Starting this month, Houston Baptist University is hosting a unique traveling museum exhibit, Lee and Grant, on our campus. Organized by the Virginia Historical Society and made possible with the generous support of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the exhibition provides a comprehensive reassessment of the lives, careers, and historical impact of Civil War generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, all held in the year we mark the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. Considering this, the Spring 2009 issue of The City features a forum concerning Faith and War, focused on the American Civil War but extending to the modern day. We’re proud to feature Wilfred McClay‘s essay on Lincoln among them.
We sometimes think of the past as nothing more than antique curiosities on a shelf, statuettes of marble and amber whose moment of living reality has passed. But that is not necessarily so. Sometimes the past can be far more vital and lifegiving than the present, precisely because it frees us from the prison of the proximate and the familiar, a world cluttered with too many human fingerprints, and brings us closer to the beginnings of things. The word “archaic” is generally used as a pejorative in our speech. But it comes from the Greek arche, which refers not only to the antiquity of things but to their foundational character. They are first not only in time, but in principle. En arche en ho logos, begins St. John’s Gospel: In the beginning was the Word. There is endless novelty buried in these ancient terms, for an arche is the deep spring from which all else emanates. And there is endless mystery, for the arche is a cause, not an effect.
Our initial encounter with first things can be startling, precisely because the very means by which we are nourished become unfamiliar with the passage of time. Consider our reaction to another of the oldest artifacts of our civilization, the Homeric epics. We often fail to grasp their power. The great journalist Rebecca West and her husband described their encounter in the 1930s with remote Yugoslav tribesmen who still sang and recited oral epics in the Homeric fashion. These bards recounted actions that “must have been made a million million million times since the world began,” but in each new telling seemed “absolutely fresh.” Thus, when one reads in the Iliad of a man drawing a bow or raising a sword, “it is,” West wrote, “as if the dew of the world’s morning lay undisturbed on what he did.” Far from being old and dead, the past draws life from its closeness to the origins of things.
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