Timothy Larsen: Why is history important for Christian leadership?

Pop culture may be obsessed with the pope’s red shoes, but Christian leaders can’t live entirely in the present. Christians should move toward the future without letting go of the past.

A friend who, like me, is an academic recently confided that he did not know what to make of his therapist’s suggestion to “stop intellectualizing.” He is a philosopher. What would it mean to take this advice?

Likewise, I occasionally get chided by friends and relations for “living in the past.” As a historian, I’m never quite sure how to respond.

I have facetiously imagined doing one of those eccentric projects the purpose of which is to write a best-selling book. It would be “My Year of Living in the Present.” I would listen only to music recorded that very year, wear only the latest fashions, watch only newly released films, be a first adopter of all new technological innovations and so on.

But, of course, I would never be able to stand this for an entire year, so I would have to find a publisher who would let me get away with “My Summer of Living in the Present” or, better still, “My Month of Living in the Present.” Even then, it would be a doomed project. The book would inevitably turn into a long, reactionary rant: “I can’t believe people listen to this music when they could download Duke Ellington!”

What my imaginary literary agent would want -- indeed, the key to turning it into a best-seller and making us lots of money -- would be a self-deprecating tale of an inept, clueless, stuffy history professor learning to let down his hair and enjoy the pleasures of contemporary popular culture. (I can imagine the reviewer on Salon writing, “I adored that moment when he frantically tweeted his prediction of the season-finale twist of ‘Trophy Husbands’!”).

Maybe my philosopher friend does intellectualize too much. But your average undergraduate needs to learn from him to think more analytically about his or her concerns. Likewise, while I might need to curb a certain pernicious tendency toward nostalgia, I contend that most people today need to take more care to value, understand and preserve the resources of the past.

The philosopher of technology Albert Borgmann once wrote a critique of the negative effects of our virtual world called “Holding On to Reality.” Someone ought to write a companion piece called “Holding On to the Past.”

Christians in particular have a stake in creating a culture that knows how to move toward the future without letting go of the past. Christianity, after all, is sometimes referred to as a “historical religion” for a reason. Disdaining and dismissing history will not make sustaining the faith and passing it on to the next generation any easier.

The present is a very thin place. This moment in history is the best in which to live -- I believe this with all my mind and heart. But it is the best time in which to live precisely because we have the riches of the past to hand: the thoughts, works of art, discoveries and accomplishments of previous generations are ours to enjoy. And their mistakes, blind spots and sinful patterns are there for us to learn from. To reject those riches is to turn the present into an impoverished place.

To take just one example of our tilt toward presentism: When the college where I work started a “One Book” program, we were told that one of the aims of the program would be to bring the author to campus to discuss the book. I gently pointed out that Plato, Homer, Augustine, Dante, Shakespeare and Austen might not be available. But we live in a society in which many people read only books written by their contemporaries.

It is not in the interest of Christian leaders to pander to this tendency toward a thin presentism. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the gospel is called “the old, old story” for a reason.

Currently, some Christians have been rejoicing that “The Bible” is a hit show on the History channel. What is no less telling, however, is that even the History channel has had to survive by moving toward presentism with shows about contemporary occupations, such as “PawnStars,” “AxMen” and “IceRoadTruckers.”

Perhaps far from being a healthy sign, the popularity of “The Bible” marks the point at which many people are no longer able to read and understand the Scriptures, although they are still able to watch a dramatization of them. The more our culture is cut off from the past, the more people are going to find the Bible bewildering.

Christian leaders are often concerned that the church will appear out of date or stuck in the past. Admittedly, it is irritating how quickly lazy media gravitate toward this angle on almost any news story about Christianity.

The papal succession has been the biggest religious news story of the year, but it was bizarre to witness how news outlet after news outlet decided to do a feature on the pope’s red shoes. (A list of venues making sure that this was a path well-trod includes New York magazine, NPR, The Washington Post, Reuters, USA Today, The New York Review of Books, NBC, Esquire and The Huffington Post.) This foot fetish seems to have been driven at least partially by an implicit assumption that an institution ought not to be trusted that obstinately refuses to keep in step, as it were, with the latest fashions in footwear.

Nevertheless, maybe Christian leaders should be less desperate to defy this media stereotype. Perhaps we should just stoically endure being accused of dressing in last season’s color scheme or other such crimes against the present. Maybe our greater concern should be helping to sustain a culture that can still value the resources of the past so that people can learn to make sense of their lives in the light of redemptive history.

Surely, this too is part of what it means to walk in the shoes of the fisherman.