[As America began the day on Halloween back in 1938, the news of the day is what had happened–or hadn’t really happened–the night before. That was the night of the famous ‘WAR OF THE WORLDS’ hoax broadcast by Orson Welles. Below I’ve posted a chapter from my book, ‘HOW TO KEEP CALM & CARRY ON,’ which begins with the story of that night 77 years ago. — DRS]
By the late 1930s, radio was a living room fixture in the majority of American homes. Furniture was arranged around the device, like big screen televisions today (which my wife still won’t let me have—sigh…). People back then were increasingly entertained, amused, and informed via the talking box. It was a great time for the imagination. Images were created in the brain, not on a screen.
Though radio news had been part of broadcast schedules for many years, the events in Europe leading up to World War II did for that medium, what the first Gulf War did for cable television news in the early 1990s. The marriage of medium to moment brought radio to critical mass.
In September 1938, the famous broadcaster of the day, H.V. Kaltenborn, made 102 broadcasts in eighteen days as the rumors of war in Europe reached fever pitch. That was during the Munich Crisis as British and French leaders persisted in denial and pathetically continued to try appeasement with Hitler.
More radio sets were sold during those eighteen days than any other similar period in history. People sensed war was coming and they wanted to be able to know the latest. Radio news became a major part of the line-up as the time allotted for news swelled to more than ten percent of total airtime.
As the world grew more dangerous, it was also getting smaller.
Of course, people also wanted and enjoyed the entertainment. There was no doubt about that. It provided a measure of escape from the challenges of domestic life in a time of economic depression (there was actually a 2nd Great Depression in 1938) and from a larger world that seemed determined to destroy itself.
There was comedy with Jack Benny, suspense with The Green Hornet, and even more suspense with The Shadow. Big companies would purchase blocks of time for advertisement. So some shows bore corporate names—sort of like a lot of sports stadiums today. For example, The Texaco Star Theater, debuting October 5, 1938, featured comedy and variety.
But the favorite entertainer that year—especially for boys like my dad and his older brother—was the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy, Charlie McCarthy. Never mind that even I could do ventriloquism on radio. the Stokes brothers never missed a Sunday night broadcast of The Chase and Sandborn Hour.
One Sunday that autumn, the Stokes brothers stayed a couple of nights at their Uncle Joe’s house in Detroit. The next night was Halloween and his neighborhood was a great place to fill their pillowcases with candy. So Jerry (my dad) and his brother Jim took their places on the rug near the big console radio in Uncle Joe’s living room at 8:00 p.m. and set the dial to WXYZ, which carried the NBC Blue Network.
They laughed at the opening bit, a typically hilarious Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy routine. Then their laughter turned to near instant boredom as some dumb lady came on and did a drama thing. Never mind that the lady was Madeleine Carroll, a famous British actress—the highest paid that year in Hollywood, earning more than $250,000. She became a big star via her recent performance in a popular Alfred Hitchcock film called The 39 Steps.
None of that impressed Jerry and Jimmy; they wanted to hear the funny stuff.
So they turned the dial back and forth and soon found some pretty cool music on WWJ, which carried CBS shows. Mercury Theater was scheduled to be on the air at that moment. So they left the dial there and tapped their toes to a band playing a Spanish-sounding song, fully planning to check back at WXYZ a few minutes later for more Charlie McCarthy fun. Possibly this is exactly the moment channel surfing was discovered.
But the boys never made it back to the NBC Blue Network that night. In fact, all across America in thousands upon thousands of homes, little boys and girls and all grown up adults glued their ears to what was being piped into their living rooms. It began like this:
“Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News. At twenty minutes before eight, Central Time, Professor Farrell of the Mount Jennings Observatory, Chicago, Illinois, reports observing several explosions of incandescent gas, occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars. The spectroscope indicates the gas to be hydrogen and moving towards the Earth with enormous velocity…”
Then all of sudden, it was back to the Spanish music as Jerry and Jimmy stared at each other. They called out, “Hey Uncle Joe, come here, something just happened on the radio.”
Similar scenes played out all across the country that night. The music was interrupted again and again with more details about a spaceship crashing in a place called Grovers Mill, New Jersey. Something snake-like crawled out. Fields caught fire. All reported on the radio.
Forget that Hitler guy who wanted to take over some far away place called Czechoslovakia—these were Martians—and they wanted New Jersey!
Of course, it was all a hoax first dreamed up by a young radio actor named John Houseman (he grew up to become Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase) and brought to life by his boss, 23-year-old Orson Welles. It had been advertised right in newspapers earlier that day in the section where it showed the radio lineup for that night. There in plain sight it said: “Play ‘War of the Worlds,’ Mercury Theater. CBS Radio.” And the broadcast began with a disclaimer—which didn’t help all the people tuning in late.
The radio spoof became a textbook case of mass hysteria. In an instant, millions of people believed we were under attack by aliens.
Of course, H. G. Wells and Orson Welles were ahead of their times with their interest in aliens. These days you can find countless books and movies about the idea of odd-looking life forms coming from somewhere “out there” to do us harm. Just do a Google search on “Area 51” and you’ll find thousands of pages of theories about the subject.
Oh, and by the way, you’ll also be placed on an interplanetary watch list—just sayin’.
Yet according to the Scriptures, aliens have been on the earth for thousands of years.
The first real life alien was a fellow named Abraham. And he passed on his alien DNA to his son, and now there are millions of people with the “not from this world” gene in them. It’s called “incorruptible seed” in one place. And when you have this gene you are born again.
Cue the church organ.
The writer of the Book of Hebrews said this about Abraham and his heirs:
“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were aliens and strangers on earth.” — Hebrews 11:13
The words “aliens” and “strangers” are from similar Greek words meaning “belonging to another”—in other words, from somewhere else. Having done my share of world travel, I have managed to provoke the question loosely translated: “You’re not from around here are you?” This has also been expressed to me on occasion without the use of words—just a condescending stare.
Have you ever known someone who was really “different?”
Have you ever said of someone, “That guy must be from another planet?”
Better yet, has anyone ever noted such a difference in you because of your faith, that it just seems to them to be—strange?
Distraction and Detachment
The Bible reminds us in several places that one of the secrets to being able to Keep Calm and Carry On is to see ourselves as temporary residents of this world—just passing through. We’re here, but because Christ has redeemed us and lives in our hearts, we’re not from here.
“But our citizenship is in heaven…” — Philippians 3:20
“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To God’s elect, STRANGERS IN THE WORLD (Emphasis added) scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia,” — I Peter 1:1
“Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as STRANGERS here in reverent fear.” — I Peter 1:17
“Dear friends, I urge you, as ALIENS and STRANGERS, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.” — I Peter 2:11
There are two basic parts of this concept of being here, but not from here—being in the world, but not of the world, so to speak. First, we must understand the difference between godly and ungodly distraction.
In order to understand the concept of being an alien or stranger in this world, we have to understand our basic post-conversion relationship with the world. The Apostle Paul laid this out for us in his letter to the Galatians:
“May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” — Galatians 6:14
If you are saved, the world is crucified—in effect, dead—to you, and you are crucified to the world. There’s a divide. Something’s happened. It’s different. There’s a distinction. There’s a separation. In fact, separation is the essence of what the Bible means when it talks about death.
The cross of Christ has made the ultimate difference.
In practical terms, this means that we need to guard against being distracted by the world. What does the Bible mean when it talks about the world in this context? It means the basic principles that govern the world system. It can all be boiled down to one word—Lust.
Of course, most of us think immediately of sexual sin when the word lust appears—and there’s no doubt that such immorality is indeed driven by what the Bible calls lust. But the term is much broader than mere sex. Lust is an attitude and approach to any area of life that excludes God and idolizes aspects of this present world. It’s desire aggravated by heart rebellion. It’s desire that is “over the top.” It’s desire that has reached the point of obsession. It’s intense craving—particularly for something forbidden. This is why we are told not to love the world and its intrinsic lust:
“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.”
— I John 2:15-17 (NKJV)
But as we discussed in the earlier chapter about holiness, this is where so many sincere followers of Jesus Christ make a serious mistake. They are sincere about not being “worldly” and very much want to live above the various manifestations of human lust, so they default to a knee-jerk approach—rules, rules, and more rules. It’s easy to do because it sounds so simple. But does it really ever work?
No. Legalism short-circuits the spiritual power and joy of far too many Christians.
The truth is that the proliferation of rules to control behavior—even the most sincere efforts to legislate morality—is not really spiritual. In fact, it is the epitome of worldliness. That’s right, a legalistic and rule-driven approach to trying to be spiritual is—worldly. Paul talked about this in his letter to the believers at Colosse. They were enamored of the ascetic discipline of some false teachers and saw them as great spiritual examples. These teachers talked a lot about “defeating the flesh,” but their hyper-regulation methods were suspect:
“Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations—“Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,” which all concern things which perish with the using—according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.” – Colossians 2:20-23 (NKJV)
Such legalists abound today in and around the Body of Christ. They are neo-Pharisees, “teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.” They are like the usual suspects who harassed Jesus at every turn. And they frustrate current day followers of Christ with their rules. They have many more “standards” than the Bible has, often elevating personal preference to the level of absolute dogma. It’s quite toxic.
And it’s actually very worldly. Ironic, huh?
So if rules don’t work, how do we avoid being obsessively distracted by the world? It has a powerful gravitational pull that relentlessly tries to drag us down to its level, when we know that God intends for us to live above it all. We’re called to be overcomers.
The key is to counteract ungodly distraction with godly distraction. Now distraction can be a bad thing or a good thing. What do I mean by this? Did you ever hear somebody say, “Well, she is so heavenly-minded she is no earthly good”? They usually mean someone who is self-righteous or pious or impractical or whatever. But in a real sense, if you are a vibrant Christian with your mind fixed on God, you’ll be a much more centered person. Isaiah 26:3 (KJV) says, “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee…”
Godly distraction is when you’re distracted by something else—something infinitely more fascinating than anything this world offers. Focus on God. Want perfect peace? Think about the Lord and His goodness and His grace. That means you’re going to be thinking of heaven, thinking of a better place, and like the patriarchs of old, seeing them in the distance—your compelling future in Christ.
In other words, to the extent that you’re distracted by the big picture of what God is doing and wants to do, you won’t be distracted by the negative, drag-you-down, kick-you-around, stomp-on-you stuff of this world.
The second vital concept is detachment. You can live a defeated life driven by ungodly detachment. This happens when you’re so enthralled with the world and all its false promises that you disconnect from things associated with the Kingdom of God.
Economics. Entertainment. Culture. Power. People get really hung up on all these things. That becomes their lives. They live vicariously through their favorite character on television, or through some political leader, or through some other situation. They become detached from anything God wants to do.
God wants you, instead, to have a different kind of detachment—a godly detachment. He doesn’t want you to leave this world. He wants you to function in it. He doesn’t want you to be like an Amish person hiding out until Jesus comes. He wants you to live and work and be part of it, but to live in this world with a sense of detachment. It’s when we become indifferent to the world and its lusts.
What does this detachment, this indifference, come from? It comes because our hearts are in another place. To the Christian, home is heaven with God. That’s where our hearts should be. But we are still here and have work to do.
Reject Self-Destructive Attitudes and Behaviors
First Peter 2:11 in the King James Version says it like this: “Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul…”
Think of the soul as your personality, your mind, your emotions, and your will—the essence of you. We are to abstain from “fleshly lusts,” any strong desire in our lives that drags us down and short-circuits our spiritual strength. And remember, lust is any improper or inordinate or strong desire for anything outside of the will of God.
Self-destructive behaviors can involve physical sins. Christians struggle with physical sins. Peter says abstain. Just say no. I understand that this is easier said than done, but the first step is to just say no. This is accomplished when we remember—right there in the moment of distraction and temptation—that because of the cross, the world has been crucified unto you, and you unto the world. You actually can say no.
You may feel at times as if you are a slave to your habits, but you’re not. You’re to live in freedom. You’re not controlled by sin. You can overcome it. But you have to be decisive. This is why Jesus said, “If your right hand offends you, cut it off. If your right eye offends you, pluck it out.” Now if you read in Matthew’s Gospel where that comes from, Jesus is talking about divorce and adultery.
So let’s apply it to sexual immorality. I’ve had people come to me for counseling and say, “I’ve been involved in an affair. It’s not right, and I want to get my life right with God, and I want to break it off.” I will say, “Then do that, because that’s what you need to do.” This usually elicits a reply like, “Well, I feel like I need to meet with this person one more time for closure.” I counter, “No. It needs to be cold turkey.”
Are such decisions painful? Sure. Cutting your hand off is painful. Gouging your eye out is painful. But when it comes to dealing with clear sin in our lives, the best thing is severe action and drastic action. Don’t wait for the “opportune” moment. Your capacity for rationalization will see to it that such a moment never comes. And don’t pray, “O God, deliver me. Get me out of this!” God’s Word reminds us again and again that we must take the first step—then the promised power of God kicks in.
Practice Deliberate Goodness for God’s Glory
“Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” — I Peter 2:12
“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” — Matthew 5:16 (KJV)
What is your light? Your good works. Let’s dissect that. First of all, God is light. We have no intrinsic light. When we get saved, the light of God (II Corinthians 4) shines in our hearts. So we have light that comes from God but lives in us. How does this light shine through us to others?
When you do good things for others, not for personal credit or affirmation, not to be seen by people and applauded, not to get your name in a church bulletin—or the wing of a hospital—you glorify God. It’s so people can be blessed by your actions and sense that the good things you do are because God is at work in your life.
That’s a powerful way to witness!
Relate to Secular Reality in a Spiritual Way
Note what Peter says in I Peter 1:13-17:
“Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. Show proper respect to everyone: love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.”
This is a passage that basically says be a good citizen. Don’t be a lawbreaker. But is there ever a place for civil disobedience?
Peter’s words parallel Romans 13, where Paul writes, “Obey the powers that be, the governmental leaders, because they are put there by God.” When Paul wrote that, and when Peter wrote this, they were under the Roman system, and do you know who was running the show? Nero—remember him?
It presents civil leaders as the sovereign, the king, or the emperor. In a republic, political leaders are not sovereign. I think leaders in office deserve our respect and our support, but the sovereign in America is the people. “We the people…” The United States of America is a constitutional republic (not a pure democracy, by the way).
So as we examine these principles, we need to bear in mind the political distinctions between then and now. Back then, people couldn’t go to Nero, “You know what I think, Nero, we ought to change this law. This is the polling I’m getting.” Roman citizens had certain rights, but they had no say.
We have both—just sayin’.
I think the thing we should take away from this is that followers of Christ should have great respect for authority. We’re not scofflaws. And when it comes to the practice of civil disobedience, we ought to think it through very carefully and seriously.
In 1954, there was a senator from Texas by the name of Lyndon Johnson, who later went on to other things. As the Majority Leader, he helped navigate a law through the Senate that went through the House. It was signed into law by President Eisenhower. The statute amended the IRS code for 501(c)(3) corporations (churches, non-profits). It says, “…no substantial part of the activities of which is carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting to influence legislation…and which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office. Nor shall the church engage in subversive or un-American activities.”
I think it’s a bad law, not because I want to get up in the pulpit and preach politics and tell the church how to vote. I’m never going to do that. I’m going to teach biblical principles, but your vote is between you, your conscience, your God, your family, and however else you feel about this. But the law, to me, inhibits pulpit freedom. Can you imagine telling Martin Luther King, Jr. that he couldn’t preach about politics when he was talking about Rosa Parks from the pulpit of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in 1955?
I also think it’s an unenforceable law. When it has been enforced, it’s been done selectively, because at one end of the spectrum, there is a lot of latitude given to churches about political campaigning for particular individuals. At the other end of the spectrum, there is a lot more critique of it. I don’t think that’s fair, whether you’re a liberal or conservative.
Lyndon Johnson was getting ready to run for reelection in Texas when the law was drafted—and he had presidential ambitions. But in Texas, a lot of preachers were against him and they were talking about it in their pulpits all over the state. This had been going on there for many years. The practice of politicizing the pulpit started with the preacher I write about in The Shooting Salvationist (he was dead by the time LBJ pushed the law). J. Frank Norris of Fort Worth turned pulpits (for good or ill) into powerful political mediums. So Johnson wanted to tie the hands of preachers who would oppose him in the next election.
Now, I don’t think a preacher should ever get up and say, “Vote for A,” or “Vote for B.” I don’t, but I don’t have any problem if that local church thinks that preacher should, and that preacher thinks he should, and let the chips fall where they may. I don’t think there should be a law against it. I think it’s a matter of free speech. That’s their business to do, and I think the law is interpreted and applied unfairly, and I think it is a bad law. I think it should be rescinded.
But I will obey the law until it is rolled back. I will also work to see it overturned.
However, is there ever a law so bad that we become duty-bound to not only try to change it, but to disobey it as an act of conscience?
If they pass a law that says we can’t preach Jesus, I’m going to preach Jesus. If they pass a law that says we can’t preach the Bible, I’m going to preach the Bible.
And think about slavery. We fought a war over that. Part of the prelude to the war was the forming of opinion. Do you know the name Harriet Beecher Stowe? She wrote the book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Harriet Beecher Stowe was a preacher’s kid. Her father was a very famous preacher in the Second Great Awakening, a man by the name of Lyman Beecher (Litchfield, Connecticut, and then Lane Seminary).
Harriet Beecher Stowe had a brother named Henry Ward Beecher. You may know the name now Harriet Beecher Stowe, but in those days, the name Henry Ward Beecher was much better known. He was the pastor of the Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York, and he was the most famous man (not just preacher, but man) in America. He used to preach every Sunday against slavery and against any candidate who promoted slavery by name. He would bring slaves to the church platform and raise money to purchase them so they could grant them their freedom.
This was before the Civil War.
Change eventually happened because preachers like Henry Ward Beecher stood up and said something.
In the 1950s and 1960s, we had a civil rights movement in America. Do you know where it began? It was birthed in local churches. Preachers got up (even after this 1954 law was enacted) in their pulpits and indicated that they supported one candidate over another in particular local, statewide, or national elections.
The church as a force for cultural righteousness is a very important part of American culture.
But our default position is obedience to civil authority. Followers of Christ preach a revolutionary message, but we are never anarchists. We are to be people who, by and large, submit ourselves to God and obey God because we’re aliens.
If you’re understandably concerned about America, the answer to cultural problems is not going to be found in this world—not even the politics of this world. The answer is going to be found in a revived church and Christians being the shining lights they ought to be to share the gospel of Jesus Christ.