The Lewis & Chambers Blessing

Two of the courses I’m teaching this semester are particularly gratifying: one is on C. S. Lewis and the other on Whittaker Chambers. I’ve taught on Chambers for many years; this is only the second time I’ve offered the Lewis course.

Those of you who are regular readers of this blog know that I’ve written books lately on both men. The added blessing is to be given the opportunity to then take what I’ve researched and written about and offer it to the students.

In the Lewis course, we started with his autobiography, Surprised By Joy, and will be completing most of Mere Christianity next week. Along with the latter, I’ve had the students read Paul McCusker’s C. S. Lewis and Mere Christianity, which provides the historical background for his WWII BBC talks that eventually became the classic work.

Next we will turn to The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, The Abolition of Man, That Hideous Strength, The Last Battle, and A Grief Observed. Interspersed with those books will be a number of Lewis’s essays, thereby helping students get as broad an acquaintance with his thought as possible.

And of course I end with my book on how Lewis has impacted Americans. How could I omit that?

The discussion has been heartfelt as students reflect on not only what Lewis has said but how he has said it. The observations the students turn in to me after each reading assignment have been excellent; it warms a professor’s heart to see them interacting with what they are reading.

My Chambers course is small, but I like the coziness of a small class. I give them a history of communism in short doses, we read Chambers’s amazing autobiography Witness, along with some of his essays (kind of like the Lewis class), and mostly just sit and discuss what we have read.

Again, like Lewis, Chambers’s manner of writing is bracing and so personal that it stirs the mind and the heart simultaneously.

So, in the middle of a very busy schedule in which grading becomes a constant companion, I have oases that refresh and remind me why God has put me on this career path.

Being a professor can be discouraging at times, but what career doesn’t have those moments? I have been given a free hand over the years to develop unique courses that flow from what God has done for me; I offer them to the students in gratitude for His mercy (unmerited favor) and grace (strength to do His will).

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.

Where I Come From & Where I Am Today

I’ve been musing the past few days on the roots of my political and/or governmental philosophy. Why am I where I am today in my understanding of what’s best for the governing of this nation?

I wasn’t raised in a home that taught me what I now believe, so it’s not a matter of merely copying what my parents thought. In fact, I grew up thinking the Democrats were the party to support.

I was conservative as far as I understood what conservatism was, but didn’t grasp the drift taking place in that party. I thought that because I was sympathetic to the civil rights movement, I was a good Democrat.

Liberal-ConservativeIt took a conversation in college with someone knew the difference to show me I was truly a conservative in outlook and that my views lined up better with the Republicans. That actually surprised me.

Yet I didn’t just follow the advice of that person blindly. I began to investigate what I should believe and why. Two factors guided my thinking: my growing Christian faith and the influence of certain writers I was beginning to enjoy reading.

First, I began to learn about Biblical principles and how they should be applied to society, including government. Those principles continue to guide me today.

William F. Buckley Holding BookSecond, two periodicals honed my thinking in accordance with those Biblical principles: National Review and The Freeman. The first offered witty and insightful commentary on the current political scene, and I greatly admired William F. Buckley, the founder of the magazine; the second grounded me in free-market concepts.

When I decided to pursue my doctorate in history, I was in a time of uncertainty spiritually. I was searching to see if anything else could fill that void. My professors, generally speaking, were far more liberal than I, and some of the reading I was given allowed me to test my convictions. Would they stand?

They did. I was now grounded in what liberals thought, as I expanded my understanding of both worldviews.

My advanced degrees offered no answers for life; God mercifully drew me back to Himself. Yet that pursuit of higher education did prepare me to better define what I believed and why.

My path to what I believe is not everyone’s path, by any stretch. My spiritual quest combined with my educational quest to make me what I am. It was a fascinating integration of intellectual and emotional satisfaction.

TextbooksI have been in higher education circles ever since. Seven of my years of teaching were at the graduate level; another five at a college that stressed classical education.

In my courses, I try to communicate to my students a worldview that is spiritually and intellectually sound.

I’ve always approached politics from this foundation of Biblical principles and solid reasoning from a well-grounded conservative philosophy. I don’t repent of any of this, but I do think my approach has left me a little bewildered by the politics of 2016.

As I meditate on what has developed politically over the past year, I have been astounded by what seems to me to be a devastating loss of principle in both the Christian world and the corresponding conservative world.

Donald Trump at DebateI’ve been trying to understand why this is so. You see, for me, the first time I saw Donald Trump on the stage with all those other candidates, I came away thinking that this was the biggest con of recent political history and that no one would take him seriously. Why? Because I didn’t perceive him as a serious candidate.

Trump had no command of the issues. He was an egotist who blustered, interrupted, and insulted anyone he thought was in his way. His entire history was as a liberal Democrat, and now he was trying to convince everyone he was a Republican.

I thought everyone would see through this charade. I’ve been sorely disappointed.

True, he didn’t get the majority of Republican votes in the primaries. I console myself with that fact. But once he became the nominee, so many who had previously said he was unacceptable suddenly decided he was now worth supporting, and anyone who disagreed should be shamed and guilted (is that a word?) into abandoning their principles and declaring their undying allegiance.

My entire background and training doesn’t allow me to board this train. I’m dismayed that so many others have decided to do so.

PrinciplesI’ve learned a valuable lesson, though. I have to realize that not everyone makes decisions based on principles only. Sometimes emotions carry the day. The emotion that leads some to vote for Trump now is fear—fear of a Hillary Clinton presidency.

I understand that fear. What I don’t get is why those same voters don’t see the danger of a Trump presidency as well. In my view, both are equally undesirable.

Some probably wonder why I continue to warn about Trump when it is clear that one or the other—Trump or Hillary—will be the next president. The answer is this: I’m looking beyond this election; I’m trying to keep us thinking about what comes next and whether there will be a Christian witness left to the nation after this, and whether there will be any conservative movement to build upon and salvage the disaster that is sure to come regardless of who wins this particular election.

We need to be principled people. My task, I believe, is to stay true to that calling and convince as many others as possible to do the same.

The New University Culture

I have taught at Christian colleges and universities for 27 years. I’ve noted in past blogs that there have been bumps along the way and that none of those higher education institutions have been perfect. But I still believe in Christian higher education and am grateful that I’m not subjected to most of the insanity that is in the ascendance on many of our secular campuses.

One of the areas of study that is under attack the most is American history, which is what I happen to teach. I have the liberty to teach that history from a Christian perspective, discerning what was in accordance with Biblical principles and what was not. I have never, at my current institution, been told what to teach or threatened because of the content of my courses.

I shudder to think what might happen to me if I attempted to teach at a state university somewhere:

Welcome to College

I’m afraid I would have to undergo “sensitivity” training. My approach to my courses just wouldn’t fit the new, enlightened perspective:

Can't Take

Some organizations are trying to correct the imbalance by bringing in more conservative speakers to these campuses. All too often, those speakers are now being banned from the campuses. You see, they’re too controversial and might damage the self-esteem of those snowflakes who are huddled in their comfy ideological corner:

Banning the Speakers

And it’s becoming increasingly difficult for students to stay in line with the “correct” ideology because it keeps changing so rapidly. Princeton now wants all faculty, staff, and students to stop using such terrible words as “man.” That’s much too patriarchal for our tastes now.

Gender-Neutral Human

So where are we culturally?

Rhetorical Question

Classes for me don’t begin this year until after Labor Day, so I have a little more time to prepare. The nice thing is that I don’t have to dread my time in the classroom, never knowing when I will be called out for being too male, too white, too heterosexual, and too Christian.

I feel for my colleagues who are attempting to bring truth to students in a different environment. May they stay true to their calling and may God protect them.

Lewis, Education, & Not Losing Heart

Abolition of Man Quote #3Another academic year approaches. I will begin my 28th year of teaching full-time at the college level. As I contemplate this new beginning (every new teaching session feels like a new beginning to me), I reflect on how C. S. Lewis understood education. His Abolition of Man is key to his understanding, but one can also get some insight from his letters to Americans. Those are the letters I know best after delving into them for my upcoming book. As I was picking and choosing what to share from those letters in the book, I included some of Lewis’s poignant comments on education.

Warfield Firor

Warfield Firor, an esteemed surgeon at Johns Hopkins, was a long-time correspondent with Lewis. Firor and Lewis met face-to-face in Oxford once and Firor was a guest at an Inklings meeting. When he returned to America, their correspondence deepened into many subjects, one of which was education.

One of Lewis’s letters to Firor was devoted to a critique of education, at least the way it was being carried out at that time. What is most interesting about this particular letter is that it contains sentiments about education that one might not expect from such an esteemed scholar. While Lewis certainly believed in high standards (witness the testimony of those he tutored), he also saw a bad trend in the early years when children needed more time to be children.

He was deeply concerned that education had turned into more of a competition, even of a ruthless nature. While competition itself was not evil, he told Firor that children needed time to be children. Why, he complained, did one’s entire childhood and the college years always have to be a constant exam preparation? Was this really good for the children? What kind of nation would this produce psychologically, morally, and spiritually?

Vera GebbertIn a letter to another regular American correspondent, Vera Gebbert, Lewis remarked on the deplorable state of education in both England and America, opining that both countries offered very little in the way of a solid education. He was fortunate, he told her, that his father had sent him to a private tutor after his own miserable experiences at schools.

In his very next letter, in response to her information about the kind of school her son was attending, he again took aim at the way English schools were being run, devoid of a real understanding of education. The educational authorities seemed to think that spending money on better facilities would guarantee a great education, but Lewis pointedly remarked that genuine education in the hands of a very good teacher could take place in a ramshackle building, while the best facilities in the world could never make up for the tutelage of bad teachers.

I loved reading that last remark from Lewis. I’ve always maintained that real education doesn’t take as much funding as people think. Apart from paying teachers what they are really worth (I won’t get into that right now), fancy buildings, while wonderful, don’t guarantee good education. A devoted, enthusiastic teacher does.

I’ve rarely wavered in my enthusiasm for teaching, even during some of the roughest patches of my life when discouragement threatened to overwhelm. To all teachers out there, especially those who seek to imbue their students with a love of learning that comes directly from the heart of God—don’t lose heart yourselves. I always come back to this Scripture in Galatians:

For whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. . . . Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary.

May weariness never overtake you. May the Lord lift you up and encourage you on this path. You will reap what you have sown.

The Attempt to Destroy Christian Education

Let’s not play word games. Let’s say what’s really happening in American culture and how it’s being reflected now in its government. What we have is a rising anger and antipathy toward Christianity among a growing number of Americans who want to rebel against the moral parameters that the Christian faith upholds.

What they don’t understand, of course, is that those moral standards are for everyone’s good and that they are what hold a society together. Without them, chaos will eventually reign and no one will be safe in a Darwinist world where might makes right.

Why now? Why so many drastic changes in our culture that seem to gain acceptance when they never were seriously considered before? A lot of the blame rests on what has been occurring in our educational system for the past century. The system has become heavily politicized and has promoted an anti-Christian worldview for quite a long time.

One of the goals of a system like this is to indoctrinate children rather than teach them foundational concepts upon which all reasoning is based. You will hear trendy talk about how we are focusing on teaching our children how to think, but, in reality, we are teaching them what to think by only presenting one side of issues.

That’s why they come out of their elementary and secondary education as mini-socialists/fascists who believe the government ought to be the arbiter of all things. We have undermined ourselves.

Educational Performance

Each new generation has been trained in a mindset that is further from Christian thought and values, and now we’re seeing the results. This is why, in my view, so many of this upcoming generation are fine with the departure from objective reality, seeking to replace reality with their own “reality.” They think Christians are narrowminded and bigoted.

When the Supreme Court declares same-sex marriage is a right, they applaud. When the president decides that we should gender-bend the society, they rejoice.

Door Number Two

And if you don’t agree with this transformation of reality, there is a convenient word to use against you:

Making Me Uncomfortable

College campuses have become zones where the new unreality has its fullest expression:

Campus Debate

Those purveyors of hatred—otherwise known as “fundamentalist” Christians—are the real enemy. One sore thumb that is sticking out in our society that is hindering the new acceptance, in their opinion, is Christian education.

They hate homeschoolers, so they try to portray them as insulated; parents should never have control of their children’s education, they protest. Christian schools should have to abide by all the strictures the state places on public/government schools, they proclaim. If you don’t think so, check out the resolutions of the National Education Association (NEA) sometime.

Then there are those evangelical colleges and universities, like the one where I teach. Havens of bigotry and the closed mind, they cry. Something must be done.

Have you heard what is brewing in California? The legislature there is ready to clamp down on all Christian higher education institutions in the state.

If a bill before the legislature right now passes, Christian colleges will be told they must not require their professors to be Christians who adhere to a statement of faith.

They will be prohibited from teaching Biblical principles in their courses. As a history professor, I interweave those principles into everything I teach. Neither will professors be allowed to pray in their classrooms because it might offend someone.

Required chapel attendance? Out. Mandatory Bible classes? Forbidden. Separate bathrooms, locker rooms, and dormitories for men and women? Not if you want to weather a lawsuit.

Well, that’s only California, you say. It’s a test case. If it happens there, it will spread.

The goal: total destruction of Christian higher education.

Yes, that is on the horizon. I don’t just warn about this because it threatens my profession and future as an educator. I warn about it because it is a harbinger of a society on the verge of collapse.

Jesus told us we are to be the light and salt in a society. The challenge is before us. How will we respond? Yes, the response needs to be loving, but there needs to be a steel spine behind that love. We need to stand strong and stand together.

Lewis & the Public Square (Part 2)

Last Saturday, I posted a portion of the paper I’m delivering to the Academic Roundtable at the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s summer conference. Today, I’d like to offer another excerpt dealing with how Lewis viewed the Christian’s responsibility to speak to the culture and government in the public square.

C. S. Lewis 8Lewis called on his fellow Christians to engage the culture in every possible way. Education was certainly a key component for furthering the Biblical worldview; he called it “only the most fully conscious of the channels whereby each generation influences the next.”

He expressed concern that the State might “take education more and more firmly under its wing.” By doing so, it could potentially “foster conformity, perhaps even servility, up to a point,” but it still would require people to do the teaching, and “as long as we remain a democracy, it is men who give the State its powers,” he noted optimistically. “And over these men, until all freedom is extinguished, the free winds of opinion blow. Their minds are formed by influences which government cannot control.”

Lewis believed in those “free winds of opinion” that could not be controlled by the government, but he did mention the condition: “as long as we remain a democracy.” While he favored a democratic system, which would allow for the free interchange of ideas in the public square, he also offered cautions that democracy, in itself, provided no absolute guarantee of success.

Screwtape Proposes a ToastThat warning came through the mouth of Screwtape in “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” in which he has the diabolical fiend say,

We, in Hell, would welcome the disappearance of Democracy in the strict sense of that word; the political arrangement so called. Like all forms of government it often works to our advantage; but on the whole less often than other forms.

And what we must realize is that “democracy” in the diabolical sense (I’m as good as you, Being like Folks, Togetherness) is the finest instrument we could possibly have for extirpating political Democracies from the face of the earth.

For “democracy” or the “democratic spirit” (diabolical sense) leads to a nation without great men, a nation mainly of subliterates, full of the cocksureness which flattery breeds on ignorance, and quick to snarl or whimper at the first hint of criticism. And that is what Hell wishes every democratic people to be.

For when such a nation meets in conflict a nation where children have been made to work at school, where talent is placed in high posts, and where the ignorant mass are allowed no say at all in public affairs [emphasis added], only one result is possible.

Democracy, in Lewis’s view, while very important for expressing points of view on policy and the standards by which a society ought to conform, was not a cure-all for society’s ills. Wherever there are people, there are problems.

He believed in democracy, he said, because he believed in the fall of man. “A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that everyone deserved a share in the government.” That was a false grounds for wanting democracy, he asserted.

Instead, he came at it from the opposite side: “Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.”

Part 3 next week.