Monthly Archives: October 2013

“The American, This New Man”

     Call to mind for a moment a man in the late 1760s, a Frenchman who purchased a fine spread of 250 acres in New York. For seven years, he cultivated a prosperous farm which he named Pine Hill, raised a dear family of three children with his wife, and became a well respected and faithful friend to his neighbors.
     Move forward in time to the year 1776, when revolution was under way. J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur had been a farmer and an author for seven years. But his home and situation were threatened by the disintegrating political and social situation in New York. Indians were taking advantage of the war between the Americans and British by conducting raids on isolated farms. Patriots were persecuting anyone who was suspected of harboring Tory sentiments. Unfortunately, Crèvecoeur fit into both categories. His farm was far from populated centers, and he was discreetly pro-British in his sympathies.
     Suspected by patriots to be a Tory, he was forced to flee his beloved Pine Hill, and found it further necessary to leave his wife and children in the care of friends. He was suspected of espionage and imprisoned by the British in New York City. His belongings, which included the manuscript for a book on life in America, were confiscated. Friends managed to get him released from prison, but he suffered a nervous breakdown due to the anxiety which his imprisonment effected.
     Crèvecoeur boarded a ship bound for England in 1780, and sold his manuscript to the publisher Davies and Davis for thirty guineas. The manuscript was published under the title Letters from an American Farmer. The book was an instant success both in England and in Europe. After selling  the manuscript, he returned to his native France, where he expanded Letters and continued to build a network of friends and contacts. In 1783, he went back to New York, this time as minister of Louis XVI to the United States.
     When he returned to the United States, he received terrible news of his family. While he was away, his wife had died. Pine Hill was burned by Indians. His children were missing. But he learned that a resident of Boston by the name of Gustavus Fellowes had taken his children into his care. How had his children ended up in the care of Fellowes, a man unknown to Crèvecoeur?
     In 1781, five Bostonians were shipwrecked on the coast of France. Crèvecoeur was the generous and compassionate Frenchman-turned-American who took them in and gave them sanctuary during his time in France. It was this act of kindness that would ultimately save the lives of Crèvecoeur’s children. These five Americans, upon returning home, learned of the news of the destruction of Pine Hill, and rescued Crèvecoeur’s children, entrusting them to the care of Fellowes.
     This story speaks of one of the many unique aspects of being an American, as Crèvecoeur saw it. Crèvecoeur asked in the third of his Letters, “What, then, is the American, this new man?”[1] That question is answered in looking to the equality of opportunity for anyone who would work hard, the fertility and boundlessness of the land, and the personal freedom of the American farmer. But he also stressed the centrality of community in America. When a person demonstrated his willingness to work hard and to help others, he could expect to find his neighbors faithful to come together to help provide for his needs at the necessary moment.
     Crèvecoeur recounted a story of a Scottish settler who began to improve land for a farm, and whose neighbors all pitched in to build him a house. Crèvecoeur  wrote, “When the work was finished, the company made the woods resound with the noise of their three cheers and the honest wishes they formed for Andrew’s prosperity. He could say nothing, but with thankful tears he shook hands with them all. Thus, from the first day he had landed, Andrew marched towards this important event; this memorable day made the sun shine on that land on which he was to sow wheat and other grain. What swamp he had cleared lay before his door; the essence of future bread, milk, and meat were scattered all around him. . . . He helped others as generously as others had helped him, and I have dined many times at his table with several of his neighbours.”[2]
     Does Crèvecoeur’s America still exist? Is this still what it means to be an American?

[1] J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer and Sketches of Eighteenth Century America, edited with an introduction by Albert E. Stone (New York: Penguin, 1986), 69.
[2] Ibid., 104.

100 Year Anniversary of the Start of World War I Next Year

Field Marshal Lord Kitchener

I am a huge World War I buff. If I had another 60 years added to my life, I would go back to school and earn a Ph.D. in history focusing on World War I–most likely the preparedness movement championed by Theodore Roosevelt, Leonard Wood, and others from the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915 to the American declaration of war in April 1917.

World War I marks the beginning of the twentieth century. January 1, 1901 is not the first day of the twentieth century–June 28, 1914, the date of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, is. In terms of logistics, communication, and transportation the war was managed, at least in the first months, much the same way wars had been managed since Roman times. But by the end of the war four years later, everything had modernized so completely as to make the beginning of the war so different that it occurred to the mind more as a dream than a memory.

The personalities are fascinating. Back in those days, personalities, relationships, neuroses, hurt feelings, family dynamics, and emotional ties each had tremendous power to affect international events. Europe was ruled by ancient families, most of which stretched back to the Medieval period. The Hohenzollerns, the Habsburgs, the Romanovs, and the Hanover/Saxe-Coburgs (of England) traced their dynastic claims back many centuries.

Even the generals are amazing–so often for their incredible incompetency and willingness to waste lives, though there were exceptions. Lanrezac, Joffre, Petain, and the indomitable Foch of the French Army; de Castlenau, von Kluck, Moltke, Crown Prince Rupprecht, von Falkenhayn–and who can forget von Hindenburg and von Ludendorff of the German Army; then there’s Kitchener, French, and Haig of the British Army as well as Jellicoe and Beatty of the British Navy; and of course, there’s the towering presence of the American general Pershing the moment he arrived in France in 1917 with the words, “Lafayette, we are here.” Awesome.

It is estimated that World War I claimed 37 million men killed, wounded, or missing. The most destructive battles in human history were fought in World War I–Verdun and the Somme claimed a million casualties each in 1916. On the first day of the battle of the Somme, the British sustained 60,000 casualties, the bloodiest day in Britain’s history. Such a waste of life.

One hundred years seems like an eternity–World War I has largely been forgotten by the American mind, overshadowed by the Second war. But there will be a lot of great new books out on various aspects of the First war next year, 2014, one hundred years after Gavrilo Princip’s revolver killed the Archduke and his wife, Sophie. There’s a new biography of President Woodrow Wilson by A. Scott Berg, reviewed here. There is also a new book by Margaret Macmillan, author of Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World, on the causes of the war, a question which seems simple but has eluded simple explanations for a century. Macmillan’s book is reviewed here. And Max Hastings has a new book on the first battles of the war in 1914 that looks fantastic.

Exciting new books, and I look forward to reading them. If anyone wants to sponsor me to get a second Ph.D. let me know!

What Day Changed the Course of Christian History?

The Fall of Constantinople, May 29, 1453

 An interesting question asked of four leading Christian historians by The Gospel Coalition–the exact question was, “After AD 70, what day most changed the course of Christian history?” Robert Wilken of the University of Virginia thinks that the Muslim invasions of the Middle East in the seventh century was the most impactful event. George Marsden of Notre Dame says that it was the conversion of Constantine in the early 4th century. Philip Jenkins of Baylor University opines that it was the fall of Constantinople in 1453. And Thomas Kidd, also of Baylor, points to the day when George Whitefield preached at Jonathan Edwards’ church in 1740, beginning the evangelical movement in America.

See the full responses here, and feel free to comment on how you would answer the question.

Constantine and the Edict of Milan 1,700 Years On

This massive bust of Constantine is about 8 feet tall

Can you imagine Pope Francis counseling the heads of Western governments to heed the example of Constantine, the Roman emperor in the early 4th century? Neither can Peter Leithart, author of Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom (IVP Academic, 2010). In this piece over at First Things, Leithart reflects on the contrast between how Constantine was viewed in the West at the 1,600 year anniversary of the Edict of Milan in 1913 with how he is viewed by contemporary Westerners at the 1,700 year mark today. What a difference a hundred years makes.

Here is a taste–

[Pope] Pius [X in 1913] wasn’t dealing in hypotheticals. Given his testy international relations with Italy, France, and Russia, it’s not difficult to identify his targets, and he used Constantine’s anniversary to exhort Christian rulers to finish what the first Christian king began. As late as the sexdecentennial, Constantine was still a symbol potent enough to have a role in ongoing political struggles.

At the septendecentennial, not so much. Constantine has nothing like the political heft he had only a century ago. I can’t see Francis invoking Constantine when advising Merkel, Obama, or Putin. During the past nine months, there have been more media references to DC Comics’ John Constantine than to the Emperor. Most news articles about Constantine have tracked the comings and goings of his head, now safely back in York after a year on display in Italy.

That’s a boon for Constantine scholarship. Freed from the need to defend or demonize, scholars can assume that Constantine was a Christian and get down to the business of sifting sources, analyzing his achievements, and tracing the accompanying changes in the Church. Politically moribund, Constantine can be pinned like a butterfly and formulated. The result is a more dispassionate, detailed, and accurate picture of Constantine than we’ve had for centuries.

From the fourth century to the twenty-first, the line between pro- and anti-Constantinians has been one of the fissures running through Western political and cultural history. From the beginning, he polarized. Pagans like Julian hated him for undermining the empire; Christians like Eusebius celebrated him for his pious devotion to the true God. He liberated the Church from persecutors, but over time became a symbol of the Church’s enslavement to empire. Millions honor him for saving orthodoxy at the Council of Nicaea, while others complain that he imprisoned the gospel in a Hellenic creed. Critics of the papacy attacked Constantine because they believed he had granted imperial powers to the Pope.

Leithart argues in his book that Constantine’s contribution to the Church and to Western civilization was, overall, a positive one. He rejects the argument that Constantine’s legalization of Christianity was an indispensable factor in the later corruption of the Church. It is an interesting read because, at least in the free church tradition, Leithart’s position is often the outlier.

I agree with Leithart that the renewed interest in Constantine among scholars is a positive development. Like Leithart, I hope that this interest extends beyond the academy, and will bring awareness to the continuing reality of the curtailment of religious freedom and the persecution of Christians worldwide.

Teaching Hobbes and Locke in a Prison

     Between Western Civilization II, Christian Apologetics, and Principles of American Politics classes, the students at the SWBTS Darrington Extension get a lot of exposure to the political thought of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and John Locke (1632-1704).  It is fascinating for me as I teach these courses to watch how they respond to the philosophies of Hobbes and Locke, given that they are incarcerated in a maximum security prison.
     Hobbes wrote in The Leviathan (1651) that men are fundamentally individualistic, and are interested above all in maintaining their personal security. In the state of nature, that is, the state in which men live prior to establishing a civil government, everyone’s lives and property are continually at risk. Hobbes’ state of nature is a state of insecurity and chaos. While everyone has absolute individual freedom, nobody has peace.
     In order to remedy this condition, Hobbes wrote that individuals agree to forfeit their freedoms in exchange for stability, security and peace. These are found in the establishment of a civil government, on the basis of a social contract, that is ruled by an absolute sovereign. People forfeit all their rights but one, the right to life. The right to life is sustained by the sovereign, who is the embodiment of the state. For Hobbes, peace and security are maintained through fear, rather than the rule of law.
     Locke, in his Second Treatise on Civil Government (1689), agreed with Hobbes that men exist in a state of nature (he pointed to Native Americans as an illustration of the meaning of the state of nature), and that the social contract establishes the civil government. But Locke asserted that government rules by the consent of the people, who retain their rights not only to life, but also to liberty and property. These rights are inborn, given to individuals by God, and no one has the right to deprive another of these rights. Locke also asserted that if the sovereign deprives the citizens of these rights, either actively or passively, then the people have the right and the responsibility to replace him with one who will guard their rights.
     Both Hobbes and Locke wrote these treatises with the violence and chaos of the English Civil War in mind. Charles I, king of England and Scotland, had been put on trial and publicly beheaded. Oliver Cromwell and the Roundheads in Parliament ruled ineptly during the 1650s, so in 1660, the Stuart monarchy was restored. But Parliament would again become embittered against the king in 1688, and it invited William of Orange to displace James II. This was known as the Glorious Revolution. Locke wrote the Two Treatises as a defense of William’s claim to the throne—Locke said that he ruled by the consent of Parliament, which represented the people.
     Teaching on these things is always a lot of fun, because all this is personally interesting to me. The first time I taught on seventeenth century England, it was for  eighth and ninth graders. But teaching on Hobbes and Locke in a prison context is really special.
     The men understand exactly what Hobbes is saying about the selfishness of people. They live that reality each day, seeking to overcome it themselves while being surrounded constantly by others who are nurturing their selfishness. They also live under a Hobbesian system—not a pure Hobbesian system perhaps, but certainly more pure than the system in which I live. They have broken the law themselves, and are living with many others who have broken the law—the law is no deterrent for most of the inmates at Darrington. But fear is a powerful motivator, and that is what Hobbes thought kept order. Also, they live and move and have their being according to the dictates of a central authority—that of the warden and those who serve under him. Their every move is watched and controlled, 24/7—their every move.
     Still, the students at Darrington know they have not forfeited their rights to life, liberty, and even of property. They have a strong sense of Lockean liberalism, even if they do not enjoy its benefits like those of us in the free world do. So for the Darrington students, there is a palpable tension between the system they know experientially—a Hobbesian system—and a system of which they have a longing awareness—a Lockean system.
    The students at Darrington are faced with historical-philosophical ideas that are manifest not in abstract, but in concrete terms. Their exposure to these ideas might be similar in some way to how people faced them in the 1650s, 1680s, or 1770s—not as abstractions fit only for a classroom, but as concrete reality that taxes every part of one’s being.
     Never a dull moment teaching at the Darrington extension of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Failure the Secret of Success

Rejection and failure are a painful part of everyone’s life. Every one of us can relate story after story of experiencing some painful rejection, despite having done all the right things: showing up, working hard, meeting the right people, etc. Success and failure are not necessarily paths going in opposite directions, and failure is not necessarily an insurmountable obstacle. Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, reflects on failure and rejection in this article. Adams writes a funny and helpful piece in Saturday’s WSJ on how to make failure the road to success, rather than a brick wall blocking the way.

Here is a taste of Adams’ good word:

Nietzsche famously said, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” It sounds clever, but it’s a loser philosophy. I don’t want my failures to simply make me stronger, which I interpret as making me better able to survive future challenges. (To be fair to Nietzsche, he probably meant the word “stronger” to include anything that makes you more capable. I’d ask him to clarify, but ironically he ran out of things that didn’t kill him.)

Becoming stronger is obviously a good thing, but it’s only barely optimistic. I do want my failures to make me stronger, of course, but I also want to become smarter, more talented, better networked, healthier and more energized. If I find a cow turd on my front steps, I’m not satisfied knowing that I’ll be mentally prepared to find some future cow turd. I want to shovel that turd onto my garden and hope the cow returns every week so I never have to buy fertilizer again. Failure is a resource that can be managed.

Before launching Dilbert, and after, I failed at a long series of day jobs and entrepreneurial adventures. Here are just a few of the worst ones. I include them because successful people generally gloss over their most aromatic failures, and it leaves the impression that they have some magic you don’t.

When you’re done reading this list, you won’t have that delusion about me, and that’s the point. Success is entirely accessible, even if you happen to be a huge screw-up 95% of the time.

Religion and American Exceptionalism

     Rodney Stark, co-director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, is the author of America’s Blessings: How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists(Templeton Press, 2012). The major thesis of the work is that, contrary to popular belief and report, religion is not dead in America. In fact, Americans remain, as they have always been, a uniquely religious people. This reality contributes to measurable human flourishing enjoyed by Americans, compared with less religious societies in Europe. He wrote in his introduction, “It is past time for a full accounting of the tangible human and social benefits of faith in American society and for the recognition that one of our nation’s primary advantages over many others lies in the greater strength of religion in American life” (4). Stark’s work specifies how religion and general human flourishing are directly connected in America.
     Stark’s thesis is really interesting, especially when one bears in mind that Alexis de Tocqueville observed a similar reality in 1830s America. Tocqueville found that Americans—all Americans—believed that religious faith was key to sustaining and preserving the republic. He wrote, “it is in this same point of view that the inhabitants of the United States themselves look upon religious belief. I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere faith in their religion—for who can search the human heart?—but I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions. This opinion is not peculiar to a class of citizens or to a party, but it belongs to the whole nation and to every rank of society” (Democracy in America, I.xvi.306). So, Tocqueville asserted that Americans, regardless of faction, saw religion as having an important public function, in addition to a private one.
     Similarly, Stark argues that religion in America fulfills a public function by connecting it with specific sociological benefits. Stark contrasts America, which enjoys religious disestablishment, with European countries having state churches. His findings show that America has lower crime rates, stronger and more fertile families, healthier mental and physical constitutions, higher rates of charitable giving, higher achievement, and a more robust intellectual life. Americans also have better sex lives, and Stark argues that there is a direct connection between religious life and these aspects of human flourishing.
     Tocqueville and Stark are observing two different Americas, to be sure. America in the 1830s has little in common with America in the 2010s when it comes to a huge variety of measurements. Still, human nature is a constant, as are the positive effects of religious faith—and in particular, the Christian faith—on human civilization.
     This is part of what Tocqueville means when he affirms that America is “exceptional” (Democracy in America, II.ix.36). Tocqueville did not mean that God had chosen America for any special destiny or mission (see here). He meant that Americans enjoy an exceptional set of circumstances in which to develop as a civilization. He observed that Americans owed a debt to Puritan theology, among other things, as they built their civilization in North America. He was proved right in many ways, in terms of the importance of religion in American society, from the 1830s to our own day. Stark’s observations, coming almost 200 years later, show that while much has changed in America, much has stayed the same.