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Joel Belz: Who killed history?


WORLD Radio - Joel Belz: Who killed history?

Those who make it boring, make it forgettable and thus repeatable

Statues at Westminster Abbey Photo by ermingut via Getty Images

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Tuesday December 26th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Up next, a classic commentary from 1988.

Christians know all of history is God’s story. Today, WORLD founder Joel Belz says keeping God in mind will help any history lesson come alive.

JOEL BELZ: One recent survey suggests that fewer than half the students in a typical American high school can tell you within 100 years when Abraham Lincoln lived. A similar number are unable to tell you in which century World War I was fought. More than half fail when asked to identify even one of America's two main foes in World War II. If the high schoolers had been unable to say who fought in the Peloponnesian War, and where and when, or even where Napoleon suffered his final defeat, the issue might still be regrettable, but perhaps not worth stressing is of crucial concern. But the failure was at such a basic level that you're tempted to ask, why bother teaching history at all?

One standard response is that people who are not acquainted with history are sentenced to repeat its errors. That is true, of course, even for Christians. But there is a more profound reason why Christians should have at least a basic acquaintance with the world around them–with its history, its geographic layout, and what is happening in it from day to day. That reason is simply that all of this is God's handiwork. To be disinterested in it is to snub him, to say that what he has done and is doing is unimportant. With humans, such an attitude would be rude. With God, it is blasphemous.

A few days ago I had the opportunity to visit Westminster Abbey in London. If any place is calculated to stir the slumbering heart of a non-historical person, Westminster Abbey should do it. There, beneath and above you as well as on every side, are the reminders and even the remains of the people who made our culture what it is. The kings and the queens of England from half a millennium ago, Isaac Newton, and surprisingly almost beside him Charles Darwin, William Shakespeare, and Beatrix Potter, George Frederick Handel and Isaac Watts, David Livingstone, except of course for his heart. And if our guide statistics were accurate, about 2,994 other notables. It's quite a mind stretcher.

In a small way, I was impressed. But in a larger sense, Westminster Abbey left me cold, and sent me thinking about why history has become so dull and chilly a subject for so many these days. The problem is that you've got all these people and places and dates, a confusing mass of data going nowhere in particular. Such a sense might be present to a degree at any historical shrine. The irony at Westminster Abbey, however, is especially poignant, simply because it is all shown off so grandly, in a huge edifice known as a house of God, but almost explicitly from beginning to end, excluding any reference to that very God.

Fearful of offending, the guide speaks only in the vaguest terms of some wispy deity, slipping more often into references to those ideals which once drove all the great heroes memorialized here now. No wonder kids get bored. I was.

If the guide had been prepared instead to tell us of the great king whose subjects all these people were, some of them loyal, some of them traitors to his cause, then there would have begun to be the framework that produced the beginnings of a plot, and who can hold anybody's interest without a plot? At Westminster Abbey, it got even worse. Garish and disconnected, it seems pagan to the core. That’s where disconnected history leads you. Ignoring your past is bad. Disconnecting your past from its controller may be even worse.

I'm Joel Belz.

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