Culture At Large

Paul Revere, Sarah Palin and our habit of rewriting history

Bethany Keeley-Jonker

I’ve seen a lot of stories lately about people telling versions of the past that might not be exactly right.

Perhaps you’ve seen Sarah Palin’s version of Paul Revere’s midnight ride, in which Revere warned the British with bells and warning shots that they weren’t going to take our arms. In the generally accepted story, he sneaks away to warn the colonists with lanterns and words that the redcoat forces are on their way to Lexington and Concord. What struck me about Palin’s version of events is how much her Revere resembled a Mama Grizzly: feisty and brash.

That made me think of this book review in The Christian Century. The book being reviewed addresses the complicated question: Was America founded as a Christian nation? The author concludes this may be a bad question “because it arises not from a rich understanding of the past but from present-day polemics.” Here again, people are trying to understand the heroes of our past in a way that makes them look more like what we want for today. We’re asking questions of the past that makes sense to us, but not necessarily to them.

But American history isn’t the only story that tends to squish around a bit to serve our own purposes or reflect our own desires. Christians sometimes do the same thing to the Bible. Our cultural wisdom or assumptions have a funny way of coloring the way we understand the Bible, and sometimes we imagine our modern proverbs are actually found in the Bible when they aren’t. A recent CNN article covers a few of the more popular ones, such as, “God helps those who help themselves” and “this too shall pass.”

A Facebook page calls these statements “Bibleish” – things that might be wise, but not in the Bible. Some of these “Bibleish” stories and details are a matter of tradition. The fruit in the garden of Eden probably wasn’t an apple, for instance, and the story of Jonah describes a “big fish” not a whale. Lately I’ve been wondering why “Jezebel” got turned into a name fired at promiscuous or seductive women, when from my perspective, the Bible character’s main sin was promoting a false religion. Surely her manipulation of King Ahab and worship of Baal was more serious than her vanity. Could modern uses of her name tell us more about what our culture fears in women than what the Bible story includes?

Perhaps we need to be more careful any time the Bible or a historical hero is conveniently confirming our assumptions about the world rather than challenging them. Because when we only use the Bible to justify what we think we know, we’re not letting it transform us. It might be a powerful text for backing up an argument, but it’s an even more powerful one for changing our perspective. We don’t do ourselves any favors by flattening the characters of the Bible or our common history, or by slowly morphing them into ourselves.

Accessing the Bible as a living, powerful document is hard work, and it’s dangerous. It might undermine our ideas and change our entire lives. How do we keep ourselves from drifting into demagoguery rather than approaching the Bible as a living document?

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, The Bible, News & Politics, History, North America