Delivered by Dr. Michael Collender
I’d like to begin by thanking Mr. and Mrs. Detweiler, who invited me to be your commencement speaker. I want to thank them for their competent leadership which has made Veritas Press prosper. But sometimes I wish they would quit Veritas and take over Java. I also thank you all for the implicit bargain you have made to sit still and listen, as long as I’m witty.
Speaking before this audience is a little intimidating. Being a Rhetoric teacher and getting up to speak is sort of like that scene in The Incredibles, when Bob Parr turns to that kid on the Tricycle who always lurks at the drive way and says, “What are you waiting for?” And the kid replies, “Something amazing, I guess.” The standards of a classically educated audience are indeed high, and they should be. The job of a commencement speaker is simple: praise and challenge the graduates and bring honor to the occasion and everyone concerned.
But my words are not necessary, for each Veritas student, each Veritas family, and every Veritas teacher knows the exertion and discipline required to sit in one of these chairs. Each family here, each of you, in some measure, have borne this calling’s weight, taking personal responsibility for building one human being’s mind and character, in a multitude of countless small labors which would fatigue anyone but for God’s ever present grace. Regarding these graduates you deserve the honor that Jesus accords when he says, “Wisdom is vindicated by all her children.”
You have chosen to bet your energies on God’s promises, and time and again we see in Scripture that those who make their decisions based on God’s Covenant, on his promises, are the most important people in the room. Think of Boaz. He chose to marry Ruth, who was a Moabitess. He lowered himself socially, but he did so to keep the Law, and because he saw Ruth’s true faith in God. He humbled himself to be faithful, and because he did, he was actually the most important man of his time in terms of God’s Covenant. But this reality runs so counter to the way we think. I studied film at the Los Angeles Film Studies Center, a program that places Christians in the LA film industry, and it’s a hard business. This is a long-term mission of Christians in the Industry working to be salt and light. A few years ago I had breakfast with one of the faculty there, and I could tell he felt beaten down. I told him, that in terms of God’s story, he’s one of the most important people in Hollywood. If he got invited to the Oscars, and was sitting in the back, he’d still be one of the most important people in that room. His eyes began to water. It’s hard to believe, but it really is true. All the faithful Christians who are working in that industry are such, because God has made no promises to Hollywood, yet he has made every promise to his Church, to his people, to his sons and daughters. The eyes that counted Boaz as the most important man of his time see that
you are “the most important people in the room.” The most important people are those who walk in the wisdom of God. Solomon makes this point over and over again in Proverbs.
We all know Solomon teaches in Proverbs that the ultimate goal of all education is wisdom. He could be explaining our ambition at VPSA when he writes, (and this is my own translation of the Hebrew to get at Solomon’s exact meaning). In Proverbs 1:2-5 Solomon promises to teach one:
2 To know wisdom and discipline, To discern words of insight,
3 To acquire discipline in prudence: Righteousness, and justice, and equity;
4 To give to the callow cunning, To a youth knowledge and circumspection;
5 Let a wise man hear and he will increase his learning, And the man of insight will gain strategy.
The word “learning” here can also be translated increase his “acquisition,” as in, he will gain resources. Also, the word tabulhot, which I translate “strategy” means strategy, or the art of leadership. It’s the word that shows up in all of those proverbs about how victory in war is won through many counselors. Tabulhot or strategy is what is being referred to. The goal of classical Christian education is to create wise men and women who can teach themselves how to acquire learning and resources. To create men and women of insight who will gain strategy, who will do things in the world. Biblical wisdom has always aimed at this, because Wisdom is an ambitious woman. In Proverbs 8 she describes how she’s a catch. The knowledge to get power, wealth, competence and circumspection is hers, yet she delights to teach from her home. When Jesus says, Wisdom is vindicated by her children, his statement assumes that Wisdom is a homeschooling mom.
Graduation speeches tend to offer grand platitudes: Go change the world! Follow your dream! These sorts of speeches have always sounded hollow to me. They smell like stacks of ungraded papers. Instead, I’d like to offer you a personal experience. Then I’ll draw observations from it.
Over the last three or so years I’ve been working with a production company on the East Coast on a project to make a dramatic film about the fight in Congress against the 2008 Bailout of Wall Street. The late Andrew Breitbart supported this project, and he gave me off-the-record access to real congressmen who fought the Bailout. Through my personal interviews with them, I learned the private conversations, the threats, blow-by-blow. What actually happened is that the principled Democrats and Republicans joined forces and fought their leadership. What is so astonishing about this story is that it shows that the concern for limiting government, and supporting the Constitution and the rule of law in our land are not just Tea Party concerns. This is common ground where principled people on both sides of the aisle join forces. What really happened behind closed doors in September, 2008 is one of the most intense, visceral, amazing stories in political history, and I don’t have time here to tell it to you, but for the rest of my remarks to make sense, I need to tell you part of what happened on the Republican side. The Republicans opposed the bill, but then John McCain threw in his support, and the Republican leadership panicked. They could either continue to fight the Bailout, or they could go with the flow and hope to cling to their power amidst the turbulence. So they strong-armed those close to leadership. They played every political card to force their vote. In the end they won and then punished those who had most staunchly and vocally defied them. Andrew Breitbart also opened the doors for us to network in Conservative Hollywood. Through 2010 and 2011 I was traveling to Washington, DC and Hollywood, meeting with Congressmen, famous actors, producers. (You’re wondering, how did I have time to do this while I’m teaching? Well, I teach at Veritas Press Scholars Academy. I can teach from anywhere in the world!) I’ve had the chance to watch our nation’s recent twisty political train ride from the back seat of the engine car.
A lot of great people have helped us, and my partners have raised a significant amount of money for this project; they still need to raise more. But in the process of many meetings with the famous, almost famous, and wannabe famous, I saw a pattern repeated over and over again, at all levels. This film project is a story about little guys on both sides of the aisle who were willing to stand up to the powerful on principle. Well, when we approached people who proclaimed loyalty to these principles, many times, often enough, you could see them do the math. “If I help this project, I won’t get to be as cozy with the inner ring of the party.” Or as one person put it to me, “My wife warned me: If I help you, I’ll find out how powerful my party’s leadership really is.” But these were people who said they believed these ideals. Solomon writes in Proverbs: “Many a man proclaims his own loyalty, but a faithful man, who can find?”
Both Solomon and Jesus teach that you can’t persuade everyone. But if you try, you will see into the minds of a lot of people. There are so many for whom the narrative of fighting for values and principles and limited government is only hot air one uses to puff one’s self into becoming one of the big people in the room, so they can float over the rest who are climbing the greased pole of ambition below. The personal, visceral experience of seeing this over and over again, (even one “big” guy wanting to help me, if only he could put his name on my screenplay and make this his project after he changed everything to fit his own theories, changes that altered the actual history of the real events—okay, I’m venting), after seeing this again and again, there was a moment where I stared into the dark abyss of our nation’s political soul. I felt like Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, when he sits on the steps of the Lincoln memorial and says, “A lot of fancy words around this town, some of ’em carved in stone. Some of ’em … I guess the Taylors and Pagne’s put them up there so suckers like me could read ’em. Then you find out what men do. I’m getting out of this town, so fast and away from all the words, and the monuments, and the whole rotten show.” And Mr. Smith is right. What I’ve learned is that if you stand up and fight for what’s right, then you lose your connection to power, get thrown under the chariot wheel and trampled into obscurity by the onward march of history.
“Mother, who invited that guy to speak at graduation?” But really, it’s no secret that today America totters and the world sees. And Europe totters. But why? Because Western Christendom totters. The Church should be a gleaming city on a hill, but Western Christendom is a city backed against a wall, under siege by legions of orcs, with hammer trolls at the gates. The last the three years have given me a spire’s view from the top of the city. In the corridors of power, at the top, much of Western Christendom’s political and cultural “big” people stand on the lit pyre of their convictions and, where once sat the helmet of salvation, they pour the kerosene of unbelief. All the signs show that these days are the end of Christendom.
UNLESS YOU’VE TAKEN OMNIBUS! If you have, you know you’ve seen these days before. When there was a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph, when Eli was blind and the lamp of God grew dim, when Solomon brought idols into his home, when Sennacherib threatened Jerusalem’s gates, when Babylon took the people into captivity, when Haman sought the life of every Jew, when Antiochus fomented to extinguish the worship of YHWH, when the Sanhedrin and High Priest killed the Messiah (can you imagine the disciples’ despair!), when Nero and Domitian persecuted the Church, when Arius and his followers almost crushed the Gospel of Christ, when the Muslims advanced to gates of Tours, when the Church of God had become so corrupt that it was selling God’s grace to build a cathedral in Rome. Our day is nothing new.
Because you’ve taken Omnibus, you know the end of the story and how God writes his chapters. In days like these, God raised up Moses, and David, and the prophets, and Hezekiah, and Daniel, and Esther, and Judas Maccabeus, and Christ, and Paul, and Justin Martyr, and Athanasius, and Charles Martel, and St. Ignatius, and Martin Luther, and today he has raised up you. You were born for this day. (I know this, because they are your parents, and you happen to be alive right now.)
You see before you students in soft robes, but under those robes they are armed to the teeth, with the helmet, the breastplate, the shield, and the sword and they know how to use them. What happened in the Lord of the Rings, when the city was surrounded and the hammer trolls were at the gates? The best scene in the movie! “And fear no darkness!” You sit in your ranks, before you charge into a world held in the grip of darkness. This age of men God prepared for you. But this moment is greater than even the best scene in that movie, for you do not “ride for ruin and the world’s ending.” You have more to offer this world than, “death.” You bring life. You bring it’s only source. You bring new creation. A new beginning. Life from death. Jesus Christ is the oldest living man, and He is the King of the world. And He will win.
We, your teachers, believe this, so we have bet the most productive years of our lives on you, to give you the wisdom that leads to resourcefulness and the insight that leads to strategy. You could use this to climb the greased pole of ambition to become the “biggest” person in the room. In the garden, the serpent tempted Eve with what she already had. Don’t fall to temptation. If you have the fear of the Lord and the mind of Christ, have the humility to know that you are already the most important person in the room, because you are the mouth and hands of Christ. With all that earthy power, fight for what is right and principled and honorable and good. If you have the humility to believe the great status God has given you, and in this world you lift up His purposes, before the eyes of this world He will lift you up.
Dr. Michael Collender is an alumnus of the Los Angeles Film Studies Center who worked in Hollywood in script development and also in production in the capacities of Assistant Director and Second Unit Director. He is currently producer of St. Anne’s Public House. For the last eleven years he has taught at Gonzaga University, in Spokane, WA, at the undergraduate, graduate and doctoral levels. At Gonzaga he has taught philosophy, classical studies, leadership, ethics, and systems theory. He earned his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa, working on the problem of modeling complex systems. He has also been a Visiting Fellow of the Philosophy Institute of the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, and has researched and lectured at the Joint Forces Staff College, Norfolk, VA, on how military commanders can understand complex battle environments in real time. His academic work was published by the US Military, and is listed with endorsement as recommended reading in the premiere campaign design text book Art of Design, published by the School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS). Dr. Collender loves Classical rhetoric and has taught it for many years with an eye toward affecting persuasion in the 21st Century. At VPSA next year, he will be teaching Economics, Psychology, Film and Worldview, and Rhetoric 2.