Three tips for learning history

Jul 23, 2020 | 4 comments

My hands tell a story without saying a word. Yours probably do, too. If not your hands, then other body parts carry scars and discolorations–evidence of a history that literally shaped you.  Your skin has been shaped by wounds that left scars.

A tree tells its eloquent but wordless story. The tree rings tell about fires, droughts, and floods. The rings are a physical response by the tree to its own history.

Your history shaped you. The tree’s history shaped it. And a group of people–a culture–who share a common history will be shaped by that history. CultureBound recognizes the importance of the history of a people when we speak of the Growth Rings within the Culture Tree.

In simple terms, the history of a people shapes their culture. People understand today in light of what happened to them yesterday. 

But like my hands, the history that shapes us very often scars us. The interaction between history and culture is not always pleasant; culture is shaped by wars, invasions, epidemics, and injustices. In this article, we share three action steps to help you understand today in light of the history of the people you are living among.

Action Step Number One: Learn history AS THEY KNOW IT.

There is an old adage that says history is written by the winners. True as that may be, there is another viewpoint that is at least as powerful; it is the history that is seldom written but is told from generation to generation. The “winner” may write history; but the “loser” will tell it, feel it, sing it, and recount it from generation to generation.

When people tell their story, how do they understand their history? What is their perspective? What facts do they trust? What emotions do they feel about their history?  

When you enter a community of people, start to learn their history. Realize that you won’t hear painful things at first; that takes time. But as you ask questions and see monuments and read books and listen to the lyrics of folk songs, you will start to hear stories of a past that you don’t recognize. That is the history as the people know it. Learn that. 

Action Step Number Two: Listen to their history with empathy.

As you hear the history, listen with empathy. Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. Recognize valor and courage, even if it is not in the history books you have read! Recognize justice and injustice, even if it is not the way your country teaches those facts. History does not live in books; it lives in the hearts of the people who have heroes and villains. Listen with empathy, putting yourself into their situation and hearing their hearts as they build the story of their past. 

Action Step Number Three: There are at least two sides to any story. Pay attention to both!

I am a citizen of the United States and am grateful for the many blessings I have because of my nation. As I interact with Christians around the world, I also recognize that there are two sides to all of the history that I know. There are times when my brother or sister in Christ has a view of the past that makes my country into the villain. I hate the heart-level conflict I feel when that happens; but I cannot deny that often what I was taught is not the same story as my brothers learned.

Isaiah 6:5 is a powerful verse for those of us in intercultural ministry. In the first part of the verse, the prophet recognizes his personal sinfulness: “Woe is me! I am a man of unclean lips.” It is not hard to recognize our personal sin. But that verse continues: “and I live among a people of unclean lips.” Latin American historian and theologian Justo González warns of the danger of an “innocent reading of history.” To use Isaiah’s words, we have a hard time saying that our people are also sinful, and sometimes our nation’s actions have not been as pure or responsible or right as we wish. 

So read history; know what it says. Then listen to history! What do your new neighbors understand about years gone by? How do they feel about that history? When you hear that history, don’t be surprised if it hurts. It may hurt them; it may hurt you. The scars you are hearing are wounds on people’s hearts. The solution is not to change their view of their own history. The solution to scarred hands is found in the nail scars of our Savior. That history of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is the true solution to the wounds made across human history.

New to the field? You don’t have to try your hardest and hope for the best. Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the thought of your first year on the field? Will you like the food? Will you learn the language? Surely you’ll connected to God or get along with your teammates. But what if you’re wrong? Don’t miss this chance to “Make the Most” of your first year on the field.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

Mark Hedinger

Practical Visionary. Director of Culture Bound.. Husband. Life-long learner.




  1. T

    I love this advice!!! As I was reading it, I thought, “I want all of our new people to read and apply this!”

    Thanks for the quality content!!

    • Mark Hedinger

      Thanks much for the encouraging words!

  2. Stephen Stetler

    This is outstanding insight and apropo to current tensions. I have had two very distinct opportunities in which this was clearly illustrated. I grew up in Ohio and became a history teacher. When I moved to the south, I quickly learned that the Southern understanding of the Civil War (even down to the name) is very different that the Northern perspective. One would think that we were talking about two completely different wars. When I became a missionary to Mexico. I attended a language school in south Texas. A Latin training institute, with students from several different countries, shared the same campus. After a field day visiting The Alamo in San Antonio, Texas, I asked my tutor–who was from Mexico– about the trip. He angrily denounced the whole thing and said it was just a bunch of lies. “They said those rebels who stole part our country from us were heroes and they honored them!” Once again, perspective is everything. Thanks for this article.

    • Mark Hedinger

      Stephen – thank you for these great illustrations of the points in that blog post about history! Your examples are powerful illustrations. I pray that influential people in the current tensions of the US would listen and respect the experiences of one another in the same way that you listened to your Southern and Mexican friends. By the way – I also served in Mexico, and I imagine that my language school was the same one you are talking about!


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