Thursday, July 28

Whaa’z Uuuup Geoff-Dog?

Baba Brinkman wants modern teenagers to learn to love Geoffrey Chaucer’s classic Canterbury Tales as much as he does. So, the Canadian rap artist has translated some of the best-known works of the fourteenth-century poet into hip-hop in an effort to make them “more appealing.” According to Baba, “All the themes of rap music are there in the tales: jealousy, anger, greed, lust.” He had the idea of converting Chaucer into rap when he was working toward a masters’ degree on the poet nearly a decade ago. “I tried to keep the rap versions as close as possible to the original, so I went through the tales line-by-line,” he said. “It was a painstaking process to convert Chaucer into a rhyme scheme that young people would like."

Yeah! I bet!

Commenting on the translation effort Jonathan Dickson, an English professor at a prestigious East Coast university, asserted, "I’m sure a few uppity traditionalist-types might object. But hey dude, we’ve had rock-n-roll Shakespeare and goth Milton, so why not hip-hop Chaucer?”

Hmmm. I think I’d best refrain from commenting on electric-razzle-dazzle Shakepeare, street-wise-posse Chaucer, or hipper-than-thou Ivy League Lit profs lest I find myself relegated to the cultural backwater of uppitydom. But, haute-goth-drag Milton? About that, I really think I'm just gonna have to go on record as hopelessly moss-backed.

Wednesday, July 27

Federal Vision Reports

At its 80th stated meeting earlier this month the Louisiana Presbytery of the PCA adopted a report from an ad hoc committee on the various controversies surrounding the Federal Vision (or Auburn Avenue) theological movement. The report is available online at the Louisiana Presbytery website. This is the second full report on this issue from the PCA--the other came from the Mississippi Valley Presbytery earlier this year. It too is available online in a downloadable PDF file. As you will be able to readily discern, the two reports probably could not be more different--only highlighting the depth and breadth of this roiling controversy.

Monday, July 25

Reformation 21

The new online e-magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is a gold mine of helpful book reviews, astute cultural commentaries, serious theological reflection, and practical pastoral resources. Esteemed Reformed scholars like Derek Thomas, Phil Ryken, Justin Taylor, Ligon Duncan, and John Piper join rising stars like Nate Shurden (one of my former students) to create a remarkable and welcome site on the web. There are also a host of archived classics--sermons by Charles Spurgeon, Horatius Bonar, John Calvin, and R.C. Sproul. Not likely to shy away from fierce controversies like the New Perspective and Federal Vision debates, Reformation 21 is sure to be provocative, informative, and incisive. You'll want to be sure to bookmark it (what an interesting linguistic anachronism that phrase is: bookmarking a website)!

Sept! C'est Finis!

Tuesday, July 19

What a Difference!

What difference can covenantal discipleship and substantive education make? It can make all the difference in the world. The circumstances surrounding the birth of our own nation are instructive in this regard.

The coronation of King George III in October 1760 marked a turning point in the relations between England and her American colonies. His German great-grandfather and grandfather, George I and George II, had allowed the powers of the Crown decline under their rule. When he arrived from Hanover, George I spoke no English, and the ministers of state, who spoke no German, were forced to speak to him in ecclesiastical Latin to conduct any conversation. George II was an absent king, spending most of his time back home in Hanover and leaving the administration of the country to his wife, Caroline, and his Prime Ministers, Sir Robert Walpole and William Pitt.

However, the new king was determined to be a new kind of English monarch, and a bold adjustment of style and policy was in order. Eager to assert his authority over his dominion, he began by dismissing many of ministers of state that had been appointed by his grandfather, George II.

The most notable dismissal was William Pitt, the popular Prime Minister, who everyone acknowledged had been running the country during the entire course of the Seven Years War. Pitt’s departure from the government only served to increase the problems for the new king. The Peace of Paris, which ended the Seven Years War, had left the British with the enormous problem of governing and protecting a vast new empire. On one side of the globe, they had added the subcontinent of India to their holdings; on the other they had added Canada and all the land west of the Appalachians to the Mississippi River.

Victory in the war presented the king with a major defensive headache. British North America more than doubled in size, and now included many more hostile Indians and unfriendly Frenchmen. The king felt it necessary to station some 7500 soldiers in the American colonies as a permanent defense against French and Indian raids along the frontier. Nearly half of the soldiers were earmarked for Canada, a quarter for duty in the West, almost a quarter for Florida, while seven hundred were left in the old colonial seaports to handle supplies destined for the soldiers on the frontier. The presence of these soldiers would prove to be a great source of trouble to colonists, who did not believe that the British government should maintain a standing army in peacetime and grew suspicious that the intended purpose of these troops was to suppress their liberties.

But, all that was hardly the worst of it. Unknown to George at the time, a new kind of threat to his absolute authority as king was about to land on the American shores. John Witherspoon was a well-known Presbyterian preacher, reformer, and educator in Scotland who was called by the struggling College of New Jersey to assume the helm as president. The problem the college trustees were facing was that their presidents kept dying in rapid succession, including Jonathan Edwards and Samuel Davies who both died just a few months into their terms. Little did the trustees know how good of a choice they had made in their selection. Assessing the importance of Witherspoon’s arrival to the colonies, Woodrow Wilson, who would himself serve as president of Princeton and then later be elected Governor of New Jersey and President of the United States, said, “It was a piece of providential good fortune that brought such a man to Princeton at such a good time.”

Witherspoon, who had been imprisoned like so many other Scots patriots following the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Stewart royal cause by the German Hanoverians, quickly took to his new office, and he began to aggressively transform the college into new kind of institution that was focused on creating Christian cultural leaders. His biographer, Varnum Lansing Collins, noted the importance of this shift: “However little others may have thought of it or he himself have realized just then was the belief that the function of such a college was not merely to educate candidates for the ministry, but also to send out into the widening spheres of colonial life Christian gentlemen and scholarly men of affairs.” The classical curriculum would now be devoted to more than just theology; it would prepare them for the whole of life.

Students would devote their time to learning “the permanent things,” Witherspoon determined. New topics were incorporated into Witherspoon’s Moral Philosophy lectures, including ethics, political science and law--none of which were being taught at a college anywhere in the colonies at the time. Economics was also a part of the broadened academic focus, and he lectured against the use of paper money in favor of hard currency and the virtues of the free market.

These studies rooted the students in the Reformation doctrine of calling and vocation. Witherspoon emphasized the pervasive role of religion to guide and inform every area of study, and the necessity of every man to do his duty, and he would echo this theme in a sermon delivered just days before he would sign the Declaration of Independence. “Upon the whole, I beseech you to make a wise improvement of the present threatening aspect of public affairs, and to remember your duty to God, to your country, to your families, and to yourselves, is the same. True religion is nothing else but an inward temper and outward conduct suited to your state and circumstances in providence at any time.”

Faith must be translated into action, and the whole discipleship process at the College of New Jersey would be founded on this fundamental belief. Academics at the college were intended to build these “Christian gentlemen” who exhibited the traits of practical determination, spiritual devotion, a love of liberty and virtue, and vigilance against tyranny and apathy. Witherspoon was dedicated to building a new, peculiar kind of man who was animated and activated by a Christian worldview, and the impact of his efforts would profoundly influence the direction that the entire country was about to take by training a whole generation of American leaders and statesmen. Garry Wills, a modern historian, was not overstating his case when he said that Witherspoon was “probably the most influential teacher in the history of American education.”

And that made all the difference!

What About Harry?

He's a wildly lauded pop-culture phenomenon. He's bigger than anything since the iPod Shuffle. Even Hollywood blockbusters have a hard time keeping pace with his box office booty. He's enmeshed in a world of wizzards and magic and evil sorcerers. Can he possibly be good? I mean really! On the face of it, isn't it obvious that Harry Potter--to say nothing of the craze that swirls about him--has to be dangerous, dispicable, and desultory from a Christian worldview perspective?

Well, not necessarily. In fact, according to Jerram Barrs, the J.K. Rowling novels featuring Harry Potter may actually be all they are cracked up to be--and more. In his latest Christian Counter-Culture essay from the Francis Schaeffer Institute at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis, this renowned professor of apologetics and evangelism makes a powerful case for Harry, Hogwarts, and Hermoine. If it seems more than a little paradoxical to you that a thoughtful Reformed theologian would be wild about Harry but wouldn't even think of touching the Left Behind novels--much less actually reading them--then you probably ought to read this!

For a totally contrarian view, my friend Doug Phillips, raises grave concerns at his Vision Forum site about the themes of sorcery in the Potter books. Be sure to read the whole essay carefully--Doug artfully uses sarcasm to make his point.

After you have read the to-and-fro and pillar-to-post discussions that Barrs and Phillips have launched, you may still find yourself wondering what a Christian ought to think about Harry and Hogwarts. If you've made it this far into the discussion then you may want to try to go further by tackling John Granger's book, Finding God in Harry Potter. I have found it to be the most thoroughly informed work--from both a theological and a literary perspective--on the subject thus far.

But, one thing is clear: this is not a simple debate--it is fraught with the complexities of language, definition, literary form, thematic purpose, and cultural differences (remember that Rowling is a European not an American, so the metaphysical terminology she uses may rankle the average Evangelical unfamiliar with the Medieval traditions and forms she borrows from the fairy tales, myths, and legends of continental Christendom). Thus, this not a debate that will be won or lost with simple sloganeering, however impassioned or emphatic.

Monday, July 18

Tour de France

As the Tour climbs through the Pyranees, Lance is not the only one robed in glorious yellow. What splendor!

Muggle Publishing

Muggle Publishing
Muggle Publishing,
originally uploaded by Gileskirk.
Magic seems to have surrounded the release of the latest Harry Potter novel as the J.K. Rowling tome set just about every publishing record imaginable on both sides of the Atlantic: for largest print run, for the biggest pre-sales, and for the most single-day sales. The security measures leading up to the release--to protect against the spoilers--were matched only by the publicity blitzes--to protect against the naysayers.

Alas, all is not magic in the world of Harry and Hogwarts. It appears that Bloomsbury and Scholastic (the UK and US publishers) are run by Muggles and not by Wizzards. While Rowling's writing and the plotting are as ingenious as ever in The Half Blood Prince, her sixth book in the seven book series, there are numerous typos throughout the 652 page yarn--"site" instead of "sight," "fug instead of fog," "their heart" instead of "the hearth," etc. Nit picking, I know! My guess is that such twiddly bits will hardly dampen enthusiasms--enthusiasms being what they are!

By the way, for those still trying to sort out whether this "wild about Harry" stuff is a good or bad thing, I recommend the helpful and balanced Looking for God in Harry Potter by John Granger (Tyndale).

Monday, July 11

Righting Every Wrong

I always seem to learn things the hard way. I have a proclivity for majoring on the minors and minoring on the majors. I have a difficult time recognizing what is actually important, what is genuinely precious, or what ultimately matters in this poor fallen world. So, though I would like to claim that my vision for covenantal succession, my agenda for classical education, and my commitment to raising up the next generation of leaders has arisen out of some profound virtue, some deep insight, or some well-defined strategy, I can’t. I must confess that I have arrived at most of my discipleship convictions by default—the kind of default that is attributable solely to the grace and mercy of God.

It was not too terribly long ago that I was an untempered zealot. I wanted to right every wrong and undertake every righteous cause. I committed myself to stand against all manner of injustice. I was determined to champion beauty, goodness, and truth—the essential elements of Christian civilization—wherever they might be threatened. I plunged headlong into social activism, political involvement, and cultural renewal.

Unfortunately, I found that I was hardly prepared for such an undertaking. I was woefully ignorant of the very legacy I wished to defend. Unlike so many of the great leaders I looked up to, I was so poorly educated that I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. When I compared my grasp of the issues, of the historical precedents that underlay those issues, and the theological principles that defined those issues with any of the great men and women of the past who laid the foundations of our freedom in the first place, I was appalled.

What made matters even worse, was that as I looked around I really did not very many others who were significantly better prepared for the difficult challenges our culture posed than I was. With no little consternation, I began to ask, “Where are the Martin Luthers for our day? Where are the John Calvins? Where are the Charles Spurgeons? Where are the likes of Thomas Chalmers, or John Knox, or Theodore Beza, or Martin Bucer, or Jan Comenius, or Gerhard Groote, or Abraham Kuyper? Where are the reformers, the champions, the heroes?”

I very nearly drew a blank. Hope grew dim.

It was only then that I began to comprehend that the most important thing I could do for the rest of my life was not undertake one more campaign, fight one more fight, or launch one more project—as worthwhile as all those things might be. It slowly dawned on me that in order to reap the benefits of stalwart leadership, a people must make substantive investments far in advance. Leadership must be prayed for, planned for, and prepared for—it doesn’t just happen. I know, I know, that is hardly earth shattering news. But I had finally come to the realization that in order to bring about reconciliation, restoration, and reformation in our culture we would have to commit ourselves to the multigenerational agenda of covenantal faithfulness—just as it had always been; just as it always would be.

The Scriptures speak eloquently of our responsibilities to effectively train up the next generation of leaders. The responsibilities therein rehearsed have been part of the confession of faith of God’s people from the earliest days—indeed they constitute a primary application of the first and great commandment (Deut. 6: 4-5; Matt. 22: 37-38). They constitute a central element in what it means for those who are saved to keep covenant with God: “And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart, and you shall teach them diligently unto your children.” Alas, I was not arrested by the glorious opportunities presented by the next generation until I had effectively given up on my own.

I still want to right every wrong and undertake every righteous cause. I still try to commit myself to stand against all manner of injustice. I remain determined to champion beauty, goodness, and truth—the essential elements of Christian civilization—wherever they might be threatened. But today, I do so, with a whole host of similarly motivated co-laborers, as we teach young men and women the wonders of math and science, the delights of history and language, and the marvels of art and music—and all from the perspective and application of the Christian worldview as derived from God’s revelation so that they might joyously walk in God’s gracious covenant as faithful disciples of their Sovereign.

And as a result, hope grows brighter with every passing day. A new generation of leaders is ready to step across the threshold of the future. Just in the nick of time.

Sunday, July 10

Virtual Founder

Today is the anniversary of the birth of the pastor, theologian, and social reformer, John Calvin (1509-1564). His father, an attorney, made certain Jean received the best possible education—so, he attended the little Brethren of Common Life school in his hometown of Noyon in the Picardy region of France, just about sixty miles north of Paris. Later, he went to study in Orleans and Paris where he first began to explore the ideas of Luther’s nascent Protestant Reformation. He published the first edition of Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1536, which propelled him as a thinker and spokesman to the forefront of Protestantism.

Calvin made his first trip to Geneva that same year while on the way to Strasbourg. He was compelled to stay there (very much against his will) and helped to establish the church until he was asked to leave two years later (for which he was actually quite grateful and delighted). The next two years spent in Strasbourg pasturing under the tutelage of Martin Bucer were the happiest of his life. But, the city fathers in Geneva had a change of heart and in 1541 they persuaded Calvin to return to the city (much to his own dismay).

The first Sunday he was back in the pulpit, he picked up exactly where he had left off two and a half years earlier—as if nothing had happened in the interval. He remained there the rest of his life. Laboring in the Word over the course of the next twenty-three years, he oversaw a dramatic reformation of the church and city—and ultimately, much of the rest of Western Europe. The transformation was stunning. As a result, liberty, opportunity, advancement, productivity, and innovation touched nearly every aspect of life and culture. Indeed, so great was Calvin’s influence that most modern historians (even those who despise his Biblical theology) have had to concede that he was the “virtual founder” of Western freedom and prosperity.

Friday, July 8

True Lies

To be sure, in the grand scheme of things, “that pesky Meccan heresy,” as one writer has characterized Islam, is just one component part of the whole world-system of unbelief wrought by the Fall and is thus simply one among many revolutionary attempts to counter the Gospel. Or, perhaps better, Islam is just a single aspect of the one great error of revolt against God. So for instance, radical Islamicists from the House of Saud, the Hashemite kingdoms, Hammas, or the PLO have through the years lent support to revolutionary and/or terrorist organizations around the world like the IRA, the Red Brigade, the Shining Path, and the Khmer Rouge to say nothing of their complicity with the Kaiser, il Duce, and the Fuehrer--thus, revealing their essential, innate revolutionary character. They are, were, and ever will be kith and kin, fellow-travelers, and birds of a feather--part of the same revolt against the truth and the Truth.

But during the past 1000 years, the most persistent, plaguing, and noxious of the many and varied pretenders to truth in this chaotic but unified revolution has undoubtedly been Islam. It should probably not surprise us to learn then that the literature of the West has reflected this great conflict in a myriad of ways that we might not have noticed before if our own troubles with Islam had not come to dominate the headlines, define our foreign policy, and give new urgency to the day-to-day mission of our churches.

Themes revolving around the persistent conflict with Islam crop up in the oddest places, it seems. They intrude on William Shakespeare’s plays and Walter Scott’s novels. They make prominent appearances in the great poetic works of Dante, Milton, Chaucer. They form the backdrop for the stories of Robin Hood, Richard the Lionheart, Wallace and Bruce, Don Quixote, St. Francis, St. Louis, El Cid, Marco Polo, Henry the Navigator, Columbus, Magellan, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. They even make appearances in Pilgrim’s Progress, The Charge of the Light Brigade, Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick, The Talisman, Greenmantle, and Ivanhoe.

Some have even argued that the very idea of the Western-style novel emerged from songs of chivalry, stories of knights in shining armor, and legends of the crusaders. One of the very earliest—and one of the best—of these tales describing the great conflict between Islam and the West is The Song of Roland. It is one of those strange works of literature that is almost entirely fictional but which nevertheless is more truthful than most history books filled with carefully verified facts. Indeed, its “true lies” tell us much about ourselves, our world, and the shaping of Western Civilization that we might not otherwise know.

Tour de Discovery

The seventh stage of the Tour de France took riders along a 228.5 kilometer ride from Luneville in France to Karlsruhe in Germany—with Lance Armstrong remaining in the yellow jersey for yet another day. Thus far, the Tour has been totally dominated by three teams—Armstrong’s Discovery team, Bobby Julich’s CSC team, and Jan Ulrich’s T-Mobile team. Indeed there are no riders in the top fifteen places from any other teams—and the Discovery team has claimed the first, second sixth, seventh, eighth, eleventh, twelfth, and fifteenth places. This is unprecedented in the history of the Tour. Of course, only about a minute and a half separate first from fifteenth place so anything could still happen between now and July 24 when the peloton rolls onto the streets of Paris.

The overall standings are:

1. Lance Armstrong (USA/DIS) 23:01:56
2. George Hincapie (USA/DIS) 0:55
3. Alexander Vinokourov (KAZ/TM) 1:02
4. Jens Voigt (GER/CSC) 1:04
5. Bobby Julich (USA/CSC) 1:07
6. Jose Luis Rubiera (ESP/DIS) 1:14
7. Yaroslav Popovych (UKR/DIS) 1:16
8. Benjamin Noval (ESP/DIS) 1:26
9. Ivan Basso (ITA/CSC) 1:26
10. Kurt Asle Arvesen (NOR/CSC) 1:32
11. Pavel Padrnos (CZE/DIS) 1:32
12. Paolo Savoldelli (ITA/DIS) 1:33
13. Jan Ullrich (GER/ TM) 1:36
14. Carlos Sastre (ESP/CSC) 1:36
15. Jose Azevedo (POR/DIS) 1:37

Thursday, July 7

The Conflict

The terrorist attacks in London this morning have been a horrifying reminder of the battle that faces us—a battle, in fact, with which we have been faced for a very long time but with which we are just now coming fully to terms.

The reality is that the greatest human conflict of the past century has not been between Communism and Democracy. It has not been between Liberalism and Conservatism. It has not been between Socialism and Capitalism. It has not been between Rich and Poor, Proletariat and Bourgeoisie, Industrialism and Agrarianism, Nationalism and Colonialism, Management and Labor, First World and Third World, East and West, North and South, Allied and Axis, or NATO and Soviet. All of these conflicts have been important, of course. All of them helped to define the modern era significantly. None of them should be in any way underestimated.

But while every one of these conflicts has pitted ardent foes against one another and as a result, has actually altered the course and character of recent history, none of them could be characterized as the most convulsive conflict of the past century. The most convulsive conflict of past century—and indeed, the most convulsive conflict of the past millennium—has undoubtedly been between Islam and Civilization; it has been between Islam and Freedom; it has been between Islam and Order; it has been between Islam and Progress; it has been between Islam and Hope; it has been between Islam and the Gospel. While every other conflict pitting men and nations against one another has inevitably waxed and waned, this furious struggle has remained all too constant. The tension between Islam and every aspiration and yearning of man intrudes on every issue, every discipline, every epoch, and every locale—a fact that is more evident today than perhaps ever before.

That is a hard lesson to learn. But we had best learn it, post haste, or the horrifying scenes of human suffering we have now witnessed London and Madrid and Baghdad and Mosul will be repeated again and again and again--only in Chicago or LA or Dallas or Atlanta.

Tuesday, July 5

Brooklyn Boondoggle

Garish Gehry
Garish Gehry
originally uploaded by Gileskirk.
An ambitious, sprawling, and chaotic design plan was announced yesterday for developing the area around a proposed basketball arena for the New Jersey Nets in a Brooklyn neighborhood. It calls for building seventeen buildings including six skyscrapers, some reaching as high as sixty stories—all built above the arena court, all skewed at wild angles, and all covered in a kind of tres-haute graffiti. Oy veh! If that sounds almost too cartoonish to believe, even by the oh-so-hip-and-happening New York art world standards, just take a look at it!

The preliminary design for the project submitted by the avant-garde developer Bruce Ratner and the dystopic architect Frank Gehry, would add 6,000 residential units (housing roughly 15,000 people) and will cost around $3.5 billion while adding just under two million square feet of office space. It’s scandalously garish—even for one of Gehry’s typically horrendous designs (witness his bizarre Guggenheim Museum in Spain and his silly Disney Theater in LA).

Anyone who doubts that worldviews are evident in architecture simply needs to spend fifteen minutes thinking about where to put the couch and chairs in one of Gehry’s designs.

Tour de Lance Redeux

Tour de Lance
Tour de Lance
originally uploaded by Gileskirk.
No, he's not a good role model. No, he's not an admirable public figure. No, he doesn't even pretend to be a nice guy--much less a Christian. But, has there ever been a more remarkable athlete--in any sport? That's the sort of question folks will argue ad infinitum for years to come. Lance Armstrong certainly has lent substantial credence to such speculations--claiming the yellow jersey during the fourth stage of what Hemmingway rightly described as "the greatest sporting event in the world." The Tour de France is indeed beginning to look like the Tour de Lance. Will he make it a perfect seven? Maybe, just maybe!

Saturday, July 2

Tour de Lance

Armstrong passing Ullrich
Armstrong passing Ullrich
originally uploaded by Gileskirk.
Lance Armstrong began the Tour de France in dominating fashion as he blew past his arch-rival Jan Ullrich during the first stage time trial at Noirmoutier-en-l'Île Vendée.

Armstrong fished second overall to fellow American David Zabriskie on the 11.8-mile course along the western coast of France. The 25-year-old Zabriskie posted the fastest time trial in Tour history, clocking 20 minutes, 51 seconds, to take the yellow jersey as overall leader. He shattered the the old time-trial record held by yet another American, Greg Lemond, since 1989.

Though Armstrong didn't win, he accomplished what he set out to do on this first day: demorlaizing his major rivals by opening up important time gaps over the likes of 1997 winner Jan Ullrich--who finished 1:06 slower than Armstrong, and may have been affected by a crash in training Friday. Alexandre Vinokourov, Ullrich's teammate and another top contender to unseat Armstrong, placed third. But he was 51 seconds slower than the Texan.

"It's incredible what he has done today," said Armstrong's team coach, Johan Bruyneel. Indeed it is. It appears that Armstrong may really be on his way to claiming an unprecedented seventh straight Tour crown.

New College Edinburgh

This magnificent William Playfair buidling on Castle Mound high above Waverly Station in Edinburgh was commissioned in 1845 by Thomas Chalmers for the Free Church of Scotland's new seminary.

Inside the courtyard of the College is this broze statue of John Knox in his characteristic pose: proclaiming the doctrines of sovereign grace from the Scriptures.

Friday, July 1

1776 and Washington’s Crossing

McCullough's 1776
McCullough's 1776,
originally uploaded by Gileskirk.
Once again, Ben House has written a fine review for us as we enter into the holiday weekend:

On January 1 of 1777, Robert Morris wrote to George Washington, “The year 1776 is over. I am heartily glad of it and hope you nor America will ever be plagued with such another.” History has a way of recasting difficulties as triumphs. It is a perspective that only makes sense if there is a transcendence beyond the moment. We live in an age that too often assumes that the pronouncements of the evening news or the findings of the latest poll are the final judgment of truth and reality. Robert Morris showed both a recognition of the miseries of 1776 and the expectation that both America and George Washington would go on to better things.

We celebrate the year 1776. We remember one event of that year—the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The year of 1776 was filled with a number of great events from the War for Independence, including the siege of Boston, the capture and removal of the guns from Fort Ticonderoga, defeat of the American raid on Canada, the defense and loss of New York City, the retreat across New Jersey, and Washington’s victories at Trenton and Princeton.

That year began with the focus on the siege and subsequent evacuation of Boston. This was an American victory of sorts. Boston carried lots of psychological weight for the Patriot cause. The British army was basically bottlenecked there. The British capture of Breed’s Hill (the battle better known Bunker’s Hill) was a tactical victory for the crown’s cause. But this victory was quite costly in the lives taken to acquire that height. It gave the American army a sense of satisfaction at having extracted such a price for real estate. From the British viewpoint, it interjected a sense of caution in General Howe, causing him to refrain from further efforts to break out of Boston.

This caution was heightened when the Americans occupied Dorchester Heights, overlooking Boston proper, and trained the newly acquired field guns on the British positions. For the British, evacuating Boston was simply a change of tactical emphasis. The British army and navy continued to amass strength in both numbers and resolve. The wiser course of action was to shift military operations—after a short interlude—to New York. From there the British could use both land and sea to better direct the war efforts toward New England to the north and toward the middle colonies of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

The struggle for New York tilted the balance of events strongly in favor of the British. Basically, General Washington was outfought, outthought, and outmanned. The capture of Long Island and later the capture of Fort Washington and even later the miserable retreat across New Jersey should have ended a short chapter in English colonial rule over North America. Washington and Jefferson and others should have been relegated to footnote status and obscurity, as well as infamy.

Several factors prevented this denouement from coming to a completion. First, Washington began conducting his most often practiced and successful military maneuver—a retreat. This is not as simple as it sounds. A retreat puts an army in a spread out, vulnerable situation. Communications, supplies, and ability to respond to an attack are all hindered. In terms of morale, it can be even more devastating: Only losers retreat. Yet Washington’s retreat from Long Island was successful. A second factor that made it successful was beyond Washington’s control.

David McCullough writes, “Incredibly, yet again, circumstances—fate, luck, Providence, the hand of God, as would be said so often—intervened. Just at daybreak a heavy fog settled over the whole of Brooklyn, concealing everything no less than had the night. It was a fog so thick, remembered a soldier, that one ‘could scarcely discern a man at six yards distance.’”

Nine thousand American soldiers escaped across the river during the night and during the morning fog without the loss of a single life. After the troops were safely delivered, the fog lifted, revealing the enemy presence on the shore left behind. Throughout the war, the weather did not always so favor the Patriot cause, but from a historical perspective, we can nudge McCullough’s speculation toward certainty: This was the Providential hand of God.

God uses means and God uses men. George Washington was one such man used of God. Washington’s personal faith and doctrine are disputable. He has been alternately described as an evangelical Christian believer and as a Deist. He was certainly a theist and a man of conviction about God’s governance of the universe and moral order. His theological restraint may have been an indication of a lack of personal faith in Christ or it may have been a characteristic of the times. Even today, many political leaders are guarded in their use of religious language. Whatever the status of Washington’s soul, he was certainly gifted by God and used by God in the events of 1776.

Washington is an amazing case study in the category of leaders. He excelled and ultimately succeeded both as a military and political leader. Because of this, he exceeds such men of greater battlefield gifts as Napoleon, Robert E. Lee, U.S. Grant, and Hannibal. Washington never lacked personal bravery and devotion to the cause. But as a military tactician, as a strategist, as an on-the-battlefield commander, Washington’s abilities seemed limited. He lost far more battles than he won; he retreated more than he advanced; he commanded men who more closely resembled rabble than armies; his military background and training were limited; and even some of his victories seem more like random lottery winnings than calculated strategic military calculations.

His greatest gift was perseverance. He said, “Perseverance and spirit have done wonders in all ages.” He was helped by having some very capable commanders serving under him. These included men like Nathaniel Greene and Henry Knox. Likewise he was hindered by a few who fancied themselves his superiors and who did not hesitate to convey such sentiments. One in particular was General Charles Lee. As Washington retreated across New Jersey, Lee insubordinately moseyed along on his own with his contingent of soldiers. He was content to let circumstances destroy Washington and advance his own career.

Here the British stepped in and, in effect, won the war for America: They captured Lee at a tavern. Washington’s response was careful and guarded, but inwardly he must have been delighted. The British were thrilled at any rate, for they ranked General Lee above Washington in their estimation.

Washington held an army together that lacking almost every ingredient of a successful military unit. It is said that an army moves on its stomach, yet the Continental army was malnourished and constantly in need of food. Pay was sporadic; the homeplaces were often nearby and as luring as the sirens of ancient myth; the cause seemed lost; and the middle colonies were increasingly coming under the sway and flags of the British army. On paper, Washington’s army numbered around 18,000 or a little more than half that of the British. But those numbers belied the true situation. Desertions and illness claimed many of the soldiers. In reality, Washington retreated across the Delaware River with only about 3,000 men. And many of these were nearing the end of their enlistments.

On the south shores of the Delaware River, the Patriot cause survived thanks to Washington’s command and initiative. From here he launched his famous crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas night, leading to his attack on the Hessian command stationed at Trenton. The crossing was slow, dangerous, miserably cold, and risky. Two of the columns that were to participate in the attack were turned back by delays and weather. The march to Trenton was likewise slow and miserably cold. The attack began sometime after daybreak rather than before as Washington had hoped for. The resulting victory was much greater than he had imagined.
In this short battle, Washington’s troops killed twenty-one enemy soldiers, wounded ninety more, and captured approximately nine hundred more. On the American side, the actual casualties in battle were four wounded and none killed. From this initial victory, Washington went on to conduct a spirited defense against a British counterattack. Once again, Washington showed his skill in retreating from the battlefield in the night, leaving the British poised against mere vacated campfires. But rather than simply retreating from battle, he swung his army north of Trenton where he surprised another British unit at Princeton, winning another victory and netting an additional three hundred prisoners. Only then did Washington take his victorious army back across the Delaware River.

In this particular campaign, Washington dominated the enemy in a manner worthy of such military greats as Hannibal or Stonewall Jackson. Up to this point, his success had consisted of avoiding total defeat and somehow holding his ragged troops together through thin and thinner. But in this case, Washington’s offensive kept his army moving swiftly as a sword, keeping the British forces unbalanced at a time when the war was all but won by the British.

The winter of the American soldiers’ discontent turned into the means of victory for the American cause. David Hackett Fischer writes, “Americans have known many dark days, from the starving times in the early settlements to the attack on the World Trade Center. These were the testing times and the pivotal moments of our history. It was that way in 1776, after the decision for independence and the military disasters in New York. In early December, British commanders believed that they were very close to ending the rebellion, and American leaders feared that they may be right. Then came a reversal of fortune, and three months later the mood changed on both sides. By the spring of 1777, many British officers had concluded that they could never win the war. At the same time, Americans recovered from their despair and were confident that they would not be defeated. That double transformation was truly a turning point in the war.”

This story of America’s struggle for independence and its triumphs in the face of incredible adversities should never grow dull or dim in the American mind. Our school children should be taught this story repeatedly. Adults need the story as much as children. The ever-present prophets of defeat and ‘nattering nabobs of negativism’ (to use the late Spiro Agnew’s only memorable phrase) can best be countered by recalling our own history. Whether coming from the morally hollowed-out eastern liberal establishment, the cynical and anti-American wings of the media, or even from overly pessimistic conservatives and defeat-oriented Christians, we need to be rescued from such by the perspective of history the year 1776 gives us.

David McCullough’s new book 1776 and David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing overlap in their coverage of the glorious days of our country’s beginnings. Both books are excellent and well-written accounts of those times. Both writers have previous works that are related to these topics. McCullough’s biography of John Adams is a landmark example of excellent historical writing and of a great, though somewhat overshadowed, Founding Father. Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride gives a fuller account of a story that goes beyond Longfellow’s poem. He also aptly deals with the greater issues and events, political and theological, which led to the war.
Christian influences in the war are highlighted in both McCullough’s and Fischer’s recent works. For example, Fischer points out that “the hard core of the Revolutionary movement in New Jersey consisted of English speaking Calvinists.” He goes on to reference a comment by Lutheran minister Nicholas Collins who said, “By God there will never be any peace till the Whigs and Presbyterians are cut off.” McCullough cites the British General James Grant as saying, “If a good bleeding can bring those Bible-faced Yankees to their senses, the fever of independency should soon abate.” No doubt General Grant recognized the connection between the theology found in the Continental Army and the issue of independence.

Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a member of the Continental Congress, and a physician who set up a field hospital for the American army, spoke quite brilliantly when he said, “Our republics cannot exist long in prosperity. We require adversity and appear to possess most of the republican spirit when most depressed.” The history of our country bears out the truth of Rush’s statement. Times like 1776 or September 11, 2001 demonstrate that depressed times and events make for the most glorious history and successes of our republic. The glory and success, of course, have to be seen from a historical perspective.

The Genuine Source

In 1832 in his History of the United States, Noah Webster wrote, “The brief exposition of the Constitution of the United States, will unfold to young persons the principles of republican government; and it is the sincere desire of the writer that our citizens should early understand that the genuine source of correct republican principles is the Bible, particularly the New Testament or the Christian religion. The religion which has introduced civil liberty is the religion of Christ and His apostles, which enjoins humility, piety, and benevolence. This is genuine Christianity, and to this we owe our free Constitutions of Government.”