According to recent surveys of college students, about half were raised attending church “regularly” or “semi-regularly,” yet more than 85% are functionally illiterate when it comes to the Bible and 95% have virtually no understanding of Christian history. Among college graduates who are church members, about 85% are clueless regarding the origins of their own particular church and/or denomination. And even among relatively well-educated and active church members, relatively few know much about Christian history between the close of the New Testament and the present other than perhaps a few random facts related to the Crusades, the Inquisition, or the Reformation.
As a history professor, I’m not surprised by these findings. Over the years I have observed that the level of religious cultural literacy in American society is pitifully low. Even among those who were raised in Christian families and grew up attending church regularly, most evince only a superficial understanding of the Bible and even less concerning basic Christian theology, Christian apologetics, or church history.
Ignorance may be blissful, but it’s never impressive, and in the realm of religious faith it has serious consequences. Those who never invest the time and effort to study their faith in depth have no real basis for their beliefs other than their own subjective experience or the word of a trusted authority figure. Rightly or wrongly, people tend not to take us seriously if they can’t respect us intellectually, and many Christians who sincerely desire to witness for Christ find that their testimony is ineffectual because they can’t handle the tough questions posed by skeptics. Unfortunately, not only is their own testimony affected, but the integrity of the Christian faith in general is called into question.
There’s no question that many people who have an aversion to history or most anything else “intellectual” live lives that are just as happy and contented as those who are life-long learners. So is there any intrinsic value in history? Is a knowledge and understanding of the past – and Christian history in particular – mainly for those who happen to have antiquarian interests and nothing better to do with their time? After all, it doesn’t really translate into dollars. So other than improving one’s performance in Trivia Pursuit, what exactly is the point in studying history?
Many would argue that there is no point since history has no meaning. Henry Ford dismissed it as “bunk,” Nietzsche called it “the belief in falsehood,” and Voltaire declared that “History is but a pack of tricks we play on the dead.” In the best selling novel, The Da Vinci Code, one of the main characters (no doubt speaking for the author) asserts confidently, “What is history but a fable agreed upon?” Ironically, many contemporary historians essentially agree. Few college and university professors would argue that history is anything but a random sequence of events with no ultimate purpose or design. Some prominent historians in recent years have even questioned the relevance of studying the past. Furthermore, we’re often reminded that “history is written by the winners,” so can we even trust it?
Certainly, if the hedonistic ideal were true – if the purpose of life were mainly to maximize pleasure – I’m not sure that history would have much to offer. But what if life actually has meaning and purpose? – Christians purport to believe that it does. Then the past might be of some help and value. It might even hold the key for making sense of the present. Fifty years before Christ, the Roman statesman Cicero said something rather profound about historical consciousness:
To be ignorant of what has happened
before your birth is to always remain a
child. For what is the meaning of one’s
life unless it is integrated with that of our ancestors by history?1 Cicero understood what all the great thinkers have realized: Those who live shallow, ego-centered lives disconnected from the broader currents of existence will always be, intellectually-speaking, immature children. The wise access the collective knowledge of the ages and learn from it so as to enrich their own life experience. To do otherwise is abject foolishness.