Dispatches from the History Major: Presentism and Jesus

I hope you are enjoying “Dispatches from the History Major.”  Here is the next installment from Messiah College sophomore history major James Mueller.  –JF

Presentism is old news at this point in my college career. 

During my first year at Messiah College, I took Introduction to History with Dr. Fea and within the first two weeks we were discussing the concept of a “usable past,” using his book Why Study History? as our guide. After we finished talking about the ways the past informs, inspires, and provides us with meaning, Dr. Fea, in a subsequent discussion on the past as a “foreign country,” made sure to highlight the dangers of consuming the past in this way. I learned that we need to take the past on its own terms and not project our own modern biases on the people who came before us. The following year, when I took Historical Methods, Dr. LaGrand had his students read an article he wrote called “The Problems of Preaching Through History.” This article and subsequent class discussion further convinced me of the problems of examining the past with a modern agenda.

I’m glad my professors introduced me to these historical concepts early in my college career, because I see manifestations of them everywhere. The one which makes me cringe the most, and the one I’m going to talk about here, is the way people manipulate the historical person of Jesus Christ. 

My most recent encounter with this issue occurred when I was reading Jane Addams’ Twenty Years at Hull House last week for my U.S. Urban History class. I was struck by the way Addams ignored the ideological teachings of Christ and instead focused instead on his social teachings. For this progressive pioneer, Christ was a radical political figure who preached social equality and upset the status quo, not a spiritually-minded rabbi who focused on particular or exclusive teachings. Her Jesus was a progressive Jesus.

This got me thinking about all the other types of Jesus I’ve encountered in my life: Republican Jesus, Democrat Jesus, best friend Jesus, Caucasian Jesus, hippie Jesus, somber Jesus, military Jesus, homosexual Jesus, Jesus the 6-year-old wizard, lovey-dovey Jesus, angry Jesus…I’m sure you could add some more to my list if you gave it some thought.

A few of these types of Jesus may offended you. A few of these types of Jesus may have seemed almost accurate. All of them are reflective of historical presentism in some way or another.

And that’s why I wanted to write about this issue. Characteristically, we fail to think in the dimension of time (especially when it comes to Jesus) and this makes us oblivious to the pitfalls of presentism. However, as a Christian I believe that God chose to reveal himself to us as a creature in time. Therefore, it is imperative that we give Christ the same amount of respect that historians try to give other historical figures. Instead of projecting our own modern stereotypes onto him, we need to take Jesus on his own terms in his own historic time period.    

One thought on “Dispatches from the History Major: Presentism and Jesus

  1. What a thoughtful, informed post–the work of someone who hasn't just studied history, but has learned to think like a historian.


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