God sometimes speaks through ungodly voices
Some Christians fear getting confused when they are exposed to both sides of a question. They rivet attention to God’s answer, ignoring perspectives unbelievers advance. Before Christian romance novels became popular, many evangelicals didn’t read secular novels. They believed that if their youth identified with dissolute characters portrayed in tawdry novels, their Christ-like character would erode.For instance, Theodore Dreiser’s “Sister Carrie,” of which a censored version was published the turn of the 20th century, depicts a young woman who lost her virtue. Big city carnal pleasures enticed, then seduced Carrie. Tracts from Christian authors warned against reading such a tawdry novel. Readers might start acting naughty like Carrie. Jonathan Edwards, whose blazing intellect towered above colonial preachers, and erudite Thomas Jefferson gladly exposed themselves to atheistic authors. Their learning thrived as they grappled with opposing arguments. Rather than live secluded in a world of writers with whom they already agreed, Edwards and Jefferson read literature that clashed with their convictions. Competing ideas aroused their vivid curiosities.Jefferson clashed with the 16th-century intellectual titan, John Calvin, who led the second wave of the Protestant Reformation that Martin Luther started. Calvin seamlessly wove classical Greek and Roman literature into patterns his biblical commentaries featured. Jefferson excoriated him for slipping into superstition and reducing religion to idle mysticism.Jefferson and Calvin, despite profound differences, shared allegiance to God, who wasn’t parochial, conventional or small. The biblical God leaps beyond tidy boundaries human creeds and church officials erect. Calvin and Jefferson believed God sometimes used Christianity’s debunkers to spread truth. They found God in ungodly literature. Calvin wrote in a primer on why Christians believe what we do titled, “The Institutes of the Christian Religion”: “Wherever, therefore, we meet with heathen writers, let us learn from that light of truth which is admirable displaced in their works, that the human mind, fallen as it is, and corrupted from its integrity, is yet invested and adorned by God with excellent talents.”If we believe,” Calvin concludes in the Institutes of the Christian Religion II, ii, and xv , “that the spirit of God is the only fountain of truth, we shall neither reject nor despise the truth itself, wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to insult the spirit of God.”Christians in Congress insulted God’s spirit when they initially refused to accept every book in Jefferson’s library that he had donated to the nation. During the War of 1812, British redcoats torched the Capitol, which housed the first Library of Congress. In 1814, Jefferson caused a furor in Congress with his more than 6000-volume bequest, literally raising from the ashes a new Library of Congress. Jefferson owned the French atheist Voltaire’s complete works in 58 volumes, plus seven separate titles. That he had a second set of this scoundrel’s writing irked some congressmen even more. They believed our nation’s morals would plummet if the national library housed Voltaire’s “irreligious ranting,” which applauded French immorality and rejected Christ’s divinity. Jefferson demanded Congress accept his entire library or return his donation.After much floor debate direly predicting how our nation’s character would collapse with these acquisitions to the Library of Congress, the Legislature voted to receive them. Voltaire’s complete works were in his original language. What was the fuss? Only Christians fluent in French might become heretical and debased by reading Voltaire.Unlike Jefferson and Voltaire, who rejected as nonsense the Trinity and the deity of Christ, Jonathan Edwards vigorously defended orthodox Christian faith. Like most colonists in the 1750s, he regarded himself as a British provincial who kept a keen interest in Scotland as a hotbed for intellectual growth. Edwards debated some writers and enormously benefited from other authors who advanced the Scottish Enlightenment. Some intellectual adversaries reduced Christianity to mere morality. They rejected miracles and biblical inspiration. Jesus for them was a good guy who acted very godly without actually being God. Edwards increased his library with books sent to him from Scotland. Late in 1755, he informed John Erskine he had read Lord Kames’ “Essay on the Principles of Morality,” “and also that book of Mr. David Hume’s which you speak of. I am glad of an opportunity to read such corrupt books; especially when written by men of considerable genius; that I may have an idea of the notions that prevail in our nation.””Iron sharpens iron, and a person sharpens another,” taught a biblical sage in Proverbs 27:17. Like a two-edged sword, Christian faith may be sharpened so it severs truth from error. Like iron against iron, faith acquires sharp insight when rubbed against unbelief.Why don’t our president and his advisors act more like Edwards and Jefferson? Why do they shun our enemies, much like frightened Christians who rejected Dreiser’s “Sister Carrie”? Wouldn’t it advance the U.S. if our leaders talked with the Taliban, engaged in face-to-face debates with militant Islamic scholars and visited Syrian warlords to look them in the eyes? Are they not the Voltaire and Scottish Enlightenment intellectual rogues for today? How can we learn when we are stuck on ourselves? Is culture protected when we assume our way is the true way, and shun those who differ?The Rev. Jack Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads Creative Growth Ministries, which enhances Christian worship through lively storytelling and dramatic presentations. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.