History Matters

Adam Gopnik, reviewing a book on the Paris Commune of 1871 in The New Yorker, offers this powerful observation:

Historians from the right can sometimes write as though the nineteenth century did not take place; historians from the left can often write as though the twentieth century never happened. The abuses, the mass immiseration, the ever-present threat of renewed monarchical absolutism—all these things were very real in France in 1870, and so the great radical and revolutionary socialist movements were moved by real suffering and oppression, not utopian schemes. But [leftist author John] Merriman writes as if what happened later on the planet, when violent left-wing Communards did take power, with results that we know, would somehow magically not have happened in some other, earlier, luckier moment. This time is different, or else that time would have been—we convince ourselves that the commune would not have become another Terror or another Bolshevik October coup, brutal, intolerant, and absolutist in itself.

Propagandists always want to control history, of course, as Orwell warned us they do in 1984. The Way We Prefer Things to Be is always justified, when at all possible, in terms of The Way Things Have Always Been or, in the modern world, The Way Things Were Always Destined to Be.

Picking on my own tribe of Christian intellectuals, then, I shake my head at apologists for, say, Roman Catholicism who cherry-pick their favourite aspects and episodes in that vast institution’s heritage and omit from their account any of the ignorance, suppression, chauvinism, power-mongering, and violence that have marked it in, say, the ninth century, or the fourteenth, or the nineteenth, or….

Devotees of “the early church” don’t often specify which early church they find to be so inspiring, let alone normative. And selecting your favourite quotations from the Fathers can spruce up your theological argument, but only if you’re willing to let your opponent do the same thing, often from elsewhere in the same fathers’ writings. (Augustine, who wrote so much over so long, is particularly fruitful as a source.)

Meanwhile, the Truly Reformed champion a Jonathan Edwards whose eccentric mysticism and metaphysics, if recognized, would keep them up nights; or a John Calvin whose suppression of vice in Geneva (the Las Vegas of its day) would make even Carrie Nation tell him to lighten up; or the Puritans whose record of narrow and violent intolerance, in the Old World and the New, stands at cross-purposes with any modern-day defence of freedom and universal human rights.

Methodist partisans generally ignore John Wesley’s own mystical dalliances (with Madame Guyon, for starters), let alone the whole realm of the romantic/erotic/matrimonial when it comes to Wesley, Whitefield, and lesser lights in the movement. And the massive institution-building of American Methodism in the nineteenth century… Where did all the money come from to build Duke, Emory, Northwestern, and other Methodist universities? Those rustic Bible camps turned comfortable resorts? Those foreign missions across the globe?

Mennonites learn early to say, “We’re not those Anabaptists!”—as in the sixteenth-century Münster coup d’état. Fair enough, perhaps, but what about Mennonite treatment of women and children on those farms and communes that has given rise to so many dark novels and memoirs?

History has happened to us all, and we have made it happen. We need to own all the centuries, not just our favourites. We need to acknowledge our whole heritage, not just the admirable bits. Indeed, learning from our predecessors’ failures ought to be at least as edifying as learning from their successes, as we, too, are prone to fail and would do well not to repeat (in our own special way, of course) the mistakes of the past.

For we are neither better nor worse than our forebears. And we can be encouraged by the same basic, and glorious, reality: “We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us” (2 Corinthians 4:7).

The early church continues to fascinate and inspire me. I admire much of what the Roman Catholic Church has said and done—and built and sung. I have a portrait of Jonathan Edwards on my office wall, and John Calvin is a theologian whose writings never fail to move me spiritually, as well as intellectually. Methodism is one of the great movements of the Spirit, I believe. And Mennonites, in history and in person, have provoked me to a higher discipleship. I am grateful for them all—and “warts and all,” as that old Puritan, Cromwell, is said to have put it.

Their “earthenness” gives me hope, as I start a new year, that God’s treasure might yet reside in me and God’s power might yet bless others through me. Their failures also, however, temper my enthusiasm, rebuke my chauvinism, humble my pride, and call me to take the lower place. For if such giants failed, so shall I…as I already have, to be sure. And so as a Bible reader, theologian, ethicist, and just-getting-through-the-day Christian, I am grateful again for history. May I let it speak to me afresh: whole, sound, and helpful.

4 Responses to “History Matters”

  1. DJ Brown

    Loving this, John! So very true and corrective. Thankyou.
    – interesting that you and I both referred to the same bible verse in our New Year’s Day blogposts.

  2. April French

    Yes! And Amen! A good word for me as I am gathering sources for my dissertation on Evangelical women in Soviet Siberia . . . a group that suffered much, prayed much, loved much, but also inflicted much judgment on and unleashed much gossip about people who didn’t toe their behavioral line.

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