Some come to Christ in a moment. With others, it takes longer. Even after God knocked me out of the Communist Party with an evening of epiphany on Nov. 1, 1973, I still for a time floated spiritually on a dead sea. But God in 1974 used unusual means-a New Testament in Russian, a book of Puritan sermons -to start breaking down my anti-Christian bias. And in 1975, even though the only decorations in my Ann Arbor apartment were a Hula Hoop and a glass tank with two gerbils, hope grabbed me.
I visited Boston in June 1975 and stayed in an apartment 12 miles west of the city. One afternoon I walked those miles to the spot in Boston that had given me feelings of contentment when growing up, Fenway Park, and sat in the bleachers for the game that evening between the Red Sox and the Yankees. Watching Luis Tiant pitch, his body twisting with every fastball and curve, I felt hopeful. Late at night I walked back, singing under the stars, and for some reason thinking about God.
The sticking point for me was not His existence but His sovereignty. Even though I was no longer a Marxist, the words of Marx still haunted me: "A being only considers himself independent when he stands on his own two feet, when he owes his existence to himself. A man who lives by the grace of another regards himself as a dependent being." I knew that God existed but my intellectual pride left me not wanting to admit dependence. Furthermore-sad but true-I wanted the intellectual and sexual promiscuity that modern university life serves up, and an allegiance to God would mean a turning away from all that.
I first chose the easier way of changing politically and economically rather than theologically. In reaction against Marxism I read pro-capitalism books by Henry Hazlitt (Economics in One Lesson), Frederic Bastiat, Milton Friedman, and others: Free markets, yes! I started reading National Review: Political conservatism, yes! But the book making the largest impact on me was Witness, the autobiography of Whittaker Chambers, a Communist Party member in the 1920s and 1930s who had come to believe in God.
Chambers wrote, "A Communist breaks because he must choose at last between irreconcilable opposites-God or Man, Soul or Mind, Freedom or Communism." He emphasized that the battle was between faith in God and faith in Man, and not just between different economic or cultural systems: "The crisis of the Western world exists to the degree in which it is indifferent to God." Would I be indifferent?
In relation to Christ, that was my plan. I had put my hands over my ears rather than listen to Christmas carols as a child, and I had listened intently as a Yale student when professors suggested that Christianity is a religion for stupid people. Not wanting to espouse what intellectual people identified as superstition, I tried to escape in a variety of ways. Baseball card games that I played frequently with a friend who was trying to forget about his girlfriend. Shooting hundreds of foul shots at the gym. Drinking cases of diet chocolate soda. Accumulating books. I would do everything except pray.
I tried to escape by watching old movies at the U. of Michigan campus film societies, flitting from one to another from among the five or so offered each evening. But the old movies that affected me the most were ones with Christian themes like It's a Wonderful Life, and even old Westerns where the main character had to cross over from evil to good. And beginning in August, 1975, a smart and comely Michigan senior accompanied me in my movie-going.
Her name: Susan. Her background: Politically and theologically liberal, having gone as a child to a very liberal United Methodist church (like Hillary Clinton's) and never truly heard the gospel. We started seeing each other every day, and I took it upon myself to educate her, quickly giving her a copy of Chambers' book Witness. After we had known each other for two weeks I proposed to her. Wanting her to be proud of me, I decided no longer to be indifferent to questions of right and wrong.
Oddly, the initial battles grew out of my attempts to escape battles. I had become treasurer of the Cinema Guild, one of the campus groups that showed movies every night, and while examining the books had learned that the officers traditionally lied about receipts and didn't remit the right amounts to the "capitalist film distributors." Having also stolen, I was no better than the other officers, but this time I persisted in my demands for honesty and got my way by threatening to expose the deceit.
The escapist genre, Westerns, of the escapist medium, movies, also moved me out of an escapist mentality. I decided to write a dissertation that would connect changes in Westerns from the 1930s through the 1960s with changes in American culture. That subject made dealing with Communism unavoidable, because Marxist screenwriters in the 1930s and 1940s had gained Hollywood power, blacklisted their opponents, and tried to insinuate their ideas of class struggle into popular movies such as Westerns: Small ranchers against big cattle barons, California gold rush miners cheated by capitalists, etc.
My dissertation draft also showed how conservatives had triumphed briefly in the late 1940s and 1950s and red-listed the left, only to encounter a Marxist comeback in the 1960s that turned Westerns into an attack on America. This was politically incorrect stuff, but maybe because Susan grabbed my heart and Westerns stiffened my spine, I pushed ahead. Maybe the Holy Spirit was working, as is often the case, through intermediate means.
The chairman of my academic program and dissertation committee, Marvin Felheim, had praised me fulsomely when I was a Marxist in his class during my first semester in graduate school. Here's a quotation from his recommendation, which I include only because the contrast with what followed is so sharp: "Marvin Olasky has made the most distinguished record of any of our graduate students in recent years. He is a phenomenally good student and a first-rate teacher. He has made his way through our Ph.D. program in record time, without sacrificing his scholarship or his sense of humor."
He went on in that vein, stating that "in everything he has studied, he has been thorough as well as imaginative and has come up with new insights, even about old subjects." But Felheim was on leave during my second year in graduate school and did not know that my new insights were far from Marxist. His first reaction to reading my new approach was sympathy for what he saw as temporary insanity: He wrote, "I have great faith in your determination and drive. I also respect your intelligence. But I have no insight into your emotional state."
When he saw in the next draft that I wasn't backing down, he (still on leave) wrote back furiously that the films I critiqued as anti-American were "simply telling the truth" and that I had been taken in by fascists who "control the mass media of this country." He wrote, "From now on I have no intention of trying to argue. I will simply reject." He plaintively concluded, "I thought you were one of our most intelligent students."
He finally wrote, two weeks before my final Ph.D. examination was scheduled, "You are using the program and the university in a way that I cannot accept. This is the last communication you shall have from me and I would prefer not to have it answered." He resigned from my dissertation committee. That could have meant one more academic career of a non-leftist aborted-but God had other plans.
Stephen Tonsor was the only conservative among the U. of Michigan's 38 history professors. We had never met: He was in European intellectual history and not my area of American politics and film. Nevertheless, when I showed him my A-laden transcript, my dissertation summary, and Felheim's angry notes, he saw an academic lynching in the making. (Thank God that long-distance telephone calls were expensive then, so Felheim had put his attacks in writing.) Tonsor agreed to chair my dissertation committee. In June, 1976, he steered me through. As Dr. Olasky I became the proud owner of one of America's rare titles of nobility.
Susan steered me as well. She had stuck with me when I clearly did not deserve her. She did not think my brains had fallen out. She even liked my heart. We were married near the end of June, in a secular ceremony, but God was pushing on both of us. In July we drove the least expensive car I could buy, a Chevette with no back seat, no radio, and no air conditioning, to my first full-time teaching post at San Diego State University.
It was time to go beyond reading Puritan sermons and start finding out what a church toward the end of the 20th century was like. I grabbed from the library a book with a title something like What United Methodists Believe, but it seemed merely a pale reflection of liberal politics. Finger-walking through the Yellow Pages to find a church, I saw many under the "Churches-Baptist" heading-and I knew from my reading that Christians baptized. Within that category was a sub-heading, "Conservative." I didn't want anything related to Communism, so "Conservative" sounded fine.
Off we went to the First Conservative Baptist Church of La Mesa, Calif., with its small, old-pew sanctuary, its well-worn hymnals, its elderly population, and its nonintellectual pastor who essentially had only one sermon that he preached week after week, "Ye must be born again."
It was perfect. God uses the simple to surprise the purportedly wise. As writer Eric Metaxas puts it, "Suddenly the penny drops and for some unknowable reason you turn your life over to Jesus in a completely new way."
Except that in my case the sudden continued to be slow. For two months Susan and I listened. Week after week the organist slowly played the hymn, "Just as I am." Week after week several dozen pairs of eyes politely stared at us, the only newcomers. We didn't move. We went one night to hear Billy Graham at the ballpark of the San Diego Padres. At the moment of decision we did not make a decision, but at least we didn't object to anything he was saying.
The church also practiced softball evangelism. In the first evening game of the fall season I joined the First Conservative Baptist softball team and played second base. The first ball hit to me went right through my legs-too many mashed potatoes at dinner-and my teammates showed Christlike forbearance. But we still didn't join the church.
Finally the deacon of visitation, elderly Earl Atnip, came to our apartment. He and I sat outside in the fall southern California sunshine. A simple, kind man, he did not offer any intellectual razzamatazz. He held up a Bible and said, as best I recall, "You believe this stuff, don't you?" I mumbled, "Well, yeah, I do." He said, "Then you'd better join up."
Irrefutable logic. My response-"Well, I guess I should"-may have set the record for the weakest proclamation of faith imaginable. Joyfully, Christ's deeds and words, not our own, are key. Not only did I show myself unable to change on my own, but for nearly three years I resisted grace that proved itself irresistible. On the Sunday after Earl Atnip's visit, Susan and I were both baptized and became church members.
Everything immediately changed. We lived happily ever after. The end.
Not exactly. Conversion stories sometimes end with a victorious profession of faith-but the larger story was just beginning.
To be continued . . .
To read the other articles in this multi-part series and to hear podcast commentaries by Marvin Olasky on this series, click here.