Thursday, December 31, 2009


On a Tuesday night in Wellington, NZ, our family walked down to J. J. Murphy's, one of Evan's favorite haunts, for pub quiz. We got a booth, ordered our food and beer, and participated in the evening contest. We did very well in many of the categories that evening, and might have placed among the top teams had there not been an entire section focused on New Zealand history and culture.

Anyway, one question asked was the name of Adam and Eve's third son. Everyone in the family turned to me smiling, assuming that I would be proficient at Bible trivia. I shook my head and said I had no idea, to their consternation. I have always been more focused on what the Bible means than what it says, which is not a helpful when you're engaged in pub quiz. Moments later I said, "Seth". They wrote it down, no doubt thinking I had been holding out for dramatic effect. The fact that I got the answer right doesn't change my disdain for Bible trivia, or any other form of biblical literalism. I came to my position early in life, supported by my dad, who taught us that "nothing is true because it's in the Bible. It's in the Bible because it's true." The trick, of course, is discerning the level at which the truth emerges.

In the ninth chapter of Genesis, an angel tells Lot that Sodom and Gomorrah are to be destroyed, and that they should flee and not look back, lest they be consumed. Lot's wife looked back, and became a pillar of salt. She never made that mistake again.

I thought of Lot's poor wife this morning as I read the paper, replete as it is with articles about the past year and decade. At times like this I think maybe the angel who warned Lot's family had a point. We are a species that seems to be infatuated with the past. We scour the record of years past for trivial details as if all of life is a pub quiz. At the same time, we seem to think very little about the meaning of past events or their implications for the future.

Earlier this week, two analysts on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer talked about last year's Wall Street collapse, and what we've learned from it. Alarmingly, they agreed that nothing has changed in the last year, especially in regard to the attitudes of the principal players. These magnates view themselves as tough survivors, rather than being grateful recipients of public rescue, determined to avoid the mistakes that laid them, and the nation, low.

It may seem a fine point, but I am less interested in stories about what happened than I am in efforts to insure that it doesn't happen again. There are those who earnestly implore that we must learn history in order to avoid repeating it, and I could agree with them if our obsession with the past showed a pattern of profound learning and application. As it is, the mistakes of the past resemble more the tree in the path of a bicyclist: the more they are stared at, the more unavoidable they become.

So here's to 2009. It was a year. But let's not forget where the action is. Nothing we do today will change the past. But our decisions and actions today, or their absence, make the future what it will become. May 2010 prove to be a year where we kept our eyes fixed forward. That might make a difference.

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