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The Bible and history can be complicated

Anyone who reads the Bible knows that history is complicated. The Bible is story after story of imperfect people succeeding and failing in just about every way imaginable.

Mike Denton - Conference Minister

Some of the same people involved in amazing, miraculous moments are some of the same people involved in soul-crushing depravity. Some of the ancient interpretations of actions by God or humanity as heroic end up being horrific to our modern eyes.

Some of the rules and laws that made sense because of what was understood to be true thousands of years ago make little sense based on what we know now.

The history represented in the Bible is complicated because people—then and now—are complicated. Our viewpoints on what we read are dictated by what we see in our context, where we live, who our friends and family are, and what we are taught is true.

The identities we choose and those identities given to us are like a prism that adds its own angle and perspective to what we read. Our self-interest plays no small part. I don’t know who said it first, but the idea that sometimes we read the Bible, and sometimes the Bible reads us, rings true.

These realities about the history represented in the Bible apply to history overall. Whether that history is a week-old or thousands of years old, all these same factors are at play.

So, when we look at our history, we have to be careful and adventurous. We can accept history doctrinally and base it on what we believe, regardless of facts that might seem contradictory to what we were taught was true, or mindfully so that we understand it deeply, honestly, and sometimes even confessionally.

Winston Churchill’s version of an often repeated saying was, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

A perspective we uncritically adopt as our own or receive as uncritically true can be part of that failure. Failing to learn from and about our history causes catastrophic pain in the lives of others and can trap us in prisons of circular thinking. Being deprived of truth can inhibit our growth and development in ways that crush the world.

As we in Pacific Northwest Conference learn to live into our commitment to oppose racism, part of what we have to do is learn from our history so that we’re not doomed to repeat it and don’t doom each other to suffering.

Like all history, ours is complicated, too. Taking time to look back can help us move forward.

Murder at the Mission by Blaine Harden is a book that came out this April. It reflects on the legacy of Marcus Whitman. When I first moved here, his name was a name I heard a lot when learning about the Protestant church history and frontier history of the Northwest in the 1800s.

He was affiliated with both up the Congregational Church and Presbyterian Church in different parts of his life. Eventually, he was sent by the Presbyterian and Congregational American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions to the Pacific Northwest to Christianize and “civilize” the Native Americans who lived here.

In one version of this history, Whitman becomes a martyr and a hero, but history is complicated. This book tells a much fuller story, and some of it is ours. I’ve already started it, and it reads like a novel. I’d like to invite you to read this book with me this summer.

Those interested may order the book and invite other members of their congregations to do the same. After reading and discussing the book together, there will be an opportunity to  participate in an online conversation about the book. For information, email I’ll send information on when we’ll meet in the second half of July

History is complicated because we’re complicated, but learning about those complications helps us to live fuller, more honest and more just lives with each other, the kind of lives I’m convinced God offers to all of us if we open our hearts to receiving it.


Pacific NW UCC News © July 2021


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