Archive for the ‘ Book Reviews ’ Category

Genesis of Chambers-Reagan

Book Cover 1What led me to write my new book The Witness and the President: Whittaker Chambers, Ronald Reagan, and the Future of Freedom? Here’s the background.

It was not until after my graduation from college in 1973 that I began to pay serious attention to politics. Of course, it was hard not to know what was going on that year—the Watergate controversy overshadowed all political discussion. Over the next year and a half, I watched as the Nixon presidency collapsed.

The 1976 presidential election forced me to consider the two candidates on a deeper level than I had previously. Although my personal political philosophy was not fully developed, I was socially conservative due to my evangelical Christian faith. When the Democratic candidate, Jimmy Carter, claimed to be a born-again Christian, I read his autobiography and tried to sort through what he really believed, both religiously and politically. The result of that research was a reasoned vote for Gerald Ford.

Ford, though, had not been my first choice for the Republican nomination. I had followed the Reagan challenge to Ford closely and was disappointed when Reagan fell short at the convention. By 1980, I was solidly in the Reagan camp, rejoicing over his stunning electoral victory over an incumbent president.

1984 Campaign ButtonI had returned to college by that time, having started a master’s degree in history, and can recall the reaction of one of my professors the morning after the election. He came into the classroom with the burden of the world seemingly on his shoulders. Clearly, he was disturbed. He removed all doubt as to the source of that disturbance when he announced to the class that he could scarcely bring himself to realize that “that cowboy has been elected president.” His perspective was not unique; it was dominant on that campus—and most others.

A few months into the Reagan presidency, I moved to the Washington, D.C., area to continue my education, pursuing a doctorate in history at The American University. I remained in the D.C. area throughout the entire Reagan administration, leaving for my first full-time college-level teaching position shortly after George H. W. Bush took over the Oval Office.

Those eight years in D.C. gave me a political education, even though I never took a job with the administration. Rather, I wrote and researched for a number of organizations, both inside the government and outside, as a freelancer. It was a valuable time for grappling with how my faith formed the basis for my political philosophy.

In the midst of this “grappling” I heard about a book many considered seminal to the entire conservative movement as represented in the Reagan presidency. When I discovered that Reagan himself had read the book and credited it with providing his understanding of the philosophy and workings of the communist mind, I decided it was time to evaluate it myself. The book was Witness. The author was Whittaker Chambers.

WitnessI did not expect what I found. I expected a treatise on communism and how wrong it was. What I received was far more. Chambers had not written a political tract; instead, he wrote painfully of the weaknesses in his own life while detailing the tragic consequences of a philosophy that he believed dethroned God.

It was not just a story. It was not simply an autobiography. It was a personal spiritual reflection and confession. One reading was not enough, even though it was 799 pages. I had to go through it again to see what I might have missed the first time. I believed the work to be so significant that later I developed an entire college course around the book and its author.

My new book adheres to all the goals of a scholarly work. My research is as meticulous as possible, and documentation for every quotation is provided. While I have salient points of agreement philosophically with both of my subjects, I also recognize their weaknesses and inconsistencies, and those will be noted.

The goal is a reasoned historical analysis. But one can be scholarly and not have to succumb either to cynicism in the analysis or to dryness in writing style. If the reader who finishes this book can be glad that he had the opportunity to read it, and that it furthered his understanding of these two individuals, I can be satisfied with that.

If you would like to delve into this further, just click on the ad on the right side of my blog and go straight to the Amazon page. I’m hoping you will find the foray into the worlds of Chambers and Reagan to be worthwhile.

“The Witness and the President” Makes Its Appearance

Witness & President DrawingTen years ago, I had the vision for a book on Whittaker Chambers and Ronald Reagan. I wanted to compare/contrast the pessimism of the former with the optimism of the latter. I also wanted to know just how much Chambers influenced Reagan.

I had read Chambers’s masterful autobiography, Witness, back in the mid-1980s. It affected me deeply. I also was very appreciative of the principles that guided Reagan in his life and administration, an appreciation that grew over time as the nation floundered under successors who weren’t as solidly grounded—and some of whom, like Bill Clinton, who never deserved the office in the first place and who destroyed the respect and esteem we should hold for the presidency.

I read everything else Chambers wrote—his journalistic essays and his posthumous work, Cold Friday. I researched diligently the papers of Reagan’s presidency at his library, combing through all his speeches, and read as many as I could of the myriad books about him that kept appearing.

It all came together, and now the result is The Witness and the President: Whittaker Chambers, Ronald Reagan, and the Future of Freedom. The book is now available through Amazon at this URL.

Am I relieved that this has now come to fruition? Absolutely. But this is more than merely the satisfaction of getting the book published; this is part of my effort to help our citizens understand basic Biblical principles upon which our society must be based.

Chambers left the Communist Underground and found the Christian faith. He gave witness to the need for Western civilization to return to the faith. Reagan, unlike Chambers, had a Christian upbringing. Whatever straying he may have done during his lifetime, he came back to that same solid foundation of faith that Chambers found.

These two men have a message for our generation. This book tells their stories and, I trust, will challenge you to think about the principles we must never lose.

I hope you will get a copy, read it carefully (it tells a good story, too), and ponder its message.

The Chambers-Reagan Journey

Ten years ago, I had an idea for a book and began the research. I sought to compare the nearly unbounded optimism of Ronald Reagan with the more pessimistic outlook of Whittaker Chambers, the ex-communist who became front-page news when he outed Alger Hiss as an underground spy.

Chambers then wrote his autobiography, Witness, which went beyond a simple telling of a tale; it became a treatise on the downfall of Western civilization unless it would turn once again to Christian faith.

I completed writing the first draft in 2010, then searched for a publisher. I found one, but the publication stumbled over something out of the control of both the publisher and myself—we mutually agreed to terminate the contract in 2012.

The search continued, and lasted until this year when I finally found a publisher with the conviction that what I had written needed to be in print. It will be a reality now in a matter of days.

I recently received the front cover, and I was impressed with it.

Book Cover 1

It has just the right “feel” for what I wanted the cover to portray. The look is as professional as I had always hoped it would be. Then I was sent the back cover, which included excerpts from some quite eminent historians’ endorsements for the book:

Witness & the President Back Cover

Paul Kengor is a well-established Reagan scholar; George Nash is considered the dean of historians with respect to analyzing modern American conservatism; Richard Reinsch has written an excellent account of Chambers’s worldview; and Luke Nichter is co-author/editor of the bestselling book on the Nixon tapes. Luke also just happens to be one of my former students from when I taught at Regent University’s School of Government in a master’s program.

Needless to say, I am thrilled with the prospects of this publication. I’m hoping many of you will be interested enough to purchase a copy—and then a few more for your friends.

When it does become available, which will be very soon, I will let you know. May God be praised for opening this door.

A Companion to Mere Christianity

I’ve been teaching my C. S. Lewis course at Southeastern University since August. I’m delighted that my students, by their own testimonies, have found it to be so valuable. For some of them, this is the first time they have truly had direct contact with Lewis and his writings, rather than just seeing a couple of Narnia movies.

McCuskerThey got a lot out of reading his autobiography, Surprised By Joy, and The Screwtape Letters. In between those two reading assignments, I gave them significant portions of Mere Christianity, but I was able to enhance that experience by simultaneously having them read a fairly new book by Paul McCusker called C. S. Lewis and Mere Christianity: The Crisis That Created a Classic.

McCusker works with Focus on the Family and is the man who scripted all seven of the Narnia books and Screwtape for Focus’s Family Radio Theatre. In addition, he compiled the exhaustive notes for The Screwtape Letters: The Annotated Edition, a book that I didn’t know existed, and which I must purchase very soon.

I wondered how the students would like this book. Would they consider it too much while working their way through Mere Christianity as well? I need not have worried. McCusker performs a valuable service with this in-depth accounting of how Lewis’s BBC broadcast talks developed and then how they were brought together into his classic volume that continues to make a profound impact on many.

What McCusker accomplishes is perfect for my course, which is history-based as we read Lewis. His book is not simply a narrow focus on the BBC talks, but instead a sweeping historical background for the environment in which those talks took place. He switches back and forth effectively between the larger historical picture of England at war and the personal history of Lewis and all the decisions that went into figuring out what he should say in these talks and how they were received by the public.

What I enjoyed most about the book besides the historical grounding—and many of my students commented on this also—were the excellent inserts into the main text that allow the reader to get more information on a variety of individuals and other topics relevant to the history.

For instance, chapter one gives the reader sidebars on prime minister Neville Chamberlain, the Anderson shelters the government provided to use as bomb shelters during the war, and information on Rev. James Welch, director of religious broadcasting for the BBC. Another chapter offers a biographical overview of Eric Fenn, the man who worked closely with Lewis on the topics and structure of the talks.

We even get insight into Lewis’s gardener, Fred Paxford, a recipe for siege cakes, an analysis of the superiority of German airplanes at that time, the reason for the unique architecture of the BBC building, a typical weekday broadcast schedule for the BBC, and English trains during wartime (and all the hassles associated with rail travel).

Those are just a few samples.

What delights me most is that this book was a significant aid as I attempted to explain British history of this era via my PowerPoint presentations. It came alongside as a great complement and helped accomplish one of my chief goals for the course.

For those of you who would like a companion book for Mere Christianity, I highly recommend McCusker’s helpful and meticulously researched volume. Your knowledge of Lewis and his times will be enhanced through it.

Lewis, Tolkien, WWI, & Hope

Hobbit, Wardrobe, Great WarA Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War. What a great title. And what a great book. Joseph Loconte, professor of history at the King’s College in New York City, has crafted a masterpiece that weaves knowledge of the impact of WWI on a generation, and then offers an insightful analysis of how the war affected the thinking and writing of both C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien.

For me, as a professional historian, the book was a delight on two fronts.

First, WWI has not been a particular focus of my studies. Yes, I know the basics, but I’ve never delved into the kind of detail Loconte provides here. So this book has deepened my bond with the generation that endured that horror.

Second, even though I knew that Lewis and Tolkien had served in the Great War (as it was called at the time), and I am familiar with Lewis’s account in Surprised By Joy, Loconte’s description of what he experienced expands on the barebones treatment Lewis gives. As for Tolkien, this was my first encounter with what he suffered during the war.

Tolkien was a faithful Catholic at the time, and remained so for the rest of his life. Lewis was an atheist, sometimes bordering on agnosticism. They didn’t know each other while the war was going on, but when they met at Oxford for the first time in 1926, their shared experience, not only of literature, but of the war as well, created a deep friendship.

Lewis-TolkienLoconte shows how this Great War dashed the utopian hopes of Progress in the 1920s generation and replaced those hopes with cynicism. Then he concentrates on how Lewis and Tolkien bucked that trend in their writing. Once Lewis converted to the faith (helped along by key conversations with Tolkien), he became the most noted Christian apologist of his time.

Lewis’s works—from the Screwtape Letters to his science fiction novels to The Chronicles of Narnia—recognized evil for what it was, yet always offered the Christian remedy for that evil. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings painted a horrible portrait of evil, and the descriptions he offers of the terrible battles derived directly from his WWI experiences. Lewis drew on that same background for his works.

A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War is eminently readable. I breezed through it in less than three days. As the cliché goes, I couldn’t put it down. My next goal is to figure out how to use it in one of my courses because it is that good.

This is not a book for Lewis and Tolkien admirers only. It is for anyone who seeks to understand the false hopes humanity tends to cling to, the awfulness of human evil, and the way in which Christians can communicate the truths of the Good News to any “lost generation.”

The current generation is just as lost as the one Lewis and Tolkien addressed; the solution to that lostness has not changed. God’s truth is still the message that must be trumpeted to a world that has exchanged the truth for a lie.

Screwtape’s “Advice”

Over Christmas, I re-read C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce, both favorites of mine, although it has been quite some time since I sat down to read them through again. I marvel at how much one can always draw from them, no matter how often they are read.

Screwtape LettersOne of my favorite passages from Screwtape is found in Letter VII, where Screwtape instructs his junior devil, Wormwood, in the ways of deception, especially with respect to hiding the tempters’ existence. Here is his “advice”:

I wonder you should ask me whether it is essential to keep the patient in ignorance of your own existence. That question, at least for the present phase of the struggle, has been answered for us by the High Command. Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves.

Of course this has not always been so. We are really faced with a cruel dilemma. When the humans disbelieve in our existence we lose all the pleasing results of direct terrorism, and we make no magicians. On the other hand, when they believe in us, we cannot make them materialists and sceptics. At least, not yet.

I have great hopes that we shall learn in due time how to emotionalise and mythologise their science to such an extent that what is, in effect, a belief in us (though not under that name) will creep in while the human mind remains closed to belief in the Enemy.

The “Life Force,” the worship of sex, and some aspects of Psychoanalysis may here prove useful. If once we can produce our perfect work—the Materialist Magician, the man, not using, but veritably worshipping, what he vaguely calls “Forces” while denying the existence of “spirits”–then the end of the war will be in sight.

But in the meantime we must obey our orders. I do not think you will have much difficulty in keeping the patient in the dark. The fact that “devils” are predominantly comic figures in the modern imagination will help you. If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in the mind, suggest to him a picture of something in red tights, and persuade him that since he cannot believe in that (it is an old textbook method of confusing them) he therefore cannot believe in you.

This fits in nicely with what Lewis wrote in the preface to the book, where he said,

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.

Are you looking for some insight into how you need to avoid the traps set for you by satanic forces? Check out The Screwtape Letters; I don’t think you will be disappointed.

Lewis: Screwtape on Liberty

If one book can be said to have introduced C. S. Lewis to the world on a wide scale, it would be The Screwtape Letters. They are witty and full of insight, as a senior devil gives advice to a junior devil on how to tempt his human into disobedience to God—who was termed “the Enemy” in the book.

Lewis, though, says it was the hardest book he ever wrote, and I can understand why. He explained it this way:

Of all my books, there was only one I did not take pleasure in writing. . . . The Screwtape Letters. They were dry and gritty going. At the time, I was thinking of objections to the Christian life, and decided to put them into the form, “That’s what the devil would say.” But making goods “bad” and bads “good” gets to be fatiguing.

Screwtape Letters 2Although he vowed never to repeat that exercise, he did, later, write another little treatise that is now commonly included in newer editions of Screwtape. He imagined Screwtape giving a speech at the “Annual Dinner of the Tempters’ Training College for Young Devils” and called it “Screwtape Proposes a Toast.” In it, it’s obvious he still had the flair that produced the original. Take, for instance, Screwtape’s gloating on how mankind’s real enemy has subverted man’s desire for liberty:

Hidden in the heart of this striving for Liberty there was also a deep hatred of personal freedom. That invaluable man Rousseau first revealed it. In his perfect democracy, you remember, only the state religion is permitted, slavery is restored, and the individual is told that he has really willed (though he didn’t know it) whatever the Government tells him to do. From that starting point, via Hegel (another indispensable propagandist on our side) we easily contrived both the Nazi and the Communist state.

If you’ve never given The Screwtape Letters a try, why not now? Valuable insights await.