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.

ON THE BREVITY OF LIFE

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

At any rate, the close of the year always makes me more somber than giddy. Unlike the revelers who will throng Times Square in a few days, I have always thought of New Year’s Eve as a time for reflection, a time to evaluate the past twelve months and take stock of the course of my life.

Seneca the Younger

Seneca the Younger

These reflections take me back to my commonplace book, and to a quote from the ancient Roman author Seneca the Younger (4 B.C. – 65 A.D.). I shared this quote a year ago, but I think it’s worth circulating again. Lucius Annaeus Seneca was a philosopher, statesman, and playwright, and by all accounts one of Rome’s leading intellectuals during the first century after the birth of Christ. He was also as pagan as they come.

I have quoted primarily from Christian writers in sharing passages from my commonplace book, but that’s not because we have nothing to learn from unbelievers. The doctrine of common grace tells us that God causes his rain to fall on the just and the unjust, and thanks to His general revelation we can often glean wisdom even from those who reject wisdom’s Author. I think the quote below is a case in point.

Listen to Seneca’s observation in De Brevitate Vitae (On the Brevity of Life):

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

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

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

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!

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

I love Christmas carols and I would have a hard time choosing my favorite, but as a historian—and a specialist on the American Civil War, particularly—I have always been deeply moved by I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. In its original form it’s not heard too much these days, although several contemporary Christian groups have performed variations on it.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, photographed in 1868

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, photographed in 1868

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

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

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

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

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

gettysburg-first-day-casualties-xl

A scene from the field at Gettysburg, five and a half months before Longfellow penned “The Christmas Bells”

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

A mass grave at Chickamauga, four months before Longfellow penned "The Christmas Bells."

A mass grave at Chickamauga, four months before Longfellow penned “The Christmas Bells.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

May that hope be ours this Christmas.

ADVENT REMINDERS FOR POLITICALLY-CONSCIOUS CHRISTIANS

I’m not really a politics junkie, but I found the extraordinary divisiveness of the recent presidential campaign mesmerizing (not to mention deeply disturbing).  For Christians, the danger of becoming so engrossed in an election like the one we just experienced is that it’s easy easy to lose perspective.  Unaware, we can gradually forget what we claim to believe about the sovereignty of God as we agonize over the triumph of this candidate or the failure of that one.  This is one reason I called your attention recently to Vince Bacote’s book The Political Disciple.  It is filled with reminders of Biblical truths that will keep us grounded if we cling to them.

Before I forget about it, I thought I would also call attention to another voice that I needed to hear in the aftermath of election day.  Michael Gerson is one of my favorite writers on public life.  A graduate of Wheaton and a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, his op-ed column in the Washington Post is regularly engaging and insightful.  And for those who doubt that a “mainstream media” source like the Post could possibly feature a substantive Christian perspective, Gerson’s editorials consistently prove otherwise.

A case in point was his November 21 piece, “Pushing Back Against the Mortal Risk of Politics.”  With candid humility, Gerson reflects on the ways that, in our fallenness, we so regularly take on the attributes of those we criticize.  The “mortal risk of politics is becoming what you condemn,” he writes, and it’s a danger “not limited to one side of our political divide.”  Gerson goes on to confess,  “I have found myself angry at how [pro-Trump evangelicals] have endorsed the politics of anger; bitter about the bitter political spirit they have encouraged; feeling a bit hypocritical in my zeal to point out their hypocrisy.”

But then Gerson preaches the gospel to himself–and to us–by recalling that “an attitude of fuming, prickly anxiety” should be foreign to followers of Jesus for at least two reasons.  First. “Christian belief relativizes politics.”  He elaborates,

The pursuit of social justice and the maintenance of public order are vital work.  But these tasks are temporary, and, in an ultimate sense, secondary.  If Christianity is true, C. S. Lewis noted, then “the individual person will outlive the universe.”  All our anger and worry about politics should not blind us to the priority and value of the human beings placed in our lives, whatever their background or beliefs.

The practical implications of this truth are clear and convicting: “‘Those people’ are also ‘our people.’ . . . No change of president or shift in the composition of the Supreme Court can result in a repeal of the Golden Rule.”

Second, “Christians are instructed not to be anxious.”  In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught us not to worry about tomorrow, trusting by faith that God is good and that He is in control.  The atheist may see the universe as “indifferent to the lives and dreams of jumped-up primates crawling on an unremarkable blue ball,” but our faith assures us that “that blue ball was touched by God in a manner and form that Homo Sapiens might understand.  And the vast, cold universe is really a sheltering sky.”

Gerson ends with words of encouragement:

After a dismal and divisive campaign season, many of us need the timely reminders of the Advent season: That people matter more than all our political certainties.  That God is in control, despite our best efforts.  And that some conflicts can’t be won by force or votes–only by grace.

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.

NOT A BAD EXAMPLE A CENTURY AND A HALF LATER

I continue to make my way through the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, and just this week made it to the eighth and final volume in the series.  Volume Eight begins in September 1864, in the midst of the presidential campaign of that year.  Abraham Lincoln was seeking re-election to the presidency, but the human costs of the war had exceeded the darkest predictions, and that combined with divisions within his own party, widespread war weariness, and the passionate opposition of northern Democrats made his re-election far from certain.

At the end of August, the outlook for the Union was so grim that Lincoln himself had come to expect defeat.  Although William Sherman’s capture of Atlanta in early September initiated a decisive shift in military momentum and boosted popular support for the Lincoln Administration, the presidential campaign was still one of the ugliest of the century.  Northern Democrats lampooned Lincoln as “Abe the Widow-maker” and held him personally responsible for the deaths of the Union slain.  With a crudity that almost defies description, they hailed him as King “Abraham Africanus the First” and accused him of being a “negro-lover” who advocated miscegenation and the rule of blacks over whites.  In their platform they denounced the war as a “failure” and called for an immediate cease-fire to be followed by negotiations with the South.

Lincoln sat for this photograph less than a month before his Second Inaugural Address.

Lincoln sat for this photograph about three months after his re-election to the presidency.

Here is how Lincoln responded publicly after news arrived of his re-election.  Presidents did not hold news conferences in those days, and Lincoln scheduled no public speeches of any kind in the weeks following his electoral victory.  But on November 10th, 1864, the day after Lincoln learned beyond doubt that he had been re-elected to a second term, a torchlight parade of supporters proceeded to the White where they “serenaded” the victor, prompting Lincoln to deliver a short speech from his balcony.  Here is a portion of what he had to say:

 . . . now that the election is over, may not all, having a common interest, re-unite in a common effort, to save our common country?  For my own part, I have striven, and shall strive to avoid placing any obstacle in the way.  So long as I have been here I have not willingly planted a thorn in any man’s bosom.

While I am deeply sensible to the high compliment of a re-election; and duly grateful, as I trust, to Almighty God for having directed my countrymen to a right conclusion, as I think, for their own good, it adds nothing to my satisfaction that any other man may be disappointed or pained by the result.

May I ask those who have not differed with me, to join with me, in this same spirit towards those who have?

A remarkable example, don’t you think?  Lincoln told his private secretary afterward that his comments were “not very graceful,” but they revealed a largeness of heart and magnanimity of spirit in short supply a century and a half later.