Our 2019 Children’s Books of the Year stand out from an increasingly troubling crowd
My favorite short story, Leo Tolstoy’s “What Men Live By,” tells of an angel who disobeys God’s decision that a woman who had just given birth to twins would die. The woman begs him—take pity on my children!—and the angel tells God that newborns cannot live without their mother. The angel eventually learns that God is in charge and fully capable of taking care of babies.
There’s nothing angelic about me, but in recent years God taught me the same lesson. He has changed my course repeatedly during the past four decades but reversed it only twice, once when I left Communism and became a Christian during the 1970s (see WORLD, April 11 and May 23, 2009), and once again from 2010 to 2012. That’s when God yanked me from a destructive path, then showed me what it means to “wait on the Lord” and see His provision for baby colleges.
The baby college I loved was The King’s College, New York City, where I became provost—chief academic officer—in 2007 after teaching for two decades at The University of Texas at Austin. (The last WORLD episode about God’s action in my life—May 4, 2013—explains why I made the switch. The reason 17 months have gone by since publication of that piece is because upon leaving King’s in January 2011, I promised freshmen recruited by me that I wouldn’t write anything about the school’s problems until after they graduated this year.)
WORLD remained my prime professional love over the years—I’ve been married to it since 1992—but it was wonderful at King’s to hire great professors, add new courses, teach students not to fear controversy, and live in midtown Manhattan. As Jacob learned during the 14-plus years he worked for his uncle Laban, love made time go fast and productivity increase.
The King’s website during those years still spelled out the vision that had attracted me and others: “Almost all of the significant Christian colleges in the United States on the Protestant side of the Christian spectrum are in small towns, the countryside, or the suburbs. … [Kings’] roots are in the Protestant evangelical tradition, and we are probably alone among colleges in this tradition in our embrace of the city.”
In 2010, though, the King’s board of trustees, out of financial desperation, selected a new president, Dinesh D’Souza, who had little understanding of that tradition. Ironically, I had introduced D’Souza to King’s in fall 2007, bringing him to our venue to debate Christopher Hitchens. D’Souza, a lively talker, was perfect for that role, and I encouraged him to do more of that.
Just about every college is financially challenged these days, and King’s had the double trouble of no endowment but heavy expenses in Manhattan, where everything costs more. Several trustees had contributed millions of dollars over the years and wanted to break that habit. Still, I thought the president of King’s should have an evangelical understanding.
D’Souza clearly did not. He said he was both a Catholic and an evangelical, and gave as evidence his attendance at the Calvary Chapel with which his wife, Dixie, had long been involved. I did not know that the marriage he credited for his theological development was in trouble, but the more I learned about what D’Souza believed, the more my distress grew. The clincher was his support for evolution. Disavowal of biblical teaching about creation is particularly serious because that perspective underlies so many other positions: In dozens of once-Christian colleges a slip-sliding-away from the first three chapters of Genesis has led to abandonment of the rest of the Bible. (See “Soaping the slippery slope,” Aug. 25, 2012.)
The King’s board, to my naive surprise, didn’t focus on what D’Souza believed: His task was to lasso a desperately needed big donor or donors. One wealthy trustee said he didn’t disagree with my theological concerns but asked, “What choice do we have?” My response was “Trust God,” but the trustee said, “That’s not enough.” He did not have sufficient confidence in God’s sovereign mercy and, despite my words, neither did I: He thought King’s without a moneymaker like D’Souza would die. I thought King’s without a discerning president would die.
THE QUESTION FOR ME became not whether to leave King’s and spend all my professional energies on WORLD, but when and how. Many professors, especially those I had hired, also saw D’Souza as a successful agitator but not a college president, so it would have been easy for me to start a civil war. Sure, that might end up killing the college—potential donors already questioning the college’s stability would have intensified doubts—but maybe it deserved to die.
I also had a financial stake. It wasn’t admirable on my part even to think in these terms, but since I was giving up lifetime tenure at the University of Texas, the King’s board of trustees had given me a seven-year contract with a special provision: If King’s went out of business or the board decided to dispense with my services, I would receive $80,000 per year for the life of the contract. My problem was that the board, perhaps for public relations reasons, did not want me to leave. I could force the board’s hand by starting that civil war.
My natural drift was toward selfishness—but providentially, a week-long, summer whitewater rafting trip on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon came along. The creationist group that issued the invitation wanted to show me geological evidence for a young earth. That opportunity interested me but whitewater excited me more. And God, while caring about both Grand Canyon geology and killer rapids, had another purpose for me: Sleeping under the stars night after night and, looking up at the vastness, I could remember how big God is and how small I am.
It was my most vivid epiphany since Nov. 1, 1973, when at 3 p.m. I sat down in my room as a Communist. Hour after hour that day I questioned my movement down a dark corridor and refusal even to open a door to a room that could be filled with light. At 11 p.m. that long-ago night I wandered the cold and dark University of Michigan campus, crying out to ... Someone. Now I knew who that Someone is, but still wanted to fight battles my way, until the Grand Canyon helped me to see a crevice in my own heart.
O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your creation! The heavens declare Your glory. You made the stars far away, but in all Your majesty You still draw near. When I was young, You carried me to faith. Now, I want You to bless my will, but should I not be patient and see Yours? You died for us: Can my pride not die before You? Should I not have confidence in You now? Cut off my anger, but don’t cut me off. Give me renunciation and joy, submission and patience.
I had left for the Grand Canyon plotting a civil war and snarling at my godly wife when she said it was simply time to move on from King’s. I returned to New York, through God’s intervention, thinking of others. The board was not about to reverse itself, so public protest would merely give me existentialist satisfaction in proclaiming my own supposed virtue, and nihilistic pleasure in destruction. A civil war would produce despair among students I had recruited and job loss among professors I had hired. I had another job to go to, one I loved. The professors would probably be unemployed.
It might have been worth playing a latter-day Samson if King’s was destined to worship Dagon, but why assume that: Is God not sovereign? Could He not save King’s? The skies over the Grand Canyon proclaimed His handiwork, and night after night they revealed knowledge to me. The two paperbacks in my trip pack were Tolstoy’s short stories and a waterproof New Testament. One evening I reread “What Men Live By” and reread in the gospel of Luke that we cannot serve both God and Mammon. It seemed to me that the King’s board was serving Mammon, but if I treasured my golden parachute, so was I.
So, come fall, I resigned quietly and turned down numerous media opportunities to blast D’Souza. My advice to professors was: Keep your chins up in the classroom and your heads down in relation to the new administration. Wait and see what God will do.
IN "WHAT MEN LIVE BY," God over six years gives the disobedient angel three crucial lessons. The angel sees God’s provision even for those who disobey; he sees God’s judgment on the arrogant; he sees God’s love for two helpless babies. Since leaving King’s, I’ve learned three things about God’s providence in relation to the college I loved.
The first lesson: God kept King’s alive, with the college receiving a $15 million gift from a donor. The board’s assessment of D’Souza’s financial impact was accurate.
I had left for the Grand Canyon plotting a civil war. … I returned to New York, through God’s intervention, thinking of others.
The second lesson: God removed D’Souza from the presidency in a way that made clear his lack of fitness for the job. Two years ago, while still married to his wife of 20 years who had introduced him to evangelical thinking, he traveled with a young woman to a South Carolina church conference. D’Souza introduced her as his fiancée and shared a hotel room with her, much to the consternation of his church hosts. D’Souza’s keynote speech at the conference was about thinking and living biblically.
(The hosts brought the facts to a WORLD reporter who was at the conference. He interviewed D’Souza and wanted to report what had happened. I would have preferred that another magazine break the story, since D’Souza’s obvious recourse would be to say I was out to get him. We asked ourselves this: If another equally heralded author and college president spoke at Christian gatherings, yet his practice belied his words, wouldn’t we report it? The answer was yes, so we went ahead. D’Souza blasted me and said, “I had no idea that it is considered wrong in Christian circles to be engaged prior to being divorced.”)
The third lesson: Not only did the King’s College board of trustees accept D’Souza’s resignation, but God provided a replacement committed to the Protestant evangelical tradition: Greg Thornbury, an ordained minister who had been dean of the School of Theology & Missions at a solidly evangelical school, Union University. Before the D’Souza debacle, the board would not have turned to a thoroughly biblical scholar like Thornbury, the author of Recovering Classic Evangelicalism and co-author of Who Will Be Saved: Defending the Biblical Understanding of God, Salvation, & Evangelism.
Editing WORLD is my dream job, and it occupies me all day long—but I still miss King’s. I do know now what colleges (and all of us) live by. We make seven-year plans and sometimes see them dashed in seven minutes, because we live within God’s sovereignty and by His love. As Tolstoy wrote, “It was not given to the mother to know what her children needed for their life. Nor was it given to the rich man to know what he himself needed. Nor is it given to any man to know whether, when evening comes, he will need boots for his body or slippers for his corpse.”
For other episodes in this autobiographical account, go to wng.org/olaskyseries