Tuesday, May 25

The Greater Depression

My good friend Ben House has written a trenchant analysis of the origins of our muddled modernity. Actually, he delivered the material in two addresses to families in Texarkana. Below is a revised transcript of his remarks--I thought that the connections he has made so valuable that I asked for permission to post them here for your illumination and edification. He kindly consented:

Popular histories usually focus on the wars, the politics, and the personalities of an era. For most people, popular history is history. By that I mean that it is what they remember of history. Often the events of greatest consequence do not happen in the chambers of legislators or the palaces of kings or on the battlefields. Often the greatest events of history are the theological struggles and the intellectual battles that occur. But since the battle of Gettysburg is more exciting than the growth of Nationalism and since the life of Hitler is more intriguing than the rise of Socialism, the historical attention will tend toward the frontline movers and shakers.

In American history, the story from the early 1900s to the mid-1900s generally revolves around the two World Wars and the Great Depression. It would certainly be hard to minimize these three events or to ignore their impact on subsequent history; however, three other events had an impact on this nation arguably as great, if not greater, than World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II.

Only one of these three events is well known. This was the Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925. Dayton, Tennessee was a small Southern town, and John Scopes was a substitute teacher who willingly agreed to confess to having taught the theory of evolution in the classroom. A Tennessee state statute forbade teaching the theory of evolution, so Scopes was guilty as charged. But the real story was the media event.

For the first time on a grand scale, a phenomenon occurred which has become a commonplace: The media spin on the story superseded the story itself. The Scopes Trial was an international media event. It did wonders for the local economy of Dayton, Tennessee. And it was great for the media. But the winners of the trial, the defenders of the Genesis creation account, were the losers of the media war.

According to most accounts, William Jennings Bryan--three time Presidential candidate, Presbyterian elder, and opponent of Evolution—botched the defense of Creation both on and off the stand. In the play and the movie versions of the trial, entitled “Inherit the Wind”, the “William Jennings Bryan-like” character was a complete buffoon and simpleton. The defender of Creationism in the film version brags that he never read Darwin, for he only read the Bible. In reality, Bryan read Darwin a good many years earlier and for a time had been sympathetic to a modified Darwinian viewpoint. Bryan and his defense team performed quite well in many of the exchanges in the trial. Perhaps more than many in his time and ours, Bryan saw the ethical and political implications of Darwinism. Nevertheless, his testimony as a witness was badly done and subject to decades of ridicule.

The end result of the trial was not just the publicity stunt itself or the challenge to the state laws of Tennessee or the issue of academic freedom. The results of this trial were that Christians lost face, lost influence, lost respect, and lost credibility in the public arena.

The media elites and the intellectual elites (but not the courts) ruled that Christianity was backward, superstitious, Medieval (meant as an insult!), bound to Dark Age myths, narrow-minded and opposed to science and learning. Darwinianism became not simply a view of science, but Science itself. The tenets of Darwinism were the keys to intellectual freedom. Evolution broke the chains of the past and freed the mind to understand the real world. A bright new day was dawning: In an Orwellian mindset, Evolution was Liberty. This optimistic Darwinianism still exists; in a recent edition of “The Griffin,” Senior Editor Robert Dreeson said, “Perhaps the best way to understand ourselves, the human species, is to visit the zoo. It’s there, rather than in a mirror, that we might get the best view of ourselves.”

A second event occurred around 1935. It is less well known than the Scopes Trial; it is less interesting in terms of the excitement generated or the personalities involved. It was, in certain parts of the country, headline news, but it was not a media event of the magnitude of the first event. This was the trial and suspension of J. Gresham Machen from the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.

Machen’s trial involved no juicy stories. The issues at stake were theological, not moral. Machen contended for a particular theological dogma that was opposed by a faction that holding a different theological dogma. Now this may sound like just another case of Presbyterian denominational infighting. As such, it might be some high stake ecclesiastical wrangling among Presbyterians, but of interest to few others. But once again, bigger issues were at stake.

The theological issues were not fine obtuse points of theology or scholastic debates or differing theological perspectives on the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. Machen’s opponents were theological liberals who were denying such essentials as the virgin birth of Christ, the miracles of the Bible, and the resurrection of Christ. Among his better-known opponents was Pearl S. Buck, Nobel Prize winning author and child of Presbyterian missionaries. Miss Buck maintained that it did not matter whether Jesus Christ actually lived or not. What mattered was that ‘the spirit of Jesus lived.’

Machen did not exactly fit the image of the modern sensitive kind of guy. If he had of been, he could have responded to Miss Buck’s views by saying, “Hey, it’s okay, if that is what works for you, fine, let the spirit of Jesus live. For me personally, I dig the older theology, the real Heilig Geschichte kind of stuff.” Or perhaps, he could have allowed that the Presbyterian Church was big enough, inclusive enough, broad-minded enough, to include those whose credo was “I deny…” in the pew right next to those whose credo was “I believe.”

Instead, Machen was stubborn, narrow-minded, exclusive, not inclusive, and (forgive this bad language) intolerant. Having learned the Westminster Shorter Catechism on his faithful mother’s knees, he just could not overlook those Scriptural doctrines affirming the deity of Christ and His resurrection from the dead.

Machen lost to a coalition in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. made up of a minority of theological liberals and a large number of moderates. The moderates tended to side with Machen’s theological preferences, but were guided primarily by their own 11th (or was it 1st?) commandment: “Thou shalt not make waves.” In this process—it did not begin or end with Machen—the loss was specifically Princeton Theological Seminary and more generally intellectual Protestantism.

It may be a bit too much of a stereotype, but in the 1800s and early 1900s, Episcopalians controlled the money in the nation, Presbyterians controlled the scholarship, and Baptists and Methodists controlled the numbers, that is, the majority of the Protestants. Baptist theologians like James P. Boyce received their theological training from the Princeton theologians like the Hodges and the Alexanders. Other theologians looked to Presbyterians and admired their scholarship. Taking out a Presbyterian theologian was a hefty coup d’tat.
Machen’s fall signaled the defeat of conservative scholarship. It was not, mind you, a defeat in the actual arena of scholarship. Machen’s book Christianity and Liberalism effectively trounced the arguments of the liberals. The defeat was the loss of institutions and the traditional reigns of power. Machen resorted to what became a tradition in Reformed circles--break away and regroup and hope to recoup the losses. Only the losses are generally never completely recouped and the regrouping group tends to suffer subsequent breaking away. John Frame’s work on the legacy of Machen’s children—that is, the in-fighting of Reformed Christianity since the 1930s—is both enlightening and saddening.

“Intellectual Bible-believing Christianity” became something of an oxymoron in the halls of academia and among the American intelligentsia. The original publication of the books known as The Fundamentals was recognized as a scholarly orthodox response to the theological currents. After Machen was exiled from mainline Presbyterianism into the hinterlands, the only Protestant theologians to be noticed were liberals or neo-orthodox. The most Protestant of nations, the most scholarly of denominations, and the most foundational beliefs—all suffered from Machen’s trial and suspension.

The third event actually occurred, or begin occurring, first in time. It is the least known, the least interesting from a popular perspective, and almost completely ignored in terms of media attention or inclusion in the history books. This was the abandonment of Classical education. The Founding Fathers of America were all the products of Classical education. Pastors, teachers, professors, and all educated people in America were trained in schools that in one fashion or another were Classical.

By Classical, we mean that the intellectual foundations of education were built upon the study of Greek and Latin languages and that the ethical objectives aimed at producing men of character. This Classical strand, tracing back to Homer, Aristotle, Virgil, and others, was reinforced by two millennia of Christian influences. Hence Augustine and the other church fathers were studied alongside of Homer and Seneca. Educated men were well versed in what Mortimer Adler would later call ‘The Great Conversation.’ When educated men wrote books and letters, they freely quoted from the Greeks and Romans in the original languages and did not assume any need to translate the quotations.

This education was being rapidly abandoned in the early part of the Twentieth Century. The greater story of this abandonment is beyond the scope of this essay. But at least a portion of it can be seen by the example of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.

Vanderbilt fit into the tradition of Christian universities that required incoming students to have been Classically educated and then advanced that education to an even higher level. Dr. Louise Cowan highlights the case of Southern poet and literary critic John Crowe Ransom: "In 1908-1909, the year Ransom graduated, all who were working toward a B.A. degree were required to study a year of Latin, a year of Greek (these requirements presupposed four years of Latin and three of Greek in high school), and a year each of mathematics, English, chemistry, history, and philosophy. A major in English literature required two years of Latin, Greek, French, German, two and a half of Biblical literature, and one of Anglo-Saxon.”

A few years later, when Ransom returned to Vanderbilt to teach, the program had changed. Cowan states, “By 1919, the classical languages had been dropped as requirements, although they were still recommended to English majors.”

Cowan says, “Utilitarianism was becoming the controlling attitude at Vanderbilt as it had become dominant even earlier, in most other universities in the nation…. The new philosophy of education shifted this basis, focusing on the recipients of knowledge rather than the disciplines themselves, with a consequent democratization of attitude, so that the aims of education were made subject to timeliness and opportunism, and standards began their long downward plunge.”

Here around 1915, “standards began their long downward plunge.” Long before all of our current education woes, the old school, the proven and tried method, the universal standards, the Greco-Roman-Christian heritage was abandoned.

It took awhile for all the old teachers to die off. Their required courses became electives as their hair turned gray and eyes grew dim. Small classical academies that had dotted the landscape of Tennessee and other states closed their doors. School consolidation promised to save the day. Learning Latin soon went the way of plowing with mules.

Now, here is a summary of this dismal history:

1915—The heritage of education abandoned.
1925—The authority of Scripture mocked and ridiculed.
1935—Christian orthodoxy and scholarship defrocked.

By contrast, the failed politics of Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, and Franklin D. Roosevelt seem refreshing. By contrast, the dangers of World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II seem redeeming. By contrast, the writings of Ernest Hemingway and T.S. Eliot seem optimistic.

If this story ended here, American history would be a great dark age for the rest of the Twentieth Century and beyond. But God is gracious. The next segment of this story will follow shortly.

The next segment follows shortly--and we are its actors.

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