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EPISODE 19: Discipleship through the Study of History
It’s easy to get stuck in the present and not learn or benefit from the past. Dave Moore loves history but laments that many Christians don’t share his enthusiasm. But this is more than a matter of taste. We must value how God has worked in the past or we’ll not grow in our faith the ways we need to.
by David George Moore
Welcome to Questions That Matter, a podcast of the C.S. Lewis Institute. I'm your host, Randy Newman, and today my conversation partner is Dave Moore. I'm really excited to have this time together together with Dave. Let me tell you a little bit about him: He's the president and founder of Two Cities Ministries. He helps Christians think deeply, and he does a number of different things. He's an author. He's written quite a few articles. He's written a couple for us, the C.S. Lewis Institute, and he's just written a book about history, Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians. Dave, welcome to Questions That Matter.
Thanks, Randy. Great being with you.
Addressing a Problem
As I have read through this book, you were trying to address a problem. What's the problem that you were trying to address?
Well, the problem is a couple of things, but mainly, I'd say, in the present moment in America, we have a really bad combination of significant ignorance coupled with significant arrogance.We know less about stuff going on, but we're feeling like we're more beholding to tell people how little we know in very animated ways. The typical American—this is not anything different, whether you're a Christian or otherwise. Typical American is trying to figure out the present moment via two major “news feeds.” One is social media, and the other would be cable news. And neither one of them has a historic sense. Neither one of them has good reference points. It's just a constant bombardment of the latest shock du jour. And that hardly makes it adequate to really assess what's going on in the present. So we're trying to figure out the present mainly, if not exclusively, by present reference points. It doesn't work.
You have, at the very beginning of the book, that very important quote by George Santayana. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I almost felt like there should have been a very long pause after that quote and just like a blank white page, telling your readers, “Just stop for a second. Just try to grapple with that.” Boy, that's really disturbing. You said we're dealing with ignorance and arrogance, but did I hear you correctly? That you're not necessarily, or are you saying—is it worse for Christians? Are Christians worse at this than non-Christians? Or are we just all in a mess?
I think Christians are certainly no better, as far as I can tell. Like you, I speak in a lot of different places. I interact with a lot of largely Christian audiences. Not exclusively, but largely. A lot are college graduates, so they're literate. A lot of them, frankly, have graduate degrees, but I find that most of them are not reading serious books, certainly in history, literature, theology, and they are animated and agitated by what they're getting in their Facebook ghettos, echo chambers, silos, whatever you want to call them, and by their cable news of choice, which, for the audiences I speak to is largely Fox, but not exclusively. By the way, just so anyone listening to this knows, when we had cable TV, I watched all three. It was not an enjoyable experience trying to figure out, ferret out what is the truth. So I would go through MSNBC, CNN, and Fox, but all of them are echo chambers, and all of them kind of speak to their own constituencies. So we've got a very significant problem, and we've got resources as Christians, but we're not availing ourselves, sadly, of those really good resources.
All right, so let's turn it in a more positive direction, because your book, I think, is rather positive. I mean, the subtitle of your book is “How History Frees and Forms Christians.” So let's start with the freeing. How does studying, reading, valuing the past, how does that free Christians?
Well, C.S. Lewis, as you well know the essay “On the Reading of Old Books,” “On the Incarnation” and “God in the Dock,” also has probably other places. But he says that, to really understand the present moment, you have to leave it, either by traveling to a very different culture or traveling in time via a book, an old book, about a different time. And how it frees us is that, like in the modern era, obviously, we're really frenetic and fast paced and multitasking and the faster, the more, the better. And we have this view of progress being totally linear and just goes in one direction. The faster we go, the better off we are. And a lot of people that are struggling in the modern era may start to have an intuitive sense of like something seems not quite right about those assumptions of modernity. So they read an older book or they engage, let's say, another time, let's say the medieval period, and they read, as I did, at the very beginning of a classic text on medieval history that the average family during that period, if they had a decent loaf of bread and a modest bottle of wine, they offered long prayers to God in gratitude. Now think about our time. Juxtapose that with the way we eat meals. We have this unbelievable abundance,and the faster that we pray, the better, because we can get to the real thing, which is the food. So it frees us to really see the assumptions and the biases and gives us perspective, which is very much related to how it forms us as well, because it starts to cause us to go, “That’s not right! I need to maybe be formed by other values,” and there's other virtues that were elevated at different times, and speed and all that kind of thing of modernity was certainly not one of them.
Now, speak a little bit more about how it forms us. So studying the past frees us, so that we can see the current moment in a larger perspective and gain insight. How does itform us?
Meaning the more we pay attention to history, it makes us into different kinds of people. Speak to that a little bit. How does it form us? Well, a good example maybe would be an example from the 19th century. The way the houses were designed, typically, where the hearth was the gathering spot. Andy Crouch talks about this very thing in an article that he did years ago. And then, as we moved out of the19th century, the hearth became the furnace, which then got put in the garage or away from the home, and other centering places became the gathering spots. You could argue, I think, pretty easily—it wouldn't take much argument. I've asked people, and they all get the right answer. What is now the centering spot in the family? And they go, “The family room, the TV, the game, the video thing, that's the gathering spot.”
And so you can say, “Well, how is that forming us? How is the assumption the that gathering spot is now media and—nothing wrong with TV and nothing wrong necessarily with video games. It's all an issue of, “What is that doing to us?” And you probably saw the piece that Philip Yancey did a couple of years ago, where he was talking about, here he is, best-selling author of 20, 25 books, used to reading, as he said in the article, very large books by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and others. And he said, the last couple of years, he's seen in his own life this precipitous drop in his ability to concentrate and sit for long periods of time. And he chalked it up directly to his time with email and media and checking out things. So that's formed him, but it's formed him in bad ways, just like reading a good book or being able to sit still, which Pascal said is an ancient problem, back to the 17th century. Man can't sit still in his room, and that’s a big problem. All these practices form or malform us.
So history, I think, good history, can form us and give us better reference points and give us a stability of spirit that we're not going to get from video games and Internet chats and all that kind of stuff. Except with you. This is forming me really well.
Good. I think. So I should have done my homework and dug in and found out about your academic past. I know you've studied theology at both Dallas Seminary and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. What was your undergrad degree? I don't think I know that. Was it history?
No. Actually, I wish I had done history. I did communication, and mainly the reason was the Christian ministry I was involved with. A lot of people were switching their majors to communication, and some of the most influential people in that ministry early on were doing that, so I just kind of followed suit. And they were making a case that it's going to be a great major to have as a person going into ministry. And it's true. It definitely—classes like rhetoric and speech communication were pretty helpful. If I could do it again, I would have done history for sure.
Okay. But for our discussion, this is actually a plus, the fact that you weren't a history major. Because I have this fear that some of our listeners will listen to this, and they'll say, “Well, yeah, Dave Moore, sure, he was a history major. That's why he's into history.” But you weren't. But you see the value of it. And as a non officially trained person, you've dug into it. So let's point things a little bit in that direction. What would be your hope, after people read your book and they become convinced, “Yeah, Dave Moore's right. I'm stuck in the present, and I need to value more about reading about the past and studying it.” How do people start? Or where would you point them to start developing a life long pursuit of reading history?
Well, I appreciate that question because my book really is trying to do two big things. One, it's trying to elevate the importance, the practical importance of study of history for our freedom and formation. But the other thing it's doing, as you know, is giving some strategies of how to learn and how to learn best. So let me answer your question, the nub of it, this way,because I think this will be the most helpful: Most people hearing this, because I've had this conversation a gazillion times, is they'll say, “I would like to start. I'm just overwhelmed. I don't know much about ancient history. I don't know much about the Enlightenment, medieval period, Reformation. I don't know much about anything. It's just all kind of a blur tome. Where in the world would I start?”
Well, I'm a big believer that pedagogically it is really wise to get the big picture down pretty clearly and go more specific from there. I think a lot of churches really miss it here. When I got my first computer, the graduate student at Stanford that was helping me with it, I told him, I said, “Look, I know that the keypad mimics the typewriter, same keys, same places. I know that. I know the difference between hardware and software. But I don't want you to assume that I know anything. So from the ground up, I want you to build my literacy on the computer.” In the church, and I mentioned the church, you know this, you can be in a good Bible teaching church for 20, 30 years. And I've had people ask me. “We're singing, ‘I raise my ebenezer to you,’” which is a great, as you know, stone of help from Samuel. And we're singing that. We love it. We sing hosanna and hallelujah, and we're dancing to hosanna and hallelujah. And I could make some serious coin by going around and saying, “By the way,what's the difference between hosanna and hallelujah? Does it matter?”
Or the pastor slings out, “As you know, Jeremiah is a pre exilic prophet,” and then he launches into a sermon. It's like people are going, “Wait, pre exilic? That means, like, before the exile. Is that like... I think there's an Assyrian one and there's a Babylonian one.Which one is it?” And they're lost on their phone trying to figure it out. They don't have the big picture about a lot of things. And so those more specific connections are not made well.
So I would say the place to start, for anyone that hasn't studied church history or hasn't studied history, is getting a really good survey book. And there's a lot of them, on American history, on world history, on church history. Get someone you trust and say, “Hey, could you tell me an accessible, pretty comprehensive survey of,” whatever the subject is. You want to kind of get the landscape. That’s really where to begin. Unfortunately, people go, typically,“I'm ignorant, I need to study something.” So then they get like almost a monograph-typebook, a very specific book on an aspect of the ancient world, and they're going, “Oh, no wonder I've never liked history. I can't get it.” It's like, “Well, you're starting at graduate-level history.”
There's even great—as you know, there's great books on history that are for junior high and high school students. If you feel embarrassed getting it, just kind of put it in a brown bag or something and take it around with you. But read it, right?
Recommending a Survey
Yeah, because if you're reading a book that says The Seventh Grade Primer on World History, you don't want people to see that. All right, so surveys, I like that. I like that idea. Let's sell other people's books for a moment. I really liked Wilford McClay's survey of American history, The Land of Hope. Do you have one on world history that's a good survey that you recommend?
Diane Darst wrote a couple for... two volumes that are very accessible, cover the water front pretty well. D-A-R-S-T. Diane Darst. And then Spielvogel’s History of the World. More serious, but a lot of graphs. I think it's spelled S-P-I-E-L-V-O-G-E-L. That's very good. Those are helpful. But I agree with you on the American history. I interviewed Bill on that book, and as you know, in my book, I quote some of that interview and some other things from him. Land of Hope is agreat introduction to American history.
Yeah. I really liked it, and he's a great writer, so you pick the book up at first and go,“Oh, it's like 400 pages,” but you can just breeze through it. It's really well done.
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I want to interject here. There's a very important reason about remembering the past, learning from the past, history. Well, two observations: One is, it isn't it amazing, in God's word, the Bible, how much history there is? I mean, it's a whole lot of history. It's narrative retelling of the story of the nation of Israel and the early starting of the church, and so the very fact that God inspired that kind of a book for us must tell us,“Oh, remembering the past is very important.” And there are places all the way through the scriptures that say, like, 1 Corinthians 10, “These things were written for your instruction.” But there's a darker problem, and that is, I think, by essence, by nature, our fallen nature, we gravitate toward forgetting. I was thinking about Deuteronomy 8, where Moses tells us, “When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws, his decrees that I'm giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increases and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” And isn't it amazing how often the prophets and other places in the Old Testament point back to the Exodus? Don't forget you were slaves, and God delivered you. You didn't deliver yourself. You'd still be there as a slave. God did absolute miraculous things with the ten plagues and the parting of the Red Sea, and if you will force yourself to keep remembering those things, it can protect you against pride and arrogance, which you said is one of the hall marks of our time, sorry to say.
Memory is huge, both in Scripture and wise people outside. In Scripture, you’ve got, even in the post-exilic period, them retrieving the Exodus to remember God's faithfulness. So retrieving an event that happened hundreds of years before as a reminder of God is faithful and God will protect them and provide for them. And then one of my favorite books outside the Bible, The Pilgrim’s Progress, there’s a lot about memory in that book, and there's a lot about the dangers of forgetting. And memory, as Bunyan would say it, is the ability to remember what is most important when you need to remember it. So it's not only being able to ferret through all the possible true things but find the most significant and be able to have it at the ready right when you need it.
The organizational guru David Allen, Getting Things Done and Ready for Anything, he says,“Most people don't tend to forget things. They just tend to remember at the wrong time, so you're getting on a plane, and you turn to your wife and you go, ‘So you gave the keys to the neighbor to let the dog out.’ And your spouse says, ‘No, you were supposed to do that,’ so you remembered it, but that's not the best time to be remembering, as you’re walking onto the plane, right? So memory is huge. And there's a very good book on preaching that talks about memorable preaching and kind of retrieves the idea that memory, in a biblical sense, is not just mental recall. It involves that, but it's more than that, meaning that it retrieves an event like the Exodus and brings the reality of the Exodus into the present moment. So it's not just like, “Oh, yeah, I remember the Exodus. It's this far away thing, and God did this thing, and it was amazing, blah, blah, blah,” and kind of recalling all the elements of the Exodus. It's actually bringing the reality Exodus into my present life.
Very good, very good. You go after this cliche. That is a very good statement. “The past is not the past.” That's an important statement that we need to remember. But you have a whole section of why the past is not the past. Can you give us just one piece of that answer? Why is the past not the past? And what does that even mean?
Well, there's a sense in which everything that has happened still is pressing in on us, and it hasn't completely gone away. It has bearing on how we're living today. So say we're in adifficult relationship with someone, and they've asked us for forgiveness and may be we feel like the apology isn't as genuine as it should be. And so they say, “Why can't you just give it up?” let by gones be by gones type thing. Or I heard in church work—maybe you've heard this before. I heard this in church work, that we would be bringing up—many times, it would be me. I would be bringing up some things that the church had never really properly addressed,and pretty much as a crescendo, a chorus of elders—we had a large elder group of about twenty. They would almost say, to a person, they'd say, “Dave, that's the past. Forget about it.” Yeah, but the past has bearing on the present moment, and we haven’t adequately really figured out what is it about our past that we haven't processed in the best possible ways.
And so the idea of the past not being past is the past is not irrelevant. It really does press in on us, whether we like it or not, whether we're aware of it or not. It's very much active in the present. But to most Christians, the past is kind of totally irrelevant. It's like Timothy George says, “Most Christians don't know anything about the period from the death of Jesus to the birth of their grandmother.” There's a little bit of a gap there. And that's because it's like, “Oh, it's just past. That's not my life. What can a non-internet age tell me about the internet age? Nothing. It's past. No big deal.
Well, I do understand some, just some of that, “Well, that's in the past.” In that, I mean,the essence of the Christian faith is that our sins are forgiven, and so God has nailed those to the cross. And we do have verses like Paul saying, “Forgetting what lies behind, I press on.” So there is that aspect of it, but that's all wrapped up in the scriptures that tell us to remember the past. So I can understand people just selecting out certain things and, “Well, that's just the past,” but like you just said, the past does have bearing on the present.
I'm reminded, as we're talking, when Mark McGwire, the home run hitting Major League Baseball star, was accused of taking steroids and that being a very big part of his success in hitting home runs, he appeared before Congress, because Congress was investigating as to whether Major League Baseball was just filled with drugs and steroids. And he kept repeating, a number of times, whenever they asked him, “Did you take steroids?” or whatever, he said, “Well, I'm not here to discuss the past. I want to look forward. I want to move forward.” And you can see the congressmen's faces just getting frustrated, and finally one of them says, “Well, of course you're here to talk about the past. That's what you do in a trial.” Like, “You're not here to talk about the past? Sure you are. That's why we invited you here. Or demanded that you come here. That's why you're on trial.” So it's almost comical.
The Pauline passages you mentioned, those are true for sure, but then we also have to remember that, as you all know, like in the Corinthians, he delineates a bunch of sins, and he says, “Such were some of you.” He actually brings up their past life. And he also brings up his own past life in the pastoral epistles, when he talks about he's the chief of sinners. “I was a murderer., I was zealous. I was doing X, Y, and Z.” So it's not like, in pressing on, on the passage that is a great and good one, an important one—that certainly is not at the absolute exclusion of even Paul retrieving unseemly things about his own sin or the sins of people he's ministering to.
The Two Common Pitfalls
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And it does seem to me that a Christian has an alternative to the two common pitfalls. So one would be, “I don't care about the past. It’s just the past. I'm thinking about the future and the present. I'm looking ahead and denying the reality of the past.” The other is to get stuck in the past. “Well, I came from a dysfunctional family, and that's why I’m messed up, and that's why I'm always going to be messed up.” The Christian can look back at the past, at sins they committed or have been done to them, and see it in light of the gospel, and be able to be set free, again that word from your subtitle, to be set free from it without forgetting it, without negating it. And that's a beautiful place to be, of, “I was this, this, this, this. Thanks be to God, that's what I'm set free from. Jesus died to pay the price of that, and look at what He is currently doing in me.” That maybe the ultimate statement of the past has bearing on the present. The past, Jesus's death and resurrection, has powerful bearing on the present in my life, right?
Yeah, yeah, no. You’re spot on. And, as said to people that sometimes need to be encouraged a little bit to realize how desperate their situation is, to realize how good the news is of the gospel is that, you know, talk about freedom and lack of shame, knowing that God not only knows what we're most embarrassed by, but what I'm most embarrassed by, his understanding of my sin is not like that's the bottom of it. We tend to think the most embarrassing thing is the bottom of our sin, whatever we're aware of. Yet God is aware of so much more, things that we're just blind to or He’s graciously not showing us that would be even more devastating, but knowing that even with the worst possible things, at the cross, like you said, as Colossians says, that was nailed to the cross and taken away, and the certificate of debt, as Paul uses there, is done away with. And so, yeah, that's very freeing, and yet in a very therapeutic age in which we live, which is again a historical marker, because the way we understand even the Gospel as Christians is probably a lot of times more beholden to Freud and Jung and some others, rather than actually the pages of scripture.
Yeah, there's one statement that I was intrigued with in your book, and you're quoting,I think-
Only one. It was only one. The rest....
I should have written a 5000-page book, so you could have said, “Hey, there's ten things I'm really intrigued by.”
This reminds me: When I wrote the book on witnessing to family, I was interviewed by someone, and they said to me, “All right, listen, let's say someone reads your book, and they only remember one thing. What's the one thing you want them to remember?”And I just said, “They only remembered one thing? I wrote a lot of stuff in that book. I mean, really, there's only one thing they would remember?” And I was giving him a hard time, but there was sort of this moment of, “Well, no, that's not what I meant.” So there were many things in your book that I really liked. But one statement you said, and I think you're quoting Daniel Levitin, and he said, “We're hard wired to name our world.” And you said, “He thinks that because of evolution.” You think that because God built it into us. What does that mean, “We’re hard wired to name our world.”What's involved there?
Well, I think one of the things that I see, and I've mentioned this a lot, is that, being designed, being in the image of God, God has designed us to be learners, to be curious, to want to figure things out, to cultivate and create and cultivate the garden. And so those types of things move in the direction of a curiosity about the world. It’s created by God, so it's possible to obviously look at a red rose and go, “Oh, the red in the rose is beautiful,” and just kind of a pedestrian, basic understanding. It's another thing to start studying about roses and learning more about them and that sort of thing. And obviously, I'm sure there's doctoral dissertations that have been done on them. There's a lot of levels to understanding the world that God has created. And I do think that is innate. I mean, think about a kid. A kid is incessantly asking the question of their parents. How does that work that way? Why does that work that way? They’re constantly peppering their parents with questions, to the annoyance of most parents at times, especially when they’re tired or they don't have a great answer to it. And if they're tired and don't have a great answer, they get the twofer.
But that's our innate thing that we've been created with. And yet, as we get older, we get distracted, we get bored, we get this and that, and our desire to make those connections lessens, which is tragic and sad. And so that curiosity. I've seen it, Randy, the last ten years, in teaching the Bible to a lot of different groups. I've just found that the kind of questions I'masked, though I'm sometimes asked very good questions, but the kind of connections, curious connections that people are making, are not as good as they used to be, just not as insatiably curious about figuring out, okay, Habakkuk says the Babylonians were both a combination of being ruthless and really strategic in the way they overcame people. That's really clear from Habakkuk, too. And so a curious person will go, “Well, the Bible says that in a very compressed way. It says they're ruthless and talks about this and talks about their strategy.” a more curious person would go, “I'd like to see what the strategies were and some background on the Babylonians to find out what they did that was so much a combination of the cruelty and their cleverness together, which made them so feared.” But most people will just hear the Habakkuk thing, even if they're even remotely interested or knowledgeable in Habakkuk and go, “Wow, yeah, Habakkuk is talking about the Babylonians being clever and cruel. That is scary,” and that's where it stops. Instead of like, “I wonder, I wonder,” and just keep pushing the boundaries there. And evolutionist psychologists, a great one like Levitin, can say, “That just seems like it's there.” It's a brute fact, and I agree with him, it's there, but of course his reason, like you said, for it being there is different than mine.
Yeah. Well, as I read that, I was thinking, in the Genesis 1 account of God's creation, there’s this phrase that keeps repeating of, “God created this and those after their kind,and after their kind, and the birds of the air, and after their kind, and the fish, and after their kind, and the trees, and after their kind,” which was just so, I think it's calling out for categorization. And then you have the story of God bringing all the animals to Adam, and he names them, he names them. Where this is leading to is that God’s going to show him that none of those things were suitable for Him and that God is going to create woman. But it wasn't just, “Well, let me bring these by and just answer the question as a yes or no question. Is this one suitable, yes or no?” “No, no, no, no,” but he names them. He categorizes. And that's part of the task of reading and studying history, of, “Let me learn these lessons and let me categorize them and put them in the categories, and which of these things are most relevant to the current moment? What do I need to learn from the period after the Civil War and how that applies to our current moment today?” And all those things.
We could go on, but I'm going to draw this to a close, because we do that on Questions That Matter, because I'd much rather have people say, “Oh, I wish they could have kept going,” instead of, “Oh, aren't they done yet?” So let's close with.... But I won't worry this as, “Now, Dave, if they forgot everything from your book and they only remembered one thing....” No, we we won't do that, but give us one last sales pitch for the need to read diligently about the past and learn from it.
Well, the burden of the book is to really show, as Dr. Hendricks, Howard Hendricks—probably people will recognize that name, Dallas Seminary. I learned Bible study methods from him. He would hold up his Bible, and he would say, “If this is the only book you know,you'll never know this book.” And this is Dallas Seminary. Holy cow! Big Bible land place. So, “If this is the only book you ever know, you'll never know this book,” and Hendricks was really trying to make the case, as you said earlier, that the Bible is full of history. It's full of the unfolding of events. And as Mark said, even the incarnation of Jesus shows us that time and space matter. He comes near. He tabernacles, to use the word scripture uses. He's with us. And so the unfolding of events and so I would want Christians to see that that is very much integral to understanding the Christian faith well, is, yes, read your Bible first and foremost, but understand that history is really God's history and what He’s doing as far as in His providence, in His sovereignty, in control of events, allowing events, however you want to say it theologically, but that he is the author of that, and that it's significant. He makes it really clear in scripture. Psalm 111 talks about the history of redemption. If we're acting like that doesn't matter or it's boring, there's something wrong with us, not with the history.
Well said, well said. Well, Dave Moore, thanks so much for the time on Questions That Matter. To our listeners, I do commend Dave's book, Stuck in the Present. And check out his article on our website. It was about Ralph Waldo Emerson, right? Wasn't that the article? And you cleverly titled it “Where's Waldo?”
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