Past Imperfect

Now, here’s a thing….. I have a book that I like to look at every now and then – ‘Past Imperfect – History according to the movies’.  It takes various movies purporting to be based upon real historical events and looks at how accurate they are.  Some are more accurate than you might think, some less so.  Some that are more accurate in terms of historical detail may be less accurate in actually conveying some form of historical truth.

My favourite comment in the whole book is one made about the 1992 film ‘Last of the Mohicans.’ (A film I really like and often find myself watching when I see it is on TV) – ‘People just like us except more beautiful dress up in exotic costumes and pretend they are, well, just like us except more beautiful’.  What that alludes to is that the main characters, especially Hawkeye and Cora Munro, played by a young Daniel Da-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe,  move through a story set 250 years before and exhibit the mannerism and (more importantly) values and prejudices of modern times (as well as being more beautiful than most of us!)

So, why is that worthy of comment here? Well, how we perceive the beliefs and actions of people from the past is currently a very hot topic.  We see statues being toppled because the subject of them had in the past some connection with slavery, racism or imperialism (I read at the weekend of objections to statues of Queen Victoria who held amongst other titles that of ‘Empress of India. Ditto for statues of Abraham Lincoln in America.)

Here we see, of course, the reverse of the Last of the Mohicans (1992) – the requirement that people from the past hold to modern-day values and prejudices and that they be held up for criticism and reprehension if they do not.  Generally my view on this is that we need to try and not be too silly about, this.  Both those attacking historical figures and those defending them should recognise that those people lived in past times and that whilst their views and actions need to be viewed through that prism, that does not mean that we can or should gloss over those aspects of their lives that today would come under much greater scrutiny. But as L.P. Hartley the novelist said ‘“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

De-bunking reputations for the sake of it is not a helpful exercise (although many people find it to be a profitable one!), but remember also  Nebuchadnezzar’s dream interpreted for him by Daniel, the giant gleaming statue with feet made partly of iron and partly of baked clay. (Daniel 2:31-33). Remember that statue toppled.

However, there remains also the fact that modern-day values and beliefs are often not only very different from what they were in the distant past but also quite often different from the quite recent past – people can be pilloried today not only for views that were the norm 30 years ago but that were seen to be very progressive and in the forefront of change.

We do live in a very different world to that in which the Scriptures were written but remember, as Graham reminded us in an excellent sermon a few years ago, many of those changes were wrought through the spread of the Christian Gospel and the lives and works of many Christians. (We can include in this list freedom of expression, the raising of the status of women and children, the protection of the vulnerable and the humanising of the judicial system).  How the teaching we find in the scriptures plays in society out does change over time. For example, we no longer think it is right and proper that people should be hanged for stealing  a sheep or that 4 year-old children should be carrying out dangerous industrial activities. Some issues are fiercely-debated even between Christians with a high view of the Scriptures – capital punishment for example.

At the same time, there is much in the scriptures which, if taken at face-value cannot be applied any differently today than it was when it was written. By holding to the scriptures we may appear to be as much out of our times as Day-Lewis and Stowe appear to be in 1757, but some things do not and should not change.