Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Study the Past...

"Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past... A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age."--C.S. Lewis, "Learning in War-Time"

Above: Katie looking at the Lincoln Memorial. When one thinks of the struggle for freedom from slavery during the Civil War and freedom from discrimination during the Civil Rights movement, it is hard not to think of the fight against prejudice throughout the world, even today.

This summer, I took my family to Washington DC. What was remarkable was the rich history-laden symbolism that filled the capital of the United States. The founders of that great nation to the south not only celebrated their own history, but they borrowed from the history of humanity. The architecture incorporated aspects of many great human civilizations from the history of the world. These founding fathers knew their history and as a result established one of the greatest nations in the world.

Above: the boys posing outside the National Archives (which houses the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, among other things). The plaque states, "Study the Past."

Learning about the past is often deemed irrelevant. Why learn about the past when we have current issues to address. Owen Barfield, a friend of C.S. Lewis called this "chronological snobbery"... that the present is better than the past. When teaching history, I refer to it as "contemporary bias". When studying history, what we often discover is that the modern issues are no different than the historical issues. We also discover that the big issues we face today are sometimes small when viewed from the perspective of history.
C.S. Lewis writes,

“To study the past does indeed liberate us from the present, from the idols of our own market-place. But I think it liberates us from the past too. I think no class of men are less enslaved to the past than historians. The unhistorical are usually, without knowing it, enslaved to a fairly recent past.”
As Christians, we should be especially learning from Christian history and Christian biography. I just recently finished reading the biography of the 19th-Century American missionary Adoniram Judson. He was a real Christian, who faced countless trials and yet persevered in the Lord. I was convicted, encouraged and invigorated by his life and testimony. John Piper writes, "[Good biography] is also theology---the most powerful kind---because it burst forth from the lives of people like us. It is also adventure and suspense, for which we have a natural hunger. It is psychology and personal experience, which deepens our understanding of human nature (especially ourselves)."
Too many Christians are enslaved to a fairly recent past; I wonder how many church-goers would be offended if their church exchanged the drum kit for a pipe organ. Too many Christians lament about "easier times" in by-gone days. When I read about the society of Christian America and the churches in Judson's day (early 1800s), I couldn't help but see the same troubles and opposition we encounter today.
So Christian, study the past. Let us not be short sighted. Read about the saints. Be liberated.


barbara said...

Right. So I was just talking to my dear husband about how sometimes a pathetic, deviant part of my subconscious WANTS things to go dreadfully wrong in my life/marriage/family/health etc. just so that I can hear that same deviant part say "see, I told you you weren't worth anything good happening to you". (did you really want to know me THIS well?) So I figure, from reading your post, that even on a personal level we need to study our own pasts, to understand and name the lies we've been told and have believed so that we can walk forward without following those lies to their self-fulfilling prophetic end. What I thought and felt in the past, to a vast degree, has been complete, unbiblical hogwash. I would like to start the future now with a whole new perspective. Thanks Jer, this was good fuel.

Jeremy W. Johnston said...

Your comments are always more profound than my original posts... I am glad you were encouraged, nonetheless.