When I was a young seminary professor just starting out in teaching church history, I would often get some variation on the question “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a field like this?” I often thought that a more theologically appropriate way of framing the question might be “Why seek ye the living among the dead?”

My response to the question has always been that history is to an institution or a people what memory is to an individual.

We are who we are, all of us, because of our pasts. None of us has arrived in the present moment without the accumulated events, people and stories that have formed us—some for good and some for ill. The tragedy of Alzheimer’s disease (as many of us know all too well) is that when people lose their memories, they lose not only the ability to recognize loved ones but also their understanding of themselves.

The same is true for the church. Two thousand years of stories have shaped our life together today—for good or ill. If we forget those stories, we lose an understanding of who we are as a community of faith.

We live in a culture that emphasizes the present moment. We want the latest technology, the most up-to-date information and the quickest fix to any problem that emerges. Often we act as if the events of our time are unique, as if what we are experiencing—controversy, success, loss, accomplishment or disaster—has never occurred before. But in our shortsightedness, we impoverish ourselves by not entering into conversation with the communion of saints and sinners who have gone before us.

On any given Sunday, every hymn we sing, every text we read and every liturgy we pray has a history, a story behind it. For every question we raise about God’s presence—or seeming absence—in the world today, an entire cloud of witnesses have asked the same questions, wrestled with the same doubts and bequeathed to us a legacy of wisdom (or folly) upon which we can draw.

The role of the church historian is to engage those stories in a way that makes them live again in the present. We invite students to enter into conversation with those who, though no longer physically present, live on through their written and otherwise preserved legacies. We invite students to discover where we have been a faithful people and where we have failed.

Two thousand years of stories have shaped our life together today—for good or ill. If we forget those stories, we lose an understanding of who we are as a community of faith.

We also encourage students to consider voices that may not be easily accessed. What stories have we as a community, perhaps too conveniently, forgotten? How can we unearth them and let them speak to us again? We prompt students to consider how their own stories may connect in ways large and small to people who have gone before them, and then to ask, “How can this inform my future? The church’s future?”

At the same time, I believe we need to resist the easy temptation to simply turn these “people of the past” into object lessons. One can certainly find some truth in the old saying “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” But if we reduce these stories to easy moral lessons, we fail to take these people and their stories seriously on their own terms and to accord them the dignity they deserve. Our own stories are often complex, complicated and confusing, both to ourselves and to others. We must grant that same reality to those who came before us, who tried to live their lives as best they could amid their own complex and confusing times.

Our lives are always enriched when we engage in conversation and form deeper relationships with those around us—whether those conversation partners are living or dead. These conversations make us wiser
and more thoughtful as we face the inevitably difficult choices of life. In the end, our history tells us where we have come from and how we arrived here. But what we do with that history is what makes us who we are, both as a people and as a church, now and into the future.

Susan McArver
McArver is a professor of church history and educational ministry at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, Columbia, S.C.

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