Cold Warriors: Knights and Scoundrels

I have recently read 3 books that were about the Cold War.  My readings just happened.  It was not a plan, an assignment, background to classes, or anything other than stumbling across 3 books, reading them, and then seeing the connections.  I love 20th century history; however, the pattern of a school year usually keeps me from giving it due attention.  I cannot begin to name all the books I have read on the World Wars, Presidential histories and politics, the Great Depression, and other 20th century events.

The first book was one of William F. Buckley’s Blackford Oakes novels, Mongoose R.I.P.  Mongoose referred to government actions to kill Fidel Castro.  The novel centers around some of the plots, both actual and imagined, along with the after effects of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Add to that, the story leads up to the time of President Kennedy’s assassination.  The history itself is a fascinating thriller, and then add on Buckley’s conservative worldview and writing talent.  Certainly, the book is dated, but Buckley’s work still stands as good reading.

A book that was both biography and history of Cold Warriors and the Cold War is Nicholas Thompson’s The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War.  Thompson is the grandson of Paul Nitze, which only added to the book’s subjects.  This was one of the most fascinating and interesting books I have ever read.  It did more to restore my faith in government officials–true public servants–than anything I have ever read.  Nitze and Kennan were both honorable men, and brilliant men as well.  Both were Cold Warriors; both tended toward the now extinct brand of old style Democrats; both were men of superior intellect; both served the country with distinction; and neither ever held a high office.

I know this will hurt some feelings of at least 2 readers of this blog, but I will say it.  Former Secretary of State Hilliary “What Difference Does It Make Now” Clinton and current Secretary of State John “Botched Joke” Kerry aren’t worthy of being janitors to Nitze and Kennan.  (I apologize again to Hillary and John as they read this.)

Nitze and Kennan disagreed with each other continually.  Kennan was more of the scholar/writer/academic.  Nitze was more hands on and gritty and persistent in his objectives.  Kennan was the father of the idea of Containment.  Nitze wanted the U.S. to be sure to have the firepower to contain the Communists.  Kennan was a diplomat; Nitze was a policy wonk.

They read each other’s speeches and publications and filled the margins with objections.  But, they attended each others social events, celebrated each other’s successes, and truly honored and respected each other.  Both were blessed to live to old age and to give due homage to each other for lifetimes of accomplishments.  They were men of honor and dedication.  They were knights of the Cold War.

Which one was right in their disputes?  I tend toward favoring Nitze, and he did some great service under Ronald Reagan.  In his 80s, he stayed up all night at the Reykjavik Summit in 1986 working on arms controls agreements.  Kennan was more often brooding over matters and feeling left out.  Nitze was more concerned about the U.S. having the power to pummel the Soviets into submission.  Kennan continually pondered how long the Soviet system could sustain itself.  From the title, Thompson labels his grandpa the Hawk and Kennan the dove.

On the now past tense specifics they dealt with, I don’t always know whose ideas were best.  I am thankful that such brilliant men so often give themselves to public service.

So much for knights, dedicated public servants, men of honor.  Now to the third book:  Seymour Hersh’s The Dark Side of Camelot.  For a good many years I have used a now old VHS dubbed television news special (hosted by Peter Jennings) that highlighted the then “new revelations” about the dangers and evils of the Kennedy Administration as found in Hersh’s book.

Every time I have watched the video, I have been sickened by JFK’s immorality, abuse of power, lies, drug abuse, Mafia dealings, womanizing, and endangering of the Republic.  Every time I have complained that Hersh didn’t give us “new revelations,” because there have been conservative writers who had long cataloged Kennedy’s evils.

Finally this year, I read the book that the documentary was based on.  Conclusion:  The Kennedy family was much worse than I thought.  If they had only been serial adulterers, one could make the old Clinton defense “It’s all about sex.”  But the Kennedys were interested in more than babes, although that was a high priority.  And I do mean the Kennedys.  Poppa Joseph was a total scoundrel.  JFK was consumately evil.  But Robert, who I had hoped had a modicum of decency, was evil and perhaps the most ruthless of all.  Needless to add, Teddy, who became known as “The Lion of the Senate,” was just as bad as we all knew, although he gets little attention in this book.

The Kennedy family did understand history.  By that, I mean that they understood the way history is written and recorded.  We often think history is the story of “what happened.”  No, not necessarily.  History is an account of what happened based on the remaining or surviving written or spoken accounts.

The Kennedy family, particularly after JFK’s death, took decisive actions to control the narrative.  Documents and tapes were impounded, destroyed, altered, and who knows what else.  Quite a few reporters during the Kennedy years were willing dupes.  They were the journalistic prostitutes doing what the other prostitutes were also willing and freely doing for the Kennedy men.

Kennedy was a physically sick man.  His health problems would have probably finished him off at least by his mid-50s, if not late-40s. (Remember that he was about 45 when he died.)  The White House was a scene that would have rivaled the palaces of Roman Caesars at their worst.  The sheer amount of time that Kennedy spent cavorting and avoiding his wife and duties is incredible.  Due to an injury that came from one of his escapades, Kennedy was wearing a leather brace, along with his usual metal backbrace, when he was shot through the neck by Lee Harvey Oswald.  Because of the leather brace, Kennedy was unable to fall into the floor of the car he was in.  It was the second shot–the head wound–that killed him.  It is likely the leather brace, the result of his disastrous sexual tryst, that kept him in the assassin’s sites.

Worse are the dangers that the Kennedy clan put the nation through.  The Mafia connections were illegal and immoral.  The possibilities of women who were agents of the Mafia or the Communists were high.  The actions taken to suppress stories about Kennedy’s life, previous marriage, adulteries, and so on were shocking.  But even in such high matters as the opening phases of the Vietnam War and the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy and Kennedy (President and Attorney General) were always scheming to further their own political agendas.

Their deaths were tragic.  One might humbly say just however.  God have mercy on us all and spare us those like the Kennedy clan.

Believe It Or Not: Schaeffer Again

A Teacher’s Review of How Should We Then Live?

I first read Schaeffer’s book How Should We Then Live? in 1978.  I have read it many times since then, and have taught the book and the video series quite a few times as well.  I have lectured on Francis Schaeffer, and I have read quite a few of his books and several biographies.  While he was not a great stylist like C. S. Lewis, his writings, although not as popular today, are still worthwhile reading for serious Christians.

How Should We Then Live is not a textbook on Western Civilization.  It supplements textbooks and interprets the flow of history.  It very much reflects the cultural concerns of the 1960s and 70s.  It presents a wide range of ideas and issues.  The approach is somewhat scattered like buckshot from a shotgun.  Great philosophers are given anywhere from a sentence to a paragraph.  The big movements in history occupy anywhere from a few to a dozen pages of text.

Schaeffer writes at points like a brilliant man with ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder).  He references philosophy, jumps to a historical event, quotes a book, explains a work of art, mentions a piece of music, and notes several other names and events in passing.  This might all happen on the same page. Then Schaeffer returns in the book and video series to some well rehearsed messages about God speaking propositional truth, about the choices between human autonomy and Christianity, and about the direction of history with implications for the future.  To a large degree, Schaeffer recycles his themes and major points from his previous writings.

The philosopher will find Schaeffer’s treatment of philosophy both inadequate and misleading.  The historian will find his conclusions too simple.  The art critic will object to his artistic interpretations.  Fellow Christians will either object to Schaeffer’s efforts to overly involve Christians in cultural affairs or will find his prescriptions for cultural interaction lacking.  Questions arise from the text.  Was there ever a Christian consensus as dominant as Schaeffer implies?  Are we really threatened by authoritarian government or ruling elites?  Is Reason bound to lead to Non-Reason?

Object to your heart’s content.  Schaeffer makes the reader think.  Schaeffer was a teacher and preacher rather than a scholar.  He is, to borrow from Isaiah Berlin’s essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” a fox, for he knows or at least introduces, many things.

History, philosophy, ethics, law, economics, art, architecture, literature, music, sociology, psychology, and theology are not merely separate courses taught in separate buildings on a college campus.  Together, these academic disciplines are a unified whole.  They comprise different aspects of worldviews.  They unite cultures.  Granted, they are taught in those different buildings in separate classes often because there is so much to each discipline.  But Schaeffer ventures into the task of connecting the dots, uniting the disparate ideas and looking for cohesion or, if it is the case, fragmentation.  Men live by presuppositions, as he tells us in the first chapter.  And men live by contradictory presuppositions in many cases.  So, he calls upon Christians (first) and others to connect their random ideas into a coherent whole.

Schaeffer was not the first or only Christian thinker to put so many different items into one box.  Christian worldview thinking has a long history; in fact, the Bible itself is the first source for uniting the many different areas of life.  The Church Fathers built upon the Biblical foundation to address lots of cultural and philosophical issues.  Augustine, in particular, was a very powerful worldview thinking Christian.  Such works as The City of God, Confessions, and On Christian Doctrine are prime sources for the range of Augustine’s thought.

The Reformers were focused on doctrines related to salvation and church life, but they also ventured into areas of family life, politics, art, and culture.  Then in 1898, Abraham Kuyper gave his famous Stone Lectures, which became the book titled Lectures on Calvinism, which has defined Christian worldview thinking ever since then.  (I grant that lots of Christian thinkers are skipped in this 2 paragraph summary.  Christian thinkers such as Christopher Dawson, G. K. Chesterton, James Orr, and others were pushing the same God-honoring agenda.)

In the Twentieth Century, comprehensive Christian thought and application fell out of favor.  Christianity came under attack from a variety of fronts.  The response was a retreat into pietism.  Christians focused on evangelism and “spiritual matters.”  The world of culture, politics, ethics, and philosophy came to be  dominated by non-Christian systems of thought.

There were, however, Christian thinkers who kept venturing beyond the realms of Bible study and theology.  Of course, the Bible and theology were battlegrounds as well, and quite a few Christians, such as Benjamin Warfield and J. Gresham Machen,  devoted their energies to a defense of the faith. Beyond and yet linked to these theological wars were any number of 20th century ISMs that encroached upon areas of Christian interest.

Christians like Herman Dooyeweerd and D. H. Vollenhoven ventured into the realm of philosophy.  In the early 1960s, R. J. Rushdoony began writing scholarly works on history, politics, and education from a Christian perspective.  C. Gregg Singer wrote on American history.  Gordon Clark wrote on philosophy, education, and other topics as well.  With issues ranging from Communism to Darwinism to Existentialism, some Christian thinkers (most of whom were Reformed) felt compelled to move beyond the stained glass enclosures of the church to reclaim the world for Christ.

Neither the thinkers referred to above nor Francis Schaeffer invented the idea of Christians thinking worldviewishly.  They were merely going back to what the faithful had done for centuries and playing catch up.  So, some hefty tomes and scholarly books were written.  The reading audiences were small, but there were core groups that digested the books and ideas.

Schaeffer’s great gift was his ability to connect messages to broader audiences.  While most Christian intellectuals spoke to one another or wrote within narrow circles, Schaeffer connected to the broader evangelical community and to a generation that was young, restless, and anything, but reformed.

He actually accomplished what John Stott speaks about in his book Between Two Worlds.  The Christian, particularly the past in the case of Stott’s book, is to have one foot in the Bible and the other in the world.  Schaeffer did exactly that.


Schaeffer in My Classroom

Teaching Schaeffer in the classroom of a Christian school creates some problems.  First, How Should We Then Live? Is now a 40 year old book with many outdated references and concerns.  Second, Schaeffer is not as complex as many philosophers, but his terminology, such as “the mannishness of man,”  “universals and particulars,” and “non-reason” is perplexing to younger readers.  Third, his style and organization is not top notch.  Fourth, much of what he says sounds commonplace in a Christian school.  It hardly sounds earthshaking and worldview view toppling.

When Schaeffer says that God has spoken to us through His Word and Jesus’ death on the cross is the answer to man’s ultimate problems, Christian students yawn or gaze blankly.  The revolutionary, paradigm exploding, earth shaking radicalism of such statements is the normal course of speech in a Christian setting.  I tell my students that it is like a person on a cattle ranch eating a steak dinner.

One of the greatest challenges of mastering Schaeffer’s book for my students is learning and sorting out all of the names and events covered in the book.  This book is a history of philosophy, a course in art and music appreciation, a survey of literature, an application of theology, a discussion of issues and trends of the middle to late 20th century, a political treatise, and more.

My students had a list of nearly 150 names of people and events that they had to learn.  How do you sort out Existential philosophers, Impressionist painters, Renaissance sculptors, and Reformation preachers all at once?  The answer is “slowly and carefully.”

A careful study through Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live is the best means of beginning an acquaintance with many of the essential names and terms in Western Civilization.  It is just a beginning point.  It is one that is worth reading, or watching in the case of the videos, repeatedly.

I never fail to be impressed with each viewing of Schaeffer’s work.  I question him, argue with him,  disagree with him, and applaud him with each venture.  Thank God for giving us such a man.

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of the most engaging figures from the 20th century. He was a theologian who is acclaimed and claimed by liberals and conservatives. He was a pacifist who got involved in the plot to kill Hitler. He was a martyr and a victim of the evils of Naziism. He was a follower of Karl Barth, a Sunday school teacher in a black church in New York, a critic of both American racism and German Naziism, a writer of deep theological works and of soul searching practical theology, and a man of scholarship who lived an exciting life.

The evangelical world loves his two defining books. They are The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together. I have read both and have returned to them frequently. The first chapter of Discipleship is a contrast between what Bonhoeffer calls cheap grace and costly grace. That chapter is one of the most important Christian writings of the last 100 years. The whole book is good, but all Christians need to read and reread that first chapter.


Life Together grew out of the seminary experience of Bonhoeffer as teacher to a group of young men. Being a theologian himself, Bonhoeffer expected his students to master theology, but even more important, he expected them to grow in spiritual disciplines. This book focuses upon prayer, Bible reading, worship, and fellowship. As individuals and as a gathering of Christians, the Christian life is to be intense.

A few years back, Eric Metaxas wrote a popular biography of Bonhoeffer that was titled Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.
Metaxas is a gifted story teller and the book is a wonderful retelling of the main events of Bonhoeffer’s life. However, that biography is deeply flawed. Bonhoeffer is cast as an American-type evangelical in the hostile world of Nazi Germany.

The world of German theology is a tangle, a muddle, a festering swamp with some great thoughts amidst the alligators. The best and brightest American theological thinkers made pilgrimages to Germany during the late 19th and early 20th centuries to glean the riches that were certainly there. But Germany was also the seat of Higher Criticism and Theological Liberalism. There was, on the one hand, the brilliance of the professors and the profoundness of their insights. On the other hand were the denials of historic Christianity and the derailing of Christian orthodoxy.

Men like J. Gresham Machen negotiated their way through the world of German scholarship and emerged committed to orthodox theology. It was Machen’s German experiences that helped prepare him for writing such works as Christianity and Liberalism. Not all who crossed the Atlantic came back home untainted.

I only have a surface knowledge of German theology from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. So does Metaxas. One gets the impression that Germany under Hitler was divided between a large old politically and theologically conservative class and the Nazis. The broad brush strokes of black and white cover the canvas of Metaxas’ book, but the story is much more nuanced and shaded than that book allows.

I suspect that it would be hard to write in such a way as to capture the complexity of Bonhoeffer’s theological perspectives and peers. Much of the story of 20th century German history leaves us longing for some good guys to cheer. In a similar example, German General Erwin Rommel became the symbol of the “Good German” after World War II. Desmond Young’s biography of Rommel and the classic film “Rommel: The Desert Fox” portrayed a heroic man of honor who died because he tried to stop Hitler. But Rommel and his wife had been fervent supporters of Hitler. He had some great qualities, but he was a flawed hero at best.

Exactly where and how Bonhoeffer’s theology goes astray is a topic for someone else to explain. Bonhoeffer can rightly be paired with his contemporary and sometimes mentor Karl Barth. Neither would be welcome in the denomination or church that I am a part of. (By welcomed, I mean welcome to pastor.  I would have enjoyed listening to and fellowshipping with either man.) But both were breaths of fresh air in the context of theologically liberal Germany and then in the battle between the German Christian Church and the Confessing Church of Nazi Germany.

All that has been said is prelude to this ringing endorsement of Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker: A Theological Vision for Discipleship and Life Together by Andrew Root., published by Baker Academic Books. When I began this book, I figured it would be a biography that focused on Bonhoeffer’s years in Spain and Berlin where he taught the youth. It is heavily biographical and those experiences figure in to Root’s account. But this book is a much more in-depth examination of how youth ministry tied in to Bonhoeffer’s ideas of church community.

Another surprise about this book was becoming acquainted through it with the author Andrew Root. I had never heard of him, but learned through the book that he has authored quite a few works on youth ministry. This raised my suspicions. I see so much in youth ministry that seems focused on rock-like concerts, youth culture, numbers and trends, fun as a theological creed, and a tearing away of the young people from the rest of the church. I know this is all an oversimplification, but I almost ceased to be shocked by the outlandish things I hear of that are done in the name of youth ministry.

But Root surprised me as he unfolded Bonhoeffer’s vision of youth ministry into his own vision. Both see youth as a vital part of the entire church body, that is, the community of Christ, and both envisioned youth ministry as being deeply theological. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the youth group tackles Calvin’s Institutes on Sunday night (and some of my students expressed favorable views about that), but it does call for some practical and lived out theology that goes beyond pizza, texting, and sappy contemporary songs.

Youth ministry is a relatively new thing in America. Bonhoeffer wasn’t a youth director or youth pastor in the sense that we think of. He grew up in a largely secular family and then studied some rather esoteric theology. Since he was young, he got assigned working with the young. He was brainy enough to appeal to young scholars, but he was plenty capable of having a good time with the guys. But it was the theological engagement that pushed him in his ministry.

This book, along with Bonhoeffer’s two classics, need to be carefully read and thought through by Christian leaders in the churches and Christian schools. My tradition, the Reformed Faith, tends to highlight our children being in covenant, but then does little to directly minister to them as youth. The broader evangelical community prostrates itself before any mode or method of getting kids to come to church. I think Bonhoeffer and Root, as his spokesperson, have something to say to all of us.

One final plus for this book: After the main portion of the work, the book has extensive guides and commentaries on The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together. That section alone is a worthy read. But don’t miss the rest of the book either.