The Importance of History -and of Getting it Right

I heard a blip on the news yesterday that sent me to searching the internet for more information.  Katie Hardiman, who is a student at the University of Notre Dame and the campus editor of the Irish Rover, reported on the findings of Professor Duke Pesta, associate professor of English at the university of Wisconsin at Oshkosh.  Over the past 11 years he has given quizzes to his students at the beginning of the school year to test their knowledge about basic facts related to American history and Western culture.

plantation-picThere were a number of surprising results from his experiment – but at the top of the list was the students’ overwhelming belief that slavery began in the United States and was almost exclusively an American phenomenon.  It seems that they had little knowledge of the history of slavery prior to the Colonial era and that their entire education about slavery was confined to America.

Over those 11 years he gave his quiz at seven different universities including large research schools, small liberal arts colleges and branch campuses.   On a recent quiz, 29 out of 32 students correctly answered that Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner, but only three out of the 32 were able to identify him as a president.  In fact, twice as many – six students, believed that Benjamin Franklin had been a U.S. President.

“They cannot tell you many historical facts or relate anything meaningful about historical biographies, but they are, however, stridently vocal about the corrupt nature of the Republic, about the wickedness of the founding fathers, and about the evils of free markets,” Pesta said. “Most alarmingly, they know nothing about the fraught history of Marxist ideology and communist governments over the last century, but often reductively define socialism as ‘fairness.’”  Pesta also noted that, early on, his students’ “blissful ignorance was accompanied by a basic humility about what they did not know.” But over time he said he increasingly saw “a sense of moral superiority in not knowing anything about our ‘racist and sexist’ history and our ‘biased’ institutions.”

 Such a worldview is truly in conflict with the most basic understandings of the Christian faith.  History is important to the Christian faith.  Why?  First, because the Bible contains history.  The Bible begins with the phrase, “In the beginning…” This verse is declaring, among other things, that God was making history.  He was creating the universe.  An event was taking place.  The Old Testament goes on to tell us about the history of God’s relationship with His people.  The covenant that God made with the people and revealed to them through Moses includes what we call the 10 Commandments.  Notice how it begins, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Exodus 20:2).  This is to be a spiritual relationship that is based on an historical event.

When we read of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – we are reading about historical people.  The Prophets, both major (Isaiah, Jeremiah…) and minor (Micah, Habakkuk…) were historical figures who spoke God’s Word to His people at a specific moment in time.

We look at the New Testament not as some sort of moral code unrelated to historical events, indeed, the whole of the New Testament is based on the truth of the Incarnation, the second person of the Trinity becoming human in the Person of Jesus Christ.  We read of his birth, of his travels, of his interactions with people as he taught and healed.  We know of his companions, of those he called “friends.”  We especially look to historical facts of his Passion, his death on a Roman cross, as well as to the historicity of his resurrection.  Indeed, without the historical resurrection, there is no Christian faith – and as Paul puts it, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.  If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (I Corinthians 15:17-19).

The history that is important to us doesn’t then stop with the life of Jesus.  The New Testament goes on to tell the history of the earliest church – and to pass on to us teachings important for life both then and now.  There is also Church history with takes into account important events and people over the centuries who have followed Jesus Christ and had an impact in world events and world history, for the sake of Jesus Christ.

Deuteronomy 11 begins with a charge to the people of Israel that we ought to take more seriously today.  It starts with the need to “love the LORD your God and keep his charge… consider… the LORD your God, his greatness, his mighty hand and his outstretched arm, his sings and his deeds that he did…” (i.e. remember who God is and what He has done – history).   And then in verse 18 we are commanded to pass on the things of faith to our children,  “You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.  You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates,  that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth.”

 The teaching of history is vitally important – and we also need to get the facts straight – that way we truly are able to “stop and consider, the wondrous works of God” (Job 37:14).