Archive for the ‘ Christians & Culture ’ Category

The Bible as Literature? Lewis Comments

When I was getting my undergraduate degree and only then solidifying my Christian faith, I took one course called “The Bible as Literature.” I was attending Purdue University, a large public institution with no leanings toward Christian faith, so I naturally was pleased to see such a course offered.

I didn’t go into it completely unaware of what a course like that might entail, given the probability that the professor would be someone who would view the Bible differently than I did. But I wanted to give it a chance and perhaps come out with something worthwhile.

I was disappointed with respect to getting anything worthwhile from the course itself, but it was tantamount to a graduate education on how the world outside my evangelical orbit viewed what I believe to be sacred writings.

C. S. Lewis, in a 1950 essay, “The Literary Impact of the Authorised Version,” tackled that whole approach of reading/teaching the Bible as literature, and, as usual, his perspective brings a freshness—even an audacity—to the subject.

In light of certain literary tastes, Lewis asks whether those particular tastes will help people appreciate the Bible more. He comes down on the side of what I experienced in that course taught by a professor who saw nothing sacred about the text:

Stripped (for most readers) of its divine authority, stripped of its allegorical senses, denied a romantic welcome for its historical sense, will it none the less return on the wave of some new fashion to literary pre-eminence and be read? . . .

I offer my guess. I think it very unlikely that the Bible will return as a book unless it returns as a sacred book.

Lewis was writing of the version we know of as the King James, which many might appreciate for its Shakespearean-era language. Yet he doubts that, in itself, will be sufficient to entice more readers.

Unless the religious claims of the Bible are again acknowledged, its literary claims will, I think, be given only “mouth honour” and that decreasingly. For it is, through and through, a sacred book. Most of its component parts were written, and all of them were brought together, for a purely religious purpose.

People may offer a modicum of “honor” to the Bible as literature, but they are merely going through the motions. They don’t really intend to treat it seriously; after all, it has all those outrageous doctrines that exclude all other religions. It claims to bring the only real truth—and they can’t accept that.

Neither Aeschylus nor even Virgil tacitly prefaces his poetry with the formula “Thus say the gods.” But in most parts of the Bible everything is implicitly or explicitly introduced with “Thus saith the Lord.”

It is, if you like to put it that way, not merely a sacred book but a book so remorselessly and continuously sacred that it does not invite, it excludes or repels, the merely aesthetic approach.

No matter which version of the Bible one reads today, Lewis’s point remains:

It demands incessantly to be taken on its own terms: it will not continue to give literary delight very long except to those who go to it for something quite different.

It the Bible is not the Word of God, it has no real value, at least not for eternity. If it is the Word of God, it is of the utmost value, and that is how it should be read and taught.

Graham & His Presidents

Historians have a unique experience when they do research into individuals. Even though I have never met most of the people I’ve researched, I come away with the sensation that I know them anyway.

My master’s thesis was on Yale president (and clergyman) Timothy Dwight and American geographer (and clergyman) Jedidiah Morse, the latter being the father of Samuel F. B. Morse of telegraph fame.

My doctoral dissertation was on Noah Webster, the premier educator of early America and the compiler of America’s first dictionary, which bears his name.

Reading everything I can get my hands on that relates to Whittaker Chambers, Ronald Reagan, and C. S. Lewis has been an ongoing joy.

I can testify the same about Billy Graham, since I’ve not only researched at Wheaton’s Billy Graham Center, but also have looked into his correspondence and relationships with all the post-WWII presidents.

Graham built a reputation as a friend and counselor for many of these presidents, although his first attempt was a little rocky. He received an invitation to speak with Harry Truman in the Oval Office. He prayed with Truman at the end of the meeting. When he and his associates emerged from the White House, reporters wanted him to reenact that prayer. He obliged.

Although Graham was undoubtedly sincere in his action, Truman was incensed that something private would be made into a public spectacle. Graham, young and inexperienced in dealing with the media, learned a valuable lesson that day.

The young evangelist made a connection with a much older man, Dwight Eisenhower, when Truman left office. In one way, it’s rather amazing that Eisenhower, the general who successfully conducted the D-Day invasion, would find a spiritual guide in such a young man. Yet he asked Graham for suggestions of Biblical passages to use in his first inaugural.

As Eisenhower lay in bed at Walter Reed hospital, knowing he was going to die soon, he asked Graham to come see him and tell him one more time how to make sure he was ready to meet the Lord. If not for Graham, Eisenhower might never have made his peace with God.

Graham didn’t know Kennedy that well, but at the latter’s urging, they met after the election and before the inauguration, because Kennedy, as the nation’s first Catholic president, sought to show that the leading evangelical Protestant voice was not opposed to his presidency.

It’s noteworthy that at a time when many Protestants were concerned about having a Catholic for president that Graham accepted the invitation and was willing to stand publicly with Kennedy. He wanted to help heal that division between Christian denominations.

What may not be as well known is that Graham, in November of 1963, had a strong urge to call Kennedy and tell him the Lord had impressed upon him that the upcoming trip to Dallas might be dangerous. He never reached Kennedy; others in the administration put him off. We all know what happened next.

Lyndon Johnson was a profane man with whom one might think Graham would want nothing to do, but that was not the case. The two developed a close friendship, and Graham even got involved to some extent in some of LBJ’s initiatives on racial reconciliation and other policy issues.

Interestingly, LBJ tried to convince Graham to run for president. He demurred, knowing that God had given him a different calling. In my opinion, after reading through quite a bit of material on their relationship, I see LBJ wanting Graham to be close to him because he suffered a deep insecurity about his own spiritual state—an insecurity that he definitely should have had, given his low standard of morality. Perhaps he perceived Graham to be his “security blanket,” spiritually speaking.

In the public mind, Graham is most often associated with Nixon. It’s true that they were very close. It was during Nixon’s presidency that Sunday morning services were arranged at the White House, and Graham spoke at many of them. Although he never officially endorsed any president, there was little doubt that he supported Nixon’s reelection in 1972.

Then came Watergate. When the tapes revealed language from Nixon that Graham had never heard him use in his presence, he was deeply disturbed. On Nixon’s part, because he didn’t want the controversy swirling around him to impugn Graham’s ministry, he conscientiously avoided meeting with Graham once the Watergate investigation went into high gear.

What’s most touching, to me, is that nothing Nixon did pushed Graham away from him. Even in the disgrace of resignation from the presidency, Graham remained his friend and spiritual advisor. He was not seeking power with the high and mighty; he simply wanted to share God’s love with them. He was the friend of presidents even when they were no longer in office and had nothing to offer.

His close brush with a possible taint on his ministry led Graham to rethink his associations with presidents. It’s not that he sought to distance himself spiritually, but he never again wanted to be so public in his relationships with them that the ministry would be discredited.

So when Ford took over from Nixon, while he did speak with the new president on occasions, he deliberately took a step back from a too-public connection.

The same is true of his relationship with Carter. Prior to his presidency, Carter had even shared the stage with Graham in Georgia at one of his crusades.

Yet, the relationship was never very close. Carter considered himself his own spiritual advisor, some would say. He didn’t reach out much to Graham during his tenure in office.

Ronald Reagan and Graham had been friends for a couple of decades before Reagan won the presidency, so the link between them already was firmly established. According to some sources, Reagan was the president Graham was closest to, but, in the wake of Watergate, Graham was intent on keeping their communication as private as possible.

That’s kind of a frustration for a historian like me. Whereas I found a lot of correspondence between Graham and LBJ and Nixon, the Reagan Library yielded far less.

Reagan’s esteem for Graham was shown in his decision to award him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

When I interviewed Reagan’s pastor, Donn Moomaw, back in 2014, he lent me this photo that I downloaded into my own files. I’ll always appreciate his willingness to do that.

George Bush the elder also had a long-standing friendship with Graham, to the point that he invited him to the Bush compound in Maine annually. He wanted his family to hear from Graham on spiritual matters. His initial idea was to ask Graham to speak to them—like a sermon—but Graham instead just opened it up each year to questions, which was a much more personable approach.

It was on one of those occasions that a walk along the beach with George Bush the younger led to his commitment to follow the Lord.

Have I omitted anyone? Oh, yes, there was another one.

This is further evidence that Graham was willing to be a friend to anyone occupying the highest office in the land.

I hope this travelogue through the history of Billy Graham’s relationships and connections with presidents has been worthwhile for those of you who made it through this entire blog.

I thank God for using this man in our nation’s history. May many more rise up and be His spokesmen for truth.

Parkland Solutions–Real & Imagined

For out of the heart come evil thoughts–murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. Matthew 15:19

After watching many news reports and reading many commentaries about the Parkland, Florida, school shooting that resulted in seventeen deaths, nothing I’ve seen or read has changed my mind about the basic issue that leads to such atrocities: the sinfulness of man.

We hear many loud voices calling for new legislation against gun ownership, as if that’s some kind of final solution for the problem of sin. Yet we have had gun ownership in this country since its founding. Many lives have been spared by the proper use of guns as a means of self-defense against sinful men.

Guns are not the problem. People are. And our culture, which drifts steadily away from the fear of God and from His truth, only makes that problem worse.

Then we get a CNN Townhall that allows grieving young people to display their angst and try to set public policy via emotion rather than principle and sound reflection. Some may think they are the source of wisdom, but I don’t, especially if they are merely spouting a distorted worldview they have received through our perverted culture.

The Biblical admonition about how a little child shall lead them is part of a prophecy of Isaiah in reference to when God will set up His kingdom on earth in the last days. It’s when the lion will lie down with the lamb.

We’re not there yet. We shouldn’t let the immature be our policymakers.

Those who think that legislation is the answer are seeking a utopia—a word that basically translates as “no such place.”

Yes, laws can help, if they are the right kind, based on a realistic view of man’s sinfulness. But any law that takes away the means for law-abiding citizens to defend themselves is a law that will lead to even greater atrocities.

We are told by some that if we turn in all the guns, we can be confident that our law enforcement agencies will be able to defend us. Trust them, we are told.

How did that work out in this case?

The FBI received numerous calls about the potential for Nikolas Cruz to go off the deep end. It did nothing. The Broward County police responded to numerous incidents with Cruz over the past years. They did nothing.

The Broward County deputy who was assigned to protect the school hid outside, never even attempting to confront the shooter. The county’s sheriff is making a fool of himself in interviews after the fact. He is arrogant, defending himself, and blaming everyone else.

Let me also say something here about the organization that is getting pilloried over this, as it always does after a shooting. The NRA (for the record, I’m not a member) is a respectable organization devoted to gun safety. The one time I went to an NRA firing range, I was tested first, then instructed carefully on how to use the weapons.

The NRA is not the enemy of the people.

Politicians like to get their names in the headlines after these terrible incidents. The one who stands out to me this time is California Senator Kamala Harris, who responded to Parkland with this:

This cannot be a political issue. We have to have smart gun safety laws – our babies are being slaughtered.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Yet Kamala Harris promotes the slaughter of babies all the time, as she is a vocal supporter of Planned Parenthood and abortion on demand.

She is not a serious voice, and should be ignored, as should all politicians who wrap themselves in the cloak of protecting our children while simultaneously applauding the killing of the most innocent.

So are we a “sick” society? Wrong word. We are a sinful, depraved society. Scripture also informs us that the problem goes much deeper even than human sinfulness.

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Ephesians 6:12

The solution, also found in the larger context of that chapter, is to put on God’s full armor: truth, righteousness, the spreading of the Gospel message to “extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.”

There is an evil one out there, even though our society doesn’t want to believe that. Neither does the society want to believe that there is One who has overcome the evil one, and that we need to place our full confidence in Him:

Cast all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you. Be sober-minded and alert. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in your faith and in the knowledge that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. I Peter 5:7-9

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. James 4:7-8

These Scriptures need to be our guide.

Our Very Unscrupulous God

The fool says in his heart, “There is no god.” Psalm 53:1

For many years, C. S. Lewis was a fool. He later acknowledged the truth of that statement. As a young man who had seen his mother die of cancer despite his prayers, who had witnessed the horrors of the Great War, and who had been trained in severe logic by an atheist, he declared to himself that there was no god. As he put it in his autobiography Surprised by Joy,

I was at this time living, like so many Atheists or Antitheists, in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with Him for creating a world.

There are many people who have that same attitude today. They rail against the god they say doesn’t exist. They, despite the logical incongruity of it, demand “justice.” Yet what is justice to an atheist? Why is demanding it incongruous? Lewis again, this time from Mere Christianity:

[When I was an atheist] my argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust?

A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it?

Unlike many atheists, Lewis took his logic to its ultimate destination; he eventually saw the illogic of it:

Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist—in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless—I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality—namely my idea of justice—was full of sense.

His conclusion?

Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning [emphasis mine].

Then, as Lewis continued to ponder the possible meaning of the universe and, as an academic, delved into his large stack of “books to be read”—something all avid readers will understand—he kept coming across sensible authors who, irritatingly, always turned out to be Christians. They came across as so sensible that he had to rethink everything.

As he explained in the autobiography,

A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere—“Bibles laid open, millions of surprises” as Herbert says, “fine nets and stratagems.” God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.

This “unscrupulous” God is our salvation. I thank Him daily for being so “very unscrupulous.”

That which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. Romans 1:19-20

False Assurances of Eternity

I’ve never read George MacDonald’s Thomas Wingfold, Curate, but in the anthology C. S. Lewis put together of MacDonald’s writings, one selection from that book stood out to me this morning. I think the nugget in this excerpt is worth noting.

It begins with MacDonald quoting someone who says, “I cannot see what harm would come of letting us know a little—as much at least as might serve to assure us that there was more of something on the other side.”

Don’t we hear that quite often today? People just want some kind of assurance that death isn’t final, that there is something that awaits hereafter. The problem is that they almost don’t care what that something is as long as it isn’t too bad.

MacDonald explains that “their fears allayed, their hopes encouraged from any lower quarter, men would (as usual) turn away from the Fountain, to the cistern of life.”

Mankind will accept any explanation of the afterlife that provides some assurance, yet they stubbornly resist the only Source of knowledge of what actually transpires upon death; they don’t turn to the “Fountain” where eternal life is found.

He then hits home with this insight:

That there are thousands who would forget God if they could but be assured of such a tolerable state of things beyond the grave as even this wherein we now live, is plainly to be anticipated from the fact that the doubts of so many in respect of religion concentrate themselves nowadays upon the question whether there is any life beyond the grave; a question which . . . does not immediately belong to religion at all.

What does he mean? People don’t really want to know the God who offers life beyond the grave; they simply want to know there is something. God is an afterthought.

Satisfy such people, if you can, that they shall live, and what have they gained? A little comfort perhaps—but a comfort not from the highest source, and possibly gained too soon for their well-being.

Does it bring them any nearer to God than they were before? Is He filling one cranny more of their hearts in consequence?

Simply coming to some kind of assurance that life goes on after one dies is not only insufficient—it is a delusion by itself. It ignores the stark Scriptural reality that there are two destinations after death, and only one is a state of eternal joy. Further, there is only one path to that joy:

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. John 14:6

Hell is just as real as heaven, but most people don’t want to believe that. They want the assurance that all will go to the same blissful eternity. Yet, as Jesus warns,

For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it. Matthew 7:14

That’s not a popular message. It refuses to agree with the culture that assumes all roads lead to the same place.

Unfortunately, the message is not popular in many churches either. How many pastors teach this truth? How many are providing false assurances?

If we truly love others, we will want them to know the truth and not be misled. Warnings are essential in the proclamation of the Gospel. The Good News must be preceded by the bad news. That’s what makes the Good News good.

If True, This Is of Infinite Importance

“Apologetic work is so dangerous to one’s own faith. A doctrine never seems dimmer to me than when I have just successfully defended it.” So wrote C. S. Lewis in a 1946 letter. Yet a good many of us are grateful that he took the time and effort to add his part to all the apologetics offered throughout the Christian era.

I can understand his sentiment in that letter. When you have to labor to help people understand the basics of how the universe functions, who is behind it all, the problem of sin and the remedy for it—well, it can be, at times, a wearying task.

Shortly before Lewis wrote that letter, he wrote an essay called, simply, “Christian Apologetics.” In it, he sought to help readers come to grips with the obstacles we face when we try to explain and demonstrate to people that there is a Truth out there. “One of the great difficulties,” Lewis opined, “is to keep before the audience’s mind the question of Truth.” He continued,

They always think you are recommending Christianity not because it is true but because it is good. And in the discussion they will at every moment try to escape from the issue “True—or False” into stuff about a good society, or morals . . . or anything whatever.

The apologist’s job, he says, is “to keep forcing them back . . . to the real point.” The goal is to help lead them out of a phony idea that while “religion” may be useful, “one mustn’t carry it too far.” He then provides a wonderfully insightful quote that many have used ever since:

One must keep on pointing out that Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.

Lewis argues similarly in another essay written at about the same time, “Modern Man and His Categories of Thought.” In this one, he notes, “Man is becoming as narrowly ‘practical’ as the irrational animals.” People don’t seem interested in objective truth.

They only want to know if it will be comforting, or “inspiring,” or socially useful. . . . When an Englishman says he “believes in” or “does not believe in” Christianity, he may not be thinking about truth at all. Very often he is only telling us whether he approves or disapproves of the Church as a social institution.

The mass of mankind doesn’t desire to find truth. After all, if they had to come face to face with the truth of the Gospel, they would have to acknowledge their sins, repent of them, humbly lay down all pretensions to their own goodness, and learn to be a disciple of Christ, setting aside all of their selfishness, pettiness, and pride.

That’s not appealing. Therefore, they run away from the truth.

Closely connected with this unhuman Practicality is an indifference to, and contempt of, dogma. The popular point of view is unconsciously syncretistic: it is widely believed that “all religions really mean the same thing.”

Such a statement defies all logic and rational thought. How can Christianity and Hinduism both be correct when they disagree on all pertinent points? How can one really equate the god of Islam with Christianity? A bland monotheism by itself in no way equates with what Christianity says. Neither is the character of Islam’s Allah the character we see in the God of the Bible. That’s why Lewis also poignantly declares,

I think we must attack wherever we meet it the nonsensical idea that mutually exclusive propositions about God can both be true.

It all makes so much sense. But then, is our society interested in “sense”? Is it interested in truth? Not if it points the finger at them and says that dreadful word “repent.”

Yet we must not falter in explaining the faith and in praying that God’s Holy Spirit will awaken hearts and minds to His truth.

In your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. I Peter 3:15

Faith in God or Faith in Man?

Where does our faith reside as a nation? Simply putting “In God We Trust” on coins doesn’t really mean that we trust in God, does it? The god of America currently might be no more than a benevolent grandfather who isn’t really all that upset with what’s happening and who certainly wouldn’t want to damage anyone’s self-esteem.

However, that’s not the God of Scripture.

In my book on Ronald Reagan and Whittaker Chambers, I try to deal with the views of both men with respect to America’s spiritual perceptions and with the future of Western Civilization. Reagan and Chambers differed in their predictions for the future. What can we learn from both? Let me share some excerpts from the book:

Whittaker Chambers had no doubts with regard to the evil that resides within man. His affinity for writers and thinkers such as Dostoevsky and Niebuhr, and his own experiences in his dysfunctional upbringing, within the communist underground, at Time, and throughout the duress of the Hiss case, leave little room for debate on that point of doctrine.

Reagan, meanwhile, seemed to hold contradictory views with respect to the nature of man. As he himself noted, he tended to see the good in people. At the same time, he recognized evil in individuals and empires alike; most of his life after Hollywood was spent trying to expose and overthrow what he believed was an evil system.

Chambers helped balance Reagan’s natural tendency to see primarily the good. Witness provided Reagan with a sobering reality. He said that Witness helped him learn the bitter truth “of that great socialist revolution which in the name of liberalism has been inching its icecap over the nation for two decades.”

My book is an examination of the quintessential Reagan optimism balanced by the sometimes bleak pessimism of Chambers. Yet both built their worldview on the same cornerstone of spiritual reality:

Reagan’s optimism was based on his Christian understanding of redemption. He had experienced his own personal redemption, he spoke of Chambers’s redemption from his former life, and he fervently asserted that God was poised to redeem the world from totalitarian communism.

Chambers, from the same basic Christian worldview, could not express that degree of optimism. He believed, as Reagan did, that God redeems individuals, but had a much more pessimistic view of that redemption rippling throughout society. Chambers’s perspective can be likened to the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, who foretold disaster for ancient Judah because of its apostasy while simultaneously calling the people to repentance.

Reagan and Chambers held to the same faith, the same basics truths about life, yet they differed in their predictions of the future of freedom.

Shortly after Reagan left office, the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union disintegrated. Did this mean that the communist threat was no more? One of Chambers’s closest friends commented as follows:

Ralph de Toledano noted that when the “evil empire” collapsed, people asked him: “Would Whittaker Chambers still believe that he had left the winning side for the losing side?” He replied that Chambers, long before the collapse, had already seen “that the struggle was no longer between Communism and Western civilization, but one in which Western civilization was destroying itself by betraying its heritage.”

In essence, “Communism had triumphed, not in its Marxist tenet but in its concept of man—a concept which the West has accepted.” It goes back to Chambers’s insistence that there are two faiths and the West must make a decision: God or man?

One quote from Chambers’s classic Witness is a fitting ending for today:

God alone is the inciter and guarantor of freedom. He is the only guarantor. External freedom is only an aspect of interior freedom. Political freedom, as the Western world has known it, is only a political reading of the Bible. Religion and freedom are indivisible. Without freedom the soul dies. Without the soul there is no justification for freedom. …

… There has never been a society or a nation without God. But history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations that became indifferent to God, and died.

Is America still open to Biblical truth? The jury is still out, in my view, but if you were to ask in which direction I lean, I would have to say that Chambers seems closer to the truth right now. We have made ourselves deaf, dumb, and blind to all the warnings God has sent us. Only a genuine reformation of thinking and practice can restore what we have lost.