critique and reform unreflective modes of civic discourse about the past,” criticize “American cultural and societal failures,” “challeng[e] received wisdom,” “explode national myths.” Yep, we love to wield our machetes.

But we’re a pretty sorry lot when it comes to irrigating deserts. Academic history is too often “all head and no heart,” in the words of distinguished historian Gordon Wood. Taking Lewis’s counsel seriously demands that we correct that imbalance. Historians need to recover a role that not only criticizes but encourages, that not only explodes myths, but also serves as the custodian of forgotten dreams for a better world. Yes, we must challenge the self-serving assumptions of the culture, but we must also boldly identify, in the words of David Harlan, “what is good” in our past, “what is worth insisting on and saving.” Figuring out how to do that is a challenge, but it is a goal worthy of our best efforts.

(To read my previous reflections on what Lewis can teach us about studying history, see here, here, and here.)


Before moving on to other things, I want to share one more passage from the writings of C. S. Lewis that I appreciate as a historian.  As I have shared in the previous three posts, even though Lewis was a specialist in ancient and medieval literature by training, he had some remarkable insights into the nature of history.  Although I just wrote “even though” (as if Lewis’s training in literature was a hindrance to historical thinking), the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that Lewis’s historical insights were a result of his training in literature, not in spite of it.

Lewis IITo begin with, because he specialized in very old literature, Lewis was constantly faced with a challenge that every history teacher knows well, namely the difficulty of convincing a present-minded society that we have much to learn from previous ages.  Of necessity, he perfected a persuasive case against what he liked to call “chronological snobbery.”  Second, his immersion in stories helped him to appreciate that what we call “history” is not the past in its vast totality but instead the stories (hopefully true) that we tell about our pasts as we try to make sense of our lives and of the world around us.

Lewis’s appreciation of history as story comes through powerfully in his essay “Historicism,” which I alluded to two posts ago.  In “Historicism” Lewis takes on those amateur students of history (most commonly politicians, pastors, and pundits) who are convinced that they can, “by the use of their natural powers, discover an inner meaning in the historical process” or discern the ultimate historical meaning of particular historical events.  From Lewis’s perspective, any attempt to do so apart from divine revelation is a fool’s errand.  The historian rightly does his or her best to determine what has happened in the past, to explain what has happened, to evaluate what has happened, perhaps even to suggest how to learn from what has happened, but the historian, as a historian, must not try to tell us the ultimate meaning of what has happened.  To do so, Lewis insists, is at worst “positively mischievous,” at best a “waste of time.”  Why does he think so?

To understand the answer, we start with Lewis’s appreciation of history as the story of humanity.  As someone whose professional life was given to interpreting and constructing stories, Lewis knew that the significance of any character or action in a story is determined by the story’s overall plot.  As an example, he imagined discovering a six-line fragment of a lost Greek play.  We might be intrigued by the mention of an action or a character, but without a clear sense of the plot of the play we would not know what significance to attach to either.

When we study history, we find ourselves in much the same situation.  At its broadest, we study history in order to gain greater understanding into our own place and time.  Fighting our narcissistic tendency to see the world as revolving around us, the study of history challenges us to situate our brief sojourns on earth within a far larger story, the unfolding drama of the human race.  But what is the plot of that larger story?  Apart from divine revelation, Lewis contends, the plot would be utterly unknowable.  Like the scholar who stumbles across a mere scrap of a Greek play, we simply don’t have enough to go on.

Lewis’s keen insight was that we have only a fragment of the script of the human drama.  I have already called attention to his eloquent distinction between history and the past.  If the past can be likened to “a roaring cataract of billions upon billions” of moments,” what we call “history” consists of that minute fraction of the total that can be recaptured in the surviving historical record.  What the historian works with is not the past itself, Lewis realized, but “fragments, copies of copies of fragments, or floating reminiscences of copies of copies.”

But it is not just that most of the script of the drama before we show up has been lost.  Some part of the play—how much we don’t know—has yet to be performed.  Lewis understood that our efforts to discern the ultimate meaning of history not only require a comprehensive knowledge of the past.  We need to know the future as well—a sense of where “history is headed”—if we are to position ourselves in its trajectory.  The problem is that “we have no notion what stage in the journey we have reached.  Are we in Act I or Act V?  Are our present diseases those of childhood or senility?”  The play has already started when we arrive, and in our short time on the scene we cannot even conclude whether it is a comedy or a tragedy.  This is because, as Lewis puts it, “a story is precisely the sort of thing that cannot be understood till you have heard the whole of it.”

Throughout “Historicism,” Lewis makes clear that what he is criticizing is not the longing to find ultimate meaning in history, but rather the pretentious claim to be able to discern such meaning apart from the revelation of God.  As Christians, this should both encourage and convict us.  We are encouraged by the reminder that the human story is not simply one thing after another, a meaningless tale without plot or significance.  We are convicted when we realize how often American Christians have presumed to proclaim God’s understanding of our nation’s past or His purposes for our future.  Such assertions are never historical conclusions, rightly understood.   They are prophetic declarations.


For the past couple of posts I have been sharing some of the ways that the writings of C. S. Lewis speak to Christians interested in history.  Lewis is probably best known today for the fabulously popular series of children’s books, The Chronicles of Narnia.  Many Christians also know him as one of the twentieth century’s most influential Christian apologists.  A half century after his death, Lewis still speaks to truth seekers through works like The Screwtape Letters, The Abolition of Man, and, above all, Mere Christianity.

But in addition to being a novelist and Christian apologist, Lewis was also an internationally recognized scholar of medieval and renaissance literature, first for nearly three decades at Oxford University, then for the last years of his life at Cambridge.  I think it was Lewis’ passion for old books that more than any other factor accounts for his value to the historian.  He knew that the past had something to say to the present, something that the present very much needed to hear.  But it was not enough simply to convince his students to read old books; they had to be taught how to read if their conversation with the past was to be life changing.

C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis

Lewis makes this point marvelously in one of his least known essays, a piece titled “De Audiendis Poetis” (“On Hearing the Poets”) that was found among his personal papers after his death and published posthumously in a collection of his essays (Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, 1966).  Lewis begins matter-of-factly: “There are more ways than one of reading old books.”  As with his introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, Lewis’s observations with regard to literature are almost precisely what the student of history needs to hear as well.

As Lewis does so often, he makes a complex truth understandable by fashioning an analogy to everyday life, in this case by comparing the study of the past to visiting a foreign country.  FYI, in recent years academic historians have frequently employed this exact same analogy.  They often quote, without always citing the source, the opening line of the 1953 novel The Go-Between, by British writer L. P. Hartley.  “The past is a foreign country,” Hartley proclaims in the novel’s opening line, “they do things differently there.”  I do not know if Lewis drew his analogy from Hartley, but the two were contemporaries, and The Go-Between came out not too many years before Lewis penned “De Audiendis Poetis,” so the connection is at least possible.  Here is how Lewis develops the analogy:

There are two ways of enjoying the past, as there are two ways of enjoying a foreign country.  One man carries his Englishry [great word!] abroad with him and brings it home unchanged.  Wherever he goes he consorts with the other English tourists.  By a good hotel he means one that is like an English hotel.  He complains of the bad tea where he might have had excellent coffee.  He finds the “natives” quaint and enjoys their quaintness. . . . But there is another sort of traveling . . . . You can eat the local food and drink the local wines, you can share the foreign life, you can begin to see the foreign country as it looks, not to the tourist, but to its inhabitants.

Lewis’s analogy reminds us that when we study the past we can count on encountering both what seems familiar to us and what strikes us as strange.  And just as with his hypothetical tourist, our natural tendency is to stay within our comfort zone, to seek out the familiar in the past (or what appears to be so) and camp out there.  Is there anything wrong with that?

The answer depends on your objective.  The English tourist who hangs out with the other English tourists “may have a pleasant time.”  But the tourist who immerses himself in the local culture comes “home modified, thinking and feeling as [he] did not think and feel before.”  The difference is immense.

To be educated is to experience transformation, Christian writer Parker Palmer observes.  Authentic education, among other things, always changes who we are.  Part of history’s priceless potential is its ability to introduce us to ways of thinking and knowing that challenge and convict us.  But unless we are careful, we will ignore the strangeness of the past—those parts that challenge us—and exaggerate the familiar aspects that comfort and confirm.  Particularly is this true when we know in advance what we want to find in the past.

With all due respect to popular Christian writers like David Barton or the late Peter Marshall Jr., we must be wary any time we study the past primarily to “prove points” in contemporary “culture wars.”  When we ransack the past in search of ammunition rather than illumination, we predictably find what we are looking for, but we rob history of its power in the process.  History loses its potential to surprise and unnerve us, ultimately to teach us anything at all.  We learn nothing beyond what we already “know,” which is another way of saying that our study of the past ceases to be educational.  We may have a “pleasant time” on our excursion, but we will come home unchanged.


One of the challenges that we face in trying to think clearly about history lies in the inexact meaning of the word itself.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, history has at least twelve distinct meanings.  Many of the listed usages are rare today, but a few are still common.  Our tendency to use them interchangeably can get us into trouble.

Setting aside the revealing usage when we say that someone or something is “history,” i.e., utterly irrelevant to the present, there are two different phenomena we commonly have in mind when we refer to history.  We are probably either thinking of (1) everything that has happened until now, or (2) what is known and taught about everything that has happened until now.  These are not the same things, and the difference is not trivial.

To help my students differentiate these concepts, I encourage them to speak of all that has happened until now as “the past,” and to reserve the term history for our efforts to make sense of the past.  (I like the wording of the Christian historian John Lukacs, who refers to history as “the remembered past.”)  The first and single most important step to thinking historically is coming to grips with this fundamental distinction between history and the past.

C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis

Here I find C. S. Lewis to be a valuable ally.  In my last post, I quoted from Lewis to make a case for the importance of studying the past.  In his introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, Lewis reminds us that we cannot understand ourselves by ourselves.  If we want to think deeply, clearly, wisely about our own day, we must cast off the “chronological snobbery” of our present-tense age and strive “to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds.”

In another of his lesser known essays, “Historicism,” Lewis does a similarly masterful job of conveying this most basic distinction between history and the past.  Midway through the essay, Lewis begins with this indisputable assertion:

Each of us finds that in his own life every moment of time is completely filled.  He is bombarded every second by sensations, emotions, thoughts, which he cannot attend to for multitude, and nine-tenths of which he must simply ignore.  A single second of lived time contains more than can be recorded.  And every second of past time has been like that for every man that ever lived.

Lewis would have us understand that we use terms like “the past” far too lightly, never really stopping to realize what the term actually encompasses.  Having concluded that even a single moment involves more than we could ever document, much less comprehend, he goes on to define “the past” in terms of a most memorable metaphor:

The past . . . in its reality, was a roaring cataract of billions upon billions of such moments: any one of them too complex to grasp in its entirety, and the aggregate beyond all imagination.  By far the greater part of this teeming reality escaped human consciousness almost as soon as it occurred.  None of us could at this moment give anything like a full account of his own life for the last twenty-four hours.  We have already forgotten; even if we remembered, we have not time.  The new moments are upon us.  At every tick of the clock, in every inhabited part of the world, an unimaginable richness and variety of “history” falls off the world into total oblivion.

What a marvelous word picture!  By inviting us to picture ourselves near the base of an enormous, deafening waterfall (or “cataract”), Lewis offers us a way imaginatively to grasp the nearly limitless scope of the past.  As you read his words, imagine yourself standing by the water’s edge with your arm extended, a Dixie cup in your hand.  If the rushing wall of water hurtling by represents the past, the drops that you capture in your paper cup would be analogous to history.  They’re not the same, are they?  And the difference, as Lewis trenchantly observed, “is not a question of failing to know everything: it is a question (at least as regards quantity) of knowing next door to nothing.”

This distinction between history and the past has numerous implications for thinking historically.  We can delve into those at another time.  For now, I want to stress how the distinction is critical to our ability to think Christianly about our efforts to understand the past.  “As a man thinks, so he is,” the Psalmist wrote.  It would be an oversimplification to say that what we think reflects our hearts and how we think shapes our hearts, but I think there is more than a grain of truth to the generalization.

I have come to believe that all authentically Christian education—whether in history or any other discipline—should promote the related qualities of humility and reverence.  Regrettably, the way that history is most commonly taught—a set of discrete facts to be mastered—fosters intellectual arrogance by reinforcing our tendency to think more highly than we ought about our capacity to know.  As Lewis’s metaphor helps us to see, the sum of all that humans have said and done and thought in the past is almost infinitely vast, and only a miniscule fraction of this immense expanse can be glimpsed in the flawed historical records that survive.  Remembering this should surely humble us.  As Lewis puts it, “when once we have realized what ‘the past as it really was’ means, we must freely admit that most” of the past “is, and will remain, wholly unknown to us.”

On the other hand, when we recall that there is One, the Architect and Lord of history, who comprehends the incalculable expanse of the past perfectly and exhaustively, our natural response should be one of reverence and awe.  With the psalmist we drop to our knees and declare, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me” (Psalm 139:6).  If we desire to think Christianly about history, nothing will promote that goal more than keeping in mind the distinction between history and the past.  For the Christian student of history, no truth more powerfully promotes a dual appreciation of human limitation and divine power.


Well, it’s been a million years or so since I last posted to this blog.  It’s not that I haven’t been thinking about you—just insanely busy.  My colleagues and I in the History Department here at Wheaton have been running a job search, revising our general education curriculum, and generally trying to enlighten young minds and spread light in the darkness, and there are just so many hours in the day.  Things have finally lightened up here a bit, and I am glad to be back.

Wheaton was privileged to host Professor Alister McGrath here on campus last week.  Formerly professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University, McGrath is now professor of Theology, Ministry, and Education at King’s College London.  He is a formidable scholar, a prodigious writer (author of more than fifty books), and as it quickly became evident when he spoke in chapel, an engaging and inspiring speaker.

C. S. Lewis

In his chapel remarks McGrath drew from his just released biography of that “eccentric genius” and “reluctant prophet,” C. S. Lewis (C. S. Lewis: A Life, Tyndale House, 2013).  In sharing some of the many ways that Lewis challenges us today, McGrath stressed, among several things, Lewis’s skill at translation, by which he meant Lewis’s knack for conveying profound truths in simple language.  This was one of his greatest talents, a gift that is rare in today’s academy, which neither encourages nor rewards scholars who communicate with broad audiences.

Because Lewis was such a well-known apologist, most of us are aware of his success at explaining the basic tenets of the Christian faith—what he liked to call “mere Christianity.”  His knack for translation was not limited to the realm of theology, however.  Indeed, I have encountered several passages in Lewis’s writings that memorably communicate profound truths about history.  In the next few posts, I’d like to share some of the passage that I treasure most.

The first comes from one of Lewis’s lesser known essays, his introduction to the book De Incarnatione (“On the Incarnation”) by St. Athanasius, a fourth-century Alexandrian apologist for the Christian faith.  Reading between the lines, it is clear that Lewis expected a certain skepticism among his readers.  Why waste time on a book nearly seventeen centuries old?  What could this obscure Egyptian possibly have to say worth hearing?  Aren’t such ancient books better left to the experts?  Interestingly, Lewis doesn’t begin by making a case for Athenasius’ work specifically.  Rather, he launches a much broader assault.  As a rule, he insists, we benefit much more from old books than from newer ones.  His explanation, crafted with the study of literature in mind, is simultaneously a compelling argument for the power of the past to enrich our lives.  Writing in 1944, Lewis begins by noting that

Every age has its own outlook.  It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.  We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period.  And that means the old books. . . . Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny.  They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions.

Lewis here pinpoints one of the haunting truths of the human condition.  As I stress to my students in every course that I teach, many of the values that profoundly shape our outlook on life are invisible to us.  How this is possible is simple to explain: we become blind to anything we take for granted.  The values that divide our culture are hard not to notice; the values that unite us gradually disappear, precisely because they are so pervasively accepted.  We come to see them as natural, and then we eventually cease to see them at all.  The nineteenth-century English essayist Samuel Taylor Coleridge anticipated Lewis’s insight with a memorable metaphor.  “In every state,” Coleridge wrote, “a philosophy, good or bad, there must be. . . . Nor is this the less true, because the great majority of men live like bats, but in twilight, and know and feel the philosophy of their age only by its reflections and refractions.”  Like bats in twilight—how easy it is to go through life blindly guided by values that we feel more than see!

One of the ways to avoid such blindness, Lewis realized, is to reject the provincialism of our own particular moments in time.

We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?”—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt . . . None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books.  Where they are true, they will give us truths which we half knew already.  Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill.  The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds . . .

Lewis goes on to write that the only way to do this is by “reading old books.”  Here I would disagree with him slightly, broadening his prescription to include the study of history in all its diversity of voices.  If history is “a conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live” (in the words of historian David Harlan), we can hear the voice of those who have gone before us not only from their books but also from their diaries and memoirs, newspapers and correspondence, legal records and census data, architecture and archaeological remains.  Lewis is dead on in his basic point, however.  We cannot understand ourselves by ourselves.  We cannot think deeply about our own time without knowledge of what has gone before.  It is not that the past itself has authority over us, or that the dead were necessarily wiser than we are.  But they can help us to see our own world more clearly, and unless we see our world clearly, we can neither think deeply about it nor act effectively in it.

Lewis concluded his broad case for the “clean sea breeze of the centuries” with a testimony to the value of history that he had earlier articulated, in slightly different language, in his famous 1939 sermon “Learning in Wartime.”  I find that earlier language more powerful, so I’ll conclude this post with it:

We need intimate knowledge of the past.  Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.  A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.

As my wife loves to exclaim, “You can say that two times.”