Volume 9, Issue 4: Hisoria
Relics: Owning History
Our possessions can speak to the value we place on history. Owning relics is important, for relics help us realize our communion with man of the past. This communion is spurned by today's secularist who believes himself to be evolving away from history; man's future, he claims, will be unlike the past. Evolutionary man slights the past, therefore he leaves no place for relics in his life. He eats fast food with disposable utensils instead of old family recipes with his great-grandmother's sterling. He pawns the sterling to make a down payment on his shiny new Isuzu, which he will sell in five years, and which, in the meantime, will take him through hundreds of drive-through windows.
We students of Scripture know our covenantal connection with man of the past. Abraham is our father, whose faith we must imitate. Many of our other fathers were faithless; we are warned by their example to avoid their sins. Biblical Christianity is fundamentally historical. Do we adorn our lives accordingly? Are our families' activities saturated in meaningful tradition? Are our homes adorned with precious relics from the past?[*]
Books can be wonderful relics. I'm convinced that intelligently-stocked used bookstores are the easiest resources for furnishing both the mind and the home with history. Certain books are true classics, touching unchanging truths and timeless human nature. A home bereft of Homer, Beowulf, and Bunyan is unfurnished. Moreover, for books to be furniture of the best sort - to be true relics - they cannot be throwaway paperbacks (though that way is better than not reading them at all). Reading Homer in trade paper is like eating caviar out of a Flintstones lunch pail. But reading him in nineteenth-century leather with raised spine is the more excellent way. Money spent on elegant books is spent well, and such volumes may one day adorn your great-grandchildren's shelves. Paperbacks won't. When my son Gresham was born, most of the writings of his namesake, J. Gresham Machen, were readily available in paperback. I had owned and read them in paperback, but that didn't seem right. I searched, and I gradually found nice old cloth editions. My first edition (1923) of Machen's Christianity and Liberalism is a beautiful family relic that my son will inherit. One day he will take it down to show to his grandson; he will teach him about the man who wrote it and about how he fondly remembers that very volume sitting on his father's shelf when he was a little boy.
Some of my favorite relics are coins. Old coins are heavy and wonderfully tangible; their nobility impresses whoever studies them. My silver dollars recall the days of hard money, the days of my great-grandparents. I received many from my grandfather before he passed away. Each one bears a portrait of Lady Liberty, the old United States ideal. I also own a 1909 cent bearing a portrait of President Lincoln, the first U.S. coin on which Liberty was replaced by an actual person (in my view, no insignificant development). Old U.S. coins are modeled after their classical antecedents. The grand archetype was minted in Athens during her Golden Age in the fifth century B.C.: the silver tetradrachm. Minted under Pericles' leadership, this beautiful coin became an international standard for trade. At the height of her power, the city of Athens held nine million of these coins in her treasury at the newly-built Parthenon. They bear a profile-view head of the city's namesake, Athena, goddess of wisdom and personification of Athenian greatness. The reverse depicts Athena's companion, the owl. Most U.S. silver coins followed suit: a dominant profile-view head (Liberty, or more recently, a president) with a great bird (an eagle) depicted on the reverse. A 2500-year-old silver tetradrachm from Athens is a glorious and instructive relic. It is tangible history. My students know how it feels to hold one, and so will my grandchildren.
Furnishing one's household with good relics can be expensive. But most of us can regularly set aside a little money which, after some years, can be used to purchase something that your grandchildren will deeply appreciate. My grandmother did even better: she set aside her hours. Her years of genealogical study resulted in three books of family history. When I was little she gave copies to me, finely bound by her own thin hands. Though she passed away years ago, her handiwork will endure in my family for generations.
We don't carry our possessions beyond this life. But while we are here, we are called to think beyond this life. Our possessions can help us think this way.