And More Grateful Every Day
The neo-Marxism dominating campuses now reminds me of my most vivid college memory from half a century ago: a five-day hunger strike that twenty other Yale students and I went on in 1971 to support striking university cafeteria workers. We didn't expect it to do much good, and it didn't—but we felt good doing it.
Wanting to do more than feel good, in 1972 I joined a ruthless group, the Communist Party. Although I didn't know what "sin" truly meant, my notebook jotting included this strange sentence: There's lots of sin all over, but Communism is "sin going somewhere."
During the first half of 1973, I wrote for The Boston Globe, and in the fallentered graduate school at the University of Michigan. Professors relished my Marxist analyses. The Ph.D. requirements included a good reading knowledge of a foreign language, so I studied Russian by reading stories in Pravda, the Moscow newspaper, which called for "unyielding war against religious patterns of thought . . . and the suppressing, once and for all, of those relics from the past."
On November 1, All Saints Day, I picked up a discarded Halloween mask of Richard Nixon, read some Watergate-related stories, and thought: Good, America is falling apart. Then, in my room just off campus, I sat in a red chair, reading Vladimir Lenin's famous essay, "Socialism and Religion." In it Lenin wrote, "We must combat religion—this is the ABC of all materialism, and consequently Marxism." Following Karl Marx, Lenin called religion "opium for the people . . . spiritual booze in which the slaves of capital drown their human image." I had read this before, but a refresher was helpful.
Eight Mysterious Hours
What happened next, from 3:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m., was the strangest experience of my life. Since I've never taken LSD or hallucinated, I can rule out those possible explanations of why I sat in that chair for eight hours, looking at the clock each hour out of surprise that I still hadn't moved.
It seems mystical. I can't describe well the experience, but it reversed the course of my life. I felt myself walking in a dark corridor from which doors opened out on both sides. I felt along the walls and tried to open the doors, but they were locked. Then came one slightly ajar. I paused before the door, opened it, and walked into the room. Suddenly an explosion of light allowed me to see everything in the room—but nothing was there except golden walls and a brightness.
Somehow I thought the brightness was God. Lenin's hatred for the "figment of man's imagination" called God was not new to me, but some surprising thoughts began battering my brain: What if Lenin is wrong? What if God does exist? What is my relationship to this God, if he's there? Why, when he is kind to me, do I offer evil in return?
From where did these thoughts come? In my brain, Marxism was settled social science. What was happening to me? What were the implications of God's existence? I came down toward specifics: Is America fundamentally evil? If not, why am I turning my back on it? Why was capitalist desire for money and power worse than Communist desire? I had embraced treasonous ideas; why? My grandfather had emigrated from Russia and denounced the tsar. Why was I kissing up to a new one—Russian dictator Leonid Brezhnev, of all people?
It's hard for me to convey the strangeness of this experience. I have trouble sitting still during lectures and like to walk while thinking, but I sat in the chair, hour after hour, suddenly realizing that Marx and Lenin were wrong. At 3:00 p.m., I was an atheist and a Communist. At 11:00 p.m., I was not. I had no new data, but suddenly had a new way of processing data. Was I born again? No, not yet, but I was no longer dying.
At 11:00 p.m., I stood up and spent the next two hours wandering through the cold and dark University of Michigan campus. How to make sense of this experience? I had grown up Jewish, but Judaism no longer emphasizes personal experiences with God: How arrogant to say that God, for some reason, had communicated personally with someone like me. Talk about it with professors and fellow U of M students? They'd call me crazy.
Two Crucial Books
I bounced past the Michigan Union, off the Literature, Science, and Arts building, past Angell Hall, off the Hatcher Graduate Library—nothing but nyet, a firm no to the atheist and Marxist vegetation that had grown in me for ten years. But what now? I was spiritually adrift. To keep this account short, I'll skip past my confused steps during the last two months of 1973 and note two books I read in 1974 that influenced me.
The first was a copy of the New Testament in Russian that a person in Oregon had given me when I worked there briefly; I had held onto it because it seemed exotic and it might be useful for reading practice. With a Russian-English dictionary in front of me I dived into the Gospel according to Matthew, chapter one: "The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham." I could understand that, and was delighted to find the chapter easy going: in the second verse Abraham begat Isaac, and other begats loped down the page.
Then came the Christmas story I had never read, followed by a massacre of babies, and John the Baptist's hard-hitting words: "You brood of vipers." It held my attention. I didn't punctuate the verses with sneers. Needing to read slowly and think about the words was helpful. The Sermon on the Mount impressed me. All the Marxists I knew were pro-anger, devoted to fanning proletarian hatred of The Rich. Jesus, though, was not only anti-murder but anti-anger: "Everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment." Marxists were "two eyes for an eye," but Jesus spoke of loving enemies and turning the other cheek.
Later that year came The American Puritans: Their Prose and Poetry, edited by Perry Miller. I only picked it up because my Michigan fellowship required me in year two to teach an American Culture course. No professor wanted to teach about dead white males, but Early American Literature (largely Puritan sermons) was still in the course catalogue. I could not turn down the assignment, and needed to cram.
The little I knew of Christian thought came largely from my observation of Boston Catholicism, heavy on ritual. The Puritans were different; they believed God is the agent of conversion and regeneration, with humans responsive yet not leading the process. God does not ticket for heaven those with good social conduct. Rather, God saves those he chooses to save regardless of their acts. Salvation then leads to better conduct.
That was good news for me. I had broken each of the Ten Commandments, except literally the prohibition of murder (but Jesus called anger a form of murder). I certainly was glad that God, if he was anything like the Puritans described him, would not judge me by my works. I assigned to my students Thomas Hooker's sermon, "A True Sight of Sin." Hooker described our insistence on autonomy: "I will be swayed by mine own will and led by mine own deluded reason." That was my history, and Hooker seemed to be preaching to me.
A Sermon & a Hymn
Still, I certainly did not want to be a Christian. I did not want to conform to its sexual standards, and knew a public commitment to Christ would hinder my academic career. I'll skip by other stones in the road in 1975 and 1976, and cut to what happened in the fall of 1976, when I was newly married and newly employed at San Diego State University. It seemed time not just to read books but to go to church. Using the yellow pages, and knowing from my reading that Christians baptized, I saw a long list under the "Churches—Baptist" heading.
Within that category was a subheading, "Conservative Baptist." I didn't want to attend a Marx-sympathizing church, so "conservative" sounded fine—and one small one was a few blocks away. The stucco building of First Baptist Church of La Mesa included a plain sanctuary with a stained-glass window and a big baptistery behind the pulpit; curtains shielded the baptizing tank from the rest of the sanctuary, and for three months I didn't know it was there because the curtain was never opened. That's because the church members were gray-haired, with the exception of a young pastor and his wife, who were polyestered like the rest of the congregation.
Pastor John Burger preached the same well-worn sermon every week, "Ye Must Be Born Again." We sang the same hymn, "Just as I Am," from well-worn hymnals. Normally I would have responded condescendingly to such repetition, but the sermon and the song were exactly what I needed. Burger explained that we could not act rightly under our own power and that the Holy Spirit had to change us, and that we'd know this was happening when we turned our lives around for reasons we hardly understood, and started thinking and acting in ways contrary to those the dark world around us emphasized.
Despite the cultural differences, this connected. I had learned I was powerless on my own. Good intentions did not last. Only God could give me the power to sin less. Burger stressed that only God could forgive me when I did sin, for the sake of Christ, who died for me.
Following the Director
On All Saints Day, November 1, 1976, three years after God turned my life around, the church's deacon of visitation, elderly Earl Atnip, came to our apartment in La Mesa. He and I sat outside in the southern California sunshine. A simple, kind man with at most a high-school diploma, he did not offer any intellectual razzamatazz. He held up a Bible and said, "You believe this stuff, don't you?" I mumbled, "Yeah, I do." He said, "Then you'd better join up."
Irrefutable logic—and I did join up, publicly professing faith in Christ and being baptized. The odds against my doing that, from a Jewish, Marxist, and academic background, were incredibly high, humanly speaking. But I had the sense, and not for the first or last time, that this had been predestined. Subjectively, I make choices from moment to moment. Objectively, I'm an actor, and God is the director. It is now 45 years later, and my gratitude to God keeps growing.Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky is the former editor-in-chief of World magazine and dean of the World Journalism Institute. He taught for 20 years at The University of Texas at Austin and is the author of 28 books, including Fighting for Liberty and Virtue and The Tragedy of American Compassion.Get Salvo in your inbox! This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #60, Spring 2022 Copyright © 2024 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo60/from-communism-to-christ