On November 18, an internet search and information technology group just analyzed 300 million historical facts against every date in history since 1900 and declared that April 11, 1954 was de facto “the most boring date in history.” Let me tell you why they’re so terribly wrong, and what every Christian, especially students, historians, and scholars, should learn from this episode.
The blog post sparked a brief flurry of interest, was turned into headlines by NPR and many others, and immediately resulted in a spike of internet searches for “April 11, 1954” (thereby ensuring that November 18, 2010 will not bear the same opprobrium in any future declarations). Several comments and websites tried to poke holes in the declaration by looking for significant events associated with the date. By doing this, they all uncritically accepted the faulty standard of “important people, places, and events” as the true measure of meaning or importance of history. And beneath this lies the faulty assumption of what, exactly, is important, notable, or of interest, and how this is measured.
The group, True Knowledge, realized that “boring” is a subjective standard, so they programmed their computer analyzer to search for the nearest equivalent of “uneventful.” They say:
It occurred to us that with over 300 million facts, a big percentage of which tie events, people and places to points in time, we could uniquely calculate an objective answer to the question ‘What was the most boring day in history?’ For fun, we wrote a script to scan all days (from the beginning of the 20th century) and set it going.
‘Boring’ is a subjective term. A 14-year old has a very different idea of boring to a 45-year old. In this case we used the almost equivalent concept ‘uneventful’ and found the day when the smallest number of important things happened (or were happening).
When the script completed, we had an answer:
Sunday, April 11, 1954
Nobody significant died that day, no major events apparently occurred and although a typical day in the 20th century has many notable people being born, for some reason that day had only one person that might make that claim: Abdullah Atalar—a Turkish academic.
Notice that even this “objective”—as they put it—standard involves a very poor (fabulously humanistic) judgment of importance. “Boring” ultimately, therefore, is calculated as that which lacks any significant deaths, “major” events, or notable births. In other words, politicians, celebrities, sports idols, and all their doings constitute that which is “eventful” in history. But surely this is to misunderstand—and cheapen—the meaning and importance of the vast majority of history.
Consider what never gets considered. See what others don’t see. Just imagine all that remains hidden to us which had or might have had huge importance in the grand scheme of things.
On August 12, 2000, a bad weld in a torpedo resulted in a leak and a series of explosions that sunk the Russian submarine Kursk. All 118 sailors and officers on board died. The Captain, Gennady Lyachin, was born on January 1, 1955—which would have put his conception very likely on the allegedly “boring” date of April 11, 1954.1 I suspect that when his parents’ eyes twinkled on that “boring” evening, they had no idea the monumental and tragic end ahead.
These types of “uneventful” events have an enormous place in human history, though people rarely talk about them. Consider a young art-school reject walking the streets of Vienna in 1908, personifying the so-called “starving artist”: rain is pouring down, his sketch-book is soaked, his future hopes dashed; he seeks temporary shelter in a public museum. Here, if the story is true, he sees an alleged sacred artifact called the “Holy Lance,” overhears a tour guide speaking about world rulers who sought this lance for its mystical power, and the youth decides that his own destiny is to become a world ruler.
Yes, he was Adolf Hitler.2 Had he been accepted to art school, had he taken the administrators’ advice and enrolled in architecture instead. . . . Nevertheless, it was a rather uneventful evening for an unknown student at a museum.
One could make the case that the tyranny we live under today—including the Federal Reserve, Interstate Commerce, and a whole host of other federal bureaucracies—might never have been foisted upon us were it not for the centralizing of power in Washington that began with the Constitutional Convention. Were if not for Henry Knox’s exaggerated letters to George Washington concerning Shays’ Rebellion, the old general might not have lent the enormous influence of his presence to the Convention. Were it not for the special interest tax legislation on the part of speculators and bankers who held bonds, Shays might never have rebelled, and Knox would never have written. Were it not for the fact that John Hancock had stepped aside as governor of Massachusetts, the legislation would never have passed. Were it not for a bad case of gout, Hancock would not have declined to run again. “Gout normally affects the big toe,” as Gary North puts it, so, “It can accurately be said that the great turning point in post-Revolutionary America was John Hancock’s big toe.” If only it had come a few years later.
Fidel Castro, Cuban communist dictator, was actually quite a baseball pitcher in college. He was recruited, allegedly, and in 1949 even offered a contract with a $5,000 signing bonus [$46,000 today] by the New York Giants. Rumor is, his fastball was good, but he lacked control. He declined the offer in favor of his law studies. Seven years later he would help overthrown the government by armed revolution. The U.S. embargo began in 1960 and was tightened in 1962. As a result, Cuban society is stuck in 1960, and largely deteriorating. Perhaps if Castro had more confidence in his curveball, things would have been different. An single choice, uneventful at the time, struck out the whole country for the next sixty-plus years.
Simply put, history is not the handful of events that make into the history books; it is so much more about the millions of small things that keep things moving every day. And ultimately these things rest on ethical decisions made by ordinary people.
But ordinary people and ethical judgments simply don’t make exciting headlines, so we call them “boring,” and write about politicians, war, and the most exciting labor union in the world, professional football. Out of a fear of boredom badly defined—and a large ignorance about what to do about boredom—we exalt “important” people and events, and ignore the business of faithful living.
This is why most of our history textbooks—especially Christian textbooks—are largely worthless: they do little more than provide a catalogue (screened by a committee) of kings and knights, presidents and generals, politics and wars, and consider mainly these as the “important” events of history. Granted, there is much more, but the outlines are always based on these. From a certain perspective, one could argue that textbooks therefore mainly provide a history of the State, not history in general. This should come as little surprise as so many of these books are at least partially funded by the State. And the headlines mainly mimic this lust for Statism, but add the other sensational tidbits about Lady Gaga, Tiger Woods, and Twilight, ad nauseum.
To the point, meanwhile, Obama is upset that FIFA awarded the 2022 World Cup soccer tournament to Qatar instead of the U.S.
The critical lesson is about how we define meaningfulness, in this way, by political success, bloodshed, publicity, and entertainment, none of which constitutes as biblical measure. And yet since the lack of these things is defined as “boring,” we have tacitly acquiesced to the belief that the cure for boredom is politics, violence, or entertainment. Thus the conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet was quite on track when he wrote that, historically, boredom has driven various famous people into “migration, desertion, war, revolution, murder, calculated cruelty to others, suicide, pornography, alcohol, narcotics.”3
The writing of Christian history—or “Church” history—has not helped much. It usually lifts the Church out of its historical context and examines the institution pristinely free of all connections to the rest of life. It concerns who was Pope, what guy taught which doctrine and who opposed him—all of which is important enough, but which takes no consideration of the lives and decisions of the vast majority of the human race and society that the Church is called to influence. This problem has changed somewhat in the past decades, but still dominates at large. The histories often act like Christianity only exists within the four walls of the Church, and whatever happened outside is “secular” and by that measure is unimportant unless the Church got persecuted as a result. This is gnostic-two kingdoms-dualism doing its thing.
But God rules history, and the same god rules within and without the Church, and in between. He rules in the details of the big people and little people, in the Oval Office and in your bedroom. Nothing under His eye is of less historical importance than anything else, and the only measure of meaningfulness is faithfulness to His Word. This is the only reason the ancient kings even made it into God’s written histories in the Bible: to show how they, along with all the other insignificant people and events of the era, did nothing but fulfill His covenantal promises and prophecies.
Last week, a room full of computer whizzes created a program to sift the political facts associated with every day since 1900. The computer whizzed through 300 million facts and determined for its programmers which day had the fewest facts, and therefore was the most “boring.” If you ask me, boring is as boring does: and it couldn’t get more void of meaning and purpose than programming a computer to correlate dates and facts this way to begin with. Never forget: a program is only as smart as the programmer, can only have a much power of judgment as the programmer can give it, and can only determine the limited number and type of facts the programmer gives it.
Void of the kind of ethical input available from biblical analysis, no historical analysis means anything more than the depraved programmer’s depravity. Christians, especially our historians and scholars, should take note. We need better histories and textbooks, because we need to understand God’s judgment in history. So far we have seen little written about this. And that leaves us with the ultimate bore.
- I tinkered with this due date calculator: http://pregnancy.about.com/cs/pregnancycalendar/l/blpregcalc.htm (↩)
- Ken Anderson, Hitler and the Occult, (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1995), 47–49.(↩)
- Robert A. Nisbet, Prejudices: A Philosophical Dictionary (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), 23.(↩)