Questions for the Past: Exploring the Answers History Offers

Once when I was on a cross-country flight, back in the day when all electronic devices had to be turned off before take-off, the flight attendant was walking down the aisle reminding people of the guideline. One young man with headphones on had clearly missed the announcement and his head was still nodding rhythmically to the beat of the music he was listening to.

The flight attendant tapped him on the shoulder. “Sir, you need to turn off your device,” she said, politely but firmly.

The young man slid a hand up, removed his headphones, and then looked up at the woman, as if that solved it.

“This isn’t my first rodeo,” she said, with a slight drawl. “You need to turn the device off.”

The young man huffed, then dug around in his pocket to flip the switch. The flight attendant maintained her smile but shook her head as she continued down the aisle.

Since that encounter, I’ve adopted that phrase as my own: This isn’t my first rodeo. This isn’t the first time I’ve been down this road. I can learn from past experiences and use that wisdom to address my present circumstances. Sometimes, I look not to my own “rodeo,” but others. “This can’t be the first time someone has needed to _____,” I’ll say, befuddled by something that someone else certainly has the answer to. Then, I head off to find someone who can help.

Looking to the past to help with the present is a very practical approach to our everyday, personal lives, but it’s also a wise approach for groups and communities and even countries. While the circumstances might be different and the technology more advanced, much of what our mothers and fathers before us have endured and learned could help us today, especially in the midst of tension and crisis. Perhaps the challenge is knowing how to look back and ask the right questions in order to cull the wisdom we need.

My friend Michelle DeRusha has a knack for examining the past and writing about it, both her personal past which she wrote about in her memoir, Spiritual Misfit: A Memoir of Uneasy Faith, and our collective past, which she included in two biographical books, 50 Women Every Christian Should Know: Learning from Heroines of the Faith, and her recently published Katharina and Martin Luther: The Radical Marriage of a Runaway Nun and a Renegade Monk. I recently had the chance to ask Michelle a few questions about her process of researching her latest book and how examining the past helps her faith grow in the present.

CHARITY SINGLETON CRAIG: How does learning about the history of the church mothers and fathers influence your faith?

MICHELLE DERUSHA: History offers me much-needed perspective and helps me remember the bigger picture. It’s easy for me, especially during times of conflict and divisiveness, to lose sight of the fact that God works all things together for the good of those who love him. I get caught up in the political and social unrest of the present time, and I find myself feeling agitated and even hopeless. But studying the Protestant Reformation and Martin and Katharina Luther’s lives in particular offers me hope, renews my faith, and encourages me to persevere during challenging times. Their lives and legacy are evidence that God is indeed at work in all things.

CSC: What kinds of questions do you typically ask (and are most helpful) when investigating people historically?

MD: I try to broaden the lens through which I am examining their lives. For example, I first looked at Martin and Katharina Luther in the context of their daily lives and the political and social climate of the time. Then I took a step back and looked at how the context of the time informed who they were, and vice versa, how they influenced the time in which they were living. For instance, I was intrigued not only by how Luther’s theology of marriage informed his own marriage, but also, how married life helped to shape and inform his theology. And then finally I consider how their lives and accomplishments inform our present-day lives. In other words, what can I learn from Martin and Katharina Luther that might shape how I think about marriage today – either in general or even personally with my own relationship with my spouse?

CSC: How do historical books and knowledge help you practically engage in the present or future?

MD: History gives me a lens through which to consider current events. For example, looking closely at Luther’s life and some of his reforms has influenced my thoughts about the politically tumultuous time we are living in right now. As I alluded to earlier, history also has a steadying effect on me; it keeps me grounded and helps me see that change unfolds in its own way and in its own time. Historical biography in particular is important because it humanizes those we tend to put on a pedestal. Martin and Katharina Luther and other great leaders like them were real people with real lives, and to me, there is something comforting and grounding in that.

CSC: What was the most surprising thing you learned about the Luthers during your research?

MD: There was so much about them as individuals and as a couple that surprised me – I hardly know where to start! One of the things that surprised me most about Luther was his sweetness and tenderness under his gruff, curmudgeonly exterior. I was familiar with Luther the boisterous, outspoken, sometimes even crass radical, but in researching this book I saw another side of him – loving, kind, even sentimental at times.

One of the most surprising things I learned about Katharina was that she married Luther only after she was jilted by another suitor. It was fascinating to see how Katharina and Martin’s love for one another grew over the years, in spite of the fact that neither married for love, at least initially. They had a surprisingly sweet, lighthearted, fun relationship.

CSC: What action or response from readers (as opposed to sales figures) would make you feel that writing this book was a success? In other words, what did you hope to do for readers in writing this book?

MD: My hope is that readers come away from this book with a deeper understanding of Martin and Katharina Luther not only as historical figures, but as real people not so different from themselves. I would love readers to feel like they were there, sitting at the Luthers’ dining room table, listening to them joust good-naturedly back and forth, participating in their daily family rituals and routines. If readers turn the last page of this book feeling like they know Martin and Katharina Luther in a new, deeper, more personal way, I’ve done my job.

 

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Charity Singleton Craig

Charity Singleton Craig is a writer, author, and speaker, helping readers grow in their faith and experience true hope in the middle of life’s joys and sorrows. She is the author of My Year in Words: what I learned from choosing one word a week for one year and coauthor of On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life That Lasts.