Lewis & America: A Conclusion

Yesterday was the final class for my C. S. Lewis course at SEU. This is the third time I’ve taught the course, and probably the best, as I’ve grown more comfortable sharing what I’ve learned about Lewis and his writings.

The students read a lot of Lewis, from autobiography to apologetics to fantasy. Some have testified that taking the course at this time was a great help to their faith, as they were struggling in different ways. That kind of testimony is what I love to hear the most. If a course doesn’t aid in solidifying one’s faith, what is the reason for even offering it?

In the last few weeks, I’ve had them read my own book on Lewis that focuses on his relationship with Americans and his impact on this country. I summarized both the book and the course with the following words:

Lewis has developed a true fan following in America. This book has shown his many interactions with Americans of his day. He became good friends with many of them, whether in person or via mail. His correspondence is overflowing with responses to Americans on the full panoply of issues, and he was quite willing to share the progress of his personal life and faith with them as well.

He married an American. The man he thought would serve best as his personal secretary was an American. Thousands of Americans he never communicated with or met, both during his lifetime and after, have testified to their lives being changed by his words. Societies bearing his name have cropped up all over the United States. One institute has developed a discipleship program inspired by him. An American foundation named after him bought his home in Oxford and uses it as a study center. That same foundation is now working to establish a college named after him.

While it is impossible to quantify his impact on America and Americans, the documentary evidence is plentiful that American Christians look to him in a way that is unique among all the Christian writers and teachers, both past and present, available to them as mentors.

In one of Lewis’s essays, “Is Theology Poetry?” we see a shining example of all the features of his writing that appeal, not only to Americans, but to all who thrill at hearing words of truth communicated elegantly. In this essay, he says,

The Pagan stories are all about somebody dying and rising, either every year, or else nobody knows where and nobody knows when. The Christian story is about a historical personage, whose execution can be dated pretty accurately, under a named Roman magistrate, and with whom the society that He founded is in a continuous relation down to the present day. It is not the difference between falsehood and truth. It is the difference between a real event on the one hand and dim dreams or premonitions of that same event on the other.

That essay then concludes with the words that can be found on Lewis’s commemorative stone in Westminster Abbey’s Poets Corner: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

Through C. S. Lewis, a multitude of Americans have learned to believe in Christianity because they have seen it come to life in his writings, and by those writings he has shown them how to see everything through the lens of the Christian faith. That is his legacy. That is what a man who never saw America has given to Americans—an illumined Christianity that lights up all of life.

A Largely Unknown Hero of the Faith

I love learning about great men and women of Christian faith of whom I was entirely ignorant. This is one such man and one such ministry. I am indebted to the Christian History Institute for the story of his life and faithfulness.

BORN IN CONNECTICUT in 1801, Titus Coan almost did not survive to adulthood. When he was seven, he defied his father by sledding on a frozen pond with his friend Julius. The ice broke, plunging him into freezing water. He bobbed to the surface, screaming and grabbed the edge of the ice. It snapped. Again and again the ice broke. “At length, however, I came to firmer ice, and clung to it as with a death grasp, calling on Julius for help. The timid boy approached slowly until his hand reached mine; and with his help and God’s mercy I was delivered from a watery grave….”

His first near-death experience, however, did not immediately lead him to Christ. It took until he was twenty-five for Coan to become a Christian. A severe illness made him bed-ridden for four months. Lying in bed he reached a decision: he would train for the ministry.

After graduating from seminary, Coan worked with leading evangelists of the Second Great Awakening, visited prisoners, explored Patagonia, married cheerful young Fidelia Church, and sailed to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) as a missionary. Titus and Fidelia arrived in June 1835. They would soon be at the center of an amazing revival.

Once Coan mastered the Hawaiian language, he visited every one of Hilo island’s 16,000 people, making notes on each person so he could pray intelligently. Later he revisited each to check on them. Many Hawaiians fell under conviction of sin and soon revival was roaring across Hilo. Coan wrote, “In places where I spent my nights they filled the house to its entire capacity, leaving scores outside who could not enter.” The Coans’ congregation became the largest in the world at the time, surpassing 13,000 members. To become a member, a convert had to show a genuine life change over a period of several months.

On the morning of September 16, 1881, Coan suffered a stroke and lingered for eight weeks. Asked if he had any fears, he replied, “When I look at myself, I see no reason why I should be in heaven; when I look at Jesus, I see such a Savior I have no fears, not one, not one.” He died on 1 December 1881. His last whispered word was “Jesus!”

Bush 41: A Man of Faith & Honor

Bush 41 is what the country started calling him once his son became president. Yet George Herbert Walker Bush was not just a number; my own research on him has led me to revise not only my evaluation of his presidency but my perception of him as a man of faith and honor.

I voted for him twice, yet I had reservations as to whether he was the best successor to Ronald Reagan. I continue to note his deficiencies as president: his walkback of the promise of no new taxes hurt him badly in his re-election bid; he also seemed to lack the kind of energy needed for that re-election. But I now believe he accomplished more than some people give him credit for: ousting the corrupt Panamanian drug lord Manuel Noriega and gathering a coalition of nations to beat back Saddam Hussein’s power grab in the Middle East are two of his greatest achievements.

Perhaps a review of his earlier life—which is being and will be reviewed all this week—will help highlight his overall accomplishments.

Bush was the youngest Navy pilot in WWII, flying 58 combat missions. On one of those missions, he was shot down and rescued by a passing US submarine. He easily could have died bobbing around in the Pacific Ocean. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery in action.

After the war, he moved his family out of New England to Texas and proved himself successful in business as director of an oil company and president of an offshore drilling equipment company.

Bush’s first attempt at elected office was as an unsuccessful Texas Senate candidate in 1964, but then he won a seat in the House in 1966; he lost another Senate race in 1970 to Lloyd Bentsen (who later ran against Bush in 1988 as the Democrats’ losing vice presidential candidate).

During the Nixon presidency, he was appointed as Permanent Representative of the US to the UN, then served as chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC), beginning in 1973. That had to be one of his most difficult assignments, as he attempted to right the GOP ship in the midst of Watergate.

President Ford recognized Bush’s skills and appointed him head of US Liaison Office in Communist China, then he took over as director of the CIA in 1975. That agency now bears his name.

I knew little to nothing of Bush until the 1980 presidential primaries when he ran against Reagan to receive the Republican nomination. Admittedly, I was chagrined when Reagan chose him to be the vice presidential candidate on the ticket. I thought he was too liberal.

Reagan, though, wanted Bush to publicly agree with the strong pro-life position in the Republican platform, which he pledged to do. This struck me at the time as pure politics since Bush had not been strongly pro-life prior to that time. It may have been exactly that. Yet for the rest of his life, even after he left public office, he never backed down on that commitment. I believe it became his conviction over time.

During my sabbatical year, Bush’s Library was one of my research stops. The museum was very well done, and perusing it one day at my leisure helped me to get a better measure of the man.

I also took the opportunity to get as close to the Oval Office as I ever will.

The research I conducted during the sabbatical helped me see also the Christian faith of the man. I didn’t know how close he was to Billy Graham. I was unaware that for many summers prior to his presidency, he had Graham come to the family compound in Maine to speak to the family. Bush wanted his entire family to be instructed by Graham. To his credit, Graham chose not to preach but to conduct those sessions in the Q&A mode, which was much more effective.

It was during one of those visits that George W. Bush took a walk with Graham on the beach and began his spiritual journey to Christian faith.

When Bush 41 moved against Saddam Hussein, it was Graham that he wanted by his side—not as a political advisor, but as a spiritual counselor. Graham heeded that summons. The two were close personal friends. It was a revelation to me just how close they were for those many years.

I’m teaching a new course this coming semester that I’m calling “Religion and the Presidents,” and I’m pleased that I’m now going to be able to add one more name to the number of those whose Christian faith was genuine.

When Bush gave his acceptance speech at the Republican Convention in 1988, one of the lines from that speech (authored by Peggy Noonan, but obviously approved by Bush) has stuck with people. He spoke of the numerous non-governmental volunteer organizations throughout the nation that were performing valuable services. He called them “a thousand points of light.”

Bush didn’t believe that government was the answer to all of our problems. He looked instead to all those people, usually guided by their faith, as the better solution. I believe his life demonstrated that belief. One political cartoonist, in the wake of his death, has made the point very well.

We need more men of faith and honor. We need more George Herbert Walker Bush’s.

The “Rumour” Is True: We Shall Get In

The reading assignment I gave my C. S. Lewis class for yesterday was his magnificent sermon, “The Weight of Glory.” As always, I went through with them some of Lewis’s key passages, marveling at the way he chose to express the almost-inexpressible.

Looking it over again this morning, I thought I would highlight a section that didn’t stand out to me as much yesterday but most certainly did this morning. Isn’t that the way it is, whether reading someone like Lewis or or the Bible, that no matter how often you may have read it before, something new seems to come to the forefront?

I did mention to the class that there is a strong connection between what Lewis said about longings in this sermon and what he eventually wrote in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy.

For instance, when commenting on those longings and how we tend to refer to them as beauty, Lewis reminds us that “the books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing.”

Lewis warns that we can turn even good things into “dumb idols.”

For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

Men, he says, have been laboring under a false concept for many decades—“the evil enchantment of worldliness” brought to us through faulty education that “has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice; almost all our modern philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth.”

Everything I’ve mentioned thus far I did bring out in class. The next part I didn’t, and wish I had. Lewis says that men invent philosophies that try to fill in the vacuum in our lives, and that each one actually, without even realizing it, points back to the void that our longings seek to fill. They attempt to give earthly solutions to something eternal that is above and beyond the earth.

When they want to convince you that earth is your home, notice how they set about it. They begin by trying to persuade you that earth can be made into heaven, thus giving a sop to your sense of exile in earth as it is.

Next, they tell you that this fortunate event is still a good way off in the future, thus giving a sop to your knowledge that the fatherland is not here and now.

Finally, lest your longing for the transtemporal should awake and spoil the whole affair, they use any rhetoric that comes to hand to keep out of your mind the recollection that even if all the happiness they promised could come to man on earth, yet still each generation would lose it by death, including the last generation of all, and the whole story would be nothing, not even a story, for ever and ever. [emphasis added]

Later on, Lewis returns to this theme and notes that whenever we have experiences of beauty, they are fleeting, and never truly satisfy: “Beauty has smiled, but not to welcome us; her face was turned in our direction, but not to see us. We have not been accepted, welcomed, or taken into the dance.”

But we’re not left with this dismal ending, not if we find our life in Christ. We will not be separated perpetually from what we long for. Lewis’s words resonate within my soul:

At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see.

But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.

This is what awaits us: the very presence and essence of God and His heaven. The “rumour” is true.

Duty or Love?

What do you really believe? I’m not talking about to what you give your intellectual assent, but what you really believe. “In ordinary times,” mused Dorothy Sayers, “we get along surprisingly well, on the whole, without ever discovering what our faith really is.” We tend to shove that question to the background and give ourselves over to activities that help us put off the answer.

The question, “What do we believe?” is the title of one of Sayers’s insightful essays. She challenges us to look beyond the superficial answer and understand that “what we believe is not necessarily the theory we most desire or admire. It is the thing that, consciously or unconsciously, we take for granted and act on.”

You can say you believe in something, yet what you actually do in life tells others what you really believe in. The two may not be the same.

Being a Christian is not merely a duty; in fact, if that is how we view it, we are missing the very heart of the faith. Do we obey God because it is our duty or because we love to do so? There is a profound difference. Sayers points out that difference by dissecting the concept of “sacrifice” in our actions:

Sacrifice is what it looks like to other people, but to that-which-loves I think it does not appear so. When one really cares, the self is forgotten, and the sacrifice becomes only a part of the activity.

Ask yourself: if there is something you supremely want to do, do you count as self-sacrifice the difficulties encountered or the other possible activities cast aside? You do not.

The time when you deliberately say, “I must sacrifice this, that, or the other” is when you do not supremely desire the end in view. At such times you are doing your duty, and that is admirable, but it is not love.

But as soon as your duty becomes your love the self-sacrifice is taken for granted, and, whatever the world calls it, you call it so no longer.

As we examine our Christian walk, we need to clearly grasp this truth: duty is one thing; loving to do your duty is something else entirely.

Our goal is not simply to obey God, but to do so with an active desire to please Him, no longer counting it as some kind of sacrifice, but as a wonderful opportunity to show His love.

If that’s not where we are currently, we are to continue to do our duty. Yet wouldn’t it be much better to do whatever we do out of that heart of love? That is Christian maturity.

Elections & Integrity

Thanksgiving is now past and, thankfully, so are the elections. There was every possibility that in my home state of Florida we might see recounts go on interminably. The counties to blame for that always seem to be the same ones, election after election. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the requirement that integrity be the basis for our elections—and for those who are elected. Is that really too much to ask?

I wonder if there will ever be the kind of accountability that is needed to ensure that the voting is carried out without bias.

While the above political cartoon is fantasy (at least I trust it is), there is ample reason for questioning the integrity of some of those responsible for counting the votes. Democrats are always crying that elections are being stolen. Well, maybe they’re right, only not in the way they think:

Now that the Democrats will control the House of Representatives, a rather weird thing has occurred—Trump has given his support for Nancy Pelosi to be elected Speaker once again. There’s been a lot of head scratching going on over that endorsement.

Of course, his most adamant followers/adoring fans will look upon this as a brilliant move because she is perhaps one of the most polarizing figures on the political scene. I’m not so sure he’s really all that astute. I think he just likes strong people. Witness his affinity for Chinese leaders, Kim Jong Un of North Korea, and the Saudi royal family.

But I digress.

The new Democrat House might make the illegal immigrant crisis even more alarming.

Meanwhile, a lot of Democrat hopefuls are lining up to run for president in 2020. The latest poll of potential Democrat candidates is rather interesting:

Frankly, I don’t look forward to 2020. My distaste for politics grows. That doesn’t mean I’m not interested in what will develop, but my interest is on the governing side—I believe deeply in good government based on Biblical principles and will always be advocating for that.

It’s the seamy politics I’m not fond of. As a historian, I know that seamy politics has been with us in all eras, but all of our new technology—round-the-clock cable news, social media, etc.—while good in itself, has only provided a platform for the seaminess to become more evident.

Oh, for integrity and principles in our politics! When I see someone who models that, I will vote for that person.

The Enemy–He Is Ourselves

I was reminded this morning of some prescient words from Whittaker Chambers—prescient because they clearly foretold what we see today. In a letter he wrote to William F. Buckley in 1954, Chambers offered this analysis of the state of Western civilization:

I no longer believe that political solutions are possible for us. I am baffled by the way people still speak of the West as if it were at least a cultural unity against Communism though it is divided not only by a political, but by an invisible cleavage.

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.

His first sentence set the tone, and I agree that our ultimate solutions will never come from our politics. Yet, for many, politics has become the be-all and end-all of life. Everything is seen as political. We believe, by and large, that government can handle all of our problems.

How very wrong.

His second point is truly poignant, as he demolishes the illusion that we are still somehow a cultural unity. Most people today at least see the great divide that now exists between the Christian worldview and the secular. Chambers succinctly and accurately describes the self-identified “enlightened” elite who have rejected our religious roots, and who have created “a new order of beliefs, attitudes, and mandates.”

The America of 2018 is only faintly reminiscent of the America I recall from my younger days. And I’m not just some old-timer speaking out of bitterness or nostalgia. My observation is based on a lifetime of analyzing culture from the Biblical worldview that has now been largely rejected.

Chambers is usually known as a pessimist regarding the future of Western civilization. In his final paragraph to Buckley, he begins with this:

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.

Don’t blame outside forces, he counsels. Look within instead. Then he provides, in his own inimitable writing style, what little hope he can look toward:

That is why we can hope to do little more now than snatch a fingernail of a saint from the rack or a handful of ashes from the faggots, and bury them secretly in a flowerpot against the day, ages hence, when a few men begin again to dare to believe that there was once something else, that something else is thinkable, and need some evidence of what it was, and the fortifying knowledge that there were those who, at the great nightfall, took loving thought to preserve the tokens of hope and truth.

Are we of that company—the few—who are willing to keep alive the basis of our civilization? What are we doing to further the truths of God—that Biblical message of sin, repentance, and redemption?

Whittaker Chambers was somewhat of a twentieth-century prophet; he saw the demise that was coming and already had begun in his day. The prophetic mantle has now been placed on the current generation of Christians who need to take the calling seriously.

Will we?