The Religious Life of Robert E. Lee

After reading R. David Cox’s outstanding new biography, The Religious Life of Robert E. Lee, which examines Lee’s entire life with special attention to the role of the religious beliefs and practices of Lee and those around him, here’s what I think:

  1. Lee was a man of profound Christian faith. His trust in God’s providence and goodness grew greater and stronger throughout his life.
  2. Lee was a man a man of uncommon virtue. His Christian beliefs and practice were primary ingredients in the formation of his character, but Lee also seemed to absorb and integrate the best attributes of the culture of which he was a part, especially a devotion to duty, honor, and the dignity of others.
  3. No matter how good a person is, he is a product of, and to some degree a prisoner of, his culture.
  4. Character, virtue, and faith do not render us immune from believing lies. Lee, like many of his white American contemporaries, both Northern and Southern, believed that African-Americans were inherently inferior to whites.
  5. A godly Christian can make a decision that he firmly believes is the right, most ethical decision, only to discover later that his decision has placed him at cross-purposes with God’s overarching will. Lee was initially opposed to secession, and he believed that slavery was an evil that eventually should and would come to end. (Although he never offered a plan for how it should have been ended.). Nevertheless, when Lee resigned his U.S. Army commission and accepted command in the Confederate Army, he, like many of his fellow Southerners, believed he was making the best moral choice possible given the circumstances.
  6. Lee, like the overwhelming majority of his fellow Christians in the North and South—and for that matter, his fellow believers throughout Christian history—does not seem to have pondered very deeply the possibility that it might be against God’s will to continue to send tens of thousands of men to slaughter and be slaughtered even as Confederate defeat became increasingly likely. One of the criteria for a just war is a reasonable probability of success.
  7. What set Lee apart from many of his fellow Confederates was what he discerned regarding God’s will in the defeat of the Confederacy, a subject that Cox explores in detail. Soon after the end of the war, Lee met a friend, Marsena Patrick, who was a Union general. During an hour-long conversation, Lee reportedly said, “Patrick the only question on which we ever differed has been settled, and the Lord has decided against me.” At about the same time in 1865, Lee wrote to a friend:

    “God has thought fit to afflict us most deeply & his chastening hand is not yet stayed….How great must be our sins and unrelenting our obduracy….We have only to submit to his gracious will and pray for his healing mercy.”

  8. This understanding of the South’s defeat as a judgment of God did not leave Lee despondent. Instead, it formed the foundation upon which Lee embarked on the most admirable and noble mission of his life. From 1865 until his death in 1870, Lee led Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) located in the small town of Lexington in western Virginia. Not only did Lee save the college from closing its doors, he set the example of leading young men to embrace their identity as Americans and promoting reconciliation with the North. He continued to espouse unity even as his disappointment grew that Reconstruction was unfolding in a harsher way than what had been initially planned by Lincoln and initiated by Grant at Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. True to his Christian beliefs, Lee wanted the college to educate the young men under his charge, not only in a wide variety of practical and classical subjects, but also as followers of Christ: “I dread the thought of any student going away from the college without becoming a sincere Christian.”



Mother Tongue by Leonard Sweet

Is Mother Tongue a biography? Family memoir? Devotional meditation? Whatever the category, Mother Tongue is an inspiring remembrance of an amazing woman and an honest and engrossing recollection of Leonard Sweet’s mid-20th century growing-up years in a poor family led by his indomitable and devout mother, Mabel Boggs Sweet.

It is also a fascinating look inside the subculture of Holiness Churches of that era of which Ms. Mabel was an ordained, and then defrocked, minister. What made the story all the more compelling for me were the contrasts between the Len Sweet that I have come to know via his books, podcasts, and essays (and even a shared meal many years ago). Dr. Sweet is a sophisticated, urbane, scholar of American culture, college president, professor, semiotician (look it up!), and creative communicator extraordinaire. Although, I had inferred something of Sweet’s roots from passing allusions in his books and podcasts, I would never have guessed how humble his beginnings were, nor how saturated his formative years were in the Holiness stream of American Christianity.

Despite, however, Leonard Sweet’s impressive credentials and cosmopolitan persona, the singular trait that has always come through in his writing and speaking is his conviction that Jesus Christ is, as He claimed, the way, the truth, and the life. And, now, after reading this, his loving and respectful — although not entirely uncritical — portrait of Mabel Sweet, I know who planted and watered the seeds of Christian faith in Len Sweet.

Mabel Sweet’s life was in many ways a difficult life. I suspect that I’m not the only fellow follower of Christ who has read this book and wondered what might have been if she had been born in a different time and into different circumstances. But, in the end, most of us will join Len Sweet in thanking God that Mabel Sweet persevered and left the rich legacy that she did.

Russell Moore’s Erasmus Lecture

Russell Moore continues to be the the Christian public intellectual who best speaks for me on matters of politics and policy. Last night I watched his Erasmus Lecture (sponsored by First Things) live streamed on Facebook: First time I’ve watched such a long lecture live.

Actual video and audio begins at 15:40 (min:sec). It’s over an hour long. Rod Dreher summarizes Moore’s lecture and provides his commentary at:

I believe Moore was right when he said, “One of the assumptions of some in the old Religious Right is that the church is formed well enough theologically and simply needs to be mobilized politically,” and, then he persuasively argues that this assumption is wrong. As Dreher more colorfully puts it, “American Christians are theologically ignorant, and it’s killing us.”

Moore pointed to the positive signs that many younger evangelicals have embraced a more theologically thick faith. He points out that Jonathan Edwards is alive and well among some younger evangelicals.

However….. as much as I agree with Moore that rich, intellectually deep theological knowledge brings with it truth, beauty, and a rootedness that is necessary if Christians are to be salt and light in the post-Christian West, the transmission and cultivation of robust theology among a larger number of Christians has its limits.

Face it. The vast majority of Christians, past and present, have neither the educational background nor the temperament, to pore over Edwards and Augustine. For that matter, not many will read the wonderful works of more contemporary, and more accessible, authors such as C.S. Lewis (cited by Russell Moore in his lecture as helping save his faith), or Tim Keller, or Dallas Willard.

Besides, it is very clear to me from the New Testament that Jesus did and does place a higher priority on qualities such as love, faith, hope, mercy, humility, service, sacrifice, compassion and the fruit of the Spirit, than he does doctrinal correctness, intellectual depth, and theological rigor. And, based on personal experience and observation, the latter are not particularly good predictors of the former.

Still, the Lord has gifted the Body of Christ with men and women who can serve the Body by providing intellectual and theological leadership. Moore pointed out in his lecture that most American evangelical church leaders who have exercised political leadership (and I would add many who were not politically inclined but who have served in positions of power and celebrity in evangelical churches) over the past several decades have been sorely deficient in the gifts of intellectual and theological leadership, and those deficiencies account for much of the mess that we find ourselves in.

For me the biggest takeaway message from Moore’s lecture is that those of us who agree with his diagnosis must appreciate and promote biblically based theological seriousness, richness, and depth in our pastors, churches, seminaries, colleges, and among those lay Christians who are gifted and called to go deeper into theological study and then apply that knowledge in the vocations where God has placed them.

Maybe then, evangelical Christians will have something more substantive to contribute to America politically, including spiritually mature believers to serve in the vocation of politics.

The heartbreak of communal living – Heinrich Arnold and the Bruderhof

Rod Dreher has become the champion of Christians in the U.S. building “Benedict Options” in the face of American culture’s increasingly hostile stance toward traditional Christian faith. Dreher has written and spoken extensively on the Benedict Option over the past two years, and is writing a book, which will be released in March 2016.

Dreher insists that embracing the Benedict Option–which undoubtedly will be expressed in a variety of forms by different communities of believers–does not mean withdrawing from the world, but it does mean, “we must withdraw behind some communal boundaries not for the sake of our own purity, but so we can first become who God wants us to be, precisely for the sake of the world.” (Benedict Option FAQ)

It will be interesting to see in his upcoming book how Dreher recommends drawing those communal boundaries. Based on what Dreher has written thus far about the Benedict Option, I doubt he will advocate that intentional Christian communities renounce private property and share everything in common.

But, from the very beginning of Christian communities, there have been those who have embarked on just that kind of radical communal life:

“All the believers were together and had everything in common.  They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” (Acts 2:44-45)

The Bruderhof are Christians who have been living this way in various communities for nearly a century. The man who brought Bruderhof communities in to the U.S. in 1954 was Heinrich Arnold. His grandson, Peter Mommsen, tells his story in Homage to a Broken Man: The Life of J. Heinrich Arnold.

Arnold’s story is fascinating, inspiring, and to my thinking, heartbreaking. The young Heinrich Arnold is idealistic, sensitive, and driven by a sense of God’s calling and a devotion to his father, Eberhard Arnold, the founder of the Bruderhof. Thirty years later, Heinrich Arnold has experienced the joys of living in community. But, he has also suffered the dictatorial, devious, legalistic and cruel torment of fellow leaders of the community and those who cooperated with them to isolate and punish Arnold on the numerous occasions when Arnold crossed them.

Mommsen presents the elder Heinrich Arnold as having emerged from this crucible of abuse broken, both physically and emotionally. Out of this suffering God molded Arnold into a compassionate Christ-like leader full of empathy for the hurting and the marginalized. Arnold’s love for the Bruderhof then compelled him in the 1950s and early 1960s to accept the role of single “elder” and to drastically reorganize the communities in order to rescue them from the legalism and dysfunction that began to plague them after his father’s death in 1935.

Was Heinrich Arnold the man on the white horse portrayed by Mommsen? Who knows. Some of those who were hurt in the great reorganization didn’t think so.

Regardless, the story of Arnold and the Bruderhof is a sobering reminder of the difficulties and dangers of equating following Jesus with selling all we have and living together in community. Good intentions are not enough to keep sinners–even redeemed sinners–from brutally hurting themselves and one another.

Renovation of the Heart

Even though I’ve been an admirer of Dallas Willard for many years, I just got around to reading his 2002 book, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ. I’ll refer to it as ROTH in this review. In many ways I found ROTH to be one of the most helpful things I’ve read by Willard, but I also found myself disagreeing with one of the sections in ROTH more than anything else that I’ve read or heard from Willard.

Over the past 15 years or so, I’ve spent quite a bit of time learning from Willard. I’ve read several of his other books, for example, The Divine Conspiracy, The Spirit of the Disciplines, Getting Love Right, and Hearing God. I’ve read many of his articles posted at and in other publications. I’ve listened to a number of Willard’s teachings and listened to or read a number of interviews with him.

Willard, who died in 2013, was a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California. But, beginning in 1988 with the publication of The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives, Willard became one of the foremost thinkers and teachers in the movement to encourage modern evangelical Christians to pursue “spiritual formation” in Christ.

Willard insisted that every person is being spiritually formed, for good or for ill. It’s not surprising that his definition of spiritual formation in ROTH illustrates the precision and rigor that Willard (after all, he was a professor of philosophy) brought to the definitions of all terms he deemed important: “…spiritual formation for the Christian basically refers to the Spirit-driven process of forming the inner world of the human self in such a way that it becomes like the inner being of Christ himself.”

Willard argues in ROTH and elsewhere that one of the tragedies of modern evangelical Christianity is that we have lost sight of the centrality of spiritual formation in the life of every follower of Christ. God doesn’t just dump spiritual formation on his children without any regard for their role in the process. Just “letting spiritual formation happen,” will, at best, result in stunted, anemic growth in Christ.

Instead, Willard asserts that good, healthy, Christian spiritual formation happens when Christians cooperate with God. This cooperation is a delight to God, and for the Christian is not a burden, but a great privilege and joy. Willard is careful to say that the capacity to cooperate is itself a gift from God, so we have no grounds for being prideful about our cooperation. Willard frequently said, “God is opposed to ‘earning’; he is not opposed to ‘effort.'”

In ROTH, Willard recaps what he believes to be the three essential ingredients in the recipe for a believer to be spiritually formed into the image of Christ: Vision, Intention, Means. The believer needs a vision of what it means to have the mind, emotions, spirit/heart/will, and relations with others of Christ. That picture is most vividly painted in the New Testament, especially the Gospels, and also in various parts of the Old Testament.

Willard argues that while the vision is essential, it’s impact on the believer only comes alive when it becomes that believer’s intention to be aligned with, and formed into, the image of Jesus presented in the Bible and seen in his closest followers over the past 2000 years. In other words, the believer must decide that he will do what it takes to be formed into the vision of Christ given to us in Scripture.

“What it takes” to experience that formation are the “means,” that is the practices, disciplines, and methods that we need to actually do. One of Willard’s most crucial insights in ROTH and elsewhere is that we simply can’t grit our teeth and do what Jesus has commanded. We simply aren’t capable of obeying Jesus through application of our sheer willpower. In fact, Willard spends quite a bit of time in ROTH showing that all of us begin our walk with Christ with a depth of rebelliousness, sin, and evil within us that makes it literally impossible to do the things Jesus did/does without a radical “renovation of the heart.”

Instead, we must take a more indirect approach. Over time as we practice the presence of Christ, meditate on what God has done for us through Christ, continually turn and re-turn to Jesus as our Master Teacher, and practice the “means” of prayer, Bible study, service to others, silence, worship, fellowship, etc., the Holy Spirit will “renovate our hearts.” We will gradually become people for whom it is increasingly natural to love our enemies, forgive those who abuse us, turn the other cheek, etc., just to name a few of the things that make up the vision of being a person like Jesus.

ROTH is a powerful exposition of the call to embrace the vision, intention, and means of following Jesus Christ. Part of Willard’s genius in ROTH and elsewhere is his ability to define words, phrases, and concepts in fresh, enlightening ways that are, not only convincing, but seem to encourage the reader to both gratitude and action.

For all my enthusiasm about ROTH, I also have two concerns and one major criticism.

The first concern is with the anatomy of the human being presented in ROTH. Willard argues that the human being is comprised of spirit (heart/will), mind (thought/feeling), body, social relationships and soul. Willard persuasively presents this paradigm, and I found it very helpful in understanding what makes us tick and why and how God can change us as we follow Jesus.

But, is such a model of the human person true? Do some of the distinctions and conflations within Willard’s model owe more to philosophy than to the Bible? Are spirit, heart, and will synonyms for the same “thing”? I don’t know. I suspect that other Christian philosophers and theologians might offer different models than Willard does in ROTH.

My second concern is that, despite Willard’s frequent statements that Jesus’ Way is the very essence of simplicity, the way of following Jesus presented in ROTH sometimes seems to involve a level of intellectual sophistication that is beyond some Christians. It’s obvious that Willard was a brilliant philosopher. And, it’s obvious that his intent is to call his fellow believers to child-like trust in Jesus. There are, however, passages in ROTH that leave me wondering how the concept being presented would connect with a lot of regular Joe or Jane Christians.

Finally, my harshest criticism of ROTH is of Willard’s understanding of the Christian’s relationship to God’s Law as presented in the Scripture, and in particular the Mosaic Law. Willard says, “….human deliverance comes from a personal relationship with God….but the law is an essential part of that relationship.” Willard strains to show that “Law and grace go together,” and that “love of the law restores the soul.”

Put simply, Willard ignores much of St. Paul’s teaching regarding the relationship between God’s Law as given to Israel and those who are now in Christ. What about the fact that “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” (Romans 10:4)?

Even though the section on God’s Law only covers five out of the 255 pages in ROTH, unfortunately, it seriously misses the mark on a very important subject.

Nonetheless, the remainder of ROTH is so powerful and, I believe, such helpful medicine for most of us 21st century Christians, that I highly recommend it.

The Foolishness of Making Things Happen

Dallas Willard is so right:

“So often the work of the leader or pastor is so hard and so full of disappointments and their own lives are empty – and, they eventually blow up. It’s because they haven’t heard the message that Jesus gave. They heard another message. And, perhaps with the best of intentions they were driven into a life whether they thought their job was to make things happen — and that’s the worst position you can be in. Of course, you’re going to act. But, your job is not to make things happen. We live in the Kingdom of God where God is active, His Spirit is present, His Son is alive; that’s where we live. They will make it happen. And if we make it happen the result will be our converts, and then probably we’re going to have to keep making them do things, because they’re depending on us to jump start them, and keep them going, rather than putting them on to the living Kingdom of God and the living Christ and allowing them to live interactively, one-on-one, with God — and transform the world in which they’re living.” – Dallas Willard (Living in the Presence of Christ, Lecture 1)

Free Expression for All! (Except for Traditional Religious Believers)

In the wake of the murders in Paris of the Charlie Hebdod staff, I have been encouraged by the outpourings of support for freedom of the press and freedom of speech. But, it is obvious that many, at least here in the U.S., despite their declarations of such support, believe they know best when those freedoms should be restricted. For example, the New York Times editorial writers…….

If you haven’t heard, last week the city of Atlanta fired Kelvin Cochran, the chief of its Fire and Rescue Department. Cochran charges that it was because he expressed his condemnation of homosexuality in a book he wrote in 2013.

Well, the NY TImes editorial writers, recent defenders of Charlie Hebdod’s right to publish cartoons considered blasphemous by many Muslims (and by the way, I can understand why many Muslims would be offended), apparently see no contradiction between that defense and cheering the firing of Cochran. How strange. Just a few days ago, David Brooks, columnist for the NY Times pointed out this kind of hypocrisy among many self-identifying liberals, for example, the enforcers of political correctness on college campuses.

Rod Dreher discusses the chilling hypocrisy of the NY Times editorial board. And Denny Burke highlights, what seems to at least some of us to be, the obvious implications for religious liberty. Both point out the admission by the city of Atlanta that there was absolutely no evidence that Chief Cochran had mistreated gays or lesbians. In other words, the NY Times finds it laudable to fire people because of what they believe and say, even when what they are saying is consistent with the traditional teaching of three of the world’s great religions. (Although, I agree with Rod: I think the way that Cochran expressed himself was graceless. I wouldn’t have said it the way he said it. But, that’s fodder for another post.)

We are in for some big debates in this country regarding freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion. But, I suppose that’s been obvious for quite some time.

Outrageous Grace

If you think you believe in God’s grace, I challenge you to read Between Noon and Three: Romance, Law, and the Outrage of Grace by Robert Farrar Capon. Capon uses a few parables, sermons, fictional debates, and musings, to present grace in such an outrageous fashion that many of us will be tempted to throw grace out the window rather than believe the consequences. I think Capon ignores and dismisses some things that God cares about. But, there is something to his argument that we are so enthrall to our own moralizing and self-justification, and so blind to just how far-reaching and overarching God’s love and grace in Christ are, that we need to be shocked into hearing the full impact of the Good News that: (a) our past, present, and future “goodness” is absolutely useless in gaining God’s acceptance, (b) it’s only the fact that the “me” that I usually think of as “me” – along with all my good works and sins – has died and is dead – crucified with Christ – which makes it possible that (c) Christ has already resurrected (alive right now!), and will resurrect in spite of my one-day-dead body, a new me whose life is, even as we speak, hidden in Christ. One implication: radical freedom. If you read it, read it to the end. If you’re like me, you’ll be tempted to put it in the give-away pile multiple times before you finish.