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Tales of the heart

The controversy at Hillsdale College shows the real shortcoming of standard conservatism

(Editor's note: The police report released last week in Hillsdale, Mich., was clear enough: "The daughter-in-law of Hillsdale College's former president appeared despondent over their alleged affair only hours before she committed suicide." But the sadness that has swept through America's best-known conservative college (see WORLD, Nov. 27) is far from over. Many students are trying to come to grips with reports, apparently accepted by Hillsdale's board of trustees, that George Roche III, Hillsdale president for 28 years, was for many of them acting in a way scandalously opposite to what he professed. There are times when regular news coverage does not go deep enough. WORLD contributor Janie B. Cheaney's thoughts put the Hillsdale tragedy in perspective.)

I have a theory that one can learn a lot about a writer from his fiction, for expository writing explains, but fiction reveals. Expository writing shows what's on a person's mind, but storytelling shows what's on his heart. Or does it?

Several months ago I received a small volume mailed free to subscribers of Imprimis, the monthly publication of Hillsdale College. A Reason for Living is a collection of short stories by George Roche III. Of course I'm familiar with Hillsdale: a bastion of traditional education and a conservative paradigm ever since its decision to maintain academic freedom by refusing all federal aid.

Ever eager to explore my fiction theory, I read the book. The stories leave something to be desired in plot structure and character development, but the author, to his credit, does not preach. He eloquently shows love for the Colorado high country of his boyhood and admiration for the hard work, fair dealing, and plain speech of its people.

Strong, taciturn men dominate these narratives-tough guys, often with a checkered past and guilty conscience. Some learn their own limitations, others tackle a challenge and see it through. They endure the bad times and give thanks for the good, and (not incidentally) learn something about God.

But not much. Certainly fiction isn't the place for biblical exposition, but God as portrayed in this book has all the personality of a cloud pierced with sunbeams: benign, inspiring, vague. His chief concern seems to be that we do our best. In "A Job to Be Done," kindly Father Horrigan advises, "[God] wants His creatures to make good choices and stick with those choices." Another character sums up his theology in "Jocko Coyle": "I do know that the one prayer God always answers is a prayer for the strength to do our job. If we have the will to go on-really have the will-God will give us whatever we need." If there's a statement of faith, it might be expressed by the old adage, "God helps those who help themselves"-which some conservatives may assume is an actual Bible text.

George Gilder, in his preface to the book, calls these stories "explicitly Christian." But Christ is mentioned only once, and without reference to His cross. Man is frail, but not hopeless; all he needs is a helping hand.

The can-do faith that informs these stories also infuses the Shavano Institute lectures, which are sponsored by Hillsdale and feature the brightest stars of the conservative firmament: Thomas Sowell, Margaret Thatcher, Steve Forbes. The Shavano lecturers promote personal responsibility, morality, family, America, God. No Christian could argue with that. But no Christian should ever equate conservatism with biblical faith. In fact, "God helps those who help themselves" is directly antithetical. The Bible tells us God helps those who can't help themselves, who are dead in sin, who would not even recognize Him unless He opened their eyes.

Liberalism presumes that with the right education and social programs society can be made fair. Much of conservatism presumes that with individual responsibility and division of power, society can be made just. Neither is Christianity, which proclaims a radical cure for a desperate situation.

In recent years, conservative icons and institutions have taken their licks. Now George Roche III, the guiding light of Hillsdale College, has resigned under pressure. The College will survive, but the reverberations of the scandal will be heard for years.

I can sympathize with the dismay of students and faculty. Some years ago, my homeschooling circle was shaken when a prominent guru of the movement left her husband and wrecked her family. We were not merely shocked but frightened: "If it could happen to ____, then who's safe?"

No one; that's why we flee to Christ, who came not to promote conservatism or rugged individualism or family values, but to save sinners.

My theory about fiction revealing the heart needs some revision. God tells us the truth about our hearts, which we must never forget: It is "deceitful above all things" (Jeremiah 17:9). In his resignation letter, President Roche revealed more about his own heart than he probably intended: "We have proved that integrity, values, and courage can still triumph in a corrupt world." But the first place to look for corruption, Jesus taught us, is within.

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD's annual Children's Book of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.