Article copyright by Bob Rogers.
Many American children look forward to Christmas gifts from Santa Claus, but few people know the Christian roots of the legend of Santa.
Clement C. Moore’s poem
The American traditions of Santa Claus comes primarily from the poem by Clement C. Moore, a seminary professor in New York City. The poem was originally called, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” but most of us know it by the first line, “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” It was published in 1823 and had a great impact on the tradition of Santa Claus. It is from this poem that people get the idea of a jolly elf with a big belly coming on Christmas Eve with reindeer and bringing gifts for children. Yet even this poem never calls him Santa Claus, but instead it calls him St. Nicholas.
Nicholas was a real person who was a Christian bishop in the 4th century. He was born in A.D. 270, and died on December 6, A.D. 343. Nicholas grew up in a wealthy home in Myra, part of modern-day Turkey. He became bishop of Myra and was known as an orthodox, Bible-believing bishop, with a reputation for secret gift-giving and caring for children. One legend said that he often put coins in the shoes of people in need. The most famous legend about Nicholas was that a poor man had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for their wedding. This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in absence of any other possible employment, would have to become prostitutes. Hearing of the girls’ plight, Nicholas decided to help them, but being too modest to help the family in public (or to save them the humiliation of accepting charity), he went to the house under the cover of night and threw three purses (one for each daughter) filled with gold coins through the window opening into the house.
One version of the legend has him throwing one purse for three consecutive nights. Another has him throwing the purses over a period of three years, each time the night before one of the daughters comes of age. Invariably, the third time the father lies in wait, trying to discover the identity of their benefactor. In one version the father confronts the saint, only to have Saint Nicholas say it is not him he should thank, but God alone. In another version, Nicholas learns of the poor man’s plan and drops the third bag down the chimney instead; a variant holds that the daughter had washed her stockings that evening and hung them over the embers to dry, and that the bag of gold fell into the stocking.
The legends develop
You can quickly see how these legends developed over the centuries into the legend of a character who brings gifts in secret, sometimes in stockings or down a chimney. He is known by many names in many countries, including Father Christmas, Père Noël in French, and Sinterklaas in Dutch.
Because the real St. Nicholas died on December 6, in many nations he is remembered on that day with the giving of gifts. But during the Protestant Reformation, many Protestants changed the gift-giver to the Christ child, which is Christkindl in German, and changed the date from December 6 to Christmas Eve. The German Christkindl was corrupted to Kris Kringle in English, and in New York, the home of poet Clement C. Moore, the Dutch Sinterklaas was corrupted to Santa Claus in English.
Copyright by Bob Rogers.
Ever since the star of Bethlehem led the wise men to baby Jesus, Christmas has been associated with lights. For centuries, Christmas lights meant lighting candles.
Lights on trees
The tradition of putting up Christmas lights began with putting candles on Christmas trees. Christmas trees originated in Germany by the 16th century, from several different traditions. Some Germans actually burned an evergreen tree in the town square and danced around it. There is a popular legend that Martin Luther, the German Protestant reformer, began the tradition of putting candles on Christmas trees. The legend says that one crisp Christmas Eve, about the year 1500, he was walking through snow-covered woods and was struck by the beauty of a group of small evergreens. Their branches, dusted with snow, shimmered in the moonlight. When he got home, he set up a little fir tree indoors so he could share this story with his children. He decorated it with candles, which he lighted in honor of Christ’s birth.
Whether or not this is true, we know that the Advent wreath was invented in 1839 by Johann Henrich Wichern, a Protestant pastor who worked with the urban poor in Germany. The children would ask every day if Christmas had arrived, so Wichern built a ring with evergreen and candles to candles to light the 24 days in December before Christmas, and large candles to mark the Sundays. Later this was simplified to four candles for the four Sundays, and a Christ candle in the middle for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. The custom of lighting an Advent candle did not spread to America until a century later, in the 1930s.
Origin of electric Christmas lights
On December 22, 1882, Edward H. Johnson, vice president of the Edison Electric Light Company, displayed his Christmas tree with 80 red, white and blue electric lights bulbs the size of walnuts, at his home on Fifth Avenue in New York City. This was the first time a Christmas tree had been illuminated with electric lights, but the idea spread quickly. Three years later, the White House Christmas tree was covered with electric lights. By the early 19th century, it became popular to put lights on buildings, not just on Christmas trees. In the 1960s, with the construction of so many subdivisions in American communities, it became the custom in American neighborhoods for many families to cover their houses with lights. This custom has spread around the world, and is particularly popular in Japan.
Today, Christmas lights cover waterfronts, caverns, skyscrapers and shopping centers. Some even use synchronized timers to have their lights flash to music. May each light remind us of a star long ago that led to Jesus, the Light of the world!
Article copyright by Bob Rogers.
In the runaway bestselling novel, The Da Vinci Code, author Dan Brown claims that Emperor Constantine “commissioned and financed a new Bible” and he “outlawed, gathered up, and burned” the existing gospels (Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code, p. 234).
While reputable historians have rejected the claims of The Da Vinci Code as having no basis in fact, many people wonder, why should I believe the Bible?
The Bible itself claims to be the Word of God. We read in 2 Timothy 3:16 (NIV) that “all scripture is God-breathed…” I believe the Bible is the Word of God? Why? Not only does it claim to be the Word of God, but it passes three important tests:
1. It passes the test of corroboration.
In a trial, one of the things a judge or jury look for is corroborating testimony. If one witness sees something, and another witness agrees and says he saw the same thing, it gives extra credence to the truth of his words.
The Bible passes the test of corroboration, because so many other witnesses verify what the Bible says. Here are just a few examples:
Genesis 36:20 says the Horites were descendants of Esau, but some historians doubted they existed. In 1995 Giorgio Buccellati discovered the Horite capital city beneath modern Syrian city of Tell Mozan.
According to 1 Kings 9:28, King Solomon brought back 16 tons of gold from Ophir. But nobody knew that Ophir existed. In 1956 broken pottery found at Tell Qasile in Israel was inscribed, “gold of Ophir for Beth-Horon.”
The Roman historian Tacitus wrote that Nero persecuted the Christians, and then explained that “Christus” was crucified under Pontius Pilate, just as the Gospels record.
In 1990 a bone chest was discovered in Jerusalem that was inscribed “Caiaphas” and “Joseph, son of Caiaphas.” John 11 says Caiaphas was the high priest at Jesus’ trial, and Jewish historian Joseph says his full name was “Joseph, called Caiaphas.”
There are literally thousands of these kinds of historical and archaeological discoveries that identify people and places named in the Bible.
2. It passes the test of endurance.
The manuscript evidence of the Bible is an amazing story.
The Old Testament was written mostly in Hebrew and some in Aramaic, and copied down by hand. So how trustworthy is the text that has been copied and recopied for several thousand years? We got our answer when the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947. The Dead Sea Scrolls were a thousand years older than any other manuscripts available at the time! Scholars eagerly studied them to see what errors would have been made in all those years of copying. To their amazement, there were almost no differences. For example, when they studied the Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah, which is about 100 pages in English translation, they only found three minor spelling differences, similar to the difference in spelling Savior or Saviour.
The New Testament has by far the best manuscript evidence of any other ancient document. There are 5,400 ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament that scholars can study to figure out what the original text said. Compare that with the classical works of Plato, Herodotus, and Aristophanes, that have anywhere from one to 20 manuscripts.
At one time, liberal scholars claimed that the Gospel of John must have been written long after John’s life, in the late second century. But then a papyrus was discovered in Southern Egypt of the Gospel of John carbon dated to A.D. 125. Since John was probably written at Ephesus, it had to have been written long before A.D. 125 to have time to travel to Southern Egypt.
The Bible has outlasted the empires of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece and Rome. It survived the invasions of the Goths and Vikings and the neglect of the Dark Ages. It survived the skepticism of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason. Over the centuries, people have attacked the people, banned the Bible and even burned the Bible, but the Bible continues to endure as the number one bestselling book of all time.
3. It passes the test of experience.
Millions of people have read the Bible and found that it spoke to their hearts.
Lewis Wallace was a Union general in the Civil War, and then became governor of the territory of New Mexico. He met the atheist scholar Robert Ingersoll and was unable
to refute Ingersoll’s arguments against the Bible. So he studied everything he could about the life of Jesus, and became convinced that Jesus was everything the Bible says he was. In the process, Wallace wrote a novel, called Ben Hur about a man who meets Jesus and gives his life to Christ.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a Russian who was sent to the Soviet labor camps for eight years for writing disparaging comments about the Soviet leader, Stalin. There he became convinced that only the message of the Bible explained the human condition of sin and gave the solution for changing the human heart. Solzhenitsyn’s writings about the Soviet prisons and Russian history are considered some of the greatest writings about communism in the USSR.
I grew up the son of a U.S. Army chaplain. In the seventh grade, I began to read about ten chapters of the Bible every day. I could not get enough of it, I was so thirsty to read more and know more about the scripture. And the more I read the Bible, the more my life changed. Finally, in the tenth grade, I sensed that God was calling me to preach His Word.
Why do I believe the Bible? It passes the test of corroboration and test of endurance, but most of all, I have experienced it’s life-changing message, and so have millions of others. How about you?
“Ever heard of the ‘Free State of Jones?'” my father asked me when I was a boy. “When Mississippi seceded from the Union, Jones County seceded from Mississippi, but Mississippi forced Jones County back into the state, and the Yankees forced Mississippi back into the Union.”
It wasn’t quite so simple as that, but Dad had the basic story right. Now this little-known (but well-known in south Mississippi) and strange piece of Civil War history is on the big screen, in Free State of Jones.
My wife and I saw the film in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, which is in the county immediately south of Jones. The theater was packed for an afternoon matinee, as people are fascinated by a film about local history. Some people personally knew minor actors in the film. Behind us, someone whispered in a swamp scene, “That must be the Okatoma.”
What they saw was an mostly accurate, violent film about the stubborn, tragic character of Newton Knight, who led a band of escaped slaves and poor white deserters, at times numbering in the hundreds, that literally took control of Jones, Jasper and part of Smith Counties in south Mississippi late in the Civil War, and rebelled against the Confederacy.
(Above: Newt Knight, played by Matthew McConaughey, leads his band of rebels.)
Why did they do it? Jones County had the lowest percentage of slaves in the state of Mississippi. A law passed during the war allowed whites who owned 20 or more slaves to be exempt from fighting. Poor white farmers in south Mississippi had no interest in the war and resented being forced to fight. As Newt Knight famously said, “This is a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.”
Notice that I said the film is mostly accurate. There are some dramatized scenes based on the true story, of details that we cannot know, such as some of the interactions between Newt Knight, his wife Serena, and his common-law African-American wife, Rachel. Also, the film takes major liberties with Newt’s killing of the Confederate officer who was trying to capture Knight. The movie invents a dramatic scene involving an ambush at a funeral and shows Newt killing the officer in a church. The historical records indicate that what really happened was that Newt hunted down Major Amos McLemore at the Deason home in Ellisville, killed the colonel in the house, and then fled. This scene is the only major departure from the historical record that I saw in the film, and even though the film took liberty with the events for the sake of drama, at least got it right that Knight hunted down and killed the man who was trying to capture him.
Matthew McConaughey’s portrayal of Newt Knight is convincing, as is all of the acting. The costumes and cinematography are realistic and gripping. Little details are correct, such as names of places, and the correct Mississippi flag of that era. The plot appears to reach a climax of victory and then it feels like an alligator painfully dragging you into the swamp. That is because this is not fiction, this is history. History doesn’t always fit into neat plots with satisfying endings. But the adage applies here: truth is stranger than fiction.
Caution: Free State of Jones is rated R for graphic war violence.
(Above: Newt Knight rallies poor people of Jones County to fight.)
Copyright 2016 by Bob Rogers
In such a weird presidential election year, I had a weird idea.
With so much discussion in both parties about experience vs. revolution and “Washington outsiders” versus “The Establishment,” I wondered if we could learn a lesson from history. You see, psychologists and economists agree that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. So perhaps if I looked at the 43 men who have already been president, I could see if we have learned something from the last 43 guys who were president that could help us pick the next gal or guy for the job. In particular, I had two questions in mind: 1) What kind of leadership positions did our past presidents have before they became president? 2) What kind of leaders seemed to make the best presidents? Here is what I learned:
Leadership positions of our past presidents
All of our presidents have had at least one of five kinds of leadership experience before becoming president. Of the 43 men, 13 were vice-president, ten were governors, seven were in the cabinet of the president, seven were generals in the Army, and six were in Congress (House or Senate). None of them– not a single one— lacked major experience in American government, unless you can call a general in the U.S. Army outside of the government. That isn’t to say that we cannot elect a businessman or businesswoman or a surgeon as president. It’s just that we have never done that in all of American history. It makes me wonder if there is a good reason for that. (Before somebody says, “Ronald Reagan was an actor,” let me remind you he was governor of California before he became president.)
The kind of leaders who made good presidents
The second question is more difficult to discern. More presidents came to the presidency from the vice-presidency (13), but that’s mostly because being president endangers your life. Of those 13, only five of them got the office on their own. The other eight former vice-presidents came to the office by virtue of the fact that the president died. Ten governors have been president, seven generals, seven in the presidential cabinet, and six came from Congress. But simply counting what position is the most common stepping-stone makes no sense, because some of them were terrible presidents. So why don’t we look at our very best presidents and our worst presidents? This is very subjective, but most scholars and popular opinion polls agree that our best presidents were George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson. So what leadership positions did they hold before becoming president? Washington was a general, Lincoln served in Congress, FDR was a governor, Teddy Roosevelt was vice-president, and Thomas Jefferson was secretary of state. They were all different! If the list of great presidents doesn’t give us any help, then what about the list of worst presidents? I’ll save you the time– the terrible presidents came from every different background, too, with one exception: governors. We had some governors who were pretty bad, but none of the really, really disastrous presidents came to the White House from a Governor’s Mansion.
The lessons learned
So what does all of this teach us? Great presidents have come from all kinds of different backgrounds, but they have had one thing in common: they had some kind of significant experience that could test their mettle and prepare them for the most challenging leadership job in the world. It doesn’t matter so much what experience they had; it matters more what kind of person they became because of that experience. But maybe, just maybe, all other things being equal, being the chief executive of a state is one of the best preparations for being chief executive of the nation.
I just finished reading Mark Twain: A Life, by Pulitzer-prize winning biographer, Ron Powers (Free Press, 2006). This is an in-depth biography of the famous writer and humorist Samuel Clemens, better known by his pen name, Mark Twain. At times, it seems too detailed, as it covers more than I wanted to know. Nevertheless, Powers does an excellent job of helping the reader understand the complexities of the man, and he also helps the reader understand American culture during the 19th century, as the two are so closely intertwined. This is a biography, not a literary critique, so Powers does not put heavy emphasis on analyzing Twain’s writing, although he does give a balanced discussion of how literary critics have judged his works, with special attention to his greatest work, Huckleberry Finn.
Some new things that I learned about Twain:
*he traveled extensively as a young adult and for the rest of his life
*he had a lost love that he never forgot
*he had a fierce temper
*he believed in God, but was turned off by the hypocrisy he saw in church, causing him to struggle in his faith
*he was a sucker for bad investments, but famously paid off his debts
*he had friendships with famous Americans, such as Henry Ward Beecher, William Dean Howells, Helen Keller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Ulysses S. Grant
*he almost fought a battle against Ulysses S. Grant, but later became a close friend of Grant, and published Grant’s autobiography
*during his latter years, he turned to political satire
*the context of some of his famous one-liners
Speaking of one-liners, I must mention a few of my favorites from the book:
“Preachers are always pleasant company when they are off duty.”
“I worked in a bookstore, but didn’t like it because the customers bothered me so much I could not read with any comfort.”
“He would rather decline two drinks than one German verb.”
“The new hobbies in the election year 1876 are politics and pornography. But I repeat myself.”
“Do you know why Balaam’s ass spoke Hebrew? Because he was a he-brayist.”
“When I was a boy everybody was poor but didn’t know it; and everybody was comfortable and did know it.”
“You can’t pray a lie– I found that out.” (quote of Huckleberry Finn)
“The report of my death was an exaggeration.”
If you love Mark Twain and American history, and you don’t mind reading a long book, you will enjoy this biography. If you don’t want to wade through 736 pages to learn about Twain’s life, or if you are more interested in a literary analysis of his writings than the story of his life, you may want to read a different biography.
Most Christians who are interested in missions are aware that Christianity has grown dramatically in modern China, despite persecution by the Communist government. But the story of how Christianity grew and what it looks like today in China remains a mystery to most Western Christians. Lian Xi, a native of China who is now professor of history at Hanover College, lifted that mystery for Western readers in 2010 with his carefully researched book published by Yale University Press, Redeemed by Fire: The Rise of Popular Christianity in Modern China.
Xi briefly surveys the presence of Christianity in China in ancient times, and then focuses most of the book on Christianity in China in the 19th and 20th centuries. China was forced to sign treaties with Western nations that included official toleration of Christianity after 1858. For the next century, over 23,000 missionaries poured into China from the West, half of them Americans. While this mission effort did contribute to over 623,000 members in mission churches by 1949, it also led to a deep resentment against Christians by most Chinese, who saw it as a religion of foreigners that was forced upon them. This resentment erupted into violence at times, such as the Boxer Rebellion. Xi stresses that Protestant Christianity was able to become truly indigenous under Communist rule, and no longer was seen as a foreign religion. The Communist government unwittingly allowed this to happen, by settting up the officially recognized and state-controlled Three-Self Church. Most Christians rejected the Three-Self Church as guilty of ungodly compromise with the state, and turned instead to a variety of underground church movements.
Xi then follows the stories of several influential indigenous movements among Protestant Christians, including the True Jesus Church, the Bethel Band, the Jesus Family, and the Little Flock, with charismatic leaders like John Sung, Wang Mingdao, and Watchman Nee. Most of these churches held to a fundamentalist faith, a charismatic leader, pre-millennial hope, and a revivalistic, if not Pentecostal, fervor. Some half million Christians died under Communist persecution, but by 2000 there were 15 million Protestants and 5 million Catholics in the official registered churches, and an additional 30 million Protestants and several million Catholics in underground churches.
Westerners tend to idealize the faith of Chinese Christians, but Xi points out that the lack of theological training and isolation from any accountability in underground churches occasionally led to doctrinal heresies and mixtures of Chinese folk religion with Christianity, as well as opening the door to leaders who were dictatorial and sometimes immoral. Despite these shortcomings among the underground churches, Xi credits them with having a powerful appeal by offering hope to the powerless under Communist oppression. Despite the phenomenal growth of Christianity in China, it is still a minority faith in China, and expected to remain a religion of the common people, not a majority faith or a faith of those in influence or power in China.
I found Xi’s research to be thorough and highly informative, but it came across as somewhat aloof and skeptical of genuine faith. He tends to explain away the faith of Chinese Christians in terms of sociological factors. He includes stories of the moral failings of Chinese Christian leaders, but he reports very few of the stories of commitment, martyrdom and persecution suffered by Chinese Christians. Nevertheless, Xi’s research is likely to become a standard resource for any historian or missiologist wishing to understand Christianity in modern China.
(If you see a video ad below this post, please understand that I have no control over these ads, and that I do not necessarily endorse the product.)
Frank Lambert, professor of history at Purdue University, does an excellent job of surveying this complex topic over a 200-year period. He does so thoroughly, yet concisely, in only 296 pages. While making generalizations at times, he often illustrates his points with quotations from original sources of the time period.
He begins by criticizing extremists on both sides of the issue, and proceeds to present a balanced approach. However, as I will explain at the end of this review, he shows his bias at the end.
Lambert’s thesis is this: America WAS first settled by people who wanted to make it a Christian nation, whether Puritans in New England, Anglicans in Virginia, or Quakers and others in Pennsylvania. These early founders had a vision of making America “a city on a hill,” a model Christian commonwealth. However, two major influences led the founding fathers to establish a government that separated church and state. These two influences were the Enlightenment and the Great Awakening. Men like Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, who were influenced by the Enlightenment, felt that men should be free to use their own reason in matters of religion. The Baptists and others who benefitted from the rapid growth of “free” churches in the Great Awakening were persecuted by established churches and wished to have no established church, so they joined with men like Jefferson in calling for separation of church and state.
Lambert shows that there was great division over these issues, and gives interesting anecdotes and quotations from both sides. He quotes frequently from religious leaders on both sides of the issue. However, near the end of the book he spends much more time quoting Republicans like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and gives little space to Federalists like George Washington and John Adams. At one point, on page 161, Lambert implies that John Adams was a deist, even though biographies of Adams have shown him to be a devout Christian with a Puritan heritage.
Lambert shows his view in his conclusion, as he criticizes accomodationists such as Judge William Rehnquist and “religious right” preachers like Pat Robertson.
While Lambert gives both sides of the argument, he clearly leads the reader to his own separationist interpretation. Because the book is so full of useful information, I highly recommend it as a textbook on the subject, but let the reader understand that Lambert has his own bias, too.