On a recent visit to Southern California, Corina and I spent an afternoon strolling down the Hollywood Walk of Fame. We recognized many of the names on the sidewalk and took pictures next to the stars left in honor of our favorite singers and bands, actors and actresses.
We admired the pillars in the foyer of the Dolby Theater, with plaques from floor to ceiling offering tribute to every Oscar-winning movie of the year since 1928. We stopped by the courtyard of Grauman’s Chinese Theater to look for the handprints and footprints of beloved movie stars going all the way back to the 1930s. I took a picture of John Wayne’s footprints and sent it to our 10-year-old daughter, to let her know the slab wasn’t loose and, sadly, I couldn’t bring it home as a souvenir. (If you’re an I Love Lucy fan, you’ll get that reference.)
What struck me about the time we spent in Hollywood is how much this little city cares about its history and wants tourists to feel a connection with its “legends.” Everything about the experience ushers the visitor into a grand, unfolding story that highlights the best of the best. The rituals and liturgies of Hollywood’s award ceremonies foster a certain atmosphere where an enduring legacy enfolds stars past and present, lifting up a “greatness” intended to inspire fans and artists.
After our visit, one question niggled at the back of my mind: How many Christians know the names and stories of countless Hollywood stars but remain unaware of the most important people and stories in church history? Hollywood cares about its history. Does the church?
Need for Rootedness
Trees that stand firm through winds and storms are those with the deepest and healthiest root systems. If the next generation is to be faithful to the cause of Christ, our roots must go deep. We need to know our history.
We start with our Bibles, taking note of the heroes described there, learning from their example—avoiding their vices and emulating their virtues—while seeing how they point us to Jesus. The Bible gives us history, often repeating particular accounts (see the parallels between Chronicles and Kings) and returning to important characters and events in prophetic writings and praise songs. The New Testament authors grounded their accounts and counsel in Old Testament writings, appealing to specific Scriptures and referencing famous characters in order to make a point. Following the example of the New Testament authors, we should see our history as an indispensable source of wisdom leading us into the future.
Impediments to the Backward Glance
Stefana Dan Laing’s recent book, Retrieving History: Memory and Identity Formation in the Early Church, lists three “impediments to the backward glance”—reasons why Christians may be less inclined to give attention to church history.
1. Individualistic Emphasis
Laing believes free-church denominations and non-denominational churches often fail to appreciate the global nature of the body of Christ due to an overemphasis on local church autonomy and an individualistic understanding of salvation. Laing herself writes from the free-church tradition and promotes the evangelical understanding of personal salvation. But she sees the tendency in her own circles to miss out on “a more robust focus on the body of Christ as the ‘redeemed of all the ages’ and the ‘cloud of witnesses.’”
2. Biblical Illiteracy
The decline in biblical literacy in our day, even among churchgoers, leaves us with a diminished sense of historical continuity that stretches back in time. If many Christians are unaware of the Bible’s major events and characters, we can’t be surprised when they fail to know about the faithful witnesses throughout church history. Biblical illiteracy harms the horizontal perspective of seeing ourselves as part of the “communion of the saints.”
3. Devaluing of History
It’s not just the church. Laing points to the sense among many in the academy that history is merely “a theoretical, impractical discipline, whose relevance is easily outstripped by the concerns of living and working in the world” (9). We could add here the troubling trend of appealing to history only as a way of making a political or ideological point in the present.
To Laing’s list of “impediments to the backward glance” I’d add one more—the consumerist mindset of our society and the evanescence of social media. Our rituals and habits form us into people who are easily distracted by whatever is “trending.” Our attachments are fleeting, and our attention is directed toward the anticipation of whatever is coming next. We have little patience for the past, except to enjoy bits of nostalgia here and there.
We Need History
The church needs church history. How sad for Christians to know more about the history of the greats in their favorite sport, or in the entertainment world, or in politics, but not know the stories of Christians who have passed on to us the legacy of faith we now must steward!
In order to stand firm and flourish in the coming decades, Christians must cultivate the confidence that comes from knowing we are part of something much bigger than anything Hollywood could dream up. We belong to a people whose faithfulness and flaws stretch back to the times of the Bible and beyond.