I recently read “The Pioneers,” a new book by noted American writer and historian David McCullough. Subtitled “The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West,” the book recounts the story of early settlers in Ohio following Britain’s ceding of the Northwest Territory lands and the adoption of the Northwest Ordinance by the American congress in 1787. At the end of the book is a short section called “Why History,” an excerpt from the acceptance speech McCullough gave for an award in 1995. He remarked,
“We, in our time, are raising a new generation of Americans who, to an alarming degree, are historically illiterate.
The situation is serious and sad. And it is quite real, let there be no mistake. It has been coming on for a long time, like a creeping disease, eating away at our national memory. While the clamorous popular culture races on, the American past is slipping away, out of sight and out of mind. We are losing our story, forgetting who we are and what it’s taken to come this far.” . . .
“Everywhere in the country there are grade school and high school teachers teaching history who have had little or no history in their own education. Our school system, the schools we are responsible for, could rightly be charged with educational malpractice.” . . .
“History shows us how to behave. History teaches, reinforces what we believe in, what we stand for, and what we ought to be willing to stand up for. History is–or should be–the bedrock of patriotism, not the chest-pounding kind of patriotism but the real thing, love of country.”
To the extent that education occurs in the government school systems today, there is a critical failure to emphasize important academic subjects such as literature and language, civics, and history. Professional and technical subjects are often the focus; we hear much of STEM–science, technology, engineering, and math. Other liberal arts subjects are often thought of as not interesting to today’s students, not relevant, not practical to their daily life. The study of history has increasingly been replaced by all sorts of studies thought to appeal to aggrieved groups and that in reality are nothing more than the advancement of progressive agendas.
The loss of an understanding of and an appreciation for American history has brought us to a dangerous point. American exceptionalism is denied and even ridiculed by many, if not most, in academia, the media, and in the political sphere. The brilliance and heroism of the Founders is ignored and denied. The founding documents of the nation are not appreciated for their unique value and the wisdom they contain. Our national heroes are dismissed for their perceived imperfections. Recent immigrants often seem to expect immediate equality of outcome, attributing failure to achieve overnight success as racism, rather than understanding that America has never guaranteed and cannot guarantee equal outcomes, only a degree of equivalence of opportunity. My own ancestors, descended from legal immigrants from Europe in the early nineteenth century, benefited from the Homestead Act as they moved West, but otherwise knew nothing of guaranteed outcomes or public welfare. They and their descendants endured failure and backbreaking labor for decades before achieving any degree of success. But they enjoyed the benefits of freedom and opportunity. The United States has many blots on its history, not to be ignored or minimized, but that does not change its exceptional role in the world. One notes that immigrants continue to seek entry into the country, but few choose to leave.
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Recently he wrote,
“In their radical progressive view—shared by billionaires from Silicon Valley, recent immigrants, and the new Democratic Party—America was flawed, perhaps fatally, at its origins.
Things have not gotten much better in the country’s subsequent 243 years, nor will they get any better—at least not until America as we know it is dismantled and replaced by a new nation predicated on race, class, and gender identity politics agendas.
In this view, an “OK” America is no better than other countries. As Barack Obama once bluntly put it, America is only exceptional in relative terms, given that citizens of Greece and the United Kingdom believe their own countries are just as exceptional. In other words, there is no absolute standard to judge a nation’s excellence.
About half the country disagrees. It insists that America’s sins, past and present, are those of mankind. But only in America were human failings constantly critiqued and addressed.
America does not have to be perfect to be good. As the world’s wealthiest democracy, it certainly has given people from all over the world greater security and affluence than any other nation in history—with the largest economy, largest military, greatest energy production, and most top-ranked universities in the world.
America alone kept the postwar peace and still preserves free and safe global communications, travel, and commerce.
The traditionalists see American history as a unique effort to overcome human weakness, bias, and sin. That effort is unmatched by other cultures and nations, and explains why millions of foreign nationals swarm into the United States, both legally and illegally.
These arguments over our past are really over the present—and especially the future.
If progressives and socialists can at last convince the American public that their country was always hopelessly flawed, they can gain power to remake it based on their own interests.”
Partly as a result of a lack of appreciation of our past, American society is in decline, dangerously so, and is deeply divided. Professor and author Walter Williams noted in a recent article in “The Daily Signal” that
“A society’s first line of defense is not the law or the criminal justice system, but customs, traditions, and moral values. These behavioral norms, mostly imparted by example, word-of-mouth, and religious teachings, represent a body of wisdom distilled over the ages through experience and trial and error. Police and laws can never replace these restraints on personal conduct. At best, the police and criminal justice system are the last desperate line of defense for a civilized society. Today’s true tragedy is that most people think what we see today has always been so. As such, today’s Americans accept behavior that our parents and grandparents never would have accepted.”
Remembering American history is critical to our nation. Perhaps more importantly, we as Christians need to remember our history.
It has been suggested that the evangelical church needs to “unhitch” from the Old Testament. We need more of the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount, nothing of the Ten Commandments, it is argued. Increasingly, evangelical churches feature TED talks and motivational speeches referencing a Bible story or verse in place of preaching and teaching from Scripture. Many churches no longer talk of doctrine and eternal truth, emphasizing topics like relationship advice, achieving prosperity, success, love, acceptance, and affirmation. Church services feature contemporary entertainment in place of distinctively Christian congregational singing of music that centers on doctrine, sin and salvation, Who God is and what He has done for us in Christ. Children are entertained and taught benevolence and environmentalism, not the Bible. After all, the church needs to be “relevant.” We must give people what they want and think they need if we are to attract them and help them to have a better life.
But for the church to truly be the church, to do what we have been commissioned to do, to present the gospel and disciple people, to teach them how they should live in light of the gospel, we must systematically preach, teach, and adhere to the Bible. All of it. And that of necessity is a study of history.
The Bible, though recorded over several centuries by a number of human authors, is a unified story of the Divine plan for humankind from creation to the end of time. The Bible tells us where we came from; it teaches us about creation and our origin; it answers the questions as to the meaning and purpose of life. It teaches why God created us and it shows us Who He is to the extent that we can understand Him. The Scriptures tell us of the origin of sin, God’s offense and righteous anger at our sin and rebellion, and help us to understand why things are the way they are in a world after the Fall. The Scriptures explain the necessity of salvation and tell us the story of our redemption, the unfolding of the divine plan for human salvation from the Fall through the centuries culminating in the Cross. And it tells us how we can each individually enter into eternal life through the atonement Christ has made for our sins. He did not live merely give us a lot of really good philosophy and advice. In space and time, in history, God in Christ entered into the world and endured torture and death on a real Roman cross and bodily rose from a real grave as the One perfect and acceptable sacrifice for human sin.
The events recorded in both Old and New Testaments are real, historic events. They happened in space and time, and it is important to remember this and consider the context that this gives to all that Scripture teaches. The Bible is not merely a book of musings, a collection of inspirational writings. We are not asked to empty our minds in esoteric contemplation or meditation; we are asked to fill our minds with Scripture, thoughts and words rooted in history. The Old Testament gives us an important context for understanding the life of Jesus and his teachings. When we understand the Judaism of Jesus’ time and the history of the Jewish people, we can better understand the New Testament. When we remember these things and understand something of the Roman empire and the world in which Jesus and the disciples lived, we can better understand the books of the New Testament. The New Testament and the Old Testament are writings inspired by God, and they are also rooted in history and record events that really occurred.
The pastor of the church I attend preaches Scripture, systematically, in context. He does not deliver motivational speeches propped up with out-of-context passages from the Bible, designed to appeal to a particular demographic, designed to attract people looking for something inspirational and relevant to their perceived needs. Currently, he is preaching an extended series on Sunday mornings, preaching the book of Isaiah. But while he is preaching the book, he is not merely teaching a course in history. He is teaching vital truth, relevant to the timeless needs we all have.
The ancient Jewish prophet Isaiah wrote some eight centuries before Christ. During Isaiah’s lifetime, the apostate northern Jewish kingdom of Israel with its capital at Samaria was conquered and destroyed. Judah, the southern Jewish kingdom with Jerusalem as its capital, was repeatedly threatened, and knew periods of decline as well as periods of revival and faithfulness to God. In the background was the ancient superpower of Assyria, who conquered Israel as well as other kingdoms in the region and repeatedly threatened Judah. If one is a typical prosperous American looking perhaps for a little religious inspiration, entertainment, or life coaching, the response might be, “So What? Who Cares?”
But the book of Isaiah contains much that is completely relevant to the real, timeless needs that we all have. The divinely inspired prophet Isaiah spoke many prophecies that were fulfilled in his lifetime, prophecies that were fulfilled in the following decades, and prophecies of the Messiah that were fulfilled centuries later in Christ. We learn that we can trust Scripture when we observe these fulfilled prophecies, and we understand that just as these events happened exactly as Isaiah predicted, so will events still future be fulfilled just as Isaiah foretold. We learn that God is sovereign, ultimately in control in the affairs of man, and we thus learn that we can trust Him in our life. Isaiah warned the kings and people of his day against sin, exhorted faithfulness to God, and reminded them of the results that would follow; and just as he foretold, repentance brought deliverance, sin brought judgement. We would be wise to learn and heed this principle. Isaiah warned Judah against alliance with surrounding kingdoms in a bid to stand against Assyria, and records both the pronouncement of doom and the fall of those kingdoms. Even powerful Egypt suffered defeat at the hands of Assyria, confirming the words delivered by the inspired prophet. We would do well to remember that our hope is not with the petty solutions and worldly wisdom that might appeal to us, but when an overwhelming circumstance threatens us, our help comes from the Lord. Old Testament history records an amazing deliverance by God when an Assyrian army threatened Jerusalem. Tens of thousands of the invaders died in their sleep; the surviving army was forced to return to their homeland. The Assyrian empire ultimately fell just as Isaiah prophesied, replaced by Babylon just as Isaiah prophesied. Judah ultimately was unfaithful to God and fell to Babylon, just as Isaiah prophesied, Babylon rose and fell just as Isaiah prophesied, and the Jewish remnant returned to Jerusalem, just as Isaiah prophesied. God preserved the Jewish nation through whom Messiah would come; God was faithful to His ancient promises. Secular history confirms and aligns with these events recorded in Scripture. The accounts and sermons of the Old Testament prophets are powerful, timeless, and supremely relevant. Keep the motivational speeches and inspirational talks and entertainment; I prefer to listen to the timeless lessons of Scripture that are firmly rooted in verifiable history.
When Jesus bodily rose from the grave, he taught his followers for some forty days before ascending into heaven and declaring that one day he would return. His disciples began to declare the gospel to their world; the story of Christ and the gospel began to spread and was widely believed. Luke, Paul, John, and others under inspiration penned the New Testament books, which record verifiable history that helps give context to the theology, doctrine, and teachings conveyed in those writings. For some two thousand years, the gospel has been declared, shared, believed, studied, and loved by millions. The world has been completely affected by Christianity and by Christians who have been transformed by the gospel. History confirms this. The sacrifice of martyrs–from the Twelve and other early disciples to those in our day who still give their lives–to those who have lived under persecution or who still live under persecution, are the historic heritage of the faith. Some heroic, most anonymous and ordinary, history tells us of countless individual Christians who have lived their faith and left us stories of great inspiration and example. We do well when we study the history of the church. It is our heritage, and we profit from knowing it as surely as Americans profit from knowing, appreciating, studying, and learning from our national history.
Development of a Christian worldview is supremely important, and we do that through knowing and understanding the Scriptures. They are our foundational documents. The Scriptures record for us the truths, doctrines, philosophy, and the timeless information God has given us for life. In churches and individually, we must be committed to the Bible. It is “malpractice” and worse when a church does not teach Scripture. It is sin when believers do not read, study, believe, and practice the teachings of the Bible. Through the Bible, we are inspired, comforted, challenged, instructed. The Scriptures are “the words of life,” giving us the gospel and giving us the plan and purpose of God for our lives. We cannot fully understand the Scriptures until we understand that they are true in total, recording real events, and we are prepared to learn from that history. We must constantly remember them as our founding documents, and remember above all our allegiance to Christ the Founder of the historic orthodox Christian faith.