Archive for the ‘ The Historical Muse ’ Category

Chambers: Why the Christians Are Right & the Heathen Are Wrong

Here’s the scenario: the culture is in decline due to a loss of Biblical principles; beliefs based on those principles that used to hold the society together are attacked as bigoted, narrow, and intolerant; the government is increasingly dysfunctional and policies, despite the best efforts of honest and caring representatives, move further away from Biblical norms.

What’s someone to do about this, especially when one feels called by God (to some, that’s a rather presumptive and/or arrogant statement right there) to warn of the decline and the loss of a proper perspective on life?

One can choose to rail against this decline. After all, it is Biblical to warn sinners of the error of their ways. Purely on the governmental side, one can continually point out the false ideologies, hypocrisies, and evil deeds of our generation.

Pointing out the problems is something that must be done. However, there is a limit; after a while, if all one does is constantly harp on the negatives, one runs the risk of being a Johnny-one-note that people begin to ignore.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve started to notice the down side of some conservative commentary. While the commentary is most often true, depicting accurately the perfidy, the dishonesty, and the radical agenda of progressivism, one gets tired of hearing nothing but angst.

I’ve also noticed that some of those commentators are far more shallow in their thinking than I at first realized. They have certain talking points they repeat, and that’s all the farther they go. The repetitive nature of that approach makes it easy to tune them out.

As regular readers of my blog know, I’ve gained a lot of understanding through the words of Whittaker Chambers in his wonderful/tragic autobiography Witness.

Once Chambers left the communist underground and got a position writing for Time magazine, he eagerly used his position to try to point out the communist threat he knew from personal experience. He was so committed to warning about it that people got tired of hearing his warnings. He was kept from writing anything on the subject.

That seemed like a defeat. As Chambers relates,

My tacit exclusion from writing Communist news at first exasperated me, for I saw no one around me (except the Communists, of course) who knew anything at all about the subject.

He could have protested this treatment. He could have cause a ruckus and further divided the staff over his actions. But he kept calm and came to a new realization about tactics:

But gradually I welcomed the ban. I began to see that the kind of sniping that I had been doing was shallow and largely profitless; anybody could do that.

That last sentence is all too true. Anyone with an axe to grind or an ability to channel anger can do that. There are multitudes of those kinds of people. Chambers tried a new approach, one that more fully reflected the Christian spirit he was developing at that time in his life:

It seemed to me that I had a more important task to do, one that was peculiarly mine. It was not to attack Communism frontally. It was to clarify on the basis of the news, the religious and moral position that made Communism evil.

I had been trying to make a negative point. Now I had to state the positive position, and it was a much more formidable task than attack.

It’s deceptively easy to mount attacks. What Chambers now understood was that he had to do the harder job: help readers grasp the underlying Christian viewpoint of what constituted “good” and contrast that with the evil in communism.

It meant explaining simply and readably for millions the reasons why the great secular faith of this age is wrong and the religious faith of the ages is right; why, in the words of the Song of Roland, the Christians are right and the heathen are wrong.

This affected Chambers’s character in a positive way as well:

This change in my mood and my work reflected a deepening within myself.

The challenge before those of us who might take on the mantle of cultural warrior is perhaps to learn how to conduct the battle in a different manner. We need to leave the tactic of shallow anger and dull repetition and move on to deeper reflections on the nature of God, man, and His principles, and thereby help others gain a greater understanding of the battlefield.

That has always been my intent in this blog—hence its title, Pondering Principles: Reflections on God . . . Man . . . Life. My commitment to that goal is refreshed today.

Declaring Rights in Virginia in 1776

The year 1776 is auspicious for the United States because that’s when we became the United States. Most of our attention in commemorating that event centers on the Declaration of Independence, and rightly so. I’ll have something to say about that document in a post next month.

Another document, which was at Thomas Jefferson’s elbow when writing the Declaration, came out of his home state of Virginia a month earlier, but far too many of our citizens are ignorant of it.

George Mason, along with other key leaders in Virginia who were fashioning the new government there in anticipation of independence, created the Virginia Declaration of Rights as a bold statement of the limits of civil government.

This Declaration made clear the following concepts:

  • Inherent rights (meaning those given by God) cannot be surrendered to the government.
  • Government derives its power from the people, who set its limits.
  • Oppressive government may be altered or abolished.
  • The branches of government must be separated to avoid tyranny.
  • The society operates on due process of law.
  • There will be no excessive bail or fines and no cruel or unusual punishments meted out by government (wording later to be included in the Bill of Rights in the Constitution).
  • No general search warrants were to be allowed (there must be specific cause for a search—anything else is an invasion of a person’s property).
  • Freedom of the press should not be restrained.
  • A militia of the people is a guarantor of liberty.

Sections 15 and 16 of this Declaration are worth quoting in full. Principles and character are the subject of section 15:

That no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people, but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue, and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.

Notice how the Founding generation focused on the significance of the character of its citizens. The consensus at the time was that a free government would fail without fundamental principles and without a people willing to exhibit those key character traits mentioned in the document.

Then there is section 16:

That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other.

This is a clarion call for recognizing that civil government cannot dictate what an individual is required to believe. That’s between each individual and God. We should be free to follow our consciences. This statement comes fifteen years before the same concept was applied nationally in the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Another interesting aspect of this section is how it ends: it calls for Christian forbearance, love, and charity for all. The inclusion of the word “Christian” is another testimony to the consensus of the era. The Founders saw Christian faith as the bedrock of society even as they allowed everyone to have their own liberty of conscience.

In my view, Biblical principles are the foundation of everything that is good in the governmental institutions established in America. That’s why I labor to reintroduce them to this current generation. Ignorance of that fact and rejection of those principles are the reasons we are witnessing the slow decay of our culture and the various dysfunctions of our governments.

D-Day, Reagan, & Honor

Thirteen years ago yesterday, June 5, Ronald Reagan died. It was one day before the 60th anniversary of D-Day. It was fitting that the media was forced to cover the life and accomplishments of Reagan at the same time as it was focused on the anniversary.

Reagan and D-Day go together. Two of his most famous speeches occurred on the 40th anniversary in 1984, during his presidency. First was “The Boys of Pointe du Hoc” speech at the top of the cliffs that the special Ranger unit had to climb to take out strategic guns. The loss of life in that engagement was horrific. Reagan spoke to many of the survivors of that day.

In his second speech, he told the story of D-Day soldier Peter Zanatta, who had wanted to return to Normandy for the anniversary but who died before he could fulfill that desire. His daughter, Lisa, wrote a letter to Reagan about her father and Reagan was deeply moved by the letter. He made sure she was there for the commemoration.

In his speech, he honored both the father and the daughter:

Lisa Zanatta Henn began her story by quoting her father, who promised that he would return to Normandy. She ended with a promise to her father, who died 8 years ago of cancer: “I’m going there, Dad, and I’ll see the beaches and the barricades and the monuments. I’ll see the graves, and I’ll put flowers there just like you wanted to do. I’ll feel all the things you made me feel through your stories and your eyes. I’ll never forget what you went through, Dad, nor will I let anyone else forget. And, Dad, I’ll always be proud.”

Through the words of his loving daughter, who is here with us today, a D-day veteran has shown us the meaning of this day far better than any President can. It is enough for us to say about Private Zanatta and all the men of honor and courage who fought beside him four decades ago: We will always remember. We will always be proud. We will always be prepared, so we may always be free.

If you have never seen the video of that portion of his speech, I urge you to watch it. Not only does it honor the Zanatta family, but it also reveals a president worthy of respect, one who does honor to the office he upholds—something that has been all too rare in recent years.

On this D-Day anniversary, let’s remember all those who not only did lay down their lives, but also those who survived but were willing to do the same.

A Tribute to My Fellow Travelers

It’s time to wrap up my tales from the England trip. I would like to do so by first acknowledging Dr. Linda Linzey, the English literature professor who organized it all and who was a personable and professional colleague with whom it was a delight to undertake this study abroad together.

Second, I want to note that all six young women who participated in this whirlwind tour of England were all that a professor could want—interested, inquisitive, and patient. Patience was a particularly positive trait exhibited by the three ladies in my car. I had helpful navigators (supplementing a sometimes strange GPS) who also kept me from getting too drowsy by engaging in good conversation (when they weren’t napping).

So I’m going to make today’s post a tribute to all of these women who didn’t make me feel like the odd man out, even though I was. Here are some of our group shots (in chronological order).

First, as we were ready to enter Dover Castle:

At Canterbury, the obligatory telephone box photo:

A favorite of the three who graced my car:

Another obligatory picture for all UK visitors, albeit less serious than usual:

At the table in the Bath Pump Room awaiting afternoon tea:

At Oxford, enjoying the Magdalen College atmosphere:

I sneaked in a picture of my carload taking their own pictures of the nature preserve at the Kilns:

With Walter Hooper:

High atop the hill in the Dove Cottage garden:

A third obligatory photo—on Hadrian’s Wall:

Intermission at a superb Vivaldi-Bach-Handel concert in St. Martin’s in the Field church in London:

And finally, waiting for our tour of Parliament:

Look at all those Oxford sweatshirts. I regret not getting one for myself.

They were two weeks to remember—and I always will.

This Historian’s Dream Museums

One of my favorite Washington, DC, museums is the National Portrait Gallery. I’m the kind of historian who is more attracted to the study of individuals and their contributions than I am to tables, graphs, and statistics. The subjects of my books—Noah Webster, Ronald Reagan, Whittaker Chambers, C. S. Lewis, the congressmen who argued for Bill Clinton’s impeachment—are testimonies to that historical bent.

Now I can add London’s National Portrait Gallery to my favorites list. Since the focus of my studies is primarily American history, with Britain as a secondary interest, I appreciated the opportunity to take time in this museum to learn more about the key figures in British history.

What I learned here, as well as in a number of other historic sites during my two-week England stint, will enhance my teaching in courses such as American Colonial History, the American Revolution, and, of course, C. S. Lewis. I always want to increase my depth of understanding and pass that on to students.

Another place that I visited for the first time was the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The collection was eclectic, but it showcased a significant amount of medieval art.

Even the reproductions were rather impressive:

Might I add that it also had the best cafe/afternoon tea of any museum I saw? And the interior courtyard was picturesque as well:

This trip marked my second time at the British Museum, but the first time hardly counted compared to this one. We were able to spend about four hours perusing its holdings.

Unlike my last visit twenty years ago, there were long lines and a security tent one had to go through before entering. Yes, times have changed.

The main attraction for many is the famous Rosetta Stone, which with its Egyptian hieroglyphics at the top and Greek writing underneath, allowed scholars for the first time to translate hieroglyphics.

The crowd around the Rosetta Stone was so dense it took multiple attempts before I could get a decent photo, and even this one is not as good as I wanted.

The museum’s Egyptian area is extensive:

As is its Greek section, which now houses actual sections of the Athenian Parthenon that were falling into ruin:

If you look closely, in little nooks and crannies, you might find a few philosophers along the way:

As with the historic sites I noted in yesterday’s post, these museums were a historian’s dream.

I’m now near the end of my series of posts about my England trip. There will be one more on Monday.

Historic London for a Historian

While in London with the SEU students, I had the opportunity to see some historic sites I missed the first time. Striking out on my own our very first day, after spending a few hours in the Churchill War Rooms, I found the Banqueting House not too far away. For a while, in the 17th century, this was the most regal building in London, where the kings held receptions for foreign dignitaries and put on lavish theatrical productions.

The main hall was most inviting, given the objects on the floor:

Yes, those are beanbags. Why are they placed there? So visitors can listen to their audio guide while studying the ceiling, which is completely filled with paintings by famous artist Peter Paul Rubens, who was commissioned by Charles I to glorify the concept of the divine right of kings.

The paintings are beautiful, and the beanbags come in handy so no one will hurt their necks trying to study them. That theme of divine right of kings, though, is a little ironic. This building is the very place where a scaffold was erected outside a window on which Charles I was beheaded in 1649.

Another site I wanted very much to see was Kensington Palace. The grand entrance showcases this sculpture of Queen Victoria.

Going through the rooms, I learned a lot more about the monarchs William and Mary and George II. Particularly impressive were rooms such as the King’s Gallery:

The one disappointment was an absolute exclusion of anything about Victoria. I found that puzzling since this was one of her main residences. Instead, I was treated to a display of Princess Diana’s dresses. Yes, they were nice, but not high on my priority list. And no, I didn’t take any photos of them. Sorry.

Everyone who goes to London must spend time at the Tower. If you get a humourous Beefeater guide, it’s a plus. We got one.The history of this place is filled with sad tales of imprisonments and executions, many of which were unwarranted as the historical records are studied today. The main tower in the middle of the complex is where it gets its name.

From one angle, you can see the Tower with Tower Bridge in the background, a photo I thought worth taking.

Of course, one stop in the complex for everyone is always the building that houses the Crown Jewels.

A pearl often missed by most, but not by a historian with my particular interests, is the church just outside the Tower that has been there a long time: All Hallows. In its crypt is a fascinating little historical museum.

This church is where John Quincy Adams married Louisa Johnson, a British citizen and the only First Lady who was not born an American until our current First Lady, Melania Trump.

A display showcases the records of the church where the marriage is recorded.

On our last London day, we were able to tour Parliament.

I had been there twenty years ago, but don’t recall seeing as much as we did that day. Unfortunately, photos were not allowed in the places where one would most like to take a photo: House of Lords, House of Commons, Queen’s Robing Room, etc. But the oldest part of the building, Westminster Hall, now serves as the entry for visitors and photos can be taken there:

St. Stephen’s Chapel, which once served as the meeting place for the Commons, is now a historical treasure trove of paintings and sculptures:

My time in London was a historian’s delight.

Literary England III: The Brontes & Dickens

Just a few weeks prior to my England trip, Masterpiece Theater presented a movie on the Bronte family called To Walk Invisible. Since I knew I was going to be at the Brontes’ home, I made sure to watch it.

The film was so authentic with respect to the accent in their native region that it was not always easy to understand what was being said. But the gist of the story came through. And, as always, the quality of the acting and production was superb.

I learned a lot through that presentation. The three sisters—Charlotte, Emily, and Anne—originally published under pseudonyms as men, thinking they wouldn’t be accepted as female authors. Their lives were tragic in that none lived to the age of forty, and Charlotte, the eldest and the one who made it to thirty-nine, witnessed the deaths of her brother and her other two sisters in the space of one year. Their short lives are why they didn’t have the opportunity to write more.

So we are left, primarily, with Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, Emily’s Wuthering Heights, and Anne’s Agnes Grey as testimonials to their talents.

The Bronte parsonage (their father was an Anglican clergyman) takes full advantage of the Masterpiece film. The first room on the left as you enter is the dining room, but it doubled as their writing room. Outfits worn in the film are now part of the tour.

Outside the gift shop is an appropriate memorial to the sisters:

This visit provided one of my most amusing driving experiences. I was dutifully following the GPS directions, which told me I had arrived. What I saw before me was a narrow and winding road going almost straight up (to where I did not know). I followed it, only to come to a dead end at the Bronte gift shop. There were no other cars around, no place to park, and I had to do one of my famous 12-point turns to get back in the other direction. From that height, we could see the actual parking lot down below on our left.

I now know why the couple of people at the top looked rather puzzled as to why we were there. But this meant I had to negotiate my way back down through that narrow alleyway and find the entrance to that parking lot. Managing that without destroying both sides of the car may have been one of God’s minor interventions in my life.

In London, three of us made the trek to the Charles Dickens Museum, located in one of the homes he rented for a number of years. While I’ve seen many film adaptations of Dickens’s works, especially A Christmas Carol, Great Expectations, and Oliver Twist, I believe I’ve read only Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities (my early reading in school is becoming a rather dim memory now).

The three-story museum (four stories, if you count the basement) in this venerable townhouse is laid out exactly as it would have looked when Dickens lived there, with much of the original furniture.

When Dickens wanted to entertain, which he did quite often, he would invite visitors to his parlour.

Often, at these gatherings, Dickens would dress up and be the actor in scenes from plays. He loved entertaining others.

Right next to the parlour was his library, which has the desk Dickens used in this home, and on which he wrote Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities.

The saddest fact I learned on this tour had to do with Dickens’s marriage. His wife, Catherine, with whom he had ten children, suffered from depression later in life and Dickens didn’t want to deal with it. He initiated a legal separation and had a mistress for his remaining years. These portraits of the Dickenses are from an earlier, happier time.

This should be a cautionary tale. We celebrate literary genius—and Dickens certainly had that—but a solid foundation in the Christian faith and the moral character required of us is the legacy that has the greatest significance.

That’s the legacy I want to leave.