When I get to do leisure reading–reading that isn’t for ministry or school–I usually choose biographies. While I love to read about a wide variety of people, my favorite are American Presidents. I just got back from vacation where I consumed the very interesting book, Ike and Dick, a recent work focusing on the relationship between Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon.
I know. It’s an obsession without a cure. I’m a nerd this way. But indulge me for a moment and let me tell you what energizes me about reading presidential biographies. Reading history reinforces to me the grand narrative of the story the Bible tells. Here are three reasons:
First,I’m reminded that nothing is accidental and that God is gathering all of history to Himself. Even if all you study is American history, you realize how fragile it is. A few different choices, a few votes here or there and history would be completely different. I’m reminded of the turbulent sixties. Had JFK listened to the Secret Service and not rode through Dallas with the top down on the car, he’d likely have finished out his term. It’s likely he wouldn’t have escalated the Vietnam War as LBJ had–mainly because he didn’t suffer from the same insecurities as LBJ. Which means LBJ would not have been president during this tragic war. Or take for instance, the simple decision Robert Kennedy made to leave a Los Angeles hotel through the kitchen instead of the typical exits, where security was better. He likely would not have been the victim of an assassin’s bullet, which means he would have likely won the Democratic nomination for President instead of George McGovern. Had RFK been the nominee, he would probably vanquished Richard Nixon, whose unlikely political resurrection was due, in part to McGovern’s anti-war candidacy and the fissures in the Democratic Party.
This is just one time period. But American history is full of so many close calls. Actually all of history is like this. It turns on a dime. But it turns, according to Scripture, on the axis of God’s sovereign will. So reading history, to me, enables me to read today’s headlines with less fear and trembling, knowing that Christ is Lord over even today’s bad news.
Secondly, I realize that there is nothing new under the sun. I often get agitated at the unproductive partisanship displayed at all levels of leadership. There is a tendency to think that this is a new thing: men and women leveraging whatever they can to gain more power. But power plays, corruption, money grabs, and character assasinations are as old as sin itself. In fact, sometimes I wonder if the acrimony of earlier times in American history was worse than we find today. The way candidates sniped at each other, the way biased media dug up personal stories and had no fear in libeling those of other ideological persuasions. No, sin, sniping, strife predates even the American experiment. It stretches back to the first conflict in the very first family, where jealousy and self-righteousness led Cain to spill his brother, Abel’s blood. The motivations in the hearts of men have not changed in the millenia since the Fall. And so this reminds me that no movement or election or man-made effort can do what the gospel of Jesus Christ does in every generation: regenerate dead and black hearts. We an all try to be nicer to each other, but ultimately we’ll fail unless we are transformed from the inside out. This is why I love the gospel story. Without it, there is no hope in the world (Ephesians 2:12. And we are, of all men, the most miserable (1 Corinthians 15:19).
Third, I don’t have to long for the good old days nor put hope in a false future. If you look behind every social movement, there are one of two motivations. Either we are trying to reform–bring things back to a perceived golden era. Or we are trying to progress: shape a more hopeful future. This longing, I believe, is God-given. It’s rooted in the Biblical narrative. Though our nostalgia may, on the surface, point to the 1950’s or some other seemingly golden era, it’s really veiled longing for our original home: Eden. This idea we have that things were once good–told so often in our best tales–hails back to the Garden where man and woman walked with God in innocence, where evil was absent and life was as it was intended to be. This instinct we have that something messed it up is answered by Genesis’ account of a snake, an enemy, and a poison. Sin destroyed what man once possessed and now we are left longing for the place where we are no longer welcome.
And yet we have a yearning for things to get better, to improve. This desire for utopia, often warped by the evil imaginations of cruel dictators, is what fuels our political activism, is it not? We vote because we don’t like the status quo. We look for another political savior, put our trust in him or her, and then express our disappointment four years later when they turn out to be human. This is not new. Israel thought a king would solve their problems. And they soon realized that a king could often be the source of their problems.
This instinct, to yearn for something better, is also answered by the biblical narrative. What we’re longing for, a utopia where things are as they should be, is Heaven. Only we can’t create utopia. We can and should try to make life better, to alleviate human suffering, to create environments for human flourishing. But every generation fails at perfection. Every generation falls short of the glory of God. Followers of Jesus live with the real hope that Christ has defeated the sin that destroyed our Eden and has vanquished death. He’s coming back one day to reign as King and restore what sin destroyed.
So, Jesus’ followers should avoid the pitfalls of both overealized nostalgia and overrealized eschatology Returning to a mythical golden era (that never existed) denies the unique calling to live on mission in the time and place where God has uniquely called us. And the messianic impulse that says “we are the ones we have been waiting for” not only supplants Jesus as the ultimate agent of change, it sets us up for the frustration every generation of world-changers experiences: unrealized expectations.
We’re between Eden and Heaven. We don’t have to mourn the sin that kicked us from the Garden because the Savior vanquished it on the cross and in His resurrection. So our mission is to declare the good news of the gospel, roll up our sleeves and serve our communities, and keep our eyes on the city coming, whose builder and maker is God (Hebrews 11:10). We love our neighbor, not because we, or our movement, is his solution. Not to earn merit points with an angry deity. We do what we do, out of love, reflecting in some small and fallen way, the love of the perfect One, who is both Savior and Lord.
Only this gospel answers both our longing for what we have lost and the hope for a better future.