From the Sandhills of Nebraska to the Universe Next Door
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.
At several points, you refer to tensions between the fundamentalist and anti-intellectual elements of early Christian influences and your desire to pursue higher education. This is an experience common to many intellectually-motivated Christians. For many, this tension creates some bitterness about their background. I didn't detect that in your story. How did you avoid that?
I never rejected the basic beliefs I was taught when I was a kid. My mother, my father, my grandfather—they didn't teach me much individual doctrine. Even when we got into the church in Butte, a mildly fundamentalist church, that's where I was told how to believe in Christ. I was easily convinced that I was a sinner and needed salvation by Jesus.
But I resisted for a while, and one day I fainted instead of going forward in church. My dad and another elder carried me across the street to our house, and laid me down on the couch and left. They said, "He's fainted because it's hot." It was hot; it was August. But my mother leaned over to me and asked, "Was it something the preacher said?" And I said, "Yes, momma." She didn't say another word. But the next week, when the pastor gave the invitation to give your life to Christ, I walked forward and the beginning of the transformation occurred right then and there. I knew that I was never going to give that up.All this came about through ordinary, biblical teaching—fundamental teaching about God and Jesus. Why should I turn against anything like that?
You have given more than 1,700 lectures on college campuses over the decades, and your memoir often refers to Q&A sessions that went well past the lecture time. Have the questions college students ask about Christianity remained the same, or did you see a difference in your later years of lecturing?
I stopped lecturing to non-Christian groups to any great extent when I retired in 1998. The university has changed a lot since then in terms of the kinds of students and what they are doing. I experienced this change through a lecture that I was giving entitled "Is Christianity Rational?" I gave that lecture at Illinois State and again at the University of Rochester in New York. A few months later I was asked to lecture at Harvard, and since that lecture had gone well in those first two venues I used it there.
The Harvard students put out a whole list of questions on a brochure underneath the main title. One of those questions was "Why should anyone believe anything at all?" I looked at that and said, that is exactly the way I am doing the lecture. Why do people believe, and are these good reasons for belief? And I would ask the students that. While I didn't recognize this beforehand, I realized I was talking to students influenced by the idea that what you believe doesn't necessarily have to be true, and that's okay, especially when you were dealing with questions of religion. So I fixed my lecture so that we asked that question first. By the time the lecture was over, I think most of them had come to the conclusion that they don't want to believe something that isn't true. Then the question is how you find out whether what you believe is true or not. From there we went into ordinary apologetics.
So I would begin, if you will, by addressing students who had not mentally lived in the modern world—the world in which intellectual questions could be answered by rational arguments and intellectual analysis—all that long. They were living already in this early postmodern scheme that divided religious belief from scientific knowledge. But this lecture brought them from relativism to a realization they really were not relativists after all. They actually wanted to believe what was true. Then we could look at questions of resurrection, the problem of evil, and all the standard stuff that almost all apologists write about.
As chief editor for one of the premier Christian publishers, InterVarsity Press, you had a deep impact on Christian thought through the authors and books you cultivated. Are there any particular books or writers you brought before the reading public that give you a special sense of satisfaction?
Yes, indeed. Francis Schaeffer was brought in just before I came, and I became his first American editor. I'm delighted to be associated with about 13 of his books. The first book I edited from submission to publication was Schaeffer's Death in the City. When I was editor, we were the first publisher of Eugene Peterson, Ronald Sider, Peter Kreeft, Os Guinness, and Steve Garber. All these authors' books continue to have a market.
You make frequent reference in Rim to how your faith was nurtured by the products of Christian publishers. Publishing is going through difficult transitions right now. What do you see as the future of Christian publishing?
There will be a major role for Christian publishing in print form for some time. People, especially in the academic world, want something in their hands to read. Now that may just be my old age creeping in. E-books are going to increase as time goes on, and all the major publishers are making sure their major texts are available as e-books. However, reading an e-book is not as satisfying, not even to those who read e-books, as conventional books are, so Christian publishing on paper will continue to have a role for some time.
Many of your books are familiar to informed Christian readers, but are there any that stand out as not having caught on as well as you had hoped?
My book on Vaclav Havel [Vaclav Havel: The Intellectual Conscience of International Politics], the first president of the new Czech Republic. That book illustrates how non-Christian public figures could be evaluated from a Christian point of view and recognized as having a lot to say positively. I called him the Good Samaritan in my lectures. Jesus would not have appreciated all of his beliefs, but Havel is a wonderful example to Christians of how a public official should live.
The second one is Praying the Psalms of Jesus. Its companion book,Learning to Pray Through the Psalms, has been adopted and used through the years and continues to be in print. But Praying the Psalms of Jesus did not even sell out its first printing, and it's a better book.
Arrogance seems to be the signature sin among Christian intellectuals (and intellectuals of all sorts). I appreciated the honesty in Rim and in some of your other books about your own struggles in this area. Why is intellectual arrogance so pervasive among educated believers, and what advice would you give about detecting and confronting it?
One cause of arrogance is that it really is better to know something than to not know something. There is value in knowledge. Combined with wisdom, it's perfect. The problem is that we often lack the virtue of recognizing that people who are not quite as smart are just as good in terms of the values they hold. That's hard for an intellectual to agree to because they are constantly thinking they are smarter than everyone else. I don't know anyone who is really bright who doesn't think that. The temptation is there.
In Habits of the Mind, I talk about the intellectual virtues, and humility has to be one. What has helped me is the constant reading of both old and new texts by Christians and others. When you read them you say, "Oh my goodness, I didn't know that." It's not difficult to find people who know more than you do.
Books that encourage philosophical introspection do not generally fly off the shelf. However, The Universe Next Door has sold over 350,000 copies and has been translated into 18 languages. It continues to be a strong seller after 36 years and 5 editions. To what do you attribute the amazing success of Universe?
It was the right book at the right time. Schaeffer prepared people for thinking about the impact and meaning of culture for the Christian faith. Escape from ReasonandThe God Who Is Thereboth were very much worldview books. I had been taught to read "worldview-ishly" during my graduate work at the University of Missouri. I learned to read Renaissance literature by recognizing I couldn't take my own worldview into that literature and find it of interest.
I was ready to write that book, and was given an opportunity to give some lectures before I did so. The book came out at just the right time, and it would not be flying off the shelves today if it had not been immediately adopted as a textbook in Christian colleges, seminaries, and high schools. It helped students in secular schools understand what was going on in their secular classrooms, and it helped students in Christian colleges analyze the difference Christian faith makes in their own studies.
As a Ph.D. in English, you speak about being captivated by the beautiful, the imaginative, and the creative. However, you also appreciate a finely-tuned argument or demonstration. How does good apologetics bring those dimensions together?
All I can say is that it certainly should. My next book makes the argument, not from rational apologetics, but from what the sociologist Peter Berger has called "signals of transcendence," these intensely imaginative and visual experiences we have that seem to point to a world beyond our own. This follows my own shift from emphasizing the rational to emphasizing pre-rational or non-rational beliefs that can nevertheless be evaluated by rational criteria. The role of experience, especially the seeming experience of the supernatural, needs to be recognized.
In the final analysis, you don't know something because you are recounting all of the logic behind it. You recognize that your conviction is not something you prove, but you can give evidence for it. The main point is that you know it. So you don't constantly wonder about whether Jesus was raised from the dead or whether he lived as the Bible said he did. This is immediate and direct knowledge. It is an emphasis on the sensus divinitatus, which Alvin Plantinga says is very much involved in one's immediate grasp of the existence of God without argument.
The various manifestations of your ministry are directed toward cultivating thoughtful, intellectually rigorous Christianity. Are we losing ground, stuck in neutral, or making progress on that front?
It's a mixed picture. I see some progress. At the academic level, yes, we've made progress in the Christian universities and schools. A lot of progress. I'm less optimistic about the progress on university campuses through the Christian groups. When I was invited to do a lecture on campus, they used to ask me what kind of books I wanted on the book table. But in recent years, I've had to practically twist arms to get people to believe that those who come to these lectures might actually be interested in reading a book.