Monthly Archives: May 2013


I promised in my last post to share some thoughts about my first “bench” reading of the summer: A Free People’s Suicide, by Os Guinness.  I’ve devoted quite a bit of time lately to examples of flawed historical thinking, and I’m happy now to switch gears and talk about a non-academic work that is more effective.  It’s important to give so much attention to popular, non-academic history for a simple reason: this is the only kind of history most American adults are ever likely to read.  I am sure this says something about anti-intellectualism in American culture, but I’m equally certain that it’s also an indictment of academic historians.  With a few prominent exceptions, we turned our backs on the general public long ago.

Like the other figures that I have discussed recently (Peter Marshall Jr. and David Manuel, Francis Schaeffer, and Steve Wilkins and Doug Wilson), Os Guinness is a prolific author who often writes about history but is not a trained historian.  Unlike the others, Guinness is not primarily a pastor or theologian.  Born in China where his parents were medical missionaries, he was educated in England and has lived in the United States for nearly three decades.  Although a recipient of a graduate degree in the social sciences from Oxford, he has made his living mostly outside of the academy and would best be described–as he describes himself–as an author and social critic.

As with Marshall and the others, Guinness’s foray into the past is prompted by concern for the present.  There’s nothing wrong with that–in fact, I think that’s how it should be.  Academic historians are rightfully leery of what we call “presentism”: the bad habit of reading our own values and beliefs into the past so that the individuals we encounter have nothing to teach us.  But we have been so determined to avoid this pitfall that we have often gone to the other extreme, so much so that we typically disparage “populizers” who speak to the contemporary relevance of history or identify lessons from the past.  I suspect that this is one reason why the surrounding culture so often views us as irrelevant.  Not Os Guinness.


Reminiscent of The Light and the Glory, A Free People’s Suicide begins with a critique of contemporary culture.  Fifteen hundred years ago, St. Augustine noted that the best way to define a people is by the “loved thing held in common.”  Americans, Guinness says, are a people defined by their love of freedom.  Surely he is correct.  Americans may disagree whether the United States is truly a “sweet land of liberty,” to quote the song, but we are unanimous that it should be such a place.  In Guinness’s words, “Freedom is today’s highest virtue, its grandest possibility, its last absolute, its most potent myth, and . . . its only self-evident truth.”

The problem, in Guinness’s view, is that contemporary Americans “are heedlessly pursuing a vision of freedom that is short-lived and suicidal.”  We conceive of freedom simplistically as the utter absence of all restraint.  Across the political spectrum, we have no higher goal than to escape the power of others over our lives.  We exalt freedom of choice rather than wisdom in choosing.  We are a nation drowning in debt and obsessed with decadence.  Our situation is dire.

Notice that this aspect of Guinness’s argument is not historical.  Writing as an outsider not raised in this country, he is simply sharing his assessment of what he sees in his adopted home.  Some readers will cry “Amen!”  Some will think he paints too dark a picture.  Others may find him too optimistic.

It is when he is trying to convince us of how much is at stake that Guinness appeals to history.  First, he notes that even the most cursory scan of world history shows that most of the people who have ever drawn breath on this planet have not lived in free societies.  Freedom, evidently, is a rare and fragile thing.  Second, and at much greater length, Guinness introduces his readers to a centuries-long conversation as to why this should be the case.  Americans need this introduction because, as Guinness laments, “the United States demonstrates the distinctively modern obsession with the present and future at the expense of the past.”

One of my favorite expressions of the value of history comes from historian David Harlan’s book The Degradation of American History.  “At its best,” Harlan writes, the study of American history can become “a conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live.”  The Suicide of a Free People, at its core, is an effort to raise the dead so that they can speak into our lives.

The book’s title comes from a speech from a young Abraham Lincoln, who in the 1830s predicted that if America ever fell, it would collapse from within.  “If destruction be our lot,” Lincoln declared before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, “we must ourselves be its author and finisher.  As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

Although Guinness accords the Lincoln quote pride of place, his primary historical focus is on the views of the American “founders” of the late-eighteenth century.  As Guinness observes, in promoting the cause of independence, these prominent statesmen were themselves drawing on a “great conversation that runs down through the centuries from the Bible and the classical writers of Greece and Rome.”

Distilled to its essence, that conversation, as Guinness sketches it, challenges contemporary Americans with at least four major claims.  The first is that it is much more difficult to sustain freedom than it is to establish or order it.  Indeed, sustaining freedom is a never-ending task “of centuries and countless generations.”  We can never proclaim “mission accomplished.”  We can never spike the ball in the end zone and celebrate.  Historically understood, the American project of sustaining freedom is even now, and will always remain, an unproven “experiment.”

The second claim is a “grand paradox”: “the greatest enemy of freedom is freedom.”  In order to flourish, humans need both freedom and order, social goods that are in tension with one another.  Because of our “human propensity for self-love,” we naturally resist the restraint that order requires, undermining our freedom in our very efforts to maximize it.  The founders recognized this, Guinness tells us, and thus advocated an ideal of freedom as “liberty within law” and “autonomy under authority.”

Third, according to Guinness, the founders insisted that freedom was unlikely to survive without some sort of religious faith.  If sustainable “freedom requires order and therefore restraint, the only restraint that does not contradict freedom is self-restraint.”  This unnatural practice of denying oneself for the common good–what the founders called virtue–was unlikely to flourish in a materialist, secular culture.  While he is emphatic that the founders did not advocate a “Christian America” in any formal, established sense, Guinness provides copious evidence of the founders’ belief, in the words of Alexander Hamilton, that “morality must fall with religion.”

The founders’ emphasis on morality pointed to a final broad claim: no structure of government exists that, by itself, can guarantee freedom.  The founders’ strategy for sustaining freedom was always two-fold, Guinness stresses.  Although they lavished great care on the new federal and state constitutions, they always believed that the values of the people were at least as crucial to the long-term survival of freedom.  By itself, as James Madison put it, the new federal Constitution was a mere “parchment barrier” against tyranny.  If freedom was to endure, the “structures of liberty” must be reinforced by the “spirit of liberty.”

Guinness leaves no doubt that he views each of these claims as correct.  He does not, however, fall into a trap that ensnares so many popular Christian writers.  While Guinness clearly admires the founders–he says their “vision charted the course of America’s meteoric rise to greatness”–he does not idolize them.  The most common way that we make idols of historical figures is by implying that we are morally bound to follow their example.  This imputes authority where God has not granted it, and Christians fall into this trap all the time.  To give but one example, we strain to prove that the founders were predominantly Christians, as if establishing that would somehow obligate our own generation.

In contrast, Guinness appeals to the past not as moral authority but as mirror.  In reviewing the founders’ understanding of how to sustain freedom, his goal  is to show twenty-first century Americans–most of whom are blissfully unaware–just how far they have strayed from the founders’ prescription.  Does this mean that we have “sinned” by falling short of the founders’ ideals?  Not necessarily.  They were fallible human beings, as Guinness repeatedly observes, with their own inconsistencies and flaws.

What is wrong, according to Guinness–“foolish” even–is to wall ourselves off from the ancient conversation about freedom in which the founders were immersed.  The founders may have been wrong, but it is the height of arrogance simply to assume so.  Instead, we must allow them to ask us hard questions.  If as a society we no longer subscribe to the founders’ views, what is our strategy for avoiding the dangers that the founders identified?  “If Americans today have no serious interest in the founders’ wisdom and provisions, what are their alternatives?” asks Guinness.  “If they have any, they should say so, and they should set out what they are and how they relate to the issues behind the founders’ original discussion.”  This is a fair challenge.

In his 1908 classic Orthodoxy, British writer G. K. Chesterton trenchantly observed that “the only thought that ought to be stopped” is a “thought that stops thought.”  We need to remember Chesterton’s warning as we consider what it means to think Christianly about the past.  Chesterton had in mind early versions of what is now called postmodernism, a radical relativism that, pursued to its logical end, calls into question the validity of all thought.  When it comes to history, however, postmodernism is not the only kind of “thought that stops thought.”

One of the things that unifies the popular works that I have reviewed before this is that all of them are guilty of this offense.  Marshall and Manuel “stopped thought” by claiming to know God’s special plan for America and by interpreting the past through the lens of that special revelation.  Francis Schaeffer offered a breathtakingly superficial interpretation of several millennia of world history and then questioned the theological orthodoxy of Christian historians who disagreed with him.  Doug Wilson and Steve Wilkins prefaced their tendentious evaluation of American slavery by rebuking those who would persist in “the sin of believing a lie.”

Although well intentioned, all of these figures insisted that their particular interpretation of history was essential to a faithful engagement with contemporary culture.  Whether they intended it or not, all created an environment among their readers in which disagreement constituted disloyalty.  While using history in an attempt to engage the broader culture intellectually, their work tended to “stop thought” among their own followers.

I don’t agree wholly with A Free People’s Suicide.  I suspect that Guinness has idealized the founders.  He may exaggerate the degree to which their values shaped the country at its inception.  My point is not to claim that it is a definitive work of history–irrefutably accurate in every detail–but rather to suggest that the way that Guinness has gone about fashioning his argument is fundamentally sound.  He has challenged us to combat what C. S. Lewis called our “chronological snobbery.”  He has reminded us that those who have gone before us may have had insights that we very much need to hear.  He has appealed to the past without imputing authority to the dead, respecting our forbears rather than worshiping them.   And he has accomplished all of this without questioning the character of those who might disagree with him.  For believers wanting to think Christianly about the past with an eye to the present, there is much in this model to admire.



We’ve just wrapped up another school year at Wheaton College, and I couldn’t be more delighted.  Don’t get me wrong.  It is a privilege to teach here, and I love working with, and learning from, the talented and highly motivated students who fill my classes.  Yet the summer affords the luxury of sustained reading, and the even greater gift of sustained reflection, and I couldn’t be more excited.  I spend hours of most summer days on a bench near a tiny lake near our home, and every morning that I take my customary seat and feel the sun on my face and hear the breeze rustling through the leaves and see the sun sparkling on the water and, on top of it all, I get to open a good book, I praise God for his kindness.

Like the Pilgrims that I have been studying, I think that we should never feel wholly comfortable in this life.  The world is not our home.  The New Testament letter to the Hebrews calls us “pilgrims” and “sojourners”–travelers to a better country.  I believe that with all my heart, but I also believe that God in His kindness still gives us countless pleasures in this life.  C. S. Lewis captured this idea perfectly with one of his memorable metaphors.  Let me quote from his book The Problem of Pain:

“The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment He has scattered broadcast.  We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy.  It is not hard to see why.  The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency.  Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.”

Here Lewis likened moments of delight to “pleasant inns” that our Father has placed at intervals along our journey.  We must not mistake them for home–we are pilgrims, en route to a better country–but we can, and should, enjoy such blessings gratefully.  For me, one of the pleasant inns that refreshes my soul is that lakeside bench on a sunny summer day.

Lake Ellyn Park, Glen Ellyn, Illinois

Lake Ellyn Park, Glen Ellyn, Illinois

Most of what I read on that bench has to do in some way with faith and history, and that also makes me happy.  I recently came across a letter that I wrote nine years ago to the elders of my church when we were living in Seattle.  “God has been opening my eyes to a new sense of calling,” I told them.  “I want to spend the rest of my life reading, learning, writing, and teaching on topics at the intersection of Christian faith, the study of history, and the life of the mind.”

When I sit on that bench with a history book in my lap, I genuinely believe I am pursuing the Lord’s calling.  As corny as it sounds, I regularly think of that great line from the movie Chariots of Fire, when Eric Liddell tells his sister, “God made me fast, and when I run I feel his pleasure.”  It’s not that I have it all figured out, to paraphrase the apostle Paul in Philippians, chapter 3.  I am still trying to understand what it means to think Christianly about the past.  That’s why I am so grateful for this opportunity to think out loud with you and benefit from your input and feedback.

My first bench reading of the summer was A Free People’s Suicide, by Os Guinness.  In my recent posts I have been focusing on examples of how NOT to think historically, concentrating on works by Peter Marshall Jr. and David Manuel, Francis Schaeffer, and Steve Wilkins and Doug Wilson.  In contrast to these, I think that Guinness offers Christians a model worthy of imitation.  I don’t agree with his interpretation in every respect, but we don’t have to agree completely with a historical argument to learn from it.  In my opinion, the way that Guinness has appealed to the past in the structure of his argument is fundamentally sound.  In my next post, I will explain why I think so.

Back soon!


In my last two posts I have been talking about the dangers of grounding essentially religious arguments about the present in historical assertions about the past.  Drawing examples from the writings first of Peter Marshall Jr. and David Manuel and then of Francis Schaeffer, I have argued that such an approach has awful consequences.  The worst is that these writers effectively backed themselves into a corner in which it was impossible to admit historical errors.  Any mistakes in their interpretation of the American past would seem to undermine their religious critique of the American present.  In Schaeffer’s case, at least, this led him to group critics of his interpretation of U. S. history with “weak Christians” who don’t fully believe the Scriptures.

It is easy for us to condemn this as unbridled arrogance, but let me check that impulse with this reminder: In books like The Light and the Glory and How Should We Then Live?, Marshall, Manuel, and Schaeffer were courageously calling American evangelicals to think deeply about the surrounding culture, to “take very thought captive in obedience to Christ.”

Schaeffer, in particular, was contesting a deeply entrenched fundamentalist tendency to be suspicious of intellectual pursuits.  He challenged American Christians, instead, to think Christianly about science and philosophy, art and architecture, music and medicine and politics.  His writings about history were  a seamless part of this larger project, and even Christian historians who are skeptical of his historical interpretations–and almost all of them are–give Schaeffer credit for motivating a generation of believers to take the life of the mind more seriously.  That is a huge accomplishment.

And yet good intentions without discernment can still do much harm.  My point in these posts has not been to provide a “final answer” about the degree to which the American founding was Christian (as if that were possible!), as important as that question is.  No, my goal has been to call attention to the damage we can do in conflating the authority of Scripture with the force of our own fallible interpretations of the American past.

Toward that end, I want to share one final illustration of how not to argue historically.  The work I have in mind is a booklet from the 1990s titled Southern Slavery as It Was, authored by two prominent Reformed pastors, Douglas Wilson and Steven Wilkins.

Of the two, Wilkins, a Presbyterian pastor from Louisiana, is probably less well known today, but Wilson is growing in name recognition.  For decades he has been a prominent figure in the Northwest, having founded a church, grammar school, college, and press in his home base of Moscow, Idaho.  Of late he has increased in national stature, thanks especially to his well publicized debates with the (now deceased) atheist Christopher Hitchens, to his growing prominence within the Gospel Coalition, and by his recent authorship of the satirical novel Evangellyfish, which Christianity Today named the best work of fiction in 2012.


Southern Slavery as It Was is a textbook example of the danger of grounding religious arguments in historical interpretations.  Unlike Marshall and Manuel and Schaeffer, who linked their critique of the contemporary U. S. to debatable assertions about the American founding, Wilson and Wilkins went into battle wielding a contentious interpretation of slavery and the Old South.

“The South has long carried the stigma of racism and bigotry,” the authors declare in the booklet’s first sentence.  “The institution of slavery has so blackened the Southern position that nothing about the South can be viewed as good or right. . . . We have all heard of the heartlessness–the brutalities, immoralities, and cruelties–that were supposedly inherent in the system of slavery. . . . The truthfulness of this description has seldom been challenged.  The point of this small booklet,” the authors explain, “is to establish that this impression is largely false.”

In a preemptive strike against those who would challenge their interpretation,  Wilson and Wilkins conclude the booklet’s introduction by exhorting readers to relinquish all false belief about slavery and the South.  “Because we have resolved to abandon sin,” they declare ominously, “this must include the sin of believing a lie” [italics in the original].  The pastors gave their readers a simple choice, in other words: agree with us or be guilty.

By why is it of such paramount importance to know the truth about southern slavery?  Wilson and Wilkins answer by sharing anecdotes of public debates in which liberals dismissed arguments against homosexuality or abortion by observing that the Bible condoned slavery.  The implicit argument in such retorts was that, because slavery is evil and the Bible allows for slavery, then the Bible is obviously an unreliable moral guide.  Reminding us that Christians must never “be embarrassed by any portion of the Word of God,” the pastors then make an utterly illogical leap: they seek to defend the Scripture’s apparent allowance of slavery by defending the treatment of slaves in the American South.

The author’s justification is an egregious non sequitur.  The entire argument of Southern Slavery as It Was is unnecessary and irrelevant to their stated objective.  There is a substantive theological argument that they might have offered, but I am not a theologian, and I want to keep our focus on how they used history.

The desire to help Christians to understand and not be embarrassed by biblical teaching on slavery did not require Wilson and Wilkins to defend slavery as it existed in the American South.  If Beethoven is not on trial when a junior-high band plays his Fifth Symphony, neither is the Bible on trial when we evaluate the godliness of southern slaveholders.

To return to the anecdotal example of the liberal champion of homosexuality or abortion who dismisses the Bible because it tolerates slavery, sincere Christians engaged in contemporary debates have a ready answer with regard to slavery in the American context.  “If the Bible seemingly allows for slavery,” we might answer, “it also condemns racism and enjoins masters to do as they would be done by.  To the degree that southern slavery was racist (and it was, systemically so), or that masters transgressed the Golden Rule, the Bible cannot be interpreted to condone it.”

Wilson and Wilkins do not follow this course, unfortunately.  Implying that anything less than a robust defense of the Old South would weaken the Scriptural argument against homosexuality or abortion, they insist that southern slavery’s “sad realities” were overshadowed by its more admirable features.  Here is a sampling of what they contend:

* “Slavery as it existed in the South . . . was a relationship based on mutual affection and confidence.  There has never been a multi-racial society which has existed with such mutual intimacy and harmony in the history of the world.”

* “Slaves were well treated and often had a deep loyalty to, and affection for, their masters.”

* “One could argue that the black family has never been stronger than it was under slavery.”

* Slaves lived “a life of plenty, of simple pleasures.”  Enslavement was a “pleasant . . . experience for the majority.”

* “Most southern blacks (slave and free) supported the southern war effort.”

* “Slavery produced in the South a genuine affection between the races that we believe we can say has never existed in any nation before the War or since.”

The damage inflicted by such an argument is immense.  To begin with, it will understandably constitute an enormous stumbling block for many black Christians.  (For elaborations of this point which refer to a later work by Pastor Wilson, see here, here, and here.)

Second, the authors’ argument teaches Christians, black and white, that unless they agree with the authors’ views on southern slavery (not on Biblical principles, mind you, but on American history!) that they are simply part of the problem, helping to undermine any argument against homosexuality or abortion.  (Several years ago, when I forwarded a lengthy critique of SSAIW to Wilson through the elders of my church, Wilson noted in his lengthy reply to my elders, “When a homosexual couple move in next door to Dr. McKenzie, and they are just as married in the eyes of the state of Washington as he is, he should take note of the fact that we have been fighting this kind of thing for years.”)

Finally, the authors’ argument will rightly be a stumbling block to sincere seekers who don’t yet accept the gospel.  When the booklet predictably became a lightning rod for controversy early in the last decade, non-Christians who followed the resulting furor observed the embarrassing spectacle of zealous Christians linking scriptural orthodoxy with the dogmatic insistence that southern slaves were content and well cared for.  What a tragedy.

Let me stress my belief that both Wilson and Wilkins–like Schaeffer and Marshall and Manuel–were honorably motivated.  When I see their zeal and courage, I am honestly convicted.  Thus in criticizing their use of history, I am in no way impugning their character.  I simply see Southern Slavery as It Was as a sad illustration of the consequences that regularly ensue when Christians seek to wield history as a weapon in the culture wars, and I want to do everything that I can to help us learn from the example.

Like Marshall, Manuel, and Schaeffer before them, Wilson and Wilkins were in a dilemma of their own making: any acknowledgment of historical error on their part would be seen as undermining their critique of contemporary culture.  As a Christian historian in a northwestern congregation much influenced by Doug Wilson’s teaching, I wrote privately to Pastor Wilson back in 1996, not long after the publication of Southern Slavery as It Was, to share my opinion that it was marred by numerous errors of fact and logic.  In 1998 I wrote again to him privately, and then five years later, as attacks on the booklet from local critics were rising to a crescendo, I forwarded a 30+ page critique of SSAIW through the elders of my church.  Finally, with the moral support of one of my elders, I flew to Moscow, Idaho and met personally with Wilson, trying one last time to convince him that his approach was wrongheaded.

Wilson was gracious to me in all of these private interactions, but he made it clear that if I disagreed with him publicly I would be undermining his work for God’s kingdom.  As he wrote in one e-mail, “either you remain out of the fracas,” referring to the tempest then swirling around the booklet, “or you fight alongside me, or you get co-opted by their side,” referring to the secular “intoleristas” who opposed his ministry.  In sum, unless I was willing to endorse his views or remain silent, I would inevitably aid the cause of his enemies–and his enemies were God’s enemies.

I was reminded of this position on numerous occasions in the coming months.  When I finally decided to share my concerns at my church’s men’s meeting, one of the members in attendance interrupted my presentation to say that I was “sinning” by questioning Wilson’s historical teaching.  Then when I criticized Wilson’s scholarship in a brief letter to World magazine (in response to an article on the controversy in Moscow that quoted me), one of the elders at Wilson’s church e-mailed my pastor (copying me) to say that “God’s enemies really love this stuff.”

How does it come to this?  How do we reach the point where views on American history can be a litmus test of spiritual faithfulness?  We must train ourselves to resist any and every effort to proclaim a particular interpretation of non-Biblical history as the Christian understanding.  Where God has not spoken, we must not pronounce our own opinions as final.

I am reminded of the words of Puritan John Robinson, the Pilgrims’ pastor in Leiden, Holland before their emigration to New England.  “Err we may, alas! too easily,” Robinson lamented from the pulpit.  Reminding his congregation of the human propensity “to err and be deceived in many things,” he enjoined them to cultivate a “modesty of mind” and be willing to learn from those with whom they disagreed.

Nearly four centuries later, that’s still good advice.  Much is at stake.  Evangelical intellectual life will never flourish until we can disagree among ourselves without questioning each others’ character.