Friday, July 30, 2010

History Is Bunk

Industrialist Henry Ford is the source of the quote but it could be reflective of a ton of folks today.  Even if we do not believe that history is bunk, people tend to be fairly illiterate about history.  We have Christians who do not know basic Bible history.  One professor told me that 90% of the freshmen in his college intro to religion class could not tell the story of Noah and the ark.  We have all known about this for a long time.  Biblical illiteracy is the reason why some preachers get away with such outlandish and strange interpretations.  Remember Benny Hinn who described Adam as a superman who visited other planets, etc.  A little knowledge of the Scriptural story and Bible history would help put such foolishness into its proper perspective.

What I am writing about is a general lack of religious history.  Christians in general do not have any idea how we got from twelve apostles to hundreds of Christian denominations (at least in the USA).  In my new member instruction I spend a good deal of time surveying Christian history to connect the dots.  For example, many presuppose the current religious landscape with early Christianity and assume a denominational map that is much more recent that people know.  Living in the South it is a shock to Baptists to find out that their denomination (if you can call it that) is only about as old as the US -- young in comparison to the Reformation Churches.  It is also a shock for many Protestants to find out that many of the things that identify ROMAN Catholicism are the fruit of the Counter-Reformation and the Council of Trent.  I had someone argue with me over the fact that papal infallibility was the dictum of the First Vatican Council in 1870 and that it has been invoked only once -- in 1950 -- to declare as dogma the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (that she did not die a physical death but was bodily assumed into heaven).

Another area of ignorance is the impact of frontier America upon the religious landscape of this country.  I owe a great debt to C. George Fry, one of the best classroom teachers I have ever had.  He told the story of America's expansion and its relationship to the churches of America in a way that was both informative and fascinating.  Entrepreneurial religion and revivalism was born of this frontier without borders, law, or organized society.  Its migration to the media and TV preachers is still evidenced in folks like Joel Osteen.  In conjunction with this is the impact of the freedom of religion and how it has given birth to a Christianity narrowly defined and unhooked from its historical moorings -- something that is America's gift and blight to the world.

The other great shock to many is that Islam is such a recent religion, having roots in the seventh century but coming into its own much later.  There are those who assume that Islam and Judaism have been battling it out since Abraham was faced with two sons and had to banish one to keep the other.  While this is certainly the ethnic history of the Middle East, the religious history between the peoples was much more recent.

I would plead with Pastors to give an introduction to religious history to their new converts and to old Lutherans alike.  The historical context for the Reformation is key to understanding it and its success.  I am always amazed at the "a ha" moment when they realize that the Leo X had a declining Holy Roman Empire that was then only the Germanic states, a fragmented and often hostile European monarchical system, a new world being claimed by competing nations, a huge debt, a desire to be remembered in the stone of St. Peter's Cathedral, an Islamic empire poised to take on Europe with a good chance of victory, AND a disruptive German monk who wanted to talk theology.  Luther and his siding with the nobles in the Peasants Revolt or the almost defeat of Lutheranism in Germany until Gustavus Adolphus landed in there in 1630 to turn the tide of the Thirty Years War -- these are some of the stories that need to be told to frame out who Lutherans are and where they came from. I spend time talking about Lutheran liturgical history and the rich liturgical life in Leipzig and the Lutheran liturgical, preaching, and musical piety that gave birth to a Johann Sebastian Bach.

I am not advocating ignoring Scripture but I am pretty certain that you can teach the Scriptures and impart a knowledge of the faith but still leave converts somewhat crippled by a lack of historical connections that helps them to frame out the history of God at work through His people and His Church.  After all, we Lutherans are not the Radical Reformers who rejected God's work in history and who believed that they must recover the origins of an Apostolic Christianity and start the Church all over again.  We Lutherans believe that even with its sordid twists and turns, God was still at work in and among His people in every age and place where His Word is proclaimed and His Sacraments administered in accordance with His Word.

Don't assume that people know much about history in general, Bible history and Christians history in specific.  Teach it to them... and teach it well.


Rev. Eric J Brown said...

You had class with Fry? I really enjoyed his work on Matthias Loy (my M.Div thesis was on the relationship between Loy and Walther)

Janis Williams said...

The old saw, "if we are ignorant of history, we are doomed to repeat it" is very true.

History is probably the most hated subject in school (other than math). Why? Probably because we have coaches teaching history in our school systems.

If teachers aren't excited/in love with/deeply affected by their subject, students are MUCH less likely to learn.

Knowing our Church history (and having it taught well) might just inspire some of us to open our Bibles, a book with the History of our great Salvation!

Pr. Chris Hinkle said...

Perhaps your readers would appreciate an occasional post on church history? As you say, it's pretty interesting.

SKPeterson said...

And don't forget the story of Luther and Zwingli and the religious splits in Switzerland, the revolt of the Netherlands and all the other fascinating things that happened (the Armada!) in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. One of the most fascinating characters of the Thirty Year's War period for me is Bethlen Gabor (patriarchal namesake of two famous sisters).

Steve said...

You make a great point. Let me add a distractor for guys like me who became Lutherans after many years. I graduated and studied church history from a baptist Bible college so my knowledge is quite slanted. It is also a shame how many cradle to grave Lutherans I know who could not care less about the rich heritage we have.

Steve Foxx

Randy Bosch said...

"Where memory ends, history begins" (Aldo Rossi), and sinful hubris always leads us into believing we can rewrite it.

Your words,
"We Lutherans believe that even with its sordid twists and turns, God was still at work in and among His people in every age and place where His Word is proclaimed and His Sacraments administered in accordance with His Word."
are absolutely true - including yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Still, too many fall into misbelief. The job of God is still taken, now and forevermore, and the Holy Spirit is still doing His work among us - regardless of what many seem to think as evident by their speech and actions and is clear through history.

"Where memory ends, history begins" (Aldo Rossi) - and "we" do not want to study history, so with great sinful hubris we will repeat the human errors it evidences until the Second Coming.

Lee said...

Before the death of Rev. Dr. Tim Lull, President of PLTS, he wrote this short little fun work entitled, "My Conversations with Martin Luther." As I understand it, much of the first printing was scrapped or given away to the students because of a rather significant editorial error than somehow Augusburg Fortress did not catch. In several places, "Martin Luther" is referred to as "Martin Luther King". D'oh! Obviously a runaway spell check program, carelessness and a bit of historical ignorance on someone's part had something to do with this. It just proves that you can't proofread what you don't understand.

Gene White said...

I totally agree with the comment about who teaches history in public school, but I loved it so much I went hunting on my own, so to speak. But who teaches it in the church? Not very many, is the unfortunate answer.

Being the history nut that I am my wife and I took our first trip to Saxony on the occasion of my retirement. We literally came home with a suitcase full of maps, books, pamphlets, etc., and shortly decided they could not sit in the closet, they needed to be shared.

The sharing effort spawned a modest booklet of some 50 odd pages, with graphics. But that was only the beginning, two years later, and using the booklet as the study material, the booklet had grown to 80 old pages and used in three classes in our congregation, for the laity. I continued to teach it in three later congregations where we were members.

Now, some 12 years later the booklet has grown to a small book, as we have gone back to Saxony again to collect more material and graphics. The small book has grown to 100+ pages and two years ago was turned over to Confessional Lutherans for Christ's Commission to use as a study guide and a seminar. Check it our on and click the seminar page link on the left side bar. This book can be ordered in black and white or color.

I would comment this small book to any congregation or individual interested in kick starting the knowledge of Lutheran and early church history. It doesn't contain everything, but it contains a lot. Who knows, we are returning to Saxony next month and maybe some more pages will be the result.

Norman Teigen said...

Your entry is most timely. History is certainly one of the most vital subjects to be studied. When it is ignored or glossed over as being irrelevant there is bound to be trouble.

Who writes the history of anything that is past, the Viet-Nam War, the founding of the American Republic, or even the history of the Lutheran Church-Missouri in the 1970s, is attempting to gain control of the subject as it currently exists. All of the contributors must be heard. The audience must take the time to learn as much about the past as is humanly possible.

When the culture of Americanism is consumption, it is important to tell the history of Christianity as you are attempting to do in your parish. It is not easy to present subjects in sufficient enough depth to make a difference. Those who would allow a liturgical dance on the Lord's Prayer as a pass to Confirmation are as delusional as though who think that handing a confirmand a copy of the Book of Concord is enough to keep the young believer in the faith.

One of the slogans that we use at the Minnesota Historical Society to catch the attention of our audience is 'History Matters.' It matters a lot.

Norman Teigen
Lutheran Layman

mlorfeld said...

As a hack historian (when is it that you become a "real" historian?), I even have trouble recounting the Church's history. For instance, simply drawing a line from Luther to Walther (some 350ish years) is very difficult. It starts easy Martin Luther to Martin Chemnitz... but quickly gets real difficult in tracing the line of Lutheran Orthodoxy to Walther.