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The Rise of the Moment and the Fall of History
by Douglas Kaine McKelvey

We have no sense of the flow of history; and so, we do not understand that history is flowing towards a definite end

C.S. Lewis, cast in the role of society's physician, casually scribbled a penetrating diagnoses of an acute, all but universal malady, in his 1944 introduction to a printing of St. Athanasius' text, The Incarnation of the Word of God."1

"Every age," he wrote, "has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes...We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century - the blindness about which posterity will ask, 'But how could they have thought that?' - lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement..."

Lewis further elaborated in the same text, "If you join at eleven o'clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said...in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance."

The cold, hard truth is that every individual and every generation starts at ground zero with no historical, cultural, or spiritual context by which to judge actions and ideas, save whatever context is provided by the particular status quo that they are born into.

Trying to Make Sense of it All

We all begin with this distinct disadvantage, having joined a conversation already in progress, one that in fact did not begin at eight o'clock this morning, but that began even prior to the dawn of the creation of man. Trying to make sense of this present conversation, we find ourselves in the position of school children just arrived for the term who are blissfully oblivious to the fact that classes began several months prior to our enrollment. We have missed the foundations altogether and will never master the material unless we first come to recognize our predicament and secondly begin to work backwards double-time to make up for the gaps in our knowledge base.

No thought, idea, movement or worldview can be fully apprehended apart from an understanding of its historical lineage and roots. This is as true of artistic expression as it is of political systems, religion, philosophy, ethics, morality, cultural identity, etc. And, as Solomon observed thousands of years ago, "There is nothing new under the sun." What appears to be the latest rage will inevitably be revealed in the spotlight of history as the latest rehashing of an already tired idea. A failure to study and comprehend the past, means that we will necessarily be unequipped to discern the present days.

There is a Russian proverb which states, "Dwell on the past and lose an eye. Forget the past and lose both eyes." Are we blind?

The Cult of the Moment

Our understanding of our own unique position in time and space history, and for Christians of our place in the body of Christ, is likewise seriously undermined by our inherently myopic condition. Not only does a lack of historical perspective and a failure to recognize, the "cloud of witnesses" that surrounds us prevent an accurate diagnoses of the current ills and aberrations of self and culture but it simultaneously cuts us off from any vision or direction for the future. We have no sense of the flow of history up to this point, and are therefore robbed of a real sense that history is indeed flowing somewhere toward a definite end. We lose what has been termed the "eternal perspective" and are instead unwittingly inducted into the Cult of the Moment, a religion whose prime sacrament is the isolation and deification of the present (a notion no less preposterous than that of a slab of raw, festering meat declaring its removal from the living animal "liberation", and its subsequent decay "evolution").

This Cult of the Moment is a stumbling block common to all peoples at all points in history if they are not either insightful enough to recognize their own nearsightedness (an unlikely prospect at best), or fortunate enough to be the children of a wiser generation who deliberately impart to them a broader context of identity, purpose, and vision than they themselves are capable of divining.

Becoming Salt & Light

Are we so proud as to believe, even for a moment, that our singular vision is sharp enough to render the accumulated wisdom and guidance of others unnecessary? Do we really believe that we can arrive at all of the answers on our own or, worse yet, find these answers somewhere within ourselves? On the contrary. If we are to communicate anything of significance to our culture, if we are to be salt and light, if we are even to understand ourselves, we must aggressively seek out the wisdom and knowledge gleaned and distilled by those who have already spied out the land and mapped the way before us.

We must give ourselves to the disciplines of reading, studying, meditation, quiet observation, and prayer. We should read the early books of the Bible, as well as Revelation, to gain a sense of the flow of history and of the theme of God's sovereignty throughout. We should read works such as Francis Schaeffer's How Should We Then Live and Richard Weaver's Ideas Have Consequences to gain a better understanding of recent history and of the roots and ramifications of currently popular ideas. We should read books like Harry Blamire's The Christian Mind to assist us in the difficult task of learning to evaluate culture from an honest and thoughtful Christian perspective. We should read classic works of theology, literature, and history, all the while asking "What relevance does this body of knowledge have to me, to my generation, to my culture?" Once we begin honestly asking, the answers will begin to come. Lastly, we should never squander opportunities to sit at the feet of those older saints who are still with us, treasuring that wisdom and insight that has been arrived at only by the expense of a long and consistent walk of faith, through all manner of struggle and hardship.

Born Too Late?

My wife and I recently watched with disbelief and sadness the news reports of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's long awaited return to the former Soviet Union. Here was a man with immense gravity of moral vision, forged in the crucible of suffering, who chose unselfishly to return as an agent of healing to the very land that had imprisoned and exiled him so many years ago. The distressing element in the news report was the reaction of several Russian college students who were randomly interviewed concerning Solzhenitsyn's arrival.

"He may have had something to say at one time," a typical respondent expressed, "but he's not relevant anymore. Things have changed a lot." "We should respect him for what he's suffered through," another student said, "but he doesn't understand what's happening now." Even more distressing and alarming was the revelation that these students had formed their opinions without even bothering to read any of Solzhenitsyn's books.

How could individuals be so intelligent as to gain admittance to respected universities, yet be so ignorant as to fail to see any connection between events that happened in their backyard yesterday and the cultural tailspin they find themselves in today? And how could they fail to perceive that it is precisely those who have suffered, struggled through, and endured the full weight of a problem, all the while applying steady and deliberate pressure to bring about its downfall, who now stand in its aftermath as those qualified to guide and speak with the greatest relevance?

I fear that those Russian college students have failed to perceive anything but the latest wave because they, as we, were born too late, born into the Cult of the Moment, born in the dark. They have missed the signposts altogether. They are in danger of losing both eyes.

And we, in our corner of the world, in our moment of space/time history, appear to have fared no better. Have we yet begun at all to divine the currents that shape our lives and thoughts? Our assumptions and presuppositions?

If we are ever to move forward with any sense of vision, any wisdom, any understanding of the scope of the conversation we find ourselves thrust into, we must begin our preparation now by confronting the question head-on: "Are We Blind?".

Douglas Kaine McKelvey's first collection of poetry, Cattail, Fishscale, and Snakeskin, was recently published by Cornerstone Press. To order, send $6 to Cornerstone Press, 939 W. Wilson, Chicago, IL 60640.

1. Later reprinted under the title "On the Reading of Old Books" in the C.S Lewis essay collection, God in the Dock, Essays on Theology and Ethics. edited by Walter Hooper; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; Grand Rapids, Michigan; 1970.

This essay is reprinted from the former ArtHouse.org website.

Last updated: 12 April 2006
Updated by: Matt Bynum