The Unnaturalness of Death

Death is something we all have to face. For most of us, it is faced first in the loss of someone we know and love. Ultimately, we have to face it in our own lives, recognizing that it is inevitable, not something we can avoid forever, although in Christ we know it isn’t final, that there is an unfathomably wonderful forever on the other side of that fearful doorway.

Yet death was never meant to be. It is an intruder in the world God created, brought into that world by rebellion. That rebellion destroyed God’s intent for relationship with all the humans that were to follow our first parents.

Death hurts. We shouldn’t pretend it doesn’t. C. S. Lewis, in his essay, “Some Thoughts,” notes that “we follow One who stood and wept at the grave of Lazarus . . . because death, the punishment of sin, is even more horrible in His eyes than in ours.”

Maybe we don’t stop and think about that. We loath death, but God loathes it even more since it mars His perfect creation. Lewis continues in his thought experiment about Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus:

The nature which He had created as God, the nature which He had assumed as Man, lay there before Him in its ignominy; a foul smell, food for worms. Though He was to revive it a moment later, He wept at the shame; if I may here quote a writer of my own communion, “I am not so much afraid of death as ashamed of it.”

Why shame? Because death is unnatural. It never should have been. “We know that we were not made for it,” Lewis comments. “We know how it crept into our destiny as an intruder; and we know Who has defeated it.”

And therein lies the hope for mankind—at least for those who will come to the Cross and receive the New and Eternal Life promised there.

There are some who say “death ought not to be final, that there ought to be a second chance,” Lewis writes in The Problem of Pain. But he offers his own brand of response to that objection:

I believe that if a million chances were likely to do good, they would be given. But a master often knows, when boys and parents do not, that it is really useless to send a boy in for a certain examination again. Finality must come sometime, and it does not require a very robust faith to believe that omniscience knows when.

The risen Christ has “already disarmed” the enemy of our souls, Lewis asserts in the essay mentioned above.

But because we know that the natural level also is God’s creation we cannot cease to fight against the death which mars it, as against all those other blemishes upon it, against pain and poverty, barbarism and ignorance.

Because we love something else more than this world we love even this world better than those who know no other.

We must always remember:

Iran & North Korea: Good Developments

The deal Obama and the Democrats forged with Iran over its nuclear program was supposedly going to spare us from a major nuclear conflagration. I didn’t believe it then, and I still don’t believe it now. That deal was no better than the phony deals people have foisted on the gullible throughout history.

The Iran deal was only a ten-year moratorium (again supposedly) on developing nuclear material and allowed Iran itself to do its own inspection on whether it was keeping to the agreement.

Huh?

That’s a long way from the Reagan approach called “trust but verify.” In fact, it’s downright foolish. How many people who still use their brains actually believe that Iran is keeping its word? Well, Obama and John Kerry are prime examples, in spite of how Israel’s top-notch spy service tries to enlighten us.

Then there’s the very nature of the deal. Whenever nations enter into these types of agreements, they’re called treaties. The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of a treaty is as follows:

An agreement or arrangement made by negotiation; a contract in writing between two or more political authorities (such as states or sovereigns) formally signed by representatives duly authorized and usually ratified by the lawmaking authority of the state.

There’s a reason I highlighted that last portion of the definition. The Constitution of the United States (that document largely ignored by the previous administration) requires that agreements such as this Iran deal should be brought to the Senate for ratification. Obama chose not to go that route (which is called “constitutional”) and simply declared it a “done deal.”

He was always very good at just doing things whenever he wanted. Remember his “I’ve got a pen and a phone” comment? He’s a little upset at the moment now that President Trump has pulled out of the deal.

I’m going to give Trump credit here for following through on this. I’m sure he was emboldened by the addition of John Bolton to his team, but his was the final decision, and it was the correct one.

One of the things he has done well has been the reversal of a number of Obama’s executive orders.

We need to face reality, though. Pulling out of a phony deal is one thing; finding a way to stop Iran’s march toward nuclear proliferation and carrying out its evil desire to wipe Israel off the face of the Middle East map is another matter. Much hard work remains.

Immediately after this welcome decision to call Iran out for its deviousness, there was other good news as the Trump administration secured the release of three Americans who had been imprisoned by the unstable North Korean government.

To Trump’s credit, he greeted those three in person at 3 a.m., which showed how important he considered the release to be.

Yet, even when something good happens, he has a tendency to detract from the moment. First, he declared that they had received “excellent” treatment from the North Korean dictator. He is slavishly devoted to using every superlative imaginable in the English language. I would not have lavished that kind of praise on the monster in charge of that nation.

Second, he just had to say something about TV ratings, commenting that this event was probably the highest-rated one ever for anything broadcast at 3 a.m. His inflated ego and desire for popularity stepped on this significant moment.

Please, Mr. President, consider that not everything is about you. Just savor moments like these as a plus for the American people and let it go at that. I pray there are those in his inner circle who are trying to make that same point.

Overall, though, these developments are reasons for encouragement. May there be more of them.

Teaching the Generations

Many of you know how you can read a Scripture passage and something jumps out at you that you never saw before. I attribute that to the leading of the Holy Spirit. A few days ago, I was reading in Psalm 71 when my mind (and spirit?) was arrested by just a few words—verses 9 and 18—separated from the rest of the text but united in thought.

Do not cast me away when I am old; do not forsake me when my strength is gone. . . .

Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, my God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your mighty acts to all who are to come.

What did this mean to me? Well, first of all, although I am certainly getting old-er, I don’t yet consider myself old in the classic sense. My strength is not yet gone, I am not yet seriously contemplating retirement, and I don’t feel forsaken of God.

I am gray; I’ll grant that one. But if none of the rest is totally applicable to me, why was I affected by these words?

One never knows when one’s strength will ebb more quickly, and I believe I have a lot to do still in my life and in the ministry God has given me. Perhaps it was the fact that I was grading students in finals week, another semester nearing its end.

It was those final words that meant the most to me, especially when coupled with the potential onset of older age: I teach the next generation; I want those students to know of God’s power, His mighty acts, and His abiding presence that He wants to implant within each one of them.

I began my university teaching career rather late. I didn’t receive my doctorate until I was 38, which was the time I got my first fulltime position. My 30th year of teaching will begin this upcoming fall, and I am now seeing, via Facebook, some of my former students beginning to send their children to college.

That is stunning to me. How can this be, I ask myself? The old cliché about time marching on is rearing its head. If any of my former students were to send their children to Southeastern to study under me, I would be teaching a second generation. Astounding. Why? Because in my mind, I’m not that old.

I am grateful for the many years the Lord has given me to teach those who will carry His light into this sad parody of a society we live in today. I look forward to continuing that quest. My health is still good; my strength is not gone; the vision remains vivid in my spirit.

And to all of my former students, I offer this word: send your children to me and I promise to give them all I can, everything the Lord has placed in me to pass on to the next generation.

Far Side’s Fractured History

I like to spice up my classroom presentations with appropriate cartoons. In my post yesterday, I mentioned some of my favorite comic/cartoon sources: “Peanuts,” “Calvin and Hobbes,” “Mallard Fillmore.” I failed to mention another one that deserves recognition—Gary Larson’s “The Far Side.”

Larson’s humor is often zany, but so much the better when he chooses to rewrite history. Now, normally I’m not a fan of revising history without solid evidence, but for the sake of humor, I can laugh along with certain comic revisions. It’s like being able to enjoy a National Treasure movie even though all of the history is pure bunk.

Sometimes Larson’s humor is subtle, and you have to know some of the history yourself to appreciate it. For instance, we know Manhattan Island was sold for what we now consider a mere pittance. Here’s how Larson envisions the native chief explaining that decision:

Then there’s Patrick Henry’s iconic “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech. Larson imagines he practiced it first:

“Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes,” cautioned an American officer at the Battle of Bunker Hill. That advice was not welcomed by one particular British soldier:

Then there is the famous painting of Washington crossing the Delaware. Perhaps he crossed other things as well:

And haven’t you always heard of this famous expedition being called “Lewis and Clark,” never “Clark and Lewis”? If only Clark had listened to his mother:

No, Lincoln didn’t throw together his Gettysburg Address as a last-minute jotting on the train to Gettysburg, but if he had, he might have gotten some help with it:

Everyone’s heard of Custer’s Last Stand, but why do we focus on that one? His parents were probably more interested in this instead:

For the more literary among us, here’s a take on the problems that can overcome a writer:

And if you’re a military man not used to writing as much as someone of Poe’s stature, the wording may be even more difficult. Gen. Douglas MacArthur was looking for just the right words to inspire the Filipinos that he would one day come back and free the islands from the Japanese invaders:

I’m glad he came up with something better.

Hope you enjoyed this little foray into fractured history. In our day of cultural and political polarization, we need to be able to step back once in a while and simply smile.

Comics Commentary

I’ve been an aficionado of clever comic strips all my life. My favorite, throughout my childhood and into high school, was Charles Schulz’s wonderful “Peanuts” strip with all the memorable characters: Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy, etc. The strip was a cultural phenomenon back in the 1960s, in particular.

Schulz used his strip to communicate his Christian faith as well as offer commentary on cultural changes and the meaning of life. He never preached stridently; he allowed the message to come at you indirectly, making one stop and think a bit about what he was saying.

Later, I became a great fan of the “Calvin and Hobbes” strip. My students sometimes must feel they are awash in the insights from that one.

When Bill Watterson, the brilliant artist of the strip, brought  “Calvin and Hobbes” to an end in the 1990s, I was deeply saddened, but later some of my students presented me with the entire collection, from which I have helped “instruct” students ever since.

Nowadays, one of my favorite comics that touches on the foolishness/silliness of our modern cultural trends is “Mallard Fillmore,” a title with a nice touch for an American historian like me. The artist, Bruce Tinsley, is a conservative in politics and, based on what I’ve seen in his strip, a committed Christian. He takes on political correctness in a poignant way.

Lately, Tinsley has been on target with some of the most egregious modern trends and/or practices based on wrong ideas, one of which is that people really aren’t accountable for their actions:

In the wake of the Parkland shootings, Tinsley offered this commentary on the drift of society:

Just the right amount of sarcasm, in my opinion, in the pursuit of communicating truth.

He often pokes fun at education trends and the issue of free speech. Sometimes, he can combine them rather easily, as universities have become a haven for the stifling of speech that the prevailing “wisdom” decries:

While I am a devotee of expounding Biblical principles and trying to explain how they apply to each one of us individually and to our society as a whole, I appreciate the ability of comics such as these to help me make my points. Regular readers of this blog know that I punctuate many of my posts with what I believe are appropriate comics and political cartoons to aid in my explanations.

That will never stop as long as there are talented artists (and I do believe that is the correct term) who can highlight the concepts I want to expound upon.

The Compulsory “Cure”

I wonder how often I’ve said, “This is one of my favorites,” when speaking of something C. S. Lewis wrote? I’ve probably used that phrase for far too many of his writings, so that it loses its impact when repeated. Yet it always remains true of one particular essay, “Is Progress Possible? Willing Slaves of the Welfare State.”

Out of the many insights contained therein, here is one that stands out to me: what Lewis identifies as “the changed relation between Government and subjects.” A prime example, he notes, is how we’ve changed our concept of punishment for crimes committed: we’ve decided that criminals must be cured, not punished.

But a “just cure,” Lewis objects, is a “meaningless” term. Why?

When we switched from the “old” idea of punishment and turned to providing “remedies” for what used to be called criminal actions, we have turned the criminals over to the experts who will ultimately determine if a “cure” has been achieved.

Thus the criminal ceases to be a person, a subject of rights and duties, and becomes merely an object on which society can work. And this is, in principle, how Hitler treated the Jews. They were objects; killed not for ill desert but because, on his theories, there were a disease in society.

Then comes one of Lewis’s most bracing statements (at least to me): “If society can mend, remake, and unmake men at its pleasure, its pleasure may, of course, be humane or homicidal. The difference is important. But, either way, rulers have become owners.”

Lewis then offers another example, one that should make Christians follow his logic more seriously:

Who but the experts can define disease? One school of psychology regards my religion as a neurosis. If this neurosis ever becomes inconvenient to Government, what is to prevent my being subjected to a compulsory “cure.”

It may be painful; treatments sometimes are. But it will be no use asking, “What have I done to deserve this?” The Straightener will reply: “But, my dear fellow, no one’s blaming you. We no longer believe in retributive justice. We’re healing you.”

In modern America, sixty years after Lewis wrote this, Christians have not yet been subjected to a compulsory “cure,” but we have definitely been subjected to societal pressures to accept what the “experts” now consider to be normative in matters of sexual morality (as one example). We are facing a rising crescendo of “informed opinion” that our views are rather inconvenient to the new order of things. We must conform—or suffer the penalties (in the workplace, for instance) for being nonconformists.

And far too many of us have the same mindset Lewis saw back in his day, when he observed that WWI and WWII, which “necessitated vast curtailments of liberty,” led to a populace “accustomed to our chains.” Intellectuals, he argued, “have surrendered first to the slave-philosophy of Hegel, then to Marx, finally to the linguistic analysts.”

What was lost in the process?

As a result, classical political theory, with its Stoical, Christian, and juristic key-conceptions (natural law, the value of the individual, the rights of man) has died.

The modern State exists not to protect our rights but to do us good or make us good—anyway, to do something to us or to make us something.

But that “something” is up to the State, whatever it considers to be “good.” What we would choose becomes irrelevant.

Hence the new name “leaders” for those who were once our “rulers.” We are less their subjects than their wards, pupils, or domestic animals. There is nothing left of which we can say to them, “Mind your own business.” Our whole lives are their business.

Lewis concludes his masterful essay with this warning:

Let us not be deceived by phrases about “Man taking charge of his own destiny.” All that can really happen is that some men will take charge of the destiny of the others. They will be simply men; none perfect; some greedy, cruel and dishonest.

The more completely we are planned the more powerful they will be. Have we discovered some new reason why, this time, power should not corrupt as it has done before?

Merely a rhetorical question, to be sure, but one that ought to make us ponder the direction our society is taking.

Reagan & Modern American Conservatism

Finals week is upon my students and me. Another semester nears an end. Naturally, I am relieved, but I do enjoy the teaching. When students ask which courses are my favorites, I have to say I like them all. Yet there are some that usually stand out because of my particular interests: my course on C. S. Lewis is one, as is the course on Whittaker Chambers.

Then there’s the one I just completed called “Ronald Reagan and Modern American Conservatism.”

That course has two purposes: first, to highlight the life and accomplishments of the man I believe to be the best president of the 20th century; second, to understand him within a movement of modern conservatism, of which he was the prime example, exemplifying the various strands that comprise the movement.

To understand Reagan the man, as well as the president, I have students read his autobiography. It reveals what motivated him to aspire to the highest office in the land. They are pleased to learn about his Christian faith.

This course, though, is more than a simple biography of one man. It describes how some men and women responded to the drift in America toward the idea that government can manage our lives better than we can, as well as the cultural drift away from traditional moral principles (which most of them found in the Bible).

The most comprehensive book to deal with this rising movement after WWII is George Nash’s masterful work, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945.

It can be a tough read in some spots, as my students earnestly inform me, but it’s also an essential read.

Nash shows how modern American conservatism built on a philosophical basis, not merely as an emotional reaction to liberalism, socialism, or communism. Instead, it had bedrock principles that formed the core of a movement that eventually landed Reagan in the White House.

In addition to those two books, I offer selections from my own study of Reagan and Whittaker Chambers (yes, he figures in this course also).

My goal is to help these students grasp that conservatism has a good history. True conservatives are bound by the concept of the rule of law, they hold to the tenets of the Constitution, and they realize the necessity of a firm spiritual/moral grounding for our government to function properly.

I also hope they come away from the course with an ability to discern what genuine conservatism is in our day and what is not all that genuine. I don’t want them to fall in line with something trendy that may pass itself off as conservative when, in fact, it’s much closer to populist demagoguery.

My mission from God, if I were to put it in those terms—and I do—is to provide them with truths that will become the anchor of their lives and will stay with them to the end. This course helps achieve that goal.

I sincerely hope that everything I teach leads my students toward faithfulness to God and His purposes in their lives. He has given me this privilege—and this responsibility—and I do not take it lightly.