The Battle for History
It is a universal human phenomenon that we live our lives forwards, whilst hoping we will understand them better when looking backwards, yet history has often been described by thinkers and philosophers as an impenetrable mystery. We read history and visit historical sites and monuments, digging up the past as a tourist attraction. We’re frequently enchanted by what has gone before and some dream of making history like their heroes from one age or another. Paradoxically, our fascination with history is directly tied to our concern for the shape of the future. Since none of us know what is to come, the contingency of past events makes history the battleground of the future – since the truly historical event is that which gives formative shape to culture.
In the book of Daniel, the king of Babylon dreams of what is to be when he sees a great image of various materials smashed with an uncut stone, but he does not understand its meaning. When God reveals the meaning of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream to Daniel – a prophetic prediction of the rising and falling of specific kingdoms and nations – he responds with prayer and worship, confessing God’s sovereign government over the historical process:
“Blessed be the name of God forever and ever,
For wisdom and might are His.
And He changes the times and the seasons;
He removes kings and raises up kings;
He gives wisdom to the wise
And knowledge to those who have understanding.
He reveals deep and secret things;
He knows what is in the darkness,
And light dwells with Him.” (Daniel 2:20-22)
The true nature of history raises a profoundly practical and relevant question for every society because, although the ultimate ordering of the times and seasons is in God’s hand, the way human beings view their past directly impacts the rising and falling of nations. It has been observed that the most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history. The quote is apocryphal, but commonly attributed to George Orwell. In any event, we are seeing in our own time how accurate this statement is.
The reason for this phenomenon is bound up with the deep connection that exists between the past, present and future in the character and consciousness of a culture: who we are is who we were. If a people’s understanding of their own history is radically altered, it will have a far-reaching effect on their present view of themselves and their cultural life – so much so that a profound change of historical perception can precipitate the eventual collapse of a nation. I do not mean that new discoveries or insights here and there regarding specific details of events in a people’s history changes a culture, but the transformation of their understanding of the meaning of that history.
In a recent article in the Daily Telegraph, the prominent Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson wrote movingly of his love and admiration for Great Britain. After describing his journey through some of the illustrious institutions of learning and corridors of power in England he writes:
[T]he people of Great Britain have granted the world a gift whose power stands in permanent opposition to our most appalling proclivities as individuals and societies. That gift is the political expression of the sanctification of the word — freedom in speech, imagination and thought: freedom to engage in the very process that builds and rebuilds habitable order itself from the chaos that eternally surrounds us. And that freedom is expressed in many ways, small and great, in the British Isles: in the wit of its people, in the effectiveness of its institutions, in the beauty of its art and literature, in the political and psychological presumptions that guide private discourse and public conception and action. And that is most particularly why I love Great Britain. And that is why, people of that realm (and not only of that realm), you should love her too, despite her sins, with your eyes lifted upward, your hope to the future, and the word of truth and faith on your tongues.
Though presently under severe threat and eroding little by little each passing year, this perception still forms part of the historic self-understanding of the British, and more generally, Anglo-American peoples. However, if the history of the British nation and former empire is reimagined and primarily understood, not as a varied and complex story of the gradual emergence of a free commonwealth of nations – in which commerce, governmental administration, technology, modern medicine, education, democracy, rule of law, the principles of justice, Christian faith and morality were spread (fallibly and falteringly), through large parts of the world – but rather as a tale of unmitigated oppression, racism, slavery, exploitation, cruelty and war, then the cultural and moral confidence of a remarkable island people will be gradually shattered.
The same could be said of the history of the United States in the twentieth and early twenty-first century. Winston Churchill, who was half American, once evocatively described the American as “the Englishman left to himself.” Has the United States Constitution, inherited legal tradition, free institutions, historically free markets and broader role in the world been generally a force for good or evil, justice or injustice, when compared to other cultures and nations? How Americans understand their history will profoundly affect their cohesion as a people, the vitality and survival of their culture. It is for this reason that in America, Britain, Canada, Australia and various other parts of the British commonwealth, there is a struggle going on for history, its meaning and significance.
The contemporary phenomenon of widespread self-hatred among the Anglo-American peoples – religiously catalyzed by a spiritual uprooting and concurrent loss of moral and cultural confidence – is due in very significant part to a decade’s long, self-conscious and deliberate effort of radical ‘progressive’ (Marxist) intellectuals in the West, especially in the institutions of learning, the church, arts and culture, to undermine and obliterate the Anglo-American peoples’ Christian understanding of their own history. The distortion of history to invoke self-hatred in a once-Christian people inescapably implies hatred of the God the Anglo-American peoples once served. The impact of this revisionism has been profound, and our culture is decaying and declining fast as a result.
The people of Israel had a remarkable historic calling and self-understanding as the covenant people of God – a priestly nation summoned to take God’s Word of promise to the nations and model righteousness and justice before the peoples in terms of obedience to God’s law. God sent numerous prophets – who often foretold future events – with history lessons for the people to remind them who brought them out of the land of Egypt, from bondage and slavery and made them a free people for God’s own possession. When an apostate king among the Hebrews wanted to lead them away to serve other gods for his own purposes he reinterpreted the meaning of their history:
Jeroboam said to himself, “The way things are going now, the kingdom might return to the house of David. If these people regularly go to offer sacrifices in the Lord’s temple in Jerusalem, the heart of these people will return to their lord… Then he made two golden calves, and he said to the people, “Going to Jerusalem is too difficult for you. Israel, here is your Godwho brought you out of the land of Egypt.” He set up one in Bethel, and put the other in Dan. This led to sin; the people walked in procession before one of the calves all the way to Dan (1 Kings 12:26-30)
History has again become a battleground for the future and a struggle over worship. Our life and history will express the result of our dominant thoughts about ourselves and most especially ourselves in relation to God.
 Jordan Peterson, ‘Why I love Great Britain’, The Telegraph, last modified Dec. 14, 2021, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2021/12/14/love-great-britain/.