David McCullough once told of Teddy Roosevelt during his time in the Dakota Territory and before his arrival on the world scene. Two thieves who had been on something of a crime spree in the territory had stolen Roosevelt's rowboat, and he was determined to chase them down and arrest them. He chased the thieves for 40 miles of rough landscape, through deep snow and in constant danger of attack, and indeed brought them to justice. McCullough then tells the reader: "But what makes it especially memorable is that during that time, he managed to read all of Anna Karenina. I often think of that when I hear people say they haven't time to read."
Theodore Roosevelt was a very determined man and a (clearly) determined reader. Anyone who reads Tolstoy in the midst of a foot chase after robbers in the Badlands gets my vote for gold medalist in the reading competition. With the arrival of warm weather, most of us are able to turn to a stack of books that had to wait for summer. The following is my list of ten recommended books for summer reading. This list must be seen for what it is - a recommendation of ten books I am eager to recommend - books that I found thought-provoking and fun. My summer list tends, quite naturally, to reveal what I most enjoy reading in the season. As usual, the list is weighted towards history and historical biography. I have a big stack of fiction for the season as well. Those books, along with Anna Karenina, will have to wait for another list. Enjoy.
1. John Julius Norwich,Four Princes: Henry VIII, Francis I, Charles V, Suleiman the Magnificent, and the Obsessions that Forged Modern Europe(Atlantic Monthly Press, 2016). By the time I read the subtitle of this book, I was already hooked. Why hadn't anyone written a book like this before? It took John Julius Norwich, a skilled writer and historian, to bring these four great princes who dominated the sixteenth century together into one story. Perhaps at no other time in history did four rulers of this stature reign together, and their reigns and ambitions were constantly in conflict. Their personalities were massive, the political (and theological) stakes were never higher, and their stories are compelling. The cast of characters includes sultans and knights, multiple wives and warriors, a series of disastrous popes, and the reformer Martin Luther. Norwich, author of well-regarded books including Byzantium, summons the past and leaves the reader wanting to know even more.
When Suleiman succeeded to the Ottoman throne at the age of twenty-five, he was already an experienced ruler. At fifteen he had been appointed Governor of Caffa in the Crimea, a major trading post where he had remained for three years; subsequently his father, the aptly named Sultan Selim the Grim, had appointed hims Governor of Istanbul. But it had been an unhappy time: eight years during which Selim had instituted a reign of terror. He had been intelligent and cultivated enough - some of his verses are, we are told, among the loveliest in all Ottoman poetry - but he seemed to conceive of government solely in terms of executions. When he had dethroned (and subsequently murdered) his own father, Bayezit II, in 1512, his first act on his succession was to have his two young brothers and five orphan nephews strangled by the bowstring. Thus it was that, by the time of his succession, Suleiman was the only male member of this entire family left alive.
2. Tom Clavin, Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West(St. Martin's Press, 2017). Understandably, but regrettably, most Americans know what they think they know about the American West from movies and television. Furthermore, many of the early books written about Dodge City and figures like Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson were about as fictional as Gunsmoke. I grew up watching Gunsmoke with my grandfather, and Marshal Dillon was my hero. The good news is that the real story of the West is actually even more interesting, if also more complicated, than the stories Hollywood told. Tom Clavin is not an academic historian, but he is an accomplished writer and a former reporter for The New York Times. He knows how to chase down a story, and Dodge City is a great example of journalistic history. A few years ago, friends took me out to Melody Ranch, Gene Autry's old movie set in the rural hills outside Los Angeles. I realized then that I was walking on the set where almost all of the westerns of my boyhood had filmed. They just changed the signs on the storefronts. I felt let down. Readers looking for a story that is bigger than life and still hard to pin down will not be let down by Dodge City.
There was no police force when things got out of hand. The nearest law enforcement was seventy-five miles to the north, in Hays City. And cowboys were not the only problem. Buffalo City was renamed Dodge City - it would not be a formally incorporated city for another three years - and was on the edge of the frontier, a place that for a variety of reasons drew thieves, drunks, deserters, guerrillas still trying to relive the looting and pillaging days of the Civil War, and others with a price on their heads. All this put Dodge City in the late summer of 1872 on the precipice of being a totally lawless town. It was inevitable that murder was one of the crimes committed.... Within a year fifteen men had been murdered, with the bodies being hauled up to the new cemetery, Boot Hill, for burial. It was into such lawless and dangerous surroundings that Bat Masterson, still a teenager, first arrived in Dodge City. Wyatt Earp would find this way there too, and eventually both young men would be given badges and a mandate to tame a town on the brink of violent chaos.
3. Giles Milton, Churchill's Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: The Mavericks Who Plotted Hitler's Defeat(Picador, 2016). Winston Churchill is remembered as perhaps the largest character on the landscape of the twentieth century, and he is most remembered for his courageous leadership of Britain and the entire free world during the dark years of World War II. Of course, he is also remembered for his brave and costly role in warning Britain and the West of the looming Nazi challenge when the leadership class was awash in dishonesty and denial. Less remembered is the fact that Churchill was an early proponent of mechanized warfare and saw the tank as the determinative land-based weapon. Even less known is his role in commissioning and supporting his unofficial "Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare" during the war. Churchill knew that the long battle against Hitler would have to be fought on every level, and that would mean sabotage, espionage, and innovation in deadly weaponry. The operation, referred to as "Baker Street" due to its location in London, was a directorate of the dark arts of war. The brilliant inventors of Baker Street would develop bombs and instruments that would prove crucial to the war effort, but were decidedly "ungentlemanly." They used what they could find. At one point, looking to develop a delayed fuse for an important bomb, the inventors finally landed on a hard candy melting in liquid as the perfect delayed fuse. When the liquid threatened to dampen the fuse itself, they figured that a condom would serve as protection. Then the inventors bought up all the hard candy and condoms in a nearby English village, the locals assumed that a team of candy-chewing playboys had invaded. Actually, it was a team of inventors and technicians who would help Britain and the Allies to defeat the Nazis. Milton's book will also remind readers that most characters found in fiction are based in a real life or lives. Those familiar with Ian Fleming's character "Q" from the James Bond series will see that Fleming had plenty of inspiration from Winston Churchill's Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.
"Before he left, Winston Churchill had requested that he collect one example of every weapon produced by the team. These were to be saved for the nation and given to the Imperial War Museum where they would be put on special display. Churchill was anxious that the efforts of Jefferis's workforce should have some sort of public recognition. Macrae set to the task with as much enthusiasm as he could muster, handing over limpets, sticky bombs and any number of booby traps. But it was all to no avail. None of them went on display, and nor was there to be any mention of MD1 in the museum's exhibits about the war. 'We created an establishment which contributed more to the war effort than any other weapons design department,' said Macrae. But it was an establishment so ungentlemanly in its outlook that it was to be for ever erased from history.'"
4. Craig Shirley, Reagan Rising: The Decisive Years, 1976-1980(Broadside Books, 2017). This is Craig Shirley's fourth book on Ronald Reagan and his presidency, and probably the most unlikely. In Reagan Rising, he tells Reagan's story from his razor-close loss to President Gerald Ford for the 1976 Republican nomination to his landslide election as President of the United States in the 1980 election. But Shirley also tells the story of Reagan's intellectual and political development - in many ways Reagan in 1980 was different from the Reagan of 1964 or 1976. Shirley also lays out the redefinition of the Republican Party and the transformation of the American political landscape. I worked as a teenage campaign volunteer in the 1976 Reagan campaign, responsible for enlisting South Florida high school students in the Reagan cause. It was in the course of that campaign that I met Ronald Reagan and saw him in unscripted moments before a campaign event as well as behind the podium. I knew then that Ronald Reagan was a man of ideas, passionately held. I knew the outlines of the story from 1976 to 1980, but Craig Shirley now offers the definitive narrative of those years in Reagan Rising. Readers will understand today's political landscape far better after reading this book.
"Running for president is never easy, and it was especially hard for Ronald Reagan, as he had not just the usual obstacles to overcome, but also those of the skeptics in his own party and a very hostile and malicious national media. He had a halfhearted attempt in 1968, ran full out in 1976, and even more so in 1980. But then, he was a fully formed American conservative. Many times, however, he heard from critics in the GOP establishment that he was 'just an actor.' But as he wisely said later, in the waning days of his presidency, after being asked if he'd learned anything in Hollywood that helped him to be a good president, 'I've wondered how you could do this job and not be an actor.' .... Reagan remains one of the most fascinating figures of history and the American presidency, in part because he was a constantly evolving individual. his worldview in 1964 was not his worldview in 1980. his conservatism had changed, from simply being against the intrusions of government to the more positive advance of individual freedom."
5. Sean McMeekin, The Russian Revolution: A New History (Basic Books, 2017). There was more than one Russian revolution in 1917, of course, but we remember that year in Russia as the tumultuous and radical transformation of Russia from the autocracy of the Romanov dynasty to the dictatorship of the Communist Party. As Sean McMeekin reveals, it was a descent from one circle of hell into yet another. The centennial of the fall of the Romanov's and the rise of the Soviet Union comes with the centennial of America's entry into World War I and the birth of John F. Kennedy. It was a pivotal year from the old world into a new world. McMeekin is a professor of history at Bard College. The Russian Revolution is the best history of the Bolshevik Revolution to emerge in recent decades, and McMeekin made skillful use of newly available archives to prove a major point missed by many others - that Imperial Germany largely funded Vladimir Lenin. The story of Russia in 1917 is riveting and important. The Russian Revolution: A New History is the best new work that tells that story and does not hide its bitter lessons.
"The crazy twists and turns of the Russian Revolution should give us pause in drawing pat historical lessons from it. Far form an eschatological 'class struggle' borne along irresistibly by the Marxist dialectic, the events of 1917 were filled with might-have-beens and missed chances. The most critical mistake of the tsarist government was the decision to go to war in 1914, a decision warmly applauded by Russian liberals and pan-Slavists but lamented by conservative monarchists. For this reason, it is hard to fault Nicholas II for refusing to take liberal advice during the war, to surrender power to ambitious politicians who had already shown poor judgment. Strange as it may seem to modern sensibilities that the tsar preferred the counsel of the peasant faith healer Rasputin to that of the elected Duma leaders such as Rodzianko, the fact is that, had he listened to Rasputin instead of Rodzianko in 1914, he might have died peacefully on his throne instead of being butchered by the Bolsheviks in Huy 1918."
6. David McCullough, The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For(Simon and Schuster, 2017). Just write it down: Everything written by David McCullough deserves a place on your reading list. In The American Spirit, McCullough brings together fourteen speeches and addresses he delivered between 1989 and 2016, and each is an experience unto itself. The first address, "Simon Willard's Clock," was delivered to a Joint Session of Congress. The last, "A Building Like No Other," was delivered to the U.S. Capitol Historical Society. David McCullough is a rare combination of historian and orator. The only thing better than reading one of his addresses (or books) is hearing it. He loves this country and he loves its stories, but he is also a historian who understands that the stories must be told well, and honestly. The American Spirit reveals a deep reverence for the institutions and values of democratic self-government. Those who doubt the power of a spoken address to move a modern audience need only to read this book. I hope they will.
"The lessons of history are manifold. Nothing happens in isolation. Everything that happens has consequences. We are all part of a larger stream of events, past, present, and future. We are all beneficiaries of those who went before us - who built the cathedrals, who braved the unknown, who gave of their time and service, and who kept faith in the possibilities of the mind and the human spirit. An astute observer of old wrote that history is philosophy taught with examples. Harry Truman liked to say that the only new thing in the world is the history you don't know. From history we learn that sooner is not necessarily better than later . . . that what we don't know can often hurt us and badly . . . and that there is no such thing as a self-made man or woman. A sense of history is an antidote to self-pity and self-importance, of which there is too much in our time. To a large degree, history is a lesson in proportions."
7. Daniel Mark Epstein, The Loyal Son: The War in Ben Franklin's House (Ballentine Books, 2017). How many Americans know that Benjamin Franklin had an acknowledged illegitimate son, who served as royal Governor of New Jersey and remained a loyalist to the end, dying in London, estranged from his father, one of the most famous of the American Founding Fathers? Too few. As you do already know, truth is so often stranger than fiction. In 1776, Ben Franklin, already one of the most famous of Americans, would loom ever larger as an American patriot. That same year, his son, William Franklin, would be arrested for treason. Given their opposing commitments in the Revolutionary War, the likely question was which would hang for treason, father or son? Any story like this - epic in scale and yet personal in scope - requires a careful telling. Daniel Mark Epstein tells the a story of Ben and William Franklin with care and pathos. Along the way readers will gain insight into the larger canvas of the American Revolution and the emerging shape of the British Empire. The story of William Franklin is undeniably tragic, but it is also fascinating.
"Benjamin would have liked to see his son follow him in the printer's trade, but the boy declined. If he could not go to sea, he was hell-bent on being a soldier, and in no time he proved he was good at it. At sixteen he enlisted in the king's army; by eighteen he had distinguished himself, having risen to the rank of captain during King George's War. In the seemingly endless war with France, the enemy and her allies (various Indian tribes) engages in gruesome raids upon the settlements of the New England borders, and in battles on the high seas. French-led Indians burned Saratoga in 1745 and murdered trappers and British patrols in Albany in 1746. William marched north to Albany and wintered there with his company under severe and dangerous conditions, with rusted guns, spoiled beef, and cutlasses so soft they would bend and stay bent like wax. Sixteen British soldiers were killed in a single Indian ambush. While dozens deserted, William Franklin stood his ground, and he volunteered to join a march on French forces at Saratoga. He came home briefly in May 1747, as a captain charged with hunting down deserters and hauling them back to camp. Captain Franklin, seventeen years old, discharged his duty with a zeal and efficiency his father admired."
8. Thomas E. Ricks, Churchill & Orwell: The Fight for Freedom (Penguin Press, 2017). Elegantly written and powerfully told, Churchill and Orwell is the story of two men who, while extremely different in background, temperament, fame, and fortune, are rightly joined together as among the greatest defenders of freedom in modern times. Thomas E. Ricks, author of The Generals, recognizes that Churchill and Orwell are, in the traditional sense of biography, a mismatched pair. Churchill was born to the British aristocracy and was catapulted to fame at a very young age. From his early twenties until his death, there is hardly a day in Churchill's life that was not documented in some way. Not so for George Orwell. Eric Arthur Blair, who took the pen name George Orwell, was born in India and grew up in Britain in the hardships of the working class. They were politically opposed on many questions, but to focus on their political differences is to miss the story that Thomas Ricks tells - the story of two men, each gifted with a powerful command of the English language, who would in their own way fight the great war against tyranny in the twentieth century. Orwell and Churchill would become two of the most powerful enemies of both fascism and communism in their times. Readers of Churchill and Orwell will be reminded of the truth that ideas have lasting consequences indeed. The inheritors of freedom in our day are deeply indebted to both.
"When they were confronted by a crucial moment in history, Churchill and Orwell responded first by seeking the facts of the matter. Then they acted on their beliefs. They faced a genuinely apocalyptic situation, in which their way of life was threatened with extinction. Many people around them expected evil to triumph and sought to make their peace with it. These two did not. They responded with courage and clear-sightedness. If there is anything we can take away from them, it is the wisdom of employing this two-step process, especially in times of mind-bending crisis: Work diligently to discern the facts of the matter, and then use your principles to respond. . . . We should remember that most of us, most of the time, do not welcome the voices of people like Orwell and Churchill appearing in our midst. Most of us, when confronted with a crisis, do not dive into the matter. Rather, we practice avoidance."
9. Lynne Olson, Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood that Helped Turn the Tide of War (Random House, 2017). Part of this story is fairly well known - that in the darkest days of World War II and the Nazi threat, London became Europe's headquarters for freedom. Heads of state and national leaders of various stripes all headed to London, hoping to enlist others in the cause of liberty for their nations and the defeat of Hitler. Less known are the unmatched personal stories within this larger story. Lynne Olson, author of one best-selling book about London in the war, Citizens of London, now gives us another compelling read. The chapters read like spy thrillers, which several are. The cast of characters she narrates is vast and variegated, from Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, brave but infuriating to her hosts, to Norway's King Haakon VII, tragically proved right in his warnings of the Nazi menace. There are many more, with their stories. Last Hope Island revises our memory of World War II and how a unified Allied front came to be headquartered in London, a beacon of freedom - and a last hope indeed - for much of Europe.
"In the predawn hours of May 10, 1940, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands gently shook her daughter awake. 'They have come,' she told Princess Juliana. This time, the early morning invaders arrived from the air. They dropped by the thousands over bright green polders and fields ablaze with red and yellow tulips, over steeples and windmills, over orange-tiled roofs of peaceful Holland. Awakened by the roar of aircraft overhead, the Dutch, many still in nightgowns and pajamas, poured form their homes and peered upward. While milkmen distributed their wares door-to-door and housewives headed to market, german parachutists were landing in country gardens and city streets. To some of the children looking on, it seemed like a fascinating new game. Queen Wilhelmina knew otherwise. Like King Haakon, she had been warning her government for years of the growing danger of Hitler and Germany, but, as in Norway, government officials paid no heed to their monarch."
10. Thomas Oliphant and Curtis Wilke, The Road to Camelot: Inside JFK's Five-Year Campaign(Simon and Schuster, 2017). I fully expected that the centennial of John F. Kennedy's birth on May 29, 1917 would mean the release of at least one major new biography of America's 35th president. Surprisingly, that was not the case. Furthermore, most of the more recent books on Kennedy and his administration have been disappointments. The best books are at least a decade old by now. In The Road to Camelot, Thomas Oliphant and Curtis Wilke offer something different than a personal biography of Kennedy. They give us the biography of a presidential campaign, indeed, of what may well be called the first modern presidential campaign. Both of the authors were longtime reporters at The Boston Globe, and they have worked this story thoroughly. They remind us of Kennedy's effort to gain the vice presidential nomination in 1956, but trace his determination to win the White House to at least 1955. An undistinguished legislator, Kennedy put himself forward as a presidential candidate and as the vanguard of a new generation. Oliphant and Wilke trace the political strategies and alliances that led to Kennedy's capture of the Democratic nomination and his razor-thin victory over Richard Nixon in the 1960 election. Kennedy's victory in 1960 was by no means a sure thing. Had the political winds blown even slightly differently between 1956 and 1960, JFK's political career might have ended in the Senate. It didn't, of course, and The Road to Camelot is the best telling yet of John F. Kennedy's road to the White House and the emergence of the modern media-driven presidency.
"One reason Kennedy decided to move forward is that it was the only direction his fortunes could go. In the mid-1950s he was not a consequential figure in national politics. Even after nearly a decade in Congress he was considered more of a socialite and a war hero than a political leader. He had no developed philosophy or ideology, and his Senate contemporaries considered him an indifferent Democrat with occasionally independent tendencies. He was not involved prominently in any great cause or issue, and enjoyed no real standing inside the Senate. He was not even the undisputed master of politics in his home state. He was nowhere near the top of any list of Democrats to watch. When assessing him as a politician, the word commentators used most frequently was potential, not power."
And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. Then they secretly instigated men who said, 'We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.' And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, and they set up false witnesses who said, 'This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.' And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel. [Acts 6:8-15, esv]
We are not gathered here together by accident. Before us are over three hundred new graduates of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, arrayed in all their commencement glory. Beside them sits one of the most remarkable assemblies of scholar-teachers ever to serve Christ's church. Filling out this congregation are those who come to celebrate and witness this great moment. Wives, parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, friends and pastors, all gathered for an event that commands our attention and seizes our hearts. This is hardly the first commencement of this institution. Today marks the 219th commencement exercise since Southern Seminary was founded in 1859. But here we are in May of the year of our Lord, 2017 - and the stakes are high. Very high.
The Christian ministry has never been for the faint of heart. The ministry, biblically defined, is combat duty in spiritual warfare. These graduates have been prepared to be front-line officers in that warfare. Today is part of their commissioning. They are to be sent out as ambassadors of the Gospel of Christ, as heralds of the Kingdom that cannot be shaken, as stewards of the mysteries of Christ, and good soldiers of King Jesus. In the centuries since the apostles, the ministry has not changed, the assignment has never changed, but the context has changed and changed and changed again. Jesus told his disciples: "Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves." [Matthew 10:16, ESV] The wolves have not grown friendlier.
At every Southern Seminary graduation we remind one another of the great and essential fact that the Christian ministry is not a mere profession - it is a divine calling. The ministry is one of Christ's gifts to his church. it is the most serious and joyous of all callings.
I think often of the venerable words of the old Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England for the ordering of the ministry. These words are spoken to new ministers of the Word:
"You have heard, brethren, as well in your private examination, as in the exhortation which was now made to you, and in the holy Lessons taken out of the Gospel and the writings of the Apostles, of what dignity and of how great importance this office is, whereunto ye are called. And now again we exhort you, in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you have in remembrance, into how high a dignity, and to how weighty an office and charge ye are called: that is to say, to be messengers, watchmen, and stewards of the Lord; to teach and to premonish, to feed and provide for the Lord's family; to seek for Christ's sheep that are dispersed abroad, and for his children who are in the midst of this naughty world, that they may be saved through Christ for ever.
Have always therefore printed in your remembrance, how great a treasure is committed to your charge. For they are the sheep of Christ, which he bought with his death, and for whom he shed his blood. The Church and Congregation whom you must serve, is his spouse and his body. And if it shall happen the same Church, or any member thereof, to take any hurt or hindrance by reason of your negligence, ye know the greatness of the fault, and also the horrible punishment that will ensue. Wherefore consider with yourselves the end of your ministry towards the children of God, towards the spouse and body of Christ; and see that you never cease your labour, your care and diligence, until you have done all that lieth in you, according to your bounden duty, to bring all such as are or shall be committed to your charge, unto that agreement in the faith and knowledge of God, and to that ripeness and perfectness of age in Christ, that there be no place left among you, either for error in religion, or for viciousness in life."
That is, to say the least, a rather demanding job description. To that we would now say even more, never less.
I directed our attention to Acts 6 and the story of Stephen, known as the first Christian martyr. Note how quickly the situation changes. In the preceding text Stephen, "a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit," is chosen as one of the first deacons to serve the Christian church. When he and others of "the seven" are chosen, we are told that "the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith." [Acts 6:7] In the very next verse, we are told that Stephen, "full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people." [Acts 6:8] That got attention.
The opposition quickly came, and it was fierce. Stephen was faithful, and effective. "They could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking." [Acts 6:10] You know what followed.
"And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, and they set up false witnesses who said, 'This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.'' They accused Stephen of presenting the Gospel, and presenting it quite effectively. They could not withstand his speaking, so they killed him - but not before he would deliver one last great speech, a marvel of biblical theology.
I draw our attention to Stephen's example, and particularly to perhaps the most neglected verse in this narrative: "And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel." [Acts 6:15]
What are we to make of this? Well, remember that Stephen's accusers had charged him with "speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God." But now, we are told that Stephen, facing these accusations, had the very appearance of Moses after he had been on the holy mountain with God. "His face was like the face of an angel."
One huge problem here is the all-too-common confusion concerning angels. In the Bible, angels are not sweet, cherubic creatures, seeking to bring cuteness to a room. They are messengers of God. They inspired awe and fear. Their purpose was to bring a message from the one true God. This is the ministry of the Word of God - the ministry we celebrate in these graduates today. We dare to pray that when they preach, their faces look like the faces of angels - not cute, not harmless, not ready to jump off of a greeting card, but fearless, faithful, forceful, to the end.
A commencement ceremony takes a quick view backward in order to aim at the long view of the future. This day is far more about beginnings than endings. The completion of these monumentally important programs of study is appropriately marked and celebrated, but our hearts are drawn to the future as we imagine what God will do by his grace and for his glory in these graduates arrayed before us. And so our focus is on the start of new ministries, missionary journeys, and opportunities to serve the church for whom Christ died.
These graduates go out to build upon what others have already built. We will all build on the foundation someone else has laid. Even as the Lord grants opportunity to sow seed, we will spend much of our lives and ministries watering. The Christian ministry is not a career. It is a calling that originates in the sovereign majesty of God and is concluded only by the coming of the kingdom of the Lord, and of his Christ.
In the church age, ministry is handed from generation to generation. Our humble determination and our heart's desire must be to receive this charge and to serve faithfully '- planting and watering in the fields of ministry and taking care how we build upon the foundation laid before us.
The Lord God spoke through his prophet Joel to promise that older men will dream dreams and young men shall see visions. Powerful, faithful, and compelling dreams and visions animate these graduates. They were brought here to this seminary as they were called to ministry, these visions and dreams have kept them here through years of dedicated study, and these dreams and visions propel them onward as they go out into a world of ministry and mission.
But as they go, they join a line of faithfulness that reaches back to Moses and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, John the Baptist and John the evangelist, Peter and Philip, Paul and Apollos. It extends through generations punctuated by names such as Athanasius and Augustine, Luther and Calvin, Whitfield and Wesley, Owens and Edwards, Spurgeon and Moody . . . and so it goes.
Build faithfully upon the foundation laid by Christ and the apostles. Receive the stewardship of ministry that is passed on to you and give your all to this calling so long as you live. Then, pass this ministry to a generation yet unseen and unborn to continue this ministry and extend the reach of the Gospel until Jesus comes.
Start something you cannot finish and give yourself to it for the length of your days, with the strength of your life, to the glory of God. Dream dreams and see visions, and take up this calling as you plant and water in the fields of Christ. Build carefully upon the foundation laid for you. The hopes and prayers of God's faithful people go with you. As you go out, we pray that you will go with the faces of angels.
This is the text of the commencement address preached by President R. Albert Mohler, Jr. at the May 19, 2017 commencement ceremony at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. The entire ceremony will be live-streamed by digital video broadcast beginning at 10:00 a.m. EST at www.sbts.edu/live
To the utter consternation of the abortion rights movement, the issue simply will not go away. Decades after they thought they had put the matter to rest with the Roe v. Wade decision, America's conscience is more troubled than ever, and near panic appears regularly to break out among abortion activists. Such a panic is now underway, and the defenders of abortion are trotting out some of their most dishonest arguments. One of the worst is the claim that Christians have only quite recently become concerned about the sanctity of human life and the evil of abortion.
In fact, one of America's most infamous abortion doctors, Dr. Willie Parker of Mississippi, has made such a claim in his new book, Life's Work: A Moral Argument for Choice. Parker, who refers to himself as a Christian, writes: "If you take anti-abortion rhetoric at face value, without knowing much about the Bible, you might assume that the antis have Scripture on their side. That's how dominant and pervasive their righteous rhetoric has become. But they do not. The Bible does not contain the word 'abortion' anywhere in it."
This is the same argument we so often confront on sexuality issues. We are told that Jesus never said anything against same-sex marriage. The disingenuous nature of this argument is fully apparent when we look to a text like Matthew 19:3-6. Jesus makes abundantly clear that God's intention "from the beginning" is that humanity, made male and female, should united in marriage and "the two shall become one flesh." As Jesus continued, "What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate." That should settle the matter.
Similarly, Dr. Parker claims that the Bible does not even mention abortion as a word, which is quite true but irrelevant. The Bible consistently reveals life as God's gift and mandates the protection of human life, made in God's image, at every stage of life and development.
As you might expect, Dr. Parker would not change his argument even if the Bible did condemn abortion by name. Why do I say this? Dr. Parker's words speak better for themselves: "As an inspired document, the Bible is full of guidance for me about justice and love. But as a historical document, the Bible is a ruthless, unsparing record of the historic misogyny of the early Jewish and Christian people." Later in his book he attributes the pro-life position to preoccupation with regulating sexual behavior and "a rigid reading of Scripture that invites no questioning or interpretive consideration." It is only by undermining the Bible's authority that he can make his pro-abortion argument.
Even more recently, Nicholas Kristof, an influential columnist for The New York Times, affirmed Dr. Willie Parker in his column, approvingly quoting Parker as he states, quite astoundingly: "I believe that as an abortion provider, I am doing God's work." Kristof is well known as a humanitarian, a defender of human rights and human dignity. The great tragedy is that his humanitarian vision does not extend to unborn human beings. He celebrates Parker as a doctor who had a "come to Jesus moment," turning from pro-life conviction to performing abortions. He now believes it is "morally right" to perform abortions.
"If that seems incongruous," Kristof writes, "let's remember that conservative Christianity's ferocious opposition to abortion is relatively new in historical terms." He goes on to make Parker's argument that the Bible "does not explicitly discuss abortion" and proceeds to states "there's no evidence that Christians traditionally believed that life begins at conception."
What is the truth? Let's begin with where Kristof's punch lands with force. He makes the case that America's evangelical Christians came late to a consistently pro-life position. On this he is absolutely right. He is able to document the equivocation and confusion that abounded within evangelicalism, from the annual meetings of the Southern Baptist Convention in the early 1970s to the pages of Christianity Today. An embarrassing number of prominent evangelical preachers held to "moderate" views on abortion and speculated about when life begins and thus deserves protection. That did not begin to change until the latter years of that decade, when the biblical and theological logic of the pro-life position began to take hold of the evangelical mind and heart.
At this point we need to separate two issues that are confused in both Parker's and Kristof's argument. The first is the historic Christian understanding of the morality of abortion. The second is the question of when what some theologians have called "ensoulment" takes place. As for the second question, though it was a matter of intense speculation in late antiquity and the medieval age, it is not a helpful theological question, nor is it answerable. The only consistent biblical logic is to affirm the sanctity and dignity of every human life from the moment of fertilization.
As for the first question, the evidence is irrefutable. The early church was decidedly, vocally, and courageously pro-life and opposed to abortion. One of the earliest documents of Christianity after the New Testament is the Didache, dated to around A.D. 80-120. The teaching describes two ways: the way of life and the way of death. The way of life demands that Christians "shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, ... you shall not murder a child by abortion nor commit infanticide." Both abortion and infanticide were common in the Roman Empire. Christians were forbidden to murder any child, born or unborn. The way of life honors the sanctity of life.
Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 150-215) made clear the sin of women who "in order to hide their immorality, use abortive drugs which expel the matter completely dead, abort at the same time their human feelings." Tertullian (A.D. 160-240) taught even more comprehensively: "For us, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is just a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter when you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to birth. That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in the seed." These two are just examples of a pro-life position rejecting abortion that included - at the very least - Athenagoras, Hippolytus, Basil the Great, Ambrose, Jerome, John Chrysostom, and Augustine.
As ethicist Ronald Sider commented, "Eight different authors in eleven different writings mention abortion. In every case, the writing unequivocally rejects abortion." The most comprehensive survey of early Christianity on the question of abortion comes from Michael J. Gorman in Abortion and the Early Church. As Gorman states, "all Christian writers opposed abortion." Every mention of abortion in the early church rejects it, forcefully.
The Apostolic Constitutions, a document from the fourth century, asserts: "Thou shalt not slay thy child by causing abortion, nor kill that which is begotten. For every thing that is shaped, and hath received a soul from God, if it be slain, shall be avenged, as being unjustly destroyed."
Gorman writes: "Writers of the first three Christian centuries laid the theological and literary foundation for all subsequent early Christian writing on abortion. We will see that three important themes emerged during these centuries: the fetus is the creation of God; abortion is murder; and the judgment of God falls on those guilty of abortion." Those three convictions lie at the heart of the Christian pro-life consensus that came together after the shock of the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.
The shame is not that evangelicals hold these pro-life convictions now. The shame is that there was ever any evangelical equivocation on such a matter of life and death and human dignity. Furthermore, there can be no question that historic Christianity condemned abortion and affirmed the sanctity of human life, born and not yet born.
Let there be no confusion on this question. The Bible reveals the sanctity of all human life; the early church affirmed the sanctity of every human life; and anyone who performs an abortion is not "doing God's work." Rather, he is undoing it. As the Didache, echoing Deuteronomy, reminds us from so long ago - we are to choose the way of life, and never the way of death.
In the first volume of his history of World War II, Winston Churchill looked back at the storm clouds that gathered in the 1930s portending war and the loss of human freedom. Churchill wisely and presciently warned Britain of the tragedy that would ensue if Hitler were not stopped. His actions were courageous and the world was shaped by his convictional leadership. We are not facing the same gathering storm, but we are now facing a battle that will determine the destiny of priceless freedoms and the very foundation of human rights and human dignity.
Speaking thirty years ago, Attorney General Meese warned that 'there are ideas which have gained influence in some parts of our society, particularly in some important and sophisticated areas that are opposed to religious freedom and freedom in general. In some areas there are some people that have espoused a hostility to religion that must be recognized for what it is, and expressly countered.'
Those were prophetic words, prescient in their clarity and foresight. The ideas of which Mr. Meese warned have only gained ground in the last thirty years, and now with astounding velocity. A revolution in morality now seeks not only to subvert marriage, but also to redefine it, and thus to undermine an essential foundation of human dignity, flourishing, and freedom.
Religious liberty is under direct threat. During oral arguments in the Obergefell case, the Solicitor General of the United States served notice before the Supreme Court that the liberties of religious institutions will be an open and unavoidable question. Already, religious liberty is threatened by a new moral regime that exalts erotic liberty and personal autonomy and openly argues that religious liberties must give way to the new morality, its redefinition of marriage, and its demand for coercive moral, cultural, and legal sovereignty.
These are days that will require courage, conviction, and clarity of vision. We are in a fight for the most basic liberties God has given humanity, every single one of us, made in his image. Religious liberty is being redefined as mere freedom of worship, but it will not long survive if it is reduced to a private sphere with no public voice. The very freedom to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ is at stake, and thus so is the liberty of every American. Human rights and human dignity are temporary abstractions if they are severed from their reality as gifts of the Creator. The eclipse of Christian truth will lead inevitably to a tragic loss of human dignity. If we lose religious liberty, all other liberties will be lost, one by one.
Religious Liberty and the Challenge of Same-Sex Marriage
Even though same-sex marriage is new to the American scene, the religious liberty challenges became fully apparent even before it became a reality. Soon after the legalization of same-sex marriage in the state of Massachusetts, several seminars and symposia were held in order to consider the religious liberty dimensions of this legal revolution. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty sponsored one of the most important of these events, which produced a major volume with essays by prominent legal experts on both sides of this revolution. The consensus of every single participant in the conference was that the normalization of homosexuality and the legalization of same-sex marriage would produce a head-on collision in the courts. As Marc D. Stern, of the American Jewish Congress stated, 'Same-sex marriage would work a sea change in American law.' He continued, 'That change will reverberate across the legal and religious landscape in ways that are unpredictable today.'
Nevertheless, he predicted some of the battlefronts he saw coming and addressed some of the arguments that could already be recognized. Even then, Stern saw almost all the issues we have recounted, and others yet to come. He saw the campuses of religious colleges and the work of religious institutions as inevitable arenas of legal conflict. He pointed to employment as one of the crucial issues of legal conflict and spoke with pessimism about the ability of religious institutions to maintain liberty in this context, for which he advocates. As Stern argued, 'The legalization of same-sex marriage would represent the triumph of an egalitarian-based ethic over a faith-based one, and not just legally. The remaining question is whether champions of tolerance are prepared to tolerate proponents of the different ethical vision. I think the answer will be no.'
Stern did not wait long to have his assessment verified by legal scholars on the other side of the debate. One of the most important of these, Chai R. Feldblum, presented rare candor and revealed that an advocate for same-sex marriage and the normalization of homosexuality could also see these issues coming. Feldblum pointed to what she described as, 'the conflict that I believe exists between laws intended to protect the liberty of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people so that they may live lives of dignity and integrity and the religious beliefs of some individuals whose conduct is regulated by such laws.' She went on to state her belief that 'those who advocate for LGBT equality have downplayed the impact of such laws on some people's religious beliefs and, equally, I believe those who sought religious exemptions in such civil rights laws have downplayed the impact that such exemptions would have on LGBT people.'
As Feldblum argued, she called for the society to 'acknowledge that civil rights laws can burden an individual's belief liberty interest when the conduct demanded by these laws burdens an individual's core beliefs, whether such beliefs are religiously or secularly based.' Thus, in Feldblum's argument, we confront face-to-face the candid assertion that an individual's 'belief liberty interest' must give way to what are now defined as the civil rights of sexual minorities. Feldblum believed she saw the future clearly and that the future would mean 'a majority of jurisdictions in this country will have modified their laws so that LGBT people will have full equality in our society, including access to civil marriage or to civil unions that carry the same legal effect as civil marriage.' In that future, religious liberty would simply give way to the civil liberties of homosexuals and same-sex couples. Feldblum, then a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, also understood that this moral revolution would mean that the government is 'taking sides' in a moral conflict, siding with the LGBT community. This necessarily puts government on the side of that moral judgment, which is precisely the point Feldblum is insisting we must recognize. Once government is on that side of the moral judgment, its laws and its coercion will require those who hold to a contrary moral system, whether based in religious or secular convictions to give way to the new moral judgment affirmed by the government.
In her very revealing argument, Feldblum struggles to find a way to grant recognition and a level of liberty to those who disagree with the normalization of homosexuality, especially on religious grounds. Nevertheless, as she shares quite openly, she is unable to sustain that effort, given her prior commitment to the absolute imposition of the new morality by means of the law and the power of the state. Appointed and later confirmed as Commissioner of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, nominated by President Obama, Feldblum stated in a different context that the end result of antidiscrimination legislation would mean the victory of sexual rights over religious liberty. She commented that she could not come up with a single case in which, at least hypothetically, religious liberty would triumph over coercion to the new moral morality.
It is crucially important that we understand the moral judgment being made and enforced by legal mechanisms in the wake of this revolution. Feldblum, a lesbian activist who has advocated for same-sex marriage'-and for the legalization of polygamy'-fully understands the law teaches and reinforces a morality. She insists that the law must allow no deviation in public life from the dictates of the new morality. In this case, this means allowing virtually no exemptions to regulations prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
In her presentation at the Becket Fund event, Feldblum cited the writings of Judge Michael McConnell, who both offered support for same-sex marriage and the assurance that the religious liberty of Christians and other religious citizens must be protected. McConnell's argument is straightforward:
"The starting point would be to extend respect to both sides in the conflict of opinion, to treat both the view that homosexuality is a healthy and normal manifestation of human sexuality and the view that homosexuality is unnatural and immoral as conscientious positions, worthy of respect, much as we treat both atheism and faith as worthy of respect. In using the term 'respect,' I do not mean agreement. Rather, I mean the civil toleration we extend to fellow citizens and fellow human beings even when we disagree with their views. We should recognize that the 'Civil Magistrate' is no more 'competent a Judge' of the 'Truth' about human sexuality than about religion."
Feldblum dismissed his argument by accusing McConnell of failing to recognize 'that the government necessarily takes a stance on the moral question he has articulated every time it fails to affirmatively ensure the gay people can live openly, safely, and honestly in society.'
In other words, there must be no exceptions. Religious liberty simply evaporates as a fundamental right grounded in the U.S. Constitution, and recedes into the background in the wake of what is now a higher social commitment'-sexual freedom.