Archive for the ‘ Christians & Culture ’ Category

Awash in Foolishness

My response to the whole NFL national anthem controversy is decidedly mixed. On the one hand, I have a visceral reaction: who are these spoiled brats making more money in one year than either I or anyone reading this blog will make in a lifetime? What do they really have to protest? What’s “wrong” with the words of this anthem?

I’m an American historian who deeply appreciates the Founding of this nation—its Biblical framework of thinking and its overall goals. I also believe that despite the sins and/or problems of its past, America has tried valiantly to correct many of those missteps and has been more of a beacon of hope to the world than any other nation one can name.

Two world wars ended because of America’s reluctant participation in both; the Soviet empire crashed and burned under American pressure and the Cold War came to a satisfactory conclusion.

So, yes, it disturbs me to witness professional football players who bask in the glow of athletic fame, and who draw rather obscene salaries in light of what they actually produce for the nation, decide to disrespect the nation that gave them this opportunity.

On the other hand, as a Christian, I don’t equate national pride with sacredness. The Constitution, while remarkable and worthy of our esteem, is not on the same plane as Scripture. The flag, while a vibrant symbol of what America says it stands for, is not the emblem of the heavenly kingdom. The Star-Spangled Banner, thrilling as it is when one knows its history, is not the banner of eternity.

Then there’s another factor thrown into the mix that makes it all even more mixed up: Donald Trump.

The protests were already an issue before Trump entered into the cultural battle, but, as usual, his words turned a smoldering burn into a blazing fire. By using his bully pulpit to denounce the protesters and call for their firing, he misused the office he has been granted by the voters.

In my mind, there is this comparison that is always present: Trump vs. Reagan. I ask myself how Reagan would have handled such a situation and, from what I know of his character and history, I come away thinking that he would have defused it with his humor and adult behavior. Not so Trump. Adult behavior, in his case, is rarely witnessed.

Those last two paragraphs will raise the ire of Trump defenders, I know. Yet I can’t help but wonder why he won’t simply attend to the weightier issues he was elected to deal with and avoid getting involved in lesser controversies.

It always comes down to character, or the lack thereof.

Due to Trump’s involvement, the protests increased, and now no one really knows if those protests are against the anthem itself or against a president who unwisely inserted himself into the foolishness.

Foolishness. I guess that’s the word that stands out to me as I survey this mess. The NFL players who are protesting are foolish. The president of the United States is being foolish. We are awash in foolishness.

Christians, this message is for you: don’t get carried away by any of this. Focus instead on the eternal. Pray for all those invested in this foolishness, on both sides. Pray that knowledge, understanding, and wisdom may prevail—for the sake of what has been, historically, the best country on the globe.

Chad Walsh’s Baptized Imagination

One of C. S. Lewis’s earliest American friendships was with Chad Walsh, a professor of English at Beloit College in Wisconsin. Like Lewis, Walsh traveled the road from atheism to Christianity, and Lewis helped him on that journey.

“In my case there was no childhood faith,” Walsh wrote in an account of how he eventually found the Christian path.

If I ever believed in God as a small child, no memory of the time remains with me. I regarded myself as an atheist from the moment I learned to read—and, indeed, pamphlet editions of Ingersoll, et cetera, were part of my earliest reading.

Why would a young boy be so attracted to a non-Christian worldview? Walsh, although ultimately placing the blame on his own stubbornness and pride, also pointed to a reaction he had to the community in which he was raised:

Undoubtedly my atheism was in part a revolt against the Fundamentalism of my home town—Marion, Virginia. . . . It was not a winsome faith, and I was in full agreement with H. L. Mencken about the superstitious backwardness of the ‘Bible Belt.’

He eventually escaped what he considered the confines of that small town and found the atmosphere of the University of Virginia more to his liking. There he didn’t have to worry about people shoving religion at him. He was free, he felt, but the freedom did not settle the bigger questions that began to crowd upon his mind. While he claimed to be a self-satisfied atheist, doubts crept in. “Is there such a thing as good or evil?” he often wondered. “Is there any meaning in life and the universe?” World events in the 1930s helped crystallize the answers.

The rise of Hitler in Germany, and the growing awareness of the actions of that regime, forced him to confront the problem of evil in the world. Walsh’s companions in atheism and/or agnosticism, when challenged by Walsh to come up with a response to what Hitler was doing, would provide excuses, albeit excuses that were actually consistent with their worldview.

Walsh recounts,

They agreed with me that the world was a senseless jungle. Very well, they reasoned, if the world is a jungle, it’s absurd to speak of right and wrong. Everything is relative. Hitler thinks he’s doing right to invade Poland and murder the Jews. Very well, it is right for him. It’s all in the way you look at it.

That response shook him. He knew he had to come to grips with the reality of evil.

Walsh’s second question, about the meaning of life and the universe, intruded more on his thoughts once he was forced to recognize that real goodness and real evil existed, and that there was a decided difference between the two. If everything was some kind of cosmic accident, what did that say about his personhood? Was he living an illusion?

His atheism was crumbling. He lived in a transition from atheist to Christian for a few years, trying to figure out what he should believe. It all came down to the person of Jesus Christ.

Walsh began reading the New Testament. What he found surprised him. He had preconceived ideas of Jesus as some weak character—the words “meek and mild” were stuck in his mind from childhood. What he saw in the pages of the Gospels was something different:

The man I encountered in the Gospels was a towering figure of strength; even his death was that of a man strong enough to accept death voluntarily. So I was up against the final question: What or who was Jesus?

Eventually, reason led to faith.

As I recount in my book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis, along the way, Walsh had begun to read some Lewis, and that helped him see the reality. But then he had an experience with one of Lewis’s books that absolutely transformed him.

A friend enthusiastically lent him a book she had just finished reading; she just knew he would love it. That book was Perelandra, the second in Lewis’s Space Trilogy in which the protagonist, Elwin Ransom, is transported to Venus to save an innocent world from falling into sin. Walsh was transported as well:

I quickly consumed it from cover to cover. I was struck first of all by the sheer beauty of the book. It transported me into a kind of Elysian Fields—or better yet, an unspoiled Eden, inhabited by the innocent and unfallen.

A second revelation was that, even though he had always been a science fiction fan, he had never read any science fiction like this, where it could be used as a “vehicle of great philosophic and psychological myth.” The third revelation, though, was the greatest of all:

Finally, and most importantly, in Perelandra I found my imagination being baptized. At the time I was slowly thinking, feeling, and fumbling my way towards the Christian faith and had reached the point where I was more than half convinced that it was true. This conviction, however, was a thing more of the mind than of the imagination and heart.

In Perelandra I got the taste and smell of Christian truth. My senses as well as my soul were baptized. It was as though an intellectual abstraction or speculation had become flesh and dwelt in its solid bodily glory among us.

Walsh then became the first person to write a book about Lewis. To do so properly, he knew he had to visit Oxford and interview him. That’s the tale I’ll tell in a Lewis post next Saturday. Please come back.

Affirming the Nashville Statement

Last week, more than 150 evangelical leaders met in Nashville to endorse what has been called the Nashville Statement, a concise affirmation of what the Bible teaches about sexual morality—doctrines long established and agreed upon throughout the history of the Christian church.

Therefore, they should not have been controversial. But we live in an America rapidly becoming intolerant of Biblical beliefs, especially in the area of sexual morality.

Sex before marriage has become commonplace, sexual relations outside the marriage covenant are looked upon mostly as regrettable but not necessarily sinful (that word has lost most of its meaning), and homosexuality is not only more accepted, it’s positively applauded by the secular culture-shapers in the media, both news and entertainment.

Sadly, even those who call themselves Christian have begun to succumb to the siren song of “follow the culture to stay relevant” and have shied away from the “sin” label for those involved in homosexuality.

Some have retaliated against the Statement, deeming it hateful, bigoted, and all the other negative terms that have lately been appropriated to describe anyone who takes a stand for Biblical morality.

Yet if one actually reads the Statement, one sees that it comes from a heart of compassion, clearly noting that God’s grace is sufficient to save anyone from a life of sexual impurity.

Anyone wanting to read the Nashville Statement can go to it here.

I do want to share some of the preamble because it lays out the basis for publicly making this Statement.

Evangelical Christians at the dawn of the twenty-first century find themselves living in a period of historic transition. As Western culture has become increasingly post-Christian, it has embarked upon a massive revision of what it means to be a human being.

By and large the spirit of our age no longer discerns or delights in the beauty of God’s design for human life. Many deny that God created human beings for his glory, and that his good purposes for us include our personal and physical design as male and female. It is common to think that human identity as male and female is not part of God’s beautiful plan, but is, rather, an expression of an individual’s autonomous preferences.

The pathway to full and lasting joy through God’s good design for his creatures is thus replaced by the path of shortsighted alternatives that, sooner or later, ruin human life and dishonor God.

The signers then ask these questions:

This secular spirit of our age presents a great challenge to the Christian church. Will the church of the Lord Jesus Christ lose her biblical conviction, clarity, and courage, and blend into the spirit of the age? Or will she hold fast to the word of life, draw courage from Jesus, and unashamedly proclaim his way as the way of life? Will she maintain her clear, counter-cultural witness to a world that seems bent on ruin?

The Statement is saying that we are on the wrong path as a society and that we are in danger of spiritual destruction if we don’t return to the Truth.

C. S. Lewis, in a famous and oft-quoted passage in Mere Christianity, writes of being on a wrong path and what must be done when one realizes it. He also deals with the silly cliché that one cannot turn back the clock, as if whatever is happening now is automatic progress and to turn back to “old” concepts of morality is ludicrous. Lewis dares to differ:

First, as to putting the clock back. Would you think I was joking if I said that you can put a clock back, and that if the clock is wrong it is often a very sensible thing to do? But I would rather get away from that whole idea of clocks.

We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.

Those in the so-called progressive Christian community have set out on a course that leads to spiritual destruction. They are not progressive at all; rather, they are simply hearkening back to the oldest sin in the world, first breathed in the Garden, when man was told he could decide for himself what is right and wrong and God can’t tell him otherwise.

Lewis concludes,

There is nothing progressive about being pigheaded and refusing to admit a mistake. And I think if you look at the present state of the world, it is pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistake. We are on the wrong road. And if that is so, we must go back. Going back is the quickest way on.

The Nashville Statement is a clarion call to go back—back to the Biblical standards for sexual morality. Our society is making a big mistake; we are on the wrong road. Sin is sin and must be called by its correct name. A return to Biblical fidelity is the only answer to the dilemma in which we find ourselves.

All Saints: A Review

Picture an Episcopal church called All Saints in the middle of Tennessee with only a handful of congregants. Then picture a pastor who has been sent to that church for the sole purpose of shutting it down and selling the property so that a mega-store can be built on the site.

Then, unexpectedly, refugees from Burma, Christians from the persecuted Karen tribe, arrive in the area. Because their tribe had been Christianized through Anglican missionaries, they find their way to tiny All Saints.

God touches the pastor’s heart as he realizes these people need this church. They need his help to find jobs and provide for their families. Since they have been farmers, the pastor comes up with a plan to turn the church land into a working farm to sustain the refugees.

He challenges the Episcopal authorities with the vision of reaching out to the refugees. Despite meeting with stiff resistance, he persists through trials and heartaches. In the process, Christ’s love is manifested in the community, the church’s attendance grows, and the Karen Christians become part of the larger family of God at All Saints.

To top it all off, it’s a true story.

When I went to see this film, I was wondering if it could really be as good as the review I had read. We all have seen “Christian movies” that have fallen short of the mark, although well intentioned.

All Saints is that truly rare film that combines a poignant story, realistic dialogue, strong character development, professional acting, and a quality of production that is, well, quality.

I give it my highest recommendation. I urge you to see it because it is bold in its proclamation of Biblical truth, offers spiritual edification, and leaves you with the feeling that someone in the film industry “gets it.”

What a joy (and a relief) to come out of the theater with the sense that God had His hand in this endeavor.

To All My Students, Past & Present

The pre-semester faculty meetings have begun and I now enter into my 29th year of teaching American history in a Christian college. When you believe you have a specific calling from God to do something, you can do it regardless of the trials and obstacles that sometimes make you question the calling.

There was a time in the previous 28 years when I seriously considered going in a different direction, wondering if the calling had been withdrawn and God was pointing to a new path. That didn’t materialize, and here I am, still doing what I have always felt I should do to fulfill God’s purposes in my life and in the lives of those I teach.

I look back on the 28 years I’ve completed and am thankful for what has transpired. The trials fade, the obstacles have all been overcome, and what really matters is being obedient to the Lord, thereby, hopefully, helping students develop a greater understanding of history through Biblical eyes.

Nostalgia? Well, to some extent, yes. But it’s more than that. I maintain contact with hundreds of former and current students I’ve taught. Is it over the top to thank God for Facebook? I know the drawbacks of social media, but as with all technology, it depends on how one uses it. I would have lost touch with so many I’ve had the privilege to know.

I spent five years at Indiana Wesleyan University. That’s where my fulltime teaching began. It was a stretch to develop so many new courses all at once. American economic history? Me? I did it, though, and I think it went well. Political and cultural geography? How was that a history course? I made it into one, and learned a lot doing so.

To those IWU students with whom I still have ties, thank you for your eagerness to learn and the encouragement you offered when I needed it most. The Dead Historians Society will always be a fond memory, and I’ll never forget that little plaque with the quote from Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “An ounce of truth outweighs the world.”

Periodically, I would invite students to our home for a time of fellowship and teaching, and they actually came, sometimes thirty at a time. What a blessing that was.

Then I spent seven years at Regent University, teaching at the masters’ level in the School of Government, offering the historical perspective on that subject. Again, I had to develop a lot of new courses, but it was a joy to do so. And teaching masters’ classes added depth to what I was able to offer.

My Regent students were of a different stripe, many leaving jobs to go back to school, seeking to engage the political field with their Christian faith, hoping to inject Biblical principles into an arena that often casts them aside.

My office was large enough to accommodate my advisees for weekly prayer meetings. The bond that was created with students over those seven years has never gone away, at least not in my heart. Cookouts and other gatherings at our house only helped cement that bond.

Taking students to nearby Jamestown and Colonial Williamsburg was an annual treat. Those of you who accompanied me to Israel and Britain that one summer will never forget that trip (for reasons both wonderful and bizarre). Twice I took students to the Northeast, taking in as many key historic sites as time allowed.

Leaving Regent after those seven years wasn’t easy. I will never forget the good times there. For all of you who have stayed in touch, thank you.

Five years at Patrick Henry College followed. The majority of PHC students had been homeschooled and were more than ready for higher education. Seeing that kind of eagerness for learning at the undergraduate level is uncommon. I never had to wonder how to get the students’ attention in class; they were keen to point out when I might have messed up a date on my PowerPoint slides.

My Calvin and Hobbes comics were so appreciated that one year the students purchased the entire collection and presented it to me in chapel. There was the ongoing joke about men needing women to have families. If that doesn’t seem like a joke to you, just ask a PHC student for the inside story and how aliens fit into it.

I wish I could have stayed longer at PHC; my Facebook friends list is replete with PHC alumni. God bless you all.

Now I’m at Southeastern University and have been for eleven years. I’ve set a record for longevity here. Who would have guessed I could survive that long anywhere? This opportunity opened up quite surprisingly at just the right time. God always provides.

SEU students, I’m gratified to be able to teach you. Over these eleven years, I’ve again developed a number of new courses, and I’ve been given a free hand by the administration to do so. I was promoted to full professor and later awarded a sabbatical that led to the publication of my book on C. S. Lewis. I have been blessed.

My pledge to my current students is that I will continue to give you my all. I see each course I teach as part of that calling from God, and I will never give you second best. When I’m in the classroom, my passion for what I teach will be undiminished.

To all my students, past and present, I give you this pledge: I will remain faithful to the calling, to the principles found in God’s Word, and to integrity in all I do and say.

It’s not simply a quaint cliché when I say, “To God be the glory.” And may He truly be glorified through me as this new semester begins.

Open & Closed Minds

I teach at a Christian university. A concern I’ve expressed before in this blog is that sometimes Christian academics have a tendency to think they are lesser scholars than those in the more prestigious centers of higher education. Then they make the mistake of trying to become respected by secular academia by minimizing their faith publicly.

I’m not saying that’s the norm for Christian academics, but it is a temptation for some. There sometimes is a haughtiness emanating from the confines of Ivy League and other “top” schools that tells us we don’t really match up.

However, God disagrees. We’re told in Proverbs, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” and “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” That last verse goes on to say, “And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.”

When we jettison that first step—reverence for God—we set out on a path that leads to foolishness, not genuine knowledge, understanding, and wisdom.

It’s as C. S. Lewis noted in Mere Christianity:

There is a difficulty about disagreeing with God. He is the source from which all your reasoning power comes: you could not be right and He wrong any more than a stream can rise higher than its own source.

When you are arguing against Him you are arguing against the very power that makes you able to argue at all: it is like cutting off the branch you are sitting on.

All the talk in circles of higher education of having an open mind sounds nice. Sometimes, those of us who teach at a university that has a basic statement of beliefs are considered close-minded. Yet as Lewis reminds us in his The Abolition of Man,

An open mind, in questions that are not ultimate, is useful. But an open mind about ultimate foundations either of Theoretical or Practical Reason is idiocy. If a man’s mind is open on these things, let his mouth at least be shut.

I’m reminded also of an incident related by Whittaker Chambers in his autobiography, Witness. As a child, he once said something to his mother about God creating the world. His mother, decidedly nonreligious, told him that he had to think for himself, to have an open mind. He was not to accept other people’s opinions, she declared. Then she followed that with this statement: “The world was formed by gases cooling in space.”

Chambers continued,

I thought about this many times. But it was not the gaseous theory of creation that impressed me. . . . What impressed me was that it was an opinion, too, since other people believed something else. Then, why had my mother told me what to think? Clearly, if the open mind was open . . . truth was simply a question of which opening you preferred.

In effect, the open mind was always closed at one end.

I have no problem saying I begin my understanding of history (which is what I teach) with the knowledge of God. After all, history came into being by His creation. Why would I ever omit Him from an analysis of history?

My mind is open when it comes to the facts of history and whether I need to change my perspective on particular events. My mind is blessedly closed, though, on matters of ultimate significance. Neither do I suffer from feelings of inferiority for saying that. Staying faithful to God’s truth leads to proper understanding and wisdom.

Speaking Truth to a Sinful Culture

I was born in the 1950s, became aware of the larger world and moral issues in the 1960s (subjected as we all were during that era to the so-called sexual revolution), solidified my Christian faith in the early-to-mid 1970s, slipped away from Christian reality for a while after that, only to return to faith in the late 1980s with supreme gratitude to God for His patience and willingness to forgive my stupidity.

I was blessed to be brought back from the brink of spiritual destruction. As a result, I speak earnestly and forcefully (with love, I trust) about the need to hold fast to His truth and not allow slippage to occur, both in the individuals I have the opportunity to influence (students, in particular) and in my ongoing concern for the Christian church’s witness to the world.

When the church—which is comprised of all those who have come to the foot of the Cross, repented of sin, and received the forgiveness and grace only offered there—stops being the voice of God on moral issues, the culture degrades in proportion to the church’s apostasy.

This hasn’t happened on all issues. Take abortion, for instance. Despite the efforts of those who want to see abortion accepted as normal, great strides have been made by Christians in our nation to stem that tide. Regardless of the government’s promotion of abortion via the Supreme Court, the attitude of Americans on that issue is shifting more and more toward rejection of that horrific act.

Not so with homosexuality, unfortunately. This has become the primary issue now with the government and the culture in general (entertainment media, especially) in an attempt to overthrow Biblical morality.

Those of us who grew up in the 1950s-1970s era look around us and almost can’t believe what we see. What was once considered abnormal and not even to be mentioned publicly has become a celebration of “diversity.” Those who oppose the gay agenda are singled out as “haters,” “bigots,” and “narrow-minded.”

Same-sex marriage, from a Biblical standpoint, is an absurdity. Probably more than 90% of Americans would have said the same thing a mere twenty years ago. Now, even Republicans—you know, the “conservatives”—are on the verge of accepting it as normal. A recent poll revealed that nearly 50% of Republican voters no longer have a problem with it.

While that certainly concerns me as a conservative, the more pressing problem is the change occurring with those who claim to be Christians. The shift within the supposed Christian community is disheartening.

One Christian professor at a Baptist seminary has come up with a sad, yet from my perspective, accurate description of what is happening. He sees evangelicals moving toward the same acceptance of same-sex marriage as the overall culture.

Here are the stages he outlines.

(1) Oppose gay-marriage: Every evangelical starts here, or at the very least they appear to start here.

(2) Oppose taking a stand on the question: Persons in this stage are becoming aware of how offensive the traditional view is to those outside the church. Their initial remedy is to avoid that conflict by not talking about the Bible’s teaching on this subject. In Brian McLaren‘s case, he urged evangelicals to observe a 5-year moratorium on talking about gay marriage. For Jen Hatmaker, she advocated going “into the basement,” where we don’t talk about these things but just love people. Choosing to avoid the question is never a final answer for anyone in this stage.

(3) Affirm gay marriage: At some point during the “we’re not talking about this anymore” stage, those who used to oppose gay marriage find grounds to affirm it. Some do it by questioning the Bible’s truthfulness. Others do through revisionist interpretations of the Biblical text. In either case, proponents end up affirming what the Bible forbids.

(4) Vilify traditional marriage proponents: Persons in this stage not only affirm gay marriage. They also view traditional marriage supporters as supporting invidious discrimination against gay people. They will adopt the rhetoric of Christianity’s fiercest critics to describe believers who hold to the Bible’s teaching on marriage and sexuality.

The professor then goes on to state that while it may take some time for people to go from stage 2 to stage 3, once they hit stage 3, they quite often go rapidly into stage 4.

I teach at an evangelical university. During the Obama presidency, we, along with other evangelical universities, experienced pressure to change our public stand on this issue or else our students would be cut off from getting education loans and our accreditation might be withdrawn over time.

Some may think that just because we presently have a Republican Congress and a president who curries favor with evangelicals that we are “safe.” Believing that all is back to “normal” would be the height of wishful thinking.

It is crucial for those who truly know what it means to be brought out of the pit of sinful destruction and receive the mercy and grace of God to stand firm at this time on Biblical teaching about sin.

Many will twist my words, saying they are hateful. They are just the opposite. I want everyone caught in a sinful life to be set free. I needed that in my life at one point and God graciously gave me a new life. I seek the same for others.

All sin—homosexuality included—leads to chains that bind us. When we are in those chains, we get used to them and our consciences become seared. The Christian’s responsibility is, by the leading of the Holy Spirit, to break through that seared conscience with the twin weapons of Truth and Love so that those caught in the trap will see their need and respond to God’s mercy through Christ.

To be faithful to God’s truth and to speak to our society about that truth is the most loving thing we can do.