James Sire grew up on a ranch near tiny Butte, Nebraska, located on the outer edge of the Sandhills region—a unique hybrid of sand dunes and grasslands occupying nearly one quarter of the state's territory. There he encountered "signals of transcendence" in the region's natural wonders, and came to faith through the ordinary ministrations of his family and local church. From this humble background, Sire went on to pursue a doctorate in English and achieve global renown in the realm of apologetics—as a lecturer, author of such classics in worldview exploration as The Universe Next Door, and longtime editor at InterVarsity Press. Now retired, Sire has recently authored Rim of the Sandhills, an e-book memoir. Steve Wilkens, professor of philosophy and ethics at Azusa Pacific University, spoke with Sire about his childhood in Nebraska, his approach to apologetics, and the challenges that confront the Christian intellectual.
The title of your memoir, Rim of the Sandhills, signals that your upbringing in Nebraska left a lasting mark on you. You have spent most of your adult life in urban areas and have traveled the globe extensively. Why do you look back to the sandhills as such a formative place?
One's childhood and upbringing have a great deal to do with where you are, who you are surrounded by, and the character of the community you are in. Nebraska, especially on the rim of the sandhills, is very much a western community. It has all those values of independence, individualism, and hard work. All of those have been on the edges of my own character development. My Christian faith came out of early contact there, not because I saw Jesus coming over the hill, but because I saw what I thought might be signs of God's Spirit traipsing after me in the form of three thunderheads in the sky. Signals of transcendence have come from the ranchlands, and they continue to appear as I go back and revisit.
A memoir requires an intentional review of one's entire life. Were there any unexpected pleasures or joys as you re-lived experiences that had perhaps not come to mind for a while?
Two places are probably significant. Just thinking about living on Eagle Creek and the rim of the sandhills—the farm life, the ranch life—gave me lots of pleasure. I also remember that I wanted to get away; and I got away. And, of course, you can't go home again, but you can certainly think about it.
The other place I enjoyed mentally revisiting was more recent. It was my time traveling and lecturing in Eastern Europe, going to places I'd never even dreamed about. When I was invited to Bulgaria for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, I didn't even know where Bulgaria was. That was after the walls came down, but the remains of the Communist regime were still there, and you could see all of its failures and why it had to collapse.
The preface of Rim of the Sandhills states that your book is not simply a memoir, but a testimony. You talk about how God has worked on you and through you. There is also confession, in which you talk about failures and struggles. What is the role of failure and struggle in our testimony?
It should trigger honesty. If you are honest about yourself, you are not going to get very arrogant about what you are or where you came from. You will be amazed at what has happened in you in the intervening years. The struggle throughout life is constant. There is no time in which we don't fail and in which we don't struggle, though what we fail and struggle on changes over the years. Failure offers the opportunity to learn to trust in God, and notice that when you do so, you get good results. Then you can trust God more for help on matters that are more problematic than those you have just gone through.