For individuals, effective memory is frequently what makes life meaningful. Likewise, the loss of memory is often a first sign of disability and, in extreme cases, dehumanization.
But in that transition from future to past there is a problem. “History is bunk,” Henry Ford is reported to have said. Just as our nation adopted his production techniques, so it seems that many have assumed his view of history as well. For decades polls have consistently shown that Americans do not know their own or others’ history, and they cannot remember even the most significant events of the 20th century. History is bunk, indeed!
Lack of historical knowledge or perspective is increasing. The 2001 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) demonstrated that significantly less than half of all high school seniors achieved the most basic level of historical knowledge. A consequence is that “historical thinking” is nearly absent among American students. One reason for this startling reality may be found in currently established educational priorities.
One secondary history teacher, experienced by teaching in two of the nation’s most admired school systems, recently commented: “History is lost. It must consistently defer to math, science and languages. When it is taught, it is shaped by a curriculum designed to satisfy the hunger for measurable facts and hard information. The result is a total lack of historical thinking. Students don’t see how one thing leads to another, and are oblivious to the context in which decisions are made.”
At the broadest cultural level, a view of the future obscured by ignorance of the past is bound to blur the broad ideals that shape a national ethic, and to hamper the decisions voters make locally in the voting booths.
Bruce Cole, chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, warned last spring that “a nation that does not know why it exists or what it stands for cannot be expected long to endure.” That “amnesia,” he wrote, “shrouds our history in darkness, our principles in confusion and our future in uncertainty.”
Evidence is found in the declining participation of voters in elections, and in reports that the Bill of Rights and U.S. Constitution would likely be defeated if either were considered today.
But the loss of history may have even greater consequences for Christians than for the general public. “Where do we come from? Why do we exist? What experiences have shaped us? How do we fulfill our purpose?” Faith experience must be informed by at least an approach to these questions, if not by the answers themselves. These are historical questions. A few examples may underline their importance.
First, against biblical literalism, or worse, “biblicism,” historical understanding enables us to comprehend that the Bible was not revealed in a single moment, but over a process of time as people encountered, clarified and comprehended God’s work among them.
Second, in a time that hungers for effective leadership, historical sensitivity reveals that the great stories of biblical leaders and leaders of faith in the church were shaped by interaction with God’s work and purpose. From Moses through the prophets and the priests, people are encouraged to “write on their hearts” the events, circumstances and stories that make up their history and thus shape their future. The same has been true of all the saints ever since.
Third, a historical understanding of theology clarifies that God’s redemptive purpose in Christ was deliberately enacted through the historical person and personality of Jesus, and amid a particular people, in their own time. Such understanding makes it easier to claim that redemption in our own time.
Finally, shaping a Christian ethic that is both more sharp-edged and confident than simply wondering “What Would Jesus Do?” is more challenging than reflecting on what Jesus once did. Such an ethic can only come to life as we understand our own stories in process and attempt to comprehend where Jesus might be moving among them.
For individuals, effective memory is frequently what makes life meaningful. Likewise, the loss of memory is often a first sign of disability and, in extreme cases, dehumanization. Cole suggested that one of the common threads of great civilizations is the “cultivation of memory.”
Great faith has the same common thread. In a retrospective on the meaning of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, novelist Penelope Lively remembered one of her own characters who stated, “History is ghastly. … One should be glad it’s over.”
“Unfortunately,” Lively reflects, “it is not. We are in the thick of it.” As citizens and as Christians we are indeed “in the thick of it.” Our first challenge is to understand it. Only then can we offer a witness to it.
In our time, the line between faith and culture has become blurred. In this instance it may not be a bad thing. Both a vital faith and a healthy culture depend on a lively understanding of the past. Without it, the future of both is doubtful.
Everett C. Goodwin is senior minister of the Scarsdale Community Baptist Church in Scarsdale, N.Y.
Buy Goodwin’s latest book, Down by the Riverside: A Brief History of Baptist Faith, from Amazon.com!