Posts tagged with: faith

Distributed today on Acton News & Commentary:

Pope Benedict’s Defense of Authentic Equality

By Michael Miller

Once again the mild-mannered but intellectually fierce Pope Benedict XVI has provoked criticism over remarks that challenge the secular establishment’s provincial understanding of the world. In his speech to the bishops of England and Wales in Rome last week, during their ad limina visit, the Pope encouraged them to fight against so-called equality legislation. He argued that such legislation limits “the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs” and in some cases “actually violates the natural law upon which the equality of all human beings is grounded” and guaranteed.

Critics immediately jumped, claiming that the pope’s critique undermined protection of women and homosexuals in the workplace and promoted discrimination. Yet as usual, the critics not only mischaracterize, they miss the larger point. Benedict’s vision goes beyond provincial English politics. His concern is to preserve real freedom by revitalizing reason and respect for truth—not to pander to current fashions of ideological equality.

One of the more contentious parts of the equality legislation requires that religious adoption organizations end so-called “discrimination” and allow homosexual couples to adopt children. In practice this means that Catholic adoption agencies will be forced either to shut down or to act against their conscience. This is clearly a loss of religious freedom, but Benedict realizes there is a lot more going on.

First, Benedict’s remarks reflect one of the consistent themes of his papacy: to revitalize reason and a respect for truth in the West. In his famous homily before his election to the papacy, when he spoke of a “dictatorship of relativism,” and throughout his writings and speeches, he has challenged the limited and ultimately irrational notion of reason that dominates Western intellectual life.

Second is his defense of authentic equality. The current legislation transforms equality from a question of justice and fairness before the law to an ideological weapon to further secularist social policy and discriminates against religion. This pseudo equality manifests a vitiated concept of reason. The equality laws in Britain reflect less the British tradition than they do Rousseau’s notion of radical equality, which has been the source of much socialist and liberal thought. Radical equality now has become praiseworthy as something good in itself, separated from any question of truth, common sense, or even biological realities. This is what happens when we lose a rich concept of reason: Anything goes—whatever is currently politically fashionable among the elite, or is supported by consensus. Pope Benedict understands that justice based on consensus is capricious and unstable.

Third is Benedict’s awareness of the need to protect the natural right of free association and freedom of religion within a pluralist society. The current equality legislation prevents religious and other peaceful groups within society to live according to their conscience. It also smacks of totalitarianism. The right of association has been a hallmark of free and prosperous societies, a protection for the weak and a guardian of justice. When it is undermined for ideological reasons, society suffers. Not only does it prevent people from living out their beliefs, it also reduces the power of civil society to check the state. Benedict’s critique of the equality law is a defense of people’s right to join together for some project that benefits the common good.

Benedict has been harangued for claiming that certain parts of the legislation violate the natural law. What does this arcane Medieval concept have to do with modern legislation? Well, everything. The genius of English freedom has been to base its society on law, not on ideology. English legal culture is rooted in the natural law tradition. A Guardian editorial on February 3rd argued that churches have as much to gain from the legislation as they do to lose because it protects Catholics from being discriminated against when they look for jobs—and accuses Benedict of being protected by the laws he is criticizing. But Benedict realizes that if law is not grounded in reason and truth and becomes unhinged from reality, then justice gets reduced to power—Might makes right. As a young man in Nazi Germany, Joseph Ratzinger experienced a society where power was separated from reason and justice. He knows what violations of the natural law mean in practice. Critics miss that Benedict is the one promoting real equality and equal protection against a theory of justice guided by whatever happens to be the fashion at the time.

Andrew Brown—also at the Guardian—writes, “Just when it seemed that Roman Catholicism was a normal and natural part of the English religious scene, Pope Benedict has to come out with a statement that raises every residual Protestant hackle in the country.” Brown conjectures that the pope didn’t expect to be heard. But of course he did. And precisely because the last thing Benedict wants is Catholicism to be a normal part of the current English religious scene. This may be what Mr. Brown wants, but a church that does nothing more than sway with the prevailing winds neither inspires nor draws people—nor does it have the strength to stand up against injustice and abuse.

graham1 Explaining the realignment of American Southern politics is often a favorite area of study among historians and scholars. A region that was once dominated by yellow dog Democrats, has for the most part continued to expand as a loyal region for the Grand Old Party. Among the earliest and most common narrative among liberal historians and writers is the belief that the realignment in the South had to do with a backlash against desegregation. Steven P. Miller in his new book Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South puts considerable emphasis on Graham’s role in desegregation, public evangelicalism, and Graham as a spiritual and political adviser to presidents. Miller argues that Graham played a formidable role in reshaping the political climate of the South.

Early on Miller describes some of the dynamics of Graham’s insistence on holding desegregated crusades in the South, and his relationship with many fellow Southern Baptist ministers who supported segregation. Miller labels Graham a “racial moderate” largely by comparing him to Dr. Martin Luther King. Graham also at various times called for Civil Rights protesters to obey federal court orders and was quick to defend the South as having better racial relations than many places north of Dixie. With quips like, “prejudice is not just a sectional problem,” and, labeling criticism of the South “one of the most popular indoor sports of some Northerners these days,” Graham became an endearing figure to many fellow Southerners. It also allowed him to take fairly progressive positions on race without losing a large part of his Southern audience. Miller notes:

By appealing to law and order but also to such seemingly nonpartisan qualities as neighborly love and spiritual piety, Graham supplied a path upon which moderates could back away from segregationism in a manner acceptable to regional mores.

Graham linked racism as a problem directly related to the absence of God that pointed to the need of regeneration for the individual. True racial reconciliation and integration would require regeneration in the life of an individual. It was a reasoning that also made political sense when Graham would make pronouncements for more gradualism when it came to integrating the Deep South. He understood there were limits to solving segregation through legislation alone. Miller also notes Graham’s forward thinking when he addressed how much segregation stained America’s image abroad in relation to Cold War dynamics.

Another large portion of the book covers Graham’s relationship with political figures and presidents. Graham, a lifelong Democrat, is well known for his close relationship to President Richard Nixon and how his regional leadership in the American South helped Nixon’s “Southern Strategy.” Graham also had a very good relationship with President Lyndon Johnson and even lent his endorsement to his War on Poverty programs, citing Scripture as a basis for support. While Graham supported many of Johnson’s big government initiatives and his Vietnam policies, he also had harsh criticism for other areas of 1960s liberalism, especially related to judicial activism as it related to school prayer and criminal rights.

Nixon’s political comeback made Graham a serious player within that administration. Graham was criticized by the left for being a court prophet to Nixon, and his reputation would suffer again decades later through the release of tapes where Graham was heard agreeing with Nixon as he railed against all the Jews in the media. Defenses of Nixon late into Watergate proved to be an issue as well, as Graham often called the scandal further proof of a larger national problem that called for personal and national repentance.

An overarching point of Miller’s theme is that Graham gave considerable cover for Southerners to distance themselves from their segregated past. An evangelical understanding of the sins of racism allowed many to declare themselves healed and absolved from past guilt. Graham then criticized forced busing as a desegregation tactic, he further lauded law and order policies, and continually criticized the secularizing of America through the courts. Miller also argues that his close association to Nixon and his vocal pronouncements on many conservative positions, especially social positions and the moral breakdown in society further made the region ripe for change. His public pronouncements and leadership according to Miller, would also help spawn the religious right as a force in American politics.

All of these dynamics helped further fuel the political transition of the Sun Belt South Graham so celebrated through out his life. Miller also appropriately observes a statement about Jimmy Carter by Graham:

‘I would rather have a man in office who is highly qualified to be president who didn’t make much of a religious profession than to have a man who had no qualifications but who made a religious profession.’ The statement, which probably derived in part from a suspicion that Carter’s theology was in reality more liberal than evangelical, emphasized the primary vulnerability of the candidate (inexperience) at the expense of his perceived advantage (spirituality).

The epilogue substantially deals with some of the complexity of Graham’s positions, as he distanced himself from many religious conservatives by separating himself from campaigns in the pro-life movement and by taking no stance on the Equal Rights Amendment. “Now, in the pages of Sojourners, Graham called for “Salt X,” by which he meant ‘total destruction of nuclear arms,’” says Miller. Most conservative evangelicals had already lined up behind Ronald Reagan’s administration who called for more aggressive measures against the Soviets. Graham’s involvement in antinuclear activism didn’t cloud his strong relationship with Reagan however. Reagan, who had a tremendous personal interest in Christian eschatology, often spoke to the evangelist about his views on the topic. Another area of interest in the epilogue is Graham’s close relationship with the Bush family, and President George W. Bush in particular. Graham of course played a significant role in Bush’s conversion narrative. Miller discusses Bush’s repackaging of Graham’s critique on liberalism, through policies called “compassionate conservatism”, and Graham while not openly endorsing Bush in 2000, would drop many clear hints of support for the then Texas Governor.

This book provides a lot background on Graham’s career as an evangelist and as a force in 20th Century American politics. Its academic style makes it less popular for the casual reader. But readers of Civil Rights history, those interested in Graham, and those interested in the topic of faith and politics will find value in this publication. I wish Miller would have provided some more balance by discussing the importance of upward trending incomes in the South and other economic indicators directly related to the rise of the GOP in the region. Miller appropriately concludes though by noting that “Graham’s central theme never altered; the evangelist preached Christ crucified and resurrected, with salvation available through Him available to all who would invite Him into their hearts.” Far beyond any political statements, it is what Graham is known for and will especially be known for when he is called home.

My article from this week’s Acton News & Commentary:

Soviet communism adopted Karl Marx’s teaching that religion was the “opiate of the masses” and launched a campaign of bloody religious persecution. Marx was misguided about the role of religion but years later many communists became aware that turning people away from religious life increases dependence on government to address life’s problems. The history of government coercion that comes from turning from religion to government makes a new study suggesting a national decline in religious life particularly alarming to those concerned about individual freedom.

The American Religious Identification Survey, published by Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., reports that we should expect one in five Americans to identify themselves as having no religious commitments by 2030. The study, titled “American Nones: The Profile of the No Religion Population,” reports that Americans professing no religion, or Nones, have become more mainstream and similar to the general public in marital status, education, racial and ethnic makeup and income. The Nones have increased from 8.1 percent of the U.S. adult population in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008.

According to the study, 22 percent of American 18 to 29-year-olds now self-identify as Nones. For those promoting dependency on government to handle the challenges of everyday life, as well as those who wish to take advantage of a growing market for morally bankrupt products and services, the news of declining religious life is welcome. (more…)

Several writers have exposed the alarming decay of important military history programs on college campuses. Two great articles worthy of mention are John J. Miller’s “Sounding Taps” and Justin Ewers “Why Don’t More Colleges Teach Military History?” David J. Koon at The John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy has contributed an important piece titled “Retreat, But No Surrender for Military History,” which takes the view that military history might be poised for a comeback. Koon explains:

Just as surrender seemed imminent, military history has gathered unconventional reinforcements—less well-known colleges and, of all things, war and violence. These, along with broad student interest and an academy that now listens when military historians speak, may have positioned military history to climb out of the trenches and regain the field.

In his article I was glad to see him quote Dr. Andrew Wiest of the University of Southern Mississippi. I had the privilege of sitting in on a few of Dr. Wiest’s classes on Vietnam during a trip to Hattiesburg, Miss. a few years ago. One of things I really enjoyed is that he brought in veterans of that conflict to tell their stories. On the PowerBlog I have often made contributions on the important relationship between the U.S. Armed Forces and the strong tie to liberty. Additionally, I have told the faith stories of courageous veterans like Robinson Risner and Donovan Campbell.

The story of America and its freedom is intertwined with our first defenders, the farmers, merchants, and even clergy who took up arms in defense of liberty on the road to Lexington and Concord. Indeed, continued study of military history is important in a free and virtuous society.

Over at World Magazine, Lee Wishing cites a speech by Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute, on the subject of putting our faith in God and our own abilities instead of the government to manage economies. He quotes Rev. Sirico: “Many thinkers throughout the ages have noted that we face a choice between holding a robust faith in God or putting faith in man and institutions such as the state.”  In such tough economic times, we are reminded that we need to put our faith and trust in God first.

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Wednesday, May 6, 2009

joker It is appropriate that Donovan Campbell offers an inscription about love from 1 Corinthians 13:13 at the beginning of his book, Joker One: A Marine Platoon’s Story of Courage, Leadership, and Brotherhood. That’s because he has written what is essentially a love story. While there are of course many soldier accounts from Afghanistan and Iraq, some that even tell more gripping stories or offer more humor, there may not be one that is more reflective on what it means to be a leader, and what it means to love the men you serve and lead.

This book is receiving considerable press attention and Campbell’s ability to convey love the way he does has to be a big reason for the popularity of the book. Campbell movingly says about his own Marines in the opening chapter, “And I hope and pray that whoever reads this story will know my men as I do, and that knowing them, they too might come to love them.”

Campbell’s account looks at the seven and a half months in which he serves as a platoon leader in some of the fiercest fighting of the Iraq war, which occurred in Ramadi in 2004. Before the Marine Corps, Campbell was an undergraduate at Princeton who spent a summer completing the Marine Corps Officer Candidate School (OCS) because he thought it would look good on his resume. Campbell says he hated the entire program, and didn’t think twice about joining since he hadn’t taken any money from the Corps, and therefore didn’t owe them anything. He would ultimately change his mind however as graduation approached.

If love and leadership are recurrent themes, it is often discussed from a faith perspective, and Campbell is somebody who has thought seriously about his own faith and what that means for him and his men. Campbell talks about how before each combat mission he huddles up with his platoon for prayer, which often included reciting the twenty-third Psalm. “I had a responsibility to my men to provide for all their needs, and those included their spiritual as well as their material ones,” says Campbell. He also discusses some of his early thoughts on the prayer ritual before each mission:

Deep in my heart, I believed that prayer would work without fail, that if together Joker One prayed long and hard enough, God would spare us all from Mac’s fate [another Marine seriously wounded by a road side bomb]. What I know now, and which didn’t occur to me then, was that by praying as I prayed, and hoping what I hoped, and believing what I believed, I was effectively reducing God to a result-dispensing genie who, if just fed the proper incantations, would give the sincere petitioner (me) the exact outcome desired.

This book is masterful at tracing the growth and experience of Campbell’s theological progression just as it does concerning his leadership skills, decision making ability, and the moral questions he asks himself. Where prayer before was focused more on personal safety, He says it changed even more as the chaos and random violence surged. “To those who sought it, the prayer also provided some comfort that God was in control, that their lives had worth and meaning stemming from an absolute source,” says Campbell.

After one of his own Marines, Lance Corporal Todd Bolding was killed in action, Campbell understandably lost much of his enthusiasm to continue the mission. He had promised himself that he would bring all of his platoon home. He says:

For whatever reason, [Private First Class Gabriel] Henderson’s tender heart kept a close watch on me, and one day, roughly two weeks after Bolding’s death, he walked up to me and said out of the blue: ‘Hey sir, you know that none of the platoon blames you for what happened to Bolding. It’s okay, sir.’ I didn’t know what to say to that. Henderson broke into a smile. ‘Bolding’s in heaven now, sir, and I know that he’s smiling down at us right now, just like he always smiled at us when he was here. He’s okay, sir. Don’t worry, sir. He’s okay. And someday you will get to see him again, sir.’ I had to turn away to keep from crying. I think that Henderson’s profound, simple faith was what finally allowed me to pick myself back up, and, in some very real sense, regain my own faith.

This book deals with a lot of raw emotion, the frustrations with all the problems in Iraq, and tragedy. At the closing of Campbell’s account, he does a beautiful job of articulating the greater-love principle from John’s Gospel (15:13).

In seminary I took a class on leadership and I know Campbell’s book teaches more lessons about leadership than classes or many other books could. His account is a strong reminder that some of America’s best, regardless of policy debates or politics, are the ones silently shouldering a heavy burden in America’s current conflicts. While much of the country goes to the mall, shops, and attends sporting events, there are those who suffer and have to make quick life and death decisions where the consequences of combat often result in bad or worse.

This is definitely one of the best books of 2009. The narrative is somewhat similar to Nathaniel Fick’s book from 2005, One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer, in that both authors do a wonderful job at baring their heart and telling the stories of young men who do courageous acts solely for others and not themselves. Interestingly enough, both authors were officers in the Marines who came out of Ivy League schools. All of the wonderful sacrifices Campbell’s platoon made for a largely unappreciative civilian Ramadi population in 2004, and the havoc they wreaked on their foe, is a reminder of the truth that rings out from the great unofficial U.S. Marine motto, “No greater friend, no worse enemy.”

lazarus1Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” – John 11: 25, 26

The text comes from the account of Lazarus being raised to life by Christ after already being dead for four days. The question “Do you believe this?” was posed to the sister of Lazarus, Martha. There have been people who have shunned their faith, and shunned Christ because of a great tragic event in their life. Perhaps somebody intimately close to them has died. Maybe we even know somebody who has left the Church because they suffered a great loss.

While reading God’s Word it is important to take note of the point being made. Do we ourselves believe? In this passage Jesus is quick to be clear that our own resurrection and eternal fellowship with Him is related to our own confession and faith.

Concerning the account of Jesus calling Lazarus out of the tomb in John 11, it is assuring that the dead listen to Christ. They hear his words and they are raised to life. In the passage Martha says that she knows that Lazarus “will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” But Jesus counters “I am the resurrection and the life.” Christ is the author of the resurrection power. As the writer of the Gospel has already testified, “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:3). For Christ, isn’t it as easy to raise Lazarus now as it would be at a later resurrection?

Earlier in this passage Martha says, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Martha has great faith even though she did not have a full understanding yet. A full comprehension notes that Jesus, the very one speaking to Martha at that moment, is the resurrection and author of all through eternity. Jesus shows his power and authority over death with his raising of Lazarus.

Easter Sunday celebrates the power of Christ over death, and how that power is the joy and the fulfillment of the life of the believer. Our suffering, imperfections, tears, and grief are wiped away by the promises and power of Christ. It brings meaning and assurances to everything we know about the Christian faith. “The Gospels do not explain the resurrection. The resurrection alone is what can explain the Gospels,” says Thomas C. Oden.

The witness of faith for those who gather to celebrate Easter will testify mightily against a world and lifestyle that suffers to find meaning, redemption, joy, immortality, and love outside of God. All too often we see the consequences of the kind of lifestyles that are absent from faith, and the haunting despair that follows. But the Christian lives with the assurance and promise of eternal life because of the intercession and power of Christ over sin and death.

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Nathan Hale has long been enshrined as a patriotic American icon for his last words before his hanging by the British, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” M. William Phelps, who is the author of the new book The Life and Death of America’s First Spy: Nathan Hale, believes Hale never uttered those exact words. But in Phelps’s view, that wouldn’t in any way take away from the significance and importance of Hale’s legacy. One of the defining projects of any Hale biographer would be to make an attempt at separating the folk-lore from reality, and Phelps does a fine job in this account.

Phelps also focuses on how defining Hale’s Christian faith was in his brief life asserting “even at a young age, he put Christian values before all else.” Phelps describes Hale as a man who enjoyed his scholarly pursuits and friendships at Yale. The picture that is drawn of Hale is a young man who is committed to his faith, to his family, and serving others. In fact, after his graduation from Yale he went on to serve as a teacher in order to better prepare young minds for the world. One of the many moving accounts of Phelps’s book is the wonderful things people say about Hale as a teacher, as a Christian, and as a man of character. An acquaintance noted, “His capacity as a teacher, and the mildness of his mode of instruction, was highly appreciated by Parents & Pupils; his appearance, manners, & temper secured the purest affections of those to whom he was known.” Phelps also makes note of how he impressed people with his ability to express and explain the importance of liberty, and the oppression of the English Crown. His words were magnified even more because he chose them carefully and spoke from the heart.

Hale decided to take a leave of absence from teaching to join Washington’s Army. He was commissioned a lieutenant, and he wrote to his father to say, “A sense of duty urged me to sacrifice everything for my country.” Hale’s father already had five of his eight sons taking up arms against the British. Hale distinguished himself on the battlefield just as he did as a teacher by being focused on sacrifice, service, and his commitment to being a professional officer.

With Washington’s Army in New York, more information was needed about the British troops in the area. Hale enthusiastically volunteered to go undercover to obtain the necessary information. Fellow officers tried to talk him out of it declaring the mission a “death sentence,” and declared that spying was unbecoming of the character of an army officer. Phelps notes:

I.W. Stuart described a spy as a ‘companion of darkness.’ There was no way of dressing the job up to appear less dishonest than it was. ‘If he moved in the light,’ Stuart wrote, ‘it is behind walls, in the shadow of trees, in the loneliness of clefts, under the cover of hills . . . skulking with the owl, the mole, or the Indian.’ One of the problems Nathan faced as a spy was that, on his best day, Nathan Hale was none of those. He embodied the spirit of that compassionate man Asher Wright described: the one who knelt by the bedside of a fellow, a devoted Christian who prayed for a soldier dying next to him in the marsh. He was not an impostor, an actor. However, Nathan’s commitment to the cause overrode any of the hazards. He had made a decision and saw it as his duty as an American soldier to follow through with it.

Phelps in his account also reinforces the fact that a well educated man was needed for the mission in order to procure the proper sketches and notes for General Washington. Hale went behind enemy lines disguised as a Dutch school teacher in farm clothes.

Phelps tries to put to rest the often cited account that Hale was spotted and turned in by a loyalist cousin named Samuel Hale, arguing instead new evidence favors that he was tricked into admitting his spying by a ruthless and savvier British Colonel, named Robert Rogers. In any event, on his way back to the American line, Hale was caught and disclosed the details of his mission and was sentenced to death by hanging the next morning for espionage. Hale was refused the presence of a chaplain and a bible before execution, which he had asked to be granted to him. Several British accounts testify to the immense courage Hale displayed and faced even with the certainty of his earthly demise. He warned the onlookers “to be prepared to meet death in whatever shape it may appear.” A captain in the Continental Army, Hale was only twenty-one when he was executed. Phelps declared of Hale:

Nathan accepted his sentence. He stood proudly, head tilted skyward, posture firm, hands tied behind his back. Then, in a phrase that has been misquoted throughout the centuries and turned into a slogan for patriotism, he said, ‘I am so satisfied with the cause in which I have engaged that my only regret is that I have not more lives than one to offer in its service.’ This is perhaps the most often misremembered moment in the Nathan Hale story: What did he say moments before he was executed? The line attributed to him – ‘I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country’ – is only a paraphrase of what Nathan actually said, which was reported in the Independent Chronicle on May 17, 1781, as part of an article many believed William Hull narrated to the reporter. But contemporary scholars and historians have said the apocryphal quote was derived from the popular Revolutionary War play Cato. This poetic line fit with the heroism being created around Nathan’s legacy at the time it became popular decades after his death. His peers wanted him to be remembered not as a failed spy, but as a hero who spoke with patriotic self-worth at the moment of his death. In contrast, the Essex Journal, on February 2, 1777, reported Nathan’s final words as ‘You are shedding the blood of the innocent. If I had ten thousand lives, I would lay them all down, if called to do it, in defence of my injured, bleeding country.’

Hale was left to hang for three days, then cut down and buried in a shallow unmarked grave somewhere “near present-day Third Avenue, between Forty-sixth and Sixty-sixth streets,” according to Phelps. His body was never recovered.

Phelps has crafted a story that helps to make Hale’s life remarkable outside of what he is most assuredly known for, his heroic death. His life confidently testifies to devotion to his Savior first, his country, and liberty. Phelps movingly concludes his biography by asserting:

When the British strung Nathan Hale up and hanged him, they did so to end his influence on the American effort. And yet, at the moment Nathan died on the end of that rope, the British gave birth to a national icon of liberty and patriotism. Nathan was, during his life, a captain in the American Continental Army who was willing to risk everything for the greater good of his country, a solider who was certainly, ill-prepared as a spy, but had a heart that led him to fulfill his duty. Sadly, death made him a martyr, a hero, an American solider to – rightly so – celebrate and honor. Yet he was – and could have been – all those things in life, too.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, December 29, 2008

Two of Eric Shansberg’s recent PowerBlog posts got me thinking of some other things I had run across in the last couple weeks during the run-up to Christmas Day.

The first item, “Santa and the ultimate Fairy Tale,” quotes Tony Woodlief to the effect that “fairy tales and Santa Claus do prepare us to embrace the ultimate Fairy Tale.” Schansberg’s (and Woodlief’s) take on this question is pretty compelling and worth considering, even though I’m not quite convinced of the value of the Santa Claus fable.

I’m still a relatively new parent (I have a three and a half year-old) and so I’m still in the midst of sorting out with my wife the best way to handle questions of the reality of Santa Claus. Until very recently, I had always been of the opinion that honesty is the best policy.

I’ve never liked the idea of putting God and Jesus on the same epistemic level (even if only for the first decade or so of a person’s life) as say, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, or Santa Claus. Rather than “preparing” the child for “embrace of the ultimate Fairy Tale,” it seems to me that such practice can foster a hermeneutic of suspicion, such that when the child finds out Santa Claus isn’t “real” in any empirical sense, he or she will, at least initially, be inclined to lump God in with other “fairy tales.” That kind of approach seems to lead as much to Freud as it does to Lewis.

I don’t mean to be a killjoy. I’m a lover of literature. I am interested (along with Tolkien) in the question of whether the proper pluralization of dwarf is dwarfs or dwarves (I too prefer the latter). I was an English major in college, and I admit to getting a bit teary-eyed when Zooey Deschanel leads a group of hard-bitten New Yorkers in a rendition of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” at the climax of Elf.


And I agree that we need to cultivate the sense that the realm of empirical science isn’t the only or even the best way of talking about ultimate reality. But again, I’m a bit uncomfortable with the idea that for our children we need to prepare the way for the Gospel with fiction, even well-meant fiction. If my child can’t rely on me to tell the truth about Santa, why should he believe what I have to say about God?

Rather than pointing to how such fairy tales pave the way for belief in the “ultimate Fairy Tale,” I’ve always thought that the youthful belief in Santa underscores the fundamentally fiduciary nature of human beings. We are believing creatures. We basically trust, at least at first, what other people and especially our parents tell us. We aren’t born cynical or un-trusting, but rather dependent and credulous.

This is an important thing to know about humans from a theological and anthropological point of view, but equally important is the recognition of how wrong that credulity can go. We are basically believing creatures, but without the Gospel that belief is corrupted and we create idols for ourselves. Would you say believing in Mardukh, Mammon, and Ba’al “prepare us to embrace the ultimate Fairy Tale”?

All of which leads me to the item I thought of when reading that first post: the famous “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” editorial from 1897. As you might guess from my comments above, I have mixed feelings about the editorial, but I thought I’d recommend it since it seems so relevant to Schansberg’s point.

The other post of Schansberg’s that caught my attention was his other Christmas Day offering, in which he contrasts the Lord of the cradle, the cross, and the throne, calling for a comprehensive apprehension of Jesus Christ.

That made me think of this quote from Ed Dobson about Jesus, contained in a story from the Christmas Day Grand Rapids Press (I was out of town so I only got to it over the weekend):

“Everybody loves a baby,” mused Dobson, 58. “But when you start reading the teachings of this baby, and about the sufferings of this baby, you begin to understand better who he is.”

The story goes on in a lot more detail about Dobson’s recent history since retiring from his pastorate at Calvary Church in Grand Rapids. There’s a lot more of interest in that piece.

But his quote speaks quite pointedly to Schansberg’s emphasis on the comprehensive Christ. We need to know of his birth, death, and resurrection.

I received this notice via H-Net last week:

THE LAKE INSTITUTE ON FAITH & GIVING THE CENTER ON PHILANTHROPY INDIANA UNIVERSITY

DOCTORAL DISSERTATION FELLOWSHIP

The Lake Institute on Faith and Giving at the Center on Philanthropy, Indiana University will offer a one year doctoral dissertation fellowship of $22,000 for the academic year 2009-2010. This doctoral dissertation fellowship will be given to a scholar whose primary research focus is in the area of religion and philanthropy or faith and giving. The fellowship is intended to support the final year of dissertation writing. The fellowship stipend will be paid in three installments: $10,000 at the beginning of the 2009-2010 academic year; $10,000 at the mid-point of the 2009-2010 academic year; $2,000 upon the successful completion of the dissertation.

More details here.