A Deeply Beautiful Book: Karl Stern’s The Pillar of Fire

Pillar of Fire

From the foreword to The Pillar of Fire:

A few years ago, at a psychiatric convention, I ran into a girl with whom I studied medicine and with whom I interned in the Neurological Department of one of the municipal hospitals in Berlin.  We met in a big hotel in Chicago.  It was a most fortunate meeting and we were both overjoyed.  We had not met for fourteen years, and had heard little of each other.  She had the same halting, absent-minded way of speaking, as if she were always thinking of two things at a time.  She looked older and there were lines in her face that had not been there before.  There was so much we had to tell each other.  While she spoke of her didactic psychoanalysis in Zurich, her marriage, her child, her practice, about mutual friends who had perished in Europe, I was asking myself: “Shall I tell, or shall I not tell?”
If I were to say to her, “Since we last met, I have become a Catholic,” it would be a statement entirely different from any other I could make.  We both had many startling and unexpected things to tell; it could not be otherwise with two Jews who had parted in Germany in 1932 and met again in America in 1946.  But the fact is that with that simple sentence, “I have become a Catholic,” there arises a cloud of estrangement.  No matter how much one attempts to break this estrangement down to the elements of social or political separation, of prejudices from childhood, and so on, there is something additional which cannot be explained so easily.  What is it?
While the conversation was as far removed as possible from speculations of this kind, I told her of this decisive event in my life.  She paused for a moment and then said simply and shortly: “Oh!”  Her polite exclamation contained a cosmic abyss.  It is about this “Oh!” that this book is being written.
When I meet a friend with whom I used to work in the Zionist Youth Movement or in a group of radical students, I realize the extraordinary fact that, when we come to the bottom of things, I have not really departed from their ideals.  There is a core to their beliefs which I still share with them.  It is contained in my belief.  What must appear to them as a betrayal, is to me a fulfillment.  I still understand everything they are talking about, but they cannot possibly understand me.  This is what makes these scenes, as human encounters and as meetings of friends, so agonizing.  We talk about the Histatrut (the Labor Unions in Palestine), about the Poale Zion (left wing Zionism), the Kibbuz (the movement of cultivation of the land in Palestine, without private property), about my brother who lives as a teacher in one of those co-operative settlements, or of old friends who were killed as Trotskyites, as Social Democrats, or simply as Jews — and then it comes.
“What has happened to you?”
“I have become a Christian.”
Some of my friends even pale and their pupils dilate.  A common world falls asunder.

Christian Worldview Bootcamp for Houston High School Students

At Houston Baptist University, we’ve started up a really nice partnership with John Mark Reynolds and Wheatstone Academy to offer Christian worldview programming for high school students during the summer. If you live in or around Houston and have a student who could use (or would enjoy!) an intellectual boot camp for the faith, this is it. The program goes from July 26 to August 1. The cost is $850 and is all inclusive of food, lodging, events, etc.

This is exactly what your student needs before going to college, especially if you will be sending them off to a state school.

Thoughts on Higher Education, Christian and Otherwise

I’ve posted a reflection on the future of higher education, with a particular emphasis on the Christian universities, over at the Touchstone Magazine Mere Comments blog. Catch it here.

Here’s a clip:

The economic downturn has had a substantial impact on colleges and universities.

The first shoe dropped when endowments everywhere took big hits from a rapidly falling market. When endowments go underwater, they produce no income and generally can’t be touched.

The other shoe will drop when we see how private colleges and universities do in terms of their student numbers for the fall. My casual conversations with peers indicates that the private schools are running behind in terms of student deposits. The buyers are not feeling flush.

The public universities, on the other hand, have their own problems. The ones that have endowments are down. They also rely on tax subsidies in a time when tax revenues are diminished. The trend of the last several years has been for states to offer less and less financial support. In-state tuition has risen substantially. Where they do not suffer is in terms of student numbers. They will be overwhelmed by bargain seekers in tough economic times. The question is whether they will have state funds to backfill the subsidized education they offer and how many they can admit. As it stands now, their facilities are often severely strained, teaching assistants do an awful lot of the instruction, and there are a large number of cattle call style courses.

My End of the Year Book List for Conservatives

It is nearly New Year’s Eve and the time of reflection is greatly upon us.  This reality is especially poignant in the wake of a revolutionary left-liberal presidential victory and the onset of substantial economic challenges.

Under the circumstances, I thought now might be a good time to propose a list of outstanding books for the intellectually curious friend or fellow traveler.

I would not dare attempt to put these in order based on excellence.  Just consider it a series of number ones.

1.  Lancelot by Walker Percy — A southern moderate-liberal is slowly fading out of his own life.  He doesn’t know what his purpose is or where his marriage and family are going.  But then, something strange happens.  He discovers there is such a thing as evil.  Percy won the National Book Award for The Moviegoer, but Lancelot is my favorite.

2.  Witness by Whittaker Chambers — Surely, the greatest memoir of any man of the right.  Possibly, the greatest memoir ever.  I once tried to copy out the passages that meant the most to me and ended up just typing in whole pages at a time.  For those too young to know, Chambers was an American traitor loyal to the Communist cause, who left the Communists for what he felt was the losing side.  He had to do it because of his recovered belief in God.  In the course of his life, he became a senior editor of Time magazine and ultimately defeated Alger Hiss in legal battles over Hiss’s identity as a communist agent.  Since Frost/Nixon is hot, you might also know that Richard Nixon’s presidency would likely never have happened without his championing of Chambers’ cause.

3.  Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand — I can’t resist putting Chambers and Rand together, especially since Chambers was the instrument William F. Buckley used to read Rand out of the conservative movement.  As a Christian, I find Rand’s work antithetical to my own sensibilities, but I have to admit its power.  Besides, this is a conservative-libertarian list and she can’t be left off.  On the other hand, as literature, it cannot rank with the greats.  I still remember the moment when John Galt grabs a microphone to speak to the nation . . . and one hundred pages later is wrapping it up!

4.  After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre — This is arguably the finest and most readable piece of political philosophy I have ever encountered.  Anyone who wonders why our political discourse has become so poisonous and incommensurate should read this work.  So, for that matter, should anyone interested in answering John Rawls.  George W. Bush would have known long ago that “the new tone” was destined to fail, if only he’d read his MacIntyre.

5.  Anarchy, Utopia, and the State by Robert Nozick — I’ll make this one simple.  Robert Nozick provides the most convincing case for a minimalist state that I’ve ever seen.  You can break your head on his symbols and formulas, but bear with it because you WILL get it if you keep reading.  Even if you were only to read the short portion where he tells his “tale of the slave” you will be confirmed in your libertarian instincts.

6.  Man and the State by Jacques Maritain — This collection of lectures about the relationship between the individual, the culture, and the state contains the kind of essential thought we wish every politician understood.  Careful, wise, insightful.  You will understand many things better after reading Maritain. If you would like to read political philosophy, but have been afraid to start, this may be your entry point.

7.  Stained Glass by William F. Buckley — William F. Buckley is dead and I don’t feel so good, myself.  However, I am comforted by reading his best works.  This Blackford Oakes heart of the Cold War novel is one of his strongest entries.  You want to see the kind of chess match the Soviets and Americans were playing?  Then, read this Buckley spy novel.

8.  The God Who Is There by Francis Schaeffer — Would you like to know who was the prince of the Christian conservatives?  It wasn’t Falwell or Robertson.  It was Francis Schaeffer.  The missionary who set up a Swiss Chalet spent years arguing with college students in Europe.  Along the way, he formed a convincing apologetic for the existence of God and the reality of values.  (I am almost required to point out that Schaeffer was wrong in his critique of certain figures.  So, I said it.  Still, this book is great stuff.)

9.  Perelandra by C.S. Lewis — I could have chosen almost any title by C.S. Lewis, so I picked the one that had the greatest emotional impact on me.  Perelandra is the second book of Lewis’s space trilogy (underappreciated next to Narnia).  The story centers around the drama of Adam and Eve being replayed on a new planet with an earthman there to witness it.  Utterly compelling and, of course, full to bursting with philosophical and spiritual meaning.