Magazine article The Christian Century

The Past Is Now

Magazine article The Christian Century

The Past Is Now

Article excerpt

Why Study History? Reflecting on the Importance of the Past

By John Fea

Baker, 192 pp., $19.99 paperback

The Spiritual Practice of Remembering

By Margaret Bendroth

Eerdmans, 142 pp., $16.00 paperback

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AMERICANS ARE ambivalent about the past. They watch the History Channel and episodes of a costume drama like Downton Abbey, and they flock to Civil War battlefields and compile their genealogies on ancestry.com. But they also tend to fall asleep in history class. Americans are enchanted with the past but suspicious of formal attempts to study it.

Christians should love history. Ours is a historical faith, oriented around the life of a man who lived 2,000 years ago. Our scriptures tell of the ancient interactions between God and a chosen people. Even as they point us to a future final consummation of God's kingdom, they encourage us to tell our children about the wondrous things God has done in the past.

In America, Christians have often discarded much of that past. The "restorationist" Christians of the early 19th century rejected denominationalism. They thought that Christians could dispense with centuries of history and return to the purity of the early church. And Americans have often been suspicious of inherited wisdom. In 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson told the graduates of Harvard Divinity School that "the need was never greater of new revelation than now." Human beings should throw off the shackles of the past and find the divine within, he said. The experiences and ideas of Christians over the past two millennia mattered little.

Not so fast, say Margaret Bendroth and John Fea. Bendroth, director of the Congregational Library in Boston, nudges congregations to adopt spiritual practices of remembrance. Fea, professor of history at Messiah College, encourages students to explore the academic discipline of history. Both contend that Christians need to encounter the past in all its complexity and humanity.

Bendroth notes that in our era, secular time has replaced sacred, liturgical time. Secular time is linear, progressive. "If time is always moving forward," she writes, "the past is always becoming more distant and more irrelevant."

But it was not always so. In medieval Europe, for instance, individuals saw the lives of biblical figures as not fundamentally different from their own. In fact, as is evident in medieval and Reformation art, they could readily see themselves as part of biblical scenes, placing royalty and reformers within the fabric of sacred time and drama. They did not assume that the present was better than the past, that they were more enlightened and humane than their ancestors. Modern people, by contrast, in the words of Peter Fritzsche, are "stranded in the present."

When modern people stop and take more than a superficial glance at the past, they probably don't like what they find. After all, the past is a strange place filled with strange people. If we are honest explorers and interpreters of the past, it will not be easy to use it for our present-day purposes.

Fea reports on a visitor from the American Midwest to Plimouth Plantation who was shocked to learn that William Bradford, the governor of the colony, was "a believer in community to whom secular capitalist enterprise was blasphemous, selfish individualism anathema." Likewise, many members of the New England parishes familiar to Bendroth would be repulsed by the Calvinist theology contained in their forebears' musty books.

Peering further back into the recesses of history, we might also find ourselves disappointed by the ancient Israelites, a violent and polygamous people, or by some of the authors of the New Testament, who had derogatory things to say about certain groups.

Perhaps it is safer to just leave the past behind. But that is not Fea or Bendroth's recommendation. …

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