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Why study History?

Things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. – Psalm 78:3-4

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History is important for day-to-day life in ways that most of us don’t know. A shared history unifies communities, and knowing history can inspire individuals to be better people because they can learn from previous generations what to do and what to watch out for.

Recently history professor John Fea of Messiah College in Pennsylvania wrote a book about the importance of history called Why Study History? Reflecting on the Importance of the Past. While an aim of the book was to encourage college students to major in history, what he shares would be beneficial to all Christians.

Shared history binds us together

Fea points out that historical accounts are important to the identity of communities: “We need the stories of our past to sustain us as a people. History is the glue that holds communities and nations together.” The history of our community (whether as a church, ethnic group, or political unit) creates a perception of shared experience with other members of our community. This helps to bind us to one another.

The kind of experience we share with other community members will be influenced by how its history is presented. In a national context, competing groups may emphasize different aspects of the past and thus offer different versions of history. In the United States, disputes of this nature have arisen in public schools. Fea writes, “The battle over what American schoolchildren learn about the nation’s past has been a significant part of the ongoing culture wars in this country.”

“Past” versus “history”

Fea makes an distinction between what he calls “the past” and “history.”

The past consists of all the events that have occurred before the present time. This includes the dates and facts about what happened.

History, on the other hand, involves the creation of a narrative using information about the past. History is always written by a person, and each historian has to determine which information from the past is important and how it fits together. In this sense, history always involves an interpretive framework provided by the historian – all history is written from a particular perspective or worldview.

The right worldview is key

That being the case, it is very important to determine whether or not a particular historian works within a good worldview. For example, when a Marxist writes a history of the sixteenth century, he sees economic forces as the primary factors leading to the origin and success of the Reformation. He will discount the specifically “religious” aspects of the Reformation as window dressing for the real action which he believes is in the economic sphere. The Marxist does not even believe in God, so how could he attribute any facet of the Reformation to spiritual activity? It’s completely outside the realm of possibility in his worldview. Thus a Marxist interpretation of the sixteenth century will inevitably miss the most important aspect of the Reformation, namely, the work of God in restoring His truth to the church.

A Reformed historian will look at exactly the same information as the Marxist and see an entirely different picture. The Reformed historian will focus on the religious and spiritual nature of the Reformation. Economic forces do matter at various points throughout history but they cannot account for genuine spiritual occurrences and the work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of people.

While there are many learned and thoughtful historians of various persuasions who have written important books, if they didn’t approach history from a Biblical Christian perspective it is possible that they missed important features of their subject.

Like a Reformed historian, a Roman Catholic historian may also see the Reformation within a spiritual context. However, his analysis would likely be the opposite of the Reformed view. To him or her, the Reformation involved a schism from the true church.

Clearly, the perspective held by any historian will provide the interpretive framework through which he or she evaluates the past. All historians operate within a particular worldview that determines what they will consider to be worthy of including in their account.

Leftwing history

Leftwing historians, often known as “progressive historians,” understand the importance of history in the life of a community. They also understand the power of historical interpretation as a method of promoting political change. Particular historical accounts can be used as the justification for political action. As a result, they interpret history through an especially leftwing framework as a means to advocate for socialist solutions. Fea explains:

As these historians began to speak out against the injustices that they saw in society, they began to articulate a method of approaching the past that was concerned less with objectivity and more with activism. They looked to the past for antecedents to contemporary social problems that might help point the world in the right direction.

Their accounts of American history, therefore, focus on the negative aspects and largely ignore the positive aspects. Fea notes, “They wrote books calling attention to the nation’s long history of injustice. Such works were largely one-sided, but that was the point.”

If the United States is historically based on racist oppression and capitalist exploitation of the poor, then the way to improve it is through socialism. Government planners can enforce “social justice” through state coercion. This is the leftwing ideal, and it appears more plausible when backed by historical arguments about pervasive evil in the nation’s past. If individual freedom has led to oppression and exploitation, then it must be sacrificed to government control in order to achieve justice.

History motivating politics

In other words, a particular historical perspective becomes the underlying basis for an associated political agenda. History conducted in this way provides the driving force for a program of political change. The example of the “progressive historians” demonstrates the use of history in a powerful and negative way.

But history can also be used to undergird a positive agenda. Fea points out that some American Christians have written history books to boost the case for Christian political activism. For example, if Christianity held a privileged position in earlier periods of American political life (and it did), then Christianity should not be expelled from American political life today.

However, Fea also notes that some of these efforts by Christians have been so lopsided as to turn history into political propaganda, much like the progressive historians have done. This is certainly an error to avoid, but it does not discount the possibility of the proper use of history to buttress Christian activism in the culture wars.

Sanctification

Besides the political role of history mentioned above, history can also motivate us to improve ourselves as individuals. As Fea explains it,

The past has the power to stimulate us, fill us with emotion, and arouse our deepest convictions about what is good and right. When we study inspirational figures of the past, we often connect with them through time and leave the encounter wanting to be better people or perhaps even continue their legacy of reform, justice, patriotism, or heroism.

Used in this way, history can actually be an aid in sanctification.

Conclusion

History is important for the role it plays in binding communities together and in motivating political action. It can also help to encourage individuals to improve themselves or inspire them to become involved in a cause. The value of particular historical accounts will be heavily influenced by the perspective of the writer of the account. Only a Christian historian can truly appreciate the role of God in history.

It’s hard to love something you know little about. Learning the history of your country can help you to love your country. Learning the history of your church may help you to appreciate your church more too. Whatever the case, it is certain that studying history is a valuable activity.

This article first appeared in the November 2015 edition.


Up Next


Christian education

Teaching English from a Christian perspective, as brought to you by the Letter C

As Christians, we are rightly thankful for what has been brought to us by the letters A, B, and C, and the letters D through Z, through which we may read the word of God. Our culture, too, so highly values the ability to read and write that it supports the public school teaching of those skills, as well as the related skills of listening, speaking, viewing (the "reading" of visual images), and representing (communicating through visual images). But Christians have even stronger reasons for valuing language and communication, since we know a personal God, who communicates his love and glory to us. So how does a Reformed teacher live out his faith, and enable his students to live out their faith, in the Language Arts classroom? Well, unsurprisingly, given the title, there are (at least) six different things that make the Reformed language arts classroom distinct, all beginning with the letter C. Christ-Centered First of all, Reformed language arts teaching must be truly Christian, or to put it even more strongly, Christ-centered. Obviously this is true of all Reformed education, but what does it actually mean in the Language Arts classroom? For one thing it means Christ's birth, death, resurrection, ascension, and rule should be at the center of our discussions of literature and life. In Schindler's List, for example, Oskar Schindler is frequently spoken of as a kind of savior, since his factories kept many Jews out of the concentration camps. A Christian discussion of the film (or of the novel upon which it is based) will ask how Schindler fails as a "savior," and deal with whether Schindler himself recognized, directly or indirectly, his own need for the Savior. Other kinds of literature either exclude the possibility of salvation, or the need for it (since man is "naturally" good), or show it less directly as being accomplished by some character's heroic acts (or his or her "decision" for Christ). A Reformed teacher will discuss with his students how to react to the false gospels of our culture, and will demonstrate how even these false gospels show the need for the true Savior. Finally, Reformed Language Arts teachers will show and kindle passionate love for literature that fully acknowledges our need for salvation through God's grace alone, and demonstrates that Christ is both Savior and Lord. Covenantal Reformed Language Arts instruction is also covenantal. How? I am not referring simply to the fact a Reformed teacher teaches covenant children (although this is true). My point is that our communication must be a response of thankfulness (our obligation) to His love (according to His promise). This doesn't mean that we can't write for personal reflection or entertainment. It does mean, however, that our more personal writing will reflect on more than just whether we are meeting our own "personal goals" – something that government curricula take for granted as a primary focus of personal reflection. Rather, students should learn to make explicit their understanding of their relationships with God – to "meditate on your precepts and consider your ways" (Psalm 119:15) – and with others through Him. As far as our communication with others is concerned, our basic goal should be "speaking the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15) and communicating "what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen" (Ephesians 4:29). For instance, the novels Peace Shall Destroy Many and The Chosen both deal with isolated religious communities' attempt to deal with the increasing secularism of the society in which they exist. Their response is to withdraw from that culture – an idea that is clearly less than fully faithful. A Reformed language arts teacher will encourage class discussion, journal writing, presentations, and essays about how and whether we fall prey to the temptation to withdraw, and what we might do about that situation of failing to be light and salt in the world. Cultural Education in a Reformed language arts classroom is also cultural. I have already mentioned that as Jesus commands in Matthew 5: 13 - 16, we are to be involved in the world around us. To do that, we need to know the culture in which we live – its idols, and how we may well be rather impressed by those idols ourselves. To gain that knowledge, we study literature - both contemporary literature for a glimpse of our own culture, and the "classics" for a glimpse of the roots of current ideas and attitudes. One other reason to study the classics has been given by C. S. Lewis, who recommended that we read at least two old books for every current one we read. Why? Because like a fish in an aquarium, we are living in our culture, so we may not even see its errors clearly. Lewis said that reading the books of the past is like putting on a new pair of glasses, because while old writers also made errors, they were different errors – ones that we have often learned to see through. At the same time, the old writers saw things about purity, love, and godliness that our own culture may have blinded us to. Counter-Cultural Although Reformed language arts education is cultural, it is also counter-cultural. For example, I use Frank Peretti's Prophet in my Grade Eleven media studies unit on journalism and news coverage. The novel rewards study in two ways. First, it sheds an interesting light on the way the news can be packaged to promote various agendas. Secondly, the novel has its own weaknesses, coming from a somewhat Pentecostal, and arguably Arminian, point of view, which can promote discussions about exactly how the Spirit does do His work among His people, and how God exercises His sovereignty in man's salvation. After we analyze both of these issues from a Biblical perspective, I challenge students to respond concretely to the errors of our culture by writing a letter to the editor and/or a critical or persuasive essay. Creativity The challenge of responding concretely, to both Christ and culture, brings us to the fifth element of Reformed language arts education: creativity. Though we must test (and challenge) the spirits of our age, we cannot stop with a purely negative and critical approach. We must also be positive, using our talents in communication to glorify God and build up the neighbor. This is why the students in each grade of my English classes must submit a piece of work to be published, or at least considered for publication, by someone outside the school. There are plenty of places to seek publication: the annual Remembrance Day Contest and various poetry contests, magazines like Reader's Digest and Reformed Perspective, and books like Chicken Soup for the Soul. Whether or not a student gets published, he or she must write a process paper dealing with the issues faced in crafting his or her work. Cooperation The aspect of Reformed language arts education that I find hardest to carry out is its communal/cooperative nature. When a baby is baptized, God’s covenant promises to him or her are witnessed by the whole congregation, the body of Christ. Two chapters in the Bible deal extensively with how the members of the body are necessary for each other's welfare: Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12. Covenant youth should be trained to seek the good of the whole congregation, to work together, to build each other up. Unfortunately, the students' all-too-human nature often makes this difficult, since group projects – setting up an assembly together, putting on a drama skit, or presenting a dramatic reading of a poem – often mean that some try to ride on the coat-tails of others. This can be avoided by giving each group member a distinct role and responsibility (as in the body of Christ), by cementing the cohesion of the groups with various team-building activities, by assigning groups smaller tasks with more supervision at first, and by assigning "group" work outside the school walls. For example, students can be assigned to write up the memories of older members of the congregation, for an anthology of anecdotes about various moments in history, thus requiring them to work with people they might rarely, if ever, talk to otherwise. The most challenging part of bringing out the communal aspect of communication, however, lies in encouraging more gifted students to support their fellow learners without short-circuiting their learning. The best way to meet this challenge is to ensure that the tasks a teacher gives his or her students are meaningful and thoughtful enough to require everyone's participation. However, equally important is the kind of examples students have seen of Christian cooperation within their school, churches, and families. How well do we, as adults, model a patient attitude toward those weaker than ourselves - neither ignoring them, as our competitive and individualistic society tempts us to do, nor taking their independence from them? Conclusion As you can see, Reformed language arts education is a colossal challenge, requiring caring, commitment, compassion, and consistency. A Reformed teacher must not only teach effectively, but also model the values he or she teaches. This can only be done, with many shortcomings (with which I am all too familiar), through the work of the Spirit, by the Word and prayer, and within the communion of the saints. I would love to hear from any of my fellow saints out there whether these thoughts have struck a chord. (There, I ended with a c-word.)...


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