Basking in God’s Grace
About the Guest
World Magazine's editor-in-chief, Marvin Olasky, recalls his days as a brash young reporter who left his stint in the newspaper business to go back to graduate school. Changing to a Christian worldview halfway through, Olasky found himself reading the Russian New Testament, as well as other Puritan works, and came to realize that there was more to these Christians, and God, than he first thought.
Marvin Olasky came to realize that there was more to these Christians than he first thought.
Basking in God’s Grace
Bob: You’ve heard of people described as spiritual seekers; right? When Marvin Olasky was a graduate student at the University of Michigan, he was definitely not a spiritual seeker; but God was pursuing him.
Marvin: I’d grown up with lots of prejudices against Christians. I thought—and this is not unusual in Judaism—I thought that Christians were rather silly, stupid people who worshiped Christmas trees.
So, I was assigned, as a graduate student, to teach this course on Early American Literature, that no one else wanted to teach. I had never studied Early American Literature; but suddenly, I had to teach this. So, I just went through a crash course of reading. “What’s Early American Literature?” It’s lot of Puritan sermons. Here, finally, I encountered Jonathan Edwards—after avoiding him when I was at Yale—and all his papers were there. Then, people like Increase Mather and John Cotton and others—reading their sermons, reading their writing.
People sometimes talk about—well, “The dead, white males from 300 years ago,” and so forth. Well, these dead, white males were preaching to me.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, January 5th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife® Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. Marvin Olasky joins us today to share, not only how dead, white males were preaching to him while he was a college student, but how the Hound of Heaven was after him as well. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us on the Thursday edition. I think it is Winston Churchill who is the one who said—somewhat famously—“If any man is not a liberal at 20, he has no heart; and if he is not a conservative at age 30, he has no brain.” I think that’s what the quote was. (Laughter) Our guest may know the quote better than I do.
Dennis: Undoubtedly. Dr. Marvin Olasky joins us again on FamilyLife Today. Do you know the quote?
Marvin: Right. It’s what you’ve just said—is that, “a liberal at 20,” and then, “if you’re not a conservative”—may have been by 40—
Marvin: —has no brain.
Bob: Kind of fits your life a little bit; doesn’t it?
Marvin: Well, it does. I would like to think that it was all heart on my part. I mean, there was heart, but there was also a sinful heart. There was a lot of resentment, anger, and even murderous thoughts.
Dennis: Well, Marvin Olasky is currently the holder of the Distinguished Chair in Journalism and Public Policy at Patrick Henry College. He’s also currently the editor-in-chief of WORLD Magazine; but he is a former radical, a former card-carrying Communist, a former writer for The Boston Globe. He and his wife Susan live in Asheville, North Carolina. They have four sons.
I have to ask you this story because this goes back to my day when I was on the college campus, when they had massive demonstrations of college students. You were among the half million students who showed up at the Reflecting Pool in Washington, D.C. What in the world was that like in 1970?
Marvin: At Yale and many other colleges, classes were called off to give you time to go to demonstrations and so forth. We had the first week in May—there were big demonstrations in New Haven, connected with Bobby Seale, one of the Black Panthers. There were 5,000 National Guard troops with live ammo there. This was three days before Kent State.
There were thousands of students. Many had come from other colleges and so forth for these demonstrations. The nights were full of tear gas, as students were throwing rocks at the National Guardsmen; and they were shooting tear gas back. That’s the one time I met Allen Ginsberg, the famous sort of beat poet, who was sitting as the tear gas was floating around and just chanting, “Om, om, om.” That was pretty impressive (Laughter); but that was one week—tear gas, National Guard troops, and riots.
Another week—and again, classes were called off—another week, campaigning for peace candidates in various places. Spent five days in Philadelphia—campaigning, going door to door, for a candidate—and ended up getting kicked by a Congressman on primary day, which I probably deserved (although that was rather impolite for him to do that).
Then, the following weekend with the 500,000 in Washington, D.C., in the Reflecting Pool; and it was party time.
Bob: Were you there throwing rocks with the others?
Marvin: No. One thing, with all my sinful tendencies and practice at times, I never did throw rocks; and I never boo baseball players, even when they deserve it. (Laughter)
These were just wild times, and it was—there was excitement. I will tell you just one strange thing—and this shows the level of security then compared to now. There was a former editor of the Yale Daily News who was working in the White House—and he just gave my roommates and I a tour of the White House. Here, we were coming in this radical way to demonstrate—
Marvin: —but one evening, we’re in the White House. He was showing us all around the place. There was—I guess, since we came in with him, we weren’t asked to show our drivers’ licenses or anything like that. We could just sort of wander around—very strange times.
Bob: This was the Nixon White House?
Marvin: This was the Nixon White House.
Bob: An editor from the Yale Daily News had a job in the Nixon White House?
Marvin: A job—he was a conservative from several years back; but since we were working reporters on the Yale Daily News, he was kind enough to show us around.
Marvin: Just strange—this combination of being, in a sense, in power with the future leaders and having these connections and so forth; but at the same time, demonstrating and being very hateful and always writing America with three K’s, K-K-K, and just full of hate. A spoiled group of haters—it was really weird.
Dennis: As we mentioned earlier, you found yourself reading an essay by Lenin called Socialism and Religion. It was, in essence, a wake-up call from an atheist that God used in your life to say, “What if Lenin is wrong? What if there is a God?”
Bob: This is while you were at the University of Michigan, doing your graduate work; and Michigan was no bastion of conservativism or godliness; was it?
Marvin: No, not at all. The strange thing here was that in my first semester at the University of Michigan, while I was a Communist, the professors thought I was brilliant. A couple of years later, as I was becoming a Christian, one of the same professors, who was the chairman of the department, who had thought I was a genius, didn’t understand that there had been a change in worldview—that, here was a philosophical and theological battle. Instead, he thought that, for some reason, I had just become incredibly stupid. (Laughter)
At that time, it wasn’t funny to me at all because he was the chairman of my dissertation committee. Just a month before I was supposed to be finished and defend the dissertation, he resigned from my committee—just saying he would not countenance being on the committee of a person who had become a conservative and a Christian.
Dennis: You tell the story of how you started reading a Russian New Testament. You’d become fluent in Russian. So—
Marvin: Not fluent, but able to read a little.
Dennis: Why didn’t you just read an English New Testament?
Marvin: Well, again, this is the way God often works. I was not seeking God at that point—I should have been. I mean, I knew that there was a god of some sort. I should have dropped everything and been searching, and finding, and reading, and so forth.
But, after several weeks, I had my term papers to write. I had my course work to do. I went back into the swing of things. I had left the Communist Party; but I was concerned, at that point, with developing my academic career. I wasn’t pursuing God, as logically I should have; but in order to pursue my academic career, I had to have a very good reading knowledge of a foreign language. I had forgotten my childhood Hebrew and high school French—so, Russian, at this point, was my language.
I had been reading lots of books in Russian—foraging around in my bookcase one night just for something in Russian that I hadn’t read. I had read some short stories and so forth. I ran across this New Testament in Russian that I had been given a couple of years before and had just held onto as a novelty item, a souvenir of a sort, from my time in Oregon—didn’t throw away books at all in those times, didn’t give them away, throw them away.
I had it there in my bookcase and started reading, not as I logically should have been for thinking—finding out about who God is—but just for reading practice. It was just Russian language stuff that I hadn’t read.
Dennis: So, as you read the New Testament?
Marvin: The—in Matthew, the early part, with lots of “begats”—that a lot of people don’t like—was actually fun for me because I knew the words and got through that fairly quickly. By the time I got to the Sermon on the Mount in Chapters 5 and 6, I was thinking, “Wow! This is really something special. There’s something extraordinary going on here.”
I’d read a little bit of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, but this wasn’t human. This was something that was God-inspired in some way. I needed to find out more about who this God is.
Dennis: A lot of us today want to ask someone, “When did you become a follower of Christ?” When did you become a Christian? As I’m looking at your story, it’s not altogether clear. I find, all of the sudden in 1975, at the University of Michigan, as you’re doing your PhD work, that you run into this cute, co-ed named Susan. That ends up being a part of the story. She wasn’t even a follower of Christ at this point.
Marvin: No. Here is what is strange. She came from a very liberal United Methodist background, Hillary Clinton-type background. Here, I was originally from a Jewish background and then atheism. I was a grad student; she was an undergraduate. So, of course, I felt in the position of a teacher and so forth. I was throwing books at her to read, and these were Christian books. It was very strange.
I didn’t know I was a Christian, but nevertheless, this was the type—this was what was appealing to me at the time.
Dennis: So, you think you were a believer in Christ at that point?
Marvin: I think I was a very weak believer at that point. The time when I made a profession of faith was about a year after that, in the fall of 1976; but there was this period from November 1, 1973 through the fall of 1976 where slowly, fighting every step of the way, with a lot of intellectual pride, I was gradually—God was gradually moving me step by step toward Him in a way that—by the time I met Susan—here I was wanting her to read Christian books because I thought there was some wisdom there—it is very strange.
Bob: It’s interesting as you describe it—it sounds a lot like a book I read a number of years ago—you probably read it as well—the book, A Severe Mercy, where the author of the book describes his own wrestling with Christianity. He was a student at Oxford at the time and was corresponding with C.S. Lewis.
There came a point in their correspondence when this student was asking Lewis questions; and Lewis finally wrote him back and said, “I’ve decided not to answer your questions anymore. It’s obvious to me the Hound of Heaven is after you, and it’s just a matter of time.”
Bob: That’s really—
Bob: —where you were struggling and wrestling; but every step along the way, as you were reading, whatever it was you were reading, God was just opening your eyes. Dennis described—you were passing along—do you remember what some of the books you were giving to this young co-ed was?
Marvin: One of them was Whittaker Chambers’ book, Witness. Chambers had been a Communist who became a Christian. Another was a book by Mark Hatfield. Now, Hatfield was liberal politically; but theologically, he was right on. This basically showed what he thought about God. So, I wanted her to read that.
Bob: Were you passing these onto her because you were trying to influence her own thinking? She wasn’t a Christian either, and you were just trying to bring her along?
Marvin: I thought, with my graduate student and general intellectual arrogance, that here was an undergraduate who had been taking a lot of mushy courses, as I had done as an undergraduate; and I needed to teach her some things. I needed to strengthen her intellectually. Probably, also, just wanting to impress her and be in the driver’s seat in the relationship.
Bob: You’re saying there was more than an academic interest in this relationship.
Dennis: Here’s the way I would put it. He was feeding her some books and some lines—
Dennis: —because you end up going out; and then, two weeks later—what happened?
Marvin: Well, I proposed to her. I’m not sure how serious I was really in asking. I’m not sure how serious she was in accepting, but yes. It did mean something. Then, later on, I had to re-propose to her, of course, when it was serious. She was and is an extraordinarily charming person. I liked every aspect of her and wanted her to be as beautiful intellectually, in my view, as she was in other ways. So, I had my ulterior motives in all this.
Dennis: Well, in June, you married; and was she a believer at that point—at the point you married her or still responding to God in her own way?
Marvin: I’d say the latter, responding in her own way. Both of us were very close to being believers, but we had absolutely no experience in what this really means. We weren’t going to church or anything. We had a lot to learn. We married and drove off to San Diego, where I was going to be teaching at a university.
At that point, we agreed, “Well, let’s go to church and just find out if any people today still believe anything like what these Puritans, who had influenced me greatly, believed 300 years ago.”
Bob: Well, I’m curious—where somebody who grows up in a Jewish home, becomes a Communist, then, goes to Yale and Michigan, and ultimately, starts drifting toward to Christianity—where do you get married? What kind of ceremony was it?
Marvin: Well, we were married in the living room of her parents. We would have had a justice of the peace, but there wasn’t anyone available. So, we had a pastor from a very liberal denomination who lived down the street—had never met us. We didn’t have any marital counseling or pre-marital counseling or anything like that. He just did it because he was available on that particular day. We paid him, and that’s the first and last we ever saw of him.
Dennis: What about your parents at this point? I mean, what are Jewish parents thinking about this Gentile you’re about to marry?
Marvin: At least my father was not happy about it; but again, he had no belief what so ever. So, there wasn’t any theological unhappiness about it. There was a certain cultural thing. In a sense, I think their attitude was, “Well, we’re members of the Mickey Mouse Club. Why should he marry someone from the Donald Duck club?” (Laughter) So—
Dennis: Well, you did end up moving to San Diego State, where you taught—
Dennis: —and I thought the way you chose a church was interesting. I thought what Bob was about to ask you, “Being a Jewish person, how would you choose a church?”
Dennis: You had never been in one; had you?
Marvin: Never been in one. There were things in the old days called the Yellow Pages that people actually went to instead of looking online for stuff. (Laughter) I opened up the Yellow Pages to churches. There was a whole long list of Baptist churches; and I figured, “Yes, Baptist. I’ve read in the New Testament that Christians baptize. I guess this is a real Christian church, and there are lots of them.”
Then, looked at conservative Baptists and I thought, “Well, I’m no longer a Communist. I mean, I’m conservative politically. I’m for Ronald Reagan. So, I should go to a conservative Baptist church.” (Laughter) It was just a few blocks from our home. It was simply a matter of convenience.
Dennis: Then, Earl, the deacon, came visiting.
Marvin: Yes. Earl, a very elderly deacon—I don’t know if he’d ever gone to college or even graduated from high school. He was just a very dear man. He did not take me through any intellectual “razz-ma-tazz”, no arguments and things like that.
He came over; and we sat in the bright, California sunshine in the fall. He asked, “Well, you believe this stuff; don’t you?” Here’s why I think that I was already becoming a Christian, even before I knew I was Christian. I thought about that for about a minute and said, “Yes, I do. I guess I do.” He said, “Well, then, you better sign up,” which meant getting baptized and joining. I thought, “Well, I guess I should.”
Then, I went and told Susan that, “Here, this is what I want to do.” She said, “Well, I want to do it, too.” A week later, in this small, conservative Baptist church, where—I mean, we were the only—we were in our 20s, and I don’t think there was anyone in the church who was younger than 50 at that point. We were baptized in front of them.
For weeks before that, they had been playing the famous hymn, Just As I Am, and kept playing it and playing it, hoping that we would come forward; but we did not. At that moment, we were actually asked, “What do you believe? You believe this stuff; don’t you?” I had to say, “Yes. Yes, I do.”
So, it wasn’t any huge moment of decision, then. It was really an acknowledgement of what God had already put in my heart and mind.
Bob: You signed up.
Marvin: Signed up. (Laughter) Yes.
Dennis: You signed up. Okay, let’s say there is a listener right now. In fact, there has to be many; but there is one who is listening—and he or she has listened to your story. They are going, “Yes. I think I’d like to do that.” What exactly do you need to believe, Marvin, to become a follower of Christ? I want you to just take someone and just do with them what Earl should have affirmed with you in that California, fall sunshine.
Dennis: Introduce them to Christ and explain how it works.
Marvin: Well, J.I. Packer summarizes the Gospel in three words, “God saves sinners”—particularly, God, in the person of Jesus Christ.
So, in my mind—and this is what I would suggest to other people—question number one: “Are you a sinner?” Do you understand in your heart that, in fact, you are in desperate need of being changed and that you don’t have the power to do it yourself—you are helpless in your sins? You need some external help. That’s number one: “Are you a sinner?”
Well, then, who’s going to save you, at that point? You can’t save yourself; you’re not strong enough to do that. You’re not powerful enough to do that. You’re immersed in your sins, and you realize they are sins at this point—at least some of—you realize that some of them are sins. You want to change, but you know you can’t change just by yourself.
I mean, here is the Good News—that God saves sinners—that Jesus Christ, by coming to earth and dying for our sins, has made it possible for you to go to heaven and for you to change your life. Apart from Christ’s salvation, you are not going to really change your life. You may do a little thing, but you are going to sink back into your old mire and you’re not going to go to heaven. If you have a desire to change your life and go to heaven, there’s only one way to do that; and that’s through Jesus Christ. So, Christ saves sinners.
Dennis: Because Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins and was raised on the third day, He is alive today; and He can pierce the darkest heart.
Marvin: He is alive to guide us, cheer us, and pierce our hearts. Since He is resurrected from the dead, we also have the hope of being resurrected from the dead. So, we have our hearts—are pierced right now. It will change our lives, and it also gives us the hope of going to heaven.
Dennis: So, a person is listening right now and saying, “Marvin, I believe that. I’m ready.” What do they need to do?
Bob: Sounds like they need to sign up. At least, that’s what Earl told you to do. What would you tell them to do?
Marvin: I would say, “Pray to God. Pray wherever you are. Pray right now. Pray to Jesus Christ and ask Him to save you from your sins in the months and years to come—to teach you more about Himself so that you’ll be more and more ready to live as a follower of Christ and that you’ll understand that, in fact, your faith will save you—that Jesus Christ will pull you through all the way.
“There may be times when you go backwards, and sideways, and all sort of that; but He will not abandon you. He loves you, has a purpose for you, and will take you all the way through. At this point, if He’s telling you that He has chased you, and it is time for you to take the first step. Then, take that first step by praying to Him and asking Him to show you more, and more, and more.”
Dennis: Don’t let the sun go down, or don’t rest your head on a pillow—
Dennis: —until you settle things with Him.
Marvin: Settle things with Him because you don’t know how long you are going to live, and it’s important to do this right away.
Bob: I always come back to three words. The three words are forgiveness, transformation, and hope.
Forgiveness: Do we realize that we have sinned against God, and that we need His forgiveness, and that He offers His forgiveness in what Christ has accomplished on the cross?
Then, transformation: Do we look at our lives and realize we are not living the way we ought to be living, the way we want to be living, the way God would have us live? Do we realize that we need His power to change us, to transform us?
Then, the last thing is hope. Do we look to the future with hope or with no hope? The Gospel addresses all three of those—it provides forgiveness for our sin; transformation for our lives; and a hope for our future.
I want to encourage our listeners go online at FamilyLifeToday.com. You’ll see a link there that says, “Two Ways to Live.” That link will spell out for you what we’ve talked about here today—how you can have a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Our website is FamilyLifeToday.com. Click the link that says, “Two Ways to Live.”
If you’d like to receive a copy of the book, Pursuing God—if you’ve never trusted Christ and you’d like to receive this book to help you understand what it means to have a relationship with God, call us or go online and ask for a copy of Pursuing God. Our website, again, is FamilyLifeToday.com; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to ask for a copy of that booklet. We’ll be happy to send it out to you at no cost. If you’re somebody who is listening to this program and God has been kind of nudging you and saying, “This sounds like you and like what you need,” then, get in touch with us and get a copy of this book.
Of course, we’ve got copies of the book that Marvin Olasky has written called Unmerited Mercy: A Memoir from a card-carrying Communist to a Bible-carrying Christian. That’s the subtitle. You can request a copy of Marvin’s book online at FamilyLifeToday.com or call if you need more information. 1-800-FL-TODAY is our number. We can make arrangements to have a copy of Marvin’s book sent to you.
Again, we want to offer our thanks to those of you who at the end of 2011 made a year-end gift. We should also say a big, “Thank you,” to those of you who during the past year have been Legacy Partners, monthly donors to help support FamilyLife Today. Your donations, whether they come each month, or whether you make a donation from time-to-time—those donations are what help cover the cost of producing and syndicating this daily radio program.
We appreciate those of you who either go online or give us a call to make a donation; and we were especially grateful for those of you who, at the end of the year, did just that. Of course, our needs continue month in and month out. If you’d like to find out more about becoming a Legacy Partner, go to FamilyLifeToday.com. There’s a link available there that will give you more information about how you can join the Legacy Partner team. Again, find that at FamilyLifeToday.com.
Be sure to be back with us again tomorrow. Marvin Olasky is going to be here again. We’re going to talk about how we as Christians demonstrate compassion and caring for those who are the poor and the disenfranchised in our culture. That’s something that has been on his heart, and something that he has looked at very carefully for many years. We’ll talk about that tomorrow. I hope you can be here for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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