Archive for the ‘ Christians & Culture ’ Category

Teaching Students the Essence of C. S. Lewis

For the third time since my 2014-15 sabbatical and the writing of my C. S. Lewis book, I’ll be teaching the course this fall that I developed out of that sabbatical: “C. S. Lewis: History and Influence.”

It was a joy to teach this course the first two times, and I don’t expect it to be otherwise this time.

Since I’m a history professor, not English literature, the course has a strong historical component as we work through a number of Lewis’s key writings. Students learn not only about him and his influence but also the history of his era. Further, I link his writings to the events of his lifetime and also choose some of his essays and letters that show his concerns for government and the direction of society.

What do the students read?

We begin at the beginning—of Lewis, that is, with his autobiography, Surprised by Joy. It’s essential that they first discover who he was, his background, early education, dismissal of Christian faith, then his great rediscovery of Scriptural truth.

Lewis was surprised by joy; I’m continually surprised by how many students, even those who choose to take this course, know virtually nothing about the man. When I ask what brought them to the course, the most common answer is Narnia. Yet the author of Narnia is mostly unknown.

I then turn to Lewis’s Mere Christianity but with a nice historical touch, having them read not only the key chapters from that book but also one that explains where it came from.

Paul McCusker’s C. S. Lewis and Mere Christianity provides an excellent survey of Britain under duress during WWII and the BBC’s decision to put Lewis on the air to speak to the people.

Those broadcast talks, of course, later get reshaped into the classic Mere Christianity.

Although it was Lewis’s The Problem of Pain that brought him to the attention of the BBC, it was his next book that launched him into an icon, both in Britain and in America.

The Screwtape Letters was a phenomenon, so naturally I want my students to delve into that one as well.

I recently taught a class at my church on Screwtape that was held every Wednesday evening from January to April. As a result, I’m more adept at explaining the intricacies of this book than before. I’ve carved out some extra time to discuss it this time around.

Continuing on that fantasy angle, I then have students read The Great Divorce, which I consider a masterpiece. Lewis’s fanciful depiction of a bus trip from hell to heaven and his insights into why people reject God and His truth is superb.

This is one of my favorite Lewis books. My connection with it goes back to my college days. I was a radio/tv/film major back then and, as one of my projects in the tv studio, I staged a key conversation from this book. My hope was that it would be a strong Christian testimony to my fellow students. How could I not include it in this course?

Both Screwtape and Great Divorce are pleasure reading, in my view. Then comes something more hefty that requires students to think more deeply: The Abolition of Man. Lewis takes aim at those who deny basic truths that are implanted by God in the hearts of all people, and skewers as well those social planners who depend upon scientism (as opposed to real science) to “create” the type of people and society they want.

I realize that some of Lewis’s language and thoughts in this book can be challenging for some students, so I also combine our discussion of it with some blog posts I’ve written that explain it more succinctly.

My other remedy for making sure they get the point of Abolition is to pair it with the final installment of Lewis’s Ransom/Space trilogy, That Hideous Strength.

What Lewis expounds in Abolition comes to life, so to speak, in this novel. If students struggle with the former, they then get the opportunity to see what might happen if Lewis’s warnings are not heeded.

That Hideous Strength depicts a proposed takeover of Britain by a diabolical organization whose philosophy rests upon not only false science but the occult also. Although I love all three of Lewis’s trilogy, this one is my favorite probably because one of my greatest interests is government and politics—and the importance of Christian influence on both.

When we get to the Chronicles of Narnia, I give them the final book, The Last Battle.

Nearly everyone has already read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, so I don’t want to repeat that one. Besides, The Last Battle is quite prescient in its depiction of how false theology can arise, which is something I want students to be aware of.

And the wonderful description of entering into the New Narnia, which signals the end of the series, is so marvelous that I want to be sure no student goes away from this course without reading that.

As with The Great Divorce, it’s nice to incorporate a little bit of heaven into the readings. I also accomplish that by having them read Lewis’s masterful sermon, “The Weight of Glory.”

The final Lewis book they read is A Grief Observed, the short volume Lewis wrote anonymously after his wife, Joy, died.

This one can generate discussion very easily as we see Lewis’s struggle dealing with the loss of one so dear, yet who came so late to his life.

Lewis eventually comes to a resolution over God’s goodness. I also use scenes from the BBC production of Shadowlands to help this particular book come alive more for the students.

It’s important for them to reflect on death. After all, most college students think death is a far-off thing when, really, it could come to any of us at any time.

In the final few weeks of the course, I give them my book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis: His Profound Impact, so they can see just how influential he was in America—even more so than in his native Britain.

The book delves into his letters to Americans, his views of America, his relationships with some Americans (his wife, Joy Davidman Gresham, for one), and how his writings have continued to be a source of inspiration and teaching for generations following his death in 1963.

If all this sounds like an awful lot to give students, I plead guilty. But I am not repentant. I know that providing them with this introduction to Lewis and his influence will guide them into even deeper study, not just of Lewis, but of all the insights his writings have passed on to those who take the time to read and understand what he has to say.

Did I mention this is one of my favorite courses to teach? Well, that probably goes without saying.

Teaching the Controversial Civil War Era

For the 6th time in my tenure at Southeastern, this fall I will be teaching my course on the Civil War Era. The topic is one of intense interest for many students, albeit one of continuing controversy. I do my best to deal fairly with those controversies—this is a part of American history that still lingers with us today.

It’s not merely a course that describes battles. Rather, it begins with a discussion of issues that led to the conflict: slavery and race relations and interpretation of the formation of the nation and the proper role of states’ rights.

At the start of the course, students are reading two books alternately. One is an excellent detailing of the furor over runaway slaves, the abolitionist movement, and the development of the Underground Railroad.

Ann Hagegorn’s Beyond the River tells that story, but with a special emphasis on the role of Rev. John Rankin, a leader in the abolitionist crusade.

Never heard of his name? You wouldn’t be alone. Modern accounts give more attention to the primary attention-getter of the abolitionists, William Lloyd Garrison. Yet Rankin, at the time, might be considered the premier abolitionist, particularly since he was attacking slavery from his Christian beliefs, unlike Garrison, who was not an evangelical.

Rankin lived in Ripley, Ohio, just on the freedom side of the Ohio River. His house on the hill was a beacon of freedom for slaves seeking to escape the South. It was a beacon in more than figurative language; Rankin always put a light in the window at night so the slaves could see where they needed to go.

Rankin’s house, therefore, for many, was the first stop on the Underground Railroad.

Hagedorn’s book is the best type of narrative history, as the reader is drawn into the lives of people; it’s a living narrative, not a dusty tome of facts.

The other book students read simultaneously is Mark Noll’s The Civil War As a Theological Crisis. This one is a must-read, since it lays out both sides in the emerging conflict and shows how Christians took opposing points of view on the issue of slavery, with both attempting to use Scripture for their support.

In one sense, it is a difficult book because it forces readers to deal with a deep divide between Christians and their interpretation of Scripture. Yet that’s precisely why it is so important for this course. We need to understand where people are coming from when we disagree with them. We can’t simply denounce everyone who has a different belief when they are seemingly using Scripture as their basis.

Both of these books provide the background for the war itself. I make good use of Ken Burns’s classic documentary on the Civil War for many of the battle details, along with my PowerPoint slides to emphasize key points. Besides battles, though, there were the political maneuverings throughout the war that were just as significant.

A book that portrays the opening stages of the conflict is Adam Goodheart’s (yes, that’s his real name) 1861: The Civil War Awakening.

This book is a latecomer to my course, but a most welcome addition, as it continues the fine narrative quality that the Hagedorn book gives the students. They are taken into the intimate lives of those affected by the outbreak of the war in the same manner as they have previously been introduced to the historical figures involved with abolitionism.

One of my goals is always to give students books that keep their attention. 1861 does that admirably.

The same can be said of a book that I’ve used every time I’ve taught this course: Jay Winik’s April 1865: The Month That Saved America. No superlatives can adequately describe how well written this book is. Even though the title suggests nothing outside of that particular month, in actuality, it offers all the background necessary to understand why the book has as its subtitle, The Month That Saved America.

By the time students finish reading Winik, they grasp, perhaps for the first time, how differently things might have turned out without some key decisions that were made during that crucial month, especially considering the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Speaking of Lincoln, no, I don’t minimize his role, although my recitation of the books I’m using may seem to indicate that. The final book for the course is very Lincoln-centered. Ronald White’s Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural delves into the mind of Lincoln in a comprehensive way, in particular, his spiritual growth during the agony of the war.

Lincoln’s religious beliefs have always been a fertile field of study and interpretation for historians, and, naturally, there is disagreement. What White accomplishes is a step-by-step account of how Lincoln’s views of God and Scripture led him to write the specific words we see in that second inaugural, which has been called, with credibility, the most theologically oriented address ever given by a president. And it was not a speechwriter who cobbled it together; it all came directly from Lincoln’s own meditations.

The Civil War Era was a tragic time in American history, but there is much we can learn from it and apply today. Teaching a course like this is not just some listing of battles; rather, it’s an opportunity to meditate deeply ourselves about the impact Christians can make in the world and how the events from this era still reach down to our society now.

Historiography: Creating Christian Historians

Every year I teach my historiography course. The uninitiated will immediately respond, “What does that mean?” This is a required course for all history majors at Southeastern. The goals are the following:

  1. Provide a history of the writing of history throughout the ages (different perspectives and schools of thought);
  2. Think through how a Christian should understand and interpret history;
  3. Become proficient in researching, writing, and documenting papers on historical subjects.

Although some may think that sounds like a “dry” course, I actually enjoy teaching it and inspiring history majors to see history through God’s eyes and to be the best they can be in their thinking and writing.

I use a number of valuable sources to help achieve those goals listed above. One book I give students is Carl Trueman’s Histories and Fallacies.

Trueman writes in an engaging way and aids in showing how general theories of history can sometimes lead us astray. His focus there is on the Marxist interpretation, which doesn’t allow for any falsification at all. One must agree with the theory regardless of the facts presented.

He also does a fine job of showing how groups like Holocaust deniers attempt to gain respectability in the historical profession. Students learn how to analyze this particular movement and see why it lacks credibility.

Further, Trueman highlights some of the most common fallacies historians may fall into as they research and try to offer explanations. All in all, this is a valuable resource.

Ronald Nash’s Christian Faith and Historical Understanding (another out-of-print book I use—copies can be obtained online in other ways) lays out an argument for the development of a Biblical worldview on history as it critiques various schools of historical thought.

I especially appreciate his takedown of individuals such as Rudolf Bultmann, who try to say they have a Christian understanding of history even while they deny all the basic doctrines of the faith and promote the view that it doesn’t matter whether there was a real Jesus or not, and if there was, there really wasn’t a physical resurrection. Nash’s logic in the book is impeccable.

Then there’s an outstanding chapter from another book that is essential for the course. Herbert Schlossberg’s Idols for Destruction has one chapter called “Idols of History.” It concentrates on how people turn history into an idol and somehow believe that everything is historically determined.

This argument basically says that whatever happens in history is what was supposed to happen—therefore, one must get on the “right side of history.”

That “right-side-of-history” cliché is one that I despise. It omits human free will and makes our choices in life insignificant. Whatever is going to happen will happen, according to this view.

To help round out my students’ contemplation of how a Christian should view history, I also offer them my book called If the Foundations Are Destroyed: Biblical Principles and Civil Government. Although the subtitle centers on government, the principles in the book are applicable to all areas of life.

I go through them one-by-one with the students in the hope that they will generate further thought. I don’t claim that the principles espoused in the book are the only ones, but they are pretty fundamental and should guide students into the practice of evaluating whatever they read through Biblical principles.

And then, of course, there is that Turabian manual that becomes their guide into all of their writing techniques, from how to choose a topic, to how to develop an outline for writing, to the proper way to document what one has found (footnotes are a must), to even the rules for spelling, punctuation, use of numbers and abbreviations, and everything dealing with correct, scholarly writing.

I joke that we should refer to the manual as something handed down to us from St. Kate.

While students often struggle with all these details in the manual, it’s imperative they get the basics and then make it their reference work for all future papers.

Historiography is a course that is so fundamental that it is the gateway for taking the upper-level courses. I’m glad to provide the guidance these history majors need.

But more than merely a preparation for upper-level courses, the historiography course is a way to help each student develop a Christian philosophy of history. That’s a goal worth the time and effort.

My New Semester: Creating Appreciation for American History

In two weeks, all the faculty meetings begin; in three weeks, classes start once more. My summer of research, reading, and preparation for the new semester will come to an end. I will begin my 30th year of teaching university students.

One of the courses I’ll be teaching this fall is the one I always teach in the fall: my basic American history survey course that covers America from its colonial days through Reconstruction after the Civil War.

I’ve used one book for the survey course continually throughout my 13 years at Southeastern, and I would hate to ever set it aside. British historian Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People is unique. It’s not your typical textbook put together by some kind of collaboration between professional historians and/or a committee that seeks to dumb down history reading and make it as staid and unenjoyable as possible.

Johnson has wit and is not afraid of offering his interpretation on various events in the history of America. Is he fair? After all, he’s British and may have hard feelings about such things as the American Revolution (aka, The American War for Continued Self-Government) and the War of 1812.

Not at all. He says there was a world of difference in leadership during that Revolution between the Mother country and its colonies. He praises the genius of many of America’s Founding Fathers.

While some students struggle with Johnson, I don’t mind trying to stretch them. It’s good for them to read a truly worthwhile writer.

The other book I use is now out of print but I’m told there should be enough copies this time around (I pray that’s the case). James Hutson’s Religion and the Founding of the American Republic emanates from the Library of Congress (where Hutson works) and performs the marvelous task of revealing to students the sources from which we can identify just how significant Christian faith was to the majority of people during that era.

It’s a wonderful complement to the Johnson book, helping students see how Christianity formed the basis for culture and law at that time. Given the drive to excise that portion of our heritage from the teaching of history, it offers a great corrective. I hope the students appreciate it.

Teaching a survey course can be fun and exhilarating when students respond; it can be the worst of all worlds if they don’t care. I try to be consistent in my teaching methods and create interest, even if it doesn’t seem to exist at first. Sometimes the students catch that spirit; sometimes they don’t.

I’ll be teaching two sections of the course, back to back each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. It will be interesting to see if there is a qualitative difference in the level of interaction from one section to the other. My prayer is that students in both sections, even though they are comprised of hardly any history majors, will go away from this semester with a deeper knowledge and appreciation of what occurred in the founding of this nation.

That’s one of four courses I’ll be teaching. I’ll explain the others in future posts.

Was “Revoice” the Scriptural Voice?

The message of the Gospel is this: man is sinful; man must recognize his sins and repent of them; when he does, God, through the mercy of the Cross that Jesus suffered, will forgive all sins, and will set people free from the chains of sin that had them bound.

It’s truly the “Good News,” a positive message of redemption. It just doesn’t seem like good news to those who want to hold onto their sins. They refuse to see the freedom being offered to them in Christ.

Recently, the Presbyterian Church in America hosted a meeting in St. Louis that it called the Revoice Conference. The stated goal was to discuss the issue of homosexuality in the church and how the church should respond to it.

There was a decidedly mixed message in this conference. Yes, attendees were told that anyone with same-sex attractions should not give in to that temptation, but there was also an affirming message about “gay” orientation that existed side-by-side with that warning.

World magazine explained what else was heard besides the message of not practicing homosexuality:

One reason the conference was controversial: Its use of fuzzy pro-gay terminology such as “sexual minority” and “queer culture.” One breakout session on redeeming “queer culture” spoke of the “virtues of queer culture” and asked, “What queer treasure, honor, and glory will be brought into the New Jerusalem at the end of time?”

The use of the pro-gay terminology and the question at the end are both disturbing. Homosexuality might contribute to the treasure, honor, and glory of the New Jerusalem? Really?

World‘s description continued, quoting Nate Collins, organizer of the conference:

“Is it possible that gay people today are being sent by God like Jeremiah to find God’s words for the church to eat them and make them our own; to shed light on contemporary false teachings and even idolatries—not just the false teaching of the progressive sexual ethic, but other, more subtle forms of false teaching?” he asked attendees. “Is it possible that gender and sexual minorities who live lives of costly obedience are themselves a prophetic call to the church to abandon idolatrous attitudes toward the nuclear family, toward sexual pleasure? If so, then we are prophets.”

Now we’re supposed to call “gay” people prophets, in the same manner as Jeremiah? While I realize that he’s talking about those who don’t give in to their inclinations, he’s simultaneously demeaning the nuclear family. Can some people make family into an idol? Certainly. But the tone of this statement seems to downplay the role of the family, as if being homosexual and remaining celibate is a higher glory.

What bothers me about the overall leaning of the conference is the almost-affirming nature of homosexuality and the seeming acceptance that this is how God has created some people. If my perception is accurate, that would be a wholesale sellout to modern trendy thinking.

We need to remember what is explicitly stated in Scripture, in a number of places, but most clearly in Romans, chapter 1:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. . . .

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.

Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. . . .

Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

Let me repeat what I said at the beginning of this post: The message of the Gospel is this: man is sinful; man must recognize his sins and repent of them; when he does, God, through the mercy of the Cross that Jesus suffered, will forgive all sins, and will set people free from the chains of sin that had them bound.

Any deviation from those central tenets of the faith is a betrayal of Scripture, which, in turn, leaves people in their sins. That’s not the good news we’re supposed to be offering.

Two Errors: Privatizing & Collectivizing the Faith

“No Christian and, indeed, no historian could accept the epigram which defines religion as ‘what a man does with his solitude,” began C. S. Lewis in his “Membership” essay. “It was one of the Wesleys, I think, who said that the New Testament knows nothing of solitary religion.”

Why is that? “The Church is the Bride of Christ. We are members of one another.”

Lewis continues by pointing out that modern society tries its best to confine religious beliefs and practices to the private life, and what he said in this essay decades ago is even more true today. He then notes the paradoxical nature of the “exaltation of the individual in the religious field . . . when collectivism is ruthlessly defeating the individual in every other field.”

The society of Lewis’s day, as he describes it, tried to denigrate any time for the individual as it pushed the idea of collectivism.

There is a crowd of busybodies, self-appointed masters of ceremonies, whose life is devoted to destroying solitude wherever solitude exists. . . .

If a really good home . . . existed today, it would be denounced as bourgeois and every engine of destruction would be levelled against it. And even where the planners fail and someone is left physically by himself, the wireless has seen to it that he will be . . . never less alone when alone.

We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and privacy, and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship.

One wonders how much more Lewis would emphasize this if he were to witness what takes place in our day with the barrage of entertainment and social media drowning out genuine solitude and friendship. We think we are reclaiming both through social media platforms, but we may be fooling ourselves.

Both in Lewis’s day and in ours, the world “says to us aloud, ‘You may be religious when you are alone,'” yet “it adds under its breath, ‘and I will see to it that you never are alone.'”

Make Christianity a private affair and then banish all privacy is how Lewis explains that approach. Christians then fall into the trap of reacting against this “by simply transporting into our spiritual life that same collectivism which has already conquered our secular life.” He calls that “the enemy’s other stratagem.” Here’s what he means:

Like a good chess player, he is always trying to manoeuvre you into a position where you can save your castle only by losing your bishop.

In order to avoid the trap we must insist that though the private conception of Christianity is an error, it is a profoundly natural one and is clumsily attempting to guard a great truth.

Behind it is the obvious feeling that our modern collectivism is an outrage upon human nature and that from this, as from all other evils, God will be our shield and buckler.

So, we have a tendency to accept an error (collectivism) in our attempt to reject the privatization of our faith.

Collectivism is found primarily in politics. Lewis goes on to make this statement, one that I find quite appropriate to our current societal state:

A sick society must think much about politics, as a sick man must think much about his digestion; to ignore the subject may be fatal cowardice for the one as for the other. But if either comes to regard it as the natural food of the mind—if either forgets that we think of such things only in order to be able to think of something else—then what was undertaken for the sake of health has become itself a new and deadly disease.

We are a society immersed in politics. For many, it is the be-all and end-all of life. Any society in that state remains sick.

Christian faith should be our focus, not politics. Yet this faith cannot be either a private thing or a copy of secular collectivism. We lose if we go in either of those two directions. The true Body of Christ as explained in Scripture is of another nature entirely.

What is that nature? I’ll deal with that as I conclude Lewis’s thoughts in this essay in a future post.

Gilbert Tennent & the First Great Awakening

Whenever I get an e-mail from the Christian History Institute that is pertinent to American history, I like to pass it on. This one deals with the life of Gilbert Tennent, one of the premier preachers of the First Great Awakening. Here’s that account:

Tennent arrived in America from Ireland at the age of fourteen. His father, William, founded a “Log College” to train ministers. Following his father into the ministry, Gilbert was ordained in 1726. He had little success at first. However, following a deep illness, he recovered and preached with a new zeal that brought many conversions.

His fiery faith also placed him at the center of a split in the Presbyterian Church. A friend of evangelist George Whitefield, Tennent hoped to see revival in America. He was convinced the nation’s religious stagnation was the fault of its clergy.  In a scathing sermon preached at Nottingham, he had said, “The reason why congregations have been so dead is, because they have had dead men preaching to them; for I am verily persuaded the generality of preachers talk of an unknown and unfelt Christ.”

That “generality of preachers” complained in return that his meetings were too emotional. Feelings ran high. The Presbyterian synod reproved Tennent. With several other preachers, he withdrew from the association. For almost two decades, the Presbyterians were divided into New Lights and Old Lights.

From 1743 onward, Tennent pastored a church in New Jersey but continued to travel and evangelize, too. Once he held revival services for three months in New England. Thomas Prince, founder of the first religious journal in North America, described the results: “By his arousing and spiritual preaching, deep and pungent convictions were wrought in the minds of many hundreds of persons in that town; and the same effect was produced in several scores, in the neighboring congregations.”

In later years, Tennent’s sermons became milder. He pastored with success at Philadelphia until he was very old. Around 1749, he published a sermon titled Irenicum Ecclesiasticarum (Peace in the Church) and later a pamphlet titled The Pacificator in which he pleaded for a restoration of unity. These helped heal the breach between the Old Lights and the New Lights that his words had done so much to precipitate.

In a sermon preached shortly after Gilbert Tennent’s death, Dr. Samuel Finley, President of Princeton College, said:

He had an habitual, unshaken assurance of his interest in redeeming love, for the space of more than forty years; but, eight days before his death, he got a more clear and affecting sense of it still. And though he lamented that he had done so little for God, and that his life had been comparatively unprofitable, yet he triumphed in the grace of Jesus Christ, who had pardoned all his sins, and said his assurance of salvation was built on the Scriptures, and was more sure than the sun and moon.

It’s important to learn about those who have gone before us. They provide a combination of inspiration and, at times, caution, as we attempt to infuse our culture with the truth of the faith.