There is a tendency for moderns to disparage the wisdom of the past. Improvements in technology do not signify development in the realm of ideas or advances in the perception of truth. Gadgetry does not equate with civilization. The availability of cell phones, television, and twitter does not guarantee the communication of worthy thoughts or beneficial information. They may simply disseminate the flotsam and jetsam of puerile minds. We may become skilled in manipulating mice and pressing buttons and keys and operating all manner of electric devices domestically, commercially, and educationally, but we may be becoming less mobile in the performance of natural physical activities, less mentally agile, and more and more moronic until our full humanity is depleted and the machines deserve to take over. Our modern pride in technology may be the equivalent of the construction of a certain tower in the pre-Patriarchal era (Genesis 11). Certainly babble is the result of both enterprises.
Likewise the vitality, colour, and impact of past events escapes our awareness. Dates and a little bit of accompanying data is all we need to deal with the past and then casually dismiss it. We live in the period of short-ranged, short-changed history where the dimensions of the human story are not taken seriously. All that matters is our gratification now and speculation as to our prosperity in the future. Because the accounts of history are selective and abridged (sound-bites of the saga) we do not make the effort to enter into the drama played out behind us with any depth or feeling. Our distant predecessors are remote and unreal. We do not see their forms, hear their voices, walk their streets, enter their buildings and market places, smell the odours of their towns and country-sides, share their emotions, or grasp the impact of the events that impinged upon their lives, and we have little sense of the economic, political, and military factors that convulsed their circumstances, worried their minds, and caused their hearts to tremble. The past does not figure to any great extent in our consciousness and so we fail to recognize its resemblance to our own day, that so much in human attitude and behaviour is repeated, and we fail to learn the lessons so painfully learned by our forbears, as intensely human and self-concerned as ourselves. The past is still alive and its waves and ripples lap around our feet, and if we are not careful the deluge accompanying past disasters and judgments will overwhelm us. History is not random or unsupervised. God, the moral governor of time and space, presides over the human tale from Eden to Eternity and his exhortation to remember, a strong Biblical injunction, includes the reviewing of the past so that we do not relive its catastrophes, especially in a spiritual sense.
This is the inestimable value of the Bible. It is God’s record of the past from a moral and spiritual perspective. It is his revelation of the ultimate future on the basis of assessment of human preference and performance. What have we done, how have we fared throughout the span of time allotted to us? We can read God’s verdict on our performance and prospects in his commentary on the tendencies of human nature sufficiently attested to in the canon of Sacred Scripture. Enough time has expired for God to give his judgment on the performance and prospects of our race collectively and individually. External elements of our experience may vary, but internally we remain the same. We possess inherent habits inherited from Adam and obvious in the desires and deeds of his descendants without exception, which means we moderns are going to replicate the ways of our predecessors more completely than we would prefer to admit. We pride ourselves on maturing and mastering our lives more so than they. We condescend to them, regarding them as inferior. But we are made of the same stuff and cannot override or avoid the same defects. If we wish to understand ourselves and our times we need to insert ourselves into the narratives of Scripture and submit ourselves to its scrutiny. Perhaps by God’s grace we may be delivered from their errors and resultant rewards.
It is obvious that the Word of God was given and providentially preserved for our reading (Romans 15:4). But the Bible was not produced for rapid reading exercises or to be known only in convenient snippets characteristic of contemporary evangelicalism (favourite texts and glib quotes). The Bible is not spiritual “fast food”. It is nutrition for human ruminants. We are to read and reflect, fathom the meaning of its words, ponder and probe in prayer and research, and within bounds adopt an Ignatian method of meditation by inserting ourselves into the events and situations it describes and endeavouring to sense them as well as grab the grammar in a purely intellectual way. The Holy Spirit is the Contemporary of every generation and can assist us to feel the divine message which originates in God and includes his observations of us.
When Isaiah laments the corruption of his people and his participation in their vileness we, too, are to cry, “I am ruined!” (Isaiah 6:5). We never read the Bible as mere uninvolved spectators. We identify with its judgments and apply its promises. We shudder at its warnings and thrill to its assurances. When Isaiah describes the populace of his time as trampling the courts of the Lord and participating in sacred matters in a meaningless way (Isaiah 1:12-13) we are to question and examine the religiosity of our time and our hearts. We can imagine crowds milling into places of worship and hear their constant footfall echoing across the floors. We are to wonder if our churches and cathedrals are not filled with the same thoughtlessness, irreverence, apathy, complacency, and meaningless mutterings.
In our heads we may mingle with the crowds that followed Jesus, heard his teaching, witnessed his miracles, and share their astonishment, trusting that the truth he conveyed in word and wonder would enter our hearts. Perhaps we could stand at the foot of Calvary and witness the culminating event of Good Friday and celebrate the conquest of sin and death with the believers after the resurrection. Every event invites our attendance at the scene and our admittance into its reality. We are called upon to capture the actuality of the Biblical story as well as catch on to its saving doctrine. The doctrine is rendered more vivid and vital if we appreciate its context. When we relate to Holy Writ in this felt way we are moved to view our own time through its lens and evaluate ourselves in comparison with the characters portrayed to us. In this empathetic fashion we sense our sin and need, and, God willing, avail ourselves of the Saviour who bids us to him in the testimony of prophets and apostle. In this immediacy that is created Scripture becomes current affairs. Its headlines and treated topics strike us as being up to date – up to the minute. We begin to read the news of our day with the background of God’s insight. The present is read with a divinely supplied interpretation of motive and consequence. We trace the trail of human sin and fallibility to its origin in a degraded a nature and an irreversibly perverted heart. The mores and morals of the past were not primitive or naïve and passé. Our ancestors were sophisticated, subtle, and sly in their waywardness, warlike behaviour, greed, exploitation, and cruelty, and we are closely imitative and similar. We are to assess our administration, political establishment, judiciary, ecclesiastical institutions, and commercial organizations with a critical eye as did the prophets of Yahweh. Continental theology possibly follows their line of thought more accurately and ardently than does American. The prophets inveigh against systemic evil as much as personal wrongdoing. Europe creaks and crumbles under a tired civilization that has abandoned God. America has not yet lost its optimism. When we listen to the hubbub of contemporary corruption, complaint, etc, we are hearing the echoes of the past and experiencing the consequences of trifling with God.