Archive for the ‘ Christians & Culture ’ Category

Prophet? Priest? Both?

As a Christian, what am I supposed to be when commenting on politics? Am I to be the prophetic voice, warning against the dangers of voting wrongly and following wrong policies? Am I to be the compassionate voice that draws people to God by staying away from controversy?

Is it possible to be so prophetic in one’s approach that people are turned away from the truth? Likewise, is it possible to be so open and compassionate toward those with differing views that you never lead them to the truth, for fear of offending?

For those of us who believe that the Lord is the be-all and end-all of life, that nothing is more important than a relationship with Him, it may appear unseemly at times to get embroiled in the criticisms of the political scene. After all, isn’t this life just a temporary waystation on the way to eternity?

Yet God has put us in this world to make a difference while we are here. What we do–and how we do it–will influence the future of this nation as well as the eternal destiny of individuals. And there can be a link between the two. In a nation that honors God and follows His principles, there is liberty to teach His ways openly to all. If that nation instead passes laws that shut down those who teach the Gospel truths, more people will remain lost in spiritual darkness.

How do we combine the prophetic role with the priestly one? I look at the example of Jesus, who welcomed all who came to Him, whether prostitutes or Pharisees. Yet He was direct and harsh at times with those who set themselves up against the ways of God. He called some Pharisees whitewashed tombs, pretty on the outside, but full of dead men’s bones within. He did turn over the moneychangers’ tables in the Temple.

We can speak forcefully and directly. Being a Christian does not mean you have lost a backbone; in fact, it means you have finally found one. Yet we are always admonished to speak the truth in love. Notice both parts of that: we are to be loving in everything we say, but we speak the truth simultaneously. And that truth can be pointed and contain dire warnings. We must continually check our hearts to be sure we have the proper attitude. This portion of Psalm 51 jumps out at me today:

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from Your presence and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of Your salvation and sustain me with a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, and sinners will be converted to You.

Lewis the Translator of Christian Truth

C. S. Lewis’s writings have been credited with leading many to the Christian faith and with strengthening the faith of countless others. He assumed the mantle of apologist and evangelist primarily because he saw a decided lack of intelligent explainers of Christian truths.

Yet he was criticized by some. Oxford colleagues were miffed that he was stepping out of his academic field to write about Christianity, which is one reason why he was denied promotion during his tenure there.

Another critic, who surfaced in 1958, was Norman Pittenger, an American Anglican priest and theologican, who wrote that Lewis was too simplistic in his presentation of Christian faith. At the time he criticized Lewis, Pittenger was Chairman of the Theological Commission of the World Council of Churches.

The critique appeared in the theologically liberal magazine The Christian Century. Due to Pittenger’s prominence, Lewis felt he had to pen a defense of his reason for being an apologist and of his particular approach in presenting what Christianity was all about—a defense that The Christian Century published and which now appears in the essay collection God in the Dock and titled “A Rejoinder to Dr. Pittenger.”

Why did Lewis undertake the work of apologist/evangelist?

When I began, Christianity came before the great mass of my unbelieving fellow-countrymen either in the highly emotional form offered by revivalists or in the unintelligible language of highly cultured clergymen. Most men were reached by neither.

My task was therefore simply that of a translator—one turning Christian doctrine, or what he believed to be such, into the vernacular, into language that unscholarly people would attend to and could understand.

First and foremost, Lewis wanted people to be drawn to the truth; for that to happen, they had to grasp it and why it was important. The Pittenger approach, he argued, was so rich in “ambiguities” that it was “worse than useless.” It was so nuanced, so “sitting on the fence,” that people would suspect they were being tricked.

Lewis, in genuine humility, was willing to concede he might not be perfect in his own explanations and style:

I may have made theological errors. My manner may have been defective. Others may do better hereafter. I am ready, if I am young enough, to learn.

Dr. Pittenger would be a more helpful critic if he advised a cure as well as asserting many diseases. How does he himself do such work? What methods, and with what success, does he employ when he is trying to convert the great mass of storekeepers, lawyers, realtors, morticians, policemen and artisans who surround him in his own city?

Lewis undoubtedly suspected that Pittenger wasn’t truly engaged in trying to interact with those types of people at all. And what of the “gospel” of Pittenger? He became one of the first “Christian” leaders who argued for the acceptance of homosexual relations among Christians. Later, he admitted to his own homosexuality.

This is a defender of the faith?

Lewis concludes his rejoinder to Pittenger with these pointed words:

One thing at least is sure. If the real theologians had tackled this laborious work of translation about a hundred years ago, when they began to lose touch with the people (for whom Christ died), there would have been no place for me.

But because they did lose touch, Lewis stepped into the gap. Many thousands are eternally grateful that he did.

Something in Us Which Is Not Temporal

Sheldon Vanauken was an American who went to Oxford in the early 1950s to study literature. He considered himself an agnostic. Although C. S. Lewis was not one of his tutors, he happened to read Lewis’s Space Trilogy—Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. Sensing in Lewis someone he might approach with his religious questions, he began sending him letters.

Explaining that he had “embarked” on a “voyage that would someday lead me to God,” he was writing to find out if Lewis, who had already “linked certainty with Christianity,” might be able to give him “a hint of how it’s to be done.”

He continued, “Having felt the aesthetic and historical appeal of Christianity, having begun to study it, I have come to awareness of the strength and ‘possibleness’ of the Christian answer. I should like to believe it. I want to know God—if he is knowable. But I cannot pray with any conviction that Someone hears. I can’t believe.”

His deepest question was how to believe, out of all the religions in the world, that just one could be true. Perhaps, he reasoned, because he lived in a ‘“real world’ of red buses and nylon stockings and atomic bombs” and had never seen an angel or heard the voice of God, that it cannot be easy to connect with Him.

Why write to Lewis? “Somehow you, in this very same world, with the same data as I, are more meaningful to me than the bishops of the faithful past. You accomplished the leap from agnosticism to faith: how?”

One might not ordinarily expect an extremely busy Oxford don to reply to a total stranger, yet Lewis saw an opportunity to aid someone’s honest quest for truth.

He began by questioning the assumption that everyone really wanted Christianity to be true. Certainly Hitler and Stalin never wished to submit to an eternal standard established by God, and most people don’t want a deity acting as judge over their actions, he asserted. They would instead, in their very heart of hearts, want to tell God to stay away from what they considered their private business.

Lewis shared that this was his own reaction early in his life, a reaction against the idea that Someone transcendent would have the right to tell him what to do.

Lewis’s thoughtful letter encouraged Vanauken to write again that same month. He wished that God would not require so much to believe; why not instead be “as clear as a sunrise or a rock or a baby’s cry?” He agreed with Lewis’s assertion that most men, not only Hitler and Stalin, “would be horrified at discovering a Master from whom nothing could be withheld. . . . Indeed, there is nothing in Christianity which is so repugnant to me as humility—the bent knee.”

He would perhaps be willing to be humbled if he knew it meant that death was not a leap into “nothingness,” and that it would mean “Materialism was Error as well as ugliness,” and “above all, that the good and the beautiful would survive.” Lewis, in response, maintained that there could be no demonstrative proof of Christianity in the same sense as a mathematical proof. He then aimed at Vanauken’s concepts of ugliness and beauty:

You say the materialist universe is “ugly.” I wonder how you discovered that! If you are really a product of a materialistic universe, how is it you don’t feel at home there?

Do fish complain of the sea for being wet? Or if they did, would that fact itself not strongly suggest that they had not always been, or wd. not always be, purely aquatic creatures?

Notice how we are perpetually surprised at Time. (“How time flies! Fancy John being grown-up & married! I can hardly believe it!”)

In heaven’s name, why? Unless, indeed, there is something in us which is not temporal.

Vanauken, through his correspondence with Lewis, became a Christian. Before he left Oxford and returned to America, he and Lewis met often face-to-face and an enduring friendship was established. “No man,” he wrote later, “ever did so much to shape my mind, quite aside from Christianity, which of course shaped my whole life. I have never loved a man more.”

Rejecting God-Ordained Reality

As a Christian, I believe what Scripture tells me about mankind—that sin abounds. Even if I were not a Christian, the testimony of man’s sinfulness is everywhere, and that, in itself, should be enough to convince anyone of the truth of what Scripture says.

Sin is heinous. It’s also stupid. Its stupidity manifests itself in many ways. Some would not call what I’m about to highlight “sin,” but I insist it is because anything that goes against God’s created order stems from man’s rebellion against Him.

I’m about to begin another academic year. Thankfully, I don’t teach at a university that has succumbed to the erasure of God-ordained truth. I don’t have to worry about this, for instance:

Man, woman, he, and she are still allowed where I teach. The God-ordained reality remains as a cornerstone of my university’s culture.

The environment is one of God’s gifts to us. We are to be stewards of this gift. Yet, even something as good as the environment can replace God in people’s estimation; they can sometimes turn it into a mini-god of its own. This results in some rather silly concerns:

If there is a problem with toxic waste, let’s take care of that. But to place so much blame on straws??

The media often considers itself another one of those mini-gods. It can create its own reality, promoting what it believes to be true while ignoring God-ordained truth. Self-defense is a basic human right given by God. Yet some would seek to overthrow such common sense and replace it with their own version of reality. The media’s role, all too often, is as a filter against reality:

As is obvious, false worldviews bleed over into politics rather easily. Principled arguments in favor of one position or another would be the reasonable, God-ordained way of figuring out the best policies. There is another way, however, that dominates our politics, and it’s based on pure selfishness of personal gain:

Accuse anyone you don’t like of racism—as one example—and you can “win.” When “winning” is everything, and you have no scruples with regard to how you “win,” you actually lose. Tossing aside principles is not the God-ordained way to live.

We currently have a revived trend toward the false religion of Marxism. Yes, I called it a religion, and for good reason. Although Marx rejected God, he still had his own god—himself. He claimed to be working for the common man, yet was not acquainted with too many of them. He spent most of his time immersed in his own thoughts in libraries. He never really had a long-term job or provided for his family; he sponged off of others his entire life.

Yet for many today, he is an icon. They still try to fashion their politics around his vision, but often without any real understanding of God-ordained reality.

Bottom line: man wants to reject God and his ways, and always sets up his own mini-gods (all false). The consequences are all around us.

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.