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.

Product Details

 

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.

Image result for whittaker chambers

 

 

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.

What Are We Waiting For?

 

We talked this Sunday about what a big part of life waiting is.

 

We must wait for this and that, it’s inevitable and usually not enjoyable.  We wait, but we wait impatiently.  We also talked a bit about how central the idea of waiting is to our faith – the Christian faith.  We wait for the promised Second Coming, when all will be set to rights:  perfect justice, complete fulfillment, full adoption as sons of God, every tear wiped away.

Yep.  That’s what we are waiting for.  And we – the church – have been waiting for that for around 2000 years now.  But are we waiting for anything else?  Someone in class mentioned the idea that we’re waiting for death, so that we can enter heaven.  Well, yes.  I guess so.  Paul wrote that to him “to live is Christ and to die is gain.”  But are we waiting for anything else?

 

Someone in class mentioned having inadvertently listened to a gospel-music radio program the other day and being impressed by how all the songs were about getting away to heaven.  You know, “this world is not my home” and all of that.  Undoubtedly, there is a sense in which that is true, but it seems to me that there is a possibility of an unchristian escapism here.  In many ways, this world is our home.  It’s where our living friends and relatives are and the place where all of those relationships unfold and flourish (or not).

Maybe when we say “the world” in the sense used here we don’t mean “the earth.”  Rather, we mean the mess that Satan and fallen humanity have made out of society and the conditions of the human race.  But the earth – this place where we, ahem, live, is a place of staggering beauty and wonder and we don’t honor God or really know His grace if we don’t appreciate the beauty of His creation.

 

Are those gospel songs the product of an unhealthy escapism?  Are they written maybe not so much by inspired saints as by those who have simply failed at their own duties to love, flourish, prosper, and to appreciate life here and now?  Are they written by those who may be jealous of the success and happiness of others – who may have flourished – and want to sing about the day when they will “get even?”

What are we waiting for?  The Second Coming?  Well, yes.  Heaven?  Well, yes.  But look at these verses from Eugene Peterson’s translation (The Message) of Paul’s letter to the Romans:

This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike “What’s next, Papa?”

Romans 8:  15

And:

3-5 There’s more to come: We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!

Romans 5: 3-5

 

I don’t know about you, but I can’t read these verses – at least this translation of them – without concluding that we are right to wait expectantly not only for the Second Coming and not only for death, but for life, here and now, as God unfolds it before our eyes.  If that is the case, it occurs to me to ask of myself: am I waiting in the right way?  Am I waiting for the right things?  Do I even see God’s grace as it unfolds?  Do I thus frustrate His plans?  And fail to appreciate Him and this life He has given me?

Am I living in black and white when God has offered me life in color?

As Promised

 

In keeping with our study of what worship ought to be, here is the video of the Welsh Church congregation singing “Guide Me, Oh Thou Great Redeemer.”    I thought I could embed it here, but WordPress won’t let me unless I start paying them $14 a month.  That ain’t gonna happen.  You can see this amazing part of worship by clicking here.

And here is an extra.  Same church, singing “What A Friend We Have In Jesus.”  Click here.

If you can watch these without being inspired, you should check for a pulse.

 

PS.  Here’s one more.  Click here.

Why Church Architecture Matters

 

 

Psalm 96

For all the gods of the peoples are idols,
But the Lord made the heavens.
Honor and majesty are before Him;
Strength and beauty are in His sanctuary.

Give to the Lord, O families of the peoples,
Give to the Lord glory and strength.
Give to the Lord the glory due His name;
Bring an offering, and come into His courts.
Oh, worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness!
Tremble before Him, all the earth.

Question and Answer

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Here is an exchange between Karen and Don Burford and me about a passage that I quoted in class yesterday.  I encourage this kind of dialogue.

 

 

Good morning, Larry

Don and I spent a little time yesterday afternoon comparing our Sunday school passage in The Message with The NIV version.

I appreciate Peterson’s more colorful way of describing the fruits of the Spirit but
I’m not sure I understand what He’s  is saying in his interpretation of goodness.
He writes “and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people”.

If you’ll be so kind as to tell me what you understand him to say I would appreciate it.

Again I thank you for the time you put into studying and sharing the scriptures with our class.

Karen B

 

Hoo-boy!  What a good question!  That phrase you isolate has given me pause from the start.  I should have mentioned that in class when I read through it.  Every other bit of description in that passage is helpful to me, but this one almost seems out of place and certainly seems inconsistent with the doctrine of the fall and the “total depravity of man.”    In Psalm 16 we read that “as for the saints in the land, they are the noble ones, in whom is all my delight.  Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows.  Their libations of blood I will not pour out, nor take their names upon my lips.”  How do you square that with Peterson’s phrase here? What does he mean by it and should we accept his meaning?

 

The passage is describing the changes that occur in the life of the faithful believer.  The gifts of the spirit.  Here in this phrase I think Peterson is talking about a change in perspective.  I don’t know that he means to say that we’ll start to think that all people are basically good.  But if I think back on my own experience it does seem that walking with the Lord changes one’s perspective on people.  We might be a little less paranoid.  Outside of Christ, our selfish, human tendency might be to – as Peterson puts it earlier in the same chapter – “depersonalize everyone into a rival.”  Thus, although we hold to the notion that humanity is fallen – otherwise why would we even need the kind of conversion that Paul is expounding on here – when we are “new creations” in Christ, and thus aware of our own sin, we might be a little more empathetic; a little less likely to jump to harsh conclusions about people as individuals.  We might see them a little more like we see ourselves.  We have our own sinful tendencies, but we are always ready to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt and ready to forgive ourselves and allow ourselves a new start.

 

I still think that Peterson should have come up with something better here.  And  I hope this response is of some help.  If you will give me your permission, I’d like to post your letter to me and this response on the class blog.  This is the very kind of study and dialogue that I’d like to promote.

 

Looking Ahead

If the two beasts – the two forces and institutions that Satan employs to carry out his campaign against “those who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ” – are organized violence (the sea beast) and organized deception (the land beast), John warns his readers not to fight fire with fire – not to respond to violence with violence and not to respond to deception with more deception. Rather, the Christian is to respond to this onslaught of organized violence with endurance and faith:

“Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.”

Revelation 13: 10

And to the bombardment of organized deceit with discernment:

18 This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man.[e] That number is 666.

Revelation 13: 18

Here is Eugene Peterson:

How do we protect ourselves from organized deceit?  St. John is blunt; use your heads.  Figure out what is going on.  Most of the conspicuous religion that is in vogue at any one time in the country derives from the land beast.  Expose these religious pretensions.

Reversed Thunder, Harper Collins, 1991, at page 126.

In the weeks ahead, let’s meditate on what, exactly, these strategies are.  We’ll start with the idea of endurance.  What, exactly, does John have in mind here?  What does he mean by “endurance?”  We’ll consider these questions:

  1. What is the Christian called to endure?

  2. How does the Christian endure?

  3. How long must the Christian endure?

  4. Why does the Christian endure?