An interview with Frank Gaebelein, educator, editor, writer, pianist, on his eightieth birthday.
Question: A decade or so ago we used to hear sporadic cries that what we need is a Christian university. Do we?
Answer: I’m not at all sure that we do, though I am not in principle opposed to the idea of a Christian university. But instead of spending multiple millions on building a new Christian university, I believe it is far more important to direct great amounts of money and effort toward strengthening existing Christian liberal arts colleges. The liberal arts curriculum is the very heart of higher education. Furthermore, we need to give much more attention and support to Christian elementary and secondary schools, which deal with youth in their most formative years.
Q: Following on from that, what do you see as the future of the Christian college?
A: In their survival through the difficult sixties the evangelical Christian colleges have demonstrated their strength. Their future seems to me to be assured, so long as they adhere to their distinctive Christian convictions and continue to study and practice a genuine integration of faith and learning. One of the hopeful signs is the Christian College Consortium, which is undoubtedly doing much to enrich Christian higher education.
Q: Robert Elmore, a distinguished organist, once made this plea in a Christian magazine: “Let us stop feeding our musical sensibilities on ashes.” What do you say to this? And do you think it is true that many evangelicals regard music in church worship as little more than light entertainment?
A: In general I agree with my friend Robert Elmore, though I would perhaps use a different word for “ashes.” The problem seems to be that a good many evangelical churches have too little first-rate music and place too much emphasis on second- or third-rate music. Music may indeed be looked on as a form of Sunday morning entertainment rather than an offering of talent to God and a celebration of him, who is the sovereign Giver of our talents. Whatever we offer to God in worship should be our best. This does not mean that only great masterpieces should be performed and sung in evangelical services; it means rather that the music performed in church should be in some real way worthy of being offered to God.
Q: Do you find in an age when working hours have never been shorter that there is a misuse of leisure?
A: Yes, indeed. For one thing, I believe that too many hours are being spent in recreation by proxy. Think, for example, of the vast amounts of time given to television viewing of trivialities. Many people are passively spending leisure hours in a kind of spectatorism that makes little demands on the mind and spirit.
Q: Do you approve the increasing involvement of evangelicals in the arts?
A: With all my heart.
A: The arts are an essential part of our humanity. G. K. Chesterton was right in saying, “Art is the signature of man.” Before man knew how to write he was making art in one form or another. Over and over it says in Genesis 1: “God made.” In the arts we reflect this aspect of God’s image in us. I deplore the all too common feeling that the arts are a frill or a kind of cultural luxury. They are not. They are essential to our being fully what God made us to be.
Q: Recalling one of your own great interests, may I ask if you ever considered mountaineering as a means of grace?
A: Yes, providing that we do not equate it with such means of grace as the Lord’s Supper and do not confuse a kind of mountain mysticism with true religion. But that climbing mountains can uplift the spirit and give one a sense of the greatness of God in creation is undeniable.
Q: You quoted Chesterton earlier on another matter. Didn’t he say, however, something like, “A man can see great things from the valley, only small things from the peak”?
A: Yes, but consider this from William Blake: “Great things are done when men and mountains meet:/This is not done by jostling in the street.” More than once on a mountain summit, or en route to one, I’ve been moved to thankful prayer.
Q: What can I say to that, especially as Sir Francis Younghusband, that giant of the peaks, somewhere says the same thing? But let me mention Chesterton again. His Father Brown stories and some of C. S. Lewis’s works, for example, make me wonder if we exploit this area as much as we might. What do you think of fiction as a Christian medium?
A: Without question, fiction may be a way of presenting Christian truth. Indeed, some of the greatest writers illustrate this. One thinks of Dostoevsky, or of the Christian element in the writings of Solzhenitsyn. To my mind, the greatest Christian novelist of modern times was Franҫois Mauriac—a French Nobel Prizewinner, whose books have profound Christian content. Examples are numerous, however: one could cite Graham Greene, Charles Williams, and Dorothy Sayers. Chesterton and Lewis we have referred to, and we could add Flannery O’Connor. I wonder, nonetheless, why it is that such writers are mostly Roman Catholic or Anglo-Catholic. I must confess to being troubled at the comparative lack of distinguished Christian fiction written by evangelicals, though Elisabeth Elliot’s No Graven Image and Elgin Groseclose’s Ararat (which won the National Book Award for 1939) should not be overlooked. Of course, C. S. Lewis remains the chief exemplar here, though he was uneasy about being claimed by one party or another.
Q: What counsel would you offer to young people who want to follow a career in Christian writing?
A: Three things. Read widely and well. Write and keep on writing. Above all, rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. In rewriting, cut out all the words you can, especially adjectives and adverbs. Try to use strong verbs instead of incessantly using “is” or “are” followed by adjectives. In short, keep on writing and learn how to edit yourself.
Q: How do you see the role of a Christian magazine in these times?
A: One of our great needs is to learn how to think Christianly about every aspect of life. I believe that a Christian magazine must see every subject it deals with in the light of God’s truth. Obviously magazines must be written to be read. Therefore the Christian magazine must strive to combine interest with substance. Ideas, including theological ideas, can be made interesting. Christian journalism must exercise responsible discipleship and obey the Lord Jesus. This means that it should deal with subjects that were close to his heart and close to the hearts of the inspired writers. So Christian journalism must wrestle not only with doctrinal issues, but also with the outworking of doctrine in life. It can’t avoid discussion, for example, of difficult social issues.
Q: As an octogenarian, what counsel would you wish to pass on to the next generation of Christian leaders?
A: Maintain at all costs a daily time of Scripture reading and prayer. As I look back, I see that the most formative influence in my life and thought has been my daily contact with Scripture over sixty years. Allied to this is the necessity of taking time to be alone for reading and reflection. In these days of rapid change, Christian leaders should be open to all necessary change. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever. He is great enough to help us meet every kind of change. We should not be afraid of the new, so long as we keep close to our Lord and the Scriptures and hold to the unchanging verities of the Christian faith, which can never be negotiable.
Q: As an evangelical journalist, I have a real difficulty with objectivity. The late President Nasser, when confronted by a certain sort of problem, used to say, “I must put on different spectacles to look at that one.” My question here is, How far should my coverage of a particular event depend on whether it is an evangelical or a nonevangelical occasion? Somewhere along the line there is a conflict of journalistic integrity.
A: Obviously every journal, Christian or otherwise, has a position and that position is reflected in its pages. Although good reporting seeks to be as truthful as possible and thus as little slanted as possible, there is no such thing as perfect objectivity, simply because we neither think nor write out of a vacuum. Nevertheless, I believe that responsible Christian journalism must make unremitting efforts to tell the truth.
Q: In the continuing battle over censorship, with all the legal and commercial issues highlighted, are youth still “the forgotten people”?
A: You have reminded me that I once used these words in an editorial in CHRISTIANITY TODAY. I feel more strongly now than ever that youth are the forgotten people. I am appalled at the kind of adult who insists on savoring pornography and so-called adult entertainment without the least concern for the inevitable influence of these things on youth. Young people cannot be sealed off from the sex-obsession that affects modern society. As an educator, I know that one youth may be mature at eighteen and another may be very immature at the same age. To say that pornography in books, for example, has no effect on anybody is to contravene much of education which is based on the effect of books on the mind and life of students.
Q: What can we say of an age that has allowed letter writing to become a dying art, and that looks askance at those who on occasion feel the need for solitude?
A: That’s really a double-barreled question. That letter writing has become a dying art implies some important things. It implies, for one thing, that writing itself has become a dying art for the average person. It also suggests that we don’t care enough about people to take the time to write them letters that share something of ourselves with them. Fortunate is the person who has even a few friends to whom he can open his heart in letters. As for the second barrel of this loaded question.…
Pascal had the perfect reply when he wrote: “All the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own room.” We are so over-entertained by all sorts of media that the capacity to be by ourselves for meditation and thinking things over has dwindled.
Q: Politics is often dismissed by evangelicals as a dirty business. Would you encourage more Christian involvement here?
A: I certainly would encourage Christians to get involved in politics. If politics is sometimes dirty, this is all the more reason for Christian involvement. The unsavory side of politics is a reflection of sin—and politics is not the only field that has its dirty side. Our Lord involved himself with this sinful world. We should do no less. Evangelical Christians have some good models for political involvement. Among a number who might be mentioned here, I think of Senator Mark Hatfield, Congressmen John Anderson and Albert Quie, former Senator Harold Hughes, and, of course, President Carter. Nor are evangelicals the only Christians in government; other committed Christians are also involved in politics.
Q: You were criticized in some circles fourteen years ago for having taken part in the march from Selma to Montgomery. Do you regret having done so?
A: Too much has been made of this incident. I was sent to Selma by CHRISTIANITY TODAY to report the situation there—and, by the way, CHRISTIANITY TODAY was, I believe, the only major Christian journal that sent an editor to Selma. As for the marching, it happened this way. As the group was leaving Selma to begin their walk to Montgomery, the members of the press were walking along with them as a separate group on the side. I felt so keenly the rightness of the march that I moved from the side and joined the marchers as they walked out of the city and crossed the bridge over the Alabama River. This was simply an expression of personal feeling, and I do not regret it. But it was really a very little thing.
Q: What do you see as upcoming issues in which Christians should be involved?
A: To speak of “upcoming issues” would require me to indulge in prophecy, and this I am not qualified for. I think, however, that the kind of issues you have in mind are here already. I believe that Christians should be involved in the great social issues that the Bible so clearly stresses—issues relating to poverty, hunger, morality, justice, and peace. In other words, things that have to do with all aspects of human welfare.
Q: What do you consider the most important part of your life?
A: My forty-one years as headmaster of The Stony Brook School. As its first headmaster I had the privilege, beginning in 1922, of working out and endeavoring to practice in a new school an integrated philosophy of Christian education based on certain principles. These are: that a Christian school must have a faculty made up of Christian believers; that a Christian school must seek to relate all of learning to the Christian faith; that a Christian school must accept the principle that all truth is God’s truth; and that a Christian school must strive for excellence to the glory of God. My years at Stony Brook enabled me to think and work along those lines; in this I had the indispensable help of a number of gifted and devoted teachers, responsive students, and understanding trustees. Since my retirement in 1963, Stony Brook has made great strides not only academically but also in the spirit of love and concern that pervades the school community. For all this and for the privilege of being a Christian teacher for so many years, I thank God.
G. Douglas Young is founder and president of the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem. He has lived there since 1963.
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