Learning from History: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee

Many people tend to judge historical characters based on their stand on issues that align with modern political opinions. In fact, we find that, like all people, most historical characters are complex, with good traits and bad. Most do not fit neatly into modern categories of correctness. Many make mistakes. Some evolve and become better people, and some don’t. Rather than judging people by how they align with modern politics, we ought to recognize positive traits and accomplishments while condemning the bad. If we do, we find that most people have qualities to admire, and no one has lived a life worth cancelling.

We might take as an example the modern views of Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. Based simply on an analysis of where they stood on a single issue – slavery – the tendency has been to praise Grant for fighting the war against slavery while condemning Lee for fighting to defend it. If the Confederates were evil for defending the right to slavery, and the Union was good for fighting to eradicate it, then Lee was a bad guy, and Grant was a good guy. Many people view all of history in this light, dividing people into good or evil based on modern political views and then condemning and cancelling those with whom they disagree. This is the justification for tearing down statues and renaming military bases, streets, and courthouses. However, history is much more complicated and does not easily fit into these categories.

In the case of Grant, we find a self-made man from a lower middleclass family. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, in 1843 about halfway through his class. After fighting bravely in the Mexican-American War, he resigned his commission to pursue business, mainly for financial reasons to make more money. During this time, he purchased and owned a slave but did not have the stomach for it and soon after became a staunch abolitionist. When the Civil War came, he was offered a captaincy but held out for higher rank and pay. He accepted an assignment as lieutenant colonel and rose quickly in rank due to his success on the battlefield, though he was often criticized for his bloody approach and for racking up more casualties than other commanders. He was also criticized for forcing labor from freed slaves and for his apparent alcoholism. Despite his personal failings, Abraham Lincoln appointed him as the commander of all Union forces, and he defeated Lee at Appomattox, Virginia. After the war, Grant was elected president in 1868. Historians have generally criticized the corruption of his administration – his pursuit of money continued to be a problem – but he nevertheless received praise for helping to reconcile the South, ending reconstruction, and providing immediate equality to former slaves.

Lee, meanwhile, came from a famous Virginia family owning a large plantation and many slaves. He graduated from West Point in 1829 second in his class. He also holds the distinction of being only one of five cadets who earned no demerits while at school. He served faithfully in the military, including the Mexican-American War. Unlike Grant, however, Lee remained in the Army, eventually serving as Superintendent of West Point. He took off only two years to run his family plantation after not being able to find an overseer. Although later accused of treating his slaves poorly, most historians have seen this as the result of applying the strict disciple to which he was used. In 1861, Virginia seceded from the Union to join the Confederacy. Lee opposed the rebellion, but he felt honor-bound to support his state. He quickly proved a great tactical commander and won many battles. He was remembered as a highly honorable leader, just and kind towards his men and enemies alike. However, he eventually lost due to the North’s greater manpower and industrialization. Despite calls for him to refuse surrender, he believed it more honorable to save lives. After the war, he opposed former Confederates continuing the war, and he sought reconciliation, even going so far as meeting Grant in the White House. He also opposed raising statues of Confederate leaders, whom he felt were unworthy. He supported the manumission of slaves but believed that they ought to receive an education before being admitted to citizenship. He briefly served as president of Washington University before dying in 1870.

One can make many comparisons between Grant and Lee. For most, what is important is that Grant opposed slavery and won the war, while Lee was a slaveowner and lost. Yet both of their views were complex. Lee opposed slavery in general as an institution incompatible with liberty, and though he reluctantly accepted slavery, he sought a more practical approach to freeing slaves. Meanwhile, Grant was opposed to slavery and did much to advance equality, but he nevertheless had no qualms about forcing freedmen to work for him if it served his goals. Grant made his career serve his ambitions, while Lee continually sought a career of service and training. Grant was a self-made man and much more money-driven, which got him into trouble while president. He was practical in his approach to warfare and sought to win no matter the cost. Lee, meanwhile, was driven by honor and service. He cared for his men and surrendered to save lives. Both seemingly learned from their mistakes. Grant later came to seek for reconciliation with his former enemies, and Lee came to regret his support of the Confederacy and opposed continuing the fight. While modern politicians tend to view them only through a single lens, they were much more complicated than often recognized.

In reviewing their legacies, it is Grant’s and Lee’s change of heart that is most striking. Both recognized their mistakes and sought to reconcile a nation that remained divided for a decade after the Civil War. In the end, this is the trait that is most admirable and from which this generation most needs to learn. Let us also have the humility and wisdom to recognize our shortcomings and seek reconciliation with those we once wished to destroy. Sometimes history is complex. Let us hope we learn from it.

© 2022 J.D. Manders


When Life Isn’t Fair

We’ve all heard children say, “It isn’t fair.” Most children have an innate sense of fairness or justice, often because they’ve not yet been conditioned to see differences in outcomes. This is why so many children raise issues of unfairness when they see it, especially when it concerns themselves. While many parents simply dismiss such statements, they provide a perfect teaching moment to help them understand what fairness is and the best ways to address it.

Many parents, when they hear their children complain about being treated unfairly, have a tendency to dismiss it by reminding them that “life isn’t fair.” While this sentiment is certainly true – life is often unfair – and children must learn at some point that things will not always go their way, you must ask yourself is this the lesson that you want your children to gain? Life is also cruel, but this doesn’t mean that you want to expose your children to cruelty. Most children understand that life isn’t always fair, for they likely have already been mistreated at some point, by teachers, by other children or parents, or simply by circumstances not always going their way. What they are looking for is help in understanding why something their parents have done seems unfair, and justifying tyrannical decisions simply because life is unfair is not always helpful.

Rather than trying to teach them that life is unfair, you could use the situation to explain the differences in equality, equity, and fairness or justice. There are several graphics out there, which you’ve probably seen, that try to show the differences in these terms. The most popular is a picture of a tall man, a young man, and a child trying to look over a wooden fence. In an equal solution, they all receive the same remedy – a single crate on which to stand – which does not help the child because even with the crate he is still too short to see over the fence. It’s a one-size-fits-all solution. An equitable solution is to give everyone exactly what they need – the tall man needs no crate, the young man needs one, the child needs two. It’s dependent on what a person needs. A just or fair solution, however, might be to replace the wooden fence with a chain link one so that they all can see without being given help. It removes what was causing the inequity to begin with. In a like manner, the best approach is not to give people aid or try to figure out what they need but to change the system or circumstances to avoid the situation.

Of course, in real life the situation is almost always more complex than this simple drawing. Equality can mean giving everyone the same thing, but that’s not the only or even the primary definition. In mathematics, equal means a sum, value, or outcome that’s the same, meaning that everyone ends up in the same place. However, as many people observe, outcome is also dependent on the effort put into it. This is why some people talk about equality of opportunity versus equality of outcome. Equality can also mean that everyone’s the same, which is clearly untrue. There are differences in sexes, ages, and capabilities and desires. Equality of opportunity or equality before the law doesn’t mean everyone is exactly the same. Meanwhile, while equity is often defined as giving someone what they need to get to the same place, it can also mean being impartial. However, impartiality can sometimes result in decisions that some people may not like, such as randomly selecting who gets to play with a toy. Justice may mean changing a system or equalizing the scale by helping one group over another, but it more often means people getting what they deserve. Whenever I complained about being punished for something I didn’t do, my mother would always ask if I had done nothing that deserved punishment, a valid point.

Parents can raise any of these points when talking to their child. Is it always right to give people the same thing, or is it sometimes more important to give people what they actually need or deserve? If one child likes reading, and one likes sports, is it fair to reward them both with time outside to play? If one child did chores and the other didn’t, is it fair for them both to get the same time off? Some children are older and need more space or privacy. Is it fair to expect them to share their room or closet? It might be fair for all three children to have a room, but if your house only has two rooms, what is a fair sleeping arrangement? If two children both want to play with a toy, would the children be happy if you flipped a coin, and they lost? Asking questions such as these helps children to understand that equality of outcome may not always be fair, that impartiality or justice may not turn out the way they want, and that sometimes the fairest solution is unavailable, forcing parents to make merit-based decisions. Regardless, parents must make absolutely clear that, whatever differences may exist in the children, their abilities, or their situations, a parent’s love and God’s love for them will always be unchanging.

Sometimes life is unfair, but that doesn’t mean that the decisions parents make have to be. Sometimes efforts at equality, equity, or justice don’t turn out the way we expect, or it requires balancing one value against another. Helping children understand why parents make the decisions they do not only can diffuse angst about a current decision; it also helps children appreciate the differences in values and approaches in the future. When life isn’t fair, use it as a lesson to teach.

© 2022 J.D. Manders

How to Answer Deep Questions

I recently had a friend who told me about her daughter asking a question about why an eternal God created a mortal world. I shared with him questions my own daughters had sometimes raised, such as how God can be sovereign and still give people free will. Most parents receive questions like these from children at some point. How we answer them can make the difference in how your children perceive truth, God, and our relationship to Him. It is critical that we know how to answer deep questions.

All children ask deep questions at some point, such as about the character of God, if Jesus is the Son of God, the nature of free will and predestination, the reason for certain doctrines, what is sin, etc. Sometimes they come out randomly as the result of something they hear at school, at church, or just talking to friends. Many times, my daughter’s questions came as a result of watching a movie or television. When she watched The Incredibles, she asked if everyone has a superpower? When she watched the post-apocalyptic show, “The 100,” she asked why teenagers acted the way they did. When she watched the Hitchcock movie, Rope, she asked why some people believed there should not be moral restraints. Sometimes, I would introduce a movie or show specifically to raise certain questions so we could discuss it. Most of the time, it just sort of happened when I least expected it.

The question most parents usually ask is, what should I do when my children ask such deep questions? The thing you shouldn’t do is to tell them you don’t care or have time or that they should just shut up with their questions. You’ve been given a great opportunity to share your views about the most important questions in the universe, about philosophy, theology, or wisdom. Shutting down your children at this moment will have lasting consequences. First, it teaches them that the nature of life and reality are unimportant to you and that it ought to be unimportant to them. Second, it teaches them that if they want answers to deep questions, they will have to go somewhere else, and that usually means either a friend (who may not have very good answers) or another authority figure, such as a religious leader (with whom you may not agree). You should always be willing to answer their questions; that’s the way most people learn.

The best thing to do is to provide an honest answer if you can. By honest, I mean what you actually think and not simply what you think your spouse would say or what your religion teaches. The problem is that many people don’t have an opinion or have problems expressing their views. If you don’t have an opinion about deep questions, perhaps it would be worth your time to give some thought about them in advance. A man I greatly respect once told me that everyone should know enough about whatever they believe to defend it. If you haven’t done so, children can force you to take stock of your faith. If you don’t know why you believe something, it would be worthwhile reading up on it, especially if you know a question is coming. You ought to explore different views or talk to pastors or teachers. If something unexpected comes up, it’s okay to say that you haven’t thought about it or that you need time to think about it. Spend a few minutes considering the answer or do some research and get back with them. This gives you a chance to have multiple conversations about these deep subjects.

If you have problems expressing your opinion – and many people do ­– you can do the same thing. You can research it or talk to someone about it, so that you get your answer right. I don’t mean memorizing someone else’s answers but trying to get enough of an understanding about an issue to be able to talk through it. If the situation demands an immediate answer, and you don’t have time to brush up on the subject, it’s okay to stumble through what you want to say. Your children are looking for your honest views however delivered, not an eloquent exposition on the subject. Just getting out your views helps them to understand where you’re coming from. If you need more information, you can google questions on the fly to provide them with references or to inject the views of someone they respect.

It’s also okay to get their help. A lot of parents ask their children questions first. This is called the Socratic method. Socrates believed the best way of teaching was to question something. Sometimes asking questions helps you know what your children are looking for, or it may help you in using terminology they understand. Sometimes you may agree with how they answer it. Sometimes it helps you to frame your answer based on what they already think, using their views as a sounding board. You can ask what their friends think, and this may help you see whether they are under peer pressure. You can ask follow-up questions to find out why they are asking or to get clarification about different aspects of a question. This helps to broaden the discussion and can clue you in more specifically about what the real issue is so you will be able to answer it better. You end up learning a lot about your child simply by having a conversation.

The Bible says that we should always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks for the hope within us. This is good advice whether you believe the Bible or not. You should always be able to talk about deep questions, especially with children. They are going to ask, so you might as well be prepared. Rather than shutting them down or sending them to someone else, take this special opportunity to answer their questions. It might be the best opportunity you have to get to know and influence your child.

© 2022 J.D. Manders

Our Strange Attraction to Royalty

The news of the passing of Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II has resulted in an outpouring of sympathy. It has also highlighted an obsession that many Americans seem to feel toward monarchy. We see this in our interest in all things related to foreign nobility and in our outlandish treatment of visiting royals, not only as foreign government officials or celebrities, but as people to whom we owe some kind of allegiance or honor. This strange attraction to royalty reveals our inner need for a king.

I am not here talking about monarchial government. I believe in republican or democratic forms of government. History repeatedly demonstrates the evils that result when a single person or party holds too much power, whether king, dictator, president, or politburo. The colonialist attitude of Queen Elizabeth, even though it occurred early in her reign, continues to draw criticism from many commentators. Instead, most Americans believe we reach our potential when given the motivation and liberty to be successful while being protected from tyranny. Likewise, neither is there a desire to establish permanent classes of aristocracy or wealth. Most people are unimpressed by wealth and class, especially when they become involved in politics. In other words, when I talk about attraction to royalty, I don’t mean a desire to establish a monarchy or aristocracy. In any case, even though the British monarchy is the titular head of their government, it has been many generations since kings and queens held any real power or even political influence.

Neither am I speaking just about interest in the history of the monarchy, although this certainly contributes to the attraction for some people. I have long been an Anglophile and a Medievalist. I like British comedy, science fiction, literature, and history. I loved studying British history when in college, especially the Middle Ages, and I continue reading about it when I can. Other than the brief Interregnum after the execution of King Charles I, the history of the British monarchy has remained a constant factor in the history of Britain, from the dominance of the kings of Wessex over local competing kings until today. This kind of longevity has no precedent in the U.S., where anything over two hundred years is old. There is a sense that here is something established, ancient, and traditional. Others seem to like the modern monarchy with all its drama, personality conflicts, and family history – it’s like a real-life Downton Abbey or soap opera. This is why so many seem to follow the travails of Prince Harry and Meghan despite their personal unpopularity. You can’t look away. While this is not something that interests me, I appreciate certain aspects of more modern royal history, which reiterates appreciation for this ancient institution.

It is difficult to put one’s finger on what attracts most people to royalty. The sense of history is part of it. The monarchy is old and highly traditional, giving a feeling of archaism and quaintness. Much like the Catholic Church, there is an air of symbolism that reminds us of something we once forgot, that touch our spirits directly. Kings and queens are unfamiliar to those in the states, and this leads to a feeling of otherworldliness. Many democrats act like royals are somehow above them because they understand that there are dominions that are above our tawdry politics. We yearn for a person or cause to rally behind, a figure who can rise above our institutions and unite us. We desire someone who is part of a true nobility, of heart and duty. We want a chivalrous knight to save the day. In short, we all want a king, someone who rules benevolently to help us become better than we are, whose benefice provides for us, whose power and might protects us, whose majesty awes us. Some people might not put it precisely this way. They would stress that they want the freedom to not be ruled over by a tyrant, even when they are looking toward government to do the same things. They thus prove that, deep down, we all have a desire for help in our current situation to restore order, justice, decency, and mercy.

I need not point out that the royals of Britain, or of any other country, are ultimately not going to fulfill this need for a king. They are too damaged, too corrupt, too spoiled, and too unreliable, as all people are. There is only one kingdom that will fulfill our need, and it exists in a spiritual domain. There is only one king who can help us, and that is God. Whenever we recognize that strange obsession with royalty in ourselves, it is to this king that we should turn, for only He can fulfill our desires.

© 2022 J.D. Manders

The Book Is Always Better

The recent publication of Amazon’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power,” based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, has received both praise and criticism. The most severe criticism has come from what I call Tolkien purists, who hate most the show’s departures from his books. While one should always make allowances for film, it is a reminder that the book is always better than the movie.

Like many people, I huddled down to watch the first two episodes of “The Rings of Power” this weekend. Overall, I liked what I saw, mainly because I believe the material Tolkien wrote outside of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings deserves a fuller telling. Most people are unaware of the vast world that Tolkien created, not just as background for his first two published works, but as a lengthy mythology detailed first in the Silmarillion and more recently in The Children of Hurin, Beren and Luthien, and The Fall of Gondolin. I found the vision of Middle Earth the show presented quite beautiful, with broad vistas, varying landscapes, and hidden ruins that give a sense of long history and fueled a desire to want to know more. Film excels at visualizing the descriptions of books, and “The Rings of Power” is no exception. I particularly found the depiction of Valinor quite moving. While the show may not match precisely the imaginations of some readers – each reader brings his own interpretation to written descriptions – it supplements and often replaces such visions with the film creator’s own. For those who are unfamiliar with the books or who lack such vision, film is an invaluable aid.

I largely dismiss the largest criticism of the show, which is the inclusion of people of color in the cast. I would prefer to generously assign the motivation for such criticism as a desire to be true to the world of Tolkien than racism per se, a term that is overused. England was, after all, mostly Anglo-Saxon at the time Tolkien wrote. Nevertheless, the books themselves rarely describe the color of people, which was unimportant to the plot, and since the races he describes are imaginary, there is broad room for interpretation. We must also remind ourselves that actors portray someone else, and as long as there is a suspension of disbelief, they need not always be precisely like their character. In the past, Shakespeare used young boys to play girls, and James Barrie used a young girl to play Peter Pan. It might perhaps be understandable to object to actors too unlike their characters, such as a petite woman playing a strapping male warrior or to a red-headed actor playing someone explicitly described as blond. However, I found nothing in the show that stretched credibility or was inappropriate. Rather, this criticism tells us more about the views of the critic than about the show or the book.

A more difficult criticism to counter is that the show’s producers and writers departed wildly from the story of Tolkien. The show follows the general outline of the Silmarillion and appendices of The Lord of the Rings, but within that outline it takes many liberties. In some cases, this is to simplify the story. Some may complain about the lack of explanation of how the elves came to Valinor or the reason for the return of the Noldor to Middle Earth, but one has to make allowances for compressing 300 pages into a five-minute introduction. It is always possible that they introduce or refer to some of these elements later. Other changes were the result of simplifying the action. It is natural for producers to want to reduce the story to a handful of main characters rather than trying to introduce the hundreds of characters that Tolkien describes over a history of thousands of years. Thus, we find Galadriel and Elrond involved in parts of the plot that did not involve them in the books. At the same time, the show added some storylines and characters not in the books to keep the viewer’s interest, such as the interaction of Galadriel and her father or the deeds of the Harfoots. For the most part, these changes were in keeping with the books. Less forgivable were the changes in the trajectory of character arcs. Making Elrond into a dissimulating and self-interested politician or suggesting Galadriel as driven primarily by revenge rather than redemption were unnecessary and not true to Tolkien.

These criticisms raise general problems with making books into films, which have been true with every book almost without exception. Film adaptations always take shortcuts. This is partly because some sections of books don’t translate well into film, such as inner voices, and partly because books are far more complicated than movies, with more characters, plotlines, and locations. Film is a visual adaptation, not a full retelling of a book. A thousand-page book could result in a dozen hours of screentime, which is neither cost-effective nor marketable. Further, a film is a reflection of the views of its makers, which do not always align with the vision of the author. How script writers shorten a book, how actors portray characters, and how directors cut the film all contribute to the final product. Producers always need to be wary of drifting too far from the author’s vision, especially when the main thing that attracts people to Tolkien is his worldview of valor, mercy, and redemption. It is a reminder that, while films can be a good introduction, they can never replace a book. To grasp all of the details and to see clearly an author’s vision, it will always be necessary to read the book.

Once we understand the differences in film and books, we can understand why the producers of “The Rings of Power” made many of the changes they did, although some changes were unnecessary and detract from the power of Tolkien’s story. Nevertheless, to truly understand the vast background of the characters, to appreciate the majesty and beauty of Tolkien’s mythology, and to see clearly his vision of reality, it is necessary to read his books. This is true of any film adaption of literature. The book is always better.

© 2022 J.D. Manders  

Lessons from Afghanistan

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the U.S. departure from Afghanistan. For those of us who have deployed to Afghanistan, it is a moment of reflection to see what lessons we have learned. Despite the fact that the events have proved a watershed moment (no matter how you define it), it appears that no lessons have been learned to date, and few if any changes have been made in the framework for decisions made. It is even unclear whether voters have learned anything from it. There are, nevertheless, several lessons that we ought to apply.

In April 2021, President Joe Biden announced that the U.S. would withdraw all forces from Afghanistan, ending the 20-year war. He predicted at the time that it was unlikely Afghanistan would fall or that there would be a Saigon moment of U.S. forces fleeing the country. Both predictions proved false as the Taliban quickly gained control of the country due to Afghanistan forces folding. On August 18, 2021, the Taliban seized Kabul, leading to the chaotic evacuation of thousands of U.S. citizens and Afghan allies. Although the U.S. military heroically carried out one of the most successful evacuation missions in history, the final moments of our involvement in Afghanistan were tarnished by the victory of the Taliban, the death of 13 service members from continued terrorist attacks, and hundreds of people and millions of dollars of equipment left behind.

However one defines it, the retreat from Afghanistan was a turning point. It was a political turning point – the president’s approval rating, which had been relatively high at the time, dropped six points overnight and has continued to decline. More than half of people polled disapproved of the way the U.S. left, and an equal number continue to disapprove of current U.S. foreign policy. It was a diplomatic turning point. Many point to incursions by Russia and China as being a result of their perceptions of U.S. weaknesses or untrustworthiness, which U.S. allies continue to express after not being consulted in advance of the decision to withdraw. Some have even seen it as a turning point in world history, arguing it demonstrates the decline of U.S. world leadership and more broadly western dominance. The withdrawal was also a turning point among Enduring Freedom veterans and the U.S. military in general. More than 70 percent of veterans believe the U.S. did not withdraw honorably and report feeling “angry,” “betrayed,” or “humiliated.” As a result, many veterans have retired at a time when recruiting is down. If parallels are drawn with Vietnam, the psychological implications will be felt far into the future as the U.S. struggles with morale and its own image in the world.

One would think we would be trying to learn all we can from this failure, but despite the momentous events of the withdrawal, there has yet to be a full public review of the events or a major effort to hold anyone accountable. While the Army conducted a lengthy investigation, the president rejected key findings. There have been after action reports conducted by military units, but no major recommendations have publicly emerged that correct the decisions leading to the disaster. The administration itself has not published any official report, as though everything went according to plan. Congressional inquiries have been brief and limited mainly to the minority party. Possibly more reports are coming, but the delay has had enormous impact on morale and foreign policy. No one has taken responsibility or borne the blame, with most blaming others. No one stepped down in shame for the perceived failure. No known intelligence or military personnel have been fired. This would suggest that there have been no lessons learned, no changes made in U.S. policy, no adjustments in the personnel who made the key decisions about the withdrawal. It is not even clear if voters learned anything. We won’t know for another two months whether the debacle will change how people vote.

Nevertheless, there are lessons we ought to learn. One is that the war in Afghanistan was worthwhile. How many of us believe that, if the U.S. had not intervened, there would have been no further attacks on the U.S.? We maintained U.S. security for nearly two decades because the U.S. military pursued terrorists wherever they arose. Veterans ought to feel proud that they contributed to the safety of their homes. Another lesson is that the U.S. military still plays a key role in the world. The recent strike against Al Qaeda leader Aymen al-Zawahri in Kabul, while widely praised, has demonstrated that terrorists have regained a foot in the country. How many believe this would have been possible if the U.S. and its allies had maintained a nominal presence in Afghanistan and continued to support the local government? The vacuum created whenever we withdraw from regions ought to demonstrate the importance the U.S. continues to play on the world stage. A third lesson is that national service remains important. What will our Army look like if no one joins? Will the U.S. be able to continue intervening in world affairs if the Army declines to only a few hundred thousand? Will we be able to maintain peace and protect the homeland for much longer? Such questions ought to stir us to become more involved in serving the nation, both through military and government service.

There are, of course, other lessons we could learn. Many are political, diplomatic, or historical. It is possible that future reviews may better address these. More important in the short-term is to recognize the importance of military service. It is what kept our nation safe for two decades, and what will keep us safe in the future. Service is good, and it is only by people being willing to serve that we are able to maintain our safety and way of life. Unless we want to see extremists gain a foothold here as they have in Afghanistan, someone must be willing to protect our people. If not us, who?

© 2022 J.D. Manders  

When Ideology Dominates Fiction

J.R.R. Tolkien often said, “I dislike allegory – the conscious and intentional allegory,” and C.S. Lewis denied that the Chronicles of Narnia were allegorical. Those who see these authors as writers of religion- or morality-tinged fantasy are often surprised by this, yet most artists throughout time have been opposed to overtly ideological works. Despite this, many modern authors, publishers, and producers appear to have accepted that it is their job to evangelize their views through storytelling. As a result, the quality of these works as stories continue to decline.

In the minds of Tolkien and Lewis, using fiction to make ideological, moral, or religious points was a sure sign of poor writing. Tolkien said “explicit” inclusion of “moral and religious truth (and error)” is “fatal.” It was fine when someone applied his writings to support certain views, but this was not the same as intentionally including ideology. “One resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.” Lewis, meanwhile, believed writing in this way would result in a story that was more a form letter than fiction. “Some people seem to think that I began by asking myself how I could say something about Christianity to children…then collected information about child psychology… then drew up a list of basic Christian truths and hammered out ‘allegories’ to embody them. This is all purse moonshine. I couldn’t write that way at all.” This appears to be how certain authors and publishers seem to approach writing – determine your target audience and write stories that carry a specific ideological message rather than trying to tell a good story that gives pleasure to readers.

This does not mean that it is impossible to determine an author’s viewpoint from his writing. “There is a ‘moral’, I suppose, in any tale worth telling,” Tolkien wrote. There are patterns, universal truths, and beliefs that are always apparent.  We can find examples of hubris in the elves, greed in the dwarves, and avoiding death among men. However, this is not a matter of “didactic purpose,” but arises naturally from Tolkien’s belief in good and evil (for example). Likewise, Lewis has explained that he did not intentionally include Christian elements in in the Chronicles of Narnia. “At first there wasn’t even anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord.” Rather, all of his writings began as images or scenes that became connected as he fleshed them out in his writings. In the case of both, their Christian views are easy to see, but this was not due to any conscious decision on their part. Rather, they simply sought to tell a good story. “They start out from opposite ends,” Tolkien said. The same ought to be true whether the author is a Christian or atheist, a liberal or conservative. Let their beliefs come forth but let them focus on writing an interesting story rather than forcing on readers a lot of boring ideology. Believe me, readers, and especially children, can see the difference.

At the same time, we ought to point out that much of the appeal of Tolkien and Lewis compared to modern authors is because their underlying viewpoints leads to characters who are more interesting and relatable to most people. Tolkien added that “the only perfectly consistent allegory is a real life” and “the better and more closely woven a story is the more easily can those so minded find allegory in it.” For Tolkien, it was a world in which those with valor stand up against evils such as domination of others, in which fate guides ordinary people to make a difference in the world’s struggle, and in which evil corrupts and good drives others to liberty. In the case of Lewis, he created a world (Narnia) that needed redemption from evil just the same as ours, in which children play just as important a part in defeating evil as adults. Such themes are universal and appeal to the experience and beliefs of ordinary people more consistently than the political dribble that seems to be dominating modern fiction.

There are important uses for allegory and for more overtly ideological writing. I have told stories in which I recognized the religious elements in them before starting, but I always came to a point where the story and characters moved past my intent. They had to if I were to remain faithful to my art and continue to attract readers. Whatever instruction they get comes out naturally because the stories reflect my own values. I generally find most people just want to read a good tale, and my preference is to tell a story that appeals to as many people as possible. Sadly, too many modern authors and publishers will only recognize this when their readership declines to include only those of the same mind. The rest of us will go on reading tales to which we can relate.

© 2022 J.D. Manders

Is Service in Decline?

Most service members are aware of the recent news that the Army failed to meet its recruiting goals for 2022 by more than 30,000. For the first time in decades, the active Army is now below 450,000 members. Yet it is not just the Army. Every branch of the military is struggling with meeting recruiting goals to maintain the force, but none so dramatic. The reasons for this decline vary, but ultimately it comes down to whether people are willing to serve the nation or not.

Some sources blame the low recruiting on the politicization of the military. For those on the right, it is because of the Army becoming “woke.” They blame transgender training, political witch hunts, and vaccine or mask mandates – the service is about to discharge some 60,000 people who refused to get a COVID vaccination. They argue if you appeal increasingly to people on the left, who are statistically less likely to serve, and demonize people on the right, who are statistically more likely, the result can only be a decline in numbers. Meanwhile, those on the left blame toxic masculinity, right-wing extremism, and bigotry. The military continues to have a higher percent of sexual assaults than the rest of society, and it has long been a haven for the pro-gun lobby. The bigger problem is that people are applying politics of any flavor to the military, which erodes confidence that the U.S. military is professional and apolitical, serving the whole nation. Polls show that trust in the military has declined 25 percent since 2018 to 45 percent of those who responded from both political persuasions. If political leaders continue to inject politics into the military, declining professionalism, trust, and recruiting will likely be the result.

The military in general blames the declining eligibility of people as being the main issue impacting recruiting. Today, only 23 percent of people aged 17 to 24 are eligible for service due to weight, drug use, or criminal records. This is down 6 percent from 29 percent in 2018. With a smaller pool that is eligible, recruiting is naturally down. As a result, the Army is waiving some requirements, for example, by recruiting obese people and putting them on a rigorous weight loss program to help them meet standards and by allowing those with non-felony convictions to serve. They are also offering more bonuses to provide a financial incentive. Those who have been in the service for a long time have seen all of this before, since the military has periodically taken such actions to maintain numbers in the past. These efforts may delay the decline or make up for five or ten percent of losses. It is unlikely, however, that these alone can make up for the large declines in recruiting seen recently.

While both politicization and eligibility are no doubt contributing to recruiting declines, the larger problem is an overall decline in a desire to serve. Of those eligible, only 9 percent in polls say they have any inclination to do so, the lowest number since 2007. In the past, having family members who served was a major influence. In 1995, 40 percent had relatives who had served. Today, it’s only 13 percent. As the number of people serving in the military in each generation has declined, the numbers familiar with military service have also declined. Most people – 75 percent – are unfamiliar with the Army at all. Some of the reasons why fewer people want to serve are political – if you teach people the U.S. is evil, why would they want to die for their country? If you say patriots are extremists, why should they want to serve? Yet the bigger reason is simply that fewer people are interested in serving anywhere, in jobs, in the military, or in government. Many industries are having problems filling jobs and keeping them filled. Most people have no loyalty to any company or nation and so only work until they find something better, or they are forced to do something they don’t like. Likewise, more than half of those who are eligible for military service believe they would have emotional or physical problems if they serve in the military, meaning they would be forced to do something that harms them. In short, more people are looking out only for themselves and do not want to make a long-term commitment.

I have repeatedly written about Roman views of the necessity of service for civilization to survive (such as here, here, and here). Romans believed that it was public virtue – service and placing the needs of the state over others – was what made their state successful. Everyone from the emperor down to the lowest slave served the state in some way and loved their country. Most historians believe it was the decline in service that led to the fall of Rome. If we want recruiting to improve and our military to remain strong, we must teach our children the importance of service, sacrifice, and hard work. Only when people want to serve can our nation thrive.

© 2022 J.D. Manders  

When An Atheist Came to Church

I recently read about an atheist who visited three London churches in 2015. He provided some surprising praise of churches, from which Christians can learn. Primarily, unlike in the past where atheists or Deists valued the church mainly for its moral instruction, his views suggest that what is much more important to unbelievers today is acceptance and inclusion. Most people simply want a place to belong. Sadly, this is an area where many churches most often fail. Yet he also felt that mystical experiences and modern technology help to draw people.

Sanderson Jones is a former stand-up comedian who led the Sunday Assembly Community Center, which some call the “atheist church.” In essence, it is a Sunday morning church experience for people who don’t believe but want the socialization and community that churches provide believers. They include music, talk, and an offering that supports charity. Invited to visit a friend’s church in 2015, Jones ended up visiting three London churches: St. Luke’s Anglican Church in Holloway, Hillsong, and St. Mary’s Anglican Church in Bryanston Square. He may have been shopping around for ideas, or perhaps he was merely curious. Regardless, he came away with high praise for the churches he visited. Although he did not believe in the teachings of the church, he commented on areas he could agree with rather than being cynical. His comments reveal, not only what he thinks churches are doing right, but also what most draws people to believe.

The biggest attraction for Jones was the welcoming environment. He believed being welcomed at the door and invited to coffee were extremely important and done right in the churches he visited. “It’s the most basic things which you’ll take for granted in Churchland, which are in fact really powerful,” he said. It is this element that so many churches continue to struggle, despite the urging of Christ to love our neighbors. Some do not reach out to any visitors other than having them fill out a card to receive a letter or call at a later time. I’ve been to services where no one spoke to me other than the ushers as everyone around me flitted towards their friends. I’ve also been to churches where people spoke to everyone, asked them to get a cup of coffee or to meals later, and spoke to them during breaks. In many cases, it’s often the difference between visitors returning or never coming again. If the church cannot provide simple kindness and decency, it’s going to have a hard time getting people to come regularly, let alone participate in activities.

Jones also commented on being invited to take communion and to receive prayer despite not believing. Of course, many churches take the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper more seriously than others, with some believing that taking it without belief condemns people to hell, and so restrict access. Jones, however, was surprised that he was allowed to do so at the churches he attended. He found the experience “genuinely moving.” He described himself as a “mystical atheist” who looks for experiences that help people feel connected. He made similar comments about receiving prayer for healing. Although he did not believe in prayer, he thought the encouragement he received well worth the experience. “It’s really emotional…it’s going to have a powerful psychological effect.” Many churches have lost the sense of wonder that the Lord’s Supper or individual prayer brings. They’ve become social clubs or doctrinal schools rather than helping people to encounter God. Although Jones denied the presence of God, it is interesting that this was one of the things that most drew him. When God is present, people will come whether they believe or not.

Finally, Jones had a lot to say about the presentation. As someone who understood mass media, he found the service at Hillsong particularly appealing as people entered into ecstatic worship. The music was modern and high-tech, there were videos at the beginning, and the sermon was well-prepared, funny, and well-executed. While some churches reject such presentation as manipulative, he observed that people were merely putting their creativity into God. The energy was particularly appealing. “I just love it. I feel so excited to be alive,” which he believed led people to be more contemplative. Of course, we should always be wary that people are being manipulative, especially when they are asking for money or leading others to believe something. It’s always better to let God do the talking than trying to make things happen with slick speeches and fancy music. Yet providing a modern presentation can also help those raised in the video culture receive information they would otherwise reject with dry sermons, boring music, and uninspiring services. If people can use their skills to make their church more inviting, more power to them.

Of course, there are many issues that Jones did not discuss. As someone who does not believe in God, he did not address issues related to theology, faith in God, or spiritual experience. These are the most important elements of church experience, but one cannot expect an unbeliever to feel they are important. Yet his other observations are valid. The church ought to be more welcoming. It ought to embrace wonder and emotional support. It ought to try to make services inviting. If we want to see more people come to faith, we must reach out to the unbelieving. Jones’ comments are a beginning.

© 2022 J.D. Manders  

The Reprobation of America

I constantly hear about how America has changed since my peers were young. While some changes are good – few complain about improving racial and gender equality, for example – most people complain about the increased hatred, violence, sexuality, and political intolerance. Most people attribute these changes to the nation becoming more reprobate, that is, immoral or condemned. Recent statistics appear to support this interpretation.

In this year’s Gallop Poll, only 81 percent of respondents said they believe in God. This is down 6 percent since the last poll in 2017 and is the lowest since Gallop began asking this question in 1944. In fact, the percent was consistently above 98 percent through the 1960s and above 90 percent until 2013, when the number declined to 87 percent. The largest percent of those who have stopped believing in God are young adults (68 percent). The younger generation is increasingly being brought up to not believe in God or at least to not believe faith matters. As more of our youth comes of age, they will bring their atheism and moral ambivalence with them. In other words, there has been a change in our national religious life, and there can be little doubt that this is impacting our moral life as well. People are embracing hatred, violence, sexuality, and intolerance because they increasingly have fewer moral restraints that most religions provide. This is demonstrated by the simple fact that fifty years ago, there were almost no school shootings despite much wider access to firearms. One of the factors that has changed is people’s belief in God.

This is not to suggest that all atheists are immoral or violent. Most atheists claim that they are very moral people, but their morality is based more on reason and voluntarism than on religion and fear. This is true as far as it goes, but there are three problems with a morality on this basis. First, the source of their reason may be unwholesome. Take Ayn Rand, an atheist who promoted a philosophy called “objectivism” that she believed was based on a scientifically objective reality. Applying Adam Smith’s view that an “invisible hand” guides economic activity when people pursue their own self-interest, she argued that selfishness was a virtue and that charity of any type leads to dependence. In short, her philosophy led her to reject all efforts to help our fellow human beings. Second, if your morality is based solely on human reason, it will change with the times as people discover new rights or emphasize new protections. Fifty years ago, there was near universal acceptance by people from both ends of the political spectrum that the first amendment was sacrosanct; today, many believe that the dangers of “fake news” should limit our right to free speech; in another dozen, unwelcome speech may result in punishment. Third, morality that is voluntary is quickly abandoned. When there is peer pressure, when faced with conflicting values, when a new moral imperative arises, it is only too easy to abandon the old if the only thing that was keeping you is your own willpower.

One of the benefits of religion is that its morality is more consistent and objective, especially for people of the book (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam). If the source of holy books was divine inspiration, then their moral laws came from God, a source that we can trust. They are immutable and inarguable. Other than the slight variances in interpretations, the words of the Bible never change, so the morals it teaches will be the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Faced with judgment and eternal reward or punishment, it is much less likely that those who are dedicated to the faith will abandon their morals. Of course, not everyone who follows a religious creed is fully dedicated to it and may try to reinterpret scripture or be willing to abandon its morality. This is especially the case for those who are cowed into obedience by fear, which provides poor motivation to follow creeds precisely. Those who are moved by love, who spiritually experience God, are more likely to be obedient without being hypocritical.

If, then, our religion and morality has declined, what are we to do about it? Some have argued we need merely vote the other party out and implement different laws. According to Gallop, more than 90 percent on the political right believe in God, compared to less than 70 percent on the political left. Yet these numbers are deceptive because of the overall cultural impact that disbelief in God is having. There have been mass shooters from both sides of the political aisle because the problem isn’t just with party or political ideology. Even many who believe in God have stopped believing in the Bible and thus may accept a voluntary, evolving, and politically expedient morality. Rather, the problem is cultural and must be addressed culturally as much as through the law. By this, I don’t just mean movies, books, television, and games, although these do have an impact on what young people believe. Primarily, it means families, churches, and schools, which are the largest purveyors of culture. If we are not teaching our children that faith is necessary, that God is good, and that His commands are unchanging, both by our actions and by our words, we will continue to get the same results we have now – the increasing reprobation of America.

Most of all, we should remember that God not only provides us with a morality we can trust; He also gives us the freedom to choose and the power to overcome. My mother used to say that an atheist is someone with no invisible means of support. Without faith, we cannot change ourselves, let alone the world, and our moral decline will continue.

© 2022 J.D. Manders