Tag Archives: G. K. Chesterton

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.

CHESTERTON ON PATRIOTISM

[I’m going to be taking a break for the next couple of weeks, and since the Fourth of July is less than two weeks away, I thought I would re-post some of my favorite past essays on the American founding.  Most are extended book reviews, and I have consciously tried to balance works from a range of perspectives, including those that exaggerate the place of Christian faith in the founding of the United States as well as those that understate it.  I thought I would start off, however, with a reflection that engages with the British writer G. K. Chesterton, who offers a pertinent reminder about the nature of true patriotism.]

It is good to explore the role that Christian belief and principles played in the unfolding of the American Revolution.  But as Christians called to “take every thought captive to obedience to Christ,” we also need to consider what it means to let our faith inform our understanding, today, of the events that led to American Independence more than two centuries ago.  What does it mean to think Christianly, in other words, about this critical chapter in our national story?

As I have spoken to churches, Christian schools, and Christian home-schooling groups over the years, the question of whether America was founded as a Christian nation has regularly been the single most common question that I am asked.  If they are interested in history at all, the Christians that I meet outside the Academy keep coming back to the same basic question: Was the United States founded as a Christian country, by Christian statesmen, guided by Christian principles?

When I hear the question, the first thought that pops into my head is another question, namely “Why do you want to know?”  I don’t mean to be flippant or disrespectful.  Part of thinking Christianly about the past involves examining our motives for studying the past in the first place.  And when it comes to a question like the relationship between Christianity and the founding of the United States, there are all manner of motives other than simple curiosity that can get in the drivers’ seat.

The question has become enormously politicized in the last generation, as Christians square off against secularists, both sides appealing to the past to support their respective policy position regarding the proper place of religion in public life.  Historical truth  is commonly a casualty when  political agendas get entangled with debates about the past.  Even more troubling is the degree to which well-meaning Christians have allowed their very identity as believers to become intertwined with particular interpretations of American history. I cannot tell you how many times I have spoken with Christians who seem to see any denial that America was founded as a Christian nation as an attack on Christianity itself.

G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

One of the very first quotes in my commonplace book is an observation from G. K. Chesterton that speaks to this mindset.  In his 1908 classic Orthodoxy, Chesterton makes a brief observation in the midst of a lengthy (dare I say rambling?) aside as part of an even longer reflection on optimism and pessimism.  Here it is:

“Only those will permit their patriotism to falsify history whose patriotism depends on history.”

If we are truly devoted to our country, in other words, Chesterton is telling us that we will not insist on a particular interpretation of its past if the evidence leads us in another direction.  True patriotism may require us to acknowledge aspects of our national history that are contrary to the story that we would prefer to tell.  We will do so, however, because patriotism is a particular form of love, and as Chesterton reminds us on the very next page,

“Love is not blind; that is the last thing that it is.  Love is bound; and the more it is bound the less it is blind.”

But Chesterton’s observation doesn’t only help us in thinking about the relationship between history and patriotism.  Its inner reasoning can be just as helpful to us in thinking through the relationship between history and our Christian faith.  In one sense our Christian beliefs are absolutely grounded in history.  Ours is a historical faith.  Christianity’s core doctrines rest on theological interpretations of historical events: creation, fall, incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection.  Deny these historical events and eviscerate the faith.

But Christianity does not rest on any particular interpretation of American history.  Let’s take the first Chesterton quote above and modify it in two key respects, giving us the following:

Only those will permit their Christian faith to falsify American history whose Christian faith depends on American history.

Who among us who aspires to follow Christ would readily accept a Christian faith dependent on American history?  Of course none of us would wish this consciously, and yet our identity as Americans and our identity as Christians are so easily intertwined.  As we think about faith and the American founding in the days ahead, it wouldn’t be a bad thing to keep Chesterton’s observation in mind.

LEARNING ABOUT HISTORY FROM AN IMAGINED FUTURE

I’m always on the outlook for metaphors that help us think more deeply about what history is and what historians do. But my quest is hardly systematic. There’s not enough time—not enough lifetimes—for that. I follow up leads that I stumble across and tips that my students give me. The latter can lead me into corners of the world of literature that I would never otherwise explore.

Science fiction is a case in point. I’ve never liked it, not even C. S. Lewis’s space trilogy, although at Wheaton we’re supposed to adore everything the man wrote. (I’m being facetious, although we do claim to own the wardrobe that inspired  The Chronicles of Narnia.) But recently one of my students recommended that I check out Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead, and it was a good tip. The novel centers on a marvelous metaphor for a crucial role that historians can play.

speaker_for_dead

I actually had to read two of Card’s novels. Before I could understand Speaker for the Dead, which contains the metaphor, I had to read its predecessor, Ender’s Game, for context. You may have seen the 2013 movie by the same name. It earned mixed reviews and bombed at the box office, but it follows the plot of the book reasonably well.

Here’s my two-minute synopsis of Ender’s Game, in case you need it. I promise I am not trying to make it sound sillier than it actually is: The setting is a century or so in the future, at a time when the world is still reeling from the attack of a race of insect-like beings called Buggers. (They’re called Formics in the movie). Although the Bugger invasion failed (after killing millions of humans), Earth’s leaders fear that these insect people will eventually come again and succeed. Enter Ender Wiggin, a child genius recruited by the military to save the human race.

After extensive training with other child prodigies, Ender is selected to travel to a distant planet for additional training on an especially sophisticated battle simulator, and he excels. He then learns to his horror (spoiler alert!) that his mentors have been manipulating him. Rather than taking part in a simulation, he has actually been engaged in a live battle. In fact, he has unwittingly orchestrated a preemptive counterstrike against the Bugger home planet that has apparently wiped out the only other known sentient race in the galaxy. The novel ends with Ender discovering one surviving Bugger queen pupa, who telepathically relates to him that the Buggers regretted their earlier attack of earth and posed no threat to humanity. Devastated by guilt, Ender resolves to devote his life to finding a new home where the Buggers can flourish again.

No, it’s not War and Peace, and if not for my student’s solemn assurance that it was worth it, I would never have continued on to Speaker for the Dead. But I did, and I am glad that I did. Early in the novel, set three thousand years in the future, we learn that after the Second Bugger War Ender abandoned the military for a different role. Adopting the pseudonym “Speaker for the Dead,” he used his conversations with the Bugger queen to tell the Buggers’ story and reveal the misunderstanding that led to their (apparent) extermination. Made a pariah on earth because of the part that he played in the genocide, Ender embraced his new identity as “Speaker for the Dead,” and for the past three millennia (I’m not even going to try to explain how this is supposedly possible) he has wandered across the galaxy at near light speed, going wherever someone requests his services.

As Card portrays him, the Speaker for the Dead is part funeral orator, part investigative reporter, but first and foremost, he is a historian. I don’t think Card ever uses the word, but that is Ender’s primary role. A character named Novinha explains that the job of the Speaker is to “discover the true causes and motives of the things that people did, and declare the truth of their lives after they were dead.” That’s not the only thing that a historian aspires to do, but surely it’s an important part.

Card’s “Speaker for the Dead” metaphor immediately struck me. It resonates with some of my favorite quotes regarding our obligation to the past: G. K. Chesterton’s plea that we listen to our ancestors and practice “the democracy of the dead.” Beth Schweiger’s observation that the goal of the historian is to “make a relationship with the dead.” David Harlan’s insistence that history should be “a conversation with the dead.”

It also evokes Wendell Berry’s lament that we often abuse our responsibility to the dead. “I dislike for the dead to be made to agree with whatever some powerful living person wants to say,” the title character in Hannah Coulter tells us, thinking of her late husband who had died in WWII. “The dead are helpless,” she says. “The living must protect the dead.”

In his introduction to Speaker for the Dead, Orson Scott Card reveals that he shares Hannah’s concern. “I grew dissatisfied with the way that we . . . revise the life of the dead,” he writes,” giving the dead “a story so different from their actual life that, in effect, we kill them all over again.” Card continues,

To understand who a person really was, what his or her life really meant, the speaker for the dead would have to explain their self-story—what they meant to do, what they actually did, what they regretted, what they rejoiced in. That’s the story that we never know, the story that we never can know.

Unless you’re Ender Wiggins.

It’s not necessary to know all the plot details of Speaker for the Dead to follow Card’s metaphor. It’s enough to know that the novel centers on a call for Ender to Lusitania, not the WWI-era British passenger liner but a sparsely populated planet in a remote corner of the galaxy. There’s a small colony of Earth recently established there, as well as a tribe of another alien race that the humans call porquinhos—the first sentient beings that humans have encountered in three thousand years of space travel. (Humans are not alone in Card’s imagined universe, but it’s also not very crowded.) The plot follows two intertwined threads: Ender’s preparations to speak for one of the deceased colonists, and his efforts to help the colonists bridge the cultural chasm that divides them from their alien neighbors.

So here are four features that make the concept of “Speaker for the Dead” a useful metaphor for thinking about history and the historian. First, in his role as Speaker, Ender recognizes that his audience harbors a range of agendas. Some are merely curious or in search of entertainment. Some seek vindication or revenge. A few seek understanding. The metaphor calls us to consider what we really want when we consume history.

Second, Ender knows that truth about the past is complex. He hopes that his words will be a blessing; he is certain they will be controversial. As he shares his findings, some among his audience are thankful, some offended, some uncomfortable, some embarrassed. Because his role is to speak truth about the dead, he will challenge and convict as well as comfort.

Third, the Speaker’s ability to know the dead is the same aptitude that allows him to understand the porquinhos in the present. Card tells us that Ender is a successful Speaker because of “his ability to see events as someone else saw them.” This is why learning to think historically is one of the best ways to equip ourselves to transcend the cultural fault lines that divide our world today. Both require Ender’s gift of seeing the world through others’ eyes.

Fourth, Card makes clear that exercising that gift is impossible without love. “In history,” Beth Schweiger writes, “the call to love one’s neighbor is extended to the dead.” When Ender offends some of the Lusitanians in how he speaks for the dead, they have a ready explanation: he doesn’t respect them. Even those who concede the truth of what he says about the past question his motive. “It’s easy to tell the truth,” Novinha tells her daughter, “when you don’t love anybody.” But Card gives the last word to Novinha’s daughter, Ela, who insists that the Speaker loved the dead he has spoken for. “I think I know something, Mother,” she explains. “I think you can’t possibly know the truth about somebody unless you love them.”

No single metaphor can capture all that is involved when we try to understand, love, and learn from the past, but I think the concept of “Speaker for the Dead” can carry us a long ways. I’d be happy to hear your thoughts, as well as any tips you might share about other metaphors you find useful.

Back with more soon.

CHESTERTON ON PATRIOTISM

(Readers: I will be on the road June 18-28 attending a workshop for college teachers at Yale and visiting a variety of East Coast historical sites.  While I am away–and with July 4th looming on the horizon, I will be reposting a series of past essays on Faith and the American Founding.) 

The 4th of July is rapidly approaching (is that really possible?), and I want to spend most of my energies these next few weeks thinking out loud with you about Christian faith and the American founding.  When I refer to “faith and the founding” I have two interrelationships in mind.  On the one hand, it is good to explore the role that Christian belief and principles played in the unfolding of the American Revolution.  But as Christians called to “take every thought captive to obedience to Christ,” we also need to consider what it means to let our faith inform our understanding, today, of the events that led to American Independence more than two centuries ago.  What does it mean to think Christianly, in other words, about this critical chapter in our national story?

As I have spoken to churches, Christian schools, and Christian home-schooling groups over the years, the question of whether America was founded as a Christian nation has regularly been the single most common question that I am asked.  If they are interested in history at all, the Christians that I meet outside the Academy keep coming back to the same basic question: Was the United States founded as a Christian country, by Christian statesmen, guided by Christian principles?

When I hear the question, the first thought that pops into my head is another question, namely “Why do you want to know?”  I don’t mean to be flippant or disrespectful.  Part of thinking Christianly about the past involves examining our motives for studying the past in the first place.  And when it comes to a question like the relationship between Christianity and the founding of the United States, there are all manner of motives other than simple curiosity that can get in the drivers’ seat.

The question has become enormously politicized in the last generation, as Christians square off against secularists, both sides appealing to the past to support their respective policy position regarding the proper place of religion in public life.  Historical truth  is commonly a casualty when  political agendas get entangled with debates about the past.

I have already written about how individuals such as Peter Marshall Jr. and David Manuel, Francis Schaeffer, and Doug Wilson and Steve Wilkins each erred tragically by grounding essentially religious arguments about the present in historical assertions about the past.  (See here, here, and here.)  What is more troubling is the degree to which well-meaning Christians have allowed their very identity as believers to become intertwined with particular interpretations of American history. I cannot tell you how many times I have spoken with Christians who seem to see any denial that America was founded as a Christian nation as an attack on Christianity itself.

One of the very first quotes in my commonplace book is an observation from G. K. Chesterton that speaks to this mindset.  In his 1908 classic Orthodoxy, Chesterton makes a brief observation in the midst of a lengthy (dare I say rambling?) aside as part of an even longer reflection on optimism and pessimism.  Here it is:

“Only those will permit their patriotism to falsify history whose patriotism depends on history.”

G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

If we are truly devoted to our country, in other words, Chesterton is telling us that we will not insist on a particular interpretation of its past if the evidence leads us in another direction.  True patriotism may require us to acknowledge aspects of our national history that are contrary to the story that we would prefer to tell.  We will do so, however, because patriotism is a particular form of love, and as Chesterton reminds us on the very next page,

“Love is not blind; that is the last thing that it is.  Love is bound; and the more it is bound the less it is blind.”

But Chesterton’s observation doesn’t only help us in thinking about the relationship between history and patriotism.  Its inner reasoning can be just as helpful to us in thinking through the relationship between history and our Christian faith.  In one sense our Christian beliefs are absolutely grounded in history.  Ours is a historical faith.  Christianity’s core doctrines rest on theological interpretations of historical events: creation, fall, incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection.  Deny these historical events and eviscerate the faith.

But Christianity does not rest on any particular interpretation of American history.  Let’s take the first Chesterton quote above and modify it in two key respects, giving us the following:

Only those will permit their Christian faith to falsify American history whose Christian faith depends on American history.

Who among us who aspires to follow Christ would readily accept a Christian faith dependent on American history?  Of course none of us would wish this consciously, and yet our identity as Americans and our identity as Christians are so easily intertwined.  As we think about faith and the American founding in the weeks ahead, it wouldn’t be a bad thing to keep Chesterton’s observation in mind.

WHAT IS HISTORY FOR? MORE THOUGHTS ON THE A.P. HISTORY CONTROVERSY

We Americans live in “a present-tense society,” the late Christopher Hitchens observed. Hitchens was wrong about a great deal, but he got this right. And the “historylessness” that Hitchens found in contemporary America is far from new. We are “the great nation of futurity,” journalist John L. Sullivan proclaimed one hundred seventy years ago. “Our national birth was the beginning of a new history,” the editor of the Democratic Review explained to his readers. It “separates us from the past and connects us with the future only.” In sum, we Americans are “stranded in the present”—to borrow Margaret Bendroth’s haunting phrase—and we like it that way.

Oklahoma legislator Daniel Fisher

Oklahoma legislator Daniel Fisher

Given this present-mindedness, it’s pretty rare to see individuals other than history teachers and historians wringing their hands about the way that American history is taught in our schools. Last week was an exception. As I wrote about in my last post, Oklahoma state legislator Daniel Fisher set off a firestorm when he introduced a bill that would defund the teaching of A. P. United States history in Oklahoma. Fisher condemns the AP U. S. history curriculum for emphasizing “what is bad about America.” He proposed to mandate a curriculum for all Oklahoma public schools that would emphasize historical documents “that contributed to the representative form of limited government, the free-market economic system and American exceptionalism.”

FOX News' Andrea Tantaros bemoaning "meaningless liberal crap"

FOX News’ Andrea Tantaros bemoaning “meaningless liberal crap”

Overall, the charges and counter-charges that Fisher’s proposal precipitated have generated more heat than light. Polemics have ruled the day. Fisher flatly declared that the AP guidelines present the U. S. as “a nation of oppressors and exploiters.” Andrea Tantaros of Fox News summed up the 120-page framework as “meaningless liberal crap.” Both stopped short of Ben Carson’s claim in a speech last fall that “most people when they finish that course, they’d be ready to go sign up for ISIS.”

Critics of Fisher’s measure have been just as irresponsible. Oklahoma Republicans have voted to “ban history,” a writer for The Maneater insists. The “Right Hates American History” blares the title of a screed picked up by salon.com. More troubling—because I thought its standards were higher—the Washington Post laments “The Bizarre War against AP U. S. History Courses” and repeats the ridiculous assertion that Oklahoma Republicans are “trying to ban the teaching of U. S. history. Yes. U. S. history.”

Ad hominem attacks abound. According to defenders of the College Board, no one who criticizes the AP guidelines could possibly be honorable. Fisher’s measure was merely the latest step in a “sinister” conspiracy against public education. Conservatives fear the truth and want a whitewashed version of the American past. Driven by partisanship—in stark contrast to their noble opponents—they are in the business of “preserving blind spots rather than promoting enlightenment.”

An exception is a piece in the Atlantic by education writer Jacoba Urist. I don’t agree with its every detail, but I admire the article for its balance. I also appreciate that the author refrains from cheap criticism and has chosen instead to identify key questions for us to wrestle with—complex questions that don’t admit of easy answers.

One of those questions, to quote Urist, is “How should students learn about oppression and exploitation alongside the great achievements of their country?” It’s a great question. With apologies to the Washington Post, I’ve yet to come across a critic of the AP guidelines who advocates eliminating from the classroom all the parts “of our history that might be uncomfortable, unflattering or even shameful.” As I understand Fisher and his supporters, their concern is that the AP guidelines overstate the negative and understate the positive, that they place too much emphasis on our flaws and not enough on our virtues. I don’t know that I agree with them, but there is no point in misstating their objection. Caricature isn’t the same as logical argument.

Defenders of the AP guidelines stress that their primary goal is not to fill students’ heads with names and dates but to train them to think historically, to teach them how to think critically about all interpretations of the past. Far from attacking America, they maintain that they are equipping students to be better citizens of a free society by giving them the tools to evaluate arguments in the public square and make informed decisions grounded in evidence. I agree with these goals.

But history courses are never just exercises in thinking skills. Almost instinctively, our minds search for a story when we engage the past, and a moral to the story to boot. It is possible to teach American history as a story without a plot, as an endless stream of meaningless facts with no larger meaning. But if history is more than a parade of facts—and every historian that I know thinks that it is—then it is not wrong for Rep. Fisher to ask what kind of story it is that the AP curriculum promotes.

So the hard question remains: how do we find the “right” balance between criticism and celebration in the story that we tell about our nation’s past?

I don’t know. I am pretty sure that it would be disastrous to stipulate some sort of formula to follow. For readers of this blog who are Christians, however, may I share how my faith informs how I approach the question, at least at this point of my journey?

First of all, I absolutely reject the false dichotomy lurking in the current debate that pits patriotism against an honest acknowledgement of America’s failures and flaws. As a Christian, my primary identity should be in Christ, not in my nationality; my primary loyalty should be to Christ, not to my country. Called as I am to “be subject to the governing authorities” and to “love my neighbor as myself,” I must strive to be a blessing to the multiple concentric communities of which I am a part. This will lead naturally to a kind of commitment to my country. And to the degree that God has blessed me through the resources, institutions, and people of the United States, this will also lead to a gratitude for my country. Finally, this solicitude and thankfulness for my country will look a lot like what others call “patriotism.” But underlying it will be not a devotion to the United States as an end in itself, but an expression of more fundamental demonstrations of love of neighbor and gratitude to God.

Here an observation of G. K. Chesterton resonates with me powerfully as I think about my approach to our nation’s history. “Love is not blind,” Chesterton wrote in his 1908 work Orthodoxy. “That is the last thing it is. Love is bound; and the more it is bound the less it is blind.” In sum, we should never think that our love of country constrains us to minimize its faults, nor should we accept the suggestion that criticism of our country—either in the present or in the past—is somehow unloving or “unpatriotic.” Because love binds rather than blinds, we may criticize our country without sinning against it.

Second, as a Christian, my faith teaches me to expect that, whatever part of the human story I am studying, I will inevitably encounter aspects that are worthy of praise and others that are worthy of censure. Original sin has left its mark on everything that historians investigate: all nations and all historical eras. We study beings created in the image of God and disfigured by sin.  We find always a mixture of the base and the noble, the dust of earth and the breath of God. I am not suggesting for a moment that all cultures are somehow morally equivalent—not remotely!—but I am suggesting that history that glosses over the imperfections of any group or individual is, to a greater or lesser degree, misrepresenting the human condition.

But if American history—like all national stories—has some combination of admirable and regrettable components, do we really need to call attention to both? What is lost by choosing to stress only the more positive aspects of our history? Why not focus solely on the aspects that inspire, encourage, and uplift?

I was asked precisely this some years ago when I spoke at a luncheon sponsored by a local chapter of a national patriotic organization, the Sons of the American Revolution. My talk was scheduled to come after the meal, and so during lunch I sat at a round table with several of the members and discussed history. Almost as soon as we were seated one of the older members began to wonder aloud why it was that historians so often tear down our heroes, and as we waited for the first course I began to suspect that I was to be the main course. I stammered something about the dust of the earth and the breath of God and how the human story always involves vestiges of both. It was at that point that one of the other members, a soft-spoken local pastor, leaned across the table and asked with a smile, “Granted that figures from the past always embody good and bad features, what is the harm of focusing primarily on the good in our national heritage?”

I wasn’t prepared for his question, and I know that I stumbled in my reply. If we could repeat that conversation today I would offer three reasons why a more balanced approach is preferable. The first is a simple commitment to honesty. As Christian scholar Ronald Wells points out, honest history “means more than merely telling the truth in factual terms but also telling the truth in all its complexity and ambiguity.” Second, in acknowledging the imperfections in America’s past, we’re also conveying a more accurate representation of human nature. History that glosses over human weaknesses and shortcomings is not just inaccurate. It teaches bad theology, leaving no room for the lingering effects of sin in the hearts of our forebears. Third and finally, when we make room for the moral failures in America’s past, we at the same time make greater room for the grace of God. The story of American power and prosperity becomes less a self-congratulatory celebration of our virtue and more of a testimony to God’s unmerited favor.

The former hardens us, the latter humbles us.

FROM MY COMMONPLACE BOOK: CHESTERTON ON PATRIOTISM AND HISTORY

The 4th of July is rapidly approaching (is that really possible?), and I want to spend most of my energies these next few weeks thinking out loud with you about Christian faith and the American founding.  When I refer to “faith and the founding” I have two interrelationships in mind.  On the one hand, it is good to explore the role that Christian belief and principles played in the unfolding of the American Revolution.  But as Christians called to “take every thought captive to obedience to Christ,” we also need to consider what it means to let our faith inform our understanding, today, of the events that led to American Independence more than two centuries ago.  What does it mean to think Christianly, in other words, about this critical chapter in our national story?

As I have spoken to churches, Christian schools, and Christian home-schooling groups over the years, the question of whether America was founded as a Christian nation has regularly been the single most common question that I am asked.  If they are interested in history at all, the Christians that I meet outside the Academy keep coming back to the same basic question: Was the United States founded as a Christian country, by Christian statesmen, guided by Christian principles?

When I hear the question, the first thought that pops into my head is another question, namely “Why do you want to know?”  I don’t mean to be flippant or disrespectful.  Part of thinking Christianly about the past involves examining our motives for studying the past in the first place.  And when it comes to a question like the relationship between Christianity and the founding of the United States, there are all manner of motives other than simple curiosity that can get in the drivers’ seat.

The question has become enormously politicized in the last generation, as Christians square off against secularists, both sides appealing to the past to support their respective policy position regarding the proper place of religion in public life.  Historical truth  is commonly a casualty when  political agendas get entangled with debates about the past.

I have already written about how individuals such as Peter Marshall Jr. and David Manuel, Francis Schaeffer, and Doug Wilson and Steve Wilkins each erred tragically by grounding essentially religious arguments about the present in historical assertions about the past.  (See here, here, and here.)  What is more troubling is the degree to which well-meaning Christians have allowed their very identity as believers to become intertwined with particular interpretations of American history. I cannot tell you how many times I have spoken with Christians who seem to see any denial that America was founded as a Christian nation as an attack on Christianity itself.

One of the very first quotes in my commonplace book is an observation from G. K. Chesterton that speaks to this mindset.  In his 1908 classic Orthodoxy, Chesterton makes a brief observation in the midst of a lengthy (dare I say rambling?) aside as part of an even longer reflection on optimism and pessimism.  Here it is:

“Only those will permit their patriotism to falsify history whose patriotism depends on history.”

G.K. Chesterton

G.K. Chesterton

If we are truly devoted to our country, in other words, Chesterton is telling us that we will not insist on a particular interpretation of its past if the evidence leads us in another direction.  True patriotism may require us to acknowledge aspects of our national history that are contrary to the story that we would prefer to tell.  We will do so, however, because patriotism is a particular form of love, and as Chesterton reminds us on the very next page,

“Love is not blind; that is the last thing that it is.  Love is bound; and the more it is bound the less it is blind.”

But Chesterton’s observation doesn’t only help us in thinking about the relationship between history and patriotism.  Its inner reasoning can be just as helpful to us in thinking through the relationship between history and our Christian faith.  In one sense our Christian beliefs are absolutely grounded in history.  Ours is a historical faith.  Christianity’s core doctrines rest on theological interpretations of historical events: creation, fall, incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection.  Deny these historical events and eviscerate the faith.

But Christianity does not rest on any particular interpretation of American history.  Let’s take the first Chesterton quote above and modify it in two key respects, giving us the following:

Only those will permit their Christian faith to falsify American history whose Christian faith depends on American history.

Who among us who aspires to follow Christ would readily accept a Christian faith dependent on American history?  Of course none of us would wish this consciously, and yet our identity as Americans and our identity as Christians are so easily intertwined.  As we think about faith and the American founding in the weeks ahead, it wouldn’t be a bad thing to keep Chesterton’s observation in mind.

 

FROM MY COMMONPLACE BOOK: CHESTERTON ON THE IMPORTANCE OF HISTORY

It’s time to head back to my commonplace book. So far, I’ve shared reflections from two early nineteenth-century writers: Alexis de Tocqueville and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Let’s jump forward several generations and listen to a writer whose career was concentrated in the early decades of the twentieth century.

The figure I have in mind is Gilbert Keith (G.K.) Chesterton. If you are interested, as I am, in the intersection between Christian faith and the life of the mind, chances are good that you’re already familiar with this remarkable individual, and if you’re not you might want to get to know him. I’m not the best person to make the introduction, and indeed, I’ve struggled trying to figure out how best to describe him. No single label will suffice. It would be a true statement simply to call him “a Christian writer and apologist,” but that would fail to capture the staggering breadth of his intellectual interests. As one biographer puts it, Chesterton won fame “as a playwright, novelist, poet, literary commentator, pamphleteer, essayist, lecturer, apologist, and editor.” A tabulation of his writings would include eighty or so books, hundreds of poems, several plays, a couple hundred short stories, and somewhere in the neighborhood of four thousand essays (most of the latter written as a regular columnist for the London Daily News). To call him “prolific” would be an understatement.

G.K. Chesterton

G.K. Chesterton

I’ve read a grand total of three of these works, and I’ll confess that I find Chesterton to be an acquired taste that I haven’t fully acquired. What little I’ve read of his apologetics (Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man) strikes me as unnecessarily confusing. Chesterton was a non-linear thinker if there ever was one. Both works are full of digressions and interesting but often puzzling asides that make following his overall argument—for me, at least—hard going. And yet both books are packed with specific, discrete observations that are both insightful and memorable, for example, “Thinking in isolation and with pride ends in being an idiot.” (I love that one.) In sum, Chesterton is eminently quotable, which is why he takes up a lot of space in my commonplace book.

In this post I’ll focus on a single quote from his 1908 book Orthodoxy that I’ve found useful for thinking through my calling as a Christian and a historian. It is not a quote explicitly about history per se, but I still find it wonderfully applicable.

Orthodoxy

I have in mind an extended passage in which Chesterton is meditating on the relationship between democracy and tradition, and in particular, the idea that “democracy was in some way opposed to tradition.” (Although I don’t have time to develop the point now, this is a view that David Barton’s hero, Thomas Jefferson, certainly flirted with.) In contrast, Chesterton insists that “tradition is only democracy extended through time.” Hear as he explains his reasoning:

“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”

By “tradition,” Chesterton has in mind an appreciation for the values and beliefs of those who have gone before us. The widespread denigration of those values and beliefs is a hallmark of our age and one of the primary reasons why Americans are, overall, so dismissive of history. Boston University professor Robert C. Bartlett spells out the connection in his essay “Souls Without Longing”: “To be convinced of the progressive character of human life,” Bartlett writes, “is to be convinced of the superiority of the present to the past: When the achievements of another era are considered by definition deficient in comparison with what we can do here and now, they shrink accordingly in importance. Thus the belief in progress saps the only serious incentive to study the past—to learn from it how to live in the here and now—and history becomes boring.”

We are bored by history, Bartlett observes, in part because we don’t expect to learn anything truly valuable from it. We don’t expect to learn anything valuable from it, Chesterton suggests, because we are anti-democratic elitists. (C.S. Lewis similarly condemned what he called “chronological snobbery.”) When we dismiss history we cut ourselves off from 94 percent of the human race, merely because they were born in a less “enlightened” age. We may deny the charge, but there’s an element of arrogance at the heart of such present-mindedness.

As a Christian historian, one of my favorite verses from the Old Testament is found in Job 8:9, where Bildad the Shuhite counsels Job not to limit his search for understanding to his own generation. “We were born yesterday, and know nothing,” Bildad reminds his friend, “because our days on earth are a shadow.” At its best, the study of history begins with such a posture of humility, a recognition of the fleetingness of our lives and our need for wisdom.

Paraphrasing Chesterton, I would say that when we take history seriously we purpose to listen “to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors.” When we take history seriously, we participate in “the democracy of the dead.” And as Chesterton put it in The Everlasting Man, “the brotherhood of man is even nobler when it bridges the abyss of ages.”