I breathed a sigh of relief when the clock struck midnight to take us from December 31, 2016, to January 1, 2017. 2016 seemed to be an anomaly, a strange year dominated by a contentious, unconventional, and surprising Presidential election. I thought that turning the calendar to a new year would slow down the number of news stories crossing my news feeds and turn down the volume on the discussions around those stories. I was wrong.
It seems as if there is a new passion-enflaming news story out every day. Whether it is the President’s Twitter feed, a heretical movie, another protest, or a denominational scuffle, our days are consumed with stories that either anger or depress us. They divide us into teams and lead us to fight to prove our guys are right.
Followers of Jesus must get off this train. Somehow, we back away from the current tenor of discussions in our culture without sticking our heads in the sand. Recently, I discussed one option– cultivating the discipline of selective ignorance. (A phrase I borrow from Tim Ferriss.) Today I want to share another– reading history. Here are five reasons this would be a great benefit to us.
To turn off the TV, put down the phone, and cut off talk radio
So much of what we expose ourselves to is just noise. Whether it is opinion-based talk radio or our social media feeds, we have numerous people and companies vying for our attention. What is going to grab your attention the fastest? It will be whatever scares you or makes you angry.
One great way to shut off the noise, which you have the power to do, is to read. (If you are going to read on your iPad or tablet, go in and disable the internet so that you aren’t tempted.) When you sit down to read a book, your attention focuses on one thing. There’s not another link to click and there is no comment section. Instead, you can think about one subject with focused attention.
To remember not to panic over every news cycle
Our 24-hour news cycle forces us to think that every controversy and every government decision is life or death. We lock ourselves into daily struggles and fights over the latest brouhaha. We proclaim that we are headed for utopia when our side is winning or that we are plunging toward the depths of hell when the other side prevails.
Recently, historian Jon Meacham tweeted a link about President Trump being angry that his surrogates did not defend his statements about President Obama wiretapping Trump Tower strongly enough. He commented that George H.W. Bush, the subject of his latest biography, could not understand the hand-wringing over what was said on Sunday morning talk shows. “Who the h*** remembers what they said by sundown?”
Our 41st President offers us some important words of wisdom in this case. We get angry about things that we won’t even be thinking about several hours from now. President Bush could say this because he had been observing these events for decades. When we devote ourselves to reading history, we’ll start to notice these things as well. The arc of history is long, therefore we shouldn’t spend much time fretting over day to day news stories.
To learn from past mistakes
Over the past two years, I have been reading biographies of the American Presidents. Often events take place in these biographies that make me cringe. The subject says something that we know to be horrific, wrong, or bigoted or they do something that we now know led to a terrible catastrophe.
We don’t read history just to critique past generations, though. We must actively learn from their mistakes. We should read and ask how we echo their previous folly in our lives today. For example, history is replete with examples of men who neglected their wives and families for the sake of their work. By the end of their biographies, we have the benefit of seeing how their absence at home cost them in the end. We don’t know the end of our stories, but we can see many of the pitfalls that come from ignoring the families God has given us.
To wean ourselves from cultural hubris
In our current culture, we are great at critiquing the mistakes of our ancestors. We can look back with the benefit of time and discern all of their faults. Unfortunately, we don’t possess the same keen insight when we are dealing with our own failures.
When we humble ourselves before the voices of the past, we can learn from many of their convictions and habits. For example, reading the biography of Teddy Roosevelt gives us great insight into the value of physical exercise to give ourselves energy. Abraham Lincoln shows us that we should never blame our circumstances and work hard to improve ourselves. Martin Luther’s devotion to prayer and Jonathan Edwards’ commitment to reading the Scriptures will make us wonder why we can’t squeeze in 20 minutes for devotions.
One area where we benefit from reading history is to see the devotion of early American generations to education and reading. We fancy ourselves to be the most educated generations in American history, and while this may be true from the number of years we spend in school, generations before us possessed a better grasp of the English language, a greater ability to spot flaws in logic, and a superior understanding of the flow of history. Our discussions of political and social issues sound like incoherent babbling compared to the force of reason and eloquence of expression present in the writings and speeches of our forebearers.
To calm down and gain perspective
When we read the Bible, we encounter times infinitely more chaotic than our own. The period of the judges and the Babylonian captivity make a fight over Russian interference look like child’s play. Our own nation has endured through the fires of civil war and two worldwide wars.
God controls human history. He made the world and holds the times and seasons of our lives in his hands. Reading history shows us times of chaos and times of peace, but it mainly testifies to the God who oversees it all. As we reflect on the days gone by and ponder our present and future, one thing always holds true– the sovereign God of the universe never has and never will take one day off. He is working his great plan of redemption at all times and in all places and will one day bring all things to completion with the second advent of his Son. Until that great day, we reflect on the past, live in the present, and look forward to our blessed hope.
“The Blessing of Selective Ignorance“
For Further Reading:
The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs
Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther by Roland Bainton