Tag Archives: history

Despising Victorian Culture

John Singer Sargent - The Rialto, Venice (1911)

Michael Lewis writes about “the irrational hatred of the Victorian era” prevalent not long ago.

To understand how Sargent, one of the most brilliant painters in American history, was once derided as a mere facile courtier now requires an act of historical imagination. For it has been forgotten just how thoroughly Victorian painting had been once banished from the cultural conversation. And not merely painting, but architecture, sculpture, and the decorative arts; all of Victorian culture, in fact. This state of affairs lasted through the heyday of the modern movement, from the end of World War I into the 1960s, and it would not end until a rising generation became curious about Victorian art precisely because it was despised and forbidden…

Today Is Yesterday Rolled Up

Today Is Yesterday Rolled Up

“It is a mistake to think that the past is dead. Nothing that has ever happened is quite without influence at this moment. The present is merely the past rolled up and concentrated in this second of time. You, too, are your past; often your face is your autobiography; you are what you are because of what you have been; because of your heredity stretching back into forgotten generations; because of every element of environment that has affected you, every man or woman that has met you, every book that you have read, every experience that you have had; all these are accumulated in your memory, your body, your character, your soul. So with a city, a country, a race; it is its past, and cannot be understood without it. It is the present, not the past, that dies; this present moment, to which we give so much attention, is forever flitting from our eyes and fingers into that pedestal and matrix of our lives which we call the past. It is only the past that lives.”

— Will Durant, “The Map of Human Character

How Christmas Grew Up in America

Going to church on Christmas Eve - a 1911 vintage Xmas card illustration
Penne Restad of the University of Texas in Austin and the author of Christmas in America describes how the celebration of Christmas in the United States began to come together in the 1850s.

The swirl of change caused many to long for an earlier time, one in which they imagined that old and good values held sway in cohesive and peaceful communities. It also made them reconsider the notion of ‘community’ in larger terms, on a national scale, but modelled on the ideal of a family gathered at the hearth. At this cross-roads of progress and nostalgia, Americans found in Christmas a holiday that ministered to their needs. The many Christmases celebrated across the land began to resolve into a more singular and widely celebrated home holiday. . . .

The ‘American’ holiday enveloped the often contradictory strains of commercialism and artisanship, as well as nostalgia and faith in progress, that defined late nineteenth-century culture. Its relative lack of theological or Biblical authority – what had made it anathema to the Puritans – ironically allowed Christmas to emerge as a highly ecumenical event in a land of pluralism. It became a moment of idealized national self-definition.

1386: Chaucer’s Chaotic Year

The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, Now Newly ImprintedJeff Strowe tells us, “If Chaucer were alive today, he’d be on the front page of ‘US Weekly.'” His marriage was strained by personality and circumstance. His employment was tedious. His world was remarkably unclean and violent, which isn’t what many people imagine when thinking back to 1386. Strowe pulls these details from Paul Strohm’s new book, Chaucer’s Tale: 1386 and the Road to Canterbury.

The best parts of Strohm’s book deal with the byzantine intricacies and flat-out craziness of life in the 14th Century. Primitive sanitation practices caused awful putrid smells to waft upwards, baking residents of Chaucer’s neighborhood with a daylong, unceasing stench that, despite its’ unceasing presence, undoubtedly caused constant suffering by those caught in the down and upwind paths. Several hundred feet away also laid forth the severed heads of various vagrants, thieves, traitors, and “enemies” of the King.

There’s also some time spent on his literary efforts, though they don’t make up the bulk of the book.

Making an Idol of American Exceptionalism

Nathan Finn summaries his Facebook friends’ political banter like this: “America is a Christian nation, we have lost our spiritual moorings, and political liberals are mostly to blame—but if we elect the right politically conservative (or perhaps libertarian) candidate, he or she (probably the former) will restore America’s greatness and perhaps usher in another Great Awakening.”

This, he says, is a false gospel. Believers are not called to make America great, but to expand the kingdom of Christ. We aren’t called to political action so much as we’re called to evangelicalism.

Finn writes to review what looks like a great book from John Wilsey,  American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea. If we take the idea of American Exceptionalism to the extend described above, we have politicized the gospel, rendering to Caesar what should be rendered to God alone.

This is the idea I was getting at back when I asked this question, “How would your perspective change if you became convinced the United States was not founded as a Christian nation?

Blasphemy, Prayer, and Vikings

  1. Why you never question Allah: Islam’s trouble with blasphemy. This points out the shallowness of Islamic teaching. Their god supposedly knows everything, but if you don’t keep your nice face on, he’ll hammer you. Of course, it appears he will hammer you for just about anything, which is a theological perspective not unique to Islam.
  2. In the United Kingdom, an video intended to play among the trailers in front of the new Star Wars movie encourages viewers to seek the Lord in prayer using The Lord’s Prayer specifically. It has been pulled from the schedule because it could offend someone, which Andrew Wilson says is precisely what it should be doing. There is, after all, only one true God.
  3. St Helen’s Church in Eston, Middlesbrough, has suffered vandalism for years. It’s now being rebuilt, brick by brick, forty miles north in County Durham.
  4. Twenty-five things we’ve forgotten about vikings.
    (Last two links via Medieval News)

The Most Evangelical Founding Father

Thomas Kidd, who has written on Patrick Henry and George Whitefield and is writing on Benjamin Franklin, offers this glimpse into the life of one of the lesser known founders of America.

Perhaps the most evangelical of all the Founding Fathers, however, is one whom few Americans recall today: Elias Boudinot. Baptized as an infant in Philadelphia by the great evangelist George Whitefield, Boudinot embraced and defended evangelical principles throughout his prominent career as a Patriot in New Jersey and U.S. government official.

Japan, Most Haunted

When Lafcadio Hearn stepped onto the shores of Japan in 1890, he began writing ghost stories. On assignment from Harper’s Magazine, Hearn was charged to explore and explain this undiscovered country to eager Americans. That his answer was to write about Japan’s spirits should have surprised no one; Hearn had a predilection for the macabre and uncanny. But while a previous sojourn in New Orleans had supplied him with ore for his imagination, in his new home he struck the mother lode. Japan is the most haunted country on Earth.

Most people know that Japan is particularly good at ghost stories. As they should be; they have been working at it for some time. Theater, literature, art, or film—Japan’s storytelling is inherently haunted. Indeed, a history of Japanese literature is a history of ghost stories.

Stirring Puritan Sympathies

Micah Mattix reviews a book that explores the passions and brotherly love of that group of people popularly slandered as being close-minded and stern.

Preaching on 1 Peter 3:8, Nicholas Byfield remarked, “The doctrine is cleer. That we ought to have a sympathie one towards another.” Robert Bolton urged his readers to “make conscience” their sympathy. Puritan sermons often aimed at stirring the holy affections of congregants, and Van Engen writes,

The imaginative work of sympathy, furthermore, constituted its own distinct practice. Puritan ministers instructed their parishioners to pray for others and provide physical aid, but before they acted, they had to be moved.

This helps explain why the Puritans, contrary to popular belief, were so expressive. When his wife was dying, John Winthrop was “weeping so bitterly,” Van Engen writes, “she asked him to stop” because (in her words) “you breake mine heart with your grievings.” When the Puritans fled England, and British soldiers separated children from their parents, William Bradford wrote that there was “weeping and crying on every side.” Anne Bradstreet regularly refers to her “troubled heart,” “sorrows,” “cares,” “fears,” and “joy” in her poetry. One of the most popular poems of the early colony was Michael Wigglesworth’s “The Day of Doom” (1662), in which he imagines the “weeping” and wailing of sinners but also the singing and “great joy” of God’s elect at Christ’s second coming. Van Engen writes that each instance of “tears and grieving, melting and weeping, pity and sympathy” in Puritan texts fits within “a broad tradition of Puritan fellow feeling.”

Author Abram C. Van Engen reveals these and other events in his book Sympathetic Puritans: Calvinist Fellow Feeling in Early New England. He touches on theological controversies and the witch trials, saying there are elements of Christian charity in all of Puritan life.

Speaking of early America, Mark David Hall criticizes a book on the religious mindset of the founding fathers. Were they a group of “pious, orthodox believers who sought to establish a Christian nation” or were they “Enlightenment deists who created a secular republic that strictly separated church and state”? Were they rational men who were strongly influenced by Christianity? Hall notes some good and bad points in Steven Green’s book Inventing a Christian America. (via Prufrock)

Hey Pilgrim

For ISIS, Past Is Present

Robert R. Reilly explains the irrationality of ISIS. He says there were two schools of thought at one time, and the irrational one won out.

Islamists do not live in what we might call historical time. Recall that for them the Qur’an is an ahistorical document. It exists in eternity. Also keep in mind that Ash’arite metaphysics guts historical time of its narrative meaning: time is a succession of unrelated events. ISIS adherents live in sacred time, which is static. In sacred time, everything is present all at once. This is why Islamists refer to Westerners in their literature as “Romans,” which is what seventh-century Muslim warriors called their Byzantine opponents. They are not being quaint. The past is present to them; that is why they must smash it if it does not conform to their beliefs.Ahistory fights history. This is why the Coptic Christians were faced north across the Mediterranean toward Rome when their throats were cut, as a warning that ISIS would next conquer Rome as Muslims once took Constantinople.

Memory for the Willfully Forgetful

Memory is dangerous in a country that was built to function on national amnesia. A single act of public remembrance might expose the frailty of the state’s carefully constructed edifice of accepted history, scaffolded in place over a generation and kept aloft by a brittle structure of strict censorship, blatant falsehood and wilful forgetting. That’s why a five-foot-tall, 76-year-old grandmother poses enough of a threat that an escort of state security agents, at time as many as 40 strong, has trailed her to the vegetable market and the dentist.

Louisa Lim has released a book she didn’t want to write: The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited. How did China systematically forget what happened June 4, 1989, in Tiananmen Square?

When Preaching the Gospel Was Considered Trouble-making

John MacArthur was talking about forty years of ministry back in 2009 and he shared some details about his ministry after seminary. From the transcript:

Well in the purposes of God [Dr. John M. Perkins] returned to Mississippi to a little town called Mendenhall, and Mendenhall, Mississippi, south of Jackson, and he started a ministry there. He started a school there. He started a church. Started a little co-op for people to buy things and really helped that little community of Mendenhall. This was right at the time when the Civil Rights Movement really exploded, and John asked me if I would come to Mississippi and if I would preach, if I would go out to the black high schools which were totally segregated and always on the other side of town, and if I would preach and do some gospel ministry in these high schools around Mississippi. So I said, “Absolutely, I’d love to do that.”

Got a few friends, in those days I used to sing a little. And we would do a little bit of singing together. And then I would preach and I had an absolutely wonderful time. I can’t remember how many years, I think I went down there for a period of about five years, going down and spending a pro-longed period of time. I lived with John and Vera Mae in their house, very interesting to live at that time in the home of black people in the south and to be treated the way they were treated, to be refused meals at a restaurant that I would go to because they knew who I was associating with.

It was so tense there. There was a friend of John’s who was a custodian in the First Baptist Church in Mendenhall which is a white church. This custodian loved Christ and he built a friendship with the pastor at the church, even though he couldn’t attend the church. The pastor started a Bible study with him on a regular basis and the church leaders told him he had to stop that. He said, “I can’t.” And the circumstances became so overbearing on him, he had problems in the community, in the town and getting gas and things like that. He had a nervous breakdown. They took him to Jackson. Put him in a hospital room and he dove out of the window, the third floor, and killed himself. That’s how intense that was.

Later on, he said he was arrested for fomenting trouble by preaching the gospel in high schools. That wasn’t nearly as bad as what Dr. Perkins’ suffered.

If you’re unfamiliar with Dr. Perkins, he spoke at the 2015 ERLC Leadership Summit in April on “The Gospel and Racial Reconciliation” on the Civil Rights Movement after 50 Years. He’s a good man. I’ve heard him many times on a radio program with Michael Card, musician and Bible teacher, and I recently listened to a seminar series from Covenant Theological Seminary which led with a couple sermons by Dr. Perkins.

The trouble-making is still here, but the church must not continue to hold to a politicized view of the gospel that ridicules the black experience in America and justifies past sins. The gospel is reconciliation across all barriers. “Segregation and discrimination are almost witchcraft,” Dr. Perkins says in the video below. It’s forbidden in the Bible we hold dear.

“We’re at a pivot place in the history of the church,” Dr. Perkins says. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. . . . This is a conversation we need. We’re going to leave here and go to our homes and talk about the past, but forgiveness takes care of that.”

Racism Fails to See Human Beings as Human

Slaves
Margaret Biser, who has led historical tours at a Southern house and plantation for years. She writes about the questions she received, such as whether the slaves appreciated the good treatment they received or whether being a house slave instead of a field hand was a cushy life.

Why did her guests continue to ask questions ignorant or opposed to the history she presented? Inaccurate education for many. Apathy for some.

“In many other cases, however, justifications of slavery seemed primarily like an attempt by white Americans to avoid feelings of guilt for the past. After all, for many people, beliefs about one’s ancestors reflect one’s beliefs about oneself. We don’t want our ancestors to have done bad things because we don’t want to think of ourselves as being bad people. These slavery apologists were less invested in defending slavery per se than in defending slaveowners, and they weren’t defending slaveowners so much as themselves.”

This is how I understand the KKK began. You could call it a failure of believers to reach poor white members in neighboring small towns with the full gospel, but however you want to think about, people who felt rejected by their community turned their bitterness against blacks, an easy target. And some carry on that legacy today, both directly as members of the Klan and indirectly when they argue that #BlackLivesMatter is not as strong as #AllLivesMatter, missing the point that black lives are the ones still longing for respect.

“Addressing racism,” Biser writes, “isn’t just about correcting erroneous beliefs — it’s about making people see the humanity in others.” But with dehumanization active all around us today, we should wake up to the fact that we won’t learn this lesson without the gospel fully applied. Some of us haven’t learned it even with the gospel.