Unvisited Tombs

Elaine and I met at the International Institute for Christian Studies (IICS) this summer in Kansas City.  She regaled me with dinner-time-travel-stories which included her emeritus philosophy professor husband Jim.  Some years ago they went to Siberia for a semester with IICS.  Elaine’s eyes welled with tears as she told lovely tales of the Russian people who hungered to know about The Creator of the universe.  One lady wondered if God was there, because she was told by the Communists that no God existed.  “Why tell someone something does not exist?  Perhaps this is another Marxist lie,” she reasoned.  Visiting American Christians led her to the Faith on a visit to her village.  Then there was an old woman who had believed in Jesus based only on a few scraps of the New Testament.  Given a Bible for the first time by Elaine, the Russian pressed the book against her chest so hard it left an imprint.  She testified, “I have lived many years but this is the most important possession of my life.”  Elaine’s stories deserve to be written.

His last entry read like a spy-thriller.  In his accounting, Jim was miraculously spared physical harm in one of his many speaking trips to the former Soviet Union.  My adopted Dad, Jim Braley, has begun to write stories of his past.  Jim’s life is full of experiences: stories which have been told and retold but need the promotion of pen to paper.  Fifty years a school headmaster, educational leader, and worldwide Christian school speaker, Jim’s life is chuck full of interesting tales.  Personal histories must be filed for the future.

Dan and Kathy Vaillancourt, along with my daughter Chelsea, have been hard at work cataloguing personal lives of Americans. The Vaillancourts’ vision stands in the long line of histories and historiographers who help us to understand the past.[1] Many cultural historians will owe them a great debt for the dedication to and creation of memoirs.  As George Eliot wrote in Middlemarch,

The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric [unrecorded] acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.[2]

Personal accounting honors unknown people, their untold tales, and the unappreciated impact on our world.  Historical story leaves a heritage, a standard of belief and practice.

But Hatshepsut, the famed female king of Egypt, was unsure of her own legacy.  One of the great rulers of the mighty African nation, the “She-King” left her stone chiseled inscriptions all over Egypt.  Even with her one-of-a-kind access to histories’ longest lasting, rock hard memories, Hatshepsut worried she would be forgotten.

Now my heart turns this way and that, as I think what the people will say.  Those who see my monuments in years to come and who shall speak of what I have done.[3]

What will people say about us?  We can establish our history in words, but will anyone care?  Who will believe us?  Will our memories be only regarded as opinion, fog evaporated in the morning sun of another’s point of view?  Is Daniel Boorstin’s concern correct when he questions “the bias of survival?”   Are historical points of view fashioned by only those who had the time, opportunity, or inclination to establish their perspective?[4] And has the quest for scientific truth usurped the proper role of discovering historical truth?[5] Ultimately, if we question the reliability of ancient sources is there any hope of securing authentic authorities from the past?

Should Moses’ words be reinterpreted as just one more perception of truth?  Karen Armstrong believes so.  Armstrong says Genesis is non-factual.  With “no pretensions to historical accuracy” the first book in the Hebrew Bible is simply “an early form of psychology” dispensing “an inner source of strength . . . with serenity.”  The cosmology (the study of origins) of Genesis “was primarily therapeutic” providing consolation “to a displaced people.”[6]

Is it historically honest to reinterpret Genesis as therapy?  No.  Genesis makes Truth claims unlike non-historical myths.[7] It is not academically fair to evaluate a document based on one’s personal assumptions without examining the evidence.  Genesis should either be rejected, if it is historically unreliable, or taken at face value without therapeutic reinterpretation.  Writing establishes Truth and attacks falsehood.[8] Truth is more than proposition or story.  Truth is or Truth is not. No area of human knowledge is neutral.  Historical Truth is tied to reality, establishes identity, and forms the bridge to ethics.  Jesus’ simple statement draws a line in the sand:

If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me.  But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?[9]

“Soon I will die and all those who knew me; it will be as if I never existed,” laments Jack Nicholson’s character in the movie About Schmidt. It is then that Schmidt discovers that he has lived Eliot’s “hidden life” because of “unhistoric acts”—those events whose importance is unrecorded in books.  Israel’s powerful neighbors said little or nothing about the Hebrews’ “unvisited tombs.”  Seemingly insignificant in the throes of international heavyweights, Israel’s historiography was ignored in recorded human history.  But like the stories from Elaine, Jim, Dan, Kathy, and Chelsea, the First Testament account of Genesis provides “the growing good of the world.”  Our personal histories are important because The Personal Eternal Creator has entered our stories: “in the fullness of time God sent His Son.”[10]

Mark enjoys visiting cemeteries, mentioning them and their importance in his classes at Crossroads Bible College.


[1] Visit the website www.memoirforchange.org

[2] George Eliot.  1872, 2003. Middlemarch. (Barnes & Noble Classics): 794.

[3] Chip Brown. “The Woman Who Would Be King,” National Geographic April 2009, accessed at http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2009/04/hatshepsut/brown-text/2

[4] Daniel Boorstin. 1987. Hidden History. (Harper & Row): 3. The first chapter of Boorstin’s book entitled “A Wrestler with the Angel” should be read and re-read, giving pause to the process of historical analysis.

[5] I tell my students that television shows like CSI have hurt the impact of eyewitness accounts in the courtroom suggesting that fiber and follicle are the end-all of guilt or innocence.

[6] Karen Armstrong. “Essays: Man vs. God,” Wall Street Journal 12 September 09.  http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203440104574405030643556324.html

[7] See my comments and footnotes on historiography in part two of this series, “Hummingbird Amputees.”

[8] 2 John 5 references “These written commands which we have had since the beginning” linked to First Testament instruction (Leviticus 19:18) which have come to us “through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him” (Romans 16:26).  Second Testament books such as 2 and 3 John identify the need to compare Truth with falsehood.

[9] John 5:46-47.

[10] Galatians 4:4.

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