My high school graduation class held its 60th anniversary reunion a month ago.
Listening to the animated chatter about the old days, one might assume we grew up in the best possible times, in the best possible environment. No drugs. No gangs. No guns. No racial tensions—if only because our school had no other races to discriminate against. Some alcohol abuse, of course. And rampant hormones, even if we were rather naive about sex itself.
Perhaps everyone has this feeling about their childhood.
Unless, of course, you grew up in a refugee camp in Lebanon or Somalia, a death camp in Germany, a gulag in Siberia.
Yet even Siberia can look good in hindsight. A friend describes how the Russians uprooted his relatives from the temperate Ukraine, herded them into cattle cars, dumped them some 40 miles outside of Novosibirsk in central Siberia. The people dug pits in the ground, thatched with birch branches, to survive the bitter winters. Many didn’t survive.
One of their descendants now owns a summer place on the Black Sea, back in Ukraine. But he goes home to Novosibirsk.
Paul McCartney wrote: “Oh, I believe in yesterday.” It’s not commonly considered a religious song. But it voices a recurring theme of religions.
When Moses led the Hebrew slaves into the desert, they wanted to go back to the lush fields of the Nile.
When foreign powers conquered Israel, the biblical prophets re-visioned David as the ideal ruler.
Christians look back to Jesus, Muslims to Mohammed, Buddhists to Siddhartha Gautama, Sikhs to Guru Nanak.
Somehow we persuade ourselves that those who came before us must have had a better handle on truth than we do.
Granted, the early Christian “fathers” lived closer to biblical events than we do. But none of them were actually there. They depended on stories several generations old—essentially gossip, passed along.
Oral narratives can be surprisingly accurate. But only if the people passing along the story consider it important enough to memorize. The disciples who bummed around with Jesus didn’t recognize, at the time, that their experiences would eventually be considered world-changing, let alone endlessly interpreted and re-interpreted. Not until later did they say to themselves, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he spoke?”
Remember, no one took shorthand in those days. No one had a video camera or a digital audio recorder.
So early theologians viciously argued their own interpretations of oral traditions that they had no way of checking.
Yet today their invective is considered more authoritative about Christian doctrine than later, better researched and better informed, opinions. Simply because it’s older.
We forget that contrary views written off as heresies were equally old.
Ancient writers had only one advantage over us—they still lived in the imperial culture that Paul and Jesus knew. If they’d had another 1900 years to learn and reflect, they might have reconsidered their doctrines.
They didn’t have that opportunity. We do.
Yes, in some ways, my student years were the best years of my life. But I wouldn’t want to go back to that time. Older is not always better.