Tag Archives: thinking historically

NEW YEAR’S REFLECTIONS ON LIVING “IN TIME”

ball-drop

Another year is coming to an end, and that always leads me to think about how short life is. Does that strike you as morbid? I used to be self-conscious about this preoccupation—it’s occurred to me that I don’t get invited to a lot of New Year’s Eve parties—but I’m past that now. I think the Scripture is pretty clear that reminding ourselves of the brevity of life is something we need to do regularly. It’s a practice that can help us to follow Christ more faithfully—provided that we respond to the reminder rightly.

But did you know that reminding ourselves of the brevity of life can also help us to be better historians? As a Christian historian, it delights me to see that an awareness that we live “in time” is crucial both to thinking Christianly and to thinking historically.

As I’ve argued before on this blog, we err when we define “Christian history” by its focus, making it synonymous with the history of Christianity—the study of Christian individuals, ideas, and institutions throughout the past. We also miss the mark when we define it by its conclusions. This has been one of the worst mistakes of the advocates of the Christian America thesis. Countless well meaning (but untrained) pastors and pundits have insisted that any authentically “Christian” history of the United States will determine that the United States was founded as a Christian nation by Christian statesmen guided by Christian principles. They condemn any interpretation that questions the determining influence of Christian belief as “secular,” “liberal,” “politically correct,” “revisionist,” or in some other way hostile to Christianity.

I want to suggest instead that Christian history is distinguished by the way of thinking that underlies it. In his book The Christian Mind, Harry Blamires defined thinking “Christianly” as a way of thinking that “accepts all things with the mind as related, directly or indirectly, to man’s eternal destiny as the redeemed and chosen child of God.” I’ll probably spend the rest of my life wrestling with what this requires of us, but here is what I think it means for the Christian student of history. Our study of the past will be but a subset of our larger call to “love the Lord with all our minds.” Our motive will be to understand God, ourselves, and the world more rightly, to the glory of God, the blessing of our neighbors, and the sanctification of our souls. Our approach will be to bring a Scriptural lens to bear on our contemplation of the past, keeping in mind all that the Bible teaches about the sovereignty of God and the nature and predicament of humankind.

This is where the brevity of life comes in. Both thinking Christianly and thinking historically requires us to be constantly mindful that we live in time.

So what does it mean to live “in time” as a Christian? I think it begins by daily reminding ourselves of one of the undeniable truths of Scripture: our lives are short. The Bible underscores few truths as monotonously. “Our days on earth are a shadow,” Job’s friend Bildad tells Job (Job 8:9). “My life is a breath,” Job agrees (Job 7:7). David likens our lives to a “passing shadow” (Psalm 144:4). James compares our life’s span to a “puff of smoke” (James 4:14). Isaiah is reminded of the “flower of the field” that withers and fades (Isaiah 40:7-8).

These aren’t exhortations to “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” They are meant to admonish us–to spur us to wisdom, not fatalism. The psalmist makes this explicit in the 90th Psalm when he prays that God would “teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12, New King James version). To “number our days” means to remember that our days are numbered. They are depressingly few, even for the most long-lived among us. The Good News Translation is easier to follow here. It reads: “Teach us how short our life is, so that we may become wise.” Part of growing in Christian wisdom, it would seem, involves reminding ourselves that our lives are fleeting.

American culture, unfortunately, does much to obscure that truth. Compared with the rest of the world, most American Christians live in great material comfort, and for long stretches of time we are able to fool ourselves about the fragility of life. The culture as a whole facilitates our self-deception through a conspiracy of silence. We agree not to discuss death, we hide the lingering aged in institutions, and we expend billions to look younger than we are.

Madison Avenue and Hollywood perpetuates this deceit, glorifying youth and ignoring the aged except for the occasional mirage of a seventy-year-old action hero aided by Botox and stunt doubles. If you need further proof that our culture flees from the truth of Psalm 90:12, just think about what will happen in Times Square tomorrow evening as the clock strikes twelve. Of all the days of the year, New Year’s Eve is the one on which Americans most pointedly acknowledge the passage of time. We have chosen to do so with fireworks and champagne and confetti.

In his wonderful little book Three Philosophies of Life, Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft sums up the message of the Preacher of Ecclesiastes in this way: Everything that we do to fill our days with meaning of our own making boils down to a desperate effort to distract our attention from the emptiness and vanity of life “under the sun.” Our pursuits of pleasure, power, property, importance—they all “come down in the end to a forgetting, a diversion, a cover-up.” Isn’t that what we see in the televised spectacles on New Year’s Eve?

For the Christian, being mindful that we live in time means not running away from the truth that our lives are short, but rather letting it wash over us until we feel the full weight of discontentment that it brings. According to Kreeft, “Our desire for eternity, our divine discontent with time, is hope’s messenger,” a reminder that we were created for more than this time-bound life, fashioned by our timeless God with an eye to a timeless eternity. Being mindful that we live in time should heighten our longing for heaven. In A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken goes so far as to identify the “timelessness to come” as one of the glories of heaven.

If faithful Christian discipleship requires a mindfulness that we live in time, so does sound historical thinking. To begin with, one of the most important motives for studying the past is the same basic Scriptural truth that inspired the psalmist to ask God to “teach us to number our days.” Put simply, we study the past because life is short.

Although Job’s friends weren’t noted for their wisdom, Job’s friend Bildad the Shuhite conveyed this truth as eloquently as anyone I know of. In perhaps the only useful advice Bildad gave his beleaguered friend, he encouraged Job not to limit his quest for understanding to conversations with the living. “Inquire please of the former age,” Bildad counseled Job, “and consider the things discovered by their fathers, for we were born yesterday, and know nothing” (Job 8:8-9a).

As Bildad understood, with brevity of life comes lack of perspective and narrowness of vision—born yesterday, we know nothing. As Christians, we combat that limitation first of all by searching the scriptures, God’s time-transcending revelation that abides forever. But we also benefit by studying the history that God has sovereignly ordained. At its best, the study of the past helps us to see our own day with new eyes and offers perspectives that transcend the brevity of our own brief sojourn on earth.

In sum, an awareness that we live in time is essential to any meaningful appreciation of history. It is also the foundation of what historians like to call historical consciousness. If there is a single truth that inspires the serious study of history, it is the conviction that we gain great insight into the human condition by situating the lives of men and women in the larger flow of human experience over time. The person who has developed a historical consciousness understands this. He or she would never try to understand individuals from the past while wrenching them from their historical context.

But the person with true historical consciousness doesn’t merely apply this sensitivity to figures from the past. Our lives are just as profoundly influenced by what has gone before us. To quote Christian historian Margaret Bendroth, “People from the past were not the only ones operating within a cultural context–we have one, too. Just like them we cannot imagine life any other way than it is: everyone assumes that ‘what is’ is what was meant to be.” None of us is impervious to the influences of time and place, and being mindful of that is essential to thinking historically.

So where does this leave us? We live in time. Our culture does all that it can to obscure this. The psalmist exhorts us to remember it, and history teaches us that it is true.

May God bless you in 2017.

LIVING “IN TIME”: NEW YEAR’S REFLECTIONS ON THINKING CHRISTIANLY AND HISTORICALLY

ball-drop

Another year is coming to an end, and that always leads me to think about how short life is. Does that strike you as morbid? I used to be self-conscious about this preoccupation—it’s occurred to me that I don’t get invited to a lot of New Year’s Eve parties—but I’m past that now. I think the Scripture is pretty clear that reminding ourselves of the brevity of life is something we need to do regularly. It’s a practice that can help us to follow Christ more faithfully—provided that we respond to the reminder rightly.

But did you know that reminding ourselves of the brevity of life can also help us to be better historians? As a Christian historian, it delights me to see that an awareness that we live “in time” is crucial both to thinking Christianly and to thinking historically.

As I’ve argued before on this blog, we err when we define “Christian history” by its focus, making it synonymous with the history of Christianity—the study of Christian individuals, ideas, and institutions throughout the past. We also miss the mark when we define it by its conclusions. This has been one of the worst mistakes of the advocates of the Christian America thesis. Countless well meaning (but untrained) pastors and pundits have insisted that any authentically “Christian” history of the United States will determine that the United States was founded as a Christian nation by Christian statesmen guided by Christian principles. They condemn any interpretation that questions the determining influence of Christian belief as “secular,” “liberal,” “politically correct,” “revisionist,” or in some other way hostile to Christianity.

I want to suggest instead that Christian history is distinguished by the way of thinking that underlies it. In his book The Christian Mind, Harry Blamires defined thinking “Christianly” as a way of thinking that “accepts all things with the mind as related, directly or indirectly, to man’s eternal destiny as the redeemed and chosen child of God.” I’ll probably spend the rest of my life wrestling with what this requires of us, but here is what I think it means for the Christian student of history. Our study of the past will be but a subset of our larger call to “love the Lord with all our minds.” Our motive will be to understand God, ourselves, and the world more rightly, to the glory of God, the blessing of our neighbors, and the sanctification of our souls. Our approach will be to bring a Scriptural lens to bear on our contemplation of the past, keeping in mind all that the Bible teaches about the sovereignty of God and the nature and predicament of humankind.

This is where the brevity of life comes in. Both thinking Christianly and thinking historically requires us to be constantly mindful that we live in time.

So what does it mean to live “in time” as a Christian? I think it begins by daily reminding ourselves of one of the undeniable truths of Scripture: our lives are short. The Bible underscores few truths as monotonously. “Our days on earth are a shadow,” Job’s friend Bildad tells Job (Job 8:9). “My life is a breath,” Job agrees (Job 7:7). David likens our lives to a “passing shadow” (Psalm 144:4). James compares our life’s span to a “puff of smoke” (James 4:14). Isaiah is reminded of the “flower of the field” that withers and fades (Isaiah 40:7-8).

These aren’t exhortations to “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” They are meant to admonish us–to spur us to wisdom, not fatalism. The psalmist makes this explicit in the 90th Psalm when he prays that God would “teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12, New King James version). To “number our days” means to remember that our days are numbered. They are depressingly few, even for the most long-lived among us. The Good News Translation is easier to follow here. It reads: “Teach us how short our life is, so that we may become wise.” Part of growing in Christian wisdom, it would seem, involves reminding ourselves that our lives are fleeting.

American culture, unfortunately, does much to obscure that truth. Compared with the rest of the world, most American Christians live in great material comfort, and for long stretches of time we are able to fool ourselves about the fragility of life. The culture as a whole facilitates our self-deception through a conspiracy of silence. We agree not to discuss death, we hide the lingering aged in institutions, and we expend billions to look younger than we are.

Madison Avenue and Hollywood perpetuates this deceit, glorifying youth and ignoring the aged except for the occasional mirage of a seventy-year-old action hero aided by Botox and stunt doubles. If you need further proof that our culture flees from the truth of Psalm 90:12, just think about what will happen in Times Square tomorrow evening as the clock strikes twelve. Of all the days of the year, New Year’s Eve is the one on which Americans most pointedly acknowledge the passage of time. We have chosen to do so with fireworks and champagne and confetti.

In his wonderful little book Three Philosophies of Life, Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft sums up the message of the Preacher of Ecclesiastes in this way: Everything that we do to fill our days with meaning of our own making boils down to a desperate effort to distract our attention from the emptiness and vanity of life “under the sun.” Our pursuits of pleasure, power, property, importance—they all “come down in the end to a forgetting, a diversion, a cover-up.” Isn’t that what we see in the televised spectacles on New Year’s Eve?

For the Christian, being mindful that we live in time means not running away from the truth that our lives are short, but rather letting it wash over us until we feel the full weight of discontentment that it brings. According to Kreeft, “Our desire for eternity, our divine discontent with time, is hope’s messenger,” a reminder that we were created for more than this time-bound life, fashioned by our timeless God with an eye to a timeless eternity. Being mindful that we live in time should heighten our longing for heaven. In A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken goes so far as to identify the “timelessness to come” as one of the glories of heaven.

If faithful Christian discipleship requires a mindfulness that we live in time, so does sound historical thinking. To begin with, one of the most important motives for studying the past is the same basic Scriptural truth that inspired the psalmist to ask God to “teach us to number our days.” Put simply, we study the past because life is short.

Although Job’s friends weren’t noted for their wisdom, Job’s friend Bildad the Shuhite conveyed this truth as eloquently as anyone I know of. In perhaps the only useful advice Bildad gave his beleaguered friend, he encouraged Job not to limit his quest for understanding to conversations with the living. “Inquire please of the former age,” Bildad counseled Job, “and consider the things discovered by their fathers, for we were born yesterday, and know nothing” (Job 8:8-9a).

As Bildad understood, with brevity of life comes lack of perspective and narrowness of vision—born yesterday, we know nothing. As Christians, we combat that limitation first of all by searching the scriptures, God’s time-transcending revelation that abides forever. But we also benefit by studying the history that God has sovereignly ordained. At its best, the study of the past helps us to see our own day with new eyes and offers perspectives that transcend the brevity of our own brief sojourn on earth.

In sum, an awareness that we live in time is essential to any meaningful appreciation of history. It is also the foundation of what historians like to call historical consciousness. If there is a single truth that inspires the serious study of history, it is the conviction that we gain great insight into the human condition by situating the lives of men and women in the larger flow of human experience over time. The person who has developed a historical consciousness understands this. He or she would never try to understand individuals from the past while wrenching them from their historical context.

But the person with true historical consciousness doesn’t merely apply this sensitivity to figures from the past. Our lives are just as profoundly influenced by what has gone before us. To quote Christian historian Margaret Bendroth, “People from the past were not the only ones operating within a cultural context–we have one, too. Just like them we cannot imagine life any other way than it is: everyone assumes that ‘what is’ is what was meant to be.” None of us is impervious to the influences of time and place, and being mindful of that is essential to thinking historically.

So where does this leave us? We live in time. Our culture does all that it can to obscure this. The psalmist exhorts us to remember it, and history teaches us that it is true.

May God bless you in 2016.

“ODBODY’S AXIOM”–WHAT “IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE” CAN TEACH US ABOUT THINKING HISTORICALLY

It's a Wonderful Life IIDo Americans still watch It’s a Wonderful Life at Christmas time? I used to think that everyone was familiar with it, at least, but now I’m not so sure. I met a woman in church the other day who is “old enough to know better”—that is how my dad used to categorize anyone his age or older—and she stunned me by confessing that she has never seen this holiday classic. In case you haven’t seen it, I heartily recommend it. It’s a heartwarming, even inspiring story, but its real value is in how it teaches us to think historically. As effectively as any movie I’ve seen, it drives home the importance of historical context.

Historical context is critical to historical understanding for one basic reason: none of us lives in a vacuum. Humanly speaking, our lives are influenced (not determined, but profoundly influenced) by what has gone before us. Indeed, if there is a single truth that inspires the serious study of history, it is the conviction that we gain great insight into the human condition by situating the lives of men and women in the larger flow of human experience over time.

Historians sometimes try to make this point by comparing history to an enormous, seamless tapestry. (Imagine the wall of a European castle here.) Although it’s possible to extract a single thread and examine it, it’s in contemplating the larger pattern that we can best understand the purpose and significance of the individual fibers. In sum, the particular makes little sense without reference to a larger whole. Similarly, when wrenched from its historical context, an isolated historical fact may intrigue or entertain us (good for crossword puzzles or Jeopardy), but it has nothing meaningful to teach us.

The bottom line is simple:

Know context, know meaning. No context, no meaning. 

But not everyone finds it easy to relate to a textile analogy. (Go figure.) This is where It’s a Wonderful Life comes in. Hollywood rarely aids the life of the mind–and in truth, the movie’s theology is really messed up–but when it comes to the importance of historical context this film gets it right.

It-s-A-Wonderful-Life-its-a-wonderful-life-32920425-1600-1202To begin with, the very structure of the movie teaches that context is indispensable to understanding. In case you don’t know the plot, the story begins on Christmas Eve, 1945, as countless prayers waft toward heaven on behalf of the protagonist, down-on-his-luck George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart. In response, the senior angels Franklin and Joseph call for George’s guardian angel, an “angel second-class” named Clarence Odbody, played by the marvelously eyebrowed Henry Trevor.

Clarence appears immediately, and when Franklin and Joseph explain that someone on earth (George) is seriously contemplating suicide, Clarence offers to rush immediately to his aid, but his mentors stop him short with a sharp rebuke. “If you’re going to help a man, you want to know something about him,” Joseph scolds, and for the next hour and a half they provide Clarence with historical context for the present crisis. All told, fully two-thirds of the movie consists of flashback, powerfully driving home the message that we can’t comprehend any moment in time without knowledge of what has preceded it.

Its a Wonderful Life VIIBut not everything that has gone before will be relevant. In briefing Clarence, Franklin and Joseph practice what one historian calls the principle of selective attention. Rather than overwhelm Clarence with a flood of facts, they choose the events and circumstances in the past that have been most influential in shaping the man George has become. In turn, this helps Clarence to comprehend what George’s current circumstances mean to him.

In reviewing George’s life, furthermore, the senior angels also remind us that our lives unfold within multiple contexts. Some of the circumstances that they review are intimate details quite specific to George, for example his rescue of his brother Harry or his longstanding yearning to see the world and build modern cities. Others grow out of George’s family context, for instance the centrality of the family savings and loan business or his father’s decades-long struggle with “old man Potter.”

Both categories involve the kind of personal pasts we preserve and pass on in conversation around the dinner table without realizing that we are functioning as historians. But George’s life was also touched by distant, much less personal developments that affected the entire nation or even the world–the kind of events that get into textbooks and which we instantly recognize as “historical.” So, in the flashback we see how George’s past intersected with events such as the world-wide influenza epidemic of 1919, the Great Depression of the 1930s, or the Second World War.

It's a Wonderful Life VFinally, the movie points us toward a bedrock truth about the human condition that explains why context is always important to historical understanding. If Clarence is initially mystified as to why it should be important, by the movie’s end he understands fully and expresses the underlying principle with eloquent simplicity. After showing an incredulous George that the world would have been starkly different if he had never been born, Clarence muses, “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. . . .”

Clarence’s insight into the unlimited interrelatedness of human experience–we could call it Odbody’s Axiom–is at the heart of all sound historical thinking.

BACK TO THE FUTURE? WHY GEORGES SANTAYANA WAS NO EMMETT BROWN

Well, “Back to the Future Day” has come and gone, and the Chicago Cubs are not going to win the world series, again.  (Wait til next year!)  All the hoopla over the day’s arrival, however, got me to thinking about the role of serious historical study in anticipating the future, and this led me to reflect on Santayana’s famous and almost universally misunderstood observation that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  The essay excerpted below was one of the first that I posted to this blog when I began it some three years ago. 

. . . Most Americans fall into one of three broad categories with regard to their attitudes about history.  The largest group dismisses the importance of the past and views history as irrelevant.  The second group, also large, trivializes the importance of the past and reduces it to a storehouse of quirky facts and amusing anecdotes.  Happily, I have met many Christians over the years—in churches, at Christian school functions, at home-schooling gatherings—who fall into a third category.  If the first and largest sees no value in history, and the second thinks its sole purpose is to entertain us, this third, smaller group believes that history can instruct us in some way, that it is a potential source of valuable insight.  The latter are kindred spirits, and so I mean no disrespect when I say that most of the individuals I have met in this third category have no very clear idea as to how history might enrich their lives.  That it should do so they have no doubt, but this is more an article of faith than a reasoned conviction. . . .

For years, I have regularly started each new course that I teach by asking the students on the first day what they might hope to glean from a serious study of the past, and for years in each class at least one brave soul will raise her hand and paraphrase what has to be the single best known quote about the value of history, Georges Santayana’s dictum that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  How this single sentence from a resolutely atheistic Spanish-born philosopher evolved into an unassailable popular truth in America is a mystery.  Compounding the mystery is the fact that we almost always take the sentence out of context and impute a meaning to it miles from what the author intended.  Popularly interpreted, the quote becomes a claim about the value of history: the past is a repository of lessons about what does and doesn’t work in a given situation, and the society that is ignorant of these lessons will unfortunately (and unnecessarily) repeat the mistakes of the past.

Georges Santayana, 1863-1952

Georges Santayana (1863-1952)

In reality, Santayana wasn’t thinking about history at all.  Rather than making an observation about the value of history, he was proffering a philosophical principle about the nature of knowledge.  Writing in his 1905 treatise The Life of Reason, Santayana, almost in passing, shared the unexceptionable observation that the acquisition of knowledge is incremental.  If at the end of every day we were to forget everything that we had ever known, the limits of our knowledge would never move beyond what we could acquire, from scratch, in the span of twenty-four hours.  We would be perpetually like newborn babies, which was precisely Santayana’s point.  “When experience is not retained,” he wrote, “infancy is perpetual.”  His very next sentence—“those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”—was simply a fanciful way of voicing a mundane observation: intellectual growth is impossible without memory.  This is undeniably true, but it is a truism that doesn’t take us very far in our thinking about history.

Given how ubiquitous it is, it may surprise you to learn that almost no professional historian would agree with Santayana’s statement as it is popularly (mis)understood.  In The Landscape of History, for example, Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis dismisses the claim as “fatuous.”  In her book Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History, British historian Margaret Macmillan describes Santayana’s pronouncement as “one of those overused dicta politicians and others offer up when they want to sound profound.” At bottom, almost all academic historians take for granted that human behavior is far too complex to be reduced to such a formulaic or mechanistic basis as “condemned to repeat it” seems to imply.

As Christians we can readily concur with them.  Our popular misreading of Santayana makes his dictum an echo of the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, who hoped that his History of the Peloponnesian Wars would be read by “those who desire an exact knowledge of the past as a key to the future, which in all probability will repeat or resemble the past.”  Although as Christians we believe that there is a fundamental element of continuity in the human condition—namely, the perpetual need of fallen humanity for God’s grace and forgiveness—one of the consequences of the spread of Christianity was to challenge this ancient view of human history as cyclical.  Because we recognize Creation, Fall, and Redemption as central to the human story, we view history not as cyclical but linear.  History is a “story with a divine plot,” as C. S. Lewis put it—an unfolding, meaningful movement toward a divinely appointed culmination.

LINCOLN SAID WHAT?

The new academic year started last week here at Wheaton College.  It’s an exciting time, but always hectic.  Compounding the predictable craziness that comes with the first week of classes, I made a whirlwind trip to Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts to assist with an external review of their History Department.

Rest assured, I haven’t forgotten you, though it may take a while to catch my breath and get back into the routine of regular posts.  This fall I’ll be sharing reviews of summer reading on faith and the founding, and also asking you to help me think through how best to resurrect a particular Civil War soldier that I am getting to know through his correspondence.

In the meantime, I thought you might enjoy the admonition below, sent to me by a former student.  I loved it.

Back in touch soon.

Lincoln Internet

HISTORY: IT’S HAPPENING

This is the catchy slogan that will be emblazoned on the new Wheaton College History Department t-shirts for 2015-16.  We plan on rolling out the new model at the college’s Academic Fair Saturday after next.  The resulting buzz, we are confident, will lead to a dramatic upsurge in history course enrollments.  That’s the plan, anyhow.

t-shirt - Copy

“History: It’s Happening” won out over several other clever possibilities.  Some preferred “We Put the Stud in Study.”  I liked “It’s Complicated”–which is my standard response to almost every student question–as well as the more profound sounding “Res Implicata Est” (Latin for “It’s Complicated”).

One of my colleagues who specializes in Early Modern Europe suggested a quote from the 1612 book The Anatomy of Melancholy: “We shall have a glut of books! . . . We are oppressed with them, our eyes ache with reading, our fingers with turning.”  Accurate enough, but it didn’t go over well with the focus group brought in by our marketing staff.

In addition to being pithy, “History: It’s Happening” has the virtue of encapsulating what historians refer to as historical consciousness.  Historical consciousness isn’t an easy concept to define, and I think it works best to explain it in conjunction with two other terms.

In every course that I teach I set at least three broad learning goals for my students:

The least important, though not unimportant, objective is historical knowledge—information that enhances our understanding of the time and place we are studying. Historical knowledge is our least important objective in part because we retain so little of it, in part because even when we remember it, it does little to change who we are.

More important is the development of historical thinking skills. We hone these skills not by memorizing historical facts but by analyzing historical evidence and constructing historical arguments. In the process we sharpen our capacity to read perceptively, reason logically, and communicate persuasively, skills that are critical to success in any number of vocations.

But our most important goal is to develop historical consciousness.  Historical  consciousness isn’t information we possess or a skill that we practice.  It’s a mindset that transforms the way we view the world. Individuals with historical consciousness feel the weight of the simple truth that each of us lives in time.  They recognize that our lives are profoundly influenced by historical forces–large and small, personal and impersonal–and they are keenly aware of the particular historical contexts that frame their own lives and the society in which they live.

History: it’s happening.

 

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.