Have You Ever Wondered Why We Preserve The Past?

I have a box under my bed that’s full of objects that hold special memories for me. It contains letters and photos, a champagne cork, a little plastic gun, a lip balm, some beads, a temporary tattoo, a golf tee… reminders of special moments from my past. Maybe you have something similar. Many of us find preserving our personal pasts important. We pass heirlooms down through the generations. But why?

Check out our Short Answers video on this topic here.

We also put a lot of time, effort and money into preserving our collective past. The British Museum’s “Rosetta Project” is set to redevelop their building and displays, to the tune of £1bn.[1] History and heritage are a national preoccupation, with over 6m annual visitors to English Heritage sites and 5m to Historic Scotland properties in a non-Covid year[2]. The British Library keeps a copy of every publication produced in the UK and Ireland and has 13.5m books in its archives, from Cicero to Chomsky.[3] Most people will have a gravestone as a memorial to their life after they’ve died, listing their dates and relationships. But why are we so keen to preserve the past?

One reason is that we want to learn for the future and build on others’ knowledge and insights. Scientific discoveries and technological advancements rarely come out of the blue. They are usually the result of great minds developing ideas that have gone before. As Newton said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”.  We also hope to avoid disaster by learning from the errors of others. Tim Harford’s excellent podcast Cautionary Tales[4] examines past mistakes and farces to equip us with insight into how we can do things differently in the future. We ignore the past at our peril, as George Santayana wisely reminds us, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat their mistakes.”[5]

A less utilitarian reason for preserving the past is to value communities and cultures. We want to recognise the worth of traditions, diversity and creativity for example by not letting the Welsh or Gaelic languages die out or promoting heritage crafts like woodturning.

Who are you?

But I wonder whether the main reason we preserve the past is to get a sense of who we are and where we belong in the world? The popularity of programmes like “Who Do You Think That You Are?” and websites like Ancestry.co.uk reveal our desire to understand the bigger story of our families and communities. We want to know where we fit, perhaps to give us some insight into our character, our destiny and the meaning of our lives.

But what if there’s an even bigger story that we’re all part of?

Remembrance and preserving the past are significant in the Christian tradition. The Bible itself is a historic book that has been read more than any other on the planet. It has been translated in full into over 700 languages[6] and there are more than 23,000 preserved manuscripts of the New Testament[7]. The oldest fragment is in the John Rylands Library in Manchester. The Bible’s importance has been recognised around the world throughout generations.

The Bible gives us a valuable insight into a historic drama that is continuing today. Re-enacting the past was crucial for the Israelite people. Passover was an important annual Jewish festival which celebrated God’s rescue of his people from slavery in Egypt. It is still celebrated by Jews, and some Christians today, as a way of remembering God’s faithfulness, love and care for his people. The historic event points to the unchanging character of the timeless God.

Just before Jesus went to the cross to die for all of us rebels and make a way for us to come back to God, he celebrated the Passover meal with his closest friends. He used the bread and wine as symbols for his body and his blood, communicating the profound truth that he would sacrifice himself for all of us to mend the rift between us and God:

‘[Jesus] took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ – Luke 22: 19

Christians continue to remember this historic event in the celebration of Holy Communion. We rehearse the story of where we’ve come from and how we’ve got here. It reminds us of our identity and God’s character and gives us strength for the future. To truly know who we are, we need to understand the past which shows us where we’ve come from and reveals the bigger perspective of our lives. Appreciating the past gives us a context to comprehend our present and future.

If Jesus was on “Who Do You Think You Are?” the researchers wouldn’t have a very difficult job as one of the birth narratives – in Matthew’s gospel – opens with a family tree (or genealogy), tracing Jesus’ ancestry right back to Abraham, the father of the people of Israel. Jesus wasn’t just parachuted into a random time in history. The whole unfolding of Old Testament events was leading up to his coming which has profoundly shaped human knowledge, endeavour, communities and lives ever since.

Personal, community and cultural memorabilia, from gravestones and precious family photos to museums and national monuments, help us to preserve the memory of things that are important. We rightly dread the thought that things this precious might one day be merely dust; gone forgotten and remembered by no one. Christian faith brings something distinctive to this aspect of the human condition. Many religious systems in the ancient world used sacrifices to try and manipulate the gods to bless everything from homes, to crops to relationships – in other words to gain leverage over the gods to get them to participate in our story. The Christian faith says the opposite, that in Jesus – God sacrificed himself so that we could be part of his eternal story, in which every moment, memory, thread of hair on our heads, and each fibre of our being is redeemed and saved for eternity.

So next time you’re exploring something that we’ve lovingly preserved from the past, ask yourself how you fit into the biblical picture. It’s a story with an amazing past and a hope-filled future. Why not investigate how you can be part of it?

[1] British Museum gears up for radical modernisation project, Museums Association website. [Accessed 11 Oct 2022]

[2] Number of visitors to English Heritage staffed sites from 2011 to 2021, Statista website. [Accessed 11 Oct 2022] file:///C:/Users/Laptop/Downloads/press-pack.pdf [Accessed 18 Oct 2022]

[3] Facts and figures of the British Library, British Library website. [Accessed 11 Oct 2022]

[4] Tim Harford, Cautionary Tales podcast. [Accessed 12 Oct 2022]

[5] Quoted often, for example https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CHRG-106hhrg63316/html/CHRG-106hhrg63316.htm [Accessed 11 Oct 2022]

[6] That means it’s available in languages spoken by 80% of the world’s population. Full Bible translation tops 700 languages for first time, The Bible Society website. [Accessed 12 Oct 2022]

[7] What is the Most Recent Manuscript Count for the New Testament? Sean McDowell blog. [Accessed 12 Oct 2022]