Guns or the Evil Within?

I try to follow a policy of waiting a while before commenting on news that is not fully vetted. As we all know, much of what is said at first is speculation, and many early accounts are found to be discounted rumors as the fog dissipates.

That’s why I’ve written nothing until now on Stephen Paddock and his reign of unmitigated terror and murder in Las Vegas. What I particularly despise, as I’m sure many of you do also, is the way some people jump on a tragedy like this to score political points.

In perhaps one of the most ironic statements to emanate from a politician after this murder spree, Hillary Clinton tweeted, “We can and must put politics aside, stand up to the NRA, and work together to try to stop this from happening again.”

Well, I’m glad she put politics aside.

To be clear, I’m not a gun owner. I wouldn’t mind being one, but it hasn’t become a top priority for me. I went to an NRA shooting range once (did pretty well, I’m told) and was impressed with their instructions on how to handle firearms safely. That is not an organization foaming at the mouth to use guns indiscriminately; it believes in responsible gun ownership for the purpose of protection.

The old cliché about how gun control laws ensure that only criminals will be the ones with guns is accurate. Criminals don’t follow gun laws.

Erick Erickson also hit home with a comment about statistics, noting, “Many of the gun violence statistics count legitimate self defense, hunting accidents, domestic accidents, and police shoots as mass gun violence. Remember that today as the press talks about ‘mass shootings.’ They have skewed the statistics to make it look far worse than it is. This is done to perpetuate an agenda.”

Some use the term “violence” with abandon. If I were to push someone into the path of an oncoming vehicle, that is a violent action. If, however, I were to do the very same thing and push someone out of the way of that vehicle, my outward action would be the same. Would that be “violence”? Of course not.

Using a gun to protect other people is the opposite of setting oneself up in a hotel room and spraying a crowd with bullets.

Why do we have to keep explaining that which ought to be common sense?

Yet politicians will always do what politicians do. It’s so predictable.

Gun control laws don’t work and they never will. Take a trip to Chicago next week and you will be in a city that registers more gun deaths during your time there than Stephen Paddock was able to achieve in his maniacal burst.

Overall, guns save more innocent lives than they take. And it’s not the guns that are the problem. As people search for the big “why” behind Paddock’s rampage, those of us who take Scripture seriously already know the basic reason, whatever other considerations one might add in. Jesus noted it quite clearly in the 15th chapter of the gospel of Matthew:

For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witnesses, slanders.

Spiritual heart surgery is the only real solution. Recognition of sin must come first; genuine repentance must follow; then and only then is forgiveness offered and a new life begins.

As the apostle Paul explains in his second epistle to the Corinthians, chapter 5:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here!

I’m also particularly partial to this passage in the 12th chapter of Romans:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Renewing the mind is an ongoing process, and only renewed minds walk in the will of God.

The Lord uses even the wickedness of men to shine a light on His holiness. May people be drawn to Him and His goodness as they witness the evil around them. May they also understand the evil that lurks within them and receive His cleansing and His renewed mind.

A Dual Spiritual Biography

I spent parts of ten years researching the links between Ronald Reagan and Whittaker Chambers. Those years also were spent documenting the difference in outlook between the two conservative icons: Chambers the brooding intellectual who doubted the wisdom of men and their commitment to truth; Reagan the optimist who always saw a bright future ahead.

Yet despite that basic disparity in outlook, Reagan was deeply appreciative of what Chambers had taught him, primarily through his autobiography, Witness. Pearls from Chambers’s depth of personal struggle found a prominent place in Reagan’s utterances as president.

Chambers’s depiction of the communist mentality stayed with Reagan throughout his life. He referred to Chambers a number of times in his speeches. Like all presidents, Reagan had a corps of speechwriters, but he contributed valuable edits to his speeches, adding and deleting lines, passages, and even full pages.

Whenever he included Chambers in a speech, he did not just mention him in passing, but often used direct quotes from Witness. At other times, the author of Witness went unmentioned, yet the words Reagan used sounded familiar to those who knew and appreciated Chambers’s writings.

For instance, at a Fourth of July speech in Decatur, Alabama, in 1984, the president, comparing the totalitarian world of communism with America, said that man was created to be free. “That’s why,” he opined, “it’s been said that democracy is just a political reading of the Bible.” Chambers’s exact words had been, “Political freedom, as the Western world has known it, is only a political reading of the Bible,” but the source for Reagan’s comment is unmistakable. It was a phrase from Witness that found a home in his memory.

Speaking before friendly audiences—those with whom he could share more personally in an ideological sense—the president invoked Chambers regularly. Just two months into his presidency, he addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference Dinner.

In a tone reminiscent of the language used in Witness, he proclaimed, “We’ve heard in our century far too much of the sounds of anguish from those who live under totalitarian rule. We’ve seen too many monuments made not out of marble or stone but out of barbed wire and terror.” He then spoke of “witnesses to the triumph of the human spirit over the mystique of state power,” and declared that “evil is powerless if the good are unafraid,” as if channeling Chambers’s decision to cross over the bridge on his witness and not turn back.

Marxism, he said, is a “vision of man without God” that must be exposed “as an empty and a false faith … first proclaimed in the Garden of Eden with whispered words of temptation: ‘Ye shall be as gods.’” Where were all these ideas coming from?

The crisis of the Western world, Whittaker Chambers reminded us, exists to the degree in which it is indifferent to God. “The Western world does not know it,” he said about our struggle, “but it already possesses the answer to this problem— but only provided that its faith in God and the freedom He enjoins is as great as communism’s faith in man.”

The real task, Reagan concluded, was a spiritual one: “to reassert our commitment as a nation to a law higher than our own, to renew our spiritual strength.” Only by having this kind of commitment could America’s heritage be preserved. The emphasis on spiritual strength, while also part of Reagan’s core beliefs, certainly was consistent with Chambers’s foundational message.

Near the end of his presidency, in December 1988, addressing his own administration officials, Reagan thought it important to remind them of what Chambers had said. He recalled the sad state of the nation when he took over the reins of the presidency, and how the people had been accused by former president Carter of suffering from the disease of malaise. Everyone at the time, it seemed, had bought into the lie that “there wasn’t much we could do because great historic forces were at work, the problems were all too complicated for solution, fate and history were against us, and America was slipping into an inevitable decline.”

A quote from Chambers seemed appropriate here: “Well, Whittaker Chambers once wrote that, in his words, ‘Human societies, like human beings, live by faith and die when faith dies.’” America, Reagan reminded his audience, possesses “a special faith that has, from our earliest days, guided this sweet and blessed land. It was proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and enshrined in the Constitution.” It was faith in what a free people could accomplish. “And in saying that America has entered an inevitable decline, our leaders of just a decade ago were confessing that, in them, this faith had died.”

This particular use of Chambers is instructive: it shows how Reagan almost always took a quote from him and turned it into something positive, no matter how negative the quote was in context. Reagan’s optimism enveloped Chambers’s pessimism and made it encouraging and upbeat instead.

These excerpts from my book are only a small sampling of what awaits the reader who cares to delve into this dual spiritual biography. And a spiritual biography it is, as both men based their beliefs on their grasp of Christian faith.

Chad Walsh Meets C. S. Lewis

In last Saturday’s C. S. Lewis post, I related how Chad Walsh, an English professor at Beloit College in Wisconsin, turned from atheism to Christianity and how Lewis’s writings, particularly Perelandra, played a prominent role in his conversion.

This led Walsh to want to know more about his new favorite author. He wrote an article about him in The Atlantic Monthly but sought to make the thesis of that article into a book, explaining in greater detail how Lewis’s writings could reach religious skeptics.

This called for a trip to Oxford to interview his subject, which occurred in June 1948. Lewis, at first, had not encouraged Walsh’s effort, feeling he was not a proper subject for scrutiny at that time. “He had urged me to desist and devote my time to better subjects (such as some safely dead writer),” Walsh relates in the book, “but once he became convinced that I considered the study worth doing he wholeheartedly cooperated with me. He answered innumerable questions without evasion, and his friendliness did much to make my stay in England enjoyable.”

Writing to his wife, Eva, he told the story of his “first encounter”:

I went out after breakfast to shop. Came back at 10, and there was a note, asking me to call CSL at Magdalen. I called, and a deep, very English voice, said, “Is that you, Walsh?” He told me to come over to the college.

I did so, and by asking a succession of people found my way thru the maze of vault-like passages. Reached his sanctum—a two-room affair—and at last laid my eyes on CSL.

He greeted me warmly. He looks much like his pictures. A little more slender than I had imagined. A wrinkled gray suit, brown tie messily tied, scruffed black shoes. We chatted a while, then in about an hour’s time I got most of the info I need from him. He was very cooperative, as well as marvelous entertaining. . . .

He said, “I think you did a good job with those three chapters you sent me. But what are you going to write about in the other 17?”

They had a number of meetings, as Walsh questioned him thoroughly on his views. Almost from the start, they hit it off, and the relationship became more than interviewer with interviewee.

As Walsh happily recounted to his wife, “Reached CSL’s rooms at Magdalen a little after 10, & was warmly received. I soon finished with questions, so . . . we adjourned to the King’s Arms. . . . We talked of everything under the sun—when I parted I felt that we were hovering on the edge of really knowing each other. I think he takes a genuine interest in me, and really likes me—half as one colleague to another, half as father to son.”

Writing to Eva again the next day, he added, “Lewis is definitely old-fashioned in many ways. Nostalgia about the 19th c. Can’t see the possibilities in surrealist art that I think I see. Loathes the present British gov’t—‘those swine,’ as he frequently calls them.”

Before meeting Lewis for the first time, Walsh couldn’t figure out why the pictures of him on the book dust-jackets—“sad-eyed, world-weary”—didn’t seem to match the “wit and grace” he experienced in the books. “Only after I met Lewis did I see that the solution to the enigma was simpler than the theories I had been busy devising. He consented to pose for a couple of snapshots and I perceived that—like half of humanity—he stands stiffly at attention and freezes into impersonality when a camera is pointed his way. The picture on the dust-jackets resembles him about as much as a mummy resembles a living man.”

Walsh was most taken by what he called “the aliveness of his face,” both when he was talking and when listening. His “quick smile,” Walsh noted, could have been called “sweet” except for the feminine connotation of that word. It did not ring true for Lewis, who was “one of the most masculine persons I have ever known.”

It became obvious to the interviewer that his subject had very little regard for making carefully guarded statements. Concern for public relations was not part of his internal makeup. “I never detected him pausing to phrase a reply carefully for fear it might be used against him. If I mentioned prominent names he commented on them with matter-of-fact candor (whether favorably or no) and did not add that this was ‘off the record.’”

Neither did Lewis try to paint himself as an expert on every subject. Walsh witnessed genuine humility: “When I inquired his opinions on a vast variety of matters he answered with equal directness—though sometimes his response was simply, ‘I don’t know enough to have an opinion.’” Walsh’s conclusion? “It adds up to plain unselfconsciousness. . . . To the world outside of Oxford he is a famous figure. To himself he is an Oxford don who writes an occasional book in odd moments.”

That last line is quite an insight into Lewis’s conception of himself. He would probably be shocked by all the attention he has received since his death. Of course, from his current vantage point (since he is now more alive than ever), he probably knows.

Walsh did write his book, C. S. Lewis: Apostle to the Skeptics. Next Saturday, I’ll offer a synopsis of its contents.

Note: this account of Walsh’s visit with Lewis is found in my America Discovers C. S. Lewis book, as just one example of what you can find there.

A Tale of Magnificence & Depravity Well Told

When I was on my “Irma Vacation” a couple of weeks ago, I stopped by a Barnes and Noble to browse the history books. Often, when I’m in a bookstore, I feel a little rushed. This time, with nothing but time on my hands, I did some genuine browsing.

I came across Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America. I had been tempted to buy it before; after all, it is advertised as a #1 National Bestseller and was a finalist for the National Book Award when it appeared in 2003. But I always had too much else I needed to read.

This time I took the plunge, knowing that I would have ample time to read over the next few days. It was a plunge well worth taking.

The White City in the title refers to the Columbian Exposition of 1893, when Chicago dazzled the world with a fair that was unequaled, even by the previous fair in Paris.

It was Chicago’s chance to prove to the nation that it was more than a backwater city known primarily for slaughtering animals. The goal was to show off its sophistication and energy in a positive light.

The book is a dual biography. Daniel Burnham was the architect charged with the responsibility for making this fair a reality in the short span of two years. The difficulties he faced and the tragedies he overcame along the way tell a tale of persistence and faith in a dream of excellence.

The Exposition was a marvel to behold at the time. People cashed in their life savings to be there. They were inspired by the magnificence of the buildings and the grounds, the latter the brainchild of Frederick Law Olmsted, who had also created New York City’s Central Park.

One can understand the awe that overcame the fair-goers at a time when architectural magnificence such as this was in its infancy in America.

The most popular structure of all was a brand new architectural marvel called the Ferris Wheel. This first one had cages that could hold crowds of people all at once. No one had ever seen anything like this before.

So why the title of this book? Why is the word “devil” so prominent?

While all this magnificence was taking place, right next to this Exposition, a man was silently murdering women and no one even noticed it was happening.

His name—well, actually the pseudonym he used—was H. H. Holmes, a clever deceiver who slyly constructed a building where he could carry out his depravity, complete with a soundproof room into which deadly gas could be released (shades of Hitler?) and his own furnace in the basement where bodies could be quietly disposed of.

He was America’s first serial killer.

This part of the tale is chilling, of course, and was one reason why I had always been reluctant to buy the book. I wondered if the author was just being a sensationalist, perhaps glorifying this man’s evil.

But that’s not the case.

Larson doesn’t glorify Holmes; neither does he go into gory details. What he does do is show how magnificence and depravity can exist side by side and how we can sometimes be completely unaware of what’s happening.

Holmes got his due. He was executed for his crimes, and Larson clearly shows the heroic nature of the detective, Frank Geyer, who relentlessly pursued the evidence that would convict Holmes.

The book is one of those page-turners: elegantly written, meticulously researched, and truly deserving of the accolades it has received. It’s what history writing ought to be—solidly fact-based, engaging, and respectful of Biblical morality and the consequences of sin.

You might want to get a copy for yourself.

Awash in Foolishness

My response to the whole NFL national anthem controversy is decidedly mixed. On the one hand, I have a visceral reaction: who are these spoiled brats making more money in one year than either I or anyone reading this blog will make in a lifetime? What do they really have to protest? What’s “wrong” with the words of this anthem?

I’m an American historian who deeply appreciates the Founding of this nation—its Biblical framework of thinking and its overall goals. I also believe that despite the sins and/or problems of its past, America has tried valiantly to correct many of those missteps and has been more of a beacon of hope to the world than any other nation one can name.

Two world wars ended because of America’s reluctant participation in both; the Soviet empire crashed and burned under American pressure and the Cold War came to a satisfactory conclusion.

So, yes, it disturbs me to witness professional football players who bask in the glow of athletic fame, and who draw rather obscene salaries in light of what they actually produce for the nation, decide to disrespect the nation that gave them this opportunity.

On the other hand, as a Christian, I don’t equate national pride with sacredness. The Constitution, while remarkable and worthy of our esteem, is not on the same plane as Scripture. The flag, while a vibrant symbol of what America says it stands for, is not the emblem of the heavenly kingdom. The Star-Spangled Banner, thrilling as it is when one knows its history, is not the banner of eternity.

Then there’s another factor thrown into the mix that makes it all even more mixed up: Donald Trump.

The protests were already an issue before Trump entered into the cultural battle, but, as usual, his words turned a smoldering burn into a blazing fire. By using his bully pulpit to denounce the protesters and call for their firing, he misused the office he has been granted by the voters.

In my mind, there is this comparison that is always present: Trump vs. Reagan. I ask myself how Reagan would have handled such a situation and, from what I know of his character and history, I come away thinking that he would have defused it with his humor and adult behavior. Not so Trump. Adult behavior, in his case, is rarely witnessed.

Those last two paragraphs will raise the ire of Trump defenders, I know. Yet I can’t help but wonder why he won’t simply attend to the weightier issues he was elected to deal with and avoid getting involved in lesser controversies.

It always comes down to character, or the lack thereof.

Due to Trump’s involvement, the protests increased, and now no one really knows if those protests are against the anthem itself or against a president who unwisely inserted himself into the foolishness.

Foolishness. I guess that’s the word that stands out to me as I survey this mess. The NFL players who are protesting are foolish. The president of the United States is being foolish. We are awash in foolishness.

Christians, this message is for you: don’t get carried away by any of this. Focus instead on the eternal. Pray for all those invested in this foolishness, on both sides. Pray that knowledge, understanding, and wisdom may prevail—for the sake of what has been, historically, the best country on the globe.

Chad Walsh’s Baptized Imagination

One of C. S. Lewis’s earliest American friendships was with Chad Walsh, a professor of English at Beloit College in Wisconsin. Like Lewis, Walsh traveled the road from atheism to Christianity, and Lewis helped him on that journey.

“In my case there was no childhood faith,” Walsh wrote in an account of how he eventually found the Christian path.

If I ever believed in God as a small child, no memory of the time remains with me. I regarded myself as an atheist from the moment I learned to read—and, indeed, pamphlet editions of Ingersoll, et cetera, were part of my earliest reading.

Why would a young boy be so attracted to a non-Christian worldview? Walsh, although ultimately placing the blame on his own stubbornness and pride, also pointed to a reaction he had to the community in which he was raised:

Undoubtedly my atheism was in part a revolt against the Fundamentalism of my home town—Marion, Virginia. . . . It was not a winsome faith, and I was in full agreement with H. L. Mencken about the superstitious backwardness of the ‘Bible Belt.’

He eventually escaped what he considered the confines of that small town and found the atmosphere of the University of Virginia more to his liking. There he didn’t have to worry about people shoving religion at him. He was free, he felt, but the freedom did not settle the bigger questions that began to crowd upon his mind. While he claimed to be a self-satisfied atheist, doubts crept in. “Is there such a thing as good or evil?” he often wondered. “Is there any meaning in life and the universe?” World events in the 1930s helped crystallize the answers.

The rise of Hitler in Germany, and the growing awareness of the actions of that regime, forced him to confront the problem of evil in the world. Walsh’s companions in atheism and/or agnosticism, when challenged by Walsh to come up with a response to what Hitler was doing, would provide excuses, albeit excuses that were actually consistent with their worldview.

Walsh recounts,

They agreed with me that the world was a senseless jungle. Very well, they reasoned, if the world is a jungle, it’s absurd to speak of right and wrong. Everything is relative. Hitler thinks he’s doing right to invade Poland and murder the Jews. Very well, it is right for him. It’s all in the way you look at it.

That response shook him. He knew he had to come to grips with the reality of evil.

Walsh’s second question, about the meaning of life and the universe, intruded more on his thoughts once he was forced to recognize that real goodness and real evil existed, and that there was a decided difference between the two. If everything was some kind of cosmic accident, what did that say about his personhood? Was he living an illusion?

His atheism was crumbling. He lived in a transition from atheist to Christian for a few years, trying to figure out what he should believe. It all came down to the person of Jesus Christ.

Walsh began reading the New Testament. What he found surprised him. He had preconceived ideas of Jesus as some weak character—the words “meek and mild” were stuck in his mind from childhood. What he saw in the pages of the Gospels was something different:

The man I encountered in the Gospels was a towering figure of strength; even his death was that of a man strong enough to accept death voluntarily. So I was up against the final question: What or who was Jesus?

Eventually, reason led to faith.

As I recount in my book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis, along the way, Walsh had begun to read some Lewis, and that helped him see the reality. But then he had an experience with one of Lewis’s books that absolutely transformed him.

A friend enthusiastically lent him a book she had just finished reading; she just knew he would love it. That book was Perelandra, the second in Lewis’s Space Trilogy in which the protagonist, Elwin Ransom, is transported to Venus to save an innocent world from falling into sin. Walsh was transported as well:

I quickly consumed it from cover to cover. I was struck first of all by the sheer beauty of the book. It transported me into a kind of Elysian Fields—or better yet, an unspoiled Eden, inhabited by the innocent and unfallen.

A second revelation was that, even though he had always been a science fiction fan, he had never read any science fiction like this, where it could be used as a “vehicle of great philosophic and psychological myth.” The third revelation, though, was the greatest of all:

Finally, and most importantly, in Perelandra I found my imagination being baptized. At the time I was slowly thinking, feeling, and fumbling my way towards the Christian faith and had reached the point where I was more than half convinced that it was true. This conviction, however, was a thing more of the mind than of the imagination and heart.

In Perelandra I got the taste and smell of Christian truth. My senses as well as my soul were baptized. It was as though an intellectual abstraction or speculation had become flesh and dwelt in its solid bodily glory among us.

Walsh then became the first person to write a book about Lewis. To do so properly, he knew he had to visit Oxford and interview him. That’s the tale I’ll tell in a Lewis post next Saturday. Please come back.

Reviving Obamacare Repeal

A final attempt this year at Obamacare legislation is coming up for a vote in Congress next week. Will it advance the principle of eventually overturning the [Un]Affordable Care Act or will it leave too much in place? I’ll come back to that, but first some context.

Despite assurances to the contrary from progressives/Democrats, Obamacare fails on nearly every promise. It is not affordable and insurance companies are pulling out regularly. In some areas, there is only one company taking part, meaning consumers really have no choice.

Those who can’t bear to think of it going away are blind to its disastrous nature:

And when the word “entitlement” gets attached to anything, people feel they are, well . . . entitled. People worry, so they cling to false promises and ignore the reality.

Republicans have used Obamacare repeal and replace as a rallying cry ever since 2010. Many are sincere; others just wanted to stir the base to get reelected. When Republicans finally took both houses of Congress and the presidency, they had their chance to show their true colors. For some, the true color was yellow. The move to remove stalled.

Repeal would be easy, we were told. No problem. When it didn’t turn out that way, voters were given a substitute promise.

That hasn’t happened either, by the way.

Now we have a proposed bill that doesn’t repeal most Obamacare regulations, pre-existing conditions are still covered (too popular to touch), and it keeps spending money at a rapid rate.

So it should be rejected?

Here’s where principle comes in. If a new law moves the ball down the field, so to speak, and gets us closer to where we should be, isn’t that worth supporting? Take abortion, for instance. I believe all abortions are wrong, morally wrong. Some would say that any bill that allows any abortions at all to remain legal should be rejected. However, I would look at such a bill and say instead that many thousands of innocent lives can be saved with it and it should be passed.

It would get us closer to where we need to be.

This current Obamacare modification bill does the following:

  • It repeals the individual mandate.
  • It repeals the employer mandate.
  • Its block grant approach puts state governments in charge of the funds, allowing states to develop their own system, thereby reducing control by the federal government.
  • It defunds Planned Parenthood.

For all those reasons, especially the last one, Democrats will not support it.

For me, as I look at those benefits of the proposed bill, I believe it will advance the cause of eventually overturning this monstrous system. I therefore hope it will pass.

It’s one last opportunity this year to make a dent in something that never should have become the law of the land in the first place. Republican senators should find their courage, set aside petty concerns about whether their state will get enough funding, and vote to take this significant step in the right direction.