History Hasn’t Gone Away; It’s Just Morphed Into Narcissism - Geneva College, a Christian College in Pennsylvania (PA)

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Humanities and Liberal Arts
July 29, 2016

History Hasn’t Gone Away; It’s Just Morphed Into Narcissism

People have always liked History, meaning that they like stories about what they love. These stories inform our love, deepen our love, solidify our love, and sometimes disillusion our love. Herodotus wrote about the Greco-Persian Wars because he loved Greece and admired Athens.

The Bible tells the history of Israel: in Genesis, its origins, in Exodus its birth as a nation, in Joshua receiving a home, in Judges through I Samuel groping towards a king to enforce order and defend Israel, then on through Israel’s success and failure as an empire, its wisdom, its prophets, its exile and return, and finally in the New Testament Israel’s fulfillment in Jesus the Messiah. People who love the people of God love their history recorded in the Bible. Christians have often loved church history, a continuation of the story begun in the Bible.

The Bible, more crucially than being the history of Israel, tells about the God of Israel, how He made the world and its nations, how He rules everything for the sake of His People, how He became man in Jesus the Son of David who died to save the world and rose again to rule it, and how He is directing History towards its final goal of every when every knee will bow to Jesus, evil vanquished. People who love God love the history of His creative and redemptive work in History, including the history of the nations, tribes, and languages of the world, in all of their particularity, because they all rightly belong to Him and will come to Him.

A teacher I remember was a Belgian Jesuit who had spent years in the Congo, and then years in the United States studying America and teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. He planned to end his career in Japan. He observed that only the peoples of Christendom ever developed a deep interest and love for the histories of other peoples, wanting to know about China and India, and the tribes of America and Africa. Other civilizations love only their own histories. He noted especially that descendants of Puritans, who unshakably believed that God rules everything and has a purpose for everyone – these descendants retained a reflexive interest in the whole world. They believed it was their duty to know about the whole world. Catholic Belgians, he said, did not feel the same responsibility.

Another professor I remember from graduate school, a well-known atheist anthropologist named Anthony Wallace, lamented in class one day that Penn’s Van Pelt Library had culled most of its missionary reports from its book collection. This 19th Century literature, quite popular in its day, was often his only source for peoples around the globe. The missionaries wrote about the people they lived among with penetrating understanding motivated by love; they were there long before anthropologists ventured abroad. And now these books were gone from his library! He was still angry with the librarians for their stupidity.

As Christendom turned away from God, other loves replaced the love of God and the peoples of His world. Natural love of home and country became love for the new nation states in Europe. A new scientific history, carefully using original sources like government archives, enabled historians to get their national histories correct. Even the details were important because nation love made them important!

Extreme versions of these histories focused all of human history on a single nation. In 19th Century England, the Whig Interpretation of History – that’s the title of a short 1931 book by the Christian English historian Herbert Butterfield criticizing it -- portrayed everything in history as progressing marvelously towards the wonderful world of English liberties -- empire and wealth attached. The American version of Whig History celebrated people fleeing the bad Old World to create a New World, a nation conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, the last best hope of mankind.

That idolatrous self-love permeated the teaching of American history for a long time; it survives in bastard form in the ritual incantation of people running for office that they “believe” in American “exceptionalism.” Other nations, as President Obama once correctly observed believe the same. He said, I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” (He was definitely correct about both Brits and Greeks: I know that because I lived among Greeks and British soldiers on the island of Cyprus from 1970-74.)

Marxists and other socialists, meanwhile, wrote histories about the working class. Other historians devote themselves to women’s history, black history, and queer history. Who writes and reads these histories? People with certain loves that make them want to know these histories. When loves change, the histories that interest people change.

Today professional historians lament the few numbers of students who choose to study History. Who doesn’t want more majors? What has happened? Our loves have changed. A generation raised on the silliness of high self-esteem as a goal; a generation constantly encouraged to tell their own personal stories; a generation that resonates to Justice Kennedy’s definition that “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life….” a generation that grew up creating “Me Posters” in school; a generation that has a terribly hard time making binding promises of marriage; and a generation whose favorite form of art is “selfies;” a generation that spends hours posting about itself to others; that generation is just not interested in any history except one: their own. They have been taught that they owe their greatest love to themselves – I should love me -- and they believe it. That lesson, of course, is easy to teach since self-love is our sin-filled birthright.

No surprise, therefore, that Americans do not know American history. Christians do not know their Bibles the way their grandparents did. They can talk about their own personal Christian experience; they believe that the Bible is the Word of God; but they don’t know what it actually teaches. Young people want to know God’s will for their lives, but they don’t know the Ten Commandments, which really are God’s will for their lives. They may sing vacuous love songs to Jesus, but they don’t relish telling actual stories about Him from the Gospels. Where your heart is, there will tell your history. Self-love generates self-history: I’ll tell my story.

Of course, when people focus only on their personal stories, a certain problem arises. Personal stories lose their meaning without a larger love to give them context and purpose. That loss is the topic for another talk. Just as sad as the loss of meaning is the loss of human connection in everyone telling one’s own story. Lack of interest in a common history brings the danger of solipsistic isolation, which was C.S. Lewis’ idea of hell in his book The Great Divorce, where everyone is constantly moving further and further away from each other.

So where has History gone in our day? Why are there not more people in History classes? History has not gone away; it has simply morphed into individual narcissism, people gazing at themselves in awestruck wonder and love, while their spirits starve, each one telling his own story.

What is your job as historians? Yes, you study the past of nations, or movements, or disciplines, or whatever captures your fancy, or the fancy of your professors. Do it with love for God and emulate His love for every tribe and kindred and tongue and nation. In other words, do it with love for God and neighbor, and your labor will be part of God’s redemptive work, not personal, or group, or national narcissism.   

Bill Edgar—Dr. Bill Edgar, Former Interim President, Geneva College

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