Archive for the ‘ The Historical Muse ’ Category

Snyderian Truism #12

The word “compromise” can give off both positive and negative vibes. Is it a good word or one to avoid? Well, the answer is “yes.” What do I mean? It depends on the particular compromise. Here’s how I try to encapsulate it in one pithy statement:

A compromised principle leads to unrighteousness, but a principled compromise is a step closer to the principle’s ideal.

Constituitonal ConventionThis comes up when I teach about the Constitutional Convention. At one point, the Convention was locked in a disagreement that threatened to bring an end to the attempt to write a new constitution. Large states said that since they had more people, representation in the new government should be based on population. Smaller states responded that if population were the basis for representation, they would always be outvoted and their interests never taken into consideration.

Which position was more correct? Which one was more valid?

I ask my students those questions and then have them vote for which position they support. The vote is always divided. Why? Because both positions make valid points. Yes, states with more population should have a greater say in lawmaking. Yet it would be unfair for smaller states to always be in the minority and lose every vote. That kind of domination would lead to constant friction and resentment.

It was at this juncture at the Convention where a compromise was reached: the delegates decided to have a two-chamber legislature—the House of Representatives based on population and the Senate with an equal vote for each state.

This was a principled compromise. Both sides had good reasons for their positions, and the compromise allowed both to be achieved, providing a balance of the two.

If a compromise, however, throws out a principle, then it should be rejected. For instance, Obamacare’s supposed accommodation for religious liberty doesn’t recognize the basic principle that government cannot override religious beliefs and force people to abandon their beliefs to achieve the government’s objectives. All such “compromises” need to be opposed.

CompromiseThere are some Christians who don’t grasp the essential nature of a principled compromise. Take abortion, for instance. I believe it should be banned totally. Some who agree with me on that have stated they can never support any law that doesn’t go the entire distance and ban all abortions. They say to settle for anything less would be unrighteous. I disagree. If a law reduces the number of abortions, it’s a law trending in the right direction. More lives will be saved with such a law; we will be closer to the ideal of our principle. We will have made progress. Therefore, I would support any law that lessens abortion’s hold on our nation.

The line is not always as easy to find, and there are instances when honest and conscientious people may come to different conclusions as to what they can support. Yet I believe it is a truism that we can achieve principled compromises, and we should seek them actively.

What Movies Ought to Be

My first degree was in radio, tv, and film production, and I’ve remained fascinated with these forms of communication even as I’ve moved on to the field of history. Historical settings within movies are of particular interest to me; period pieces are a natural draw. I’ve seen two exceptional movies recently that effectively recreate historical periods while simultaneously communicating a worthwhile message.

Christmas CandleThe Christmas Candle is one of the new genre of Christian-based films that has superior production values along with fine acting. Combine a turn-of-the-century English village with a frank discussion of faith in the midst of personal trial, then mix in a touch of the supernatural to show God’s love, and you have a thoughtful presentation of the love of God in any circumstance.

Echolight Studios, which produced the film, is a fairly new endeavor, and if it continues to put out a quality product like this one, it can be a model for others wanting to infuse the market with Christian truth in a form that will speak to any audience.

Book ThiefThe second movie, The Book Thief, is a hauntingly beautiful tale centered on a young German girl during Hitler’s tyranny. Taken in by a foster family, schooled as a Hitler youth, she nevertheless gradually comes to realize the evil inherent within the system. While the film is not explicitly Christian, the fundamental Biblical messages of personal sacrifice, love of family, and compassion for those suffering persecution are weaved throughout.

The acting is about as sublime as I’ve seen in any movie. Frankly, I was practically blown away by the emotional impact conveyed through this story. The actress in the lead role is truly remarkable, as are all the supporting cast.

So if you are looking for more than mere entertainment during this season, I urge you to check out The Christmas Candle and The Book Thief. You should come away from both deeply impressed and more thoughtful. In my opinion, these two films are models of what movies ought to be.

Remembering—and Rereading—C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis 5Fifty years ago yesterday, C. S. Lewis, just one week shy of his 65th birthday, slipped into eternity. At the ripe young age of twelve, I was unaware of his death. The whole world was watching the unfolding events surrounding the JFK assassination, so the passing of a university professor whose writings had awakened a generation to the vibrancy of Christianity, went virtually unnoticed.

Lewis himself felt his influence had waned in his later years. Most observers agreed, and they predicted his works would slip into obscurity with him. Both Lewis and those cultural observers were wrong.

I never read any of Lewis’s works until after I was in college. If I remember correctly, the first time I heard him mentioned was in one of my classes, when I inadvertently overheard a conversation between a couple of students sitting in front of me. One girl seemed quite taken with a book of Lewis’s—either The Screwtape Letters or That Hideous Strength [my memory on that point is fuzzy]—and it piqued my interest. Over the next several years, he became one of my favorite writers, as my own faith grew. He obviously has remained so, since I use Saturdays in this daily commentary to draw attention to some of his most poignant quotes and valuable insights.

Lewis is difficult to classify; he was a Christian writer, to be sure, but he was far more. His first writings were anything but Christian, as he emerged from his early education and his WWI experience a convinced atheist. The transformation to orthodox Christianity was not easy, as he struggled with many intellectual objections. Yet with the help of friends like J. R. R. Tolkien—later famous as author of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings—he found his way “home.”

He began his academic tenure at Oxford as a philosopher and an aspiring poet. His focus later shifted to English literature, where he earned praise as an original thinker and critic. He used all of that background and training as the basis for his specifically Christian writings. His first foray into that realm was philosophical and apologetic. His very first book as a Christian was titled The Pilgrim’s Regress, a reformulated Pilgrim’s Progress that tackled the many philosophical traps modern man falls into.

C. S. Lewis on TimeFrom there, he ventured into science fiction, with the “Ransom Trilogy”: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. Even before completing that series, he gave a series of radio broadcasts on the BBC during WWII that catapulted him into national prominence. Those talks later were edited and bound together as the bestseller Mere Christianity. Simultaneously, his fanciful side more fully emerged with the popular Screwtape Letters, consisting of supposed letters of advice from a senior devil to his junior, instructing him how to lead a man into hell. It has remained one of Lewis’s most admired works, not only for its imaginative approach but also for its practicality as we seek to live the Christian life and avoid the pitfalls Satan places in our path.

One of my personal favorites is a slim volume, The Great Divorce, which explores what it might be like if a busload of hell-dwellers had the opportunity to go to heaven for one day. How might they respond? I’ve never read a more insightful peek into the utter selfishness of man than what I find in this book. Try it; you might like it.

His The Abolition of Man is a magnificent treatise on the absurdity of moral relativism and nihilism. It’s been quite a while since I’ve read that one; I need to get back to it soon. That’s one way to know the value of an author. If you feel compelled to reread, you know you have found a treasure.

One of my favorite Lewis pieces is a sermon he gave called “The Weight of Glory.” His description of how common everyday people should be viewed instead as potential heavenly creatures or potential horrors one would meet only in a nightmare is striking. It makes you see everyone in a distinct, eternal light.

Lewis’s breadth of scope in his works is highlighted of course by The Chronicles of Narnia. They are ostensibly children’s books—and they are—but their appeal extends to adults who want to ensure their own children are immersed in them. The lessons within those books are for all ages, and although the writing style is superb for children, it doesn’t insult the intelligence of their elders. One comes away from those books, particularly, for me, The Last Battle, with a clearer understanding of the temporal nature of our current world and an anticipation for the arrival of the next one, which will be better by far.

I’ve hardly exhausted what could be said about Lewis’s works, both the ones noted above and others. His influence continues. His home nation of Great Britain has been slow to recognize his worth; America seems to have understood and appreciated him more over the decades. Oxford never fully grasped his genius, never promoted him, and many of his supposed colleagues despised him because of his popularity and his disdain for academic politics. Yesterday, though, he finally received his due, in part. He is now honored at Westminster Cathedral with a special tribute in its famed Poets Corner.

C. S. Lewis Memorial

If you haven’t delved into the writings of C. S. Lewis yet, I urge you to do so. If you’re an afficianado of his labors as I am, perhaps it’s time to reread something you haven’t read for some time. He was a man used by God during his life, and even more so since his death. Of course, he lives on still. Read The Last Battle and “The Weight of Glory” to help grasp that truth more clearly than ever.

November 22, 1963

JFK in DallasI remember the day vividly. Well, the entire four days, actually. On Friday, November 22, 1963, I was in my junior high classroom that afternoon. It was a little strange at first because the teacher wasn’t in the room; he was huddled with other teachers in the hallway just outside. They were listening to a transistor radio. I recall all the students were wondering what was happening. Then he came in the room and told us that President Kennedy had been shot. No one knew yet how seriously.

Gym class came next. We talked about how everything would be fine; after all, this was America, so there was no way our president would die. I don’t remember the exact moment reality hit, but it was shortly after that. Junior high optimism proved too optimistic.

Probably the entire country was glued to the television throughout the weekend and into Monday when the funeral was broadcast. Along the way, I somehow missed the live TV moment when Jack Ruby emerged from the crowd at the Dallas police station and shot Oswald. Other than that, though, I was a witness to history in the making.

Yet there were many things of which I was unaware. As I watched TV icon Walter Cronkite struggle to maintain his composure while reporting the developing story, I didn’t know that the man we were mourning had a stunningly false resumé handcrafted by a father whose primary purpose in life was to place one of his sons in the White House. Those bestselling books and that Pulitzer Prize Jack Kennedy had won were the result of a team of writers who then put his name on them.

While viewing the many tear-stained faces of grieving Americans, I had no knowledge of the way the Kennedy clan hid the president’s many health problems so the public wouldn’t realize he was dependent on painkilling drugs to get by. The public image, of course, was of robust youthfulness. Neither did I know the quack doctor administering those drugs had a nickname—Dr. Feelgood. I wonder if the nation would have felt good about that.

As I held back my own emotions when the widow and her children stood outside as the casket passed by, I was in the dark about the moral character of the man in that casket. If I had known at the time that he was a serial adulterer, aided and abetted by his own Secret Service, would those emotions I felt have been different?

JFK GraveAnd as he was lowered into the grave that even now has an eternal flame above it, my youthful ignorance kept me from knowing his very election as president was suspect. Massive voter fraud on his behalf in Illinois and Texas, much of that again orchestrated by his father, is what gave Kennedy the victory. Chicago mayor Richard Daley put his machine to work to dig up enough votes from the graveyards of the city to give the state to the Democrats in 1960. Texas, basically run by JFK’s running mate, Lyndon Johnson, also manufactured more votes in certain districts than actual voters on the rolls.

Many people today don’t know these facts. As a historian, I have no excuse; I have to be honest about what really happened and about the character of the man we remember on this 50th anniversary of his death. That doesn’t make the event any less tragic; the nation never needs a trauma like this. But it doesn’t help us as a people to remain ignorant of truth. We need to be clear-eyed about our history.

As awful as the assassination of a president always is, let’s keep some perspective. John F. Kennedy was not a heroic figure in his personal life. He made many mistakes as president, the Bay of Pigs fiasco being the most obvious. Even his achievements in the Cuban Missile Crisis are mixed. Yes, he forced the USSR to withdraw the missiles, but at what price? He pledged never again to help the Cuban exiles take their country back from the communist dictator Fidel Castro. That tyrant still lives today, and Cuba continues to suffer from the fallout of his stern rule.

Lost in the many documentary tributes appearing on TV this entire month is the real nature of the man being honored and the paucity of his accomplishments. I still experience many of the feelings others do about this tragedy; I saw it unfold myself as a child of twelve. One cannot forget the poignancy of those days and the grief that overwhelmed. Yet now I can step back and analyze it better, distanced somewhat from childish emotions.

Something else I didn’t know on November 22, 1963, was that another man died on that day, far away from my own frame of reference as a young boy in a small Indiana town. Across the Atlantic, in a Great Britain I had never yet visited, an author I had not yet read also passed away. His name was C. S. Lewis. His life and writings have, over time, proven far more influential than that of the man most people remember on this anniversary.

God has a different standard of judgment than the mass of mankind. He sees the heart. On that fateful day in November 1963, it could be that only one of those men who died awoke to find himself in the presence of the One he adored. I will write more of him tomorrow.

The Gettysburg Snub

A new mini-controversy is brewing over another action—make that an inaction—of President Obama’s. The 19th of this month is the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The president has decided not to be in attendance to observe that historic event. Unlike 23 other presidents, he has chosen not to put in an appearance at the place where one of the most famous speeches in American history took place.

This has the citizens of Gettysburg and all others who are participating in the commemoration dismayed. “Why the snub?” they wonder. A short word to those who are distressed over Obama’s absence from the proceedings: don’t sweat it. The anniversary of Lincoln’s pithy and wise comments should be one of dignity and genuine appreciation. In my opinion, the presence of our current president at the event would only serve to degrade its historic significance. Neither he nor his wife have ever really been proud [in the right sense of the word] of their country. Why cheapen this commemoration with any insincere remarks he might choose to offer?

Abraham Lincoln--Gettysburg Address DrawingInstead, rejoice in his absence as you ponder anew the address that begins with those beguiling words, “Fourscore and seven years ago.” Listen attentively to Lincoln’s reminder that we are a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Recall his stirring vision that those who died on that battlefield would help the nation, under God, to experience a new birth of freedom. And dwell on that final thought, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Be grateful that, during an arduous civil war that could have destroyed this nation forever, we had a leader who knew how to lead. Further, be thankful that God gave us another chance to live up to our ideals.

And finally, pray that the president doesn’t change his mind and decide to show up after all. This should be a memorable occasion for all the right reasons. Undue attention to a man who doesn’t really care much about his own country’s history would only detract from the memory of all those who fought for the nation’s ideals and from the memory of the president who so clearly enunciated them.

Snyderian Truism #9

How about some controversy today, since I’m normally so non-controversial? I’ve periodically presented what I call “Snyderian Truisms.” If you’ve missed the first eight, there’s a category on the right sidebar you can click to see them. It’s time for #9.

When I teach about the 1960s, a decade of radical change culturally in many ways, one of my topics is the self-titled Women’s Liberation Movement. So that students will know where I’m coming from as we discuss this topic, I give them this truism:

Femininity and feminism are not the same: God created the first; those who didn’t like God’s creation devised the second.

Feminine MystiqueWhile I readily understand that some will not consider this a truism, I stand by it. The presumed liberation movement that women needed was kickstarted by author Betty Friedan in her book The Feminine Mystique. It was the opening salvo in the attempt to remake the image of women.

Anytime women are mistreated, you will find me on the front lines defending them. God created both male and female, both are in His image, and both are to be treated with respect. Sometimes, though, rage is manufactured.

Rage became a salient feature of this liberation movement, as it does with all movements so named. Women, we were told, are an oppressed minority. Ignore the fact, for the moment, that women are not a minority at all; according to the movement, they can claim that status due to the way in which they have been treated.

What has been the source of this maltreatment? Why, society’s rigid stereotyping of the roles of men and women, of course. And the bedrock institution that furthers this injustice is marriage, a convenient setup that allows men to dominate all other areas of society while women are forced to stay home and take care of the children.

NOWThe remedy for all this oppression is threefold: abolish traditional marriage; accept lesbianism as an equally valid lifestyle; allow unfettered abortion. Only by sanctioning these three via law can true equality of the sexes be achieved. A new organization devoted to these goals appeared in 1966, dubbed the National Organization for Women (NOW). Even the acronym stressed the “urgent” nature of the movement. The first goal was accomplished with Roe v. Wade. Ever since, the “right” to an abortion has been the cornerstone for this radicalism. Touch that presumed right and you are the enemy.

Today, the other two goals are rapidly coming to pass: homosexuality has been given protected status and traditional marriage is constantly under attack. You could say this has been one of the most successful revolutionary movements in history.

Yet it means the death of a Christian culture. Once the roots of marriage and family are ripped out of a society, moral chaos and national decline will follow. Children will be considered a burden; genuine male/female love in marriage will be laughed at as old-fashioned at best, subversive at worst; all boundaries based on Biblical morality will be erased. We will have entered the brave new world so many rebels against God’s laws have always sought.

Yet there remains this gentle reminder for those of us who are Christians, a reminder that needs to be transmitted to this new generation:

Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. . . . Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her. . . . He who loves his own wife loves himself. . . . For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. . . . Each individual among you also is to love his own wife even as himself, and the wife must see to it that she respects her husband.

Some will object to the word “subject” in the first sentence. That’s because they misunderstand the nature of Biblical subjection. For the real definition, go to the last sentence, where respect is the key. The entire passage focuses on mutual love and respect. God’s prescription for marriage, if followed, never leads to oppression.

Snyderian Truism #8

There is no particular order to my truisms. As I think of one, I write it down and it takes its place numerically. We are now up to #8, which is one I’ve had to learn from experience and also one I’ve seen in history; that’s one reason I share it in class. It goes like this:

Bitterness may make you feel good temporarily, but it leads to personal destruction.

Richard NixonOne of the prime examples I use in American history is the case of Richard Nixon. I believe Nixon was treated badly by the press during his time in office, from his first days as a congressman, to his selection as Eisenhower’s vice president, to his supposed loss to JFK in the 1960 election, and then his failure to win the governorship of California in 1962. Over time, this unfair, biased treatment got under his skin and, it seems to me, developed into a bitterness that eventually was his downfall in Watergate.

The point is this: Nixon had reason to be upset with the way in which he had been sullied by the media of his day. Many of them had an agenda to smear his reputation. That was inexcusable. Yet Nixon didn’t handle the personal campaign against him in the proper spirit, at least not after the gubernatorial loss. His words to the press when he delivered his concession speech give a clue to the growing bitterness within: “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”

Richard Nixon & Watergate TapesThe bitterness eventually led to an enemies list, particularly of reporters who were hostile against him. While the perception of their hostility was accurate, his reaction to their hostility only fanned the flames. When Watergate erupted, they got their revenge. Nixon’s unwillingness to acknowledge any wrongdoing on the part of his chief aides and supporters and his attempt to hide evidence were inextricably linked to his personal embitterment toward the press.

In the case of Nixon, not only was bitterness the cause of personal destruction, but it was the catalyst that almost sent the nation reeling over a constitutional crisis. It definitely helped create an atmosphere of unease and uncertainty as we were seeking to work our way out of the Vietnam morass.

The original source for this principle emanates from Scripture. In the book of Hebrews, we’re told,

Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled.

When we allow bitterness to take root, it not only hurts us, but the ripples of that bitterness reach out to many others. The warning in that passage of Scripture is quite clear: bitterness separates from God; without sanctification, no one will see the Lord. We need to take the warning seriously.