Tag Archives: Battle of Gettysburg

MEDITATIONS ON THE “HALLOWED GROUND”–FINAL REFLECTIONS

[This week marks the 153rd anniversary of the three-day-long Battle of Gettysburg, the largest battle of the American Civil War and the largest military engagement ever fought in the western hemisphere.  With the anniversary in mind, I am re-posting  a series of four essays that I originally penned two years ago after my first visit to the battlefield.  The first was a kind of tourist’s report; the remaining three–including the concluding below–are  more properly styled meditations or reflections.  My goal in these was to explore what it might mean to remember that bloody conflict through eyes of faith.]

Gettysburg

One of my favorite quotes about the value of history comes from historian David Harlan, who reminds us that, “at its best, the study of American history can be a conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live.” Not many academic historians hold to that view anymore, and we’re the poorer because of it. I was repeatedly reminded of this as I walked the ground at Gettysburg–the opportunities for life-changing conversations abound, if we have ears to hear. “Hear” is the key verb, because the conversations that I have in mind require above all that we be willing to listen.

Sometimes in such conversations the figures from the past interrogate us. The first conversation that I was drawn into was of this sort. It began as I tried to envision what happened there a century and a half ago, when over one hundred and fifty thousand soldiers in blue and gray clashed in the largest battle ever fought in the western hemisphere. I have previously noted the chasm that separates us from the men who fought there, and yet it is almost impossible to walk in their footsteps without imagining what it was like to be in their shoes. And as I clambered among the boulders at Devil’s Den, peered through the trees on Little Round Top, and ascended the long, gentle slope of Cemetery Ridge, the questions running through my mind began to change. When the conversation began, I was the one doing the asking–posing safe, academic questions about troop movements and tactics. But then as I tried to imagine what these men experienced, much more personal, far more disturbing questions came to dominate my thoughts.

Gazing east at Little Round Top (on left) and Big Round Top.

Gazing east at Little Round Top (on left) and Big Round Top.

“Could you steel yourself to do what these men did?” I found myself wondering. “Could you endure what they endured?” More importantly, “Could you witness such carnage and still believe in mankind? Could you help to inflict such destruction and still believe in yourself? Could you experience such suffering and still believe in God?” Above all, “Are you devoted to any principle, any cause, any person, any Master enough to give, in Lincoln’s words, “the last full measure of devotion?”

The short answer to all of the above is, “I don’t know.” I pray to God that my faith would not falter, but I just don’t know. What I do know about myself is not reassuring: I too often struggle with even the most trivial acts of self-denial, the most mundane expressions of laying down my life that pale in comparison to the price paid by so many who fought here.

Sometimes our conversations with the past involve listening in on a discussion among historical figures and trying to learn from it, trying to glean wisdom as to “what we should value and how we should live.” I was also drawn into this kind of conversation as I walked the ground at Gettysburg, particularly as I contemplated the nearly fourteen hundred monuments that are sprinkled across the landscape. As I’ve noted before, Gettysburg National Park is arguably the world’s largest statuary garden, and as such it speaks not only to the battle itself but also to its aftermath.

As with tombstones in a cemetery, we read in the ubiquitous inscriptions two kinds of testimony: testimony about the doings of men, and testimony about the longings of mankind. That is, their words speak not only to what happened here, but also to how the soldiers who are commemorated, as well as their descendants, yearned for significance and wanted to believe that their lives mattered. In this sense, the monuments at Gettysburg are best understood as part of an ongoing conversation about the meaning of what happened there, and that conversation is, in a sense, merely a small part of a universal human dialogue about why, or whether, our lives matter at all.

As I noted in my last post, in their language the vast majority of Gettysburg’s monuments are mundane. Like Mr. Gradgrind in Dickens’s Hard Times, they care for nothing but “the facts.” The company or regiment in question fought on this spot at this time for this objective. It sent this many men into battle and suffered this many casualties. But not all are so reticent. “It’s not enough to remember what these men did,” the exceptions seem to say. “Subsequent generations must also know why these men fought, and why we should venerate them.”

Modern-day historians such as James McPherson and Chandra Manning have read literally tens of thousands of pages of Civil War soldiers’ diaries and letters in an attempt to understand why men fought in the Civil War. The words they have pored over were not chiseled in granite but scribbled in pencil. In their unguarded moments, Civil War soldiers revealed a broad range of motives. Some voiced ideological motives. Speaking in terms of duty and obligation, they professed to have enlisted in order to defend liberty, or democracy, or union, or states’ rights, or republican government, or the legacy of 1776 (however they understood it). Others enlisted for less exalted reasons: to escape boredom, find adventure, prove their manhood, see the world, impress girlfriends (or potential girlfriends), increase their income, or avoid the draft.

The Gettysburg monuments that speak to the larger meaning of the battle see only what was noble. The prototype in this regard is one of the oldest and largest monuments on the field, the so-called “Soldiers’ National Monument” that rises from the heart of the national military cemetery just north of Cemetery Ridge. Dedicated in 1869, its primary inscription consists of the closing lines of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, with its ringing references to a “new birth of freedom,” “government of the people,” and those “who here gave their lives that [the] nation might live.”

Most of the monuments erected at Gettysburg honor specific military units or particular individuals, but many of the states that were represented at Gettysburg eventually built state monuments as well, and these larger monuments regularly make claims about the object and meaning of their sons’ sacrifice. A sampling of state monuments tells us that Pennsylvanians fought for “the preservation of the Union.” Michigan troops were champions of “liberty and union.” Soldiers from Indiana–a state with more than its share of opposition to emancipation–fought for “equality” and to “advance freedom.”

Southern state monuments were often (understandably) less specific. Tennessee soldiers were guided by unspecified “convictions” and performed “their duty as they understood it.” Floridians “fought with courage and devotion for the ideals in which they believed”–whatever they were. Georgia’s Confederates, though, were forthrightly patriotic. (“When duty called, we came; when country called, we died.”) More explicit still, South Carolina soldiers were propelled by an “abiding faith in the sacredness of States Rights.”

The Alabama State Memorial at Gettysburg

The Alabama State Memorial at Gettysburg

I want to be clear here. I am not sneering at the possibility that many of those who fell on this field were motivated by high ideals. I am convinced that many were, and I admire them for it. C. S. Lewis has written that the greatest chasm separating the human race is not the divide between Christians and non-Christians or even that between theists and atheists, but rather the gulf between those who recognize any belief system outside of themselves that demands their allegiance and those who acknowledge no such standard. The latter, in the words of G. K. Chesterton, are adherents of “the most horrible” of religions: “the worship of the god within.” In a recent essay on the importance of fatherhood, N.Y.U. psychologist Paul Vitz observes that “the world is hungry for examples of unselfish men.” In our age of materialism and individualism, the example of those who did fight at Gettysburg for union or states’ rights, freedom or independence, is a breath of fresh air.

And yet we need to think carefully about the conversation that we are listening to. What impresses me most about these monuments is their use of religious language and imagery in commemorating the men who fought here. It’s not that there are references to God, Jesus, or Christian faith–I’ve found almost none. But think about the words and phrases that do appear: “martyrs,” “devotion,” “sacrifice,” “faith,” “immortal” fame, “righteous” causes, “eternal glory,” “the millennium of their glory,” “sacred” heritage, “no holier spot,” and “ground forever hallowed.” As with Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, such rhetoric confuses the sacred and the secular. It fuels a temptation to which none of us is immune: the temptation to conflate our identity as Christians with other loyalties and attachments.

But such language also speaks to a universal human longing. No one is truly, completely happy, Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft observes. Beneath the surface of our lives, with its innumerable distractions and diversions, “the deep hunger of [our] hearts remains unsatisfied.” We reflect on life and, in our unguarded moments, we are haunted by a recurring question: “Is this all there is?” The reason, Kreeft goes on to explain, is that “we are not supposed to be happy here.” This is not our home. “You made us for Yourself,” Augustine of Hippo concluded nearly sixteen centuries ago. “Our hearts find no peace until they rest in You.”

And yet we commonly cope with our heart hunger through self-deception, convincing ourselves that we can find meaning and purpose, fulfillment and transcendence in this life alone. As Christians, we are free to give a conditional loyalty to the state, but not our ultimate loyalty. All too often, the monuments at Gettysburg that speak to the battle’s larger meaning imply that we can be the authors of our own immortality, and that the key to our doing so lies in our making sacrifices to the state. Christian scholar Wilfred McClay has written recently that, because “human beings are naturally inclined toward religion . . . we have an incorrigible need to relate secular things to ultimate purposes.” Gettysburg’s monuments remind us that, because we are fallen, we are naturally tempted to equate secular things and ultimate purposes.

But these are not the only voices that I heard at Gettysburg, for there were countless others raised during the battle itself. Most of these cries from the heart are known only to God, but a fraction has survived in the soldiers’ own words, confessions made to contemporaries rather than declarations to posterity. One stands out in my mind, the testimony of an unnamed, unknown soldier who bore witness to a different kind of response to the indescribable happenings on this field.

We know of this soldier only through the recollection of another, Confederate Captain George Hillyer of the Ninth Georgia Infantry, a regiment in Anderson’s brigade of Hood’s division of Longstreet’s corps of the Army of Northern Virginia. Twenty-nine miles from Gettysburg when the fighting began on July 1st, they had marched all day and night and arrived on the field just before daylight on the 2nd. After spending the morning lying in a stand of woods due west of the Round Tops, in the afternoon Hillyer’s company was part of the general Confederate attack on the Union left. After making it almost to the base of Little Round Top, the Ninth Georgia was forced to withdraw, and Hillyer and his exhausted and bloodied company spent the night within earshot of Farmer Rose’s wheat field, a twenty-six-acre expanse that had been the site of some of the day’s fiercest fighting. As the sun went down, the wheat field was a kind of “no-man’s land” between the contending armies, with perhaps as many as four thousand dead and wounded soldiers now carpeting the flattened grain.

And in the midst of that hellish scene, Hillyer marveled to hear one of the men between the lines begin to sing. “He was probably a boy raised in some religious home in the South,” Hillyer recalled later, “where the good old hymns were the standard music.” There were “thousands of desperately wounded men lying on the ground within easy hearing of the singer,” the captain observed, “and as his voice rang out like a flute . . . not only the wounded, but also five or ten thousand and maybe more of the men of both armies could hear and distinguish the words.” The lines that they heard had been penned four decades earlier by an Irish poet named Thomas Moore and then set to music and published in 1831:

Come, ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish; / Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel; / Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish; / Earth has no sorrow that heav’n cannot heal.

This is the voice that I will remember most from my visit to Gettysburg. To take the past seriously is to put our own lives to the test, and the conversations at Gettysburg do just that, pressing us with hard, discomfiting questions: What do we value? In what do we hope? Where do we find meaning? The answers etched here in granite are noble, but they are also earthbound, temporal. Far more challenging, far more convicting, far more comforting, far more hopeful is the response on the lips of this unknown soldier. Sung in darkness amid death and despair, it is both historical occurrence and spiritual metaphor, an echo of God’s invitation to a bruised and hurting world.

Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel . . .

The Wheat Field at sunset.

The Wheat Field at sunset.

MEDITATIONS ON THE “HALLOWED GROUND”–PART TWO

[This week marks the 153rd anniversary of the three-day-long Battle of Gettysburg, the largest battle of the American Civil War and the largest military engagement ever fought in the western hemisphere.  With the anniversary in mind, I am re-posting  a series of four essays that I originally penned two years ago after my first visit to the battlefield.  The first was a kind of tourist’s report; the remaining three–including the one below–are  more properly styled meditations or reflections.  My goal in these was to explore what it might mean to remember that bloody conflict through eyes of faith.]

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Back to Gettysburg.

Two posts ago I began a series of reflections prompted by my visit to the battlefield there. These meditations are meant as illustrations of what I mean when I suggest that we make our hearts vulnerable as we contemplate the past. So far I’ve shared two examples. The first involved the weight of the past that overcame me at Gettysburg, its palpable reminder of the innumerable host of image-bearers that have gone before us, and the way that this can jolt us out of our own small, comfortable, and self-centered worlds. The second concerned the enormous chasm that separates us from those who clashed on this field a century and a half ago. Realizing this leads us to marvel at the omniscience of God in contrast with how little we actually know of what transpired there.

I’d like to share another meditation. This post will be a bit longer than usual, and I hope you’ll bear with me. The reflection is rooted in the recognition that our inability to recapture what happened on the battlefield isn’t only a reminder of the chasm that separates us from the generations preceding us. It also foreshadows how our own lives will fade from view in generations to come. We all know that life is short, and if we were inclined to think otherwise, the Scripture would insist on bringing us back to reality: “My life is a breath,” sighs Job (Job 7:7). “Our days on earth are a shadow,” his friend Bildad agrees (Job 8:9). Moses observes that our days are numbered (Psalm 90:12), David likens them to a passing shadow (Psalm 144:4), James compares our life’s span to a “puff of smoke” (James 4:14), and Isaiah is reminded of the “flower of the field” that withers away (Isaiah 40:7-8).

Deep down we get this, even as we conspire not to talk about it or acknowledge it. But the wispy, smoke-like, breath-like quality of our lives is not only a matter of length; it is also a matter of legacy. It’s a question of what sort of imprint we will leave behind when we’re gone. The answer, to put it bluntly, is not much of one. It’s not that our lives are without effect. Because we have lived, any number of others lives may be touched. Family members and neighbors, clients and coworkers, patients and students, customers and friends may all be affected, in some cases profoundly so. I’m not discounting that. But once we have passed, the memory of who we are (or were), the knowledge of those inner qualities that define us as unique individuals, will fade quickly into oblivion. How many of us have any more than a faded picture’s acquaintance with our great-grandparents?

The English poet Thomas Gray felt the weight of this. In his famous “Elegy in a Country Church Yard,” the eighteenth-century writer placed his narrator in a cemetery at twilight, where he considers the terse entries on the gravestones and meditates on “the short and simple annals of the poor.” The lives of the “rude forefathers” sleeping there have faded with time, Gray realizes. Humble headstones are all that remain, silent markers that preserve only “their names, their years, spelt by th’unlettered Muse.” It’s not just that our lives are so short, we may read Gray as suggesting. From retrospect they seem so insignificant. We leave but the faintest of footprints for posterity.

Thousands of years before Gray, another writer confronted the same troubling truth. “There is no remembrance of former things,” wrote the Preacher in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. “Nor will there be any remembrance of things that are to come by those who will come after” (Ecclesiastes 1:11). Indeed, the Preacher went on, “there is no more remembrance of the wise than of the fool forever, since all that now is will be forgotten in the days to come” (2:16a). This was one of many reasons convincing the writer that life is empty, meaningless, pointless, absurd. “Vanity of vanities,” he laments in the book’s very first sentence, “all is vanity.”

Through eyes of faith, we read the Preacher’s bitter lament as an example of what Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft calls “black grace,” by which he means God’s revelation to us “by darkness rather than light.” Ecclesiastes hardly captures the true meaning of life. Rather, it brilliantly exposes the futility of life lived “under the sun,” of an existence shorn of all eternal perspective. As we read, we are reminded repeatedly that all of our efforts to deny God and manufacture our own meaning and purpose for life are merely so many acts of self-deception or distraction. Our hope lies not in crafting our own stories, but in realizing that we were born in the middle of a far larger story. The path from despair comes through embracing the One True Story and seeing ourselves rightly as characters in its narrative of hope and redemption.

Intellectually, I understand this, but when I am honest with myself, I realize that the story of the Preacher is often my story, too. I struggle with the desire to manufacture my own meaning, to be the architect of my own immortality. Too often, my drive for accomplishments and reputation are less about a desire to hear “Well done, good and faithful servant” in eternity, and more about erecting monuments to myself in this present age.

Here, too, Gettysburg speaks to me. Visitors to Gettysburg not only get a glimpse into the battle that raged there in 1863. They also see evidence of how those who survived the battle wished to be remembered. The ten square miles of Gettysburg National Military Park constitute the largest statuary garden in the world. There are monuments and markers galore (somewhere in the neighborhood of fourteen hundred all told), the vast majority erected in the late-19th and early-20th centuries as the survivors of the battle were entering old age.

Monument to the 140th New York Infantry on Little Round Top

Monument to the 140th New York Infantry on Little Round Top

It would be interesting to undertake a systematic study of the inscriptions on these monuments. I did not, but I did stop to read a fair number as I walked the battlefield. One of the things that struck me is how mundane their perspective generally is. The vast majority simply repeat the same kind of details that would go into an action report after battle. A typical monument explains that the military unit being commemorated was positioned at such and such a spot for such and such a purpose, with such and such a result. An enumeration of casualties invariably follows, and sometimes the names of those killed.

Attempts to speak to the motivation or values of those involved are in fact extremely rare. They usually involve brief references to “duty,” “valor,” or patriotism. None of these is intrinsically Christian, of course, and a pagan soldier in ancient Rome would have welcomed them on a monument to Caesar’s legions.

What seems lacking in these monuments is any effort to connect what happened at Gettysburg to some larger narrative that would give the battle transcendent meaning. Such a narrative had been provided years earlier, however, in the most famous effort to commemorate those who fought there, although this commemoration was not a monument, but a speech.

We rightly remember the Gettysburg Address for its eloquence, but how deeply do we think about it? I may offend some in saying this, but to think Christianly about it is to see it as deeply flawed. Like the Preacher’s contemplation of life “under the sun,” its perspective is relentlessly earthbound, and at least one of its claims is vaguely blasphemous.

Probably the Address’s best known passage is its opening sentence: “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation: conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” We live in a talk-show culture in which contemporary political rhetoric is relentlessly parsed and dissected and critiqued unmercifully, but let a few generations pass and chisel the rhetoric in granite on the mall in Washington, and it becomes sacrosanct in our eyes. It might free us up to re-examine the Address afresh if we remember that it was roundly denounced when it was delivered.

Lincoln and Gettysburg Address

Lincoln and Gettysburg Address

As in our own day, much of the criticism was politically motivated. We forget that, like so many other politicians before and since, Lincoln used a public appearance before a large crowd as an opportunity to make a political statement. In November, 1863, the North was badly divided over the president’s recent Emancipation Proclamation. The Republican Party supported it, while the Democratic Party unanimously denounced it. And so the Republican leader wasted no time in defending his administration when he helped to dedicate the new military cemetery in Gettysburg, even though he never once referred to emancipation explicitly.

His argument was essentially historical. At worst misleading, at best debatable, it rested on a highly selective reading of the country’s founding. For years Lincoln had been insisting that his desire to end slavery was in keeping with the original vision of the Founding Fathers. “The fathers of the government expected and intended the institution of slavery to come to an end,” he proclaimed repeatedly during the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. In advocating the restriction of slavery and its ultimate demise, Lincoln informed the audience that “I have proposed nothing more than a return to the policy of the fathers.” Lincoln’s view was a libel on the Founders, Democrat Douglas rejoined. Offering his own reading of American history, Douglas informed cheering Democrats that “our fathers made this government divided into Free and Slave States, recognizing the right of each to decide all its local questions for itself.”

And so when Lincoln began by telling the assembled throng at Gettysburg that our fathers had been “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” the politically savvy among them immediately recognized a familiar refrain in a long-standing partisan debate. And when, a couple of minutes later, Lincoln concluded his brief remarks by implying that the Union dead at Gettysburg had died so that the nation might have “a new birth of freedom,” the crowd understood that he was enlisting the fallen at Gettysburg in the controversial cause of emancipation.

Republicans saw nothing exceptional in this. Democrats were livid. It was to uphold the Constitution, the Chicago Times assured its readers, “and the Union created by it, that our officers and soldiers gave their lives at Gettysburg.” What the president had done at Gettysburg was simply despicable. “How dare he,” thundered the Times editor, “standing on their graves, misstate the cause for which they died, and libel the statesmen who founded the government? They were men possessing too much self-respect to declare that negroes were their equals, or were entitled to equal privileges.”

As a historian, I see northern Democrats’ response to the Address as understandable (although their reading of history was just as one-sided as Lincoln’s). As a Christian historian, I am more disappointed by the way that Republican evangelicals across the North embraced Lincoln’s speech, for it contained elements that they should have found troubling.

For one thing, the Address is a classic example of rhetoric that conflates sacred and secular. Read broadly, Lincoln’s address was a masterful effort to situate the tragedy of the American Civil War in a larger story of redemption. The thing being redeemed, however, is not God’s Church but the United States. The author of redemption is not the Lord but “the people.”

The story Lincoln tells begins with its own creation account. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” the opening verse of Genesis declares. In the beginning “our fathers brought forth” the United States, Lincoln proclaims. Their values now bind us. Their vision–as interpreted by Lincoln–obliges us. Ever since Lincoln’s death there have been countless efforts to “baptize him posthumously,” as Christian scholar Allen Guelzo notes in his marvelous biography, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President. Guezlo argues persuasively, however, that although Lincoln was biblically literate and far from an atheist, he nevertheless died unconvinced of the gospel. What is more, although he employed biblical rhetoric and adopted biblical cadences in his speeches, he rarely if ever referred to the Bible as authoritative. As late as 1863, at least, the bedrock of his argument against slavery was not scripture but the Declaration of Independence and its assertion–penned by an apostle of the Enlightenment who owned 150 slaves–that “all men are created equal.”

Lincoln goes on to make two other assertions that ought to have troubled the thinking Christians in his audience. The first is his statement that “the brave men who struggled” at Gettysburg–presumably he meant the Union men–had “consecrated” the ground. To consecrate is to “set apart as sacred to God.” Something that has been consecrated is now “holy.” When the great “I AM” spoke to Moses from the burning bush, He informed the trembling herdsman that he was standing on holy ground. Lincoln told his audience the same thing. In what possible sense could that be true? It makes little difference whether you believe that Lincoln was speaking literally or figuratively. In his choice of words the president was draping the state with religious imagery and eternal significance, and that, however well-intended, is a form of what Christian scholar Steven Woodworth aptly labels “patriotic heresy.”

Second, Lincoln suggested that the blood of the Union dead justified the Union cause. He urged his audience to renew their commitment to the struggle precisely because others had given “the last full measure of devotion” on its behalf. My grandfather served in WWI, my father in WWII, and my son is currently in the Marine Corps, so I want to be very careful in choosing my words here. We can rightly respect, admire, and appreciate those who, through suffering and great danger have risked their lives in our defense. But that is a different thing from maintaining that the spilling of blood necessarily ennobles the cause for which it is shed.

We would not accept that view with regard to the storm troopers who died in the service of Adolph Hitler, nor the Islamic terrorists who knowingly went to their deaths on 9/11. And as American Christians we ought not to swallow the argument as applied to our own soldiers. If we accept the view that death in war automatically justifies the perpetuation of that war–so that the “dead shall not have died in vain,” as Lincoln put it–we abdicate our calling to live as salt and light. When we do so, the church forfeits its prophetic voice and becomes merely an extension of the state.

Thinking Christianly about the past requires that we make our own hearts vulnerable, so my purpose in sharing these thoughts is not so that we can smugly condemn those who have gone before us. Instead, we are called to identify with them. Their example reminds us, warns us, of the ever present temptation to confuse our identity as Christians with other loyalties and attachments, whether nation, race, class, or party. This is but one manifestation of the more general seduction that the Preacher of Ecclesiastes knew well: the illusion that we make our own meaning in life, satisfying our souls on our own terms, in our own way. Others have unknowingly succumbed. Why should we be immune?

Search our hearts, O Lord . . .

MEDITATIONS ON THE “HALLOWED GROUND”–PART ONE

[Today marks the 153rd anniversary of the beginning of the three-day-long Battle of Gettysburg, the largest battle of the American Civil War and the largest military engagement ever fought in the western hemisphere.  With the anniversary in mind, I am re-posting  a series of four essays that I originally penned a few years ago after my first visit to the battlefield.  The first was a kind of tourist’s report; the remaining three–including the one below–are  more properly styled meditations or reflections.  My goal in these was to explore what it might mean to remember that bloody conflict through eyes of faith.]

1-Park Sign

The morning after I returned from my road trip to Gettysburg, I took my wife and older daughter out to breakfast to catch up with them and share a bit of my experience. As soon as we had placed our order, my wife leaned across the table and asked, “So what spiritual insights did you come home with?”

She knows me well. History is an almost inexhaustible storehouse of compelling human stories, but I am convinced that if the study of history is to be truly educational, it must be much more than that. Authentic education does not merely put knowledge into our heads that wasn’t there before. It alters the way we think. It challenges our hearts. It changes who we are.

At its best, our encounter with the past should be a seamless part of a larger quest for a heart of wisdom, a “conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live,” in the words of historian David Harlan. We shouldn’t settle for less. Genesis 32 tells how Jacob wrestled with God the whole night through, telling the Lord, “I will not let you go unless you bless me!” (v. 26). I can’t begin to plumb the depths of that story’s meaning, and yet I think of it often in my role as a historian and a teacher. Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury and an accomplished historian, encourages us to believe “that there will always be gifts to be received from the past.” We must seek them persistently, insistently. Like Jacob, we must resolve not to turn loose until the Lord has blessed us.

What I am NOT suggesting is that we pray for special revelation from God, asking him to disclose hidden meanings from the past. . . . I find no promise in scripture that the Holy Spirit will reveal American history to us.  The Bible is clear, on the other hand, that the Spirit is given in order to convict us of “sin, and righteousness, and judgment” (John 16:8). So when I propose that we wrestle with the past until the Lord blesses us, I have in mind studying history in such a way that it ultimately exposes our hearts. Our highest goal is not to understand the past for its own sake, nor to learn lessons from the past that help us get what we want in the present. Rather, our ultimate goal is to see both God and ourselves more clearly, to the glory of God and for our sanctification.

The point, in other words, is to get wisdom. As Proverbs 4:7 puts it, “Wisdom is the principal thing.”And if wisdom is our goal, we must figure out how to make scrutiny of the past lead to scrutiny of our own hearts in the light of God’s revealed Word. That, I am almost ready to conclude, is the essence of what it means to think “Christianly” about history.

I am still trying to work out what this looks like concretely, but I would like to share with you some of the thoughts that I had while roaming the ground at Gettysburg. They are examples of the kind of reflections I have in mind. You may be able to come up with other, better ones, and I welcome your suggestions and reactions. For now, I’ll share just a couple of observations, with more to follow soon.

First, the palpable weight of the past at Gettysburg is jarring. As I mentioned in my last post, as I walked the battlefield I felt the almost tangible presence of the nearly 170,000 men who clashed there a century and a half ago. I don’t mean literally that their spirits hovered there (although there are a number of “Gettysburg Ghost Tours” that claim precisely that). As I observed last time, there is something about being physically present at the site of a famous historical event. The experience enlivens our imaginations; sharing a common landscape somehow seems to connect us viscerally to those whose footsteps we follow.

That sensation, at least for me, has the effect of jolting me out of my own narrow frame of reference. For all the current talk of “globalization,” most of us really live in tiny worlds, don’t we? The universes we inhabit don’t have room for much: home, work, school, the mall, perhaps church. We pretend to expand our worlds through “virtual” reality but only isolate ourselves even more. It’s comparatively easy to believe that the world revolves around us when the island kingdoms that we rule over are so minuscule. And then we walk the field at Gettysburg, or some similar locale, and the landscape reminds us of the hosts that have gone before, and suddenly we can feel very small. That’s a good thing. If an integral component of wisdom is self-knowledge, “the first product of self-knowledge,” as Flannery O’Connor realized, “is humility.”

Second, as I thought about the men who fought there, I was immediately struck by the chasm that separates us from them. I’d love to be a tour guide at Gettysburg, but I wouldn’t be a very popular one, because I think one of the most important things to tell tourists is how little we know about what happened there. That’s not a message we care to hear. We want history that makes the past “come alive”–what I call You Are There history–and being reminded that “we see through a glass, darkly” when we peer into the past interferes with our fantasies of omniscience.

But call to mind what C. S. Lewis wrote about the vast disparity between the actual past–which is dead and gone–and history, which is not the past itself but our halting efforts to reconstruct it. “The past,” Lewis observed, “was a roaring cataract of billions upon billions of . . . moments: any one of them too complex to grasp in its entirety, and the aggregate beyond all imagination.” The difference between the past and history, then, “is not a question of failing to know everything: it is a question (at least as regards quantity) of knowing next door to nothing.”

This is always true when we try to reconstruct an episode from the past, even an event of such scale and significance as the battle of Gettysburg. Take, for instance, the battle’s famous conclusion–Pickett’s Charge. As historian Carol Reardon has shown, even the most basic factual claims about the attack are actually just educated guesses. We don’t really know precisely when the bombardment preceding the attack began, how long it lasted, or why it proved ineffective. We don’t know exactly how many men were involved in the charge, and we certainly don’t know which Confederate unit got the farthest or precisely where on the field they were turned back. (At least three southern states claim that their troops advanced the farthest, and each has installed historical markers on Cemetery Ridge to position their sons at the “High Water Mark of the Confederacy.”) We don’t even know for sure what George Pickett was doing during the charge. (There were even controversial claims after the war that he had skulked in the rear until the bloodbath was over.)

Looking west from Cemetery Ridge at the field crossed by George Pickett's Division on July 3rd, 1863. His men formed for the attack in the line of trees in the distance.

Looking west from Cemetery Ridge at the field crossed by George Pickett’s Division on July 3rd, 1863. His men formed for the attack in the line of trees in the distance.

When we move beyond establishing the factual details to the thornier tasks of explanation (why did the attack fail?) and re-creation (what was it like to take part?) our dearth of knowledge becomes all the more apparent. As Reardon explains, each kind of existing evidence about the battle has its own problems. Official reports were biased, self-serving, and frequently not composed until months afterward. Most of the letters and diaries of common soldiers at Gettysburg were never preserved, and those that survive are less revealing than we would hope. Individual soldiers saw only a tiny part of the battlefield, and in the stress of battle they often retained a kaleidoscope of impressions and sensations more than a coherent narrative of their experience. In writing to loved ones, they often gave up on the possibility of conveying what they had seen and experienced to civilians.

Newspapers covered the battle extensively (there were dozens of correspondents at Gettysburg), but reporters typically knew little about military matters and, like modern historians, were faced with the daunting task of trying to bring some sort of coherence to the myriad of conflicting individual perspectives that they could glean from interviews. To compound the challenge, they were under great pressure to rush their stories into print in order to scoop their rivals. As a result, “wishful thinking ran wild” and “no bit of hyperbole seemed excessive.”

But why stress how much we don’t know? The author of Proverbs provides our answer: “For as he thinks within himself, so he is” (Proverbs 23:7). It would be an oversimplification to say that what we think reflects our hearts and how we think shapes our hearts, but it’s not far from the truth. From best-selling popular works to the boring textbooks we’re assigned growing up, much of the history that we consume exaggerates our capacity to know the past and unwittingly promotes intellectual arrogance. Herbert Butterfield, one of the premier Christian historians of the last century, trenchantly identified intellectual arrogance as “the besetting disease of historians.” Christian writers are not immune to this malady, and we cannot guard against it unless we are aware of it.

More to follow soon.

REMEMBERING GETTYSBURG

[Today marks the 153rd anniversary of the beginning of the three-day-long Battle of Gettysburg, the largest battle of the American Civil War and the largest military engagement ever fought in the western hemisphere.  With the anniversary in mind, I thought I would re-post a series of four essays that I originally penned a few years ago after my first visit to the battlefield.  The first (below) is a kind of tourist’s report; the three that follow are more properly styled meditations or reflections.  My goal in these was to explore what it might mean to remember that bloody conflict through eyes of faith.]

This past Thursday morning I hopped in my Kia Rio and made the nearly seven-hundred-mile trek from Wheaton to the site of the largest battle ever fought in the western hemisphere. Along the way I prepared mentally by listening to books on tape: James McPherson’s On Hallowed Ground–a brief guide to the battlefield–and the first half of (what else?) Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels. From Friday through Sunday morning I spent nearly sixteen hours roaming the six thousand acres of Gettysburg National Military Park, and I even managed to squeeze in a quick half-day tour of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia (fifty-four miles to the south), the site of John Brown’s infamous 1859 raid on the federal arsenal there. After hiking on the battlefield a final time early Sunday morning, I drove the seven hundred miles back home while listening to the second half of The Killer Angels. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain received the Confederate surrender at Appomattox shortly before I pulled in the driveway. It was the ultimate history nerd road trip.

Yours truly beside the memorial to the 20th Maine Inf. on the southern slope of Little Round Top.

Yours truly beside the memorial to the 20th Maine Inf. on the southern slope of Little Round Top.

After I’ve had time to wrestle with it a bit more, I want to think out loud with you about one of the eternal questions that the experience has raised in my mind, but for the moment let me just share a few initial reactions:

Let’s start with the culinary landscape. After extensive reconnaissance, I have three discoveries to report: first, the “General Pickett Buffet,” much like the general’s charge in 1863, was ambitious but unsatisfying. Second, the Avenue Restaurant, a locally owned diner a couple of blocks to the north, serves a marvelous breakfast. And finally, proximity to the battlefield seems to have had no appreciable effect on the food at McDonald’s.

Next, the battlefield itself: It was amazing, and I would recommend it to anyone at all interested in American history. The battlefield is under the auspices of the U. S. National Park Service, which has done a fabulous job of preserving as much of the original battlefield as possible and of interpreting all that transpired there. I’ve read countless books on the battle over the years, but there is simply no substitute for being there. If you can go, and if your health allows for it, get out and walk. I hiked a half-dozen times along the crest of Cemetery Ridge, stood in the woods along Seminary Ridge where John Bell Hood’s Texans formed to attack on July 2nd, clambered on the rocks at Devil’s Den (which Hood described as the worst ground he had ever seen), measured the length of line defended by the Twentieth Maine Infantry at Little Round Top, followed the route of Pickett’s Charge (and back), and stood where Robert E. Lee rode to rally his men after that charge was broken.

I am not a military historian, and to be perfectly honest, I have never been able to muster interest in academic disputes about strategy and tactics. And yet walking the battlefield helped me enormously in understanding what both armies were trying to accomplish. The ground mattered greatly in Civil War battles, and one of the most striking things about Gettysburg is how varied the ground could be.

Gazing east at Little Round Top (on left) and Big Round Top.

Gazing east at Little Round Top (on left) and Big Round Top.

Much of the setting is bucolic farmland–gently undulating fields dotted with clapboard barns and split-rail fences. A part of the setting is urban; Confederate General A. P. Hill’s corps drove Federal forces through the town itself on the first day, and his sharpshooters took up positions on Baltimore St. from which to harass the entrenching Yankees near the cemetery on the outskirts of town. Some of the fiercest fighting, however, unfolded on a landscape straight out of a science fiction movie. I had read about “Devil’s Den,” but I had never fully appreciated how bizarre it really is. I don’t know about you, but when I see Civil War battles in my mind’s eye, I never picture soldiers fighting hand-to-hand atop boulders the size of garbage trucks.

Young visitors to Devil's Den.

Young visitors to Devil’s Den.

The benefit of visiting the battlefield goes far beyond a better understanding of how topography shaped the conflict, and that’s a good thing. Setting aside the occasional sweaty, middle-aged re-enactor, I suspect that few of the park’s two million visitors each year are primarily interested in such technical questions. Most probably just want to gain a sense of what the common soldiers who fought there experienced. I certainly was hoping for that, among other things. There is an unbridgeable chasm that separates them from us, of course. I know that. We can never fully grasp the horrors that they witnessed and endured. (I feel that less as a limitation than as a mercy–thank you, Father.) And yet, I do believe that visiting places such as this enlivens the imagination, and imagination is an indispensable aid to historical understanding. In walking the land where these armies clashed, the landscape somehow connects us to those whose footsteps we follow. The result is a shadowy glimpse of long ago, and that, to my mind, is a treasure.

And now to the less-than-sublime–the town itself: There are numerous circa-1863 structures still standing that help us to envision what the town looked like as Union and Confederate forces converged on it 150 years ago. But much of the fighting on the 2nd and 3rd of July took place outside of town, and in the intervening century and a half there was all kinds of commercial development in that vicinity, and ever since the national park was established in the late-nineteenth century, entrepreneurs have sought to make money from tourism. Thus advocates of historical preservation have fought a battle of their own, heroically defending the ground from creeping commercialism.

They have won that battle, up to a point. The nearest McDonald’s (a good barometer of the balance of power in the struggle) is still several hundred yards from Cemetery Ridge. And yet if you head north from McDonald’s along Steinwehr Avenue, you will immediately encounter a gauntlet of cheap souvenir shops seeking to help you commemorate your pilgrimage to Gettysburg’s “hallowed ground.”

Tourism 4

The range of commemorative items is truly impressive. Notebook in hand, I visited several stores, all within a good tee shot of Cemetery Hill, and compiled a partial list. There were all kinds of caps, t-shirts, sweatshirts, and hoodies, of course. The vast majority referred to the recent sesquicentennial (“Gettysburg, 1863-2013″), but there were others appealing to hikers (“Hiked It, Liked It: Gettysburg Battlefield”) and imbibers (“Gettysburg: A Drinking Town with a History Problem”). For unreconstructed Confederates who might not otherwise enjoy visiting the site of a Union victory, there were declarations such as “Lee Surrendered, I Didn’t” and “Keep the South Beautiful: Put a Yankee on a Bus.”

Beyond this, there were commemorative coffee cups, travel mugs, flasks, beer steins, and wineglasses; refrigerator magnets, lapel pins, zipper pulls, ash trays, plates, jig-saw puzzles, key chains, iron-on patches, tote bags, windsocks, lap robes, piggy banks, paper weights, coasters, golf balls, Christmas tree ornaments, pens, pencils, pocketknives, cigarette lighters, thimbles, mouse pads, and playing cards. None of these much tempted me, but if I had had the money, I wouldn’t have minded bringing home the Pickett’s Charge snow globe, the shot glass with the entire text of the Gettysburg Address inscribed on it, or (my favorite) the Robert E. Lee bobble-head doll.

Maybe on my next visit.

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MEDITATIONS ON THE “HALLOWED GROUND”–FINAL REFLECTIONS

(This week marks the 152nd anniversary of the three-day-long Battle of Gettysburg, the largest battle of the American Civil War and the largest military engagement ever fought in the western hemisphere.  With the anniversary in mind, I am re-posting  a series of four essays that I originally penned two years ago after my first visit to the battlefield.  The first was a kind of tourist’s report; the remaining three–including the concluding below–are  more properly styled meditations or reflections.  My goal in these was to explore what it might mean to remember that bloody conflict through eyes of faith.)

One of my favorite quotes about the value of history comes from historian David Harlan, who reminds us that, “at its best, the study of American history can be a conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live.” Not many academic historians hold to that view anymore, and we’re the poorer because of it. I was repeatedly reminded of this as I walked the ground at Gettysburg–the opportunities for life-changing conversations abound, if we have ears to hear. “Hear” is the key verb, because the conversations that I have in mind require above all that we be willing to listen.

Sometimes in such conversations the figures from the past interrogate us. The first conversation that I was drawn into was of this sort. It began as I tried to envision what happened there a century and a half ago, when over one hundred and fifty thousand soldiers in blue and gray clashed in the largest battle ever fought in the western hemisphere. I have previously noted the chasm that separates us from the men who fought there, and yet it is almost impossible to walk in their footsteps without imagining what it was like to be in their shoes. And as I clambered among the boulders at Devil’s Den, peered through the trees on Little Round Top, and ascended the long, gentle slope of Cemetery Ridge, the questions running through my mind began to change. When the conversation began, I was the one doing the asking–posing safe, academic questions about troop movements and tactics. But then as I tried to imagine what these men experienced, much more personal, far more disturbing questions came to dominate my thoughts.

Gazing east at Little Round Top (on left) and Big Round Top.

Gazing east at Little Round Top (on left) and Big Round Top.

“Could you steel yourself to do what these men did?” I found myself wondering. “Could you endure what they endured?” More importantly, “Could you witness such carnage and still believe in mankind? Could you help to inflict such destruction and still believe in yourself? Could you experience such suffering and still believe in God?” Above all, “Are you devoted to any principle, any cause, any person, any Master enough to give, in Lincoln’s words, “the last full measure of devotion?”

The short answer to all of the above is, “I don’t know.” I pray to God that my faith would not falter, but I just don’t know. What I do know about myself is not reassuring: I too often struggle with even the most trivial acts of self-denial, the most mundane expressions of laying down my life that pale in comparison to the price paid by so many who fought here.

Sometimes our conversations with the past involve listening in on a discussion among historical figures and trying to learn from it, trying to glean wisdom as to “what we should value and how we should live.” I was also drawn into this kind of conversation as I walked the ground at Gettysburg, particularly as I contemplated the nearly fourteen hundred monuments that are sprinkled across the landscape. As I’ve noted before, Gettysburg National Park is arguably the world’s largest statuary garden, and as such it speaks not only to the battle itself but also to its aftermath.

As with tombstones in a cemetery, we read in the ubiquitous inscriptions two kinds of testimony: testimony about the doings of men, and testimony about the longings of mankind. That is, their words speak not only to what happened here, but also to how the soldiers who are commemorated, as well as their descendants, yearned for significance and wanted to believe that their lives mattered. In this sense, the monuments at Gettysburg are best understood as part of an ongoing conversation about the meaning of what happened there, and that conversation is, in a sense, merely a small part of a universal human dialogue about why, or whether, our lives matter at all.

As I noted in my last post, in their language the vast majority of Gettysburg’s monuments are mundane. Like Mr. Gradgrind in Dickens’s Hard Times, they care for nothing but “the facts.” The company or regiment in question fought on this spot at this time for this objective. It sent this many men into battle and suffered this many casualties. But not all are so reticent. “It’s not enough to remember what these men did,” the exceptions seem to say. “Subsequent generations must also know why these men fought, and why we should venerate them.”

Modern-day historians such as James McPherson and Chandra Manning have read literally tens of thousands of pages of Civil War soldiers’ diaries and letters in an attempt to understand why men fought in the Civil War. The words they have pored over were not chiseled in granite but scribbled in pencil. In their unguarded moments, Civil War soldiers revealed a broad range of motives. Some voiced ideological motives. Speaking in terms of duty and obligation, they professed to have enlisted in order to defend liberty, or democracy, or union, or states’ rights, or republican government, or the legacy of 1776 (however they understood it). Others enlisted for less exalted reasons: to escape boredom, find adventure, prove their manhood, see the world, impress girlfriends (or potential girlfriends), increase their income, or avoid the draft.

The Gettysburg monuments that speak to the larger meaning of the battle see only what was noble. The prototype in this regard is one of the oldest and largest monuments on the field, the so-called “Soldiers’ National Monument” that rises from the heart of the national military cemetery just north of Cemetery Ridge. Dedicated in 1869, its primary inscription consists of the closing lines of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, with its ringing references to a “new birth of freedom,” “government of the people,” and those “who here gave their lives that [the] nation might live.”

Most of the monuments erected at Gettysburg honor specific military units or particular individuals, but many of the states that were represented at Gettysburg eventually built state monuments as well, and these larger monuments regularly make claims about the object and meaning of their sons’ sacrifice. A sampling of state monuments tells us that Pennsylvanians fought for “the preservation of the Union.” Michigan troops were champions of “liberty and union.” Soldiers from Indiana–a state with more than its share of opposition to emancipation–fought for “equality” and to “advance freedom.”

Southern state monuments were often (understandably) less specific. Tennessee soldiers were guided by unspecified “convictions” and performed “their duty as they understood it.” Floridians “fought with courage and devotion for the ideals in which they believed”–whatever they were. Georgia’s Confederates, though, were forthrightly patriotic. (“When duty called, we came; when country called, we died.”) More explicit still, South Carolina soldiers were propelled by an “abiding faith in the sacredness of States Rights.”

The Alabama State Memorial at Gettysburg

The Alabama State Memorial at Gettysburg

I want to be clear here. I am not sneering at the possibility that many of those who fell on this field were motivated by high ideals. I am convinced that many were, and I admire them for it. C. S. Lewis has written that the greatest chasm separating the human race is not the divide between Christians and non-Christians or even that between theists and atheists, but rather the gulf between those who recognize any belief system outside of themselves that demands their allegiance and those who acknowledge no such standard. The latter, in the words of G. K. Chesterton, are adherents of “the most horrible” of religions: “the worship of the god within.” In a recent essay on the importance of fatherhood, N.Y.U. psychologist Paul Vitz observes that “the world is hungry for examples of unselfish men.” In our age of materialism and individualism, the example of those who did fight at Gettysburg for union or states’ rights, freedom or independence, is a breath of fresh air.

And yet we need to think carefully about the conversation that we are listening to. What impresses me most about these monuments is their use of religious language and imagery in commemorating the men who fought here. It’s not that there are references to God, Jesus, or Christian faith–I’ve found almost none. But think about the words and phrases that do appear: “martyrs,” “devotion,” “sacrifice,” “faith,” “immortal” fame, “righteous” causes, “eternal glory,” “the millennium of their glory,” “sacred” heritage, “no holier spot,” and “ground forever hallowed.” As with Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, such rhetoric confuses the sacred and the secular. It fuels a temptation to which none of us is immune: the temptation to conflate our identity as Christians with other loyalties and attachments.

But such language also speaks to a universal human longing. No one is truly, completely happy, Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft observes. Beneath the surface of our lives, with its innumerable distractions and diversions, “the deep hunger of [our] hearts remains unsatisfied.” We reflect on life and, in our unguarded moments, we are haunted by a recurring question: “Is this all there is?” The reason, Kreeft goes on to explain, is that “we are not supposed to be happy here.” This is not our home. “You made us for Yourself,” Augustine of Hippo concluded nearly sixteen centuries ago. “Our hearts find no peace until they rest in You.”

And yet we commonly cope with our heart hunger through self-deception, convincing ourselves that we can find meaning and purpose, fulfillment and transcendence in this life alone. As Christians, we are free to give a conditional loyalty to the state, but not our ultimate loyalty. All too often, the monuments at Gettysburg that speak to the battle’s larger meaning imply that we can be the authors of our own immortality, and that the key to our doing so lies in our making sacrifices to the state. Christian scholar Wilfred McClay has written recently that, because “human beings are naturally inclined toward religion . . . we have an incorrigible need to relate secular things to ultimate purposes.” Gettysburg’s monuments remind us that, because we are fallen, we are naturally tempted to equate secular things and ultimate purposes.

But these are not the only voices that I heard at Gettysburg, for there were countless others raised during the battle itself. Most of these cries from the heart are known only to God, but a fraction has survived in the soldiers’ own words, confessions made to contemporaries rather than declarations to posterity. One stands out in my mind, the testimony of an unnamed, unknown soldier who bore witness to a different kind of response to the indescribable happenings on this field.

We know of this soldier only through the recollection of another, Confederate Captain George Hillyer of the Ninth Georgia Infantry, a regiment in Anderson’s brigade of Hood’s division of Longstreet’s corps of the Army of Northern Virginia. Twenty-nine miles from Gettysburg when the fighting began on July 1st, they had marched all day and night and arrived on the field just before daylight on the 2nd. After spending the morning lying in a stand of woods due west of the Round Tops, in the afternoon Hillyer’s company was part of the general Confederate attack on the Union left. After making it almost to the base of Little Round Top, the Ninth Georgia was forced to withdraw, and Hillyer and his exhausted and bloodied company spent the night within earshot of Farmer Rose’s wheat field, a twenty-six-acre expanse that had been the site of some of the day’s fiercest fighting. As the sun went down, the wheat field was a kind of “no-man’s land” between the contending armies, with perhaps as many as four thousand dead and wounded soldiers now carpeting the flattened grain.

And in the midst of that hellish scene, Hillyer marveled to hear one of the men between the lines begin to sing. “He was probably a boy raised in some religious home in the South,” Hillyer recalled later, “where the good old hymns were the standard music.” There were “thousands of desperately wounded men lying on the ground within easy hearing of the singer,” the captain observed, “and as his voice rang out like a flute . . . not only the wounded, but also five or ten thousand and maybe more of the men of both armies could hear and distinguish the words.” The lines that they heard had been penned four decades earlier by an Irish poet named Thomas Moore and then set to music and published in 1831:

Come, ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish; / Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel; / Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish; / Earth has no sorrow that heav’n cannot heal.

This is the voice that I will remember most from my visit to Gettysburg. To take the past seriously is to put our own lives to the test, and the conversations at Gettysburg do just that, pressing us with hard, discomfiting questions: What do we value? In what do we hope? Where do we find meaning? The answers etched here in granite are noble, but they are also earthbound, temporal. Far more challenging, far more convicting, far more comforting, far more hopeful is the response on the lips of this unknown soldier. Sung in darkness amid death and despair, it is both historical occurrence and spiritual metaphor, an echo of God’s invitation to a bruised and hurting world.

Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel . . .

The Wheat Field at sunset.

The Wheat Field at sunset.

MEDITATIONS ON THE “HALLOWED GROUND”–PART II

(This week marks the 152nd anniversary of the three-day-long Battle of Gettysburg, the largest battle of the American Civil War and the largest military engagement ever fought in the western hemisphere.  With the anniversary in mind, I am re-posting  a series of four essays that I originally penned two years ago after my first visit to the battlefield.  The first was a kind of tourist’s report; the remaining three–including the one below–are  more properly styled meditations or reflections.  My goal in these was to explore what it might mean to remember that bloody conflict through eyes of faith.)

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Back to Gettysburg.

Two posts ago I began a series of reflections prompted by my visit to the battlefield there. These meditations are meant as illustrations of what I mean when I suggest that we make our hearts vulnerable as we contemplate the past. So far I’ve shared two examples. The first involved the weight of the past that overcame me at Gettysburg, its palpable reminder of the innumerable host of image-bearers that have gone before us, and the way that this can jolt us out of our own small, comfortable, and self-centered worlds. The second concerned the enormous chasm that separates us from those who clashed on this field a century and a half ago. Realizing this leads us to marvel at the omniscience of God in contrast with how little we actually know of what transpired there.

I’d like to share another meditation. This post will be a bit longer than usual, and I hope you’ll bear with me. The reflection is rooted in the recognition that our inability to recapture what happened on the battlefield isn’t only a reminder of the chasm that separates us from the generations preceding us. It also foreshadows how our own lives will fade from view in generations to come. We all know that life is short, and if we were inclined to think otherwise, the Scripture would insist on bringing us back to reality: “My life is a breath,” sighs Job (Job 7:7). “Our days on earth are a shadow,” his friend Bildad agrees (Job 8:9). Moses observes that our days are numbered (Psalm 90:12), David likens them to a passing shadow (Psalm 144:4), James compares our life’s span to a “puff of smoke” (James 4:14), and Isaiah is reminded of the “flower of the field” that withers away (Isaiah 40:7-8).

Deep down we get this, even as we conspire not to talk about it or acknowledge it. But the wispy, smoke-like, breath-like quality of our lives is not only a matter of length; it is also a matter of legacy. It’s a question of what sort of imprint we will leave behind when we’re gone. The answer, to put it bluntly, is not much of one. It’s not that our lives are without effect. Because we have lived, any number of others lives may be touched. Family members and neighbors, clients and coworkers, patients and students, customers and friends may all be affected, in some cases profoundly so. I’m not discounting that. But once we have passed, the memory of who we are (or were), the knowledge of those inner qualities that define us as unique individuals, will fade quickly into oblivion. How many of us have any more than a faded picture’s acquaintance with our great-grandparents?

The English poet Thomas Gray felt the weight of this. In his famous “Elegy in a Country Church Yard,” the eighteenth-century writer placed his narrator in a cemetery at twilight, where he considers the terse entries on the gravestones and meditates on “the short and simple annals of the poor.” The lives of the “rude forefathers” sleeping there have faded with time, Gray realizes. Humble headstones are all that remain, silent markers that preserve only “their names, their years, spelt by th’unlettered Muse.” It’s not just that our lives are so short, we may read Gray as suggesting. From retrospect they seem so insignificant. We leave but the faintest of footprints for posterity.

Thousands of years before Gray, another writer confronted the same troubling truth. “There is no remembrance of former things,” wrote the Preacher in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. “Nor will there be any remembrance of things that are to come by those who will come after” (Ecclesiastes 1:11). Indeed, the Preacher went on, “there is no more remembrance of the wise than of the fool forever, since all that now is will be forgotten in the days to come” (2:16a). This was one of many reasons convincing the writer that life is empty, meaningless, pointless, absurd. “Vanity of vanities,” he laments in the book’s very first sentence, “all is vanity.”

Through eyes of faith, we read the Preacher’s bitter lament as an example of what Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft calls “black grace,” by which he means God’s revelation to us “by darkness rather than light.” Ecclesiastes hardly captures the true meaning of life. Rather, it brilliantly exposes the futility of life lived “under the sun,” of an existence shorn of all eternal perspective. As we read, we are reminded repeatedly that all of our efforts to deny God and manufacture our own meaning and purpose for life are merely so many acts of self-deception or distraction. Our hope lies not in crafting our own stories, but in realizing that we were born in the middle of a far larger story. The path from despair comes through embracing the One True Story and seeing ourselves rightly as characters in its narrative of hope and redemption.

Intellectually, I understand this, but when I am honest with myself, I realize that the story of the Preacher is often my story, too. I struggle with the desire to manufacture my own meaning, to be the architect of my own immortality. Too often, my drive for accomplishments and reputation are less about a desire to hear “Well done, good and faithful servant” in eternity, and more about erecting monuments to myself in this present age.

Here, too, Gettysburg speaks to me. Visitors to Gettysburg not only get a glimpse into the battle that raged there in 1863. They also see evidence of how those who survived the battle wished to be remembered. The ten square miles of Gettysburg National Military Park constitute the largest statuary garden in the world. There are monuments and markers galore (somewhere in the neighborhood of fourteen hundred all told), the vast majority erected in the late-19th and early-20th centuries as the survivors of the battle were entering old age.

Monument to the 140th New York Infantry on Little Round Top

Monument to the 140th New York Infantry on Little Round Top

It would be interesting to undertake a systematic study of the inscriptions on these monuments. I did not, but I did stop to read a fair number as I walked the battlefield. One of the things that struck me is how mundane their perspective generally is. The vast majority simply repeat the same kind of details that would go into an action report after battle. A typical monument explains that the military unit being commemorated was positioned at such and such a spot for such and such a purpose, with such and such a result. An enumeration of casualties invariably follows, and sometimes the names of those killed.

Attempts to speak to the motivation or values of those involved are in fact extremely rare. They usually involve brief references to “duty,” “valor,” or patriotism. None of these is intrinsically Christian, of course, and a pagan soldier in ancient Rome would have welcomed them on a monument to Caesar’s legions.

What seems lacking in these monuments is any effort to connect what happened at Gettysburg to some larger narrative that would give the battle transcendent meaning. Such a narrative had been provided years earlier, however, in the most famous effort to commemorate those who fought there, although this commemoration was not a monument, but a speech.

We rightly remember the Gettysburg Address for its eloquence, but how deeply do we think about it? I may offend some in saying this, but to think Christianly about it is to see it as deeply flawed. Like the Preacher’s contemplation of life “under the sun,” its perspective is relentlessly earthbound, and at least one of its claims is vaguely blasphemous.

Probably the Address’s best known passage is its opening sentence: “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation: conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” We live in a talk-show culture in which contemporary political rhetoric is relentlessly parsed and dissected and critiqued unmercifully, but let a few generations pass and chisel the rhetoric in granite on the mall in Washington, and it becomes sacrosanct in our eyes. It might free us up to re-examine the Address afresh if we remember that it was roundly denounced when it was delivered.

Lincoln and Gettysburg Address

Lincoln and Gettysburg Address

As in our own day, much of the criticism was politically motivated. We forget that, like so many other politicians before and since, Lincoln used a public appearance before a large crowd as an opportunity to make a political statement. In November, 1863, the North was badly divided over the president’s recent Emancipation Proclamation. The Republican Party supported it, while the Democratic Party unanimously denounced it. And so the Republican leader wasted no time in defending his administration when he helped to dedicate the new military cemetery in Gettysburg, even though he never once referred to emancipation explicitly.

His argument was essentially historical. At worst misleading, at best debatable, it rested on a highly selective reading of the country’s founding. For years Lincoln had been insisting that his desire to end slavery was in keeping with the original vision of the Founding Fathers. “The fathers of the government expected and intended the institution of slavery to come to an end,” he proclaimed repeatedly during the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. In advocating the restriction of slavery and its ultimate demise, Lincoln informed the audience that “I have proposed nothing more than a return to the policy of the fathers.” Lincoln’s view was a libel on the Founders, Democrat Douglas rejoined. Offering his own reading of American history, Douglas informed cheering Democrats that “our fathers made this government divided into Free and Slave States, recognizing the right of each to decide all its local questions for itself.”

And so when Lincoln began by telling the assembled throng at Gettysburg that our fathers had been “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” the politically savvy among them immediately recognized a familiar refrain in a long-standing partisan debate. And when, a couple of minutes later, Lincoln concluded his brief remarks by implying that the Union dead at Gettysburg had died so that the nation might have “a new birth of freedom,” the crowd understood that he was enlisting the fallen at Gettysburg in the controversial cause of emancipation.

Republicans saw nothing exceptional in this. Democrats were livid. It was to uphold the Constitution, the Chicago Times assured its readers, “and the Union created by it, that our officers and soldiers gave their lives at Gettysburg.” What the president had done at Gettysburg was simply despicable. “How dare he,” thundered the Times editor, “standing on their graves, misstate the cause for which they died, and libel the statesmen who founded the government? They were men possessing too much self-respect to declare that negroes were their equals, or were entitled to equal privileges.”

As a historian, I see northern Democrats’ response to the Address as understandable (although their reading of history was just as one-sided as Lincoln’s). As a Christian historian, I am more disappointed by the way that Republican evangelicals across the North embraced Lincoln’s speech, for it contained elements that they should have found troubling.

For one thing, the Address is a classic example of rhetoric that conflates sacred and secular. Read broadly, Lincoln’s address was a masterful effort to situate the tragedy of the American Civil War in a larger story of redemption. The thing being redeemed, however, is not God’s Church but the United States. The author of redemption is not the Lord but “the people.”

The story Lincoln tells begins with its own creation account. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” the opening verse of Genesis declares. In the beginning “our fathers brought forth” the United States, Lincoln proclaims. Their values now bind us. Their vision–as interpreted by Lincoln–obliges us. Ever since Lincoln’s death there have been countless efforts to “baptize him posthumously,” as Christian scholar Allen Guelzo notes in his marvelous biography, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President. Guezlo argues persuasively, however, that although Lincoln was biblically literate and far from an atheist, he nevertheless died unconvinced of the gospel. What is more, although he employed biblical rhetoric and adopted biblical cadences in his speeches, he rarely if ever referred to the Bible as authoritative. As late as 1863, at least, the bedrock of his argument against slavery was not scripture but the Declaration of Independence and its assertion–penned by an apostle of the Enlightenment who owned 150 slaves–that “all men are created equal.”

Lincoln goes on to make two other assertions that ought to have troubled the thinking Christians in his audience. The first is his statement that “the brave men who struggled” at Gettysburg–presumably he meant the Union men–had “consecrated” the ground. To consecrate is to “set apart as sacred to God.” Something that has been consecrated is now “holy.” When the great “I AM” spoke to Moses from the burning bush, He informed the trembling herdsman that he was standing on holy ground. Lincoln told his audience the same thing. In what possible sense could that be true? It makes little difference whether you believe that Lincoln was speaking literally or figuratively. In his choice of words the president was draping the state with religious imagery and eternal significance, and that, however well-intended, is a form of what Christian scholar Steven Woodworth aptly labels “patriotic heresy.”

Second, Lincoln suggested that the blood of the Union dead justified the Union cause. He urged his audience to renew their commitment to the struggle precisely because others had given “the last full measure of devotion” on its behalf. My grandfather served in WWI, my father in WWII, and my son is currently in the Marine Corps, so I want to be very careful in choosing my words here. We can rightly respect, admire, and appreciate those who, through suffering and great danger have risked their lives in our defense. But that is a different thing from maintaining that the spilling of blood necessarily ennobles the cause for which it is shed.

We would not accept that view with regard to the storm troopers who died in the service of Adolph Hitler, nor the Islamic terrorists who knowingly went to their deaths on 9/11. And as American Christians we ought not to swallow the argument as applied to our own soldiers. If we accept the view that death in war automatically justifies the perpetuation of that war–so that the “dead shall not have died in vain,” as Lincoln put it–we abdicate our calling to live as salt and light. When we do so, the church forfeits its prophetic voice and becomes merely an extension of the state.

Thinking Christianly about the past requires that we make our own hearts vulnerable, so my purpose in sharing these thoughts is not so that we can smugly condemn those who have gone before us. Instead, we are called to identify with them. Their example reminds us, warns us, of the ever present temptation to confuse our identity as Christians with other loyalties and attachments, whether nation, race, class, or party. This is but one manifestation of the more general seduction that the Preacher of Ecclesiastes knew well: the illusion that we make our own meaning in life, satisfying our souls on our own terms, in our own way. Others have unknowingly succumbed. Why should we be immune?

Search our hearts, O Lord . . .

MEDITATIONS ON THE “HALLOWED GROUND”–PART I

(Today marks the 152nd anniversary of the beginning of the three-day-long Battle of Gettysburg, the largest battle of the American Civil War and the largest military engagement ever fought in the western hemisphere.  With the anniversary in mind, I am re-posting  a series of four essays that I originally penned two years ago after my first visit to the battlefield.  The first was a kind of tourist’s report; the remaining three–including the one below–are  more properly styled meditations or reflections.  My goal in these was to explore what it might mean to remember that bloody conflict through eyes of faith.)

1-Park Sign

The morning after I returned from my road trip to Gettysburg, I took my wife and older daughter out to breakfast to catch up with them and share a bit of my experience. As soon as we had placed our order, my wife leaned across the table and asked, “So what spiritual insights did you come home with?”

She knows me well. History is an almost inexhaustible storehouse of compelling human stories, but I am convinced that if the study of history is to be truly educational, it must be much more than that. Authentic education does not merely put knowledge into our heads that wasn’t there before. It alters the way we think. It challenges our hearts. It changes who we are.

At its best, our encounter with the past should be a seamless part of a larger quest for a heart of wisdom, a “conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live,” in the words of historian David Harlan. We shouldn’t settle for less. Genesis 32 tells how Jacob wrestled with God the whole night through, telling the Lord, “I will not let you go unless you bless me!” (v. 26). I can’t begin to plumb the depths of that story’s meaning, and yet I think of it often in my role as a historian and a teacher. Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury and an accomplished historian, encourages us to believe “that there will always be gifts to be received from the past.” We must seek them persistently, insistently. Like Jacob, we must resolve not to turn loose until the Lord has blessed us.

What I am NOT suggesting is that we pray for special revelation from God, asking him to disclose hidden meanings from the past. . . . I find no promise in scripture that the Holy Spirit will reveal American history to us.  The Bible is clear, on the other hand, that the Spirit is given in order to convict us of “sin, and righteousness, and judgment” (John 16:8). So when I propose that we wrestle with the past until the Lord blesses us, I have in mind studying history in such a way that it ultimately exposes our hearts. Our highest goal is not to understand the past for its own sake, nor to learn lessons from the past that help us get what we want in the present. Rather, our ultimate goal is to see both God and ourselves more clearly, to the glory of God and for our sanctification.

The point, in other words, is to get wisdom. As Proverbs 4:7 puts it, “Wisdom is the principal thing.”And if wisdom is our goal, we must figure out how to make scrutiny of the past lead to scrutiny of our own hearts in the light of God’s revealed Word. That, I am almost ready to conclude, is the essence of what it means to think “Christianly” about history.

I am still trying to work out what this looks like concretely, but I would like to share with you some of the thoughts that I had while roaming the ground at Gettysburg. They are examples of the kind of reflections I have in mind. You may be able to come up with other, better ones, and I welcome your suggestions and reactions. For now, I’ll share just a couple of observations, with more to follow soon.

First, the palpable weight of the past at Gettysburg is jarring. As I mentioned in my last post, as I walked the battlefield I felt the almost tangible presence of the nearly 170,000 men who clashed there a century and a half ago. I don’t mean literally that their spirits hovered there (although there are a number of “Gettysburg Ghost Tours” that claim precisely that). As I observed last time, there is something about being physically present at the site of a famous historical event. The experience enlivens our imaginations; sharing a common landscape somehow seems to connect us viscerally to those whose footsteps we follow.

That sensation, at least for me, has the effect of jolting me out of my own narrow frame of reference. For all the current talk of “globalization,” most of us really live in tiny worlds, don’t we? The universes we inhabit don’t have room for much: home, work, school, the mall, perhaps church. We pretend to expand our worlds through “virtual” reality but only isolate ourselves even more. It’s comparatively easy to believe that the world revolves around us when the island kingdoms that we rule over are so miniscule. And then we walk the field at Gettysburg, or some similar locale, and the landscape reminds us of the hosts that have gone before, and suddenly we can feel very small. That’s a good thing. If an integral component of wisdom is self-knowledge, “the first product of self-knowledge,” as Flannery O’Connor realized, “is humility.”

Second, as I thought about the men who fought there, I was immediately struck by the chasm that separates us from them. I’d love to be a tour guide at Gettysburg, but I wouldn’t be a very popular one, because I think one of the most important things to tell tourists is how little we know about what happened there. That’s not a message we care to hear. We want history that makes the past “come alive”–what I call You Are There history–and being reminded that “we see through a glass, darkly” when we peer into the past interferes with our fantasies of omniscience.

But call to mind what C. S. Lewis wrote about the vast disparity between the actual past–which is dead and gone–and history, which is not the past itself but our halting efforts to reconstruct it. “The past,” Lewis observed, “was a roaring cataract of billions upon billions of . . . moments: any one of them too complex to grasp in its entirety, and the aggregate beyond all imagination.” The difference between the past and history, then, “is not a question of failing to know everything: it is a question (at least as regards quantity) of knowing next door to nothing.”

This is always true when we try to reconstruct an episode from the past, even an event of such scale and significance as the battle of Gettysburg. Take, for instance, the battle’s famous conclusion–Pickett’s Charge. As historian Carol Reardon has shown, even the most basic factual claims about the attack are actually just educated guesses. We don’t really know precisely when the bombardment preceding the attack began, how long it lasted, or why it proved ineffective. We don’t know exactly how many men were involved in the charge, and we certainly don’t know which Confederate unit got the farthest or precisely where on the field they were turned back. (At least three southern states claim that their troops advanced the farthest, and each has installed historical markers on Cemetery Ridge to position their sons at the “High Water Mark of the Confederacy.”) We don’t even know for sure what George Pickett was doing during the charge. (There were even controversial claims after the war that he had skulked in the rear until the bloodbath was over.)

Looking west from Cemetery Ridge at the field crossed by George Pickett's Division on July 3rd, 1863.  His men formed for the attack in the line of trees in the distance.

Looking west from Cemetery Ridge at the field crossed by George Pickett’s Division on July 3rd, 1863. His men formed for the attack in the line of trees in the distance.

When we move beyond establishing the factual details to the thornier tasks of explanation (why did the attack fail?) and re-creation (what was it like to take part?) our dearth of knowledge becomes all the more apparent. As Reardon explains, each kind of existing evidence about the battle has its own problems. Official reports were biased, self-serving, and frequently not composed until months afterward. Most of the letters and diaries of common soldiers at Gettysburg were never preserved, and those that survive are less revealing than we would hope. Individual soldiers saw only a tiny part of the battlefield, and in the stress of battle they often retained a kaleidoscope of impressions and sensations more than a coherent narrative of their experience. In writing to loved ones, they often gave up on the possibility of conveying what they had seen and experienced to civilians.

Newspapers covered the battle extensively (there were dozens of correspondents at Gettysburg), but reporters typically knew little about military matters and, like modern historians, were faced with the daunting task of trying to bring some sort of coherence to the myriad of conflicting individual perspectives that they could glean from interviews. To compound the challenge, they were under great pressure to rush their stories into print in order to scoop their rivals. As a result, “wishful thinking ran wild” and “no bit of hyperbole seemed excessive.”

But why stress how much we don’t know? The author of Proverbs provides our answer: “For as he thinks within himself, so he is” (Proverbs 23:7). It would be an oversimplification to say that what we think reflects our hearts and how we think shapes our hearts, but it’s not far from the truth. From best-selling popular works to the boring textbooks we’re assigned growing up, much of the history that we consume exaggerates our capacity to know the past and unwittingly promotes intellectual arrogance. Herbert Butterfield, one of the premier Christian historians of the last century, trenchantly identified intellectual arrogance as “the besetting disease of historians.” Christian writers are not immune to this malady, and we cannot guard against it unless we are aware of it.

More to follow soon.