Sunday, May 9, 2010

When History Becomes Personal

I became a “buff” of history about 15 years ago when I did a long and personal study of western civ. I know this was covered in high school and college . . . but I think I slept though that because I was too dumb to know how important it was.

Don’t take me wrong. I’m not any kind of expert now on any part of history, but I’m the guy sitting at the expert’s feet soaking it all in.

But it is my view that history, even events decades ago or centuries ago, can have a profound effect on how we think and live. One obvious example, in my personal life, is that Adolph Hitler had a profound influence on me. I was born long after WWII was over. However, one facet of had that influence came about, was through my dad. He went to Normandy because of Hitler. He came back as a shell of a man that he once was (per the people who knew him before and after). My dad of course had a major impact on my early life. But that example is blatant.

I've quoted before the late Francis Schaeffer who use to say in his lectures, "History isn't junk. It is going some place. Cause does have an effect."

I do believe that it is the dualistic way of thinking within Evangelicalism (if it is not spiritual, then it is not important), which drives us to ignore history for most part. But of course historical ignorance is not just an ailment of Christians. I think there is this psychological phenomenon where we think our generation and our culture is at the center of the universe and none other matters. I'm sure there is a better term but I call it "gener-centricism." I know that I've talked to my sons, those in their 20s, and they are confident that they have all the answers.

Part of my interest in history recently became personal. Unlike my wife’s family, who has photos of generations going back to the first immigrants on their wall sitting on horses and buggies, my family’s history has been far more obscure. The reasons are the hard times which my own parents had to endure. Both grew up in the “Grapes of Wrath” type of experience of the depression (but they never moved west to pick crops). Also my dad lost almost his entire family due to TB when he was but a kid. So there wasn’t a lot of resources to us use to track family history. My mom grew up in an abusive, poor, Bible-bet Baptist family. I don’t think she had a lot of motivation to keep track of all her cruel relatives either.

But recently I was staying with my sister in Florida and she showed me a box of family history stuff, bits and pieces that she had accumulated over the years. It was scant, especially on my dad’s side. We had a couple of names, but beyond that, it was a mystery.

I had the feeling that with today’s Internet connections things could be different. I became obsessed over the last two weeks. So far I’ve track my mother’s relatives as far back as the fifteenth century. After looking over old census sheets and courthouse documents on line, I’ve finally found my great grand father. But I have also tracked down my great, great grand father and my great, great, great grand father, which takes me back to rural North Carolina when it was still a colony.

But woven into those names and dates have been many stories and I only wish I knew them better. Some of those stories seemed to have a dark-side, if not bizarre.

I’ve heard many Evangelicals claim that we are living in the last days because the western world had always been this Christian utopia, and now, since the Beatles and the 60s, has collapsed into the pre- apocalyptic scenario that we are in now. I have a different view. I think the world is getter better. Now it is really hard to do the total injustice anywhere, without everyone knowing about it. The stories of history are full of terrible brutality (btw I’m almost finished with The Tale of Two Cities and am intimate with the guillotine, “the national razor of France” as of late).

So, within the secret pockets and curled seams of my family (like anyone’s family) lie some interesting things. For one, my youngest uncle, ten years younger that the next oldest of 6 siblings, was really my aunt's baby. He was born when she was about 14 or 15 (out of "wed-lock" of course) and her mother, my grand mother, quickly claimed the baby as her own.

Then there was my great aunt. She never married until she was 54. She married a 16 year old BOY. My aunt, who is still living remembers the story well, tells me that this lady drove the boy mad . . . until he killed himself in a car. An we thought Mary Kay Letourneau invented such things.

There are many more stories probably even more interesting that I will never know. Like the quote I shared from Dickens a few weeks ago, we are each a book and the book is loaded with this giant spring that slams it shut after a brief peak. But I think the books are easier to open in this generation than those in the past . . . and that gives me hope.

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