Journalist Marvin Olasky tells the story of his sometimes rocky relationship with his father, the product of a good deal of fascinating research on his father after his death. Join Scott and Sean for this interview as he reflects on this relationship and what it taught him about his own role as a father to his own children.
Marvin Olasky is currently the Editor in Chief for World magazine and has been involved with the magazine for more than thirty years. He taught journalism at the University of Texas for 24 years and served at King’s College and Patrick Henry College. He also serves as Senior Fellow at the Acton Institute. He is the author of 28 books including The Tragedy of American Compassion.
Scott Rae: Welcome to "Think Biblically", conversations on faith and culture. Podcast from Talbot School of Theology here at Biola University.
Scott Rae: I'm your host, Scott Rae, Dean of faculty and professor of Christian ethics.
Sean McDowell: And I'm your co-host Sean McDowell, professor of Christian apologetics.
Scott Rae: We're here today with our special guest, longtime editor of World Magazine, Marvin Olasky.
Scott Rae: Taught journalism at the University of Texas for almost 25 years. Also a professor at the Kings College, Patrick Henry College, Senior Fellow at the Acton Institute.
Scott Rae: You've been editor of World Magazine for more than 30 years. He's the author of 28 books, including what I think maybe he's best known for, a book entitled, "The Tragedy of American Compassion". The thing that I found most interesting about Marvin is that he throughout his career has visited more than 79 Major League Baseball stadiums and spring training baseball stadiums. So an avid baseball fan to boot. We probably shouldn't get him started too much on the baseball subject but we're here to talk about his new book entitled "Lament For A Father".
Scott Rae: So Marvin, thank you so much for joining us, delighted to have you with us today.
Marvin Olasky: Well, thank you for asking me. Glad to be here.
Scott Rae: Yeah, this book on fathers is really different from most of your other books, because most of your other books are about the relationship between faith and culture, journalism, things like that. Why did you decide to write this particular book and why did you call it a lament?
Marvin Olasky: The actual writing started after I wrote a column for World based on the movie Field of Dreams and my own experience.
Marvin Olasky: I wrote about how I had one almost catch lifetime with my father and it did not turn out well, we never had another one and that was pretty sad. It was a lament of a column and the reader response, probably the third most letters I have ever gotten in a column came there and lots of people writing about their own experiences with their dads and the black holes they face in some ways as they think back.
Marvin Olasky: So I started to think, hey, this is something I can do. That will pushed me to do research and learn some things that I didn't know, but also be helpful to other people.
Sean McDowell: Well kind of man was your father? And also what early events in his life shaped who he became.
Marvin Olasky: He was a very solitary person, liked to read a lot, did not particularly want to socialize with others. And when I found interesting, the more I learned about him is that as a teenager, he was hugely ambitious and that changed when I was growing up, he really just liked to stay home and read science fiction and mystery books.
Marvin Olasky: The marriage was not a particularly happy one in lots of ways, but they did stick together with each other, which I look back at and I'm thankful for. But the thing I think that really changed him, that started to change him, grew out of the experience he had first applying to Harvard University then getting in and having changes, because what I didn't know until I got the records from Harvard, was that he actually applied twice.
Marvin Olasky: He graduated from Malden High School. Malden as a working class suburb at that time, about seven miles north of Boston, he applied and was rejected.
Marvin Olasky: And one of the reasons I suspect he was rejected is because there was a lot of antisemitism at Harvard at that time. And he had recommendations from people that were highly connected with his Jewish upbringing. Recommendation from neighbors. He has the wisdom of the rabbis of your, he's a fine Hebrew scholar. Those were exactly the wrong type of recommendations to have to try to get into Harvard at that point. But somehow after graduating from Malden High School, he was able to take a special postgraduate year at Boston Latin, which was the elite high school in Boston, a feeder school for Harvard and there he showed that he could do that work, but also he got recommendations such as he's a manly fellow. He's a person of good character who will have a good influence on his chums. Those types of things, the Jewish aspect was completely gone. He essentially remade himself in that year in order to get into Harvard and he succeeded.
Marvin Olasky: So that showed the ambition he had at that time, and it was strange that several things happened, I think that just knocked that out of him.
Scott Rae: So before we get to those, I want to go back a generation before your father, you described your grandfather as a fairly serious Orthodox Jew. Your father had a bit different view of Judaism as he developed as an adult. How was that different?
Scott Rae: And then you described some things in college that sort of changed his religious views. How did those impact him?
Marvin Olasky: Well, my grandfather, an Orthodox Jew from the Ukraine, part of the Russian empire at that time, he came to this country in 1913 and continued as an Orthodox Jew with some Hasidic overtones. That is some emotion rather than pure rationality, but a deep commitment to the Hebrew scriptures, the old Testament. And as far as I know, my father growing up had that, he went to the synagogue all the time with my grandfather.
Marvin Olasky: At Harvard. He faced a different type of situation. After starting out as a pre-med major, but finding he had very little interest in chemistry and biology, he switched to anthropology. Harvard had an anthropology professor named Houdin who was glamorized, probably the most favorite professor of lots of people. Life Magazine had six pages on Houdin of Harvard. He had what sounded like really fascinating lectures.
Marvin Olasky: Everyone wanted to be like Houdin and be in Houdin's good graces. And Houdin was a very straightforward Darwinian, believed in evolution over long periods of time. And my father wanted to do well in school. He was helping to go to graduate school in anthropology and work directly with Houdin and in his senior year, as far as I can see, he faced a real challenge. He had to write a senior thesis, and was he going to stick with the theology of his father, or was he going to do something that Houdin would like.
Marvin Olasky: And I eventually got his thesis that he wrote, and it was straightforward Darwinian, the ancient Hebrews weren't any different from the other people, the near east, they just learned from the Babylonians. There was nothing about the Bible being inspired by God.
Marvin Olasky: So yeah, he just basically went over to the other side in order to stay in the good graces, and have Houdin admit him to graduate school.
Scott Rae: Now you described in the book also that anthropology program that he studied and was also connected to the eugenics movement in the United States, in the 1920s. How did that impact him as a Jewish person?
Marvin Olasky: Well, I would've thought it would impact him negatively because Orthodox Jews, like Christians, believe that we're all created it in God's image, and thus we all have significance, but Houdin, while being a eugenicist was somewhat of an unusual eugenicist. He had biases against people from Africa, people from Asia, but he really liked Jews. He encountered lots of smart Jews, and so he thought that Jews were ahead on the evolutionary curve. And I suspect my father enjoyed hearing that.
Sean McDowell: Talk about the experience of World War II and how that shaped him as a person.
Marvin Olasky: Well, he had a deferment when World War II started, he worked alongside his father, my grandfather, making boilers for were submarines. He could have sat out the war very comfortably, but he heard what Hitler was doing to Jews in Europe. He enlisted, basically went to training in Florida, must have been a real jolt because he'd always lived at home. He had been a commuter to Harvard for economic reasons, and suddenly he's there with very little privacy. The staple food was pork and he'd had to eat it or starve. I think that was probably hard on him in lots of ways, but he apparently worked hard, he packed parachutes for flyers and the war ended, but he didn't come home right away.
Marvin Olasky: He was in Europe for another six months. And at least as I understand the way the army worked, he didn't just sit around.
Marvin Olasky: They put him to work, as Harvard testing showed, he had a good knowledge of German, which came partly from growing up with Yiddish, highly related to German. And I can't prove this because the military records were all destroyed in a fire in St. Louis about 20 years ago. And he never talked about it, but other people who knew German, particularly if they were Jewish, who were brought in this translators to go to the concentration camps and speak with refugees and help them resettle.
Marvin Olasky: I can't say for sure, but that's almost certainly what he did during those six months. And if indeed he did that, he would've seen when he went there right after the end of the war, he would've seen the dead bodies stacked up like firewood. He would've seen big jars with hands and feet. He would've seen some really brutal grizzly things and he would've heard how terrible things were, but he never told either my brother or myself or my mother, as far as I know, he never talked that he was kind of like, if you see Law and Order or other programs, he was the cop or the detective who kept everything to himself, which I think wrecked some psychological havoc, but protected his wife and my brother and me.
Marvin Olasky: I never grew up with any sense of antisemitism whilst if he had told me stories about what he had seen, I suspect I would have, and that might have been an impediment to my eventually becoming a Christian.
Scott Rae: Now you described several things that transformed him from an ambitious person into, well, I think term you use is an underage achieving father. Anything else besides what took place in World War II that affected that transformation?
Marvin Olasky: Well, strike one was changing his theology to make professor Houdin like him. And then he went to graduate school in anthropology at Harvard, and after this first year was kicked out. And I can speculate on why he was a little bit socially awkward as I am too. And Houdin really wanted evangelists not for God, but for Houdin's version of anthropology.
Marvin Olasky: He wanted them to go out and found anthropology departments around the country, and that was not something my father was really capable of doing. There may have been other reasons too, but strike one I think was being after really changing his thinking was being kicked out of Harvard.
Marvin Olasky: Strike two, I think was seeing the aftermath of World War II and then strike three, his marriage was very unhappy.
Marvin Olasky: My mother grew up poor. She thought she was going to be marrying someone who had a PhD from Harvard and they wouldn't have a whole lot of money, but they would have enough. And there would be a lot of prestige.
Marvin Olasky: She would travel around with him. She would be the wife of the distinguished world famous anthropology professor, and none of that happened. And we were not dead poor, but pretty poor. And I don't think she ever really forgave him for frustrating her in that way, being not the person she expected she would marry. So lots of nagging, lots of nastiness and I think that was strike three.
Marvin Olasky: It's one thing to be turned down by Harvard and see these brutal things in the war, but then to be turned down by your wife was particularly hard. And I think that was strike three, and he just gave up at that point.
Sean McDowell: What was this experience like for you with the way you describe an underachieving father and at least minimally a disappointed mother. How did that process your life, self-identity, your faith and affect you in other ways?
Marvin Olasky: Well, it probably turned me into more of a reader because I could escape the home discord by reading books, particularly I loved reading books on American history as I was growing up. So it had that influence.
Marvin Olasky: It probably also made me in a strange way, somewhat of a peacemaker. I would hope as Christians, we all are, but when you have an angry mother and an escaping father, I think I was the one who wanted to say, is there any way we can all get along? And that probably influenced me when I was on the... I'm an elder in the Presbyterian Church in America and on the session, the Elder board of the church for 10 years, we had people from different perspectives, all Christians, but understanding different things.
Marvin Olasky: And I was usually the moderate there trying to bring peace. And I was the clerk, which meant I would craft the resolutions. And I tried to have resolutions that everyone could sign off for. And that probably continues in other ways true.
Marvin Olasky: I try in my awkward and not really sophisticated way to try to be a peacemaker at times. And my columns sometimes are not pacific, but at least in my personal relationships, I want people to get along and I'm often unsuccessful in that.
Scott Rae: So, Marvin, let's talk a little bit about your own experience. You were raised in a Jewish home, drifted away from that, and eventually came to faith with a stop at Atheism and Leninism. Tell us a little bit about that journey, and I'm particularly interested in how your father reacted to your conversion.
Marvin Olasky: Well, real briefly, I followed what is a tradition among many American Jewish teenagers of the past half century or so. Bar mitzvah at 13 atheist of 14. When I was 14, I read Sigmund Freud, "The Future of an Illusion" where he talks about God as imaginary and people perhaps making up the stuff about God, because they're seeking a father.
Marvin Olasky: If their earthly father disappointed them, they have a heavenly father. And that of course rang true to my experience, but I didn't want to just be making up a heavenly father. So I thought that was pretty silly stuff and I was at age 14, wiser than that.
Marvin Olasky: And then I read a book by H. G. Wells, the science fiction writer, but he also wrote a bestselling history of the world, which also is straight Darwinian, straight atheist and I just bought that entirely. So atheist at 14, at age 18, I went to Yale University and was a liberal at that point, but I kept moving left and left and left. A Marxist then actually joined the communist party. And I won't go through that whole story, did some travel around the world and so forth, but yeah, in November, actually November 1st, 1973, I'm 23 years old and God and his remarkable providence and mercy just in a very strange eight hour experience made me aware that he exists and that communism therefore, which is based on atheism, communism is wrong.
Marvin Olasky: So I left the communist party. Didn't want to... I knew that becoming a Christian was semi suicidal in the academic environment. So I really ran away from that in lots of ways, but God and his mercy kept pursuing me, just real briefly, a couple of examples of how this worked.
Marvin Olasky: You have to have a good reading knowledge of a foreign language to get a PhD. I think that's still the case. And I had forgotten my childhood Hebrew. I was never good at my high school French. I had learned some Russian traveling on a Soviet freighter and across the trans Siberian railroad. So I kept studying Russian. That was the language I was going to use to get my PhD. And one night in my room in 1974, and this was after leaving the communist party, but I was far enough in Russian, I wanted to keep going with it.
Marvin Olasky: I picked up a book that had been given to me a couple years before sort of a souvenir. It was a copy of the New Testament in Russian, which I hadn't looked at before, but I picked it up for reading practice. And I'm probably the only person who really loved at the beginning of Matthew where they're all the begets son of and so forth.
Marvin Olasky: Because I could read through that chapter to really quickly I got it. And then everything else I had to read very, very slowly, my knowledge of Russian wasn't very good.
Marvin Olasky: But when I got to the Sermon on the Mount, I thought, wow, this is really special. Of course, as a communist, I was told if someone hit you on the cheek, kill him and here Jesus is saying, turn the other cheek. I thought, wow, this isn't human stuff. This is coming from God. It just really impressed me. And again, I was just doing it for reading practice.
Marvin Olasky: Later at the end of 1974, I was assigned, I was in graduate school at the University of Michigan. I'm assigned to teach a course on early American literature, which I never studied.
Marvin Olasky: I majored in American studies and history in college, but I never studied early American literature. I didn't want to have anything to do with those Puritans, but the senior professors, none of them wanted to teach it, they wanted to teach about Polynesian literature and so forth. So I had to do it. Someone had to do it. It was on the syllabus.
Marvin Olasky: So I had to start reading Puritan literature. What's early American literature, lots of Puritan sermons.
Marvin Olasky: These were dead white males from 300 plus years ago, but they had an impact on me because I grew up with the prejudice of thinking that Christians are stupid people who worship Christmas trees.
Marvin Olasky: And you read the Puritans. You can love them. You can hate them, but boy, it is hard to consider them stupid.
Marvin Olasky: They thought hard and logically, they analyzed things, all the early Puritans and Jonathan Edwards often considered the greatest philosopher in American history.
Marvin Olasky: Just really big intellects, that impressed me a lot.
Marvin Olasky: So yeah, this was breaking down my prejudices and still I kept running from it. But finally started going to church. I figured I should find out what Christians today believes since all I knew is what they believed 300 years ago. And I'll tell you finally, and this may be useful for people who worry sometimes about witnessing to intellectual types, what will I say to them and so forth?
Marvin Olasky: The deacon of visitation of this little church came over to my apartment and said, this was his whole evangelistic appeal. After I'd been going to that church for several months, he said, "You believe this stuff, don't you?" And I said, reluctantly. "Yeah, I guess I do." And he said, "Well then you better join up." Which meant getting baptized and so forth. And so that's just about the weakest profession of faith. my profession you can imagine, but yeah, that was the beginning and God mercifully has overlooked my evil and arrogance and ignorance and taught me things over the 45 years since then.
Sean McDowell: Marvin, I'm curious if you're familiar with the work by Paul Vitz called "Faith of the Fatherless" and-
Marvin Olasky: Yes. Read that maybe about... I'm not really current on it, but probably 20 years ago I read that and yeah, I remember being very favorably impressed by it. More than that I'd probably have to look at it again, given my memory, but yeah, good book.
Sean McDowell: Yeah, that's fair. His basic premise was that some of the great atheists like Marks and Freud and Camus either had kind of dead distant or harsh fathers and it moved them in many ways towards atheism. How would that intersect with your story, did that just ring true to you?
Marvin Olasky: That rings true to me. And yeah, I was an atheist for 10 or so years, nine years and yeah, except for God's inscrutable mercy and reaching out to me, I probably still would be.
Marvin Olasky: And yeah, that does ring true to me, but I think I became a Christian purely through God's grace and reading particularly the new Testament had a long term effect on me, because I don't know if it was an emotional appeal, I suppose it was in some ways, but in many ways it was primarily an intellectual appeal. This just really made so much sense to me that even though I wanted to deny it, I just could not keep denying it.
Scott Rae: How did your father react to your conversion?
Marvin Olasky: Well, he was somewhat prepared for it in some way. Not totally surprised because first I had had married a non-Christian, but someone from a Christian background, a very liberal United Methodist background, like Hillary Clinton's background.
Marvin Olasky: And although she had as far to come, my wife had as far to come as me coming from a different direction in order to affirm Christ. Still I think in my father's eyes, well, if she comes from a Christian family, she's a Christian.
Marvin Olasky: Again, a very theologically liberal Christian family that pretty much discarded Christ. But I think in my father's view, I am marrying a Shexa, a Christian.
Marvin Olasky: So I think it was not a total surprise for him when, because I had hinted at this in some ways that I was no longer an atheist that I was thinking about God, but still when I actually did it, this was not something he was pleased with. Although again, at that point I was teaching in California and I told him this probably in a phone call, we didn't talk a whole lot and we visited several times after that, but I occasionally brought it up and he always changed the subject. So yeah, I am surmising that he was not pleased with us at all, but it was just something he didn't want to talk about. And I did want to talk about it. Probably should have talked about it more, but that was that.
Sean McDowell: How do your experience with your father, that you share in the book and you've shared with us here, influence your own relationship with your children?
Marvin Olasky: Good question. In the simplest ways, and this is pretty superficial, but in the simplest ways, I was sure to do with them what I wish my father had done with me in the sense of taking trips, seeing things, going to baseball games, going to Disneyland, coming to my baseball games, with our four sons, I think because they were spaced apart somewhat. I think I had 24 straight years of going to little league games. And yeah, I wish my father had come to my games. Not that I was much of an athlete, but I would've liked that.
Marvin Olasky: So in those superficial things, but still meaningful things, I mean, I went to their games. We took long car trips together. So those types of things that I wish my father had done with me.
Marvin Olasky: Now, when you go deeper and we never know what kind of effect this is going to have on our children, but we always had dinner together, we had Bible reading, we went to church together. I certainly tried to be influential in that way while still understanding that it's even with what we call a covenant child, it still is God's doing.
Marvin Olasky: My father moved from, well, his father's orthodoxy, from Orthodox synagogues and to conservative synagogues, which is middle of the road Judaism to reform synagogues, which is the equivalent of very liberal Christianity to nothing. And he would still talk with me about the importance of Jewish culture, but at the center of it, namely God, he did not have that belief. And I perceived this as a donut, there was nothing in the middle.
Marvin Olasky: And again, I was believing Sigmund Freud and believing H. G. Wells, but who knows if there had been some counter influence, maybe that would've had some meaning, but there really wasn't because he had apparently sadly lost his faith and just not replaced it with anything that I was aware of. So yeah, very, very sad. And I am sorry that I did not speak out more and perhaps help. I don't know if it would've, but I should have tried harder and thought more about him than about myself.
Scott Rae: Well, and I think you described that your view of your father changed over time as to see them more as individuals with struggles, as opposed to people who just existed to meet your own needs. And that I think it's a helpful and formative change in the way you view your own parents.
Scott Rae: But one final question. What advice would you have for dads today based on your experience with your own father?
Marvin Olasky: Well, a couple of things it's important for fathers who are be believers. It's important for children to see the reality of the belief in your daily life.
Marvin Olasky: For example, if you are a Christian and you are pro-life, it makes an impact on your children. If they see you, not just talking, but walking, it made it impact on our children when, for example, there was a young woman going through a crisis pregnancy and she came and lived in our house for nine months.
Marvin Olasky: I think it made an impact seeing our involvement in pro-life activities, our involvement in church, that we thought this was important that we were consistent in our Bible reading and prayer. So the kids saw some reality in that, and that's important. That's really important.
Marvin Olasky: And then again, on the superficial level, at least take the time to do at least with your kids, what you wish your dad had done with them.
Marvin Olasky: Now, you may find out that your children actually wish you had done other things with them and they didn't speak out, but my kids and I, we went to football games together, and a lot of things like that.
Marvin Olasky: Now I wish in retrospect that, and I did not come from a hunting or fishing family, so I didn't know how to do any of that. And didn't do that with my kids. And I wish had taken the effort to do some of that, so that there'd still be along with just visiting each other and talking with each other, there'd be a common activity in which we could engage.
Marvin Olasky: Most of my kids are, are baseball fans and so forth, and we can talk about that. And we tried to be consistent in living in one city, Austin for a long time.
Marvin Olasky: So they're University of Texas football fans. And we can talk about that, but we don't have those same prized activities like hunting and fishing together. So that's something I would recommend that I did not do.
Marvin Olasky: But yeah, just being there and going to their activities, but particularly in terms of Christian faith, showing a consistency that you really do believe this and it affects your life, I think is really important for them. Even then, of course, no guarantees, but at least they are aware that you're not just a talker.
Scott Rae: Well, Marvin, what I so appreciate about your book is just your vulnerability where you describe your own family and your family of origin in pretty realistic terms, commend your book to our listeners, "Lament For a Father". It's really a terrific read and got lots of things that I think would generate people's reflection on their own parents and their own parenting if they have children. So it's a really valuable war work.
Scott Rae: And even if our backgrounds are completely different than yours, I think there's a lot to learn here from your experience with your own dad.
Scott Rae: So thanks so much for writing the book and for coming on with us really appreciate it.
Marvin Olasky: Well, thanks. And just one last word. I mean, I've talked about the weaknesses of my father, but I really do look at him as a hero in some ways in that he didn't tell us about what he saw in the concentration camps.
Marvin Olasky: That was very helpful for our psychology. He kept that with himself, which was a brave thing to do.
Marvin Olasky: Psychologically damaging perhaps in some ways, but still heroic in his willingness to do that. I very much appreciate.
Scott Rae: Well, I also want to commend to our listeners if you're not familiar with World Magazine, it's a terrific source of news through a distinctly Christian set of lenses that Marvin's been the editor of for more than 30 years now. So it's a terrific publication that we'd encourage you to take a look at as well.
Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture.
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