The Importance of Past

An Ancient Roman RoadBiblical and theological studies in a formal format were such a huge part of our lives for so long that I doubt I can even recognize the significance of how those studies permeated and shaped our ideas and direction. I refer as much to the practices such studies required as to the content of what we were learning, and I refer most of all to the people from whom we have been privileged to learn—whether through personal interactions or through their writings. Even as I sit here attempting to identify specific aspects of the extent to which these conversations have formed us, I have the sense of being the proverbial fish attempting to describe the water it lives in.

One of the biggest challenges that biblical studies professors are continually trying to overcome, particularly biblical studies professors who teach students who value the practice of reading the Bible devotionally, is to convince their students that the Bible is not “my culture.” Rather, reading the Bible is a cross-cultural experience, and numerous tools and practices can enable readers to appreciate that cultural difference and, hopefully, understand the biblical text better.

In the process of learning about cultural difference between ancient peoples and us, Mike and I both began to question our modern concept of “progress.” We quickly recognized the greater connectivity of people in agrarian and pre/extra-industrial cultures, and perhaps we were seeing it particularly clearly as it was born out for us in the lives of people like Susan and even my mom, whose agrarian South Korean roots continued to sustain her broader group-oriented commitments (obligations?). We longed for this connectivity and “knowing”/“known”-ness, especially as we were finding it in the biblical picture of what it means to be the church, part of God’s “household,” “children” of the “Father” and “brothers” and “sisters” of the (first-born) “Son.”

And we were both struck by the ancient idea that “older is better.” In our modern, scientific, technological age, we have grown accustomed to embracing the idea that “newer is better.” I see it most clearly when Apple comes out with a new product.

I hope it isn’t wearisome for me to echo those writers and thinkers who have observed that our philosophical foundations assume an evolutionary explanation of human existence, that we as a culture presuppose that human existence today has progressed from yesterday, that our accumulation of knowledge and stuff means that we have progressed. No matter how “post-modern” we become, and despite the critiques raised following two World Wars, and despite any number of challenges raised in postmodern thinking, we as a culture still seem to operate from that basic assumption: newer is better; we are continually progressing toward something better.

We began to question that axiom. As we considered the importance of antiquity in arguments like the biblical creation story’s identification of “the beginning” and [the first century historian] Josephus’s depiction of the Jewish faith as a religion with a distant past, we found ourselves valuing the significance of antiquity in human thinking and life. We could readily see the glaring evidence of human short-sightedness and uncritical devouring of the new: from innovations as broad as nuclear technology to the proliferation of plastic. We were seeing the double-edged nature of the sword of “progress” and realizing that one edge appeared to be much sharper than the other, and it was the edge that we had never before given much attention.

Better Basics for the Home CoverIn practical terms, I found the challenge to “newer is better” in an unlikely place. I had ordered a copy of Annie Berthold-Bond’s Better Basics for the Home, Simple Solutions for Less Toxic Living (on Amazon, of course—as my friend, Becky Shenton, has pointed out, we are humbled as we recognize our own complicity in these systems we identify as so problematic). I was struck by Annie’s primary guiding principle, “The Commonsense Rule of Thumb”: “Use only materials that have been around so long, and have been used by people without harm for so long, that they are ‘generally regarded as safe’ (GRAS for short), otherwise they would have long since been abandoned” (p. 4). There seems to be something profound about the fact that we are the kind of beings who have to learn from one another and our past experiences.

Like Annie, I don’t want to advocate that the ideal is to abandon every new discovery and practice, and I do believe that some of these have genuinely allowed for greater dignity and fullness of life, even while the double-edge carries the opposite effect. But, as Mike is fond of saying, we feel challenged to be more circumspect in considering the new, as well as the unintended, often disastrous, consequences that the new may bring. We continually find that the discernment and practice of doing so to be a work in progress.


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