Archive for the ‘ Christians & Culture ’ Category

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.

Lewis: Knowing the Past for the Sake of the Present

Politics. Is there anyone else besides me who wishes he/she could turn it off for a while? I’m a professor of American history, though, so it’s important for me to keep up with political developments and provide analysis—for my students, of course, but I also feel a responsibility to help others understand the principles we need to follow.

There is a temptation, though, to be so immersed in politics that one sees it as all-consuming. C. S. Lewis recognized that temptation. In his day, WWII was one of those potentially all-consuming events. Some people, at that time, were saying that all other activities, including Lewis’s own profession as a professor, should be set aside so that all thought and energy would be concentrated on the war.

Lewis said no to that. One of his most enlightening essays, “Learning in War-Time,” addressed the complaint that some had about allowing normal day-to-day activities to continue uninterrupted.

Lewis wanted to be sure he was not misunderstood: the war was a righteous one and every citizen had a duty to support it. “Every duty is a religious duty,” he believed, “and our obligation to perform every duty is therefore absolute.”

Rescuing a drowning man is a duty, he continued, and if we happened to live on a coast, perhaps we should be well prepared as lifesavers. But even such a laudatory effort as lifesaving needs to be seen as only part of one’s overall duties.

If anyone devoted himself to lifesaving in the sense of giving it his total attention—so that he thought and spoke of nothing else and demanded the cessation of all other human activities until everyone had learned to swim—he would be a monomaniac.

The rescue of drowning men is, then, a duty worth dying for, but not worth living for.

Lewis then opined that all political duties were like that. Politics is not the sum total of life. Seeking to put the right people in political office is a worthy endeavor, but it should never consume one’s life.

He who surrenders himself without reservation to the temporal claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering to Caesar that which, of all things, most emphatically belongs to God: himself.

For Lewis personally, God had charted a course for his life that pointed to intellectual activity, something that was not to cease simply because a war was going on. One of his most famous quotes comes from this essay: “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.”

He then offers me, as a historian, this encouraging word:

Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.

A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.

There continues to be a “great cataract of nonsense” in our day. The America of 2018 suffers from a type of myopia, forgetting what has gone before, never learning from the past. History offers us tremendous lessons if we are willing to learn from them.

The reason I am so focused, at times, on the current political situation, is that I am disturbed by our ignorance of the past and our apparent unwillingness to correct what we have done wrong previously. We think we are charting a new course that will lead us to some type of utopia when, in fact, we are simply following some of the same old ruts that have caused misery before.

Lewis concludes his essay with what WWII should teach his generation. His conclusion applies to our generation as well if we think political programs or putting the right person in office will be our savior:

If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon.

We must never forget that we are pilgrims on this earth, and that the pilgrimage goes on regardless of what happens in politics and government.

Why Read Old Books? C. S. Lewis Tells Us Why

“Every age has its own outlook,” C. S. Lewis instructed. “It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.” Amen to that. “We all, therefore,” he continued, “need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”

Was Lewis saying that only old books are worthwhile? Was he so anti-modern that he believed nothing written in the last century could conceivably offer us wisdom? After all, in his inaugural lecture at Cambridge, he famously referred to himself as a “dinosaur,” one of the last specimens of those who live comfortably in their native land of previous epochs.

That’s hardly his intention. What he was doing in this quote was attacking the oh-so-modern fallacy (found in every age, by the way) that we have progressed so far that we understand things much better than previous ages and generations.

I teach historiography. Part of the course delves into different schools of historical interpretation. One common mistake for historians is to believe that progress is inevitable, that each succeeding generation is wiser than the last one.

I ran into this perspective in my doctoral program. One book used in a course on American colonial history was infused with a sneeringly condescending attitude toward those so-called primitive early Americans. They were just so backward, the book implied. Not like the new generation that has come so far.

Of course, in the view of that author, to “come so far” meant that we have set aside all those outmoded ideas about God that seemed to drive many of the early settlers. The hubris in the book was astounding.

All Lewis was saying in this quote is that each era has its truth emphases and each also has its own characteristic mistakes and/or falsehoods that it believes. How do we guard against this arrogance? Return to the thoughts and beliefs of earlier times and keep in mind that whatever faults they had, they also might have contained truths that we, in our pride, have foolishly abandoned.

The “old books” are not error-free, but they do put a check on our runaway love affair with ourselves. They remind us of things we may have forgotten as a society.

There is one old book, though, that is error-free and never leads us astray. If we take it seriously, our pride is leveled and we recognize our true place in the universe.

As I survey the mess our current society has devolved into, I’m reminded of another Lewis quote: “Moral collapse follows upon spiritual collapse.” If we are disturbed by what we see happening morally in our day, we must acknowledge the real reason for this development. We have allowed our Christianity to be compromised to the point that it no longer is the salt and light it was intended to be.

We must return to the one Old Book that puts things right again.

Here’s the scenario: the culture is in decline due to a loss of Biblical principles; beliefs based on those principles that used to hold the society together are attacked as bigoted, narrow, and intolerant; the government is increasingly dysfunctional and policies, despite the best efforts of honest and caring representatives, move further away from Biblical norms.

What’s someone to do about this, especially when one feels called by God (to some, that’s a rather presumptive and/or arrogant statement right there) to warn of the decline and the loss of a proper perspective on life?

One can choose to rail against this decline. After all, it is Biblical to warn sinners of the error of their ways. Purely on the governmental side, one can continually point out the false ideologies, hypocrisies, and evil deeds of our generation.

Pointing out the problems is something that must be done. However, there is a limit; after a while, if all one does is constantly harp on the negatives, one runs the risk of being a Johnny-one-note that people begin to ignore.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve started to notice the down side of some conservative commentary. While the commentary is most often true, depicting accurately the perfidy, the dishonesty, and the radical agenda of progressivism, one gets tired of hearing nothing but angst.

I’ve also noticed that some of those commentators are far more shallow in their thinking than I at first realized. They have certain talking points they repeat, and that’s all the farther they go. The repetitive nature of that approach makes it easy to tune them out.

As regular readers of my blog know, I’ve gained a lot of understanding through the words of Whittaker Chambers in his wonderful/tragic autobiography Witness.

Once Chambers left the communist underground and got a position writing for Time magazine, he eagerly used his position to try to point out the communist threat he knew from personal experience. He was so committed to warning about it that people got tired of hearing his warnings. He was kept from writing anything on the subject.

That seemed like a defeat. As Chambers relates,

My tacit exclusion from writing Communist news at first exasperated me, for I saw no one around me (except the Communists, of course) who knew anything at all about the subject.

He could have protested this treatment. He could have caused a ruckus and further divided the staff over his actions. But he kept calm and came to a new realization about tactics:

But gradually I welcomed the ban. I began to see that the kind of sniping that I had been doing was shallow and largely profitless; anybody could do that.

That last sentence is all too true. Anyone with an axe to grind or an ability to channel anger can do that. There are multitudes of those kinds of people. Chambers tried a new approach, one that more fully reflected the Christian spirit he was developing at that time in his life:

It seemed to me that I had a more important task to do, one that was peculiarly mine. It was not to attack Communism frontally. It was to clarify on the basis of the news, the religious and moral position that made Communism evil.

I had been trying to make a negative point. Now I had to state the positive position, and it was a much more formidable task than attack.

It’s deceptively easy to mount attacks. What Chambers now understood was that he had to do the harder job: help readers grasp the underlying Christian viewpoint of what constituted “good” and contrast that with the evil in communism.

It meant explaining simply and readably for millions the reasons why the great secular faith of this age is wrong and the religious faith of the ages is right; why, in the words of the Song of Roland, the Christians are right and the heathen are wrong.

This affected Chambers’s character in a positive way as well:

This change in my mood and my work reflected a deepening within myself.

The challenge before those of us who might take on the mantle of cultural warrior is perhaps to learn how to conduct the battle in a different manner. We need to leave the tactic of shallow anger and dull repetition and move on to deeper reflections on the nature of God, man, and His principles, and thereby help others gain a greater understanding of the battlefield.

That has always been my intent in this blog—hence its title, Pondering Principles: Reflections on God . . . Man . . . Life. My commitment to that goal is refreshed today.