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History: It’s Essential

History, the act of organized remembering, is a virtue and a duty for the Christian. History is that thing upon which strong faith is built. Trust in God rightly rests on the memory of what God has done in the past and the consistency of his character borne out in the historical record of his dealings with humankind. Conversely, the surest way to distrust God’s future promises is to forget his past blessings. In the Bible, God implores his people dozens of times to remember their history. The Scriptures themselves are nothing less than a record of God’s faithful undertakings. The frequent failures of his people to honor him or live up to his standards are attributed as much to their forgetfulness as to their moral weakness.

When I teach history courses in a Christian context, I normally start my classes with the observation that two very important Christian virtues, humility and gratitude, are nearly impossible to cultivate without any knowledge of history. Study of history inspires humility by helping us recognize that the world did not start with us, that nearly every idea or initiative we can dream up has antecedents or precedents, that efforts and sacrifices were made, battles fought, and lives lost to secure for us nearly every good thing we enjoy, and that vigilance is required to maintain those good things that are so easily and swiftly lost. Those who do not know history, and are thus prisoners of the present, default to pride in their own knowledge, creativity, and goodness. Lacking a longer yardstick by which to measure, they make moral judgments based on what feels right rather than what can be demonstrated to work and produce human thriving. Our particular historical moment in the West suggests that the absence of historical study and reflection has resulted in the tendency to make it up as we go along in the realm of moral reflection, and in the exaltation of the subjective. What is this but another definition of pride?

Gratitude is a learned trait that owes much to attentiveness to history. Knowledge of and reflection on history allows us to understand that our present circumstances are not an accident. We understand the agency of other people and, more importantly, of God. In fact we are a gift, of our creator and of our forebears, and like all gifts, it calls for thankfulness. If we do not know history, we can but compare ourselves to the ideal of how we believe the world should be. Such a comparison is likely to produce frustration and dissatisfaction. If we do understand history, we compare ourselves and our lives to the struggles of those who have gone before us. Such a comparison is likely to produce gratitude.

For those of us who are interested in best practices in evangelism and cross-cultural ministry, historical reflection is critical. Before settling on a course of action, the history of past efforts must be surveyed. Most of British, Baptist, pioneer missionary, William Carey’s groundbreaking “Enquiry” of 1792 that helped to launch the modern mission movement, was devoted to a recounting of missionary history up to that point. Yet, most books on ministry strategy today devote little or no time to the history of missions. Thus, without the benefit of historical reflection, we are left to ponder what sounds or feels right.

The study of history opens us up to fresh ideas and to serendipity. It is not that those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it (though there is truth in the old adage); it is that they do not have the privilege of repeating it. There is so much collective wisdom in the example of those who have gone before us. Many ideas that are new to us are only that: new to us. There are few things that are truly unprecedented. Reading of history is liberating: we are freed from the obligation to reinvent the wheel. We ignore history at our peril but are rewarded for our veneration of its lessons.

Nowhere is this more true than the mission context that I have studied most: China. In China, and indeed in all Confucian-influenced societies, arguments from history carry special weight. Where the Westerner might be impressed by the novelty of an idea, it is the antiquity of an idea that commends itself to the Chinese mind. The past is a repository of wisdom to be mined and full of examples to be emulated. It is an interest in historical continuity that has inspired some Chinese Christians to seek for connections between the biblical message and ancient China. To root the Christian message in an older narrative is to give it greater legitimacy. For Westerners, Christianity might be appealing if presented as something new. For Chinese, Christianity has more appeal if presented as something old and time honored.

For Christian strategists engaged in cross-cultural work, it is not only mission history that is important, but general history as well. To take just the example of China, there are many errors or misconceptions that Westerners make that lead to mistakes in practice. Many Westerners do not understand and, consequently, do not take seriously enough Chinese sensitivities about past imperialism and suspicions of neo-imperialism in the form of real or imagined Western meddling. To the Chinese mind, the wounds and humiliations of the imperial era, from the opium wars, the unequal treaties, the Boxer Rebellion, the Treaty of Versailles, etc. are catastrophic and recent. Therefore, presenting Christianity as an exciting new idea from the West, packaged in the English language and idiom, seems a strategic error at best.

In the West, the enterprise of history is the formulation of arguments about past events and their interpretations. Investigation into the facts of every event and period of history is encouraged, and even the most unlikely or offensive theories are entertained. Holocaust deniers can be granted tenure in a Western university. Very few pieces of the historical record are beyond further scrutiny and the admission of new interpretations. Western students of history may wrongly assume that this view of history is shared everywhere. It is not. For example, on any number of sensitive issues: the Rape of Nanjing, Taiwan, Tibet, some aspects of Communist Party history, and so on, there is one, and only one, set of facts and interpretation of those facts that can be admitted into the Chinese conversation about history. There are settled facts, and implications from those facts, that no serious scholar would revisit without danger to career or reputation.

This point was reinforced to me early in my career teaching history at the college level. One summer, I taught a seminar class for visiting Chinese students. In the course of my lecture, I offered a path to possible future friendly relations between the Chinese and the Japanese, while acknowledging the history of enmity between them and some of the historical events that caused it. One student stood up and politely, but firmly, announced that he knew that he spoke for everyone in the room when he said that he hated the Japanese and would never imagine or desire friendly relations with them. As far as I could tell, every head nodded in agreement. For the students, the facts and implications regarding Sino-Japanese history were settled once and for all. Westerners do not have to share the Chinese view of history or approach to its study, but it is important that they be aware of the differences if they seek to be winsome and effective witnesses to the truths of the Christian faith.

For Christian workers in, or interested in, a foreign field, the imperative to study history is heightened. It is not enough to observe what a people are like; it is necessary to understand the forces that shaped them. The inexplicable or distasteful aspects of another culture are often rendered more palatable by an understanding of history. The perspective of history makes cultural idiosyncrasies seem less idiosyncratic. Students of history recognize that while politics or technology may change rapidly, cultures evolve far more slowly. Superficial changes at the surface do not necessarily reflect a radically transformed culture. For example, those who visit Asia and observe a veneer of rapid Westernization make hasty conclusions about accompanying cultural change. Those who know the history recognize culture evolving at its own pace and direction, influenced by an array of historical factors. Knowledge of history helps us to process the things we see around us more responsibly.

Most importantly, as a foreigner working in an alien context, your willingness to learn the history of your field communicates a depth of interest in the people you are there to serve. While language acquisition, also important, signals a desire to communicate with a people, a knowledge of history indicates a desire to understand them. It is hard not to grow in compassion and respect for those you have endeavored to understand at a deeper level. All humans share a common desire to be known and understood. Understanding is essential in the cross-cultural Christian ministry, especially as we consider the lengths to which our God of mission went to be understood by us.

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Brent Whitefield

Brent Whitefield

Brent Whitefield is pastor of missions and outreach at Northpoint Evangelical Free Church in Corona, California. His work takes him to Asia several times a year. 'He has taught East Asian history and Communication Arts (Valparaiso University, Biola University, California Baptist University) for sixteen years.      View Full Bio