The Tragic Reality of Christian Illiteracy
When I speak of Christians being illiterate, I have far more in mind than just the inability of some to properly read and write – in that they are simply the product of the modern Western education. But I am speaking here of a wider sort of illiteracy, one that is as regrettable as it is widespread.
I refer to historical illiteracy, theological illiteracy, biblical illiteracy, church history illiteracy, etc. Far too many Christians in the West today are woefully ignorant of that which they should not be ignorant. They know little about their own faith, their own Christian culture and history, their own doctrine, and their own Bible.
That is why the church keeps losing. A people divorced from their own heritage and their own belief system will not long stand. Indeed, they will be blown about by every wind of doctrine, by every cultural breeze, and by every latest trend, to paraphrase the Apostle Paul.
To make this case is easy enough – in fact, I have often been making it. But today serves as a good example of all this. Today happens to be exceedingly significant, historically speaking, yet many – perhaps most – believers would be clueless.
Sure, many would know about Halloween, and some would be gearing up for kids knocking at their door asking for treats. But how many know about two major anniversaries today? These are both highly important, but it seems most Christians know nothing about them.
The first took place exactly 500 years ago today. Hopefully if I mention the words “95 theses” at least some will have a vague recollection about something that happened long ago and far away. Yes, it was then that the Augustinian friar and theology lecturer posted his theses on the door of a church at Wittenberg.
While Martin Luther’s initial intention was not to make a break with Catholicism, that was the eventual outcome. Whether you see this as a good thing or bad thing will of course depend on where your ecclesiastical loyalties lie with. But there is no question that this event, along with that of the other reformers at the time, changed the course not only of church history, but of world history.
Those wanting to take this further would of course have plenty of resources to turn to. Here is just one such recent resource I put together on this momentous event: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2017/02/11/reformation-500-years-reading-guide/
The second significant milestone being celebrated today has to do with something that took place on a battlefield in Ottoman Syria in 1917. The Battle for Beersheba was a turning point again in world history – certainly in WWI. It had to do with such monumental issues as the halt of the Turks (and therefore Islam), and the eventual birth of the nation of Israel – no small achievements.
It was a decisive period indeed. After Beersheba was taken, Gaza was soon captured as well, the Balfour Declaration was signed, and British troops entered into Jerusalem in early December – and the rest as they say is history. These certainly were some momentous events.
Again, it is not my purpose here to recount all this in great detail. The broad outlines of this I have provided elsewhere. The Battle at Gallipoli is part of this rich heritage, and we celebrate it annually. See here for much more on all this: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2011/04/25/anzac-day/
The value of history
Since I am highlighting the dangers of historical illiteracy here, let me conclude with a few quotes from some leading thinkers over the years who have reminded us of the value of history, and the great dangers of neglecting it. Hopefully many of you recall the famous 1905 line by the Spanish philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
In 1939 C. S. Lewis said this:
Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.
Earlier G. K. Chesterton had put it this way:
The disadvantage of men not knowing the past is that they do not know the present. History is a hill or high point of vantage, from which alone men see the town in which they live or the age in which they are living. Without some such contrast or comparison, without some such shifting of the point of view, we should see nothing whatever of our own social surroundings. We should take them for granted, as the only possible social surroundings. We should be as unconscious of them as we are, for the most part, of the hair growing on our heads or the air passing through our lungs. It is the variety of the human story that brings out sharply the last turn that the road has taken, and it is the view under the arch of the gateway which tells us that we are entering a town. Yet this sense of the past is curiously patchy among the most intelligent and instructed people, especially in modern England.
Or as Winston Churchill once said, “The greatest advances in human civilization have come when we recovered what we had lost: when we learned the lessons of History.” Yes, exactly right.
And of course if we wish to preserve our freedoms, we especially need to know our history, since all totalitarian regimes thrive on our historical amnesia. Indeed, they gain and keep power by rewriting the history books to suit their own needs. A few more quotes here are worth running with.
George Orwell put it this way: “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” And in his dystopian novel 1984 he said: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”
And again: “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And that process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except the endless present in which the party is always right.”
Theodore Dalrymple, in his 2005 volume Our Culture, What’s Left of It wrote this:
The object of such [revisionist] historiography is to disconnect everyone from a real sense of a living past and a living culture. Indeed, the underlying theme uniting the two great dystopias of the twentieth century [Huxley’s and Orwell’s] is the need to preserve a sense of history and cultural tradition if life is to be bearable….
In both dystopias (of Orwell and Huxley), people find themselves cut off from the past as a matter of deliberate policy. The revolution that brought about the Brave New World, says Mustapha Mond, was “accompanied by a campaign against the Past” – the closing of museums, the blowing up of historical monuments (as in the Taliban’s Afghanistan), the banning of old books. In 1984 “the past has been abolished.” “History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”
Such dystopian engineering is at work in my own country. By the deliberate decision of pedagogues, hundreds of thousands of children now leave school without knowing a single fact about their own country. The historical principles that museums have traditionally used to display art have given way to ahistorical thematic displays – portraits of women from a jumble of eras, say. A meaningless glass box now sits on a pediment in London’s Trafalgar Square as a “corrective” to the famous associations of that famous urban space. A population is being deliberately created with no sense of history.
Yes that is exactly the case – a population with little sense of its own history. If you don’t believe me, I offer this challenge for you: go out and ask any dozen random people why today is so important historically speaking, and see what responses you get.
I suspect very few will know anything about the importance of October 31, be they Berliners, Melbournians, Londoners or New Yorkers. I speak this to their shame.
13 Replies to “The Tragic Reality of Christian Illiteracy”
Hi Bill, your article brings Hosea 4:6 sharply into focus. And finally your highlighting the famous 1905 quotation by George Santayana says it all; “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat. It”. I can only begin to imagine the frustration you experienced as you compiled this article. It must have been akin to what many of the O.T. Prophets experienced leading upto The Exile. Keep it up Bill, many out there like myself will continue to cover you in prayer. Blessings, Kel.
This was a great post. Thank you.
Nah Bill, historical amnesia implies “having forgotten”. In fact, we, (the younger generation more so) are absolutely oblivious of there ever have been any history. This void has been so easily filled with every imaginable ism (via the pedagogues) – to our foreseeable destruction.
The oligarchs are victorious (momentarily).
Indeed, “History has stopped. Nothing exists except the endless present in which the party is always right.”
In 1957, Queen Elizabeth II, as though aware of the forces threatening our nation , gave a sober Christmas message:
Speaking of the speed at which things are changing all around us. She said……I am not surprised that many people feel lost and unable to decide what to hold on to and what to discard…..The trouble is caused by unthinking people who carelessly throw away ageless ideals as if they were old and outworn machinery.
They would have religion thrown aside, morality in personal and public life made meaningless, honesty counted as foolishness and self-interest set up in place of self-restraint.
At this critical moment in our history we will certainly lose the trust and respect of the world if we just abandon those fundamental principles which guided the men and women who built the greatness of this country and Commonwealth.
Today we need a special kind of courage…. which makes us stand up for everything that we know is right, everything that is true and honest. We need the kind of courage that can withstand the subtle corruption of the cynics so that we can show the world that we are not afraid of the future.
I would like to read you a few lines from ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’, because I am sure we can say with Mr Valiant for Truth, these words:
“Though with great difficulty I am got hither, yet now I do not repent me of all the trouble I have been at to arrive where I am. My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage and my courage and skill to him that can get it. My marks and scars I carry with me, to be a witness for me that I have fought his battles who now will be my rewarder.”
Very few had any inkling as to which threats to our nation she was referring. Indeed I am not sure that she did. Perhaps it was just a general unease of how life was dramatically different to that which she had known as teenage girl before the War. But the threat came not from conventional warfare, from bombs and bullets but something far more devastating – militant feminism; homosexuality and Mohammedanism.
Modern society is like a luxury liner where passengers embark and disembark at different points on the voyage. They do not know where the ship has come from; they do not know their present position and they do not know their final destination.
Without any fixed reference point, like a ship without compass or captain, society, including the church allows itself to drift with the current, changing its attitudes and values according to a consensus of opinion. The passengers and crew do not mind where the ship is going, just so long as everything is running smoothly and everyone has the feel- good factor.. In such a sea of fluctuating political correctness, what might be shocking and completely unacceptable becomes almost overnight respectable and what was previously considered to be decent and responsible becomes criminalised. Without any fixed point of reference, human nature has a way of accommodating and becoming comfortable over a period of time with a state of hell. It can sleep walk into becoming hardened, desensitised to cruelty, barbarism and evil, as happened in Nazi Germany, Russia, China, Cambodia and now the rest of the Western civilisation.
David Skinner UK
I knew about the Luther event but I confess some of my European history braincells are not much up to scratch. However, it is very evident that young people are or have been disassociated from the history of their country (UK in this instance)….they seem to know nothing much at all about the periods pre-Victorian. Our stunningly rich history is being blotted down, if not out, of the school curriculum all over Britain. The new House of European History in Brussels is purported to be a “propaganda piece”….and needless to say Britain apparently doesn’t get much mention.
Hi Bill a friend introduced me to,the horrific program indicated by “The Frankfurt School “ and it totally horrified me! One finds a system of Marxism which adherents and proselytisers forceing the unappetising diet of state Socialism on a quiescent population without that the population having a single clue as to,what is happening ! It is insidious and all-pervasive and I have long suspected that something of the kind was afoot especially in the Universities where fertile young minds are ready for the perversion and terror of a left-wing dictatorship! One can not necessarily blame other young minds after all they have no experience and perhaps no knowledge of Marxism in all its Gulag and starvation action probably because the Fascists were the centre of political “ Bad Boy” studies at the blood -red schools they attended !
Thanks Bob. Yes I have written about that elsewhere, eg:
I have been reminding MPs that the Australian laws have been for detecting, preventing and criminalising harmful behaviours and practices in order to protect society (the public) from harm. What harmful behaviours and practices including sexual behaviour and practice exists in a deregulated civil registered marriage “between any 2 people?” The Australian parliament are attempting to regulate a “personhood marriage” or a “cuffing marriage” with a no fault divorce in order to protect the public from harm. This genderless, non-discriminative, non-procreative and often non-exclusive sexual relationship is like a sex worker and their client as the government can’t discriminate these 2 people from marrying each other as “love is love.” The Australian State governments registers sex workers so they can regulate a legal prostitution practice in order to protect society from the harmful spread of STDs including drug-resistant gonorrhoea and HIV/AIDS.
The Australian parliament in 1857 forced Christian ministers to register all marriages in order to punish adultery in a divorce, and adultery doesn’t exist without a legitimate marriage. The parliament wanted to keep accurate marriage records for the illegitimacy of children and inheritance because marriage and family breakdown as a result from adultery, divorce, separation and death are a massive cost for the Australian governments, Australian society and children suffer the most. The Domestic and Family Violence laws and regulations include married couples so “love ain’t love.” Australians need to take your advice and start reviewing the history of western civilisation including the historical records of the Bible. It is extremely important for Australian to understand the truth about western civilisation and the reason laws and regulations are created to detect, prevent and criminalise harmful behaviours and practices in order to protect Australian society.
One can’t help but wonder if this historical literacy is partially a result of the chronological snobbery that seems to afflict so many people these days. In other words, the arrogant presumption that the present day is better than the past, and that the current generation is morally and intellectually superior in every way to its forebears.
Thank you, Bill, for this excellent essay about the important truths of history all members of Western Civilization should know. As an American and a Christian, I am increasing appalled by the comments of professing Christians who do not know basic right from wrong. As your Australian readers may be aware, three persons associated with President Trump’s campaign were arrested for money laundering, collusion with the Russian government, and conspiracy against the United States. Unfortunately, many followers of President Trump see nothing with the activities and behavior of President Trump and these men. You may wonder, “How can this be?”
The answer is that these supposedly well-meaning Americans have bought into the worldly and communistic idea that “the end justifies the means.” They actually believe these men and the Russian government were justified in stooping to collusion “to get the goods” (or dirt) on Hillary Clinton and to sabotage her bid for the Presidency of the United States. These followers cannot understand that it is WRONG to conspire with an enemy nation to achieve certain ends and that in doing so, these men committed crimes worse than what Mrs. Clinton was suspected of doing. Furthermore, these followers are so prejudiced against minorities — and especially against Former President Barack Obama for being an African-American — that they believe Vladimir Putin is “preferable and trustworthy” because he is a white man. How ignorant and blind can these people be? Where is their so-called faith when they want to justify sin and corruption to bring about the actions and results they want? As anyone can see, these people are plagued by a certain kind of illiteracy as well. What hope is there for the United States when so-called professing Christians are corrupt?
J. Sheryl Adams,
In Britain the cost of family breakdown is costing the taxpayers nearly 50 billion pounds .
But this is not the only cost ever since the bisexual adulterous Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, introduced no fault divorce, decriminalised homosexuality and abortion and relaxed the laws on pornography, in 1967.
Those of us who have a memory of life sixty years ago would never have dreamed that Britain would have slid into the degree of moral anarchy that we see all around us, resulting in the dismemberment of marriage and the family; the murder of nine million babies in the womb through abortion; the spread of AIDS and HIV, principally amongst the gay community; rampant drug addiction; widespread mental illness and suicide; a breakdown in discipline in schools; millions of children either being sexually abused or abusing other children; hundreds of children wrenched from their parents, put into social care, and sold off through the adoption agencies to queers; sex trafficking; paedophilia; satanic ritual abuse; a rocketing violent crime rate; a fundamental breakdown in societal trust and loyalty; a prison population that is the largest in Europe; and overarching all these the threat of Islam bringing in Shariah Law and creating a Caliphate. Behind all this are the cultural Marxists who – using primarily radical cultural terrorism feminists, homosexuals, and Muslims – are determined to destroy marriage, the family, the church and our sovereign nation under God.
David Skinner UK
Gramsci’s ‘Long March Across the Institutions’ and the entire Frankfurt School’s objective to subvert Western Culture through Neo-Marxist ideology combined with Hegel’s dialectic aka ‘problem-reaction-solution’ has merged to create an insidious totalitarianism. In Isaiah chapter 3 God said as part of His judgement on Israel, that would give them children for leaders. Politics and Diapers have one thing in common…..they both need to be changed regularly and for the same reason! Both ‘left and right’ have been subverted, but underlying the disastrous symptoms of this Communist ideology is the real battle today: What it means to be Human. Luther said at that precise point where the battle rages, right there is where the loyalty of the soldier is proven. The Institutional ‘Church’ has been virtually entirely subverted by the ’empire’. Let us arise and rebuild the Biblical worldview that alone corresponds with all reality. Forward. In Christ Jesus. One of his revolutionary outcast followers.