Focusing on the Eternal

Last year’s political season was probably the most divisive in modern American history. The nature of the presidential race was such that I felt compelled to concentrate on it in this blog. However, I always sought to provide thoughts on other topics as well. After all, this blog is not about politics and government only; it’s about life overall.

I have a daily routine of online sites I check for current events and commentary, but I don’t limit my reading to those. That would be unbalanced. I am a voracious reader. It’s not just my profession as a history professor that mandates it; I thrive on reading.

My foundational reading for life is always going to be Scripture. I just completed reading the Bible through again. Whenever I do that, I use a different version to keep the message fresh.

My newest Bible-reading project will be long-term, as I’ve begun to delve into a study Bible that will keep me occupied for at least a couple of years. I’m not going to rush through it. I’ll take my time while I meditate not only on the verses themselves but the commentary within.

As a corollary to Scripture reading, I also have a daily e-mail from Christian History that not only offers a short devotional but also information about various people and movements in the history of the church.

A lot of my reading does have to do with the courses I teach, as I want to stay current with scholarship in my field. Yet that type of reading is not a duty; rather, it’s a joy.

For instance, I am teaching my C. S. Lewis course this spring. In my reading of a book about Lewis over Christmas break, I realized I hadn’t yet read some of his essays on literature. So I got a collection of those and found some I have now incorporated into the course.

Reading Lewis is one of my favorite things, as most of you probably know, since I published a book about him a few months ago. I find endless fascination in his thoughts and in the way he expresses them. He helps keep me balanced.

I’m reading other books now as well (I usually have three or four going at the same time). For my American Revolution course, which I will probably teach again in the fall, I’m previewing a book with an intriguing title: Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers. The author is a man I know personally, Daniel Dreisbach, who is an excellent scholar. Reading a book like that is a perfect combination of faith and history.

A course I’ve not yet taught, American history from 1877 to 1917, is another one I may teach in the fall, so I’m focusing right now on a key period in that history, trying to find just the right book to fill in the gap.

I’ve found a very readable book on the pivotal 1912 election that may be the one. It’s an interesting character study of the four candidates in that key campaign: Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Eugene Debs. I can say I’ve learned quite a bit; it has deepened my knowledge of the era, which is something I always seek to do with any historical period.

I also read fiction, mostly from evangelical authors who know how to tell a good story. Some of my staples in that area are Ted Dekker, Stephen Lawhead, and Joel Rosenberg, but I broaden my search all the time, wanting to find others who know how to combine fine storytelling with the faith.

I’m also working my way slowly through Paradise Lost, which is going to take a while, to be sure. Catching up on some of the classics that I’ve never read is another goal.

So, you can see I’m not just narrowly focused on politics. My life is so much more than just a matter of who won the last election. In fact, with an election like the one that has just occurred, I am truly grateful that life is bigger than that.

Memes created from one of my favorite movies, The Princess Bride, can sometimes capture how I feel:

I hope we can all keep our sense of humor in times like these. Faith in God and a sense of humor should go together to remind us that current events are just that—current, not eternal.

That reminds me of another of my favorite Scripture passages, found in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18:

Therefore we do not lost heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day.

For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen.

For the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.

May our focus always be on the eternal.

Chambers: Death of a Nation?

Those who have read this blog long enough know my affinity for Whittaker Chambers, a man I consider one of the true heroes in American history. That’s why he is one of the subjects of my new book The Witness and the President: Whittaker Chambers, Ronald Reagan, and the Future of Freedom.

He had joined the Communist Party in the 1920s, thinking it was the answer to all the world’s crises. Only later did he come to grips with his error, but when he did, a whole new understanding opened to him.

As he notes in his masterful autobiography Witness, his mind had to be renewed completely:

What I had been fell from me like dirty rags. The rags that fell from me were not only Communism. What fell was the whole web of the materialist modern mind—the luminous shroud which it has spun about the spirit of man, paralyzing in the name of rationalism the instinct of his soul for God, denying in the name of knowledge the reality of the soul and its birthright in that mystery on which mere knowledge falters and shatters at every step.

As he stepped out into his new reality, he found faith in God, and that gave him insight that is well worth sharing with our generation:

External freedom is only an aspect of interior freedom. Political freedom, as the Western world has known it, is only a political reading of the Bible. Religion and freedom are indivisible. Without freedom the soul dies. Without the soul there is no justification for freedom. … Hence every sincere break with Communism is a religious experience.

There has never been a society or a nation without God. But history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations that became indifferent to God, and died.

That last line is haunting. How indifferent are we as a nation right now? How close are we to death?

Helping the Poor the Biblical Way

Even in an age that denigrates Christian faith when it comes to basic morality, we have politicians (and others) who fall back on it for whatever expansion of government they want to see.

The whole Religious Left is like this. They point to Scriptures that tell us to help the poor and disadvantaged, but with a twist—we are to use the power of government to carry out Jesus’ commands.

The problem becomes more complex when it shows up in those who claim to be conservatives. Take Ohio governor John Kasich, for example. As he runs for president, he hits conservatives over the head with his version of the Bible:

Medicaid Expansion

The Biblical admonitions to help the poor are real; the method whereby that should happen are real as well. In every case, the command is to individuals, as God wants to work on our hearts. And in the Old Testament, it is clear that the poor are not to receive mere handouts, but they are to do some work toward what they receive. We’re told when we reap the harvest of our field, we are to leave the corners for the poor so they can come in and glean for themselves.

That’s the principle.

Yet today we’ve set up a system that mechanically hands out checks without any regard to the character of those who get the checks. The government is a huge dispenser of funds that people, over time, become accustomed to receiving, and if the dispenser slows down at all, they become enraged.

We have created a culture of dependency, which is the opposite of what God wants to develop in the hearts of both givers and recipients.

Those on the Religious Left are doing a disservice to the Gospel with their constant demands for more government aid. They are helping lead people away from the Truth and are erecting an idol of government power.

You know what else I see? Sometimes, those who yell the loudest at conservatives for being hardhearted toward the poor are hardhearted themselves toward the most deserving of our care—those innocent children in the womb. They rail on about helping the poor, yet turn a blind eye and a deaf ear toward the atrocity of abortion.

Take the log out of your own eyes, please. Not only will you then see who deserves help, but, hopefully, the best way to offer that help. The true Christian spirit is that of giving from the heart, not depending on a government bureaucracy.

Eric Metaxas’s Trump Bible

Eric MetaxasChristian author, speaker, and radio talk show host Eric Metaxas has become a leading evangelical voice in our day. He entered the national consciousness with a direct message a couple years ago at the National Prayer Breakfast.

I was deeply impressed by his book Amazing Grace, which painted an inspiring portrait of British statesman William Wilberforce, the man who successfully led the fight against slavery in the British empire.

Mextaxas also gave a stirring and insightful message to the Oxbridge Conference a year ago, an event sponsored by the C. S. Lewis Foundation. I was not there in person, but the YouTube video is available, and I highly recommend it.

When Mextaxas speaks, he mixes serious commentary with a wry sense of humor that carries his points well. That sense of humor has surfaced lately in his responses to Donald Trump.

When Trump declared the Bible was his favorite book but then wouldn’t (or couldn’t) come up with a single verse that had impacted his life, Metaxas developed what he calls “The Trump Bible.” He has been posting an ongoing series of verses in the way that Trump might want them to appear in Scripture.

Keep in mind that humor only really works if it is close enough to the truth to make you see the connection. Metaxas has mimicked Trump’s language so superbly that it’s not hard to hear him saying these things. Here is a sampling of what Metaxas offers as portions of “The Trump Bible.”

And Jesus went out into the desert. But he should’ve invested in hotels there. I mean, I’m killing it in Vegas. A LOT of money.

Love covers a multitude of sins. Sure. But you’d be nuts not to get a prenup. I mean, c’mon.

Nathan said to David, “You are the man!” And David said, “No, YOU are the man!” And they high-fived each other. It was fabulous.

Sarah lived to be a hundred and twenty-seven years old, but even young she was nothing to look at, so you can just imagine.

You’ve heard it said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” but I say unto you, that’s lousy negotiating. Why break even?

Moses saw that the bush was on fire but was not consumed, because, face it, the bush was low-energy.

I know a man who was caught up into the third heaven… Who’m I kidding? You knew it was me, right?

Paul? He’s ok…but I like missionaries who don’t get shipwrecked and jailed!

Nebuchadnezzar was the best. I mean, he built a giant golden statue of himself. He is an inspiration to me.

“Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus replied, “Again with the gotcha questions?”

On the other hand what did John the Baptist really do? Announced one Messiah? One? Are we serious?

I’m also glad to see at least one cartoonist has caught on:

Trump Bible

Humor. Sometimes it makes the case better than a serious critique.

In Honor of John Eliot

In my previous American history posts about the Puritans we’ve seen the good (city on a hill, establishment of Christian education, the first American bill of rights and constitution) and the not-so-good (treatment of Quakers, the Halfway Covenant that watered down the message of salvation).

What about their relationship with the natives? It was mixed. The Puritans weren’t as missions-oriented as later evangelicals. Yet there were attempts to reach out to the surrounding tribes.

John EliotI want to give credit in particular to one man who devoted his life to spreading the Gospel to the natives. His name was John Eliot, and he spent his entire time in the New World seeking to bring them the Word of God.

Born in 1604, he lived until 1690. His arrival in Massachusetts in 1631 was one year after John Winthrop’s initial voyage. He was the pastor at the church in Roxbury, and remained so for the rest of his life. Yet, while pastoring that church, he extended his ministry voluntarily to the native communities.

By all accounts, Eliot’s kindness won him many friends among the natives, who were then open to listening to his message. He undertook this mission from a heart of genuine concern for those who needed to hear about the love of Christ.

John Eliot's BibleEliot was the first to learn the native language, develop an alphabet for it, teach it to the natives, and then create a translation of the Bible for them in their own language, which was published in stages from 1661-1663. Modern scholars consider this practically a modern marvel, for one man to accomplish this pretty much on his own.

As natives converted to the Christian faith, they also sought to change their tribal ways. They organized themselves into fourteen self-governing towns, and they were given the name “The Praying Indians.”

Eliot’s work among the natives would then go through a severe trial in the event known as King Philip’s War, during which many of the colonists treated these new converts disgracefully. But that’s a story for the next American history post.

For today, let’s pause and honor John Eliot for his exemplary Christian life and witness. This “Apostle to the Indians” fulfilled his calling from God.

Evaluating Faith-Themed Films

Biblical themes are emanating from Hollywood in near-record proportions lately. It’s almost reminiscent of all those Biblical epics of the 1950s. This can be a good trend, or it can be simply trendy, depending on the motivation. It also can be damaging to a true depiction of the Scriptures if the image presented is off-base.

Noah MovieThat concern has raged to the surface with the opening of Noah, with Russell Crowe in the title role. I haven’t seen the film. I was planning to see it, and I read a pretty large number of reviews, both positive and negative. Lately, though, those reviews have turned rather sour, and the departures from Scripture appear to be so drastic that I’ve decided not to waste my time or money.

I realize the critique: how can you be honest with your assessment if you don’t see it? Well, I’ll be glad to watch it when it comes on television later, but I’m really not into giving director Darren Aronofsky any more profit. Snake skin transmitting evil? Fallen angels in the form of rock creatures who were punished by God for helping Adam and Eve? These rock creatures building the ark? Methuselah giving Noah an hallucinogenic drink to get the message to build the ark in the first place? The ongoing theme of plants and animals as more important than humans? Noah wanting to murder a newborn child because he believes all humankind should be destroyed? An evil man sneaking onto the ark without Noah’s knowledge? God portrayed more as a vindictive Gaia/Earth Mother than the actual God of the Old Testament?

Have I forgotten anything?

One reviewer commented that the movie is presenting the illusion that this is the actual story of Noah. It may use the Biblical Noah as a prop, but it bears little resemblance to what is found in the Book. Theatrical license and filling in the gaps in a story is one thing; changing the story completely is something else. Apparently, that is what Aronofsky has done.

So I’ll give this one a pass for now.

Son of GodThere are others, though, that are more faithful to Biblical themes. I did see Son of God, the spinoff from the television miniseries that garnered hefty ratings. The movie did well also, at least for a time, although it seems to have faded now. If I recall, it came in second the first week it screened. The actors were very fine; the story was true to the original script (the Bible itself), and any additions or alterations to what can be found in the text were not the kind that damaged the essential message.

The actor who portrayed Jesus did so with just the right spirit, in my view. Both righteousness and mercy could be seen in action and countenance. The crucifixion scene, while not as gritty as The Passion of the Christ, was nevertheless realistic—agonizingly so. Anyone seeing this film would have to think seriously about man’s sinful condition and God’s offer of forgiveness.

God's Not DeadAnother Christian-focused movie currently in theaters is God’s Not Dead. I’ve not yet seen it, but have viewed the trailer a couple of times. I freely admit I had some skepticism upon seeing the trailer the first time. I wondered if it was just preaching to the choir, so to speak. I also wondered if it might be a little too simplistic, especially with a title like that.

Yet the reviews I’ve read have been more positive than I expected. One even talked about how the film deftly handles complex philosophical reasoning about God’s existence. Friends who have seen it came away enthusiastic. Based on all this input, I hope to fit it into my schedule soon and be able to judge for myself.

Heaven Is For RealAnother one, due out this Easter, entitled Heaven Is for Real, is based on the real-life testimony of a small boy who, when he underwent surgery, says he experienced heaven. He came back from this experience with information about a miscarriage his mother had of which he had no knowledge previously. He also identified a picture of a grandfather he had never met in this life, but whom he says he spoke with in heaven.

I don’t know if the message will be close to the Biblical perspective or merely “spiritual” in some vague way, but I’m willing to give it a chance to prove itself. Casting Emmy-award winning actor Greg Kinnear as the father shows it’s not some low-budget feature, but a quality production.

My approach to these films is expressed well by one reviewer, John Hayward, at the Red State site:

Despite the constant media caricature of Christians as prune-faced scolds who can’t wait to protest any movie that gets a single word of Scripture wrong, they’re actually very good sports about creative interpretations of their faith, especially compared with certain religions that… aren’t.  Christian groups respond to movies they mildly disapprove of by expressing mild disapproval.  If they’re really bent out of shape, they might even tell other people not to go see the movie.  And they’ll embrace all sorts of creative embellishments if the serious themes and tenets of their faith are given a respectful hearing.

I give respectful hearings where respectful hearings are earned. I express disapproval when deviations from basic facts warrant such disapproval. Above all, I want to be as fair as possible in my analyses. Check out any of these movies that have sparked an interest and come to your own conclusions as to their relative value.

John Jay: Christian Statesman

John Jay 1How about a little wisdom from one of America’s Founders today? Most people are not too familiar with John Jay, but he was central to almost every major event of the Founding. Jay served in the Continental Congress, was one of the principal leaders in the debates leading to Independence, was elected president of Congress at one point, and was appointed one of the peace commissioners who negotiated the end of the American Revolution.

Afterwards, he, along with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, authored some of the Federalist Papers, which today are still the best source for knowing how the Founders understood the nation’s new Constitution. Then, after Washington was inaugurated, he was chosen to be the first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

Later, Jay resigned from that position because he was elected governor of New York. As governor, he saw the fulfillment of one of his lifelong goals: he signed a law leading to the eventual abolition of slavery in that state.

When Jay finally retired from public service, he became president of the American Bible Society. His Christian faith was the bedrock of his life. This is seen in a number of his writings. For instance, in a letter to Rev. Jedidiah Morse, he opined,

Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.

Notice he considered America to be founded as a Christian nation—not artificially by legislative fiat, but as a matter of choice. The only way a nation can be truly Christian is if the people voluntarily consider Christianity to be the framework for their thinking, their culture, and their laws.

In that same letter to Morse, he commented on the Bible and how it fits into history:

It is to be regretted, but so I believe the fact to be, that except the Bible there is not a true history in the world. Whatever may be the virtue, discernment, and industry of the writers, I am persuaded that truth and error (though in different degrees) will imperceptibly become and remain mixed and blended until they shall be separated forever by the great and last refining fire.

As a historian, I can vouch for that. All histories are a mixture of truth and error, no matter how conscientious we may be. God’s Word, though, can be relied on as absolute truth.

Finally, here is Jay’s perception of the validity of Christianity:

I have long been of opinion that the evidence of the truth of Christianity requires only to be carefully examined to produce conviction in candid minds.

In other words, a clearheaded examination of the claims of the Christian faith should lead anyone with an open heart to the conclusion that it, and only it, is the true explanation of the condition of mankind, the nature of God, and the way to salvation.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a majority of our elected leaders had the same views and character as John Jay? Well, that’s up to us. As Jay said, it is the duty, the privilege, and the interest of the voters to select Christians for their leaders. If we don’t have those kinds of leaders, the fault lies with us.