Archive for the ‘ The Historical Muse ’ Category

Obama: Dishonoring Margaret Thatcher

Today is Margaret Thatcher’s funeral. It’s such a special occasion for the British that even the queen will be there to pay her respects. The last time she attended a funeral for a former prime minister was in 1965 to mark the passing of Winston Churchill. However, today is also a day of insult, and the British have noticed the slight. There will be no representative present from the Obama administration.

Those who think this is no big deal will point to the fact that no administration figure attended the funeral of Hugo Chavez of Venezuela last month. Apples and oranges. Chavez was a Marxist radical who hated the United States. Obama knew he couldn’t openly mourn the loss of a dictator who persecuted Jews, served as a banker for Iran, and trampled the civil liberties of his own people as he built up a personal cult following. Ideologically, Obama was practically Chavez’s soulmate, but he had to stifle his admiration for appearance’ sake.

Thatcher, on the other hand, was America’s best friend during her tenure as prime minister. She and Ronald Reagan teamed up to deal the death blow to the old Soviet Union without, as she famously noted, firing a single shot. Both leaders brought their nations back from the brink of fiscal disaster, and both restored the proper kind of pride in their countries. Neither do I believe it is coincidental that both were firm in their Christian faith.

As most of the civilized world—or what remains of it—pauses to reflect on Margaret Thatcher’s accomplishments, may we see in her life an example of fortitude and devotion to principle that inspires.

Salt, Light, & Truth

I’ve spent the past two days writing about the drift of our culture into acceptance of a type of sex God forbade. For many people, this whole issue is simply a matter of “democracy”—let the people decide what they want. When you introduce the moral element, they tell you that’s irrelevant. All that matters is that we are devoted to popular sovereignty. As a historian, I know that term well. The last time it was front and center in the political debate was prior to the Civil War. Popular sovereignty was supposed to solve the quandary of slavery. Let the people of the new territories decide for themselves if they want slavery or not. Stephen Douglas, the Illinois senator who championed this approach, infamously said slavery was not a moral issue.

Well, I can’t help but frame it morally. At its foundation, the push for same-sex marriage is a clear indication of our rebellion against the righteousness of God and His law. It is a perversion—and I use that word advisedly and with forethought—of the gift of sex. Only a people firmly rooted in Biblical truth can prevail against this headwind. Are we no longer that people?

Liberals/progressives, whose outlook is primarily secular, think opposition to homosexuality is foolish. Unfortunately, they are joined in this view by a growing number of those who continue to call themselves Christians. They adopt most of the progressive political agenda and attempt to stamp it with God’s favor. They are doing a disservice to the gospel, and the God, they claim to represent.

Then there are some conservatives who are abandoning the field of battle. Most often, that’s because they are little different than their erstwhile foes at the other end of the political spectrum. How can that be? They are basically secular also; their conservatism is not based on solid Biblical principles. So when the culture shifts, they have no anchor to hold them to their position. They attempt to mix political conservatism with moral relativism. It’s not a good mixture.

One particular strand in the conservative movement is more libertarian than conservative. That group has never been wedded to Biblical morality anyway. They don’t want the government telling anyone what to do in the moral realm. Many of them support the mislabeled pro-choice position on abortion and have no problem at all with homosexuality. Their presence in the conservative coalition waters down its moral foundations.

The only saving grace in modern American conservatism, and in our politics in general, is the part of our populace that brings its Christianity to bear on our culture and government. They are the ones Jesus was referring to when He said,

You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men.

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.

Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.

Salt preserves; light shows the way. Those in the church who have succumbed to the spirit of the age are the tasteless salt; they are no good for anything in this struggle. The responsibility therefore falls on those who still understand that truth is truth in all ages, and that it never changes. We need to preserve whatever remains of goodness in this land, and we need to be the ones who shine a light on the right path to take. Are we up to the challenge?

C. S. Lewis: The Resurrection

On this Resurrection [Easter] Sunday, here is some insight from C. S. Lewis from his book Miracles:

The Resurrection is the central theme in every Christian sermon reported in the Acts. The Resurrection, and its consequences, were the “gospel” or good news which the Christians brought: what we call the “gospels,” the narratives of Our Lord’s life and death, were composed later for the benefit of those who had already accepted the gospel. They were in no sense the basis of Christianity: they were written for those already converted. The miracle of the Resurrection, and the theology of that miracle, comes first: the biography comes later as a comment on it. Nothing could be more unhistorical than to pick out selected sayings of Christ from the gospels and to regard those as the datum and the rest of the New Testament as a construction upon it. The first fact in the history of Christendom is a number of people who say they have seen the Resurrection.

Sixty-two . . . and Still Learning

Add another year to the total. As startling as it was to turn sixty two years ago, I’m just as amazed by the undeniable fact that today I’ve reached the sixty-two mark. I have a tendency to get reflective at times like this. I hope you’ll excuse me for it today because I was thinking about what I’ve learned over the years, through the good and not-so-good times. Where was I each time my age ended with a two? Here’s my review.

Age 2: I thought I might skip this one. After all, who really remembers anything from when they were two years old? Yet I have a vivid memory of seeing my grandfather sitting on the couch. He had lost one leg and used crutches. I must have been two, or no older than barely three, because he died when I was three. We never got to know each other. What does this mean to me today? Just this: I want to be around to get to know my grandchildren and be a positive influence on their lives. Whatever I can do to point them to serving God and loving Him, I want to do. Currently, I have four grandsons and one granddaughter. Two more are on the way this year—a fifth grandson and one of unknown gender at this time. Seven grandchildren by about October. May my life be a blessing to them.

Age 12: This was about the time I reluctantly realized I wasn’t going to be a Major League baseball player. An .032 average in Little League can lead one to that conclusion. It was disappointing. The Yankees were my life; Mickey Mantle was my hero. But I learned I had to move on to other goals, and it wasn’t too difficult once I put away my childish dreams. I entered junior high that year, and life was changing. It was time for a new perspective. God already had His hand on me. I know this because I was probably the only guy who actually looked forward to Saturday morning confirmation classes at my Lutheran church. Yes, life was changing.

Age 22: Married less than a year. Getting ready to graduate from college and take on my first fulltime position. Shortly after this birthday, I arrived in Portsmouth, Virginia, and began working at the Christian Broadcasting Network. I started in the television studio, but moved up shortly afterward to radio, where I became the all-night “personality.” It was a time of maturing, even though I don’t think I matured as quickly as I needed to. I had great zeal, learning Greek and beginning my study of theology. Two years later, I would be a father for the first time. A year after that, headmaster of a Christian school. All seemed right with the world.

Age 32: All was not right with the world. Well, let me rephrase that: all was not right with me. I was completing my doctoral studies at American University in Washington, D.C., not knowing it would require another six years before that dissertation would be finished. Spiritually, I was in rebellion, but God hadn’t given up on me. He was beginning to show me how void of meaning a life of study and learning can be without Him. I would begin to take those first steps back to Him, but the process would be much slower than it ought to have been, and true repentance still lay in the future.

Age 42: Spiritual restoration was now in the past, and I was a professor in a Christian university. The students voted me Professor of the Year, yet my tenure at the university was not assured. I had to learn a greater depth of trust in the Lord’s provision. The struggles of that year led, ultimately, to a call to another university, where I could teach at the graduate level. I began to believe more than ever that the Lord does open and close doors, and all I had to do was rest in His leading.

Age 52: At my third institution of Christian higher education. The students were a joy to teach, but I was again undergoing a test. Had I missed God’s calling? Why did it have to be so hard? How many ways can I be misunderstood by those in authority over me? Lord, what am I supposed to do? Those were the constant questions that plagued my thoughts. At age 52, things were looking a little bleak. Yet, as I learned soon after, God hadn’t deserted me, no matter how I felt at times. He was still the God who opens new doors.

Age 62: It’s been a rough couple of years as my wife has gone through cancer treatments and surgery after surgery. I’ve been there with her all the way, and the Lord is teaching me what it means to love—in ways I never thought I would have to learn. The cancer storm has subsided for now; my position at my fourth Christian university seems secure; the joy of teaching has not abated. There is purpose in life through Him, and even if circumstances change for the worse, I would be the most dense student ever if I began to doubt His care now. He has proven Himself over and over with each succeeding decade. The lesson: rest in God’s love and draw strength from His seemingly endless supply of grace.

That’s my review. Those are the things I’ve learned at these various stages of life. Whether I have another decade of learning is in His hands. If not, I can say with the apostle Paul, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

The Wisdom of Ronald Reagan

Yesterday was Ronald Reagan’s birthday. He would have been 102. Many of us long to have a president like him again. To commemorate his presidency and to remind you of his insights, I hereby present an excerpt from one of his most famous speeches. In 1983, he spoke to the National Association of Evangelicals, where he blatantly called the Soviet Union an evil empire. He was correct. Yet, beyond that, I hope you can see the heart of the man through these words:

We must never forget that no government schemes are going to perfect man. We know that living in this world means dealing with what philosophers would call the phenomenology of evil or, as theologians would put it, the doctrine of sin. There is sin and evil in the world, and we’re enjoined by Scripture and the Lord Jesus to oppose it with all our might.…

They [the Soviets] must be made to understand we will never compromise our principles and standards. We will never give away our freedom. We will never abandon our belief in God.…

Let us pray for the salvation of all of those who live in that totalitarian darkness—pray they will discover the joy of knowing God. But until they do, let us be aware that while they preach the supremacy of the state, declare its omnipotence over individual man, and predict its eventual domination of all peoples on the Earth, they are the focus of evil in the modern world.

It was C. S. Lewis who, in his unforgettable “Screwtape Letters,” wrote: “The greatest evil is not done now in those sordid ‘dens of  crime’ that Dickens loved to paint. It is not even done in concentration camps and labor camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried and minuted) in clear, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice.” …

You know, I’ve always believed that old Screwtape reserved his best efforts for those of you in the church. So, in your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals, I urge you to beware the temptation of pride—the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.…

While America’s military strength is important, let me add here that I’ve always maintained that the struggle now going on for the world will never be decided by bombs or rockets, by armies or military might. The real crisis we face today is a spiritual one; at root, it is a test of moral will and faith.

Whittaker Chambers, the man whose own religious conversion made him a witness to one of the terrible traumas of our time, the Hiss-Chambers case, wrote that the crisis of the Western World exists to the degree in which the West is indifferent to God, the degree to which it collaborates in communism’s attempt to make man stand alone without God. And then he said, for Marxism-Leninism is actually the second oldest faith, first proclaimed in the Garden of Eden with the words of temptation, “Ye shall be as gods.”

The Western World can answer this challenge, he wrote, “but only provided that its faith in God and the freedom He enjoins is as great as communism’s faith in Man.”

There is much wisdom in those words, and they still apply today.

The Abandonment of Biblical Education

I’ve been cataloging the biggest failures of the church in our day, beginning with a watered-down salvation message, then on to our lack of renewed minds when it comes to putting the faith into practice, allowing worldly thinking to dominate. There’s one more leg on the three-legged stool of failure—the abandonment of Biblical education.

In early America, most education was centered in the church or home, and the lion’s share of the home-schooled portion of society was Christian also. That began to change in the middle of the nineteenth century when people came up with the idea of placing responsibility for education in the hands of the state. One group that eagerly sought this was the Unitarians; they continued to call themselves Christians, but they denied the deity of Christ, didn’t consider the Bible to be divinely inspired, and explained away Biblical accounts of the supernatural. Unitarians wanted to remove education from the control of the orthodox, put the state in charge, and include only the behavioral aspect of Christianity in the teaching. Moral lessons divorced from their eternal base.

Massachusetts was the first state to move toward a top-down, centralized system. The first secretary of the board of education in that state was a Unitarian named Horace Mann, who endorsed the typical Unitarian vision that the “proper” education would yield good citizens. In fact, Mann was so enamored of this vision that he honestly believed the common school system [as it was called then] was the greatest innovation in the history of the world. He was absolutely rapturous in his prediction that if a common school system could be established it would wipe out 90% of all the crime in society. The irony today is that 90% of crimes now are perpetrated in the government schools.

Another group that wanted to put the government in charge was an incipient socialist/communist movement at that time. Disappointed that their utopian commune fell apart because Americans had an attachment to private property, this group formed a political party—the Workingman’s Party—for the express purpose of establishing government-controlled schools where they hoped they could influence the curriculum to teach communist principles. Whereas Unitarians could take control in Massachusetts at least, this group was less successful and couldn’t achieve its goal.

However, the common school idea eventually spread throughout the nation, state by state, primarily because of a third group that also wanted to create a government-controlled environment conducive to its particular beliefs. That third group was the evangelicals of the era. Dismayed by the perceived threat of Catholic immigration, they wanted to diffuse Protestantism through a system that would be forced on everyone. By taking this route, they violated Biblical principles. They used the government to achieve their purpose rather than voluntary means.

For a while, it seemed to work to their advantage because they were the dominant group in society. Over time, though, as an educational establishment drifted away from Biblical underpinnings, that top-down system was turned against Protestant views. Probably the most influential educator of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century was John Dewey, a signer of the Humanist Manifesto who developed an educational philosophy that dismissed any concept of God and eternal right and wrong. Dewey also helped move education toward experiential learning that downplayed strong academics, and he pushed what we now call socialization as the primary purpose of education. A convinced socialist and atheist, Dewey became the Father of Progressive Education; his disciples filled the education schools throughout the nation.

Slowly at first, but with increasing speed throughout the first decades of the twentieth century, Biblical teaching was either relegated to the periphery or eliminated. Some like to point to the Supreme Court decisions of the 1960s as the start of the decline in public [government] education because prayer and Bible reading were tossed out. Closer to the truth is that those decisions were the culmination of what had been happening for many years. The prayer that was considered unconstitutional wasn’t even specifically Christian. And the fact that it was a government-sponsored prayer allowed the Court to say it was a violation of the First Amendment.

All those various court cases and the controversies they have spawned are the result of turning education over to the government. If we had kept it in the private sphere, there would have been no court decisions and everyone would have been free to teach as they chose.

This system the evangelicals helped to set up continues to educate from 85-90% of all American children. It is now, by and large, antagonistic to Christian beliefs. That’s not universally true, and I appreciate all dedicated Christians who feel called to work in that system as a witness. But it’s getting harder with each passing year to have any freedom to be what God calls us to be in those circumstances. Religious liberty is being squeezed ever more tightly.

Evangelicals, since the 1970s, have started a lot of Christian schools. Many have done a fine job, but others teach little differently than the public schools, adding only chapels and prayer at the beginning of the day. Sometimes they even bow to the state system of accreditation, thereby losing their uniqueness and their distinct Christian calling.

There are many evangelical colleges and universities, but I know far too well from personal experience that a mighty battle wages in each of them for the integrity of the Biblical worldview. Who teaches in these colleges and universities? Professors who had to receive their doctorates from state universities. All too often, they imbibe the worldview of their mentors and pass that on to their students. They may be Christians, but they don’t necessarily teach from Biblical principles. One of the biggest disappointments expressed by students in Christian colleges is that they don’t always feel like they’re getting anything much different from what they would have received in a secular setting.

I don’t want to over-generalize, but I have seen firsthand how difficult it is to keep an evangelical institution from straying from its Biblical roots. History, political science, psychology, and social work programs often are just as liberal and secularized in a Christian college as anywhere else. This liberalization even touches theology departments as Marxist social justice perspectives are incorporated.

Overall, we’re doing a miserable job of communicating Biblical truth in our education. The state schools are almost bereft of it; Christian schools too readily succumb to the desire to be respected by the world, so they discard their strong Biblical message and sell out for the honor of being “recognized” according to the world’s standards.

It’s no accident that homeschooling has made a comeback in our time. Many parents are once again taking control of their children’s education. The threat, though, is that government will not like any deviation from its educational plans. Faithful Christian schools and colleges, and dedicated homeschoolers, may be in for a hard time in the next few years. Obamacare already has laid the groundwork for a frontal attack. Withstanding this attack and others will call for commitment. This will be a test of the genuineness of our Christianity.

Will we pass the test?

Book Review: 1861

I read a lot. I mean, a whole lot. That’s what historians do. Sometimes, the books pile up on me and I have a hard time staying up with them. My resolve to get through the ones I already have before buying another one always weakens when I stumble across one that seems to stand out, particularly when it might be a candidate for a text in one of my upper-level courses.

That’s how I came to purchase and read 1861: The Civil War Awakening, an intriguing volume I finished yesterday. A good history book, for me, has to go beyond basic facts; it also has to bring historical figures to life. Yes, I know we need statistical analyses and other types of studies that concentrate on narrow slices of the historical pie. But I still prefer a really well-written story that incorporates character, plot, and theme. History is literature’s very close sister, with the major difference being that you don’t have to invent the characters or devise the plot—they await the avid researcher, already full-blown.

Author Adam Goodheart [how’s that for a name to attract attention?] spins a spellbinding yarn, taking the reader into details he never expected to find. Goodheart understands the necessity of placing people in the midst of his tale because readers will identify better with people than abstractions. I was pleasantly surprised to be introduced to individuals I had never heard of before. Take, for instance, Ralph Farnham, the Revolutionary War veteran who, at age 104, was celebrated the year the Civil War began in 1861. Farnham serves as a link to an earlier era, connected to the age of the Founders. Yet he is still on the scene as the opening salvos of this new war are heard.

Even when Goodheart spends time with people I know, such as James Garfield, he uses them in inventive ways to shed extra light on events other authors have covered. Each chapter has either a key individual around which the theme and plot revolve or a strange occurrence that puzzles the generation that witnesses it. What about that Great Comet of 1861? It startled the world. What did it signify? Was it a sign from God? If so, did it portend a glorious future or doom? Did it mean anything at all?

I so enjoyed reading 1861 that I have decided to incorporate it into my Civil War course when I next teach it. I never will comprehend why most students have difficulty being interested in history. It’s endlessly fascinating. You have my recommendation. Check it out for yourself. Try it; you may like it.