Category Archives: Thinking Historically

NEW YEAR’S REFLECTIONS ON LIVING “IN TIME”

ball-drop

Another year is coming to an end, and that always leads me to think about how short life is. 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 2017.

WHEN CHRISTMAS WASN’T A HOLIDAY

"Pilgrims Going to Church," George H. Boughton, 1867

The day was December 25, 1621, and the storied “Pilgrims” of Plimoth Plantation were headed out to work.

Sometime that fall—we don’t know exactly when—the fifty passengers of the Mayflower who had survived their first winter in New England had joined ninety or more Wampanoag Indians in a harvest celebration we remember as “the First Thanksgiving.”  We tend to lose interest in their story at that point, unfortunately, although we know much more about the aftermath of the First Thanksgiving than we do about the celebration itself.

One of the things we know is that the Pilgrims’ struggle for survival continued for at least another two years.  This was partly due to the criminal mismanagement of the London financiers who bankrolled the Pilgrims’ voyage.  The “Merchant Adventurers,” as they were known, had sent another boatload of colonists for Plymouth that fall.  Only weeks after their 1621 harvest celebration, the Pilgrims were surprised by the arrival of the ship Fortune.  The thirty-five new settlers on board, including family and friends from the Pilgrim congregation in Leiden, would nearly double the colony’s depleted ranks, and the Pilgrims were initially elated.

Their joy was tempered when they discovered that the London merchants had again insisted on adding numerous strangers to the passenger list, “many of them wild enough,” in Governor William Bradford’s words.  What was worse, they had arrived with few clothes, no bedding or pots or pans, and “not so much as biscuit cake or any other victuals,” as Bradford bitterly recalled.  Indeed, the London merchants had not even provisioned the ship’s crew with sufficient food for the trip home.

The result was that, rather than having “good plenty” for the winter, the Pilgrims, who had to provide food for the Fortune’s return voyage and feed an additional thirty-five mouths throughout the winter, once again faced the prospect of starvation.  Fearing that the newcomers would “bring famine upon us,” the governor immediately reduced the weekly food allowance by half.  In the following months hunger “pinch[ed] them sore.”

To compound their adversity, not long after the First Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims received a message from the nearby Narragansett Indians threatening war.  Fearing for their safety, the depleted band began a frenzied construction of a log palisade around their tiny settlement.  (By the end of February they would complete a wall of logs eight feet high and twenty-seven hundred feet long!)  We tend to close the book on the Pilgrims’ story with the small band feasting around the Thanksgiving table.  It was actually but the briefest of interludes to a year of almost unimaginable hardships, and as the year drew to a close, the Pilgrims not one but two imminent threats: hunger and the Narragansett, starvation and war.

But that is not why they were headed out to work on Christmas Day.

They were headed out to work because Christmas Day was no different from any other day, in their estimation.   The Pilgrims understood the concept of holidays literally.  The word holiday in modern parlance is simply the elision of the two-word phrase “holy day.”  As they read their Bibles, the Pilgrims concluded that God alone could command that a day be set apart as holy unto the Lord, and nowhere in the Scripture could they find any commandment to celebrate the birth of Christ.  As the Pilgrims’ pastor in Holland had remarked to them, nowhere in the Bible are we even told that December 25th was Jesus’ birthday.  At the time that the Pilgrims fled England for Holland, the Church of England recognized twenty-seven holy days annually (down from ninety-five at the time that Henry VIII broke with Rome).  The survival of so many holidays on the Anglican calendar was evidence, in the minds of English Puritans, of the degree to which the Church of England still suffered from “the gross darkness of popery.”  Holidays like Christmas (and even Easter) were “papist inventions” that primarily served as a pretext for pagan celebrations.

The “strangers” recently arrived on the Fortune didn’t see it that way, however.  In his famous history Of Plymouth Plantation, Governor William Bradford concluded his review of the events of 1621 with a humorous story of what happened that Christmas:

On the day called Christmas Day, the Governor called them out to work as was used [i.e., as was customary].  But the most of this new company excused themselves and said it went against their consciences to work on that day.  So the Governor told them that if they made it a matter of conscience, he would spare them until they were better informed; so he led away the rest and left them.  But when they came home at noon from their work, he found them in the street at play, openly; some pitching the bar, and some at stool-ball [a game similar to cricket] and such like sports.  So he went to them and took away their implements and told them that was against his conscience, that they should play and others work.  If they made the keeping of it matter of devotion, let them keep their houses; but there should be no gaming or reveling in the streets.

A colleague of mine at the University of Washington once used the paragraph above as the text for his Christmas cards.  An Englishman and a historian of colonial America, he sent the cards primarily for laughs, to tweak his American friends.  There are also more substantive reasons to remember this story at Christmas time.  Bradford’s anecdote reminds us of history’s greatest value: the gift of allowing us to see our own moment in time from the vantage point of another.

Although we are historical creatures, none of us naturally thinks historically.  We come into the world taking for granted that the way things are now is the way that they have always been.  As we gradually come to discover otherwise, we then gravitate to a worse historical error, the assumption that the way things are now—though different from the past—is both inevitable and superior to what came before.  The result is that we are freed from thinking deeply about the values we hold.  Indeed, to the degree that we see them as inevitable or “natural,” we may not even be self-conscious about them at all.

Bradford’s anecdote reminds us that Christians—even in our part of the world—have not always thought of Christmas as we do.  When the English Puritans briefly controlled Parliament in the middle of the seventeenth century, they actually enacted a national law prohibiting observance of the day.  On this side of the water, Christian opposition to Christmas continued for much of the rest of the century in New England.  Next door to Plymouth, the Massachusetts Bay Colony officially prohibited the celebration of Christmas in 1659.  The ordinance below continued on the books of the Massachusetts government until 1681:

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

Puritan ministers like Cotton Mather and Increase Mather likewise denounced celebration of the holiday, noting that the holiday as celebrated in England made a mockery of Christian piety and was little more than an excuse for every form of carnal excess and indulgence.   Such sentiments were slow to fade, and Boston schools were open on Christmas Day for much of the nineteenth century.  Certainly, as late as the Civil War, the South was much more supportive of Christmas than was the North, where the anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing on December 22nd was the more commonly observed December celebration.

Like most of you, I imagine, my family has developed over time an assortment of Christmas traditions that we remember fondly and look forward to unapologetically.  None of us need follow William Bradford’s example by prohibiting celebrations this Sunday.  But it wouldn’t hurt us to think about why we do what we do.  In its essence, that is the practice that Bradford was modeling for us.  We don’t have to arrive at his exact conclusions to take his reminder to heart.

In England and the United States, at least, most of the Christmas traditions we now think of as timeless emerged during the latter half of the 1800s.  Many of these are surely wonderful—I know I’m thankful for Christmas carols, Christmas trees, Christmas cookies, and Christmas Eve candlelight services.  Some are not so positive.  The most obvious is the orgy of buying now so central to the holiday.  But even more pernicious—because less blatant—is the way that, even within our churches, we have narrowed the theological significance of the Incarnation to a sentimental story about a baby in a manger, emphasizing the love of God while severing the miracle of the Incarnation from the human need for Atonement and the divine promise of an already/not yet Kingdom.

For unto us a Child is born, Unto us a Son is given; And the government will be upon His shoulder.  And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  Of the increase of His government and peace There will be no end, Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, To order it and establish it with judgment and justice From that time forward, even forever.  The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this. (Isaiah 9:6-7)

Merry Christmas one and all!

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.

REMEMBERING 1492

I was born at a time before it was understood that the purpose of federal holidays was to provide public employees with a three-day weekend, which is another way of saying that I began grammar school before the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1971.  This means that I can remember when Columbus Day came every October 12th, instead of the Monday closest to that date.  This—along with the fact that I didn’t think of it until now—will explain why I am two days late posting this piece about Columbus Day.

I’m not an expert on Columbus—far from it—and I feel ill equipped to tackle the weighty moral questions embedded in the larger debate about whether as a nation we should have an annual holiday honoring this Genoese sailor.  I’ll leave that minefield to others and simply say that I’ve long found the history of popular memory of Columbus a great way to help students think about the nature of history.

Regardless of the specific course that I am teaching, the first thing that I want my students to understand is that history is not the same thing as the past.  Coming to grips with this bedrock principle is the first, indispensable step to thinking historically.

Academic historians don’t agree on a single, “official” definition of history, but whatever definition they embrace, it always preserves this fundamental distinction.  You’ll find some who define history as the recreation of the past, others who speak of it as the analysis or interpretation of the past, or even as a never-ending argument about the past.  Actually, it’s all of these things.  The definition I like best, however, comes from Christian historian John Lukacs, who defines history as “the remembered past.”

The power of this pithy definition is remarkable.  Once we begin to think consciously of historical knowledge as a form of memory, the analogy points us to a host of important insights into the nature and function of history.  Like our individual memories, historical memory is invariably imperfect; it is faulty, it changes over time, and it is unavoidably influenced by our perspective.  I’ve found that a great way to illustrate that final point is to talk with my students about how Americans have remembered the events of 1492 across the centuries.

"Portrait of a Man, Said to be Christopher Columbus," by Sebastiano del Piombo, Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Portrait of a Man, Said to be Christopher Columbus,” by Sebastiano del Piombo, Metropolitan Museum of Art

In 1692, the year of the bicentennial of Columbus’ first voyage, few if any American colonists celebrated the occasion because few if any had even heard of Christopher Columbus.  If history is the remembered past, then it is true to say that, for English colonists in 1692, Columbus’ “discovery” of America was not a part of “history” as they knew it.

By 1792, the free citizens of the newly independent United States had discovered Columbus’ “discovery” and were eager to honor the Italian explorer unknown to their ancestors.  While the movement to name the new nation “Columbia” has failed, the Congress had recently agreed to designate the future seat of the federal government the District of Columbia in his honor.  Only a few years earlier, the New York state legislature had changed the name of King’s College to Columbia in recognition of the master mariner.  (Before all was said and done, forty-four cities or counties would take the name Columbus or Colombia in the explorer’s honor.)  No longer part of the British Empire, Americans were struggling to define a new identity, and a new identity required a new heritage less firmly rooted in an English past.

In 1892, on the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’ initial voyage, Americans celebrated for an entire year.  Italian Americans raised money to erect a monument to the Italian Columbus in New York City.  Irish Catholics praised the Catholic Columbus and joined a newly formed organization aimed at making them “better Catholics and Citizens” known as the Knights of Columbus.  The nation invited the world to Chicago for the first World’s Fair, known as the “World’s Columbian Exposition.”

In 1992, by contrast, the nation was badly divided as to how to acknowledge the five hundredth anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage—was it a “discovery”?  was it an “invasion”?—and in the end the country did relatively little to observe the occasion.  After extensive debate the United Nations decided not to sponsor any recognition of the event, and the National Council of Churches resolved that the anniversary should be a “time of penitence rather than jubilation.”  In years since, a growing number of states and municipalities have moved away from observing the holiday and some have moved toward replacing it with “Indigenous Peoples’ Day.”

When I ask my students what might explain the difference, they understand almost immediately that our changing memories of 1492 have at least as much to do with the present as with the past.  How could it be otherwise?  If history is the “remembered past,” then history, by definition, exists at the intersection of past and present and is inseparable from both.  When it comes to Columbus specifically, our changing priorities and values are always informing how we remember the man.  As writer John Noble Wilford put it a quarter-century ago, Columbus’ “destiny is to serve as a barometer of our . . . hopes and aspirations” and our evolving conceptions of the just society.

HOW AMERICANS “SEE” JESUS: HISTORY’S DISTURBING INSIGHT

Even though we’ve already been back in class for four weeks at Wheaton College, it’s still technically summer, and the weather was absolutely glorious here.  I took the opportunity to spend a couple of hours earlier today on one of my favorite benches at Lake Ellyn Park, which is only five minutes by car from campus.  That’s one of the perks of my job that I treasure—the opportunity to do at least part of my work while enjoying a view like the one below.

lake-ellyn-september-2016

I was using the time to review for a class on race and ethnicity in U. S. history that I am co-teaching with my colleague, Karen Johnson.  At Karen’s recommendation, one of the books that the students are reading is The Color of Christ, by historians Ed Blum and Paul Harvey.  Just moments ago, I finished our first class discussion of the book.  (There will be more.)  It is a provocative book in more ways than one, and the discussion prompted me to re-post an essay that I shared nearly three years ago shortly after I first read The Color of Christ along with two other books that take a historical look at how Americans have “seen” Jesus over the past few centuries.  All though I do not endorse them equally, I believe that all three books are cautionary tales with insights that we need to hear.  I hope you’ll read on.

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

In her book The Spiritual Practice of Remembering, Christian historian Margaret Bendroth observes the following:

Historical perspective should make us more humble and cautious about ourselves.  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.

What Bendroth is telling us is that we do not naturally think of the values that we hold (what we believe, how we think, how we behave) as influenced by the historical context in which we live.  The beliefs of people in other times and places may strike us as peculiar, but not our own.  No, our way of looking at the world strikes us (if we stop to question it at all) as obvious, self-evident, natural.  Our way of thinking requires no explanation.  It just is.  It’s the deviations from our pattern that demand justification.

Reflecting on this very human trait always brings to mind an observation that my younger daughter made many years ago, when she was about four years old.  To understand this illustration, you have to know that both my wife and I were born and raised in the South, and when we moved to Seattle (and the University of Washington) right after I finished graduate school, among the baggage that each of us took with us was a couple of substantial southern accents.  My wife’s drawl was substantially moderated by several years of classical voice training, but I struggled (and to some degree, still do) not to sound like Gomer Pyle with a Ph.D., and our children, quite naturally, absorbed much of their parents’ speech patterns.  And so for years after we settled in the Pacific Northwest, it was not  uncommon for guests to our home to comment on our accents.

On one such occasion, our precocious four-year-old overheard a visitor talking about her daddy’s accent, and as soon as the opportunity presented itself, she tugged on my pants’ leg and pulled me aside to ask a question.  “What’s an accent?” she asked, and I did my best to explain the concept.  She seemed to follow my explanation, but she still looked troubled.   “You don’t have an accent, Daddy,” she declared emphatically, her southern drawl reminiscent of molasses oozing across a plate.  “You talk just like I do!”

One of history’s priceless benefits, potentially, is that it can help us see with new eyes what we would otherwise take for granted.  It rattles our complacency, challenging us to think more deeply about the things we see as too self-evident to require explanation.  By introducing us to people from other times and places who saw things differently, history can put our own values to the test.  And in doing so, it makes it easier for us to fulfill the biblical injunction to “take very thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (II Corinthians 10:5).

Over Christmas vacation I read three related books that powerfully illustrate this benefit.  This semester I am co-teaching for the first time a course on race and ethnicity in U. S. history, and with that course in mind, I picked up The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (University of North Carolina Press, 2012), by Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey.  As the title suggests, the authors are interested in how Americans have imagined Jesus in racial terms over the course of U. S. history.  (Was Jesus fair-skinned?  dark complected?)  Although focused specifically on attitudes about race, the book offers a convicting case study of the ways that cultural values inform–and often distort–the substance of our religious faith.

For broader context, I also read two other works of history that speak to this larger topic:  American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003), by Stephen Prothero; and Jesus: Made in America (Intervarsity Press, 2008), by Stephen J. Nichols.  Both works echo The Color of Christ in documenting the myriad ways that Americans’ changing values over the centuries have influenced their religious convictions as reflected in their perceptions of the nature of Jesus.

American jesusI don’t endorse each of these books equally.  Prothero, professor of religion at Boston University, is the kind of public authority on religion who gets invited to appear on Oprah, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, or the Colbert Report.  These are not venues that typically promote deep reflection.  American Jesus is an entertaining read, but maybe more clever than insightful.  I couldn’t help suspecting that Prothero writes at times with shock value in mind.  As he explains early on, when he refers to “Jesus” he does not mean the man from Galilee whom Christians believe to be the Son of God; rather, he has in mind the “American Jesus” (hence the title of the book),  i.e., Jesus as Americans have perceived him.  Whether their perceptions are true to who Jesus really was (and is) does not interest him, and it is not at all clear that he would even view the question as important.   Perceptions of Jesus should change over time, he says.  “Only dead religions stay the same; living faiths adapt continuously to changes in their environment.”

color of christ 3The Color of Christ is a very different book.  Published by a university press, its primary intended audience (I am inferring here) is readers within the academy.  (Both authors work within the Academy themselves, Blum at San Diego State University and Harvey at the University of Colorado.)  The prose is denser than Prothero’s, the tone far more serious.   Blum and Harvey begin the book with a somber vignette: a sobering account of the 1963 bombing by white supremacists of the all-black Sixteenth Street Baptist Church of Birmingham, Alabama.  In addition to taking the lives of four little girls, the dynamite planted by opponents of integration marvelously (miraculously?) also shattered the face of Jesus in the church’s stained-glass window.  “In the blink of an eye,” Blum and Harvey write, “the prince of peace was made a casualty of race war.”  The authors see the tragic episode as a kind of parable, underscoring how central images of Jesus have been to American understandings of race.

Jesus Made in AmericaJesus: Made in America is yet another kind of book with a different kind of emphasis.  While Stephen Prothero breezily reviews how Americans of all races and creeds have thought about Jesus, and Blum and Harvey focus specifically on how a broad sampling of Americans have imputed racial characteristics to Jesus, Stephen Nichols is interested particularly in the perceptions of American evangelicals regarding the Man from Nazareth.  An evangelical himself (a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary and a professor of theology at Lancaster Bible College), Nichols writes openly to evangelicals as well as about them.

For all their differences in background and approach, all three works arrive at a core of strikingly similar conclusions.  Taking the long view of American perceptions of Jesus over the past four centuries, the evidence is overwhelming that Americans–including American evangelicals–have allowed the values of their culture to influence significantly how they envision Jesus.

Focusing on American racial attitudes, Blum and Harvey conclude that, as Americans imagined visual images of Jesus (who began to become white in their minds’ eye in the early nineteenth century), “they made a sacred window through which they could see their hopes, fears, dreams, and conflicts in racial and religious forms.”

Reviewing American attitudes more broadly, Prothero observes, “In the book of Genesis, God creates humans in His own image: in the United States, Americans have created Jesus, over and over again, in theirs.”  We have constantly imagined a Jesus who affirmed precisely the values we already hold, Prothero determines.  From our particular vantage points, we have imagined him as manly and effeminate, ” a socialist and a capitalist, a pacifist and a warrior, a Ku Klux Klansman and a civil rights agitator.”

Nichols heartily agrees.  The review of American evangelicals’ perceptions of Jesus over time demonstrates “the ways in which we have capitulated to our culture and have subjected Christ to our cultural predilections.”

Unlike the other two works, however, Nichols’ Jesus: Made in America seeks to edify as well as educate.  Repeatedly, he challenges evangelical readers to find lessons in the story that he tells.  If, after reading his book, we simply click our teeth in judgment of our ancestors for their blindness to the ways that they conformed to the culture, Nichols knows that he has failed.  Rather, he wants us to see ourselves–at least potentially–in the pages he has written.  He insists that his account should serve “as a parable for contemporary American evangelicals.”  The trap that ensnared previous generations can capture us as well.  What arrogance to think that we will be immune to the temptation to let the culture shape our faith!  In this sense, the movement away from an orthodox understanding of Jesus across American history should make us fearful rather than judgmental.

In the course of his study, Nichols points to several aspects of evangelical belief that make us especially vulnerable to being conformed to the world without even knowing it.  Rather than summarize his argument, I will recommend that you spend time with the book yourself.  I can’t resist sharing one of the factors that he pinpoints, however: we ignore the past as a source of wisdom.  This dismissive attitude toward history–what one specialist on American religious values has termed “historylessness”–“leaves American evangelicals more vulnerable than most when it comes to cultural pressures and influences.”

It’s a sobering assessment.

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.

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.