Stuck in the Present: How History Frees & Forms Christians, David George Moore (Foreword by Carl R. Trueman). Abilene, TX: Leafwood Publishers, 2021.
Summary: A discussion of the value of reading history for the Christian, better equipping us not only to understand our past but to engage our present, and how to make the most of what we learn.
“There is no truth in history.” “You can’t trust anyone who writes history.” I’ve seen comments like this in social media, as well as in some commentary. In part, I understand the comments. I’ve read “historical” accounts that are selective, cherry-picking facts that support whatever they are asserting, while ignoring other facts that weaken their case. But I also love history and have read a lot of it. And I can point to careful historians who don’t leave things out and form their conclusions on the basis of facts and primary sources. I learn from them, and when I see present day parallels, I can discern more of the implications facing us. Seeing what happened when an archduke was assassinated in Central Europe, triggering the events of World War I, I see how fraught “incursions” on Ukraine’s sovereignty could be.
David George Moore, in this highly readable account, makes the case for the benefits to Christians of reading history, and how we may do so discerningly. He contends that due to our disdain for history, many of us are stuck in the present, impoverished of the longer view that gives us a breadth of perspective from which to assess present events. He begins though for arguing that we end the divide between head and heart– that we both invest in the hard work of learning history (head) and do so that we might more fully love God and others (heart). The hard involves concentration, a willingness to weigh different viewpoints, including those we might dissent from, and may often be motivated by our passion for cogent witness. He contends that learning is spiritual, ongoing, practical, and can be painful when it requires change of us. It is relentlessly curious.
He goes on to argue that the past is not the past. He contends that Christians, of all people, ought get this idea. The events of the death and resurrection of Jesus set in motion a chain of events that stretches over 2000 years and shape the very form of our lives and worship, and even many of our church buildings. Often, the study of history reveals our own cultural blind spots. History explains how we got here and gives us a shared memory and heritage, a profound resource at times of difference and a source of hope.
He then tackles the question of what we can know of the past. He observes that the past may sometimes be easier to study than the present–it is easier to distinguish the important from the trivial. He outlines how one may distinguish good from shoddy historical scholarship–the thorough consideration of all relevant primary sources, the balanced discussion of different viewpoints, the judiciously reached conclusions that don’t go beyond or contrary to sources. He argues that these practices, while distinctive from scientific methods, demonstrate the possibility of historical work not hopelessly mired in subjectivity.
He concludes with the dispositions necessary for productive learning–humility, honesty about our sin, remembering only God is omniscient, and listening well. He contends for four practices he calls Moore’s Maxims when dealing with important and controversial matters:
- Be sure that we have properly understood the other’s position.
- Be certain that we understand our own position.
- Recognize that we may give our positions more importance than they deserve, that we may differ over matters of secondary importance that we may just agree to disagree on.
- Always strive to communicate with grace.
He concludes by commending the three virtues of holiness, humility and humor, especially the ability to laugh at ourselves.
Moore’s discussion is punctuated by application sections titled “Benefits to your ministry.” This should not be taken as just for pastors since all of us are called to serve (or minister on behalf of) the Lord. His argument is one relevant to every Christian and leaves us better equipped to engage. How I wish, for example, that our present day American church had learned the lessons that run from Constantine to the present about how the church was always seriously weakened in terms of spiritual power when it entwined itself with state power.
The work includes two appendices. The first consists of three interviews that offer case studies of the value of reading history with Robert Tracy McKenzie on the First Thanksgiving, Jemar Tisby on the American church and race, and James McPherson on the Civil War. The second was of interest, raising some concerns over the “Inductive Method.” He grounds his discussion in both the other approaches used to engage scripture in the church’s history and the inductive method being grounded in Common Sense Realism. I found it curious that his objection to inductive study might equally be applied to his defense of historical research. In truth, neither are totally detached and objective–but that doesn’t mean that either is necessarily mired in subjectivity. The checks of humility, of checking our understanding against received tradition, of the danger of forced applications are well taken.
I was surprised here at the absence of any reference in the text or notes to Robert A. Traina, whose Methodical Bible Study was the Bible of Inductive study, and whose instruction at Biblical Seminary in New York was influential upon many who taught this method (including the reviewer, through one of his students). Traina would probably readily concur with his concerns but argue that careful textual study, rooted first in observation, is the counterpart to the good historiography Moore upholds in other parts of this work and addresses his concerns.
That quibble aside, this is a readable, engaging, and vital argument for the importance of reading and knowing history. The suggested reading points the reader to more resources making this case and exemplifying good historiography. While Moore makes a serious case for reading history, it is also evident that he, as have I, have discovered the rich enjoyment awaiting the reader as they delve into good works of history. I hope that will be the case for many (and I hope it is many) who read his book!
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.