The Originality of History

My good friend—and one of the Bible-majors that kept me sane—Colby Wallis has written my post for this week. I hope you enjoy it.

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While prepping to teach a class a couple weeks ago I realized just how stupid I am. To be sure: it isn’t my fault that people are ill-informed about the history of their religion. It definitely isn’t my fault that people use phrases of ancient origin as vindication when they misunderstand the original meaning of those same phrases.

I’m stupid because I thought I could fix these problems with forty-five minutes of class time.

(Definitely my fault)

It was my wishful thinking and inability to cleanly execute my intentions that led me to this blog post. I’m painfully aware of our culture’s emphasis, particularly within Christian circles, on history in all things political, social, and religious (hold the mic on that last one). The oddity of history is that, like a battery, it is simultaneously positive and negative. Every school boy who ever struggled to switch the batteries on his Gameboy without Pokémon resetting understands. If you weren’t that kid, I have another example.

Said every person ever on Twitter (my translation in parentheses):

  • Bae can’t do me like that. You changing. (You lack the precedent to do that in a court of law)
  • Bae is so slow. Can’t even keep up. (Your obsession with history keeps America from progress)
  • Star Wars is dope! (J.J. did a great job of capturing a classic feel and fueling a new story)
  • Horror movies are nah! (The tomatometer shows that most of your ideas are outdated)
  • Jesus and I are tight. (My orthodoxy is apparent)
  • I love Jesus and hate the church. (Your old-fashioned adages are repulsive)

(These every person sayings are loosely based on true events.)

It isn’t society’s obsession with vintage collectables or being an OG gangster that bothered me when thinking about these issues. What then? Let me tell you. I am troubled by American Christianity’s emphasis on history in all things American while it neglects thousands of years’ worth of church history. I want to be careful. I am not saying that American Christians cannot be interested in American history. I am not saying that American Christians cannot be intrigued by the Founding Fathers and hold their words and vision for this country in high regard. 

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What I am saying is that to hold historical precedent so highly in one regard and so nonchalantly in another bothers me. It’s inconsistent. We realize the importance of history. We teach our kids about what it took for them to live in this kind of a country. We idolize historical figures (literally, monuments?). We’re on a first name basis with George, Ben, and Abe. Do we know Justin, Gregory, or Thomas? Do we adorn these Christian giants with as little as kind words? Do we even know what these men contributed to Christian thought so that we can teach it to our kids?

I don’t want to go on a rant here about how America views itself as the second coming of Israel (although it wouldn’t be the first time). I just want to figure this out. If Christians emphasize one kind of history, and it’s not their own, what does that say about us? What do we care most about? 

Undoubtedly, someone has caught onto one of the many plot holes in this long, woe is me narrative. “Christians do teach history. We teach our kids to be like the people in the Bible. Like the 1st century Christians.” I concede. Maybe my argument was improperly thought out? But is this any better? Is skipping forward centuries and trying to fill in the gaps with a 20th century perception of Jesus really an improvement on teaching church history? I know history is boring, but come on people!

Another says to me, “We do the same thing in American History! We just have selective recollection. We don’t really talk about the embarrassing parts of history. Just ask any oppressed group. Their stories are not told correctly.” I don’t see this as comforting, do you? It’s not the same problem, but it’s not an improvement (not to mention it lumps two millennia of Christianity together as embarrassing). If we are selectively remembering history across the board that’s a bigger problem. I concede once more. Maybe we just stink at this history thing entirely. 

If this whole thing sounds like me arguing against myself, you’re not wrong. I wrestled with how to color my thoughts on this. Society really is juggling knives and breathing fire at the same time. Importance and its ugly brother, unimportance, have never stood this close together in the family picture of priority. So, yes! I’m conflicted. I see both sides of our historical hypocrisy and I don’t know if I’m looking at the pot or the kettle. 

I cannot offer you a perfect solution to this one, which may lead some of you to believe this was a waste of time and space. The best I CAN give you is a list of reasons why fixing this problem is important. 

1. “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it,” – Famous. I couldn’t resist. Why try invading Russia when you could read about someone failing to do it? More seriously, we shouldn’t have to learn things that have already been found out. Christians would save a lot of time this way.

2. “If you don’t own up to stealing the snacks, recess will be your burial ground,” – Dad (my dad). He may not have said it like that. Regardless, as Christians we have to be a couple things: consistent and transparent. Our historical atrocities, both as Americans and Christians, cannot be dealt with until we’re honest about them. The forgiveness proclaimed as our God’s power is hidden as long as our wrongs are. When you get history into the sweet spot, don’t take your eye off the ball. Everyone hates Ian Kinsler. Don’t be Ian Kinsler. Be consistent. 

3. “When we ignore our historical context we lose the originality of our history,” – Colby Wallis. We focus on problems all the time that have already been solved (they aren’t real problems anymore). This causes us to miss out on the conversations within society about today’s issues. History has no way of knowing we even existed. We leave a blank page for the generations after us to try and interpret. Our religion does no good. Not only is this irresponsible, it is irreconcilable. 

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If we have to get one thing right, let’s make it this: We know history, we accept it, and we use it to further deal with the problems plaguing our spheres of influence. The tale of humanity (if not humanity, of Christianity) may very well depend on it. 

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One Comment

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  1. Well written – I’d like for you to expand on the third quote, I think that there is more to be said there. I agree with your second quote, although I would watch out for grouping “us” into the atrocities. I have committed my own sins and have no need to take on the sins of the middle ages.

    Best line ever: “My orthodoxy is apparent.” I will be using that several times in the next few days.

    I am sure you were limiting your words, but what is your solution? My best thought is this: the next time you are asked to teach a class at church, ask to teach on church history, the good and the bad. Or ask to teach about the history of hymns. Whatever you do, show the relevance of history, the grand narrative, to the Bible, the good news.

    Also, many Christians (young and old) aren’t ready for the maturity you call them to. But, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be on a journey towards that better understanding, of which history is a part. We must help them realize that history has figured out many of their problems today, and that history got some things wrong (says the Pelagian).
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