Three Reasons Christians Should Read History
Many of you may know that I love history. I do not read as much as I would like, but when I get the chance I will gladly choose a Civil War biography over modern fiction. I am currently wading through Pulitzer Prize winning book Thomas Jefferson: Art of Power by John Meacham and I am fascinated by the challenges people just like you and me faced only a few hundred years ago.
But history is not an empty pursuit or a vain hobby. It is vitally important to give a frame of reference or a measuring stick for the times in which we live. Here are three reasons Christians in particular should read history:
1. History teaches the mortality of man. If there is one thing we can learn from history it is that people die. Good people die. Bad people die. Significant people die and insignificant people die. No matter the amount of good or evil done in this life everyone inevitably dies. This somewhat morbid reality is important because an understanding of the brevity of life is necessary to gaining a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90:12). Too often we live our lives comfortably detached from the impending reality of death; history therefore is an effective reminder that we, like those we learn about, won’t be here forever. So let’s live accordingly.
2. History provides case studies for life. Often when we read history we can feel a gulf separating us between the facts and figures of those in previous ages. The best written history, however, will show us that despite all the differences of time, culture, local, and technology—people in every age are still people. The same search for meaning and purpose are not exclusive to us; the same desires we have, they too possessed. If we recognize this, individuals in history are transformed from featureless black and white figures to vibrantly personal case studies whose examples carry massive relevance for our lives in 2017. We can learn from the complete arrogance of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, or the unhealthy desire for self-protection and control of Richard Nixon. Conversely we can learn to exemplify the grit and tenacity of Ulysses S Grant, or the power of forgiveness shown by the life of Corrie Ten Boom. History is overflowing with such examples of people just like you and me—reaching both great heights and tragic falls. Let’s learn from them.
3. History provides a context for the times we live. Perhaps most importantly of all, History tells us that things have not always been the way they are currently, and gives us an external frame of reference to understand our modern age. Consider this quote from C. S. Lewis’s Weight of Glory:
"Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his age."This quote is absolute gold from C. S. Lewis. Through history we can break free from becoming just manufactured products of the fads and fashions of modernity, and recognize them as such. We might learn that sexuality was not always the inalienable right inexorably linked to human identity. Or that in comparison to America in the late 18th century, 21st century America seems rather lazy. We can also notice certain values that are seemingly absent from my generation such as: duty, courage, sacrifice, honor--and look to recover them.
So pick up a book about a time other than the present. Stretch yourself as you read to evaluate the times in which you live or even your own tendencies and weaknesses. The instructions are boundless. They're just waiting to be discovered.