Archive for the ‘ Christians & Culture ’ Category

Lewis: Reflections on a Post-Christian Culture

All of those letters C. S. Lewis wrote to innumerable people throughout his lifetime are a treasure trove. Some show the mark of his published works while others emphasize the personal side of the man.

cover-on-ws-pageWhen I researched my book on Lewis (caution: unashamed plug coming up), I read every letter in the collection that he wrote to Americans. It was a highlight of my sabbatical year when I could devote hours each day reading them and making notes for use in the book. Those letters were crucial to my theme: how did Lewis connect with Americans and what impact did he make on them (both in his lifetime and now).

But I read only the letters to Americans. The treasure trove of other letters still awaits me when I have the time to delve into them again. For instance, one of Lewis’s regular correspondents was Don Giovanni Calabria. Excerpts I’ve seen from those letters seem most interesting.

Here’s a sample from a 1953 letter in which Lewis ponders the loss of Christian faith in Europe:

Regarding the moral condition of our times (since you bid me prattle on) I think this. Older people, as we both are, are always “praisers of times past.” They always think the world is worse than it was in their young days. Therefore we ought to take care lest we go wrong.

But, with this proviso, certainly I feel that very grave dangers hang over us. This results from the apostasy of the great part of Europe from the Christian faith. Hence a worse state than the one we were in before we received the Faith.

For no one returns from Christianity to the same state he was in before Christianity but into a worse state: the difference between a pagan and an apostate is the difference between an unmarried woman and an adulteress. For faith perfects nature but faith lost corrupts nature.

Notice how Lewis seeks to avoid the age-old complaint of everyone who has passed beyond middle age: everything is so much worse now than before. Yet he does have to acknowledge that when Christian faith is lost to a generation, there is truth to that complaint.

c-s-lewis-13What Lewis wrote in 1953 may perhaps be applied to what we see in our day. There is a kind of nostalgia in many for a time that seemed to be more outwardly accepting of Christian faith. Those of use who grew up in the 1950s-1960s didn’t witness all-out attacks on the faith in the same degree as we do now.

Yet Lewis goes on in that letter to offer this hope:

But God, who is the God of mercies, even now has not altogether cast off the human race. In younger people, although we may see much cruelty and lust, yet at the same time do we not see very many sparks of virtues which perhaps our own generation lacked?

How much courage, how much concern for the poor do we see! We must not despair. And (among us) a not inconsiderable number are now returning to the Faith.

One thing a frontal attack on the faith can do is to re-energize those who have fallen into a spiritual stupor. Times of crisis and denigration of Christianity may reawaken those sparks necessary to once again become a force in the culture.

May Lewis’s perception of what he saw in his day come to fruition in ours. I, for one, refuse to despair.

The Un-Christening of the Western World

c-s-lewis-15When C. S. Lewis moved from Oxford University to Cambridge University after nearly three decades at Oxford, it was a major event. Oxford never really appreciated what it had in Lewis, whereas Cambridge created a special Chair designed for him.

His inaugural lecture at Cambridge was a major event as well. In it, he outlined how Europe had become post-Christian, which was a fairly accurate description of Oxford. Lewis noted that nearly everyone thought the switch from pre-Christian to Christian was irreversible. Not so, he explained:

cambridge-inaugural-lectureThe un-christening of Europe in our time is not quite complete; neither was her christening in the Dark Ages. But roughly speaking we may say that whereas all history was for our ancestors divided into two periods, the pre-Christian and the Christian, and two only, for us it falls into three—the pre-Christian, the Christian, and what may reasonably be called the post-Christian.

This surely must make a momentous difference. . . . It appears to me that the second change is even more radical than the first.

Christians and Pagans had much more in common with each other than either has with a post-Christian. The gap between those who worship different gods is not so wide as that between those who worship and those who do not.

It was in that same lecture that he famously referred to himself as a dinosaur, and that since not many dinosaurs existed anymore, the world should learn from them while they are still around.

Joy Gresham, who would of course become his wife a couple of years later, was present at the lecture. She had a rather whimsical reaction to it, writing in a letter, “How that man loves being in a minority, even a lost-cause minority! Athanasius contra mundum, or Don Quixote against the windmills. . . . I sometimes wonder what he would do if Christianity really did triumph everywhere; I suppose he would have to invent a new heresy.”

Yet, as I survey the Western world sixty years after that inaugural lecture, I have to say that Lewis, as usual, was delivering truth.

Why I Quote C. S. Lewis

c-s-lewis-with-bookThere are probably some regular (or semi-regular) readers of my blog who wonder why I quote C. S. Lewis so much. One reason is that he has insights that make me think more deeply about what I believe and why. A second is the way he expresses those insights.

Here’s one example, taken from his essay “Is Theism Important?” Think about his perspective here:

When grave persons express their fear that England is relapsing into Paganism, I am tempted to reply, “Would that she were.”

For I do not think it at all likely that we shall ever see Parliament opened by the slaughtering of a garlanded white bull in the House of Lords or Cabinet Ministers leaving sandwiches in Hyde Park as an offering to the Dryads.

If such a state of affairs came about, then the Christian apologist would have something to work on. For a Pagan, as history shows, is a man eminently convertible to Christianity. He is essentially the pre-Christian, or sub-Christian, religious man. The post-Christian man of our day differs from him as much as a divorcée differs from a virgin.

As I contemplate the state of affairs in our contemporary society, I can understand why Lewis would say that. A post-Christian culture closes its eyes, ears, and hearts to the genuine Christian message more adamantly than a culture that at least recognizes there is “something” beyond what we can see, hear, and feel. Our approach to this newer culture has to take paths that get around its biases toward the “old” Gospel message.

Lewis wrote those words in 1952, a year after I was born. Yet even 64 years later, they ring with truth.

That’s why I like to quote C. S. Lewis.

Lewis: A Christian Political Party

Historians have different emphases in their study of the past. Mine is the influence of Christian faith on a society and its outworking in government. I am a student of “governing,” not politics per se. While the two cannot be separated, I do think it’s important to keep the distinctions.

cross-flagGovernment is something God wants, if it follows His prescription for how to carry out its responsibilities. Politics is the often messy pathway for figuring out who does the governing, and it is sometimes rather discouraging to see its inner workings.

I’m reminded of C. S. Lewis’s rather pointed comment in the essay “Membership”:

A sick society must think much about politics, as a sick man must think much about his digestion.

To be obsessed with politics may, therefore, be an indication of a low state of society, if Lewis is correct.

Naturally, Christians who want their society to reflect Biblical values will want to get involved in politics to try to turn things in a Christian direction. There’s certainly nothing inconsistent in doing so; in fact, I believe we are called to do so. It has something to do with what Jesus said about being “light” and “salt.”

It’s also natural, at this time in America, for most of us who feel that call to align ourselves with the party that wants to curb abortion, to protect the Biblical concept of marriage, and that seeks, at least in its public pronouncements, to uphold the Christian moral standards overall.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with that. But Lewis has this habit of making us think more carefully on how to proceed. In his day, back during WWII, there was a movement toward setting up a Christian political party. Here’s the caution he offered in another essay titled “Meditation on the Third Commandment”:

c-s-lewis-13From many letters to The Guardian, and from much that is printed elsewhere, we learn of the growing desire for a Christian “party,” a Christian “front,” or a Christian “platform” in politics. Nothing is so earnestly to be wished as a real assault by Christianity on the politics of the world: nothing, at first sight, so fitted to deliver this assault as a Christian party.

I have discovered, though, that even earnest Christians seeking to infuse the faith into politics can disagree over the specific means of doing so. This past election has made that abundantly clear. Lewis continues,

Whatever it calls itself, it will represent, not Christendom, but a part of Christendom. The principle which divides it from its brethren and unites it to its political allies will not be theological.

I found myself this year at odds with those with whom I agree on the essentials of the faith. My concern was the person who was chosen to represent the Christian worldview; I believed he was more of a detriment to that worldview than a promoter of it. It pained me to be divided from many of my brethren over that. The party that was supposed to speak for my Christian views seemed to be rather schizophrenic, in my estimation.

Lewis saw the problem:

It [the party representing Christian faith] will have no authority to speak for Christianity; it will have no more power than the political skill of its members gives it to control the behaviour of its unbelieving allies.

But there will be a real, and most disastrous, novelty. It will be not simply a part of Christendom, but a part claiming to be the whole. By the mere act of calling itself the Christian Party it implicitly accuses all Christians who do not join it of apostasy and betrayal.

It will be exposed, in an aggravated degree, to that temptation which the Devil spares none of us at any time—the temptation of claiming for our favourite opinions that kind and degree of certainty and authority which really belongs only to our Faith.

There is one great difference, of course, between the politics of Lewis’s day and ours. No political party back in the 1940s was advocating abortion or same-sex marriage. Lewis was referring more to differences of opinion on more mundane policy positions.

Yet his caution remains, and rightly so. We must always be careful not to put politics on a pedestal. We must disengage ourselves from the temptation to make it an idol.

And we must never allow politics to come between believers who will spend eternity together.

Principled Conservatism

I teach a course on Ronald Reagan and modern American conservatism. I begin the course with definitions of those terms.

Conservatism: a predisposition to maintain existing institutions and practices.

American: a particular brand of conservatism unique to American institutions and practices.

Modern: the distinct development of a conservative philosophy since WWII.

I then explain the three strands of thought that have been weaved together to create modern American conservatism:

  • Economic individualism: limited government; free enterprise; the inviolability of property
  • Social traditionalism: primary concern for the spiritual and moral values of society
  • Anti-communism: even with the fall of the USSR, the communist mentality continues to dominate; a collectivist philosophy remains strong in our politics

While there are some differences in the emphases these three strands of thought bring to the coalition, there are enough similarities that a coherent modern American conservatism has been able to have an impact on our society. Common beliefs can be summarized in this way:

  • There are absolute moral standards
  • The individual is more important than the state
  • Suspicion of centralized government power

biblical-worldviewMy Christian faith is foundational to everything I believe. I discovered, as I learned about modern American conservatism, that this brand of conservatism accurately reflected the truths of my faith. As a result, I’ve attempted to mesh my Christianity with political conservatism.

The connection has worked well. The absolute moral standards of Christianity are essential for our society. The Biblical principle that we are all made in the image of God is consistent with the conservative belief that the individual is more important than the state/government. Centralized government power has often been used to tear down Christian faith and influence people into accepting the government as their provider, thereby setting up a false god, making the state into an idol.

These bedrock concepts are what I have always hoped would guide Christians, in particular, in their decisions when voting and advocating public policies. In this recent election, I’ve had my hopes shaken somewhat. I’m concerned about how grounded we are in principle. Are we allowing emotion to guide us now? Are we perhaps thinking that the state can create the type of society we want?

Where is our faith? In God or in politics?

I want us to be a principled people. I hope we won’t awake one day to discover we have placed our faith where it does not belong.

My pledge: I will pray for this nation, as God instructs me to do. I will pray for its political leaders even when I disagree with them, both in their personal morality and in their public policy.

Yet I know, in my heart, that the only real hope is a diffusion of a vibrant Christian faith throughout our society. Government is not our savior; it will always disappoint in some way.

We have only one Savior.

The Election: Positives & Negatives

We avoided one national disaster last night, but we may have created another one. Yes, I know that will sound like sour grapes to some of you, but while I am glad for one result, please forgive me for not being elated with the other. Let me explain.

The Positives

Positive #1

clintonsThe long national nightmare known as the Clintons may now have ended for good. No one who puts Biblical principles and constitutional government at the foundation of life in America can be unhappy about that.

Having endured eight years of Bill, another eight with Hillary at the helm would have been practically unendurable. Everything I hold dear would have been attacked from the highest office in the land, so seeing her come crashing down is extremely gratifying.

The only thing that would make this picture complete is to now see an indictment for all she has done to undermine national security. If that should ever appear imminent, though, as long as Barack Obama is in office, she will probably receive a preemptive pardon. You see, he would be implicated as well.

So, yes, I am relieved that we can now dismiss that artificial family from national politics.

Positive #2

obama-arrogant-lookThe result was a repudiation of the Obama years. Americans fed up with his goal of “transforming” the nation into his own image said a loud “stop!”

The damage of the last eight years will not be undone easily. The culture continues to decline overall. Only a fresh infusion of a vibrant Christian witness can make the difference and reverse some of what has transpired. It remains to be seen if the Christian community any longer has that vibrancy or whether it has sold out to politics.

Positive #3

senate-chamberRepublicans maintained control of both houses of Congress. While this doesn’t guarantee that Obamacare is doomed or that the Supreme Court will now be in the hands of constitutionalists, it at least offers a reprieve from progressive activism—if they know how to use their majority. That’s always the big question.

Having a numerical majority is one thing; using it wisely is another entirely. The track record is decidedly mixed. The one excuse they won’t have anymore is that they don’t have the White House.

Positive #4

Republicans continued to dominate in the state-level elections. From what I’ve learned thus far, they increased their control in a number of states. This, and the control of Congress, was what I was hoping for. We still have a federal system, so not everything is supposed to emanate from Washington, DC. Republican control in a majority of the states offers hope.

The Negatives

Negative #1

Donald Trump Addresses GOP Lincoln Day Event In MichiganDonald Trump is now the president-elect. Winning the election last night doesn’t change who he is. I voted third-party and don’t repent of that vote. I continue to believe that he is unfit for the office that he now will occupy.

My concerns won’t go away. He is the supreme egotist who can’t handle any perceived insult. Will he now conduct a purge of anyone who wasn’t solidly in his camp?

He is blatantly immoral. Christians who think he has changed are going to be disappointed. All this talk about his being a “baby Christian” who only needs to grow in the faith is naive. In order to grow in the faith, one must have the faith first. There is no indication that he does.

constitutional-marriageAs I’ve said countless times, don’t depend on him to advance any agenda that puts pro-life or traditional marriage as a priority. He won’t fight for Supreme Court nominees of that ilk and he already has a propensity for letting everyone decide what they want to do with sex/gender issues.

Put not your trust in his promises.

His knowledge of issues is narrow and superficial. We need to hope that those who surround him have a better grasp of reality than he does.

Trump’s vision (such as it is) of America is not at all grounded in an understanding of constitutional limitations on the executive power. Will he decide to use his own executive orders to accomplish what he wants?

He is no conservative. He has no real understanding of the intellectual basis of conservatism and why it is essential for how governing should proceed.

I still consider him to be borderline emotionally unstable; who knows how that will manifest itself in his administration? Anyone who promotes crazy conspiracy theories, as he has done countless times, is not to be trusted.

Negative #2

Many who voted for Trump did so out of anger and frustration. It’s interesting that many who voted for him don’t really like him. Exit polls reveal that. They just couldn’t stand the prospect of a Hillary presidency. He enters the presidency as one of the most unliked and/or despised winners in American history.

While there is a proper place for anger and frustration, neither makes for a positive vision of the future. The national mood is dark, the culture is still on a downward spiral, and Donald Trump is not the solution.

Negative #3

christians-politicsMany sincere Christians have so thrown their lot in with Trump that it will be hard to disentangle themselves from him when he goes off the reservation. I continue to be deeply concerned that the Christian witness has suffered and will suffer more by our connection with him. Only time will tell how great that damage may be.

Too many Christians have followed the siren song of self-appointed prophets who have declared Trump to be God’s anointed. Be careful. While I do believe God can use the Nebuchadnezzars of this world for His purposes, I’m not going to rush into some silly confidence that Trump’s election is God-ordained.

People made this choice, not God. He may use the choice, and I pray He will, but don’t saddle Him with whatever Trump may do; that will only stain God’s reputation in the eyes of an unbelieving world when he disappoints—as surely he will.

So where does that leave me? Relieved that Hillary Clinton won’t be the president. Concerned that Donald Trump will be. We must remain vigilant and not go off into some fantasyland about how wonderful things will be from now on.

The battle is ongoing.

Lewis: We Need Knowledge of the Past

We’ve been in a political season for about a year and a half now. In one sense, the political season never ends. This is especially true for someone like me since I am a professor of American history. I’m naturally drawn to political news and analysis.

There is a temptation, though, to be so immersed in politics that one sees it as all-consuming. C. S. Lewis recognized that temptation. In his day, WWII was one of those potentially all-consuming events. Some people, at that time, were saying that all other activities, including Lewis’s own profession as a professor, should be set aside so that all thought and energy would be concentrated on the war.

NPG x45075,Clive Staples ('C.S.') Lewis,by Walter StonemanLewis said no to that. One of his most enlightening essays, “Learning in War-Time,” addressed the complaint that some had about allowing normal day-to-day activities to continue uninterrupted.

Lewis wanted to be sure he was not misunderstood: the war was a righteous one and every citizen had a duty to support it. “Every duty is a religious duty,” he believed, “and our obligation to perform every duty is therefore absolute.”

Rescuing a drowning man is a duty, he continued, and if we happened to live on a coast, perhaps we should be well prepared as lifesavers. But even such a laudatory effort as lifesaving needs to be seen as only part of one’s overall duties.

If anyone devoted himself to lifesaving in the sense of giving it his total attention—so that he thought and spoke of nothing else and demanded the cessation of all other human activities until everyone had learned to swim—he would be a monomaniac.

The rescue of drowning men is, then, a duty worth dying for, but not worth living for.

Lewis then opined that all political duties were like that. Politics is not the sum total of life. Seeking to put the right people in political office is a worthy endeavor, but it should never consume one’s life.

He who surrenders himself without reservation to the temporal claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering to Caesar that which, of all things, most emphatically belongs to God: himself.

For Lewis personally, God had charted a course for his life that pointed to intellectual activity, something that was not to cease simply because a war was going on. One of his most famous quotes comes from this essay: “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.”

He then offers me, as a historian, this encouraging word:

keep-calm-learn-historyMost of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.

A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.

There continues to be a “great cataract of nonsense” in our day. The America of 2016 suffers from a type of myopia, forgetting what has gone before, never learning from the past. History offers us tremendous lessons if we are willing to learn from them.

The reason I am so focused, at times, on the current political situation, is that I am disturbed by our ignorance of the past and our apparent unwillingness to correct what we have done wrong previously. We think we are charting a new course that will lead us to some type of utopia when, in fact, we are simply following some of the same old ruts that have caused misery before.

Lewis concludes his essay with what WWII should teach his generation. His conclusion applies to our generation as well if we think political programs will be our savior:

If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon.

We must never forget that we are pilgrims on this earth, and that the pilgrimage goes on regardless of what happens in politics and government.