Last week I began a series of articles recounting some spiritual lessons I learned while globetrotting across western Europe. The first of those lessons was, very simply, the value of Christian history. Everywhere you look, across Europe, are spires, and monuments, and statues, and so on … many of them reminders of men and women who lived (and often died) to serve the Lord Jesus Christ as faithfully as they knew how. So much so that it almost seems as if every town (especially in Protestant-rich Scotland) has an encouraging Christian story to tell.
But something struck me as Justin and I stopped off at many of these plaques and places – namely that there weren’t many others stopping off (with a few notable exceptions!). Cars swooshed by. Crowds of tourists with their cameras ushered past. And locals with their lattes in hand hurried by, on their way to work or lunch. And most of them seemed completely oblivious to the momentous events that took place on the very cobblestone patches of sidewalk on which they were walking! So that’s the second lesson from Europe: The sadness of history forgotten.
Now let’s at least give the locals the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps if I drove by Thomas Boston’s ruined church, or John Knox’s burial site five days a week, I’d become pretty oblivious, too. And, for all I know, there may be some hugely important historical location right under my nose here in Pleasant Ridge that I don’t even know about! So maybe that’s the reason few people seem to notice the famous churches, graves, and monuments. But I halfway think that the reason many European people do not know (or acknowledge) the Christian history all around them is because, in some cases, they’d prefer not to remember (or acknowledge) it.
The classic example of this (maybe not just in Europe, but in the whole world) is the burial place of John Knox. Knox not only brought the full force of the Protestant Reformation (and thus, the good news) to Scotland, but he also organized the Presbyterian Church, which has been the dominant religious group in the country for 450 years. Furthermore, he led Scotland to be the first nation in the world to make public education a priority for every citizen and, through his politics and religion, laid the foundation for the democracy that is now enjoyed as the only acceptable norm throughout the entire English speaking world! Politically, John Knox was something akin to the Thomas Jefferson of Scotland. And theologically, he was the Martin Luther of the English speaking world. But today people park their cars on top of his grave site! I’ll explain …
As I said last week, the church building in which Knox preached the gospel so powerfully is located on the Royal Mile, which undoubtedly has to be the most popular historic and tourist destination in all of Scotland. And St. Giles Cathedral is (besides the castles at either end of the Mile), the most noticeable building on the street. Indeed, the church’s spire is one of the dominating landmarks on the Edinburgh skyline. Everyone who goes to Edinburgh sees and knows St. Giles. And, not surprisingly, John Knox is buried in the old churchyard. But here’s the catch. Some years ago, the churchyard was paved over and turned into a parking lot for the church and nearby political offices. And, not only did they not leave the Knox tomb cordoned off as a special, fenced in historical landmark … but they didn’t even put a sign or a plaque in the pavement to tell you that John Knox is buried beneath your radiator! The only indication that space 23 is any different from the others is a one-foot-square piece of concrete (with no inscription) laid flush with the asphalt next to the number ‘23’. In other words, if you didn’t know the story of Knox’s tomb being paved over, you’d probably assume that the little yellow-painted slab concealed a plugged up drain hole or something of the sort!
Now, austere and self-effacing man that he was, Knox would probably not be alarmed at the hiddenness of his burial plot. And neither should we be if no one ever knows where our bodies lie at rest. But the reason it’s so sad is not because they have merely forgotten Knox, but that he seems to have been intentionally obscured. In other words, Knox isn’t buried in space 23 as a way of honoring his humility … but as a way of hiding the legacy of a man whose staunch Bible-based theology, frankly, embarrasses most modern Scots. Many people don’t want to remember Knox. And, in their most touristy area, the powers that be have made an intentional effort to obscure him from view as much as possible – because of what he believed!
And my sense is that this kind of ignorance is the reason why so many other sites go unnoticed as well. It’s not that Mary and Tom and Jane intentionally ignore the martyr’s monuments and so on. It’s that the culture in which they live is now embarrassed by what those martyrs and preachers believed … and thus draws very little attention to their memorials. And the result is that many people, I feel sure, have no idea what they’re walking past! They’ve forgotten the history, at least partially so that they might also forget the theology. That’s the sense I get, anyway. And it’s a sad thing – and one that happens in America in much the same way!
So let us be different. Let us remember Christian history – not mainly for the sake of the men and women of the past, but for the sake of the God and the truth which they served!