Archive for the ‘ Christians & Culture ’ Category

Lewis’s Oxford-Cambridge Distinction

I watch from afar (via Facebook posts) those who are participating in the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s Oxbridge conference. I already had my England trip this summer; couldn’t afford this one.

It’s nice to relive, through the posts, some of the spots I visited earlier, especially the Kilns. The conference now moves on from Oxford to Cambridge, where Lewis taught in the last decade of his life. I’ve never been there; my bucket list is not yet emptied.

Moving from Oxford to Cambridge was hard for Lewis, even though he was offered a chair created with him in mind, and despite the poor treatment he received at Oxford, primarily from those who could never forgive him for wading into “religious” writing.

At first, he declined the invitation to teach at Cambridge. He was concerned about moving out of the Kilns after making a life there. At the urging of Tolkien and with the permission of Cambridge, he was able to keep the Kilns as his residence and take the train to Cambridge during the week.

His inaugural lecture created a sensation. In it, he spoke of the loss of the heritage of the past. He famously described himself as a dinosaur from whom others might still learn.

If a live dinosaur dragged its slow length into the laboratory, would we not all look back as we fled? What a chance to know at last how it really moved and looked and smelled and what noises it made! . . .

Speaking not only for myself but for all other Old Western men whom you may meet, I would say, use your specimens while you can. There are not going to be many more dinosaurs.

When he made the actual physical move, transferring all his books to the new university, it took him a while to adjust. Joy Gresham, not yet his wife, helped with the move. As I wrote in my book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis (accessed here),

To some friends she wrote of how Lewis was adapting to the move, revealing the emotional wrench it was for him at first, even though he handled his uneasiness with his usual sense of humor:

“Poor lamb, he was suffering all the pangs and qualms of a new boy going to a formidable school—went around muttering, ‘Oh, what a fool I am! I had a good home and I left!’ and turning his mouth down at the corners most pathetical. He always makes his distresses into a joke, but of course there’s a genuine grief in leaving a place like Magdalen after thirty years; rather like a divorce, I imagine.”

Lewis, according to those who knew him at Cambridge, came to love the place. As he wrote to another correspondent, Mary Willis Shelburne, about his new Magdalene College,

It’s a tiny college (a perfect cameo architecturally) and they’re so old fashioned, and pious, and gentle and conservative—unlike this leftist, atheist, cynical, hard-boiled, huge Magdalen. Perhaps from being the fogey and “old woman” here I shall become the enfant terrible there.

I would be interested in knowing if Lewis’s perception of the distinction between Oxford and Cambridge remains today.

Meanwhile, as I enjoy others’ experiences from my vantage point across the ocean, running through my mind is one thought: Oxbridge 2020.

Saving Christian Conservatism’s Soul

Above all else, my identity is as a Christian—a follower of Jesus Christ in which I consistently acknowledge His lordship over all of life. I take seriously the admonition that our time on earth is temporary and that we are pilgrims on a spiritual journey. Our primary focus in not anything in this world.

However, I also take seriously the call for Christians to be salt and light in every situation in this world to help guide others into the truth. We don’t live in a corner somewhere, ignoring the world.

That’s why I’ve always been very involved in teaching Christians how to understand politics and government. Yes, those are transitory as well, but they have a tremendous impact on everyone’s daily existence. Government is a realm where Christians should make a difference.

At this point, allow me to recount my bona fides as a political conservative, especially as what I will say later may dismay some readers.

I have been a conservative in principle most of my adult life. I was conservative before many of you reading these words were even born. In the 1980s, I wrote for the Heritage Foundation and the American Conservative Union. In the 1990s, I chaired a county chapter of the Christian Coalition.

As a history professor, I’ve tried to communicate Christian conservatism to my students now for twenty-eight years. My book on Whittaker Chambers and Ronald Reagan grew out of what I have researched and taught for all those years.

I teach a course on Chambers specifically (who is considered practically the godfather of modern American conservatism) and another one on Reagan and the varieties of cultural and political conservatism that have developed since WWII.

My goal always has been to show students that, as Christians, our political beliefs should be grounded in Biblical principles, and that we should never be led astray into some kind of secular salvationism or put anyone on a pedestal, especially any political leader whose life doesn’t reflect Biblical principles.

I’ve attempted to instruct them on the distinction between a principled compromise and a compromised principle.

Have I made my point yet?

All during the presidential primary season last year, I wrote about and admonished my fellow conservatives, and Christian conservatives in particular, to be focused on principle and not simply jump on some kind of nationalistic bandwagon offered by any candidate. I also questioned quite pointedly the character of Donald Trump, issuing warning after warning that he was not a conservative and that his character (as revealed in the manner by which he campaigned) would do great harm long-term to conservatism as a political force.

When he became president, despite his many flaws, I made it clear that I would support him whenever he did something that aligned with sound policy, but that I would not be a cheerleader for him whenever his policies departed from principle or whenever his character undermined the office to which he had been elected.

Frankly, I don’t see how a Christian conservative can maintain integrity without that dual commitment.

I won’t go through a laundry list today of all the problems I see with Trump and his administration. It is sufficient to say that he continues to be his own worst enemy.

I know. His most ardent devotees will cry “fake news” about everything negative in the media. Is there a lot of fake news out there? Of course. Again, I will point to the fact that I’ve critiqued the media continually in this blog for the past nine years that I’ve written it.

Is there a double standard toward Republicans in general and toward conservatives specifically? No question about it. A political cartoon that came out back in 2007 makes a case that can still be made today.

Yet those who are defending President Trump, no matter what he does, are relying far too much on what some commentators have called “whataboutism.” Every time Trump does anything questionable, crass, or unprincipled, they cry, “Well, what about the Democrats? Remember what they did?”

While this might soothe some consciences, it doesn’t soothe mine. Wrong is wrong regardless, and if we want to be true disciples of our Lord, we cannot dismiss wrongdoing because the one involved in the wrongdoing is “on our side.”

I’m trying to be charitable here, and I hope you see it in that light. This is not a diatribe against those who are outraged at the obvious double standard and hypocrisy all around us.

But it is a caution, especially for all of us who call ourselves Christian conservatives. In the understandable desire to have a voice in the current political climate, we must not violate the trust God has given us to be His spokesmen. We must not sell our souls for transitory and ephemeral political clout. We must remember these exact words from the One we say we love and obey:

What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world yet loses his own soul?

Let’s not sell our souls and our birthright as children of the King for that which doesn’t truly advance His Kingdom. Be a voice of integrity in the midst of party spirit, acrimony, dishonesty, and unprincipled behavior.

By doing so, we save the Christian conservative soul and become the type of witnesses we are called to be.

American Politics: Stranger Than Fiction?

I want journalism to be insightful and devoted to finding truth. That is the ideal, but it seldom is achieved. Those without historical context seem to think that there was a time when journalism was balanced and fair. As a historian, I can debunk that. From the first decade of the nation, in the 1790s, through the Civil War, newspapers were financed by one political party or another. Balance was in short supply.

Later, we got sensationalistic journalism that helped push us into the Spanish-American War. The 20th century has seen liberal/progressive “journalism” dominate. Sometimes, when the media attempts to shape the news, it gets some blowback, as the recent CNN woes indicate.

The Left nevertheless continues its crusade to remake our thinking as a nation, and media outlets like CNN and MSNBC cater to its peculiar logic:

Conservatives have tried to counter that Leftist perspective. Fox News became the favorite source for many conservatives because it allowed views to be expressed that were ignored in other outlets.

Then came Donald Trump, and a number of Fox programs (primarily the opinion-oriented ones) jumped on his bandwagon, promoting and excusing him no matter how indefensible his actions.

It’s becoming an old story now that Trump gets himself into unnecessary controversies through his tweeting. Even conservative cartoonists are calling him out for lowering the dignity of the office he holds:

He’s not exactly a role model:

Yet no amount of criticism dissuades him; he continues to create turmoil. His almost-paranoid obsession with hitting back at those with whom he disagrees is a major stumbling-block to doing his job, and it’s hurting the GOP’s agenda.

Is this where we are now?

We’re reaping the consequences of the seeds we have sown for many decades. We’re replacing the Biblical worldview and seeing the sad results.

I write about politics and government all the time, but I want it clearly understood that I don’t look to them for any kind of temporal salvation. Without the Biblical undergirdings, the system goes astray. While I continue to believe in the need for Christians to work in the political sphere, only an internal heart change based on Biblical principles will lead us back where we need to be.

Sacrificing Principles

An excerpt from the first chapter of my book, If the Foundations Are Destroyed: Biblical Principles and Civil Government:

A principle is the source or origin of anything; it is a general truth, that is, a truth that is so broad and sweeping that many other truths can be considered offshoots of it.

The idea of general truths that apply to all of society formerly had wide endorsement in America. The Declaration of Independence speaks of self-evident truths and goes on to list the basic rights God has given man.

One can legitimately question whether American society today still adheres to an unalterable body of truth. The onset of evolutionary philosophy and the pragmatism to which it has given birth has led us to think more in terms of expediency than principle.

People sacrifice principles to that which is less troublesome. Standing on principle can be wearying when no one else seems to care or understand what you are doing. Yet God calls Christians to make His principles the foundation of all they say and do.

Christians get in trouble when they conform to the world’s thinking and allow principles to slide. They are tempted not to cause waves, forgetting that the world already is a turbulent place and that men are seeking—whether they realize it or not—for the stability of fixed principles. These principles can come only from the Christians, from those who base all decisions upon Biblical truth.

If this piques your interest to read more, you can order this book on Amazon right here.

Lewis on Politics & Culture

C. S. Lewis’s “Meditation on the Third Commandment” is one of his essays I’ve used in my Lewis class because I include in the class some of his commentary on politics and government. He gives the essay this title because of his concern that Christians not take the name of the Lord in vain when we are involved in politics.

Although Lewis repeatedly said he wasn’t interested in politics, his writings belie that to some degree. He was definitely concerned about good government (his letters to Americans testify to that) and about how Christians should conduct themselves in the public sphere.

He wrote this essay to an Anglican newspaper called The Guardian in response to letters written to the paper by Christians who were advocating for the establishment of a Christian political party.

Lewis’s first point is that Christians disagree on some matters of public policy, so no one party could possibly incorporate all Christians’ views on government policy. It would turn into merely a subset of Christians who presume to speak for all, a group he called “schismatics blasphemously claiming to represent” Christianity.

Instead, Lewis promotes the tactic of Christians using their influence by exerting pressure on the various parties. He suggests setting up an interdenominational Christian Voters’ Society that could agree “on ends and means which every member was expected to exact from any political party as the price of his support.”

Far from taking a hands-off approach, Lewis says,

“So all it comes down to is pestering M.P.’s with letters?” Yes: just that. I think such pestering combines the dove and the serpent. I think it means a world where parties have to take care not to alienate Christians, instead of a world where Christians have to be “loyal” to infidel parties.

I agree. My “loyalty,” as such, is not to a party but to Biblical principles. Those principles lead me to support one party over another, but they also constrain me: I cannot place all confidence in a political party. Neither can I blindly proclaim loyalty when that party does things that blatantly contradict those principles.

Lewis concludes his thoughts with this:

But I had forgotten. There is a third way—by becoming a majority. He who converts his neighbour has performed the most practical Christian-political act of all.

Again, I agree. Our primary calling from God is the Great Commission. Yet I’m concerned that some Christians hide behind this, believing that they therefore don’t have to care much about politics and government. They also might think they have no obligation to change the culture but should concentrate solely on individual salvation.

We need to keep in mind, though, that when enough individuals are touched by God’s grace, the culture is touched also. I think it’s incumbent upon Christians to do whatever we can to challenge anti-Christian trends in the culture.

There’s no valid reason that I can see in Scripture for neglecting the culture as a whole. After all, didn’t Jesus tell us we are salt and light? We can do both: seek the salvation of individuals while simultaneously persuading others of the need for a more Biblical culture.

Indeed, we ought to do both. That, I think, is what Lewis was saying.

Literary England II: The Wordsworth-Lewis Link

Prior to my recent England trip with students, the only time I can recall reading English poet William Wordsworth was in one of our sessions in preparation for the trip.

For today’s blog post, I was simply going to include Wordsworth as one of three authors whose homes we visited.

Then, just yesterday, as I was doing more research on him, I discovered a stronger connection with C. S. Lewis than I had imagined. I decided Wordsworth needed a post of his own, especially as I wanted to put a spotlight on that connection.

For eight of Wordsworth’s most productive years, he lived in Dove Cottage in the picturesque village of Grasmere, located in the Lakes District, an area of England I’d never seen before.

Wordsworth’s poems, especially those from his early years, are quite focused on nature. In fact, for the first thirty-plus years of his life, one could say that nature was his religion. That’s why he’s considered one of the originators of Romantic poetry. The beauty of the Lakes District certainly can help engender such feelings. The back yard of his home is a garden with a hill from which one can see the nearby village and mountains.

I knew Lewis called himself a Romantic and that he had referenced Wordsworth occasionally, but until yesterday’s research, I didn’t know how strong that link was.

I don’t know how I missed it, but Lewis’s autobiography, Surprised by Joy, takes its title from a Wordsworth poem, “Surprised by Joy–Impatient as the Wind.” You can even find that quote on Lewis’s title page. Wordsworth’s poem is about memory and an intense longing for a love who was lost to death. Lewis’s memoir also focuses on that intense longing for joy that Wordsworth enunciated. Lewis even attempted, at first, to write his autobiography as a long poem in the Wordsworth style in his classic, The Prelude.

Romanticism was one of Lewis’s philosophical stops on his journey to Christianity. I also read that when he wrote The Pilgrim’s Regress, the fictional tale of his roundabout path to Christian faith, it not only took that form with John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress as a model, but also with Wordsworth’s The Prelude in mind.

Lewis couldn’t stop at Romanticism; it didn’t fulfill that longing ultimately. He mentions Wordsworth in Surprised by Joy, and in chapter XI, “Check,” he describes how a walk he took (Wordsworth loved walks also) gave him a sense of tasting heaven, and how he longed to find that experience again. He realized, though, that he couldn’t replicate the exact experience, but that it wasn’t the experience itself that was the issue—instead it was the stab of joy that he could still remember.

What Lewis eventually learned was that you cannot recapture that very moment; that would be idolatry. Then he said,

Wordsworth, I believe, made this mistake all his life. I am sure that all that sense of loss of vanished vision which fills The Prelude was itself vision of the same kind, if only he could have believed it.

Lewis says Wordsworth made this mistake all his life, but in my research I saw that he finally came to orthodox Christian faith and was known as a strong Anglican. I would need to research more to see how that influenced his later writings, but at least one source noted that he moderated his nature worship and brought it into submission to Christianity. I sincerely hope that is true.

The Wordsworth-Lewis link is most interesting. I’m glad I could add this to my ever-increasing boatload of knowledge about English literature.

Lewis’s Oxford

Twenty years ago, I had a whirlwind tour of a very small section of Oxford. This time, with my university students, I was able to spend a little more time—not enough, but more directed, more significant, more focused on the sites with which C. S. Lewis was familiar.

Lewis taught at Magdalen College for approximately thirty years. For the first time in my sixty-six years, I was on the same grounds.

Lewis’s rooms were in the New Building (“new” because it wasn’t built until the eighteenth century), top floor, the two windows to the right of the protruding section in the middle.

I neglected to take a picture of the sign that told students to keep off the grass. It would have been humorous.

Next to the New Building was the entrance to Addison’s Walk, a lovely wooded path by the winding river. It was here that Lewis had a long conversation with Tolkien and another Inkling, Hugo Dyson, that convinced him to believe in God.

We also stopped by the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin. It was from this pulpit that Lewis delivered one of the most powerful sermons I’ve ever read: “The Weight of Glory.”

My favorite passage from that sermon is a poignant reminder of how we should view other people:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. . . .

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.

What visit to Lewis’s Oxford would be complete without a stop here?

We had our evening meal at the “Bird and Baby.” I was particularly interested in seeing the section where Lewis and his Inklings friends had their weekly get-together. At first, it was filled with diners, so I waited until after we had finished our meal (the Shepherd’s Pie was very good, by the way) and then I was able to get this photo without bothering too many people.

You can’t read the plaque above my head in this picture, but here’s what it says:

What could be better than this for someone who has studied Lewis as much as I have?

How about time spent at C. S. Lewis’s home with Walter Hooper, the American who became Lewis’s close friend and who then has spent the rest of his life as the agent for his literary estate?

That’s what we did on the next day. That’s also what I’ll be posting about tomorrow.