[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.]
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.)
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.