by Margaret Bendroth
William B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Mich. and Cambridge, U.K. 141 pages
American culture is inclined to feel a sense of detachment from the past and from the unenlightened people who lived there. Because we have the Internet and our forebears didn’t — and Wikipedia and Netflix and Siri besides — we find ourselves looking down from an imagined superior vantage point. We have put our faith in “progress,” measuring it technologically and putting most of those who have ever lived at a disadvantage. What could we possibly have to learn from the dead?
Margaret Bendroth, director of the Congregational Library in Boston, has written a deeply thoughtful, but easily accessible, reflection on the various ways that different cultures relate to the past and those who inhabited it. Most traditional cultures have felt themselves to be in continuity with the past and not entirely cut off from their progenitors from other eras. The Enlightenment, rooted in the 18th century but still exerting force, has given birth to views of the past that presume that people of earlier eras were nothing like us, didn’t think like us and have little to contribute for our reflection. From the post-Enlightenment point of view, investigation of the past typically focuses on identifying the bare, unvarnished “facts.” Such an approach, not surprisingly, has put the church in a defensive posture since the Bible does not usually match such narrowly focused expectations.
While contemporary sensitivities call for inclusiveness, bringing to the table women and men, gay and straight, and those of various racial, ethnic, national, class and economic backgrounds, the one group the church is permitted to ignore are the dead who have, over two millennia, shaped the Christian tradition. Bendroth argues that their exclusion has “narrowed and changed” religious faith, to our loss. A religious tradition is, she writes, a “long conversation,” and one that is “about something.” It is not “a verbal free-for-all, where anyone can come in and shift the subject to something completely different. The talk always circles and weaves around a central topic. … A truly creative conversation builds on what has been said before, exploring nuances and suggesting different interpretations — but never assuming that the people who began it have nothing more to say and can be safely ignored.” Those who are living now don’t “own the conversation” any more than those who have died or those who have not yet been born.
American culture was shaped by a deliberate rejection of the past. Bendroth remarks that “Nowhere was the prospect of freedom from the past embraced more enthusiastically than in American churches.” For Protestants, theological and liturgical novelty is valued (for a passing moment) while we cultivate a studied amnesia that succeeds in silencing the voices of the dead, whose prayers, deliberations, reflections and hard choices are, by definition, hopelessly passé. We are free, Bendroth suggests, to argue with our ancestors — “to disagree and complain and rail against them” — but it should be “within the framework of our common tradition, that extended argument constantly unfolding across both space and time.”
This is not a polemical book, but one that could start a thousand conversations, and it is about time we had them.
RONALD P. BYARS is professor emeritus of preaching at worship at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.