Archive for October, 2017

Screwtape & Humility

In preparation for a class I will be teaching on The Screwtape Letters at a local church from January to April next year, I knew I needed to get a new copy of the book, as mine was falling apart from decades of use. I settled on the annotated edition by Paul McCusker.

I know I must have read sometime the preface Lewis wrote for the 1961 edition of his classic, but if so, it has escaped my memory. Reading it yesterday, I received a fresh reminder (as if I needed another one) of why I love reading Lewis.

His humorous self-deprecation is a hallmark of his overall view of his importance, and this preface highlights it.

While acknowledging that sales of the book have been prodigious, far beyond his expectations, he pokes a hole in sales figures, explaining that they don’t always mean what their authors hope they mean. “If you gauged the amount of Bible reading in England by the number of Bibles sold, you would go far astray,” he warns. And the same can be said for Screwtape, which he believes might “suffer from a similar ambiguity.”

“It is the sort of book,” he muses, “that gets given to godchildren, the sort that gets read aloud at retreats. It is even, as I have noticed with a chastened smile, the sort that gravitates towards spare bedrooms, there to live a life of undisturbed tranquility.”

Lewis then offers this little story:

Sometimes it is bought for even more humiliating reasons. A lady whom I knew discovered that the pretty little probationer [student nurse] who filled her hot-water bottle in the hospital had read Screwtape. She also discovered why.

“You see,” said the girl, “we were warned that at interviews, after the real, technical questions are over, matrons and people sometimes ask about your general interests. The best thing to say is that you’ve read something.

“So they gave us a list of about ten books that usually go down pretty well and said we ought to read at least one of them.”

“And you chose Screwtape?”

“Well, of course; it was the shortest.”

Later in the preface, Lewis contests the compliment often paid to him that the book must have been “the ripe fruit of many years’ study in moral and ascetic theology.” The compliment is undeserved, Lewis responds:

They forgot that there is an equally reliable, though less creditable, way of learning how temptation works. “My heart,”—I need no other’s—“showeth me the wickedness of the ungodly.”

Lewis’s genuine humility, in tandem with his witty, erudite style, fill his works with vitality no matter how often one reads them.

Gratitude for My Calling

While I don’t write this blog every morning, most mornings I do consider whether to write and what needs to be said. Specifically, I pray for God’s guidance. It’s easy to write a blog that critiques the government and culture—and often that’s what I believe I should do—Jesus didn’t spare His words toward the sinfulness of the culture in which he walked, particularly the hypocrisy of those who considered themselves leaders.

Yet I also want to highlight the good and help readers recognize the blessings the Lord bestows. That’s where I am today.

I think of what God allows me to do as a professor of history as I attempt to direct university students into the renewed mind that should characterize all Christians.

Take this semester, for instance. I’m teaching four courses that permit me to showcase Biblical principles.

In my historiography course, I do this quite specifically as we examine disparate worldviews in the philosophy of history and survey the various schools of historical thought over time. The Biblical worldview and the principles associated with it contrast nicely with what secularists want us to believe.

My American history survey course introduces the facts of history (of which many of the students are unaware) and shows how to evaluate what has happened in light of Biblical truths.

My course detailing the American Revolution, which should be more properly called the American War for Continued Self-Government (but that’s a topic for another time), is more than an account of battles. It deals with all the historical background that led to the conflict and reveals that the controversy had a Biblical basis.

Ending that course with an examination of the Constitution and with a book that delves into how the Founders understood issues that continue to bedevil us today is illuminating.

A new course I’m teaching is on America from 1877-1917, in which I show how the thought processes of many changed with the advent of evolutionary theory; again, that lets students know why we are where we are now. I can also lead them through an analysis of the nature of progressivism, the pros and cons of big business, and the principal leaders of the era, both positive and negative.

There’s so much talk about critical thinking in edu-crat world that the term has become nearly a meaningless cliché. I hope that my courses actually fulfill that goal.

On top of those opportunities, I participated in a forum where I could present my viewpoint on the unbiblical nature of socialism and nanny-state government. The room was packed to overflowing. While I afterwards thought of a hundred and one other things I wish I had said, the feedback on what I was able to say in a limited time has been encouraging.

There are very few institutions of higher education that allow someone with my views to openly declare them. My thanks to my institution, Southeastern University.

I’ve been free to develop specialized courses, some of which one would be hard put to find anywhere else: Ronald Reagan and Modern American Conservatism; The Witness of Whittaker Chambers; C. S. Lewis: History and Influence.

Outside the official classroom, I’ve had other opportunities. Starting in January, I will be teaching an evening class on Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters at a local church.

Some people my age think of retirement. I’m not there, at least not seriously, despite my jokes on that subject at times. God has given me so much to do, and it is so productive, that it would be wrong to let go of it at this time.

So today I reflect with gratitude on my calling, and I continue to carry it out with enthusiasm. Thanks be to God for His great love and favor.

Columbus, Racism, & Protests

Wealthy football players claim America is oppressive. Their protest over the national anthem goes viral. The nation gets thrown into turmoil.

Columbus Day arrives. We have our annual Columbus-was-a-genocidal-maniac theme trumpeted from the mouths of those who, like the football players, believe America is the bastion of systemic racism.

As a historian, I know that our history includes some terrible things. Yet we need some sense of comparative analysis, not emotional outbursts, to deal with what has happened. We also need to see more clearly that many of those things we don’t like have been corrected.

And as a historian, I also know that not many people are well versed on that history. They simply follow the lead of some who claim they know the truth, even though often they are following a political agenda, not truth.

Take Columbus. Who really knows that one of his prime motivations was to spread Christianity? Oh, I know—he was also vainglorious and coveted rank and honor. He loved the title bestowed: Admiral of the Ocean Sea. But how many know that when he returned for his second voyage that all the men he had left in the New World had been slaughtered and that another native chief joined him in attacking those who committed that slaughter?

We have a much-too-romanticized view of what life was like among those natives. Jesus’s comment about how there will always be wars and rumors of wars applied among them as well as European nations. They were not as innocent as sometimes portrayed. They connived politically for advantage over other tribes and engaged in types of behavior not countenanced today.

In other words, they were people just like all other peoples—and where there are people, there are problems.

Just a hint: don’t get caught in a war; your end will be slow and torturous.

Back to Columbus. Here’s a comic I found a number of years ago that probably is closer to the truth than anything nowadays:

I’m no apologist for Columbus Day. I can take it or leave it. But neither do I bow to a modern political correctness that can only see evil in the arrival of the Europeans. I can draw distinctions between those who carried out evil and those who didn’t.

When it comes to American history, I can decry the racism that led to slavery, while simultaneously rejoice that America became one of those nations that put an end to the practice.

I can clearly see that the segregation that followed slavery was evil, yet I can enthusiastically applaud the end of that particular evil empire.

I know that the inner cities of America are a place of disadvantage for success in life. Yet I also know that government programs to “help” have only led to the disintegration of the black family structure, thereby creating more poverty. When over 70% of children born in the inner cities grow up without a father, consequences follow. God intended that all children have both a father and a mother.

So, in an ironic twist, it’s all that government help that has created an atmosphere that some see as oppressive.

If the family structure were to be reestablished and genuine capitalism be allowed to flourish (not the crony type that dominates cities run by so-called progressives), I believe we would see much greater prosperity across the board in our society and much less rationale for the protests we see now.

Where do those foundational beliefs in the necessity of a strong family and a vibrant, free economy come from? They are Biblical principles. Only a return to those principles will bring this about.

I Will Not Be Ashamed

I was at an early morning Bible study last Friday when a certain Scripture passage burned its way into my spirit. It’s not that it was a new passage to me, but the Lord has a way of taking a verse one has read hundreds of times and turning it into His Word of the Day. That’s what he did for me that morning.

It’s found in the gospel of Mark, chapter 8, verse 38:

For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.

What stood out to me specifically was the “adulterous and sinful generation” phrase. That description was so apt. It’s what I see all around us, and the sinfulness of our society seems to be increasing. Sinful behavior has always been with us, but whenever a society begins to excuse sinful behavior and declares it to be somehow virtuous, it has turned a corner.

The personal application in the verse was whether I was shrinking back from God’s truths due to pressure from the world. In my heart, I don’t believe that is so, but the warning was like a light flashing in my eyes as I read the verse: Is there any way in which I am ashamed to stand up and say this is God’s truth regardless of what others may think of me?

I knew that a similar passage could be found in Matthew and Luke as well, so I then turned to those to see the shades of difference that might be discovered. While the Luke passage is very similar, the one in Matthew 10:32-33 adds another dimension:

Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven.

Slightly different words, but with the same poignant meaning. In this passage, the word “deny” stood out. As I read it, I felt a deep sense of sadness and how devastated I would be if Jesus would publicly deny that I belong to Him. Again, I don’t believe I would ever deny Him, but the very hint that I could do so, and the resulting denial of me by Him, sent a shiver into my soul.

America in 2017 is in the process of dismissing Biblical truth at a rapid pace. Abortion is the law of the land. Homosexuality is considered just fine, even to the point of legalizing same-sex marriage—which is actually no marriage at all.

Some who have stood firm for Biblical morality, particularly on the issue of homosexuality, have been prosecuted in their businesses. Some have lost their businesses because they have kept the faith.

Christian organizations, including institutions of higher learning, are being pressured to bow to the new cultural norms or face the prospect of being shut down.

God seems to be asking me, “How will you respond to all of this?”

My answer will be, and must be, that I will continue to speak the truth in love.

I will be faithful to Him regardless of the threats.

I will seek His grace at all times to strengthen me in whatever trials I may face.

I will keep in mind that this world, ultimately, is not my final home. There is a new day coming in which every knee will finally have to bow and every tongue will be forced to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

And on that day, I don’t want my Lord to be ashamed of me and have to deny me before His Father and all the holy angels.

Thank you, Lord, for the challenge, and for the strength to meet it.

Lewis: Mere Survival Is Not the Goal

One of the traits I see in C. S. Lewis, and what makes his writings so endearing—at least from my particular take on life—is the way he can critique a predominant belief in society at large, yet do so in a manner that is not merely some kind of self-righteous invective.

He can skewer a prevailing untruth with winsome words that can make a person think seriously about the untruth’s inherent untruthfulness.

In his essay, “On Living in an Atomic Age,” Lewis aims at our will to survive, given this new threat that now hovers over us. Survival, Lewis explains, is not the highest good in itself. When we make it so, we miss the mark.

It is part of our spiritual law never to put survival first: not even the survival of our species. We must resolutely train ourselves to feel that the survival of Man on this Earth, much more of our own nation or culture or class, in not worth having unless it can be had by honourable and merciful means.

Was he referring to a survival-of-the-fittest mentality? Or was he aiming at pride, which can manifest itself in pride of country or pride in our success? Maybe we don’t have to choose one or the other. It’s probably both. He continues:

Nothing is more likely to destroy a species or a nation than a determination to survive at all costs.

Those who care for something else more than civilization are the only people by whom civilization is at all likely to be preserved.

Those who want Heaven most have served Earth best.

Those who love Man less than God do most for Man.

At every point, Lewis challenges priorities, exhorting us that God’s way is usually the opposite of the way we naturally think. When we put national survival first, we will probably end up destroying the nation through our myopia.

When we make saving civilization (however one may define that) our greatest goal, perhaps we doom ourselves to being uncivilized in the end.

When we focus entirely on the Earth (may I throw in here concerns about the environment that go beyond the basic Biblical mandate of stewardship?), we don’t serve the Earth best. Having a heavenly perspective does more for our earthly existence than exalting the Earth itself.

We can only love Man properly when we love God properly. Without the love of God inspiring our actions, those actions degenerate into humanistic drivel that accomplishes nothing eternal.

There will come a day, we are told, when all we see around us will be no more. But that’s just fine with me. That prophecy comes with a promise: there will be a new world that will never need saving.

We won’t be in survival mode. We will be in praise-and-worship mode forever.

Guns or the Evil Within?

I try to follow a policy of waiting a while before commenting on news that is not fully vetted. As we all know, much of what is said at first is speculation, and many early accounts are found to be discounted rumors as the fog dissipates.

That’s why I’ve written nothing until now on Stephen Paddock and his reign of unmitigated terror and murder in Las Vegas. What I particularly despise, as I’m sure many of you do also, is the way some people jump on a tragedy like this to score political points.

In perhaps one of the most ironic statements to emanate from a politician after this murder spree, Hillary Clinton tweeted, “We can and must put politics aside, stand up to the NRA, and work together to try to stop this from happening again.”

Well, I’m glad she put politics aside.

To be clear, I’m not a gun owner. I wouldn’t mind being one, but it hasn’t become a top priority for me. I went to an NRA shooting range once (did pretty well, I’m told) and was impressed with their instructions on how to handle firearms safely. That is not an organization foaming at the mouth to use guns indiscriminately; it believes in responsible gun ownership for the purpose of protection.

The old cliché about how gun control laws ensure that only criminals will be the ones with guns is accurate. Criminals don’t follow gun laws.

Erick Erickson also hit home with a comment about statistics, noting, “Many of the gun violence statistics count legitimate self defense, hunting accidents, domestic accidents, and police shoots as mass gun violence. Remember that today as the press talks about ‘mass shootings.’ They have skewed the statistics to make it look far worse than it is. This is done to perpetuate an agenda.”

Some use the term “violence” with abandon. If I were to push someone into the path of an oncoming vehicle, that is a violent action. If, however, I were to do the very same thing and push someone out of the way of that vehicle, my outward action would be the same. Would that be “violence”? Of course not.

Using a gun to protect other people is the opposite of setting oneself up in a hotel room and spraying a crowd with bullets.

Why do we have to keep explaining that which ought to be common sense?

Yet politicians will always do what politicians do. It’s so predictable.

Gun control laws don’t work and they never will. Take a trip to Chicago next week and you will be in a city that registers more gun deaths during your time there than Stephen Paddock was able to achieve in his maniacal burst.

Overall, guns save more innocent lives than they take. And it’s not the guns that are the problem. As people search for the big “why” behind Paddock’s rampage, those of us who take Scripture seriously already know the basic reason, whatever other considerations one might add in. Jesus noted it quite clearly in the 15th chapter of the gospel of Matthew:

For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witnesses, slanders.

Spiritual heart surgery is the only real solution. Recognition of sin must come first; genuine repentance must follow; then and only then is forgiveness offered and a new life begins.

As the apostle Paul explains in his second epistle to the Corinthians, chapter 5:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here!

I’m also particularly partial to this passage in the 12th chapter of Romans:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Renewing the mind is an ongoing process, and only renewed minds walk in the will of God.

The Lord uses even the wickedness of men to shine a light on His holiness. May people be drawn to Him and His goodness as they witness the evil around them. May they also understand the evil that lurks within them and receive His cleansing and His renewed mind.

A Dual Spiritual Biography

I spent parts of ten years researching the links between Ronald Reagan and Whittaker Chambers. Those years also were spent documenting the difference in outlook between the two conservative icons: Chambers the brooding intellectual who doubted the wisdom of men and their commitment to truth; Reagan the optimist who always saw a bright future ahead.

Yet despite that basic disparity in outlook, Reagan was deeply appreciative of what Chambers had taught him, primarily through his autobiography, Witness. Pearls from Chambers’s depth of personal struggle found a prominent place in Reagan’s utterances as president.

Chambers’s depiction of the communist mentality stayed with Reagan throughout his life. He referred to Chambers a number of times in his speeches. Like all presidents, Reagan had a corps of speechwriters, but he contributed valuable edits to his speeches, adding and deleting lines, passages, and even full pages.

Whenever he included Chambers in a speech, he did not just mention him in passing, but often used direct quotes from Witness. At other times, the author of Witness went unmentioned, yet the words Reagan used sounded familiar to those who knew and appreciated Chambers’s writings.

For instance, at a Fourth of July speech in Decatur, Alabama, in 1984, the president, comparing the totalitarian world of communism with America, said that man was created to be free. “That’s why,” he opined, “it’s been said that democracy is just a political reading of the Bible.” Chambers’s exact words had been, “Political freedom, as the Western world has known it, is only a political reading of the Bible,” but the source for Reagan’s comment is unmistakable. It was a phrase from Witness that found a home in his memory.

Speaking before friendly audiences—those with whom he could share more personally in an ideological sense—the president invoked Chambers regularly. Just two months into his presidency, he addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference Dinner.

In a tone reminiscent of the language used in Witness, he proclaimed, “We’ve heard in our century far too much of the sounds of anguish from those who live under totalitarian rule. We’ve seen too many monuments made not out of marble or stone but out of barbed wire and terror.” He then spoke of “witnesses to the triumph of the human spirit over the mystique of state power,” and declared that “evil is powerless if the good are unafraid,” as if channeling Chambers’s decision to cross over the bridge on his witness and not turn back.

Marxism, he said, is a “vision of man without God” that must be exposed “as an empty and a false faith … first proclaimed in the Garden of Eden with whispered words of temptation: ‘Ye shall be as gods.’” Where were all these ideas coming from?

The crisis of the Western world, Whittaker Chambers reminded us, exists to the degree in which it is indifferent to God. “The Western world does not know it,” he said about our struggle, “but it already possesses the answer to this problem— but only provided that its faith in God and the freedom He enjoins is as great as communism’s faith in man.”

The real task, Reagan concluded, was a spiritual one: “to reassert our commitment as a nation to a law higher than our own, to renew our spiritual strength.” Only by having this kind of commitment could America’s heritage be preserved. The emphasis on spiritual strength, while also part of Reagan’s core beliefs, certainly was consistent with Chambers’s foundational message.

Near the end of his presidency, in December 1988, addressing his own administration officials, Reagan thought it important to remind them of what Chambers had said. He recalled the sad state of the nation when he took over the reins of the presidency, and how the people had been accused by former president Carter of suffering from the disease of malaise. Everyone at the time, it seemed, had bought into the lie that “there wasn’t much we could do because great historic forces were at work, the problems were all too complicated for solution, fate and history were against us, and America was slipping into an inevitable decline.”

A quote from Chambers seemed appropriate here: “Well, Whittaker Chambers once wrote that, in his words, ‘Human societies, like human beings, live by faith and die when faith dies.’” America, Reagan reminded his audience, possesses “a special faith that has, from our earliest days, guided this sweet and blessed land. It was proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and enshrined in the Constitution.” It was faith in what a free people could accomplish. “And in saying that America has entered an inevitable decline, our leaders of just a decade ago were confessing that, in them, this faith had died.”

This particular use of Chambers is instructive: it shows how Reagan almost always took a quote from him and turned it into something positive, no matter how negative the quote was in context. Reagan’s optimism enveloped Chambers’s pessimism and made it encouraging and upbeat instead.

These excerpts from my book are only a small sampling of what awaits the reader who cares to delve into this dual spiritual biography. And a spiritual biography it is, as both men based their beliefs on their grasp of Christian faith.