Archive for the ‘ The Christian Spirit ’ Category

Chambers: The Meaning of Witness

Every couple of years, I’m privileged to teach my course on Whittaker Chambers. As this semester nears its end, students are also getting near the end of Chambers’s masterful autobiography entitled Witness.

Why that title? Chambers, as he shared what he knew about the communist underground of which he had been a part for many years, was a witness. Another word for a witness is a martyr—one who is willing to lay down his life for what he knows to be true.

Chambers took a great chance in providing information; he might have been the one indicted for his past activities. Yet he came forward regardless because integrity demanded it; he sought to help Western civilization understand the threat it faced, not just from an outward manifestation called communism, but from an inner loss of spirit due to its increasing denial of Christian faith.

Chambers made a distinction between making a witness and simply giving a testimony. “The testimony and the witness must not be confused,” he wrote. “They were not the same.” He explained further,

The testimony fixed specific, relevant crimes. The witness fixed the effort of the soul to rise above sin and crime, and not for its own sake first, but because of others’ need, that the witness to sin and crime might be turned against both.

Chambers, in confessing his sins and crimes, was hoping to help the world understand the deeper truths. Yet he was concerned “that the world would see only the shocking facts of the testimony and not the meaning of the witness.”

He expressed his concern in words that reverberate down to our day—elegant words, words wrought out of the depth of his soul:

To those for whom the intellect alone has force, such a witness has little or no force. It bewilders and exasperates them. It challenges them to suppose that there is something greater about man than his ability to add and subtract.

It submits that that something is the soul.

Plain men understood the witness easily. It speaks directly to their condition. For it is peculiarly the Christian witness. They still hear it, whenever it truly reaches their ears, the ring of those glad tidings that once stirred mankind with an immense hope.

What does the Christian hope offer to men? I love how Chambers ends this short soliloquy:

For it frees them from the trap of irreversible Fate at the point of which it whispers to them that each soul is individually responsible to God, that it has only to assert that responsibility, and out of man’s weakness will come strength, out of his corruption incorruption, out of his evil good, and out of what is false invulnerable truth.

Chambers’s words remind me of chapter 4 of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. . . .

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.

So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

Be a witness today, even if you feel weak. God uses whatever we offer Him for His glory.

The Joys (?) of Grading

I am a professor of history. I live, eat, drink, and breathe my profession. I see it as a calling from God. He provided His Word and the principles from His Word to guide me into my thinking about history, government, culture, and anything associated with those subjects.

I love teaching. I love reading/researching. I’ve even learned to love writing, which is the hardest of those loves to carry out effectively. Yet the love of God and His truths is what inspires me to do them all.

There’s one aspect of the calling He’s given me that’s not as easy to love as the others: grading.

Wouldn’t it be easier just to interact with students and enjoy the learning that takes place without all of the time-consuming grading? Yes, that would be nice. But it wouldn’t work.

I know from experience that even some of the best students won’t read the books assigned unless there is some kind of evaluation that follows afterward. Love of learning purely for the love of learning resides in the hearts of the few, not the many.

For instance, when I first taught a Civil War class to a group of history majors, I set it up in such a way that one of the students would be responsible each class session for making a presentation about the reading assignment while another had to come up with questions about the reading for the class to discuss.

My assumption was that, since they were history majors and ostensibly in the class because they wanted to learn about the Civil War, that they would eagerly read and discuss. What I found instead is that only two of the students were prepared for each class session: the one given the task to make the presentation and the one chosen to come up with questions.

The rest of the students were ignorant of the facts that were to be part of the discussion because they hadn’t read the assigned pages. After all, they didn’t have to make a presentation or come up with questions.

Needless to say, I don’t conduct my classes in that way anymore.

That’s why we must give assignments. That’s why we must grade those assignments. It’s a matter of accountability and a way to teach personal responsibility. Most won’t learn much of anything without those assignments.

Those assignments don’t teach students only; they also teach me personal responsibility. As much as I don’t like being bogged down by grading, the Lord keeps nudging me about why I must do that. It not only holds students accountable and makes them better people—it does the same for me.

So, as I enter this final month of the semester, I will try to keep that in mind. God wants me to do the best for my students by offering honest evaluations of their work and helping them to improve their thinking and writing.

He also wants me to improve my attitude toward all that grading; He’s using it to make me more like Him.

Chip away at my rough edges, Lord. Although I may not always enjoy the time I spend grading, I know I need You to continue to shape me more into the image of Christ.

Lewis: Humility & the Literary

C. S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism is a surprisingly good read. I say “surprisingly” because I expected a heavy tome that would be hard to understand. It isn’t that at all. I drew from it in my previous Lewis post, showing how he clearly differentiates between the unliterary and the literary. He notes that the majority of people fall into the first category.

A false implication can arise from that division. People may think Lewis is being a snob. That’s not the case, and in the second chapter, he clarifies the distinction. It is wrong, he instructs, to believe that the unliterary belong to some kind of rabble. Critics, he says,

accuse them of illiteracy, barbarism, “crass,” “crude,” and “stock” responses which (it is suggested) must make them clumsy and insensitive in all the relations of life and render them a permanent danger to civilisation.

Lewis disagrees. Rather, those who are included in the many who are not attracted to great literary works “include certain people who are equal or superior to some of the few in psychological health, in moral virtue, practical prudence, good manners, and general adaptability.”

So Lewis doesn’t classify the literary as the best people in society by virtue of their reading habits. There are other factors to consider.

Some of those in the literary category may not be as virtuous and emotionally fit as those they may think of as their inferiors. In fact, if one begins to divide humanity into inferior and superior classes solely by reading tastes, one has created a false division and revealed the sin of pride in oneself.

Lewis warns,

And we all know very well that we, the literary, include no small percentage of the ignorant, the caddish, the stunted, the warped, and the truculent. With the hasty and wholesale apartheid of those who ignore this we must have nothing to do.

Lewis then goes on to catalogue the problems of some in the literary class. While one would expect the literary to have “a profound and permanent appreciation of literature,” they may not at all. Some have become so professionalized that they read only out of duty anymore. He writes in particular of “overworked reviewers, getting through novel after novel as quickly as they can, like a schoolboy doing his ‘prep.'”

He feels for people like that because they may have begun their literary journey in joy but now consider it mere work.

The text before them comes to exist not in its own right but simply as raw material; clay out of which they can complete their tale of bricks. Accordingly we often find that in their leisure hours they read, if at all, as the many read.

Another branch of the literary are simply status seekers. They grew up in families and circles where they were expected to read only the “approved literature, especially the new and astonishing works, and those which have been banned or have become in some other way subjects of controversy.”

So, as one of that literary class, Lewis has no problem seeing the pitfalls that some fall into. He rejects the idea of literary people naturally being the best in society.

This is what I’ve come to expect from Lewis. He never lost touch with the ordinary man or talked down to him. All one has to do is read his letters to that multitude who wanted his advice; his humility shines throughout his responses.

More on this next week.

Reflections on My 66th

Today I complete my 66th orbit of the sun. Do I become reflective when this annual event transpires? Absolutely. There’s a difference, though, between being reflective and being obsessed with introspection. We are to examine ourselves—our motives and actions before God and others—but that’s a daily thing. This annual reflection is not the same.

First, it’s a matter of gratitude to the Lord for another year passed and for the good things that have happened during that year. Were there bad things? Well, of course; that’s a part of life as well. But I don’t want to dwell on those.

What stands out to me on this day is how the Lord rescued me from my own self-destructive tendencies and allowed me to be used by Him to help impact the thinking and the character of college students. That’s been my ministry now for twenty-eight years, and despite some of the heartaches along the way, it’s a blessing that the positive things come to mind more readily than the negatives.

For me, it’s always been the relationship with students that keeps me going because I believe that’s God’s primary goal for my life: influence them as much as I can while I can.

So many memories of class times, informal get-togethers, trips, etc., crowd into my mind. Here are just a few I want to share.

A trip to Plymouth, Massachusetts, that culminated with a stop at the grave of William Bradford:

One of the annual excursions I used to make with students when I lived in Virginia, such as this Jamestown visit:

Once, a small group accompanied me throughout the Northeast, incorporating Plymouth, the Boston Freedom Trail, Philadelphia, and Mt. Vernon, to name just a few of the places we passed through:

Commencements at Regent University were always special:

Once, at Patrick Henry College, a graduating senior decorated my office door in commemoration of all the tissues she used while crying in that office:

At Southeastern, I hosted a Reagan Movie Night once. It was memorable:

Students also came to the house to watch a BBC production about C. S. Lewis. They stayed and talked afterwards—a relaxed evening. I’m glad they felt like they could hang around:

How many professors can claim to have taught three brothers, all of whom were history majors? We had a reunion last year:

For a couple of years, I was able to connect Southeastern with my former life in Virginia when I traveled to Williamsburg and showed students the historic sites. They came down to Lakeland last year and desired a “family” photo, so to speak:

I could share photo after photo, but I’ll stop now.

I remember fondly the Dead Historians Society at Indiana Wesleyan University.

I remember fondly a trip to Israel and Britain with Regent students—a trip none of us will ever forget (for great and not-so-great reasons). It was a bonding experience.

I remember fondly my great surprise when Patrick Henry students presented a gift to me at the end of one of the chapel services: the complete collection of Calvin and Hobbes comic strips. Those who know me know why that was a special gift.

Yes, I could go on for quite a while.

How much longer will I have this ministry? My standard joke is that as long as someone can wheel me into the classroom and I have my remote control to show my PowerPoint slides, I can still do this.

God gave me a calling. I will remain faithful to it until He says it’s time to move on. Today I’m just reflecting on the blessings of His calling.

I’ll probably do something like this again when I complete my 67th orbit.

Obamacare, Reality, & Leadership

Yesterday was supposed to be the big vote on the Republican bill to repeal (?), replace (?), revise (?), surrender on (?) Obamacare. It didn’t happen. Now today  is supposed to be the big day.

What’s the problem? Republicans can’t agree on whether this proposed bill does much of the above, and that has led to this impasse. This is a mess; it certainly doesn’t indicate competent leadership.

The most conservative House members say it leaves the essence of Obamacare in place; the majority of House Republicans blame the conservatives for blocking the best opportunity to reverse the Obamacare train wreck. Who is right?

I understand the strategy the GOP leadership says it is following: a three-step plan to eventually rid ourselves of this monstrous error. However, I don’t blame anyone for having doubts that the other two steps ever will occur. Yes, there are political realities, but if you campaign on a complete repeal and then do something less than that, you open yourself up to charges of hypocrisy.

And that’s what many conservatives are now charging the leadership with: rank hypocrisy.

Then, to make matters worse, we have Trump coming out and saying, in effect, either vote for this or else. I’ve also heard the voices of Republicans chastising conservatives because we all must get behind our president even if you don’t like this bill—even if you think it’s a joke.

As if the most important thing is to support President Trump above all else, regardless of what you believe about his policies (or his temperament or public accusations against anyone who dares oppose him).

I’m all for the Trump presidency being successful. I’m not for the attitude, “My way or the highway,” to repeat the cliché currently being bandied about.

Is this where we are today?

Is it any wonder why people get tired of politics?

Yet we cannot retreat and live in our own little bubbles. We cannot evade our responsibility to take these issues seriously and contribute what we can to the discussion.

For Christians, that’s what Jesus’s “salt and light” comments are all about, and no matter how dismayed we are over our politics and our culture at large, if we retreat, what then?

Making Our Witness: The Chambers Model

What startled many readers of Whittaker Chambers’s Witness when it first was published in 1952 (and became a bestseller) was its deeply spiritual tone, its message of returning to faith in God, not only for the sake of individual salvation but also for the hope of salvaging Western civilization.

Chambers had been a avowed atheist, an ideological stance influenced by his dysfunctional family upbringing, the nihilism communicated to him by his university education, and his commitment to changing the world through communism.

One of his most famous lines about religious belief prior to his conversion shows not only his attitude but his ability to convey that attitude in memorable phrases:

I associated God with ill-ventilated vestries and ill-ventilated minds.

That attitude crumbled when he finally faced the truth of the Christian faith. There is one passage in Witness that best describes what happened to him when the Spirit of God touched his life, and that passage is even more memorable than the one noted above:

What I had been fell from me like dirty rags. The rags that fell from me were not only Communism. What fell was the whole web of the materialist modern mind—the luminous shroud which it has spun about the spirit of man, paralyzing in the name of rationalism the instinct of his soul for God, denying in the name of knowledge the reality of the soul and its birthright in that mystery on which mere knowledge falters and shatters at every step.

It was that touch from the hand of God that led Chambers to his decision to make his witness before the world—not just a testimony about what he knew of the workings of the communist underground and its designs to overthrow the American government—but a witness to the grace of God in men’s lives.

Yet it was that very witness that most intellectuals rejected. They didn’t understand how Chambers could embrace the “old” faith that so many of them now despised. This is why Chambers, near the end of Witness, wrote this:

To those for whom the intellect alone has force, such a witness has little or no force. It bewilders and exasperates them. It challenges them to suppose that there is something greater about man than his ability to add and subtract. It submits that that something is the soul.

What’s interesting is that Chambers saw a clear demarcation between those intellectuals and the majority of the population:

Plain men understood the witness easily. It speaks directly to their condition. For it is peculiarly the Christian witness. They still hear it, whenever it truly reaches their ears, the ring of those glad tidings that once stirred mankind with an immense hope.

For it frees them from the trap of irreversible Fate at the point at which it whispers to them that each soul is individually responsible to God, that it has only to assert that responsibility, and out of man’s weakness will come strength, out of his corruption incorruption, out of his evil good, and out of what is false invulnerable truth.

Why did Chambers believe that weakness could become strength, that corruption could be transformed into incorruption, that good could be squeezed out of evil, and that falsehoods could nevertheless lead men to see the truth?

He could believe all of that because it happened in his life. He responded to the Christian message, he acknowledged that he was individually responsible to God, and he took the necessary steps to assert that responsibility by proclaiming the witness God had given him through his own personal experience.

The message hasn’t changed. God hasn’t changed. All of us need to respond as Chambers did. We need to make our individual witnesses to the world. We are all individually responsible to God and need to take whatever steps are necessary to make our witness.

Maintaining Integrity in an Era of Conspiracies

I would rather write about weighty thoughts in Scripture, C. S. Lewis, or Whittaker Chambers. Yet the stupid antics of everyday politics always seem to intervene, and since I put myself out here as a commentator on all things cultural and political, I feel a certain necessity to offer what I hope are informed opinions on current events.

As I’ve noted previously, I’m trying very hard to be balanced in my perspective on President Trump. Although I warned against his nomination vigorously and detailed my reasons for opposition to him throughout the last campaign, I have determined to support him when I can now that he is our president.

I also will continue to point out the problems he causes. And that’s where I am today.

Last weekend, Trump used his infamous Twitter account to claim that the Obama administration wiretapped him prior to the election. I’ve waited a week to see if he has any evidence to back up the claim, but nothing has come forth.

By remaining silent on evidence, he has lost the confidence even of those in his own party. The House Intelligence Committee, controlled by Republicans, has called for him to put up or shut up by today.

What has he really gained by making the accusation?

Now, let me be clear that I would never put it past our former president to have done something like this. Obama’s absence of integrity is legendary, and his denials of wrongdoing lack, shall we say, credibility.

Yet Obama’s lack of integrity doesn’t lead me to believe that Trump therefore must be acting with integrity. Apparently, most Republicans agree:

My concern about Trump’s character goes back to the campaign. He constantly insulted all Republican contenders for the nomination and, in Ted Cruz’s case, made up all sorts of crazy accusations:

  • Cruz is not a natural-born citizen
  • Cruz had a flurry of affairs (unlike Mr. Trump, of course)
  • Cruz’s wife has dark secrets that will be exposed (and she’s ugly)
  • Cruz’s dad is somehow implicated in the JFK assassination

Need I go on?

We’re witnessing a new level of conspiracy charges on both sides of the political divide.

Rational thought seems to be plummeting into a sinkhole of political lunacy:

Christians are supposed to be the salt and light in a nation. Whenever we fall into this pattern of wild charges of conspiracy, we are abandoning our calling. My political conservatism stems from my Biblical faith, but I must never reverse the order. Politics must not determine my faith; my faith must inform my politics.

Christians, maintain your integrity.