Sometimes knowing history is everything.
I’m not normally a big fan of history, or at least that’s not how I see myself. In junior high and high school, I saw history as talking about wars and other things that bored me—so much that I wrote one of my history papers on British architectural history rather than a more mainstream western civ topic. The idea of regurgitating facts disgusts me and in a setting where I’m going to be tested on the material, history feels like just that sometimes: memorizing facts for the hell of it.
But in recent years I’ve come into a greater appreciation for history, largely because of how it widens your perspective. While he didn’t follow it, my dad once told me that C. S. Lewis adviced reguarly reading books from different eras for this very purpose. I don’t know if that’s true, but regardless, I don’t do much more than my dad. I’ve grown to appreciate, however, at least having some basic information about how things have been in other times and cultures.
This was recently brought to mind as I was reading the first few chapters of a book by my blogger friend Al Hsu called Singles at the Crossroads. One of the things I appreciate about the book (as well as The Suburban Christian, another book of Al’s that I’ve read) is that before devling into more practical issues and spiritual insights, he gives a brief overview of his topic from historical and sociological perspectives. Having that kind of information—some which maybe you already knew, just hadn’t synthesized in this particular way—just amazes me in its usefulness. If nothing else, it simply reminds you of the fact that you aren’t the only person in the world, neither are you from the only culture or the only century. Your ways of looking at things are incredibly different from how others will look at them.
In the case of singleness, Hsu notes some bad numbers thrown around with regards to singleness, marriage, and divorce, as well as offering some new numbers and categories for thinking about singleness. He then briefly outlines views on singleness and marriage starting from Christianity’s Jewish roots and ending with post-Reformation evangelicalism. I already knew most of what he said–people marry later than they used to, people are single for a number of reasons, Old Testament Jews really valued progeny, and Gnosticism screwed with Christian perceptions of sex… Yet it was still different hearing it all in one sitting with the aim of reflecting on singleness.
Besides wanting to mention that I was reading the book (and that, while I’m only 50 pgs into it right now, I recommend it to everyone so that if nothing else you can better understand how some Christians are thinking about singlesness…), I’ve long been meaning to post something (originally for CBE…) on how important I think understanding this kind of background information is for a host of other issues, including gender issues in the church/world more broadly. What we know about a topic colors our entire view of it, and if we don’t realize how others have thought about an issue through the years, we are often lost.
Take social justice, for example. Many evangelicals think they and their friends are discovering this passion for justice for the first time—it’s a new thing in the evangelical world, right? What many don’t realize is that evangelicalism has long had a social justice-y bent… it simple got ditched temporarily while people freaked out about preserving the “fundamentals” of the faith in the early 1900s. (Read The Great Reversal by Moberg for more information.) When we realize the rich history of our tradition in this way, we not only feel a little more comfortable keeping the evangelical label, but we also have a better understanding of some of the forces we need to keep in check to avoid making the same mistake in the future.
And I think that’s a cool thing.
So maybe we should read more and talk about it. ;o)