“You’ll be happy that I’m taking these pictures!” My mom whips out her camera whenever the family is together. And I am grateful that she has been so insistent over all these years. Mom makes her own greeting cards, always with a print of a picture she has taken. My study has many of the mementos mom has sent over the years for any celebratory day you could recount.
Every family has a story, and every member’s story is worth preserving–certainly for the living family even more so for future generations. Experiencing history through the lens of another person’s life can offer unexpected insight into your own. It gets you to think: What sort of mark will I make? How will I be remembered? . . . Annie Dillard tells of a note found in Michelangelo’s studio after he died. . . . Scribbled by the elderly artist to an apprentice, it reads: ‘Draw, Antonio, draw, Antonio, draw and do not waste time.’
Jay Leno’s tenure on The Tonight Show may be over, but his brand of humor—showing us American’s how much we don’t know about the past—will resonate for some time. Man-on-the-street-interviews asking low-level questions (i.e., “Who was our nation’s first president?” or “Who wrote the Ten Commandments?”) would find Jay in his hunched over giggle pose after hearing absurd answers to easy queries. Head shaking aside, our collective historical amnesia may suggest a more serious dilemma. Can a family, a nation, a social group, or a church have a future without a past? Is it possible to say why we exist without remembering why?
The 2008 Bradley Project on America’s National Identity should sound alarms across America’s schoolrooms. The general tenor of “blame the U.S.” or dwelling on national sins is a drumbeat heard throughout educational corridors. So the report maintains
Schools should not slight their civic mission by giving students the impression that America’s failures are more noteworthy than America’s achievements. They should begin with the study of America’s great ideals, heroes, and achievements, so that its struggles can be put in perspective. A broad-minded, balanced approach to the American story best prepares young people for informed democratic participation. . . . The teaching of American history should be strengthened by including more compelling narratives and primary texts, such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the great speeches and debates.
There is a reason why Cubans, for instance, have attempted the treacherous 90 mile journey to Miami, Florida in small water craft over the past half century. The choice is between freedom in America and continued repression under Castro’s communism on their island country. In our own land, to the media’s shame, we are not allowed to see the events of 9-11 consistently replayed on our television screens, reminding us we are at war with an enemy who wants our destruction. To consciously forget the past is to give no purpose for the present.
The Church, too, is at risk in every generation if it fails to teach its own history. The decline of mainline Protestantism, can be seen in the microcosm of The Episcopal Church. Falls Church in Falls Church, VA has recently seceded from denominational headquarters in the west, instead, allying itself with the more conservative Nigerian Episcopalian conference on the African continent. Why? In large measure, Episcopalian leadership in The West gives little foundation for their faith. Gone is a literal Genesis, a physical Incarnation, or historical resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Without documentation establishing past roots, little interest can be generated in future responsibility.
Alzheimer’s disease robs one’s mind of the past. However, neither this debilitating neurological condition, nor amnesia, nor a simple “lapse” defines the biblical basis for memory loss. The Hebrew word shakah tells us that forgetting God is an act of rebellion, an ethical choice to ignore. Christians who remember, celebrate, and teach the past give renewed credence to the reliability, authenticity, and authority of history.
Three times in Deuteronomy 8:11-20 God’s people are commanded not to ignore their Maker. Implied in the passage is the process of “forgetting God”: apathy, leads to pride, ultimately resulting in idolatry. “Being too full of oneself” begins the downward slide of disregarding the Almighty which seems to take very little time. Ezekiel 16:43-63 explains the outcomes of the active choice of memory deficiency, one of which is the need to fear others.
I often tell audiences “everyone bows the knee to someone.” James 1:25 explains that one antidote to forgetfulness is activity. The Sabbath is a “sign” practiced now through community celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. Feasts, stones, tassels, table tops, and repositories for Scripture were the premise for active reminders through monuments, holidays, and medallions. We “make” history live again by singing, pledging, bowing, eating, and drinking with gratefulness to God for who He is and what He has done.
Since people deliberately forget, we have to be reminded not to forget. So, the apostle Peter says, we must “recall the words,” getting people to remember for themselves. Vigen Guroian stresses the importance of teachers to ensure collective memory is passed on, renewed by each successive generation. Explaining to classroom children why we have “days off” solidifies the reason for any season again and again. Community commitment to the past reminds us it’s not about us, but it is up to us.
Perhaps the most vexing problem of indifference and ignorance of history is its insipient state of ingratitude. Forgetting God and human agents of divine transformation in any country is a slap in the face to Heaven and those on earth who have fostered freedoms we now take for granted. The teaching of history is a salute to the past and a stabilizing view toward the future. Remembering history is an active, collective, repetitive, and reflective process. Memory loss leads to lost motivation. The future is always dependent upon the past.
Knowledge can be lost. Sometimes this is perfectly reasonable: No one knows how to kill and skin a mastodon anymore, for obvious reasons. And . . . you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who could write a computer program on punch-cards today. But there is something worrisome about misplacing knowledge that is only a generation or two old. And this happens more often than you might think.
For my recent graduation, mom gave me a gift, a labor of love, which is a pictorial history of photographs dating back to my great-grandmother. There will be many hours spent in gazing over the album, considering my past. Study must begin by preserving the past, for by it, we know better how to live, we know better what to live for, and we know better what is most important. Nations, churches, families, and individuals have no future if they forget to study their past.
Mark still fidgets when mom takes pictures but manages to sit still and smile. Mark lives and teaches in Indianapolis and has to travel to Denver, CO for his mom to take his picture.
 Benjamin W. Patton, “Recovered Ground,” Smithsonian June, 2009, pp. 80-86; excerpt from p. 86.
 See, for instance, the recent cover story from The Weekly Standard (14:33, 18 May 09) on the negative mantra coming out of many schools of education.
 http://www.bradleyproject.org/EPUReportFinal.pdf, pages 4-5.
 Victor P. Hamilton. 1980. shakah. The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. (Moody): 2:922.
 Hosea 13:6; Psalm 106:13.
 Isaiah 51:13.
 Ezekiel 20:12, 20; 1 Corinthians 15:54-16:2; Esther 9:27-28; Joshua 4:7; Numbers 15:39-40; 16:26-40; Deuteronomy 11:18.
 2 Peter 3:5; 2 Peter 1:12-15, 3x; 2 Peter 3:8; 2 Peter 3:2.
 Vigen Guroian. 2005. “On Fairy Tales and the Moral Imagination,” in Rallying the Really Human Things. (ISI): 49-62. See also the introduction to his book Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination.
 Jonathan V. Last, “The Fog of War: Forgetting What We Once Knew,” The Weekly Standard (14:33) 18 May 2009.