Lewis: Dealing with Death

Reading C. S. Lewis’s letters to Americans while researching my book was a daily joy. I’ve always loved research, but this was especially delightful. One of Lewis’s many American correspondents was Mary Willis Shelburne.

Shelburne wrote more letters to Lewis than any other American correspondent; consequently, he wrote more to her than any other, since he felt duty-bound to respond to each letter he received. It is quite clear by the tone of the correspondence that she was an increasingly needy person, both financially and spiritually. Her anxieties seemed to be legion, and Lewis did his best to address them with tact and empathy.

Did he ever tire of her constant flow of letters seeking help? There are indications that she could sometimes wear him down with her incessant demands for answers. Despite the temptation to be frustrated with her, he nevertheless maintained the ministry to which God had called him.

Shelburne feared death, a topic he dealt with more often as both grew older and Lewis began to feel his own mortality. He did his best to help Shelburne face her own demise with the proper Christian spirit and perspective.

He joked about imminent death in a 1957 letter thusly: “What on earth is the trouble about there being a rumour of my death? There’s nothing discreditable in dying: I’ve known the most respectable people do it!”

Commenting in another letter on horrible visits to the dentist, he told her to keep in mind they both had to recognize that “as we grow older, we become like old cars—more and more repairs and replacements are necessary. We must just look forward to the fine new machines (latest Resurrection model) which are waiting for us, we hope, in the Divine garage!”

And why not have the same attitude as the apostle Paul? “If we really believe what we say we believe—if we really think that home is elsewhere and that this life is a ‘wandering to find home,’ why should we not look forward to the arrival.”

He kept his sense of humor even as he suffered greater physical distress, telling her, with respect to their bodies, “Like old automobiles, aren’t they? Where all sorts of apparently different things keep going wrong, but what they add up to is the plain fact that the machine is wearing out. Well, it was not meant to last forever. Still, I have a kindly feeling for the old rattle-trap.”

In his final year, Lewis’s comments on death appeared more frequently, as he sensed his time was near. A letter in June remarked on her obvious fear of dying; Lewis’s response was the most direct one yet:

Can you not see death as the friend and deliverer? It means stripping off that body which is tormenting you: like taking off a hair-shirt or getting out of a dungeon. What is there to be afraid of? . . . Has this world been so kind to you that you should leave it with regret? There are better things ahead than any we leave behind. . . . Of course, this may not be the end. Then make it a good rehearsal. Yours (and like you a tired traveler near the journey’s end).

Shelburne outlived Lewis, but one hopes his constant reminders about how Christians should view death helped her as she later stood on the brink of eternity.

Seeking Truth

Conservatives in general, and Christian conservatives in particular, are looking at a couple of events from yesterday and rejoicing. I’m pleased as well, but my pleasure at what transpired isn’t of the ecstatic variety.

Yes, the House finally passed something that would begin to peel back the onerous Obamacare, and yes, I do understand that sometimes you must do things in stages. From what I’ve read, the House bill does reduce funding to Planned Parenthood substantially. What puzzles me is how this works with the recent, atrocious budget bill that doesn’t touch that funding at all.

The mixed message is, well, mixed.

I would like to believe that stage one in the Obamacare repeal and replace will actually be followed by the promised steps two and three. Forgive me, though, if my faith is weak; when it comes to Republican promises, seeing is believing, unfortunately.

Then there was that executive order Trump signed that supposedly protected religious liberty. If you look at it with some degree of scrutiny, it appears to be more symbolic than real.

First, it directs the IRS to be more flexible. Are we really going to trust IRS Director John Koskinen, the protector-in-chief and prevaricator-in-chief from the Obama years, to follow this directive?

There is nothing substantive in this executive order; it is primarily show. It doesn’t do a thing to protect, say, a Christian florist or baker who seeks to stand by his/her conscience. But apparently it’s enough to make Christian conservatives rejoice publicly and declare Trump as our political savior.

I’m not trying to be exclusively negative here. The Gorsuch appointment to the Supreme Court is a relief. So far, he hasn’t “grown” and morphed into a swing vote, never knowing which direction he will go.

The House healthcare bill is a start toward the proper goal, but it still has to get through a divided Senate. Republicans walk a tightrope there, so nothing has solidified yet.

What about that wall?

Trump is one to make big promises. He loves the adoring crowds who roar with approval at everything he says, so he keeps saying more. Never mind that a lot of what he says is pure hype. Lately, he’s been saying some rather interesting things:

Those quotes certainly put him in the same league with those esteemed presidents, don’t they?

I know many of Trump’s loyalists don’t mind that he backtracks, or that he can be startlingly inconsistent, but it does bother me because principles matter. I’m still concerned that he refuses to release his taxes; all other presidents of late have done so. By refusing, he continues to fuel speculation on how he handles his own finances.

Lest you think that I’m being unbalanced in my criticisms of Trump, let me offer something to help balance it out:

For some reason, the media never cared about all the things Obama didn’t release.

My point today is to caution you not to become unbalanced yourself. Weigh each new law, executive order, and nomination in the scale of honesty and integrity. Don’t make a judgment too precipitously. Make sure you know what is real movement forward and what is not.

Seek out truth above all.

Principles, Courage, & the Budget

A budget vote is coming. I’ve done my best to read both sides of the debate on what the Republican Congress has come up with this time. Yesterday, VP Pence was on the Rush Limbaugh program proclaiming it’s a win for the president, primarily because it increases defense spending.

Well, I’m glad it does that, given the various global crises we face: ISIS, Iran, North Korea, just to name the most prominent.

But what about the rest of this $1 trillion bill?

It continues to fund Planned Parenthood, that vile organization that has created a modern holocaust.

It continues to send money to sanctuary cities that are thumbing their noses at any type of curtailment of illegal immigration. Why should they be rewarded?

Some extra money is in it for border security, yet there is no mention of anything even remotely connected to Trump’s promise of a wall (not that I think he ever really believed in that long of a wall in the first place).

We’re told we must support this budget to keep the government running until September, then the Republicans in Congress will finally get down to business on what they said they would do.

The main reason why they don’t seem prepared to fight for anything substantive at this point is fear that they will be blamed for a government shutdown. That’s always the fear, and fear appears to drive their decisionmaking.

As a historian, I do understand that you can’t always get everything you want in legislation. Yes, there are compromises to be made. But how about compromises that don’t sacrifice basic principles such as the inherent value of human life? Allowing the funding of Planned Parenthood is a participation in murder. When will Republicans draw a line that cannot be crossed?

The litany of excuses grows:

  • We only have one house of Congress; how can you expect us to get anything passed?
  • We have Congress, but not the presidency, so anything we send to the White House will only get vetoed
  • We have Congress and the presidency, but we don’t have a 60-vote majority in the Senate to get what we want

If they were ever to get that 60-vote majority in the Senate, I’m almost convinced the argument will be that they don’t want to be portrayed in the media as heartless, so they will have to bow to what the Democrats want in order to be liked.

Whatever happened to principles? Why has spinelessness become the Republican fallback position?

In that interview that Pence did with Limbaugh, the host’s frustration came to the forefront in these words:

Okay, but why then is the president now suggesting a budget shutdown in September or October? If it’s no good now, why is it good then?

You guys were sent there to drain the swamp. There’s a clear Trump agenda that just isn’t seeable. It’s not visible in this budget, and some people are getting concerned that there’s more concern for bipartisanship and crossing the aisle, working with Democrats, than there is in draining the swamp and actually peeling away all of the roughage that is preventing actually moving forward here on so many of these issues that affect people domestically.

I’ve been a critic of Limbaugh ever since he jumped on the Trump Train with apparently no reservations, but he’s voicing a very important concern here, and he’s right to do so.

I’m reminded of this quote from Whittaker Chambers in Witness:

Men have never been so educated, but wisdom, even as an idea, has conspicuously vanished from the world.

I would add that principles and courage have dissipated along with wisdom.

Winning the Semantics War

One thing the American Left has been very good at is winning the semantics war. If you use words that sound appealing, you can mask their true meaning and fool a lot of people. A prime example is Planned Parenthood. That sounds so reasonable; after all, who would be in favor of chaotic parenthood?

The buzzword list keeps growing. It’s incumbent upon those who still use their brains to read between the lines.

Nowhere is this semantics war played out better than on college and university campuses. UC Berkeley students started the game back in the 1960s with the so-called Free Speech Movement. What a masterstroke. By saying they were the ones in favor of free speech, they intimated that the university was squelching speech. History shows that to be false. Neither did any of the “students” who used violence to get their way suffer any reprisals.

What’s really strange is that they get away now with using the same semantics while simultaneously stomping on the free speech of those with whom they disagree.

Few want to say it, but there’s an eerie kind of parallel that can be made historically:

America has always allowed the greatest freedom of speech of any nation. If you are on the Left, you can get away with saying almost anything you want, regardless of the outrageousness of your statement. If you are on the Right . . . well, not so much, it seems.

While we’re on the subject of free speech, let me go in a little different direction with that term.

Following in the giant footsteps of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama is now earning unbelievable speaking fees. How does anyone defend giving a person, no matter how famous, $400,000 for talking less than an hour?

Shame on Obama for taking the money. Shame on Wall Street for offering it.

I talk many hours every year teaching classes. It’s going to take me a while to get to that figure. And if I go to some organization to speak, most of the time I receive no compensation. You see, I really believe in free speech because most of mine is free to whoever wants to hear it.

The Barack Obama theme: socialism for thee, but not for me.

It’s hard for the Left to keep raging against the establishment when the Left is the establishment. They got there largely by winning the semantics war.

When is our side going to wise up and communicate more effectively?

Lewis: When Progress Is Not Really Progress

I think the words “progress” and “progressive” have been terribly abused in our day. The latter has been captured by the Left of the political spectrum and is now used for anything that gets the government more involved in our lives, as if that should automatically be considered progress.

C. S. Lewis wrote about progress in a much more reflective vein. For instance, in his essay, “Is Progress Possible” (which has as a subtitle “Willing Slaves of the Welfare State”), he defines the term differently than how others might:

I care far more how humanity lives than how long. Progress, for me, means increasing goodness and happiness of individual lives. For the species, as for each man, mere longevity seems to me a contemptible ideal.

Yet isn’t longevity an obsession for most people? Medical science is always trying to make our lives longer, which is nice, but when that becomes our measuring stick for progress, we’re focused on the wrong thing.

Progress can only be measured by looking at our lives from an eternal perspective. We need to realize that there is One who has given us the standard for what is good and what is not. As Lewis notes in another essay, “Evil and God,”

If things can improve, this means that there must be some absolute standard of good above and outside the cosmic process to which that process can approximate.

There is no sense in talking of “becoming better” if better means simply “what we are becoming”—it is like congratulating yourself on reaching your destination and defining destination as “the place you have reached.”

Another irritation, to me at least, is when people say, “You can’t turn back the clock.” As a historian, I reject the concept that history’s path forward is already determined, that there is an inevitable flow that all must accept. I have far too  often heard the silly comment about being “on the right side of history.”

In his classic, Mere Christianity, Lewis deals with that whole turning-back-the-clock cliché and ties it in neatly with an understanding of true progress:

First, as to putting the clock back. Would you think I was joking if I said that you can put a clock back, and that if the clock is wrong it is often a very sensible thing to do? . . .

We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer.

If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man [emphasis mine].

Let’s use words like progress and progressive in their proper sense, based on God’s standards, not man’s.

Free Speech on Campus: A Tipping Point

Free speech at our secular universities is in danger. That’s probably not news to anyone who is alert to the trend. Conservatives, in particular, are under attack whenever they are slated to speak on campuses. They get shouted down and violence is often threatened.

One of the best organizations dealing with this threat is Young America’s Foundation (YAF). It works to place influential conservative speakers on those campuses to help students get an alternative viewpoint—all too often, they are treated to progressive, Marxist indoctrination in the classroom without other options.

This past week, one of YAF’s sponsored speakers, Ann Coulter, faced a possible uproar for her scheduled event at UC Berkeley, which is hardly the campus that comes to mind if one thinks of balanced perspective in higher education.

I used to appreciate Coulter’s boldness, but she seems to have morphed into a complete provocateur in recent years, looking more for a fight than illuminating truth. The last straw for me, honestly, was her latest book, In Trump We Trust. Amongst all the fine speakers YAF sends to campuses, she is at the bottom of my list, and I wonder why she is still on theirs.

Nevertheless, the threats against her were real. There is controversy over who actually called off the event, but Coulter came out of it angry at YAF, for some silly reason. It’s as if she wanted confrontation that would lead to violence. I have little sympathy for her approach.

Yet that doesn’t excuse the university officials who have apparently lost control of the student agitators who want only speech they agree with. We have reached, in my view, a tipping point in higher education. Parents need to think more seriously about where they are sending their almost-adult children for college degrees.

It’s become all too easy to make fun of this current generation of college kids:

Given the drift of our culture away from its Biblical roots, things may only get worse on campuses. Don’t think we’ve hit rock bottom just yet.

All this controversy only intensifies my commitment to Christian higher education. Yes, I know there’s a lot wrong on evangelical campuses; progressive tendencies pop up there as well. But professors like me who attempt to bring their Biblical principles into the classroom and apply them to history, government, and the culture are not silenced. We still have a voice.

After what I’ve experienced in some of Christian higher education, I sometimes joke that it is one of God’s minor miracles that I still believe in it. Yet that’s just the point: God is still in the business of performing miracles. I will remain faithful in my calling and hope He can use me and others to help whatever students He has placed in our care to see the world through the principles He has established.

Trump Backtracking on Religious Liberty?

The Trump Justice Department, headed by pro-life AG Jeff Sessions, is inexplicably backtracking on promises of religious liberty. Obamacare, which many of us had hoped would be gone by now, attempted to force a birth-control mandate on Christian organizations that opposed it in principle.

Trump loudly proclaimed throughout his campaign that he would be a champion of religious liberty, that the federal government would not interfere in deeply held religious beliefs. But look what’s happening now.

A district court ruled in favor of the religious organizations, which led to the Obama Justice Department (yes, I know the oxymoronic quality of that title) appealing the decision. Everyone expected the new Justice Department, led by the conservative Sessions, would drop that appeal.

It hasn’t happened. In fact, . . . well, I’ll quote from a newspaper report:

Several religious groups are dismayed and confused by the Trump administration’s move, including the Little Sisters of the Poor — a group of nuns — that fought the mandate for several years but expected an immediate reprieve under the GOP president. They believed either the Justice Department would halt its appeal in the case or the administration would seek a rules change from the Department of Health and Human Services.

East Texas Baptist University and other plaintiffs represented by the nonprofit law firm Becket are now asking the Justice Department to drop its appeal of a district-court ruling in their favor, allowing them permanent relief from the mandate.

Conservatives who oppose the birth control mandate on religious liberty grounds are bewildered by the move at a Justice Department headed by former Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who is well known for his conservative views.

As things stand now, it appears that Justice plans to continue defending the way the Obama administration applied the birth-control mandate, said Eric Rassbach, a Becket attorney.

Continue defending the Obamacare mandate on birth control? Why on earth would this administration act like the Obama administration on this issue?

I’m willing to wait and see. My hope—giving the benefit of the doubt here—is that there is some confusion in the department that will be straightened out. Perhaps the outrage over this report will awaken them to what they are doing.

Meanwhile, I continue to offer the same caution I’ve been offering all along: don’t expect principle from an administration that is headed by a man without principle. Sometimes, he will do what is right, but one can never depend on that.

Principles and Christian character remain the cornerstones for good government. Without them, it’s like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates: you never know what you’re gonna get.