Review and Preview

In thy presence is fullness of joy

  In thy right hand are pleasures forevermore

Psalm 16: 1

 

This past Sunday’s lesson was Psalm 16.  There were several thoughtful reactions to the reading of the Psalm.  Some noted that the psalm was comforting, others that it was joyful and worshipful.  The teacher (that’s me) suggested that one of the distinctive features of this psalm is its comprehensiveness.  That is, it takes us through so much of the life of faith: the absolute trust; the turning away from falsehood; the fellowship of kindred minds; the fulfilled life and the hope for eternity.

Another distinction of this psalm is its inclusion of the word “pleasure.”   We sometimes take that word to mean something selfish and shallow and hedonistic – “worldly pleasures,” and all that.  But here it is, right there in the psalm: “In thy presence is fullness of joy; in thy right hand are pleasures forevermore.”

The Hebrew word that is here translated “pleasures” is used 13 times in the Old Testament.  Only twice – here and in a passage in Job – is it actually translated into the English word pleasure.  In most instances, it’s translated as “pleasant” and in a few others to the word “sweet.”

In class we talked about what the word “pleasure has come to mean in modern culture.”  For fun and to make a point we referred to Tom T. Hall’s song “Faster Horses.”  Here is what the old man in the song says constitutes pleasure:

Son, it’s faster horses

Younger women

Older whiskey

And more money

Image result for tom t hall

Tom T. Hall

We were sure that this kind of pleasure was not what the psalmist was promising.  What then is the pleasure that the psalm refers to?  What does the word mean in this context?

We talked of abstractions like “joy” and “peace” and we talked about pleasure being the absence of negatives like sickness and infirmity.

When asked to make these ideas a bit more concrete we came to the notion that joy or pleasure might be the full engagement in those human relationships that mean the most to us.  If we were given time and energy and opportunity to fully share our affection and wisdom with our grandchildren, for example, we’d call that pleasure.

Others suggested that joy or pleasure in this biblical sense might be found in the fullest exercise of our talents and strengths.  One such talent is music and one musician in the class described feeling a desire to do more with her talents than she had ever done.

And this suggests an idea that we did not develop in class, but that I think is fairly raised by the psalm and certainly by the experience of all of us.  Like our musician in class, we all feel like – no matter how close the friendship, no matter how deeply experienced and no matter how finely we may perform musically – or in any other talent – we always are left with the lingering notion that there was more that we did not get to.

I remember that Dr. Weaver quoting some passage  – not from the Bible – about friendship not being able to come to full fruition in “such a nook as this.”  The “nook” referred to is, of course, this earthly life, bound as it is by time and mortal limitation.  This was, for him, an intimation of heaven, where all that we have seen as promised in our relationships may be finally fulfilled.

Here is a quote from Pablo Casals, perhaps the greatest cellist who ever lived:

THE MUSICIAN: Pablo Casals, who performed at the UN recently, is 81. He agreed to have Robert Snyder make a movie short, “A Day in the Life of Pablo Casals.” Snyder asked Casals, the world’s foremost cellist, why he continues to practice four and five hours a day. Casals answered: “Because I think I am making progress.”

Image result for pablo casals

Pablo Casals

Even for a master musician like Casals, there is the sense that there is more out there, more to be expressed than even he has yet achieved.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Importance of Fathers

 

As you know, if you read this blog regularly, I’ve been reading Eudora Welty’s memoir, One Writer’s Beginnings.  She delves deeply into her early life, how her parents surrounded her with books and read to her in their nursery in their home in Jackson, Mississippi.

In the second phase of the book, entitled “Learning to See,” she focuses on her summer vacation north to visit her mother’s parents in West Virginia and her father’s parents in Ohio.   I have lived in West Virginia almost all of my life and so the descriptions of the life she saw here in the early part of the 20th century are very interesting to me.  I have been to the places she writes about – the towns of Clay and Richwood and the country all along the Elk River.

She writes particularly about one such trip she made very early in her life with only her mother.  They traveled by train to Clay, West Virginia and spent time in her grandparents’ home on a mountaintop there.  Eudora’s father came to West Virginia at the end of their visit to, as she puts it, “shepherd us home.”   Although she was very young then, she speaks of this memory about her father’s arrival:

. . . I was not too much of a baby to notice and remember how different it was when my father arrived on the scene.  A difference came over what we were doing, like a change in the wind.

I know what she means.  I remember something of the same in my own early life and I will try to express that before I end this post.  But the idea I have now is perhaps better expressed by Leo Tolstoy in his masterpiece, Anna Karenina.

That book actually began as two books – one the fatal story of Anna and the other the story of the life and redemption of Levin and Kitty.   The second story is far the better one.   Anna’s life is one mistake after another leading to dissolution and finally death but Levin and Kitty’s story is a great love story and a great story of victory in living.

 

Kitty Shcherbatsky

 

 

Kitty and Levin’s story begins with great disappointments on both sides.  Levin is head-over-heels in love with Kitty, but before he can bring himself to propose to her, she becomes enamored with Count Vronsky, who leads her on only to at last disappoint and mortify her by transferring his affections to the married Anna.

Kitty’s family does what it can to help her assuage her grief.  This includes, as the story goes, a trip to a German spa where Kitty meets another girl who works with the halt and the lame at there in service to Christ.  Kitty is drawn to this Varinka and comes to see that her own grief can be forgotten as she immerses herself in sacrificial love.

This is Kitty’s conversion.  It is real, and it is really brought about, on the human plane, by Varinka and a woman for whom Varinka works.  Kitty comes to venerate this older woman.

But when Kitty’s father, an old Russian prince, steeped in experience and tradition, arrives on the scene, things change.  It turns out that the old prince knew the woman Kitty has come to idealize.  When he meets her again at the spa, Kitty can see the woman in a new way through her father’s eyes as he speaks to the woman, as she reacts and as her father comments to her later about the woman’s character and earlier life.

Image result for anna karenina "prince Shcherbatsky"

Prince Shcherbatsky

 

 

Here is Tolstoy:

. . .  with her father’s coming all the world in which she had been living was transformed for Kitty.  She did not give up everything she had learned, but she became aware that she had deceived herself in supposing she could be what she wanted to be. Her eyes were, it seemed, opened; she felt all the difficulty of maintaining herself without hypocrisy and self-conceit on the pinnacle to which she had wished to mount.  Moreover, she became aware of all the dreariness of the world of sorrow, of sick and dying people, in which she had been living. The efforts she had made to like it seemed to her intolerable, and she felt a longing to get back quickly into the fresh air, to Russia, to Ergushovo, where, as she knew from letters, her sister Dolly had already gone with her children.

But her affection for Varenka did not wane. As she said good-bye, Kitty begged her to come to them in Russia.

This scene from the book is far deeper and more subtle than I can convey in this post.  It is in fact a masterly dramatization of an elusive but profound dynamic of good fathering.   I don’t think I have ever seen anyone else even try to communicate this, in story or in exposition. Fathers, good fathers, are a sobering influence.  They see the people who surround their children in a different, more mature, less fanciful light.  They are sensitive to any attempt or effort to patronize or exploit their children.  When dad comes around, the nonsense stops.

When dad is not around, the nonsense often goes on unchecked.

 

Meditation on Psalm 91

Psalm 91 is one of the more famous psalms.  Particularly that first verse:

 

He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.

 

I’ve got to admit that I do appreciate the majesty, the poetry, the feel of the language here.  It’s like a phrase you would hear shouted from some holy mountaintop or echoing in an ancient cathedral.  Very high church.  And that kind of thing is not lost on me.  There is a lot to be said about the poetic feel or lift of language used in worship.  It’s inspiring.  It gets your attention.

My problem with the passage has been that I didn’t really get what it meant.  I did not see in it the depth that others around me – others whose judgements I do trust – obviously relished.  To me, the verse was almost a tautology.  It looked to me like you could have translated the verse into lower key language by saying something like: “He who lives close to God shall live close to God.”

There has to be more to it than that.

I’ve looked in the lexicons and concordances to try and find some meaningful distinction between the verbs in the verse.  What is the difference in the Hebrew words that are here translated “dwelleth,” and “abide?”  I did not find much.   They are two distinct Hebrew words, but so far as I can tell, they may be sued almost interchangeably and are in fact both translated “abide” in other places in the Bible.

What then is the difference between “the secret place of the most High” and “the shadow of the Almighty?”  Could it be that the secret place of the Most High is the place of personal devotion of the degree that is so complete and so personal – i.e. “secret” that it is known only to the worshipper?  Kind of like the name God gives to his servants whose faith has endured testing?  The name that is on the white stone and is known only to that individual and to God?

If so, then does “the shadow of the Almighty” refer to the security that such trusting saints will know?

The Mark of The Beast

Revelation 13:16-17

16 And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads:

17 And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.

 

 

There are many different kinds of writing in the Bible.

 

There are, for example, poetic works, prophetic works, histories and letters.  If we are to understand a biblical text; if we are to get the most out of it; we must come to it recognizing the kind of writing it is.  Thus, we don’t come to the Psalms expecting a lesson in physics.  The Psalms are songs and thus are often poetic and use metaphor to convey truth.  When we read in the Psalms that God “rides on the wings of the wind” we do not conclude that the wind actually has a set of wings.  Because we know we are reading poetry we recognize that the description is metaphorical and communicates the swiftness and majesty of God at work in the world.

Another type of writing we see in the Bible is so-called “apocalyptic” writing.   When you hear the word “apocalypse” these days, what is the first image that comes to mind?  I’m willing to bet that for most people, that first thought has to do with disaster of unimaginable proportion.   You know, like the ending of the first Ghostbusters movie:

Dr. Peter Venkman: This city is headed for a disaster of biblical proportions.

Mayor: What do you mean, “biblical”?

Dr. Raymond Stantz: What he means is Old Testament, Mr. Mayor, real wrath of God type stuff.

Dr. Peter Venkman: Exactly.

Dr. Raymond Stantz: Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling!

Dr. Egon Spengler: Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes…

Winston Zeddemore: The dead rising from the grave!

Dr. Peter Venkman: Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!

Mayor: All right, all right! I get the point!

 

 

In fact, even Merriam-Webster defines the word “apocalypse” as “a great disaster: a sudden and very bad event that causes much fear, loss, or destruction.”

But – and you must have known I was going to say this – that is not the original meaning of the word.  The word “apocalypse” is Greek in origin and it literally means “uncovering.”   Thus, an apocalyptic writing, such as the biblical Book of Revelation, is one that aims to draw back the curtain on obvious and superficial appearances and expose the spiritual realities beneath it all.  Thus, the primary focus of such a work is on revealing the true nature of what is present or immediate, with far less emphasis on what may happen in the distant future.

While it cannot be denied that the Book of Revelation does speak of the end of history and the final consummation of God’s perfect kingdom, if we treat that as the sole focus of the book and lose sight of what the book had to say about the immediate circumstances the original audience of the book – the churches to which the book is expressly addressed –faced even as they read the letter, then we are far from doing justice to the work and far from receiving the insight and encouragement it may provide.

We must admit that there are mysteries about the Book of Revelation.  The precise meaning of many of the individual symbols used in the book has been lost over the centuries. But the point is not to speculate about the meaning of this or that detail, but instead to focus on the central and overarching message of the book.

One thing that is not mysterious about the book is the identity of its original audience.  In fact, we may fairly think of this book as a letter that is still in its postmarked, addressed envelope.  We have the advantage of knowing who wrote the letter, who it was written to and the approximate time that the letter was sent.

The book itself identifies the writer as the Apostle John and the intended recipients as the seven churches in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey).  There can be little doubt that the book was written late in the first century A. D.  It may have been the last of the New Testament books to have been written.

What does that well-established information do for the contemporary reader?  I suggest that it does a lot.  For the first principle in interpreting and understanding the book is the principle of original intelligibility.  That is, we must begin our study of the book with the idea that it would have been intelligible – it would have had obvious meaning – to its first audience.

Many of the contemporary and popular interpretations  point to passages in the book as references to this, that or the other historical event, all of which occurred long after the churches to whom this Book was written were history themselves.    It is almost as if they assume that when the first-century churches received this letter from John that they could not have had any real idea about what the book was talking about.  You can imagine a bunch of first-century Christians in Philadelphia or Laodicea puzzling over the letter, saying to each other “Okay, we understand bits of this, but a great amount of it is totally impenetrable for us.  It must be aimed at generations hundreds of years in the future.”

I hope you see how silly this is.  This Book, by its very terms, is written directly to particular churches and if we are to begin to understand it at all, we must start by thinking about what John intended it to convey to them.

We’ve spent a good deal of time talking about that very thing in this class.  We’ve referred to the works of Eugene Peterson (Reversed Thunder) and Vernon Poythress (The Returning King) that approach the book in this way and offer compelling explanations about what many of the symbols in the book would have been immediately recognized as by those Christians in Asia Minor, to whom the book was addressed.

Two of those symbols – the “Land Beast” and the “Sea Beast” we recognized as – in reverse order – coercive government power and the apologists who supported that power.  In the first century, the coercive government power would have been Caesar, the Roman Emperor, who in that day demanded to be worshipped as a deity.  The Land Beast represented the magicians, false religionists and other sycophants who worked hand in hand with the government to project the image that the Emperor was in fact divine.

If we understand the book in this way, we can apply its meaning to every age, including our own.  For although the names and flags change over the generations, it is the recurrent impulse of leaders and governments to demand more than is legitimately theirs: to demand absolute allegiance from citizens and subjects.

 

 

Such a knuckling under to coercion is symbolized in the book as the taking on of the mark of the beast.

In this week’s passage we read that those who refused to bear the beast’s marking; in other words, those who refused to compromise their faith in God and their loyalty to him were forbidden to “buy or sell.”

If we understand the book in this way, we can see that the spiritual forces John describes play out in every generation.

During the twentieth century the great Sea Beast reared its head in the ideologies of Fascism and Communism.  Both movements demanded total control – the total commitment and subservience of the men and women under their jurisdiction

Whittaker Chambers, an American intellectual, fell under the spell of Communism early in the 20th century.  After more than a decade in active service to the Beast, he realized the error of his ways and his own need for God.  He thus deserted the Communist party and converted to Christianity.  He knew there would be repercussions.  He writes in his autobiographical book, Witness:

One form of attack the Communist Party invariably makes upon all ex-Communists, big or little.  It tries to make it impossible for them to live by preventing them from getting a job.  If they succeed in getting one, the party tries to make it impossible for them to keep it.  This is very easy [for them] to do.

There we have it.  Chambers removes from his forehead the mark of the beast – his membership in the Communist party and his total allegiance to the revolution – and the penalty the Beast tries to impose is to deny him the means of a living – the ability to buy and sell.

 

 

 

 

About Yesterday’s Class

Making an oral argument before an appellate court is one of the most nerve-wracking aspects of the practice of law.  You’ve got fifteen minutes, give or take, to convince a panel of judges that your side is in the right.  The judges will know the record of the case.  They, with the help of a staff of bright, young law clerks, will have studied the transcript of the proceeding below and the briefs filed by the parties – you and your opponent.  They will know the law, as well, since they will have in large part made it.   That is, the court to which you are addressing your argument is often the same court that wrote the decisions on which your argument is based.

Everything is at stake here.  If you won below, then you are at risk of having the decision in your favor set aside and being told to go back to square one and do it over, this time according to proper procedure.  If you lost below, this appeal is probably your last bite at the apple.  If you lose here, your loss is generally final.

And so the preparation for such an argument is exhaustive and intense.  It involves committing a good deal of the transcript of the proceeding below to memory so that you can, on a dime, direct the court, chapter and verse, to those parts of the record that support your argument.  And you must have read the applicable precedents so thoroughly that you understand their rules and every implication that might flow from each ruling.

And so, the saying is that every lawyer who argues an appeal has three arguments:  the one he plans to make; the one he actually makes; and the perfect, insurmountable argument he thinks of while he is driving home from the courthouse.

That sort of thing can happen to Sunday School teachers, as well.  I think it may have happened to me this past Sunday.  The advantage I have over the appellate advocate, though, is this blog.  I can, at my leisure, attempt to correct or bolster here what I said or at least meant to say in class yesterday.

You may have guessed where I think my effort failed.  Our New Testament lesson yesterday was Revelation 6: 1-8, the so-called “four horsemen of the apocalypse.”

In the last two lessons that I have taught, we’ve been studying the life of Whittaker Chambers through a reading of his autobiographical book, Witness.  Chambers was a Communist in the 1930s and worked with an underground “apparatus” consisting of himself, numerous highly-placed government employees in Washington, D. C., and a Russian Colonel in New York City.  This cell operated to spirit documents and other information out of government agencies – one member of the apparatus was an assistant to the Assistant Secretary of State and another was an Assistant to the Attorney General – to be photographed and then sent to party headquarters in Moscow, all in preparation for the revolution that Chambers and his comrades thought was inevitable.

In time, Chambers figured out that what he was doing in collaborating with the Soviet Union was a colossal evil and he thus left the apparatus, deserted the party, converted to Christianity and became a witness against those other traitors with whom he had worked.

All of that is very interesting and gripping drama.  There is more than enough here for a whole semester’s worth of classes, but this past week we focused particular on two statements of Chambers; one concerning how it is that rational men – like himself – could become Communists, knowing full well the violence of the party’s operations.  Chambers had this to say about that:

 

“Sooner or later, one of my good friends is sure to ask me:  How did it happen that a man like you became a Communist? Each time I wince, not at the personal question, but at the failure to grasp the fact that a man does not, as a rule, become a Communist because he is attracted to Communism, but because he is driven to despair by the crisis of history through which the world is passing.
I force myself to answer: In the West, all intellectuals become Communists because they are seeking the answer to one of two problems: the problem of war or the problem of economic crises”

 

Dr. S. Robert Weaver was the man to whom I owe my understanding of the Scriptures.  He was a graduate of Princeton University, having received a Th.D. there in the 1940s.  He served as pastor of the First Baptist Church of St. Albans, West Virginia for some 22 years.  I became a member of that church upon my baptism there (I was then 12 years old) in about 1964.  I listened to hundreds of his sermons over the years and was privileged to be a part of a bible study class he conducted for young people in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  He spent a good deal of time on the Book of Revelation.  He told us that this book was “the least read and most widely misunderstood book in the Bible.”

I don’t know about the “least read” part, but it is very easy to see that the book has been grossly misunderstood and misinterpreted in our day.  You can start with Hal Lindsay.  His book, The Late, Great Planet Earth, ostensibly based on New Testament prophesy, first predicted that the world was going to end sometime before December 31, 1988:

He cited a host of world events — nuclear war, the communist threat and the restoration of Israel — as reasons the end times were upon mankind. His later books, though less specific, suggested that believers not plan on being on Earth past the 1980s — then the 1990s and, of course, the 2000s. But Lindsey did more than just wrongly predict the end of days; he popularized a genre of prophecy books.

Top 10 End-of-the-World Prophecies, Time Magazine

Dr. Weaver saw the Book of Revelation not as a “blueprint of the future,” but as a message of hope to beleaguered Christians in the first century who were about to suffer persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire.  He taught that the “four horsemen” were not to be singularly identified with any particular historical events but, rather, were symbols of the recurring evils that would have sway during the era of the Church, that is, during the time between the Ascension of Jesus Christ and his return.  Those evils included war and economic woes.

Thus, when I read Chambers’ explanation of why men become Communists, my mind went directly to this passage from Revelation.  But here is the problem: no one else’s mind did!  When I asked at the end of the hour what connection there might be between Chamber’s explanation of why men choose Communism and this passage of scripture I could hear crickets.

But there are connections.  Big time, important connections.

In fact, I would argue that if Chambers had had a true understanding of this passage, he would never have joined the Communist party.

In his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Chambers was confronted again with this question:

 

“THE CHAIRMAN: What influenced you to join the Communist Party originally?

  1. CHAMBERS: It is a very difficult question. As a student, I went to Europe. It was then shortly after the First World War. I found Germany in chaos, and partly occupied; northern France and parts of Belgium were smashed to pieces. It seemed to me that a crisis had been reached in western civilization which society was not able to solve by the usual means. I then began to look around for the unusual means. I first studied for a considerable time British Fabian socialism, and rejected it as unworkable in practice. I was then very much influenced by a book called Reflections on Violence, by Georges Sorel, a syndicalist, and shortly thereafter I came to the writings of Marx and Lenin. They seemed to me to explain the nature of the crisis, and what to do about it.

We might say that Chambers’ motivation was a moral one.  We might have some sympathy for a young man who looks on destruction and then looks for a way to do something about it.  But what Chambers was missing and what we in our day very much need to have as we look at the convulsions of current events is a biblical perspective.

The Book of Revelation tells the reader that the history of this world will be marked by evil.  By just the kind of destruction and turmoil that Chambers witnessed on his trip to Europe.  Thus, the situation Chambers saw there in the 1920s was not unique, but only one more chapter, one more manifestation of the strife that the Apostle John wrote about in his message to the churches in Asia Minor.

Another thing that Chambers was missing and that an understanding of the Book of Revelation would have given him is this:  the evils in this world are spiritual.  They manifest themselves in material ways – war, famine, civil strife – but their origin is spiritual.  These evils are the deliberate workings of an evil, spiritual power and, thus, they cannot be solved by man’s devising, by a merely material response.   Man’s “five year plans and new deals, wrapped in golden chains” will not, cannot, meet the needs of the day.

Chambers finally figured this out.  Tomorrow I’ll write about the second point from yesterday’s lesson: what we might learn from Chambers’ failure to make his first break from the Communist party a permanent break.

The World’s Second-Oldest Faith

 

 

I don’t come to the scriptures as a sophisticate.

 

I’m a layman.  An interested, believing, and educated layman, yet I know that those learned in the scriptures might often smile as I recount my reactions to the words there on the page.  There is much to be learned about the contexts in which the words were spoken and written, and lots of that I just have no idea about.

Nonetheless, and knowing that my impulses and initial reactions are unlearned and might be corrected rather quickly by wiser heads than my own, I offer this about my reactions to the story of Eve and the serpent – the temptation and fall of man.

It’s as clear as can be that the fruit was forbidden and that Eve – knowingly and willfully, as we say in the criminal law – transgressed the command of God and the rest, as they say, is history.  We might just leave the matter there and consider the lesson learned.  But I always wondered this:  what is wrong with “the knowledge of good and evil?”   I mean, isn’t that kind of what religion is all about, anyway?  Is it not the case that we read the Bible to gain moral acuity and perspective?  That is, that we hope thereby to gain a knowledge of good and evil.  And in the New Testament, when the Apostles are taking about the Spirit-bestowed gift of “discernment,” are they not talking about the ability to distinguish good from evil?  Isn’t that kind of the point?

If so, then it seemed odd to me that the tree from which humanity was forbidden to eat was this one having to do with “the knowledge of good and evil.”  It seemed to me like that would have been – would be, actually – one of the first things God would want humanity to have.

It was somewhere in a book by Andy Crouch – Playing God, in fact – that I think I got a satisfactory answer to my long-pending question on this point.  I that book (I think it was that one) Crouch suggests or posits that the tree imparted not moral perspective or acuity, but rather filled the eater with the infecting idea that he or she was, in him or herself, an arbiter of good and evil.  That is, that man could decide the question of what is good and what is evil by himself, without reference to God.

I’m attracted to that very explanation, not only because it makes the story a little less contradictory-looking,  but because the story, understood this way, certainly seems to jive with the world I have lived in all my life.

That world is the world of the Twentieth Century, which is to say the century of revolution, pogrom, and war; the century of the holocaust and the Great Purge.

Right now I am reading a book that might fairly be considered a seminal commentary on the Twentieth Century and all of the unprecedented murder and oppression it contained.  The book is entitled Witness, and it is the autobiography of Whittaker Chambers who in the 1930s operated as a spy for the Soviet Union in the United States.  Chambers was a part of what the Soviets called an “apparatus.”  This one worked to obtain information and documents from government agencies, photocopy them and transmit them to Soviet operatives in New York City for future use in the revolution to come, whereby the democratic institutions of the Republic would be undermined and control of the nation would be vested in the Central Committee.

In 1938, after learning of Stalin’s “Great Purge” wherein thousands of Communists were slaughtered to make way for the coming utopia, Chambers rethought his allegiance and decided, at great risk to himself and his family, to desert the party.   At play in his decision to desert was the conviction that Stalin’s Great Purge was not an aberration, but was perfectly consistent with the logic of Communism.   Given that the Communist ideology allowed anything that would further the revolution and the march toward utopia, there would be no end to carnage and no end to oppression there.

What bound these Communists together, “in defiance of religion, morality, truth, law, and honor,” wrote Chambers, is their own sort of faith:

It [Communism] is not new. It is, in fact, man’s second oldest faith. Its promise was whispered in the first days of the Creation under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil: “Ye shall be as gods.” It is the great alternative faith of mankind. Like all great faiths, its force derives from a simple vision. Other ages have had great visions. They have always been different versions of the same vision: the vision of God and man’s relationship to God. The Communist vision is the vision of Man without God.

It is the vision of man’s mind displacing God as the creative intelligence of the world. It is the vision of man’s liberated mind, by the sole force of its rational intelligence, redirecting man’s destiny and reorganizing man’s life and the world. It is the vision of man, once more the central figure of the Creation, not because God made man in his image, but because man’s mind makes him the most intelligent of the animals. Copernicus and his successors displaced man as the central fact of the universe by proving that the earth was not the central star of the universe. Communism restores man to his sovereignty by the simple method of denying God.

Thus, Chambers’ decision to desert the Communist party was a conversion from the second-oldest faith known to humanity to the first.  That is, to faith in God.

 

The problem with blogging about this book is not that there is too little to consider  and comment on, but rather that there is too much.  His life is a microcosm of the past century and his life was a turning point in the great struggle of that age between these two faiths.

What his book has to say to us here in this 21st century is simply overwhelming.

And so today I want to end with the notion that, although in many ways official Communism has been relegated to the dustbin of history, the second-oldest faith of which Chambers writes – that is, man’s arrogant trust in his own resources, his conviction that he can make the world a better place if only he can get God out of his way  – is very much alive and kicking.

It is alive in the hallways of our colleges and universities where students block  the hallways to prevent the presentation and discussion of ideas they hold to be wrong.  No matter to them that these ideas have their roots in Christianity.  They are wrong, so the “righteous marchers” hold, and any means available to stop them from being given a fair hearing are justified in the name of progress.  History may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.  In these new social justice warriors, we have the next generation of those who have bitten deeply into the apple of arrogance.

Book Review: Witness, by Whittaker Chambers

I am writing while standing on my back deck in the middle of an electrical storm.

 

I’m cozy and dry under this roof and I hear the rain tattering on the slates above and the lawn below.  It’s not a violent storm, at least not right here, right now.  There is an occasional flash of distant lightning and then the accordant, low roll of thunder, coming near and then trailing off to the west.

I absolutely love these warm, summer rains.  This one is gentle enough for me to take in this way, only a few feet away from the rainfall itself, and I feel in the moment like I am somewhere far away in the mists of highland Scotland or on some outpost in the Brazilian rain-forest.  When the storm escalates and I see the leaves nodding and the grass soaking and the dimpling sheets of clear water rinsing street and walk and the stream out back rising in its flow I am reminded again that rain is a sign of God’s blessing.  I guess what most of us remember about rain in the Bible is the Great Flood, brought on, so the scripture tells, by forty days and nights of rain.

But there are other references.  Here is one of God’s promises to Israel, if they will keep His commandments:

[I] will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, that you may gather in your grain and your wine and your oil . . .

The rain, when it falls in buckets as it is doing now, reminds me of God’s abundance, His power and His ability and desire to bless us, over and above even our own imaginings.    There is one place in scripture where God tells the priests to “bring the tithe into the storehouse” and, in response, He will “open the very sluices of heaven and pour down on us a blessing so great” that (this last bit is from a Scottish paraphrase) “we can scarce receive it.”

It’s a great time to write.

Which, if you are a follower of this blog, you know I have not been doing very faithfully these last few days.  Sorry about that.  I really do appreciate my followers and make it something of a point to try to deliver something pretty regularly to keep up the interest in this blog.  Kind of lax there, lately.  But I do have an excuse:  I’ve been reading.  Filling the mind and soul with the thoughts and emotions of one great man.  Any writer must do this often.

If you’ve kept up here, you know that I’ve been on something of a Bob Dylan kick lately.  I am a lifelong fan of his and very much interested in his spiritual life and in the way he creates.  The two books I have just finished – Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life and Chronicles, Volume I – address both of those subjects in satisfying depth.

I won’t say much else about those two books in this post.  I’ve reviewed them pretty fully in my last few posts here.  I do recommend that you read them – particularly if you have any interest in Dylan’s life or work.

But today I want to talk about another book that is of another order entirely.  I recommend the Dylan books, but I beg you to read this one.  It is by any measure a masterpiece and there is a good argument to be made that it is the seminal book of the American twentieth century.

The book I’m reading is titled Witness, and it is written by a man named Whittaker Chambers.

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I had heard of the book years ago through the writers of some political and social commentators I used to read.  Their praise of the book was effusive.  These men, all of whom had made names for themselves as writers, all pointed to this book as “life changing.”  And now, only about a quarter of the way through the book, I know why this is no exaggeration.

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Whittaker Chambers was, during the 1930s, a Communist.

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He was active for years in an underground operation in Washington, D. C., working with several American citizens who held high positions in the Federal Government to steal and copy official documents and provide them to the Soviet Union in preparation for the war that, so they believed, would inevitably come.

In 1938, in response to what he learned of the so-called “Great Purge,”  Chambers lost faith in Communism and saw it as the great, enslaving, murderous evil that it is.   At that moment he decided to desert the party, even though he knew that such desertions usually ended in the deserter being killed.  He also then believed that the Communists would be successful in undermining the west and achieving world domination.  Upon his decision to desert, he told his wife: “You know, we’re going from the winning to the losing side here.”

His desertion was also a conversion to faith in God.  That is no mere coincidence, as he describes it, for he says that Communism is itself a faith.   It is a faith that says first of all that the world must be changed and, second, that humanity can accomplish that change without the aid of God, without reference to God.  Thus, any sort of tactic can be justified in pursuit of the ultimate goal of perfect justice.  One such tactic was Stalin’s Great Purge that resulted in the murder of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Russians and eastern Europeans, many of whom were themselves active Communists but had been determined to not be loyal enough to Comrade Stalin.

One of the many strengths of this book is its description and definition of Communism.  Since the fall of the Soviet Union over twenty-five years ago, the idea of Communism has become kind of a Seinfeld joke.  But it was no joke in the early and mid-20th century.  This book, written by a man who had seen the movement from both the inside and out, explains the phenomenon clearly.  He tells of its psychology and its attraction.

And its attraction, even here in the United States, was much greater and pervasive than I had ever imagined.  I thought of American Communists as a few, crazed radicals who, even taken all together, never posed much of a threat to our freedoms, our constitutional system of government, our individual rights.  I don’t believe that now.

Chambers, as an operative for the Soviet Union, worked hand in hand with Americans from well-to-do families who had been to our best colleges and who held lucrative and powerful positions in government for the express purpose of undermining that government and subordinating our democratic institutions to the control of party bosses.  This was business as usual, for years on end.

It is a scarier story than I knew; a closer call than I ever believed.  It is worthwhile to consider this structure, at one time gigantic, that had for its floor human arrogance and for its ceiling an accordant naivete.

 

I’ll have more to say as I make my way through the book.