I have recently realized that, despite my best intentions, I am guilty of chronological snobbery.

It is a humbling—but helpful—understanding. It has helped me to make sense out of my own bewilderment over these past few years.

Let me explain.

I teach British literature, specializing in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (but like most professors, teaching a good bit outside my specialty). Therefore, I teach a lot of church history, too, as it’s impossible to teach the history and literature of England apart from the influence of the church.

Thus, when I teach Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, I teach the context of the medieval church. When we get to the “The Pardoner’s Tale,” I must tell my students about the corrupt authorities in and around the church who sold indulgences, peddled the “magic” of holy relics, and offered pardons of sin for money.

As we move along in English history, I try to help my students understand how high the stakes were for nearly all in this time who claimed the Christian faith, regardless of doctrine or denomination. When teaching the Elizabethan era, I remind my students of the fates of the Bishops Hugh Latimer, John Hooper, and Nicholas Ridley, and others who were burned at the stake for their theological (and political) positions. To make sense of seventeenth century writers such as Bunyan, Milton, and Donne, I have to cover a dizzying range of regulations and constraints, such as the Star Chamber, licenses, acts, and decrees that governed citizens, congregations, and markets.

When teaching slave narratives like that by Olaudah Equiano, I attempt the impossible task of helping my students understand how not only everyday Christians but even ministers and leaders in the church during that period could ignore the evidence of their ears and eyes and testimony of their brothers and sisters in Christ by defending the indefensible evil of slavery.

When teaching early novels like Samuel Richardson’s Pamela or Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, I need to explain to my students why so many fictional clergymen were so shallow or corrupt, so beholden to their income rather than their ministry, what it means to be a nominal Christian, and how a state-sponsored Christianity was so detrimental to genuine Christianity.

I try to explain all of these contexts and historical developments as dispassionately, academically, and empathetically as I can. I try to help my students understand the mindsets and blind spots of other people in other times sympathetically, urging them (and myself) not to judge with undue (but, yes, certainly, due) harshness those who lived so long ago for their ignorance, their gullibility, their corruption, and their blindness. I have assured my students that we today are no more enlightened, no more advanced, and no more knowledgeable than they in the things that really matter.

But I realize now that I don’t think I believed my own words. Not really.

Because how else can I explain my shock and horror in response to so many things that have been revealed about our own culture, our own church, in recent years, months, and days?

How else could I find unfathomable the widespread acceptance of conspiracy theories, the barbaric violence by our nation’s citizens in the halls of our own government, and the eyes blinded to abuse and grift—if not because deep down I really thought that we today are better than our counterparts throughout history? In fact, I think I may have, without even being consciously aware of it, thanked God that we are not like those poor sinners.

But now I see that we are.

We are no different from our forebears, at least not in any substantive way. Our manners and methods may have changed, but we are not wiser, more moral, more faithful, or less naive than those poor, illiterate parishioners swindled by Chaucer’s pardoner, or those violent Roundheads and Cavaliers willing to defend their doctrine with their swords, or those rationalizing traffickers of human flesh, or those mercenary ministers treating their assignments like mere government posts.

The events of one hundred or one thousand years ago seem so clear to those of us examining them through the pages of literature and history books. So why has it been so hard for me to see the troubles of the church in my own time when it is so easy to see theirs then? I guess for the same reasons it was difficult for them.

Just as they were, I am part of the systems and structures which, along with doing good, do evil. Knowing people who have abused or harbored abuse and corruption, working with them, even loving them, I see now how complicated it all is. I see how hard it is when you are in the middle of it, living in the moment, to see the bigger picture, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And how hard it can be, when you are on the inside, even when you do see the truth, to do the right thing.

Nevertheless, God and future professors like me will judge us.

And we can’t even begin to judge the past until we know how to judge the present.

Karen Swallow Prior

Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Karen Swallow Prior, Ph. D., is Research Professor of English and Christianity and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

4 Comments

  • Jerry Pattengale says:

    Thanks. I’ve taken that similar journey of giving context through the centuries, and even realize our fallen nature is the same today as then. Working the past few years on a tome for Tyndale House on martyrs has reminded me nearly daily of the not so opaque window into the human condition. I still find hope, however, and a melange of inspiring stories today among the faithful.

  • David Ward says:

    Thank you Karen. A thoughtful and convicting essay that I will share with other colleagues. God bless.

  • Dan Ippolito says:

    Let’s not forget that our culture acquiesces in the slaughter of the unborn – some day Christians will wonder at our blindness if not outright complicity.

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