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.

A Lewis “Scrap”

When I was preparing my paper for the C. S. Lewis Academic Roundtable at last summer’s Lewis Foundation conference, I came across a fun quote from Lewis that I hadn’t remembered reading before. It fit nicely into the theme of my paper, which touched on the role Christians should play in influencing the culture and politics.

I liked it so much that I used it as the introduction to the paper. It reads as follows:

“Praying for particular things,” said I, “always seems to me like advising God how to run the world. Wouldn’t it be wiser to assume that He knows best?”

“On the same principle,” said he, “I suppose you never ask a man next to you to pass the salt, because God knows best whether you ought to have salt or not. And I suppose you never take an umbrella, because God knows best whether you ought to be wet or dry.”

“That’s quite different,” I protested.

“I don’t see why,” said he. “The odd thing is that He should let us influence the course of events at all. But since He lets us do it in one way I don’t see why He shouldn’t let us do it in the other.”

That little “story” has stayed with me ever since and has encouraged me whenever I feel discouraged over the trends I see in the world and my perception of how little influence I have over them.

One never knows how much influence one might have on another. That verse in Galatians 6 comes to mind: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up [grow weary].”

For those interested in this Lewis quote today, it’s called “Scraps” and is found in the essay collection God in the Dock.

Lewis: Reflections on a Post-Christian Culture

All of those letters C. S. Lewis wrote to innumerable people throughout his lifetime are a treasure trove. Some show the mark of his published works while others emphasize the personal side of the man.

cover-on-ws-pageWhen I researched my book on Lewis (caution: unashamed plug coming up), I read every letter in the collection that he wrote to Americans. It was a highlight of my sabbatical year when I could devote hours each day reading them and making notes for use in the book. Those letters were crucial to my theme: how did Lewis connect with Americans and what impact did he make on them (both in his lifetime and now).

But I read only the letters to Americans. The treasure trove of other letters still awaits me when I have the time to delve into them again. For instance, one of Lewis’s regular correspondents was Don Giovanni Calabria. Excerpts I’ve seen from those letters seem most interesting.

Here’s a sample from a 1953 letter in which Lewis ponders the loss of Christian faith in Europe:

Regarding the moral condition of our times (since you bid me prattle on) I think this. Older people, as we both are, are always “praisers of times past.” They always think the world is worse than it was in their young days. Therefore we ought to take care lest we go wrong.

But, with this proviso, certainly I feel that very grave dangers hang over us. This results from the apostasy of the great part of Europe from the Christian faith. Hence a worse state than the one we were in before we received the Faith.

For no one returns from Christianity to the same state he was in before Christianity but into a worse state: the difference between a pagan and an apostate is the difference between an unmarried woman and an adulteress. For faith perfects nature but faith lost corrupts nature.

Notice how Lewis seeks to avoid the age-old complaint of everyone who has passed beyond middle age: everything is so much worse now than before. Yet he does have to acknowledge that when Christian faith is lost to a generation, there is truth to that complaint.

c-s-lewis-13What Lewis wrote in 1953 may perhaps be applied to what we see in our day. There is a kind of nostalgia in many for a time that seemed to be more outwardly accepting of Christian faith. Those of use who grew up in the 1950s-1960s didn’t witness all-out attacks on the faith in the same degree as we do now.

Yet Lewis goes on in that letter to offer this hope:

But God, who is the God of mercies, even now has not altogether cast off the human race. In younger people, although we may see much cruelty and lust, yet at the same time do we not see very many sparks of virtues which perhaps our own generation lacked?

How much courage, how much concern for the poor do we see! We must not despair. And (among us) a not inconsiderable number are now returning to the Faith.

One thing a frontal attack on the faith can do is to re-energize those who have fallen into a spiritual stupor. Times of crisis and denigration of Christianity may reawaken those sparks necessary to once again become a force in the culture.

May Lewis’s perception of what he saw in his day come to fruition in ours. I, for one, refuse to despair.

The Un-Christening of the Western World

c-s-lewis-15When C. S. Lewis moved from Oxford University to Cambridge University after nearly three decades at Oxford, it was a major event. Oxford never really appreciated what it had in Lewis, whereas Cambridge created a special Chair designed for him.

His inaugural lecture at Cambridge was a major event as well. In it, he outlined how Europe had become post-Christian, which was a fairly accurate description of Oxford. Lewis noted that nearly everyone thought the switch from pre-Christian to Christian was irreversible. Not so, he explained:

cambridge-inaugural-lectureThe un-christening of Europe in our time is not quite complete; neither was her christening in the Dark Ages. But roughly speaking we may say that whereas all history was for our ancestors divided into two periods, the pre-Christian and the Christian, and two only, for us it falls into three—the pre-Christian, the Christian, and what may reasonably be called the post-Christian.

This surely must make a momentous difference. . . . It appears to me that the second change is even more radical than the first.

Christians and Pagans had much more in common with each other than either has with a post-Christian. The gap between those who worship different gods is not so wide as that between those who worship and those who do not.

It was in that same lecture that he famously referred to himself as a dinosaur, and that since not many dinosaurs existed anymore, the world should learn from them while they are still around.

Joy Gresham, who would of course become his wife a couple of years later, was present at the lecture. She had a rather whimsical reaction to it, writing in a letter, “How that man loves being in a minority, even a lost-cause minority! Athanasius contra mundum, or Don Quixote against the windmills. . . . I sometimes wonder what he would do if Christianity really did triumph everywhere; I suppose he would have to invent a new heresy.”

Yet, as I survey the Western world sixty years after that inaugural lecture, I have to say that Lewis, as usual, was delivering truth.

Why I Quote C. S. Lewis

c-s-lewis-with-bookThere are probably some regular (or semi-regular) readers of my blog who wonder why I quote C. S. Lewis so much. One reason is that he has insights that make me think more deeply about what I believe and why. A second is the way he expresses those insights.

Here’s one example, taken from his essay “Is Theism Important?” Think about his perspective here:

When grave persons express their fear that England is relapsing into Paganism, I am tempted to reply, “Would that she were.”

For I do not think it at all likely that we shall ever see Parliament opened by the slaughtering of a garlanded white bull in the House of Lords or Cabinet Ministers leaving sandwiches in Hyde Park as an offering to the Dryads.

If such a state of affairs came about, then the Christian apologist would have something to work on. For a Pagan, as history shows, is a man eminently convertible to Christianity. He is essentially the pre-Christian, or sub-Christian, religious man. The post-Christian man of our day differs from him as much as a divorcée differs from a virgin.

As I contemplate the state of affairs in our contemporary society, I can understand why Lewis would say that. A post-Christian culture closes its eyes, ears, and hearts to the genuine Christian message more adamantly than a culture that at least recognizes there is “something” beyond what we can see, hear, and feel. Our approach to this newer culture has to take paths that get around its biases toward the “old” Gospel message.

Lewis wrote those words in 1952, a year after I was born. Yet even 64 years later, they ring with truth.

That’s why I like to quote C. S. Lewis.

22 November 1963

Today, November 22, is one that most of the world recognizes for one significant event. I recognize it for two, and the latter is of greater consequence.

In the preface of my book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis: His Profound Impact, I write this:

I grew up in Bremen, Indiana, population roughly four thousand, surrounded by corn fields and a significant Amish community, half a world away from Oxford and in an entirely different environment. My parents had never read any of Lewis’s works; there was nothing in my background to lead me in that direction.

By the end of the decade of the 1950s, I could ride a bike and fill my bike’s basket with books from our local public library, a feat I accomplished consistently. Already, before the age of ten, I was a voracious reader. Yet I never borrowed anything in the library by C. S. Lewis. All of his Narnia books had been published by then, but if they were in that library, they never crossed my path, and my affinity for fantasy/science fiction reading surely would have aroused my interest if I had seen them.

Since I knew nothing of Lewis in 1960, I was unaware that his wife, Joy, had died that July. It would have had no meaning in my young life.

When Lewis himself died on 22 November 1963, again I took no notice. But I wasn’t alone—the whole world was startled and anxious over the death of another man that the world deemed more consequential.

lewis-jfk

As the president of the United States, John F. Kennedy, was placed in his grave shortly afterward, so was C. S. Lewis. Today, which of those two is of greater significance? I would argue that Lewis has influenced more American lives since his death than has the former president.

God’s judgments about greatness are rarely the same as man’s. On this day, I remember both of these men, but I honor far more the one less acknowledged.

Lewis: A Christian Political Party

Historians have different emphases in their study of the past. Mine is the influence of Christian faith on a society and its outworking in government. I am a student of “governing,” not politics per se. While the two cannot be separated, I do think it’s important to keep the distinctions.

cross-flagGovernment is something God wants, if it follows His prescription for how to carry out its responsibilities. Politics is the often messy pathway for figuring out who does the governing, and it is sometimes rather discouraging to see its inner workings.

I’m reminded of C. S. Lewis’s rather pointed comment in the essay “Membership”:

A sick society must think much about politics, as a sick man must think much about his digestion.

To be obsessed with politics may, therefore, be an indication of a low state of society, if Lewis is correct.

Naturally, Christians who want their society to reflect Biblical values will want to get involved in politics to try to turn things in a Christian direction. There’s certainly nothing inconsistent in doing so; in fact, I believe we are called to do so. It has something to do with what Jesus said about being “light” and “salt.”

It’s also natural, at this time in America, for most of us who feel that call to align ourselves with the party that wants to curb abortion, to protect the Biblical concept of marriage, and that seeks, at least in its public pronouncements, to uphold the Christian moral standards overall.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with that. But Lewis has this habit of making us think more carefully on how to proceed. In his day, back during WWII, there was a movement toward setting up a Christian political party. Here’s the caution he offered in another essay titled “Meditation on the Third Commandment”:

c-s-lewis-13From many letters to The Guardian, and from much that is printed elsewhere, we learn of the growing desire for a Christian “party,” a Christian “front,” or a Christian “platform” in politics. Nothing is so earnestly to be wished as a real assault by Christianity on the politics of the world: nothing, at first sight, so fitted to deliver this assault as a Christian party.

I have discovered, though, that even earnest Christians seeking to infuse the faith into politics can disagree over the specific means of doing so. This past election has made that abundantly clear. Lewis continues,

Whatever it calls itself, it will represent, not Christendom, but a part of Christendom. The principle which divides it from its brethren and unites it to its political allies will not be theological.

I found myself this year at odds with those with whom I agree on the essentials of the faith. My concern was the person who was chosen to represent the Christian worldview; I believed he was more of a detriment to that worldview than a promoter of it. It pained me to be divided from many of my brethren over that. The party that was supposed to speak for my Christian views seemed to be rather schizophrenic, in my estimation.

Lewis saw the problem:

It [the party representing Christian faith] will have no authority to speak for Christianity; it will have no more power than the political skill of its members gives it to control the behaviour of its unbelieving allies.

But there will be a real, and most disastrous, novelty. It will be not simply a part of Christendom, but a part claiming to be the whole. By the mere act of calling itself the Christian Party it implicitly accuses all Christians who do not join it of apostasy and betrayal.

It will be exposed, in an aggravated degree, to that temptation which the Devil spares none of us at any time—the temptation of claiming for our favourite opinions that kind and degree of certainty and authority which really belongs only to our Faith.

There is one great difference, of course, between the politics of Lewis’s day and ours. No political party back in the 1940s was advocating abortion or same-sex marriage. Lewis was referring more to differences of opinion on more mundane policy positions.

Yet his caution remains, and rightly so. We must always be careful not to put politics on a pedestal. We must disengage ourselves from the temptation to make it an idol.

And we must never allow politics to come between believers who will spend eternity together.