Taking History Seriously in an Ahistorical Age

Gillis Harp
Friday, September 5th 2008
Sep/Oct 2008

Among the most daunting challenges I have faced as a college professor has been the task of convincing my students that the study of history is an intrinsically worthwhile project. Perhaps accounting and engineering majors have always been a hard-sell in this regard, but the pervasive antihistorical spirit of our contemporary culture makes many students increasingly difficult to persuade. (Let me stress here that my students over the years at several different institutions have been of a high caliber-the problem is a broader cultural one, not limited to postsecondary education.)

In the classroom, this reality manifests itself in myriad ways. Despite their remarkable ability to master the most arcane computer jargon, undergraduates complain bitterly about having to read "archaic" prose. I am not referring here to Middle English but to the writings of, say, the New England Puritans or even Charles Dickens. Back in the 1960s, I recall reading Treasure Island and (being a weak reader in elementary school) struggling a little. Today, many high school students simply can't be bothered. Inevitably, such a prejudice produces a blinkered perspective. At the very least, it makes it difficult for students to enter into what the University of Chicago's Robert Hutchens once termed the "great conversation" of the West. And I have in mind here only works in English. Obviously, such a habit of restricting oneself only to those works composed in the colloquialisms of the past thirty years provides access to a constricted and parochial "conversation."

Moreover, this prejudice against things historical also extends to two areas of particular interest to the young-film and music. Despite their intense fascination with Hollywood, I have found it extraordinarily difficult to interest high school or college students in films made before the 1990s. Invariably I'm asked when I am about to show something in class: "Is this an old movie?" When I nod in the affirmative, a kind of barrier descends. Black and white format is the kiss of death. "Those old black and white films are just so depressing," I've heard more than once. (I can't imagine the Marx Brothers depressing, but there you have it.) Meanwhile, commercial radio reflects this same mindset that newer is always better and that older is inescapably outdated and irrelevant. No one finds it peculiar that so-called country music stations never play the music of the Carter Family or Hank Williams. The founders of the genre might be appropriate subjects of academic study but, evidently, they're no longer sufficiently important to broadcast. Of course, such an approach to music ensures that young listeners never realize just how derivative most contemporary commercial music is and how much genuine lack of creativity characterizes what's on the radio playlists. As for those who might like to hear something recorded before 1990, they're relegated to "oldies" stations that sample incredibly short lists of commercial hits from the last thirty years.

Thus separated from younger listeners, this predigested and narrow selection feeds a sort of nostalgia that, in fact, discourages any meaningful engagement with the music of the past. As Christopher Lasch once observed, nostalgia actually reflects a dismissive attitude to the past because it declines to take it seriously; it refuses to allow the past to really engage the present. Instead, old music (or any older cultural product) is dismissed as quaint or romantic and thereby its impact is effectively defused. Nostalgia "ideal-izes the past," Lasch observed,

but not in order to understand the way in which [it] unavoidably influences the present and the future. Nor does it unambiguously assert the superiority of bygone days. It contains an admixture of self-congratulation. By exaggerating the naïve simplicity of earlier times, it implicitly celebrates the worldly wisdom of later generations. It not only misrep-resents the past but diminishes the past. (1)

As Lasch argues elsewhere, nostalgia implies that the past was not "in any way better than life today." Much as I enjoy watching them, it is this dimension of historical re-enactments that I sometimes find problematic. Such a secure and malleable past rarely stands in judgment of our modern thinking or habits; indeed, it implies that the past can be domesticated without ever offering a serious critique of our contemporary world. Instead, the past should be allowed to engage critically our present. Robert Penn Warren put it best at the Agrarians' reunion in 1956: "The past is always a rebuke to the present….It's a better rebuke than any dream of the future. It's a better rebuke because you can see what some of the costs were, what frail virtues were achieved in the past by frail men." As Paul V. Murphy notes in his recent study of the Nashville Agrarians, "In this context, the Agrarian image of a better antebellum South came to represent for Warren a potential source of spiritual revitalization." (2) History can contribute to such a "revitalization" when we allow our ancestors to also cast their votes, as G. K. Chesterton so wonderfully put it.

Obviously, our consumerist economic order has long encouraged and rewarded this sort of disrespect for and ignorance of the past. Planned obsolescence convinces the consumer that newer is always better; the market promotes the public fascination with anything new because such an attitude has proved to be so profitable. Indeed, in recent years, fascination with the novel has blossomed into what some have accurately labeled consumer fetishism, especially in the realm of electronics.

C. S. Lewis warned his readers about the dangers of dismissing the past with a presentist sneer. He referred to such disdain for history as "chronological snobbery." Lewis apparently borrowed this wonderful phrase from his friend, Owen Barfield. Barfield observed how many moderns had persuaded themselves that all the thinking of the past was decidedly inferior. "Humanity," noted Barfield, is now viewed as having "languished for countless generations in the most childish errors on all sorts of crucial subjects, until it was redeemed by some simple scientific dictum of the last century." Accordingly, moderns have come to believe that "anything more than a hundred years old is ancient" and "in the world of books, or opinions about books, the age at which senility sets in has now been reduced to about ten." (3) Accordingly, Lewis explained that it was always advisable to include old books with new ones in any reading regimen. Lewis counseled this not because these older authors were infallible, but because they didn't share the assumptions of moderns and therefore saw things differently. As such, their work could be a valuable corrective for the particular blind spots that afflict contemporary authors.

But this pervasive ahistorical spirit should not be the exclusive concern of history professors and other professional old fogies. Christians, as Lewis understood, should be especially concerned about the implications of such dismissive attitudes to the past. Just as a culture that devalues or ignores the past stumbles about, so too does the church become a sort of "weightless" society when there is no knowledge of or respect for Christian history. Even within confessional traditions, there is a staggering lack of knowledge of the founders among the faithful. It is increasingly common to encounter Lutherans who have never made a serious study of Luther, or Calvinists who have no knowledge of either the Geneva Reformer's theology or his liturgical practice. Recently, a Presbyterian pastor I know was reprimanded by his denomination for teaching a particular theological position. He was censured despite the fact that he demonstrated clearly that what he taught had long been an accepted view within historic Reformed circles. As one of my colleagues reflected with disgust, the history simply didn't matter to his judges. Almost any other consideration (and especially the latest ideological concerns) now effectively trumps tradition.

In many Christian circles, historical precedent has come to possess no weight whatsoever. This love for novelty has been especially evident in the liturgical reforms of the last forty years. Although the 1662 Book of Common Prayer served Anglicans for roughly four hundred years, the Church of England is already on its third set of "contemporary" services (the Alternative Service Book having lasted a measly twenty years). Part of what dismissing this ancient form has done in this instance for Anglicans is to separate them from that "great cloud of witnesses" spoken of in Hebrews 12.

More fundamentally, the debate about recognizing homosexual "marriage" is also a manifestation of this pervasive mindset. We have arrived at the place where human institutions rooted in antiquity can be redefined with scarcely a backward glance to thousands of years of history.

Now, it is worth clarifying what I do not mean here by a deep appreciation for past thinkers and a profound respect for history in general. I do not mean mere nostalgia, nor is the approach I am proposing a kind of reactionary traditionalism. We would do well to remember that Christ sharply criticized the Pharisees for their ossified formalism. By reducing the law to a lengthy list of legalistic proscriptions, they missed the spirit of the law. Man became viewed as made for the Sabbath rather than the Sabbath for man. Jaroslav Pelikan expressed the proper Christian balance in this regard when he defined traditionalism as "the dead faith of the living" and tradition as "the living faith of the dead."

Yet "historical study," observed J. Gresham Machen, "is absolutely necessary for a stalwart Christianity." Past events and historical understanding are at the very heart of the Christian religion. The Jewish community out of which Christianity arose saw its own history as nothing less than a record of God's dealings with his people. The God of Israel disclosed himself in a definitive way in the history of the Jewish people. Those who reject the idea of a God who reveals himself in the history of an unremarkable Semitic tribe, who indeed speaks in the pages of their sacred Scriptures, will never make sense of the Old Testament. Of course, this "scandal of historical particularity" (as one commentator has called it) only gets worse when we consider Judaism's offshoot, Christianity. Roman Catholic historian Christopher Dawson puts it succinctly:

The Christian view of history is not merely a belief in the direction of divine providence, it is a belief in the intervention by God in the life of mankind by direct action at certain definite points in time and place. The doctrine of the Incarnation which is the central doctrine of the Christian faith is also the center of history, and thus it is natural and appropriate that our traditional Christian history is framed in a chronological system which takes the year of the Incarnation as its point of reference and reckons its annals backwards and forwards from this fixed centre. (4)

Many young people from Christian homes are eager to serve their churches and to engage the larger culture for Christ. Yet, it is hard to imagine how those who cut themselves off from so much that surrounds that "fixed center" will ever have the sort of profound and salutary impact they imagine.

1 [ Back ] Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991), 118.
2 [ Back ] Paul V. Murphy, The Rebuke of History (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 9.
3 [ Back ] Owen Barfield, History in English Words (Westockbridge, MA: Lindisfarne Books, 2002), 164; Owen Barfield, Worlds Apart (San Rafael, CA: The Barfield Press, 2006), 148.
4 [ Back ] Christopher Dawson, The Dynamics of World History (London: Sheed & Ward, 1957), 235.
Friday, September 5th 2008

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology