Archive for the ‘ The Christian Spirit ’ Category

Niceness vs. Redemption

We have just completed a week filled with anguish. The Charlottesville protests and anger that they have stirred has brought our nation to a low point indeed. In the midst of this anguish, people say things about changing the rhetoric and promoting understanding—all very nice, but never getting to the core of the problem, which is sin.

C. S. Lewis, in his Mere Christianity, delivers the truth about niceness vs. redemption.

We must not suppose that even if we succeeded in making everyone nice we should have saved their souls. A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, looking no further, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world—and might even be more difficult to save.

The world wants niceness; God wants to redeem us. There’s a real distinction here that the world doesn’t recognize. Lewis continues,

For mere improvement is no redemption, though redemption always improves people even here and now and will, in the end, improve them to a degree we cannot yet imagine. God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man.

God is seeking to make us part of His family, which is a goal the world cannot conceive of, nor does it want to grasp. Man normally wants to improve himself, to a degree, where he is not quite as bad as he was before, whereas God demands a complete overhaul by submission to His Lordship. He wants to give man an entirely different type of existence.

What man, in his natural condition, has not got, is Spiritual life—the higher and different sort of life that exists in God. . . .

And that is precisely what Christianity is about. This world is a great sculptor’s shop. We are the statues and there is a rumour going round the shop that some of us are some day going to come to life.

When the next series of despicable events occurs (possibly even today) and we see the handwringing and the calls for civility, we need to be the voice of God’s truth to this dazed and confused world and point them to His redemption. That’s where the solution must begin because it’s the only answer to sin.

Charlottesville: A Christian Perspective

The rally and subsequent violence that erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia, this past weekend has dominated the news. I want to comment on it as I trust a Christian should, starting with some overall statements about groups in general, then on to some specifics.

First, there is no place in a Christian worldview for beliefs about racial superiority or inferiority. Any group claiming to be Christian while simultaneously promoting racial division is not really Christian; it’s merely using Christian cover for its sinful purposes.

The “white supremacists” who staged the Charlottesville rally, ostensibly to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue, but actually devoted to racial hatred, are a moral stain on the nation. Neo-Nazis and the KKK were prominent in their ranks.

They should be called out for what they are: immoral, hate-filled hypocrites.

Second, there is no place in a Christian worldview for those in a minority group to rise up and call for violence, regardless of the treatment they have received. Members of Black Lives Matter, spurred on by their own bitterness, have promoted violence against law enforcement officers, painting them all with the broad brush of a stereotype—which is the very thing they claim to be opposed to.

Third, there is another group out there calling themselves “Antifa,” which is supposed to mean they are anti-fascist. The strange thing about them is that they use fascist tactics to make their point, thereby becoming in practice what they say they oppose in theory. They were part of the violence in Charlottesville, although you don’t hear much about that.

Interestingly, though, a New York Times reporter at the scene did tweet this: “The hard left seemed as hate-filled as alt-right. I saw club-wielding ‘antifa’ beating white nationalists being led out of the park.”

This movement also is anti-Christian and should have no place in the heart of anyone calling himself/herself a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Now, on to the specifics.

The primary blame for what occurred in Charlottesville rests with the white supremacists. They staged the rally, knowing full well it would spark a counter-protest. They wanted a reaction from the extremists on the other side to try to make their point more pointedly.

They succeeded, if indeed you can describe what happened as a success.

Moreover, this group of sinful racists (a tautology, I know) tried to carry out this rally in the name of Christian faith, political conservatism, and as an arm of what many see as the Trump agenda.

It was not Christian, it was not representative of true conservatism, and Republicans nationwide have denounced the actions of these racists. That won’t stop the media, however, from constantly trying to make those connections.

The only sliver of accuracy here is that Trump did rely on their votes as a segment of his support in the campaign. Steve Bannon, his chief strategist, when he ran the Breitbart website, actually referred to it as a platform for the alt-right (the term used to incorporate such racists and others who sometimes lend them credibility with their “America First” ideology).

David Duke, one of the more prominent white supremacists in America, spoke at the Charlottesville rally and said the following: “This represents a turning point for the people of this country. We are determined to take this country back. We’re gonna fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in. That’s why we voted for Donald Trump because he said he’s going to take our country back.”

Please note that I’m not saying Trump is a racist; I’m simply saying that many white supremacists see him as their hope to fulfill their racist fantasies.

Trump’s response to the violence was technically accurate: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides. On many sides.”

I can read that and say I agree. But I can also read that and wonder why he refused to single out the one “side” that created the problem this time. It’s as if he doesn’t want to go the entire way and point out that white supremacists were the real culprits in this particular event.

Usually it’s Trump’s words that get him into hot water; for the first time in my memory, it’s now what he didn’t say that’s causing the problem. Trump has this uncanny ability to make things worse.

The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Colossians, chapter 3, says explicitly what our attitude must be. He tells us to put aside “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech” from our mouths. He then goes on to say that through Christ we are being renewed:

A renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all.

He concludes the passage with these positive words:

So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.

The groups I mentioned in this post are opposed to forgiveness, choosing instead to highlight their grievances. Nothing about any of them is remotely Christian, and it’s incumbent upon Christians to be clear about that. We cannot allow a false image of the faith to gain predominance.

The Spiritual Body & Ultimate Reality

Arthur Greeves was a boyhood friend of Lewis’s, one with whom he corresponded throughout his life. It’s in those letters that we see the transformation of Lewis from an atheist/agnostic to a convinced Christian, and we witness an ongoing theological discussion over the years.

One of those discussions, in 1947, centered on the nature of the spiritual body Christians would receive in eternity. Lewis takes issue (in love, of course) with Greeves’s speculation about it.

I agree that we don’t know what a spiritual body is. But I don’t like contrasting it with (your words) “an actual, physical body.” This suggests that the spiritual body wd. be the opposite of “actual”—i.e., some kind of vision or imagination. And I do think most people imagine it as something that looks like the present body and isn’t really there.

I believe Lewis is correct in that assertion. We have this vague, shadowy concept of the nature of a spiritual body that might more approximate the idea of a ghost than what Scripture really indicates. For evidence, Lewis notes,

Our Lord’s eating the boiled fish seems to put the boots on that idea, don’t you think? I suspect the distinction is the other way round—that it is something compared with which our present bodies are half real and phantasmal.

Those who are familiar with Lewis’s writings will automatically think of his fantasy entitled The Great Divorce. In it, passengers on a bus ride from hell to heaven arrive, only to find that they are like phantoms compared with the reality of heaven. They can see through each other; the grass is so hard the can barely walk on it without pain; any attempt to pick up a piece of heavenly fruit is virtually impossible.

Lewis often used fantasy to make a valid theological point: even though what we experience now is certainly real, it is not the ultimate reality. That which awaits us in the heavenly realm is so much more real that we will look back on our earthly life and perhaps wonder how we could have thought it was all there was.

Like Lewis, I can’t fully explain what the new me will be like in my resurrected state, but also with Lewis, I can affirm that it will be far greater than anything I can now imagine.

Being Mere Christians

Let’s talk Christian unity. Let’s focus on what we all have in common if we name the name of Christ as our Savior and Lord.

I am not a Roman Catholic. There are doctrines and practices of the Catholic church with which I am not in agreement. I don’t consider the pope to be my spiritual authority, I don’t adhere to a belief in transubstantiation when I take Communion/Lord’s Supper/Eucharist. I’m concerned about the adoration given to Mary quite often.

Yet I know that Catholic teaching on the deity of Jesus and the meaning of His sacrifice for us is the same as mine. Only through faith in Jesus does anyone become a child of God and a citizen of heaven.

I have worked alongside Catholics whom I consider brothers and sisters in the Lord. I expect we will all be together when this earthly life has ended.

I am not of the Reformed Protestant persuasion. The theological system devised by Calvin and those who have followed him is not mine. Specifically, I don’t accept the idea that God predestines some to salvation and others to damnation.

Yet I know that Reformed people believe as I do that Jesus is the Son of God and that only through Him can anyone be saved.

I have worked, and still do, with those who are Reformed and I know their faith is genuine despite our differences on how to explain it. We will be standing side by side in heaven.

I am not a Quaker. I don’t believe that baptism and communion are insignificant and should be set aside as unnecessary outward forms. I can’t accept pacifism as scriptural.

Yet Quakers worship the same Jesus that I do. He is God, and all are called to bow the knee to Him as Lord.

The Quaker William Penn, who suffered imprisonment for his faith, later was able to start a colony, aptly named Pennsylvania, in which all varieties of Christians were welcome. In a letter he wrote to a friend in 1688, Penn first of all commented on how one should look to God alone for what one believes and not be swayed by what others think:

It is now above twenty years, I thank God, that I have not been very solicitous what the World thought of me. . . .

The first and main point with me has been to approve myself in the sight of God, through patience and well-doing: so that the World has not had weight enough with me, to suffer its good opinion to raise me, or its ill opinion to deject me.

Summary: I stand before God with my conscience clear about what I believe, and I’m only concerned with pleasing God, not men. I’m not looking for the world’s favor to make me feel good; neither will its disfavor make me unhappy.

That’s called liberty of conscience before God, knowing what one believes and why one believes it, and recognizing that God will be your only judge ultimately.

Then Penn goes on with respect to how Christians from different theological perspectives ought to treat one another:

He that suffers his difference with his neighbor about the other world, to carry him beyond the line of moderation in this, is the worse for his opinion, even though it be true.

In other words, your theological perspective and your specific doctrines may actually be the correct ones, yet if you go beyond “moderation” in how you interact with those who disagree, what does that profit spiritually? You may be right, but you have exhibited a very unchristian spirit in the manner in which you assert your beliefs. It’s one thing to be doctrinally right, but what gain is that if you are arrogant and judgmental in your dealing with others?

Penn concludes with words that stir my soul:

Since all . . . parties profess to believe in God, Christ, the Spirit, and Scripture, that the soul is immortal, that there are eternal rewards and punishments, and that the virtuous shall receive the one, and the wicked suffer the other: I say, since this is the common faith of Christendom, let us all resolve in the strength of God to live up to what we agree in, before we fall out so miserably about the rest in which we differ.

When all of us eventually stand in the presence of God and all becomes clear, I doubt whether any of us will be able to say we were correct on all points. Neither will it matter to us on that Day. We will, instead, be one in Him, regardless of what we called ourselves on earth.

If we are all going to be one at that time, shouldn’t we begin practicing that oneness now? We have so much on which we agree; let’s concentrate on that agreement and be the mere Christians God intends for us to be.

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.

Lewis: Delighting in God

Lewis’s exuberance in the faith shines through in many of his writings, whether they be apologetic or fiction. One of his later books, Reflections on the Psalms, contains nuggets like these:

The most valuable thing the Psalms do for me is to express that same delight in God which made David dance.

There . . . I find an experience fully God-centered, asking of God no gift more urgently than His presence, the gift of Himself, joyous to the highest degree, and unmistakably real.

My study of Lewis during my sabbatical helped me see his character more clearly then ever. Reading his letters to Americans provided insights into who he really was and what moved him.

What I love most about Lewis, I think, is that even though he was one of the most astute minds of the twentieth century, able to be classed with the best and the brightest, he understood that a rigorous intellect could be coupled with devotion and humility without any cognitive dissonance.

He was a man who realized that all talents and abilities, intellectual or otherwise, were gifts from God and should be treated as such. He was not embarrassed to show pure joy in contemplation of the nature of the One who gives all good things.

Pride and arrogance, be gone!

Rockefeller the Christian?

A couple days ago, I posted about Booker T. Washington—the fruit of the preparation I’m doing for a course called “The Emergence of Modern America, 1877-1917.” I hope I showed in that post that he is someone to be admired for his character.

Another figure from that time period who needs his reputation reexamined is John D. Rockefeller. Historians typically castigate this man for supposedly destroying other companies by buying them out. Another presumably evil thing he did was to negotiate with the railroads for special rates for shipping his product: Standard oil.

I won’t try to do a total overhaul of those interpretations today, but I will offer these rejoinders:

First, Rockefeller was a very efficient oil producer; many other companies were sloppily run and doomed to failure. Many people that he bought out were actually saved by the transaction. He paid them a good market price for their equipment and sometimes even hired the best of their managers and employees.

He’s accused of creating a monopoly, which would be bad for consumers because monopolies can charge whatever they wish. Well, Rockefeller so lowered the price of oil to all Americans that they all could afford it, thereby lighting their homes in a significantly cheaper way than by candles.

What about the special rates with the railroads? Unfair? If someone gives you far more business than another person, what’s morally wrong with providing them, in return, a better rate? Isn’t that how business operates all the time? Buy in quantity and you get a lower price. Ever heard of Sam’s Club?

Rockefeller, to the surprise of many, was a devoted Baptist who tithed from his millions to his church and to missionary endeavors. And when journalists hoped to find an extravagant lifestyle that they could expose, they ran into the proverbial brick wall. Rockefeller liked nothing more than quiet times at home and going to church with his family.

Everyone talks about how much money Andrew Carnegie gave away. That’s fine, but Rockefeller gave away even more, and he was more focused on Christian charities. He even gave the funds necessary to ensure the establishment of Spelman College, the historically black women’s college that is named after his wife’s family.

I found some very fascinating Rockefeller quotes in my research. Here’s one that shows his goal for becoming rich:

He noted that anyone who concentrates solely on getting rich is missing the mark:

And how about this one from arguably the richest man in America at that time?

Although a Baptist, Rockefeller saw all Christians as his brothers and sisters:

And I’ll end with this:

So did Rockefeller never make a misstep? Am I whitewashing him because of my personal agenda? There are some things to critique, but I think they are minor in comparison with what he accomplished. He deserves more credit than many historians are willing to acknowledge.