Let Us Not Lose Heart

Sometimes when I ponder the state of our society, and the world in general, I wonder if there is any hope. Yes, I know that in the end, God wraps things up His way. The future is glorious for those who remain faithful to Him. But what I see around me would be depressing without that ultimate hope.

I’ve studied the writings of Whittaker Chambers for nearly thirty years now. His magisterial autobiography Witness is filled with poignant insights into the human condition without God. For instance, as he analyzed the state of the world in his lifetime, he was struck by the loss of his generation’s ability to see reality and know the difference between right and wrong. Has anything changed all that much? Here’s how he portrays it:

The dying world of 1925 was without faith, hope, character, understanding of its malady or will to overcome it. It was dying but it laughed. And this laughter was not the defiance of a vigor that refuses to know when it is whipped. It was the loss, by the mind of a whole civilization, of the power to distinguish between reality and unreality, because, ultimately, though I did not know it, it had lost the power to distinguish between good and evil. … The dying world had no answer at all to the crisis of the 20th century, and, when it was mentioned, and every moral voice in the Western world was shrilling crisis, it cocked an ear of complacent deafness and smiled a smile of blank senility—throughout history, the smile of those for whom the executioner waits.

I ask myself whether we are currently in that same state he so sadly describes. As a people, are we without faith or hope? Do we lack the kind of character necessary to remedy the ills of our nation? Do we even understand that we are suffering ills? Are we living in the realm of unreality, dying because we no longer care about right and wrong, good and evil? If so, the executioner waits to carry out the sentence on a deaf and senile people.

That all sounds so dismal. Yet there are times when I feel the way Chambers felt about his era. That feeling can lead people to despair, if they are without the life of God within. The only reason I won’t succumb to despair is because I know I’ve been called, as all Christians are, to shine the light of truth and hope into that moral void. Our task is to rescue the hopeless, and the more we rescue, the greater the possibility that our society can once again distinguish between good and evil.

One passage of Scripture fits perfectly here, from Galatians 6:7-9, where we’re told,

Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary.

That last sentence is a clarion call to continue doing what God has charged each one of us to do. If we remain faithful, He promises there will be a time to reap. Chambers’s perception of the world of 1925 does not have to be the world of our future if God’s people persevere.

The Wisdom of Ronald Reagan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Les Miserables, Whittaker Chambers, & Delayed Revelation

One of the best movies I’ve seen in some time and one of my favorite historical subjects of study come together. First, the movie.

I saw Les Misérables a couple of weeks ago and have intended to write about it. Too many other pressing topics intervened. Yet it’s still around in theaters, so if I can encourage anyone else to see it who has neglected to do so, I will have performed a public service.

At first, I wasn’t quite sure what to think of it, due to its graphic depiction of prostitution and the deeply seamy side of life. Yet even in the midst of all the depravity, it was clear the filmmakers were not glorifying that life. Anne Hathaway’s performance here was heartrending, particularly with her song. No one could come away from those scenes thinking this was the “high life.”

I concluded that it was essential to, in some way, make it clear how sin dehumanizes everyone involved with it. Only in that way could the real message of the movie—the wonder of God’s grace—be so starkly realized. The presentation of the good news always must begin with the problem, which is sin and its destructiveness. The contrast between the utter selfishness of the sinfulness portrayed in the film with the self-sacrificing love of Jean Valjean is breathtaking. For me, the high point of the movie was Valjean’s death, as we are led to understand he is being received into God’s presence through the love and mercy of Christ.

I also recall that the book itself by Victor Hugo made a deep impression on Whittaker Chambers, who grew up in a household with no genuine Christian influence. Chambers, for those who don’t know, later became a communist, then broke from communism to speak prophetically about the loss of the knowledge of God in Western civilization. He found the book in the attic when he was no more than nine years old, and it opened a new world for him.

I read and reread Les Misérables many times in its entirety. It taught me two seemingly irreconcilable things—Christianity and revolution. It taught me first of all that the basic virtue of life is humility, that before humility, ambition, arrogance, pride and power are seen for what they are, the stigmata of littleness, the betrayal by the mind of the soul, a betrayal which continually fails against a humility that is authentic and consistent.

I agree completely. That is what stood out in the movie as well—the centrality of humility to counter all the pride of man. Chambers continued:

I scarcely knew that Les Misérables was teaching me Christianity, and never thought of it that way, for it showed it to me, not as a doctrine of the mind, but in action in the world, in prisons, in slums, among the poor, the sick, the dying, thieves, murderers, harlots and outcast, lonely children, in the sewers of Paris and on the barricades of revolution. Its operation did not correspond to anything I knew as Christian in the world about me. But it corresponded exactly to a need I felt within myself.

My only quibble is that I don’t see the Christian worldview in the revolutionaries of the era; they were more incipient Marxists than Christians. But that is a quibble in comparison to the overall value of the dominant Christian theme. I always rejoice when the Christian message can be conveyed in a major production such as this, in a film that is not meant to be self-identified as a Christian movie, but one that reaches beyond to a much wider swath of the population. Chambers didn’t know he was being taught Christianity, and though that revelation was delayed many years, eventually he came to grips with the reality of God in his life. May the same happen to moviegoers today who are just seeking a good story. May the central message of that story—salvation through Jesus Christ—come as a revelation to them also, even if delayed.

The Election: An Analysis

I spent a good part of my day yesterday culling through analyses of the election in preparation for my talk to a local Republican club last night. But I did more than just gather information; I prayed as I gathered, seeking to know how the Lord wants me, and all Christians in particular, to respond to the results. In today’s post, I’m going to share what I told that group. Tomorrow, I want to address the perspective Christians should have on what has transpired.

Election Results

Obama won nearly every swing state, which was a shock to most prognosticators, myself included. The popular vote was 50-48 in Obama’s favor, but he received about ten million fewer votes than in 2008. Romney underperformed also, receiving nearly three million fewer than McCain did. The great opportunity for Republicans to take the Senate dissipated; not only did they not retake it, but they lost two seats, despite the fact the Democrats had more seats to defend—nearly 2/3 of the races. The House stayed in Republican hands, but even there they lost a few seats. The lone voice for some sanity in Washington, DC, is slightly weakened.

What Does This Election Say about the Electorate?

 We are a severely divided people. The split is almost even, but that masks the downward trend away from a Christian culture. Consider that Obama won without any agenda for a second term, that experiencing the worst economic time since the Great Depression made no difference, and neither did the massive national debt nor Obamacare, which will now surely be fully implemented. Astonishingly, some polls indicated that voters trusted Obama more with handling the economy than Romney, and that 53% still blamed Bush more for the current state of the economy.

One exit poll (I don’t recall where this was asked) sought to measure the impact of Hurricane Sandy on voters. In that poll, 42% said Obama’s response to the hurricane—interrupting his campaign to “take care” of the emergency—was an important factor in their vote for him; 15% said it was the most important factor. What exactly did Obama do besides get a wonderful photo op out of it? Yet these voters “felt” good about his response, so much so that it either solidified their vote or caused them to change it. All too often in politics, perception rules even when it doesn’t comport with reality. These people were voting primarily on emotion, not principle.

In Ohio, the majority approved the government auto bailout. Of that majority, 75% voted for Obama, believing the false narrative the Obama campaign fostered that Romney was a coldhearted vulture capitalist who would have let GM fail completely.  These voters were not thinking about the good of the nation as a whole; they were focused entirely on their own well-being. In this case selfishness won over principle.

Obama promised more goodies that Romney did. Rush Limbaugh nailed it, I believe, when he commented that Romney’s recipe was the traditional route to success called hard work, whereas Obama took the government-will-take-care-of-you path:

In a country of children where the option is Santa Claus or work, what wins? And say what you want, but Romney did offer a vision of traditional America. In his way, he put forth a great vision of traditional America, and it was rejected. It was rejected in favor of a guy who thinks that those who are working aren’t doing enough to help those who aren’t. And that resonated.

When Romney proclaimed that Obama was the candidate of “free stuff,” the voters took him at his word and grabbed for the “stuff.”

We witnessed a populace more concerned about free contraception than the taking of innocent lives through abortion. We saw three states vote in favor of same-sex marriage [if Washington eventually did so—I don’t have the final word on that] and the election of the first openly homosexual senator, Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin.

The maxim that so many conservatives want to believe, that we are a center-right nation politically, has been proven shaky, if not false. I already questioned that; now we have more evidence that we are more center-left and that the real definition of “moderate” in American politics is “liberal.”

What Does This Election Say about the Republican Party?

Republican turnout was not as high as anticipated. We can legitimately debate the specifics of how the Romney campaign was run—not forcefully combating the false images; expecting the bad economy to carry him to victory by itself; avoiding the ripe topic of Obama’s Libyan foolishness; the adoption of the play-it-safe mentality that worked so well for President Thomas Dewey in 1948 [?]—yet those are tactical questions only. The real issue is what the party is willing to stand for. What is its soul?

American conservatism—which is not the same as the Republican party, but ought to be—is a three-legged stool: economic liberty, moral values based on the Biblical worldview, and commitment to a strong national defense. Romney enunciated the first, hinted at the third, and only vaguely accepted the second. He always has been weaker on abortion and homosexuality, and much of the mainstream Republican establishment agrees with him on those issues. Some Republicans tolerate those evangelicals in their midst because they form a key foundation for political victories, but they don’t really like them.

So what will the party become in the post-2012 age? Will it swing toward a tepid middle-of-the-road philosophy or offer a stark contrast to the statist and antichristian stance of the Democrats? As Grover Cleveland noted after losing his reelection bid in 1888 when he rejected the advice of his advisors to change his political views on one issue: “What is the use of being elected or reelected unless you stand for something?”

To those who say a Biblically based, conservative message will not work, I say it depends on the messenger. There is a way to communicate truth and its application to policy that can win over people. They key is finding the principled politicians who can convey that message effectively. We had some principled politicians this time around—Akin in Missouri, Mourdock in Indiana—who lost due to their verbal stumbles. What the Republican party needs are articulate leaders who can guide those who are open to hearing the truth about how government is supposed to work.

What Does This Election Tell Us about the Future of America?

As I watched the tragedy unfold Tuesday evening, and I came to the realization that Barack Obama will be president for four more years, a profound sadness enveloped me. Some of you know I have a book manuscript that compares the optimism of Ronald Reagan with the pessimism of Whittaker Chambers. I want to be a Reagan optimist, but I admit, by nature, I’m more of a Chambers pessimist. I always need a reason for optimism because I know the human condition too well: sin/selfishness dominates this world. In a letter to a friend, Chambers wrote this in the early 1950s:

On one side are the voiceless masses with their own subdivisions and fractures. On the other side is the enlightened, articulate elite which, to one degree or other, has rejected the religious roots of the civilization—the roots without which it is no longer Western civilization, but a new order of beliefs, attitudes and mandates. The enemy—he is ourselves. That is why it is idle to talk about preventing the wreck of Western civilization. It is already a wreck from within.

Is this true? How far gone are we? While I believe Reagan had good reasons for his optimism in the 1980s, can we say the same today, or has the cultural transformation gone beyond the point of no return? Is there really such a point or is it possible to turn this around? The culture has changed; that much is undeniable. We are undergoing what one commentator calls a “tsunami of secularism.”

We need to rebuild our foundations as a society, but it must begin with a return to the Biblical worldview, which will then lead us back to principles—the general truths that must undergird a society. If that happens, we will then see a renewed commitment to constitutionalism and the rule of law. Only by taking these steps will we be able to restore what has been lost.

I agree with Reagan when he said, “I do not believe in a fate that will fall on us no matter what we do. I do believe in a fate that will fall on us if we do nothing.”

What are Christians to do? How are we to respond to this election? I’ll try to deal with that tomorrow.

Death of a Vision? Or a Rebirth?

About seven years ago, a vision took shape in my heart and mind. Yesterday that vision may have died, but I am hopeful that it’s merely a prelude to a resurrection. Let me explain. I’ll start first with the basic facts, then go on to what I think the Lord may be teaching me through this episode.

I’ve always admired Ronald Reagan: his character, his principles, and how he attempted to convert them into action. I’ve equally admired Whittaker Chambers, a man less well known than Reagan, but one who was instrumental in sending a warning to Western Civilization that it must return to faith in God or all will be lost. Reagan was the quintessential optimist; he believed freedom was the wave of the future. Conversely, Chambers was the epitome of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, who held out hope but whose message was primarily one of judgment.

Both men are considered cornerstones of modern American conservatism. Yet even though they were part of the same movement, their perspectives on the ultimate success of a West grounded in a Biblical worldview differed significantly. My goal was to examine the roots of Reagan’s optimism and Chambers’s pessimism, show how those diametrically opposite temperaments manifested themselves during their lives, and then evaluate, to the extent it is possible, which viewpoint is more accurate with respect to the future of freedom.

For seven years, off and on while teaching fulltime, moving from Virginia to Florida, and blogging daily, I slowly made headway on the book. My search for a publisher was difficult until last November when an academic press gave me a contract. It wasn’t until after I signed that contract that I fully understood some of the ramifications: I would have to pay for the typesetting and for any permission fees for the use of quotes from other sources. I also didn’t realize that I was not guaranteed a paperback version of the book. It was slated to come out in hardback only, and would be turned into a paperback if it sold well enough, which would be difficult because the price tag was going to be over $60. How many people are currently willing to pay that much for a book?

Nevertheless, I moved forward with all that was necessary to submit the manuscript, simultaneously making the case for a paperback version. Things seemed to be going in that direction, and one scholar who reviewed the book for the publisher—a man who is a Reagan expert and has written a number of Reagan books—was so delighted with my manuscript that he even wrote a wonderful foreword for it.

I was also getting all the permissions together, and pretty successful at getting those fees down to a reasonable level. One source, though, that had rights to two of the books I quoted from extensively, required a fee that was far above all others, and one that I just couldn’t pay. It would have been fiscal suicide for me to have done so. Even communication with the publisher didn’t change that source’s opinion on how high the fee had to be.

Therefore, my publisher and I came to a mutual agreement yesterday to dissolve the contract. The book is dead.

But is it, really?

I admit my first reaction a week ago to the fee demand was one of anger, which then turned to discouragement. All I could think about was seven years of labor wasted. Slowly, though, as I meditated on what God would want me to think and to do, I began to see things from a different angle. Perhaps this was His way of getting me out of a bad situation; maybe another door will now open, one that won’t be so restrictive.

He reminded me of the many times in my life when I came to a point of near-despair over some turn of events. One in particular always comes to mind. Eighteen years ago, I was a candidate for a teaching position at an evangelical college on the West Coast. I recall how my office would have faced the rolling waves of the Pacific Ocean; I was sure this was God’s call for me. When I didn’t get the position, I was devastated. Anger and resentment burned within me over what I considered to be a bad decision by that college. Yet a couple of months later, out of the blue and totally unanticipated, I was contacted by a university where I had sought to teach earlier. Within a matter of days, I had that position, and it was one that was truly fulfilling for a number of years. I learned a valuable lesson: God is always at work even when you don’t see the evidence at first; trust Him and He will guide your steps.

There may be another lesson He is teaching me through this current mini-crisis. It’s possible I was too focused on academic credentials as I sought to get this book published. Perhaps I wanted to impress others a bit too much, and pride was taking hold of my heart. The Lord reminded me that humility is the way to please Him. If I never publish another book, that’s okay, as long as I am doing what He has called me to do—teach this generation His ways through history.

I am at peace with the state of my manuscript. I believe I’ve written something that is worthwhile, and I will see if another publisher is willing to take it on. I don’t know if that publisher exists, but if God wants it to be published, it shall be. Meanwhile, I will continue to do my best with the tasks He has given me already.

I just finished reading the book of Ecclesiastes again. The theme throughout that book is the futility of any work that is done purely in one’s own strength or for one’s own purposes. The last chapter offers the sort of wisdom we all need, but especially someone in my field:

But beyond this, my son, be warned: the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body. The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.

I take that admonition to heart.

How to Make an Award Meaningless . . . or Worse

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest civilian award given to American citizens. It should be reserved for those who have embodied the quest for genuine liberty, and who have warned against threats to that liberty. That’s why President Reagan gave one of these medals, posthumously, to Whittaker Chambers, a man who put his personal reputation, his career, and possibly even his life, on the line when he revealed what he knew about the underground communist network within the U.S. government. That’s what this medal is supposed to signify.

President Obama has made a mockery of this award. Yes, I realize that the president has the prerogative to award this to whomever he wishes, and political beliefs are going to influence those choices, but sometimes a line is crossed. Let me talk about three of this year’s recipients.

Very few people have ever heard of Dolores Huerta, but conservative commentators lit up the internet yesterday with information about Huerta the president cleverly chose not to share. Here are some highlights:

  • Honorary Chairman of the Democratic Socialists of America, the largest socialist organization in the U.S. and the principal U.S. affiliate of The Socialist International
  • Professed Marxist
  • Believes the War on Terror is really a war on immigrants
  • Board member for the following radical groups: Feminist Majority, Latinas for Choice, the Center for Voting and Democracy, and Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting [the name sounds good, but it’s another Media Matters-type organization]
  • In 2006, she said, “Our theme will be: Republicans hate Latinos”

Giving a medal of freedom/liberty to an avowed Marxist is the ultimate in oxymorons. The two couldn’t be more opposed. Yet what this reveals is that the president himself holds the same views. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be honoring her.

Another recipient was former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. Now, what could be wrong with honoring a man who served on the highest bench in the land? That would only make sense, right? Superficially, yes. But the philosophy Stevens brought to the Court was of the farthest-Left variety. He even gave an opinion on a partial-birth abortion case that said to deny a woman the “right” to have her unborn child put to death while being birthed would be to deny her “liberty” to make such a decision. Stevens said nothing about the right of the unborn child to have liberty. The unborn child didn’t matter at all to him. His concept of liberty is radical licentiousness. Licentiousness is a rather long word; let me simplify it: sin. So now we have a Presidential Medal of Freedom winner who won’t even protect the life of an unborn child at the very point of birth. This is tragic . . . and laughable, if one can truly laugh at the plight of innocent children.

I’m not aware of the list of recipients over the past years, but I’m sure Stevens is not the only pro-abortionist who has been so honored. It’s just that in this case, his decisions have made their mark on an entire nation. His influence was not indirect, but direct. He is one of the reasons we still fight the fight against partial-birth abortion. Giving him a medal of freedom is hypocritical at the least; an abomination might be a better term.

Another recipient was singer-songwriter Bob Dylan. This one is almost comical to me. Weirdly, as befits his persona, Dylan showed up to receive his award wearing sunglasses. Well, you know, those White House lights are pretty bright. One may be tempted to ask just what Dylan has done to deserve this award, and to be placed on the same pedestal as Whittaker Chambers. I’m certainly asking.

I grew up in the sixties. I remember Dylan and his songs quite well. The songs were all of the protest variety. Some are catchy, even though the sentiments expressed are classic left-wing. I can understand why people may enjoy some of his songs. It’s more of a stretch to imagine anyone enjoying his voice—nasal, whiny, strange.

Let’s be honest: Obama gave Dylan this award because he likes the protest movements of the 1960s and sees Dylan as a symbol of the counterculture. Obama still lives in the spirit of the 1960s; that’s where he is most at home philosophically. It reminds him of his own Marxist tutors and the influence of radical activists like Saul Alinsky.

One commentator jokingly suggested the real reason Obama thought Dylan deserved the award can be seen in light of his own autobiography, which reveals our president as a regular pot-smoker in his youth. Perhaps, the commentator noted, he really liked one of Dylan’s songs better than the rest: “Everybody Must Get Stoned.”

Sad.

If you want to know what kind of president we have—what his underlying beliefs are, and how he wants to transform this nation—all you have to do is look at his choices for the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His choices diminish the meaning of that award, even as his presidency demeans the office itself.

Whittaker Chambers: The Movie

For years, I have commented to as many people as I could that a movie needed to be made of the life of Whittaker Chambers. His story is one so dramatic, so significant historically, and so grounded in spiritual reality that it begs to be told.

Of course, he already has told it in his magisterial autobiography Witness. Clearly one of the seminal books of the twentieth century, it reveals the inner struggle of a man who grew up in a terrible family situation, gave himself over to the revolutionary communist faith, worked in the communist underground to undermine America’s government … then break from that faith to turn to God, where he found ultimate meaning for his life.

He then, in a real sense, gave his life to try to save America from the hidden enemy that wanted to destroy it. His “witness” to the Congress about what he knew of that underground, and the controversy over the role of Alger Hiss as one of his communist compatriots, became front-page news from 1948-1950.

Witness emerged in 1952 and raced to the top of the bestseller list. Yet so few know anything about Whittaker Chambers today.

I, however, have been so fascinated by his tale that I have a full semester course I teach on him and his wonderful book. I’ve also completed a book manuscript that will be published later this year that showcases the similarities and differences between Chambers and Ronald Reagan. The title will be The Witness and the President: Whittaker Chambers, Ronald Reagan, and the Future of Freedom. I’ll let you know when that’s available.

But the reason for this post today is that I discovered there are now seasoned professional filmmakers who are serious about chronicling Chambers’s life and his contribution to the soul of the nation. They need the financial wherewithal to make the film a reality and are seeking to find other interested individuals who can contribute to ensuring this production sees the light of day.

I urge you to visit the website that describes the vision for the film and to prayerfully consider helping with the costs of production. To view the site, just click here.

We are a largely superficial people who don’t think deeply about life and the consequences of our actions. This movie can be one important corrective to our societal malady. Please give it your support.