As we strive to study the past Christianly, one of our goals should be to identify heroes without manufacturing idols.
We all need heroes, individuals to look up to who model the character and accomplishments we aspire to. There’s nothing wrong with that, in fact we have biblical warrant for it. In his first letter to the church at Corinth, the apostle Paul taught and admonished the fellowship there regarding a number of topics and then offered the audacious suggestion, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” (I Corinthians 11:1). It is as if Paul was saying, “Look, I realize that this teaching can be difficult, so if you’re having a hard time, just follow my example as I try to live it out before you.” He even promised to send his “son in the faith” Timothy to “remind you of my ways in Christ” (I Corinthians 4:17).
But note the constant qualifiers: the Corinthians were to follow Paul’s example because he was following Christ’s; they were to study Paul’s ways because his ways were “in Christ.” Heroes are fine, in other words—the great “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews 11 is full of them—but the traits that we admire them for should be traits consistent with the example of Christ and the teaching of scripture.
Needless to say, this is not the pattern we find in contemporary American culture. There are admirable exceptions, but a quick glance at who we reward with fame and imitation suggests that character is all but irrelevant. Our heroes are typically young, attractive, sexy, and thin. Their contribution to society lies mostly in their ability to perform for us on the movie screen, the concert stage, or the playing field. Like gushing Miss America candidates, we may claim to desire world peace and a cure for cancer, but what we really value is entertainment.
Before this turns into a self-righteous rant, let me add that we who name the name of Christ bear our fair share of responsibility for this cultural shallowness. What is more, when with the best of intentions we turn to history to resist this superficiality, we are often lured into a pattern of thinking that comes close to idolatry.
Kirk Cameron’s 2012 documentary Monumental comes perilously near to crossing this line. As I mentioned in my last post, I share many of Cameron’s values and I don’t doubt that his motives are honorable. In this sense I want to stand with him as he strives to uphold biblical principles in our fallen world. But I have to stand against him in his approach to American history.
The message of Monumental will resonate with evangelicals who are distressed by the amorality and immorality of contemporary American culture. It will inspire many who are looking for a better way, and it will probably persuade many with its message that we can only move forward by looking backward. In a certain sense I agree. But before embarking on this project, Cameron would have done well to remember John Calvin’s centuries-old warning (in his Institutes of the Christian Religion) that the human mind is “a perpetual forge of idols.” Had Cameron taken that warning seriously, his documentary might have conveyed a very different message.
The propensity to forge idols that Calvin warned against is something that we fallen humans carry with us at all times, including during our excursions “into” the past. This means that one snare that awaits us when we study non-Biblical history is the temptation to fashion idols out of the admirable figures we encounter.
But what would that look like, specifically? In context, Calvin was addressing the literal worship of physical objects as a substitute for God, but that’s clearly not the pitfall that concerns us here. Other writers have broadened Calvin’s insight to apply more generally, pointing to our tendency to waver in our allegiance to God, to elevate things or people or desires to the position of primacy in our hearts that belongs to God alone. That’s always a valid concern, but again not what I have in mind.
In my experience, if we would keep from forging idols in history, there are two related responses that we must especially guard against, both of which effectively clothe the humans that we study with divine attributes. First, we must beware of describing any figures from the past other than Christ Himself as if they were above reproach—or to put it another way, as if they were without sin.
None of us would ever come right out and say this of a historical figure, and yet there is a subtle temptation to gloss over the flaws in our heroes that their virtues may shine the more brightly. To take even a single step down this path is to begin the gradual descent from history to hagiography, from the admiration of heroes to the worship of ancestors.
Second, we must be careful never to act as if we are morally bound to follow the example of figures from the past, for this is to impute authority where God has not granted it. Trust me, Christians fall into this trap all the time.
To give but one example, we strain to prove that the Founding Fathers were predominantly Christians, as if that is somehow supposed to matter to our unbelieving contemporaries. They’re entirely justified in replying, “Why should we care?” Why should they, indeed? If the United States needs to foster religion as an “indispensable support” of the republic, it is not because George Washington told us so in his farewell address (although he did, by the way).
Remember the proviso in Paul’s exhortation: “Imitate me,” he told the Corinthians, “as I also imitate Christ.” Anytime we forget that stipulation, acting as if a non-canonical figure from the past intrinsically deserves to be followed, we take a long step toward erecting an idol.
Monumental violates both of these strictures.
The heart of the documentary’s argument comes in a fifteen-minute segment in which co-producer Dr. Marshall Foster and Cameron stand at the foot of the little known National Monument to the Forefathers in Plymouth, Massachusetts. (You can view the segment here.) The monument is undeniably impressive. Carved from three hundred tons of granite and rising eight stories above the earth, it features a massive octagonal pedestal surmounted by a thirty-six-foot tall female figure labeled “Faith.” Seated in a circle around the pedestal are four other immense figures, each classically draped and bearing the names Liberty, Law, Education, and Morality.
As they walk around the massive sculpture, Cameron plays the role of the zealous Christian eager to learn how to turn America back to God, while Foster plays the historian ready to unlock the secrets of America’s hidden Christian past.
National Monument to the Forefathers, Plymouth Massachusetts
(And to be clear, Foster is “playing” at being a historian. He has no formal training in history at all. Despite his impressive sounding title of founder of the “World History Institute,” all of his graduate study is in theology, and even in that sphere his credentials are questionable. According to his organization’s website, Foster is “Dr. Foster” because he holds a Doctorate in Divinity from Cathedral Bible College, a tiny open-enrollment school currently located in Marion, South Carolina. In May of this year, the school’s founder and president pleaded guilty to federal charges that he systematically forced international students to work for a fraction of minimum wage or face deportation.)
Before going to the Forefather’s Monument, however, Foster takes Cameron to the top of Burial Hill in Plymouth, the site overlooking the harbor where the Pilgrims built their original meeting house and fort. “There’s nothing like bones to remind you of your heritage,” Foster ruminates. “That’s why I like bringing people up here, because it reminds us of our own mortality. It reminds us that we are in a relay race. We are in a generational relay race. And they understood that.”
They are the Pilgrims, of course. Here the documentary is a bit misleading, as most of the graves on Burial Hill belong to later generations of Plymouth colonists, not the original passengers of the Mayflower, but no matter. Foster’s point is that the Pilgrims took seriously their responsibility to bequeath their faith and their identity as Christ followers to their descendants, and there is no doubt that he is right. In large measure, their determination to risk their lives to come to America was with their children and their children’s children in mind.
Cameron’s job in this segment is primarily to serve as Foster’s set-up man, posing questions to guide what is essentially a lecture from the director of the “World History Institute.” “I wish they had left us some kind of a training manual,” the former teenage star of Growing Pains says wistfully, “some kind of secret sauce recipe card that we could pick up and go, ‘Here’s what it is! Here’s what we do!’”
The good news (gospel?) at the core of Monumental is that there is such a “training manual” or “secret sauce recipe card” (what an awful metaphor), and that it is hidden in plain sight near the spot where America was “founded.”
Before taking Cameron to the National Monument to the Forefathers, Foster sets the stage with an allusion to scripture. “When the children of Israel are going into the Promised Land,” Foster reminds Cameron, “they cross the Jordan River and God stood it on end and they walked across. And before the waters stopped parting, God told them to take twelve stones from the bottom of the river and put them up on the top of Mt. Gilgal and make a monument so that when your children ask, ‘What are these stones?’ you will be able to tell them, ‘This is where God parted the sea.’” This is a mostly accurate re-telling of an episode in the history of Israel recounted in the book of Joshua, chapter four.
Now comes the segue. “And that’s what the Pilgrims left us,” Foster explains. They left us a monument that not only gives tribute to what was accomplished here, but it gives us a specific strategy, a breakout of a blueprint [so that] if we would ever forget what made America great, what made us free, we can go back and follow that strategy—and it’s right up on a hill a half mile from here.” At this point the scene shifts several hundred yards to the northwest, to the site of the National Monument to the Forefathers.
I cannot overstate how deeply flawed this comparison is. To begin with, the monument described to us in the book of Joshua calls attention to the work of God on behalf of His people. When the Israelites’ children asked them what the twelve stone stones meant, they were to explain to them what God had done, “that all the peoples of the earth may know the hand of the Lord, that it is mighty” (Joshua 4:24).
The National Monument to the Forefathers, in contrast, calls attention not to God but to the Pilgrims. Granted, the monument implies that the Pilgrims were people of faith, but they also had the wisdom to recognize the four other indispensable pillars of a great and free nation and the purity of character necessary to model them rightly for us. Both the monument and the documentary have the same message: Want to be a great, free, and prosperous nation? Look to the Pilgrims. Look to the Pilgrims.
Implicit in the comparison is also the suggestion that ancient Israel and the United States are analogous. Think about it: Foster begins by alluding to a monument erected by God’s chosen nation of old at the point at which they entered their Promised Land. He then likens it to a monument erected supposedly by the Pilgrims near the point where they entered the future United States. Lurking in the comparison is a portrayal of the United States as God’s “New Israel,” a theologically disastrous conclusion that well meaning Americans have too frequently embraced. (To cite one example, this was the message of The Light and the Glory, by Peter Marshall Jr. and David Manuel, the book that remains the single most popular Christian interpretation of American history ever written. For my review of that book, click here.)
Finally, as a historian, I cringe at Foster’s nonsensical statement that “the Pilgrims” were the ones who “left us” the monument at Plymouth. The National Monument to the Forefathers was dedicated in 1889, two hundred sixty-nine years after the voyage of the Mayflower. Completed the same year as Jane G. Austin’s fabulously popular and romanticized account of the Pilgrims, Standish of Standish (see my prior post on this novel), the monument primarily tells us how Victorian America wanted to remember the Pilgrims a quarter of a millennium after they passed from the scene.
Writing at the height of the Pilgrim’s popularity during the early years of the Cold War, Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison wryly observed, “One price the Pilgrims have to pay for their popularity is the attribution to them of many things or trends popular now, but of which they knew nothing and cared less.” The National Monument to the Forefathers reveals much more about the values of the late-nineteenth century than it does about the worldview of the Pilgrims, just as Foster’s interpretation of the monument primarily reveals to us the values of Marshall Foster and Kirk Cameron.
I am convinced that the Pilgrims would be distraught if they could view the National Monument erected in their honor. In my next post I will explain why I think so.