Those Crazy College Years
About the Guest
Marvin Olasky, editor-in-chief of World Magazine, talks about his childhood in a secular Jewish home and the sin of envy that led him to seek answers in Communism as a young adult. Hear about his crazy college days at Yale and the surprising turn of events that led him to Christ.
Marvin Olasky talks about his childhood in a secular Jewish home.
Those Crazy College Years
Bob: Marvin Olasky grew up in the ‘60s, on the “poor side” of town. He says that the anger and resentment that was stored up in his own heart, together with his rejection of God, proved to be a combustible mixture in a time of social upheaval.
Marvin: I had my basic class envy; but instead of actually seeing this in myself and seeing this as a problem that I had, I was able to project it onto society and think of everything in terms of class struggle and feel very idealistic and high-minded for fighting for the little guy—when, actually, it was my resentment that was coming through.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, January 4th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. Given the setting in which Marvin Olasky grew up, it may surprise you to know that he is, today, a follower of Christ. It actually surprises him a little bit. We’ll hear more today. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I have no way of confirming this, but I think—I think I’ve been a subscriber longer than you have, to WORLD Magazine. I don’t know that for sure, but I was an early—
Dennis: Why would you boast about that, Bob, because the one who can answer that question, who really is a cover-to-cover reader of every page of WORLD Magazine is Barbara.
Bob: Is your wife.
Dennis: She’s not here.
Bob: Well, that’s true.
Dennis: She can’t answer it. We could call her. (Laughter) So, why do you think you’re the longer subscriber?
Bob: Well, I was an early adopter to WORLD Magazine. I think I saw an issue at a broadcasting convention I was attending and picked it up, and I thought, “Well, this is pretty good.” I think we subscribed not long after that, just to keep up-to-date on what was going on, not only in the Christian world, but in our world.
We’ve been at it ever since. We don’t mind writing our check and getting our subscription. In fact, I’m on a three-year subscription pattern right now. I’m just hoping that the magazine continues a print edition for another three years; you know?
Dennis: Well, Barbara gives WORLD Magazine subscriptions to all of our adult children at Christmastime. It’s a way of getting a Christian perspective of the news and a current perspective—from, really, a fresh viewpoint.
We have with us the editor-in-chief of WORLD Magazine, Dr. Marvin Olasky. Marvin, welcome to FamilyLife Today.
Marvin: It’s terrific to be with both of you.
Dennis: You know Bob, we’ve had some guests here on FamilyLife Today; but just looking at his track record—I think it may be one of the few guests who, when he walked in the studio—he doubled the IQ of the studio. (Laughter)
I mean, he’s a graduate of Yale, has his PhD from the University of Michigan, is the author or co-author of more than 30 books, a former writer for The Boston Globe, former Provost of King’s College in New York City, and, of course, I mentioned WORLD Magazine. There are a number of other things I could mention here that he has written about or done in his lifetime—really, a remarkable person. The story we’re going to hear today is really a great one.
Bob: Today, you have hundreds of thousands of readers of the magazine. I love the fact that when I get my issue, it has more pages than either Time or Newsweek these days. (Laughter)
In fact, I gave up on Newsweek a couple of years ago after a long run of subscribing.
Dennis: Me, too. Me, too, Bob.
Bob: It really is delightful to see WORLD thriving in a counter-cultural way in an industry where magazines are starting to wonder if they’ll be around three years from now.
Marvin: Right; and we have such terrific readers. The Time magazine still has a lot more subscribers, but I really enjoy getting around the country and meeting our readers. I can’t imagine that the editor of Time gets as much love from readers as I do. So, it’s terrific.
Dennis: Well, we had a love fest in Manhattan. Barbara and I had the opportunity about a year ago to have lunch with Marvin and Susan, his wife. We sat down and I introduced Barbara to him. I said, “Marvin and Susan, you don’t know this, but Barbara Rainey is the head of the WORLD Magazine fan club in Natural Steps, Arkansas.”
We kidded about that for a while, but she reads every page of every issue. I’ll never forget what Marvin said in response. Do you want to share it with our listeners?
Marvin: Well, you remember it well—probably better than I do; but at least from what you’ve just told me, I said, “I don’t even read every page!” (Laughter)
Bob: That’s exactly what you said.
Marvin: I guess, since you remember it—that must have happened. I must have acknowledged that. (Laughter)
Dennis: You’re blushing a little bit—so I need to check my memory, but I’m pretty sure that’s what you said.
We had a great time. It really was fun at that lunch to say, “Why don’t you come down to our headquarters? Let’s do some radio and let’s talk about your life, and how you came to faith in Christ, and also talk about WORLD Magazine a little bit.”
Bob: I’ve got to say, it’s a long way from Yale to WORLD. The distance there is a pretty good distance—not geographically, but ideologically. When you were at Yale—even before you were at Yale—you were to the left of Hillary Clinton when she was at Yale; weren’t you?
Marvin: That’s right; much to my shame, but to God’s grace and His glory. I’m very thankful that He changed me.
Dennis: Tell us about the home you grew up in.
Marvin: Oh, this was a largely secularized Jewish home—not particularly affluent. My father, for a number of years, was a Hebrew school teacher; but whatever faith he had, which I’m not sure was all that much to start with, he lost that. He eventually moved to become a community college administrator.
So, it was a home with Newsweek. That was the magazine that we subscribed to because Newsweek, at that time (and probably even to this day), is to the left of Time magazine—they’ve both moved—but Newsweek, The Boston Globe—very liberal newspaper.
Certainly a liberal household, probably with some Socialist leanings; but I wasn’t a “red diaper baby” as some are in the sense that my parents were highly political—no, they watched television—we watched the news all of the time, but tended to interpret it through a secular, liberal perspective.
Dennis: As a teenager, you indicated that you were an atheist and you believed that mankind invented the whole concept of God.
Marvin: Well, sure. This, sadly, is not unusual in the Jewish community—Bar Mitzvah at 13; atheist at 14. I became an atheist from reading. I read Sigmund Freud’s book, The Future of an Illusion, where he writes that man invented God as kind of a childhood fantasy—that once we realize our parents are not omnipotent, we create a God.
Then, H.G. Wells, the science fiction writer, also wrote A Short History of the World—a straight materialist history, starting with the original evolution and proceeding with the hopes of a bright Socialist future. So it was all there—highly popular—and I bought it all—hook, line, and sinker.
Bob: Was this tied to the fact that you were obviously a bright young man and, to be intellectually respected, you pretty much had to put faith aside in order to survive in the right intellectual circles; didn’t you?
Marvin: Yes, I would like to think that it was all high-minded, intellectual stuff. There was exactly what you have described. There was also a lot of ugly stuff—class envy basically—we’re hearing that term recently. It was very much a part of me.
My mother was full of envy. She had five siblings—mostly sisters. The sisters married people who were entrepreneurs and very skilled at creating businesses but—at least in my mother’s mind and probably in objective, academic terms—they weren’t all that bright. She had married a very bright person who was poor. Every single day, I think, she resented that.
We got that from her. So, you know, parents do lots of things. I mean, she did the best she could and was a great mother in some ways; but here, she basically taught me class envy, and that was very much with me all of the time.
Dennis: Marvin, as I did the research on your life, one of the things I appreciated was your honesty. There’s a lot of anger that was fueled by this envy. That really fueled your passions, ultimately, to the point of you becoming a card-carrying Communist?
Marvin: Oh, yes, and it pushed me all the way. Again, I don’t like to admit this. I’d like to think it was all a noble sense of being concerned about the poor, being in favor of peace, and things like this; but, no. The other kids had bright, shiny Schwinns®. I had a bicycle sort of put together out of spare parts, which I was embarrassed to ride around.
I was very conscious that we had a black and white TV; others had color TVs. We lived in apartments with peeling linoleum; others lived in—my uncles and aunts lived in what were called “split levels,” with wall-to-wall carpeting. All of these little material things contributed to that.
Then, when I went as an undergraduate to Yale University, I came with a suitcase, with my two polyester sweaters. My roommate brought in a whole dresser just to house his luxurious woolens. There was some Yale alum had put up money for a contest to give a prize to whoever had the best book collection. I spent three years building what I thought was a very tasteful and brilliant collection of probably close to 1,000 paperback books that I’d been able to pick up rather inexpensively. I thought, “This shows my good literary judgment,” and so forth.
There was a committee that came in to inspect. They walked out chuckling, with the chairman of the committee advising me very kindly, “Well, this is very nice. You have all of these paperbacks; but actually, it would be better for you to sell them and invest the money in several good first editions.”
Bob: Hmm. Did you celebrate Passover as a family? Did you go to synagogue at all as a family? Was Judaism more than just something that you kind of just checked off a box?
Marvin: Well, when I was younger, I did. In elementary school, we did. Then, increasingly, by the time I was getting older, my parents had stopped going; and of course, I was very happy to stop going.
I went to Hebrew school for a while—again, enough to be bar mitzvahed, to learn some Hebrew—but I think the teaching was that, “These are nice stories, culturally. They are good fables,” but is there anything there? Is there any truth there? Does this actually come from God? I didn’t have any of that. So once I got to the old age of 14 and figured I was fully adult, I wanted to put aside these childhood myths and turn to the real, hard stuff of materialism and then Socialism and Communism.
Dennis: You were a liberal, or maybe better stated, a radical, in the days of a radical age that, really, we haven’t seen in America since—back in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s.
Dennis: There’s a story you tell about a black cat and a bag that you entitle in your book, Creativity R Us. I love this because you actually received some honors at Yale for this.
Marvin: Right. This was an unusual period. I don’t think Yale before that was like this, and it may not be like it now; but at that particular time, everything was reversed. The professors were looking to students for wisdom—again, not all of the professors, but some of the really “with it” professors.
There was a fellow named Charlie Reich (I took a course from him) who had the #1 New York Times best-seller in 1969 or 1970. It was called The Greening of America. It described how the college students had things right. To put it in Christian terms, which Charlie Reich penned, the college students were suddenly without any original sin; these were pure. So, Charlie Reich would sit in the cafeterias at Yale and listen to the students, and then write his Greening of America book. He would say, “I don’t know anything. I’m from this other generation. You know, stuff. Let me know. Tell me what I should know.”
It was that type of situation. In fact, the course—I grew up a Boston Red Sox fan and went to lots of games at Fenway Park—so, in his course, my term paper was—I had a lot of old Red Sox yearbooks. I would cut pictures out of the Red Sox yearbooks and paste them on (this was a college course) and write about the racism of baseball and the racism of the Red Sox. There was some of that; but it wasn’t at all what I made of it. It’s kind of funny to think of a term paper, just with cutting out pictures from a yearbook and pasting them up. I got a very good grade for it.
Dennis: At Yale?
Marvin: At Yale. At Yale University, yes—one of the leading intellectual institutions of the country. (Laughter)
Now, the “black cat” situation. I was taking a course—this was an American Studies course, including looking at American art. The idea, one particular week, when we were writing papers, was to create some art of your own. Now, my drawing is very, very poor. I can draw stick figures, but that’s about it. I didn’t have any bright ideas.
So, I decided, “Okay, let’s do something else.” One of my roommates had a black cat. This was at a time when the Black Panthers where getting lots of applause from folks like me on the left and lots of criticism from others, but they were very much in the news. I took the black cat and put him in kind of a gym bag and took him to the art museum, where we were having this particular class—student by student—revealing the projects.
Some of the students, actually, could draw and paint very well. I was toward the end. I figured, in my own mind at least, “I trumped them all,” by bringing in action art. I opened up the bag and the cat jumped out. I was able to describe, “Here’s the way the Black Panthers are kept in the bag by ‘white America’”—by racism and so forth. “Now, they’re going to be free; they’re going to move around.”
Well, this black cat, indeed, was liberated. He scurried out of the room and went into the places where there were a lot of very expensive paintings being stored. There was a furious search for the cat because we were trying to find him and capture him before he was as destructive as, in many ways, the Black Panthers were. So, it was a different type of action art that I was showing—not exactly what I had in mind, but in some ways it made a larger point (one that I was not willing to admit at the time).
Dennis: But the professors applauded it?
Marvin: They applauded it. Oh, this was crazy because, again, we had already been told coming to Yale, “You are the future leaders of America.” They loved stuff like this—again, the particular professors I had. There were some sober professors, but I tried not to take courses from them.
I was taking courses from the really “with it,” younger, radical professors. You could do anything, say anything. In one sense, it was condescending—the way we applaud a three-year-old or a four-year-old when he does something, but this was serious. They thought, “This is wisdom”—what Charlie Reich described as “consciousness three,”—the new, higher form of consciousness we were showing by doing these things.
Bob: Was journalism on your radar at this point?
Marvin: Insofar as I had worked on my high school newspaper and was working on The Yale Daily News, I was starting to think that this was probably the only thing that I was talented enough to do anything with. I really wanted to be a Major League baseball player; but once I was cut from my sixth-grade team, I thought that was not likely. (Laughter)
You know, I encounter students sometimes who can do a great many things well and they have a hard time making decisions. In my case, writing, and eventually editing, was the only thing in which I was barely competent. So, that’s the direction in which I tended to head.
Bob: Did you pursue it with an agenda in mind as a journalist or was it just, “This is a good way to put food on the table”?
Marvin: Oh, definitely an agenda—again, very high-minded about it. I was an intern of The Boston Globe. I was writing articles from a radical perspective there, and the editors liked it. Later on, I actually was a regular reporter on The Globe for a while.
At that point, this was when I was a member of the Communist party—the editors didn’t know I was a Communist—but I was writing stuff that was basically Communist material. I wrote articles about Portuguese immigrants—immigrants from the Azores Islands to the United States—to Fall River and New Bedford in Massachusetts. These were immigrants—I mean, when I interviewed them, were very happy to have jobs. Their living situation was better than it had been back in the Azores; but through my perspective, it was all Capitalist oppression—they were being underpaid, exploited, and so forth.
I remember writing a feature article about small farmers in western Massachusetts. They, of course, were being driven out of their callings by the big, corporate farms. Again, there were some problems surrounding agriculture; but I exaggerated it, hyped it, and turned everything into class struggle.
I was able to have my basic class envy; but instead of actually seeing this in myself and seeing it as a problem that I had, I was able to project it onto society and think of everything in terms of class struggle and feel very idealistic and high-minded for fighting for the little guy, when, actually, it was really my resentment that was coming through.
Bob: I think we need to say here, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the Editor-in-Chief of WORLD Magazine who is describing that political philosophy.”
Dennis: Yes; and, Marvin, the thing that I appreciate most because—again, I don’t know that I’ve ever really talked with a card-carrying Communist—I appreciate, not just the explanation for the ideology of what they held and their tenets of Communism, but the dark side—the human issue that ultimately Jesus Christ came to deal with.
Dennis: It was interesting, in your story, that in 1973, you were studying Russian so you could be a better Communist; and someone had given you a New Testament. You sat down and started reading that. Tell them, just real quickly, tell them what took place between 3:00 pm and 11:00 pm.
Marvin: Alright. This was very strange. This was on November 1, 1973. I had been a member of the Communist party. At least in my own mind, I thought I was a happy, dedicated member of the Communist party. I sat down—I had a room just off-campus at the University of Michigan, where I was in graduate school. I sat down to read a pamphlet that I had read once before. I wanted to remind myself of it. It was by Lenin and called Socialism and Religion. Lenin talks about atheism being the basis of Communism.
That’s something I knew and was proud of; but, for whatever reason, and this is what was so strange—I finished reading that around 3:00 and was planning to get up and go to the library to do some work. I just sat in that chair; and suddenly, into my brain, came all of these thoughts of, “What have I done here? Is this really something that I believe in? How do I know that there isn’t a God? Why am I so hostile toward America?”
Just to back up for a moment, my grandparents all came from the Russian empire. On my father’s side, my grandfather loved America. He loved baseball. He loved the freedom he had and the safety he had as opposed to being knocked on the head by the tsar’s officials. I was remembering that and thinking, “Well, now I am hating America. Why? I mean, here my grandfather worked hard; and, in this free country, was able to buy a house and eventually make things better for his children and grandchildren. Why am I hating America? What is so bad about this?”
It was a combination of thinking about America and what kind of country this is and thinking about, “Is there a god of some sort? Why am I so adamant in my atheism? What do I really know?” There wasn’t anything I had been reading to trigger these thoughts. I mean, I had been reading Lenin’s Socialism and Religion;but it wasn’t as if I had been reading some philosophical or theological works that question this. These were just thoughts that were coming into my head.
Why they were coming, I didn’t know; but I just sat down in that chair from 3:00 until 11:00. I wasn’t doing any drugs; I wasn’t sleeping. There was an alarm clock there and about every hour I would look over and say, “It is 4:00,” “Now, it’s 5:00. What am I still doing in this chair?” I really couldn’t move. These thoughts just kept coming and were overpowering me. Seven o’clock, 8:00, 9:00, 10:00—by 11:00—eight hours—I had been sitting in that chair and came to the resolution that I wasn’t an atheist—that there must be a god of some kind.
“Who this God is,” I had no idea; but I was no longer an atheist. I then walked around. I went over to the University of Michigan campus and just walked around. Outside, it was dark; but for the next two hours, from 11:00 until
1:00 am, I was just sort of walking around and still sort of thinking. At the end of that period, I realized that I had to leave the Communist party. I was no longer a Communist. I didn’t know what I was, but I wasn’t that.
Dennis: As I listen to your story, I think of the phrase “the Hound of Heaven.” He chased me down. It was through the book of Romans and God pursuing me, turning a selfish teenager—19, 20 years old—just full of himself. God chased me down with His love, and I moved from being a mission field to being a missionary in a matter of months. For you, it took a little longer than just a few months; but I want to continue our discussion here as we talk about that.
Bob, our God is a great God!
Dennis: There are people listening to this broadcast who don’t know Him. My encouragement is to listen to all of Marvin Olasky’s story because, today, he is the editor of WORLD Magazine.
Dennis: There is the rest of the story.
Bob: And I love the fact that Marvin shared his story in subsequent weeks in WORLD Magazine; and now, it is in a book called Unmerited Mercy. The subtitle is: From card-carrying Communist to Bible-carrying Christian. We have copies of Marvin’s book in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. Go online at FamilyLifeToday.com for more information. That is: FamilyLifeToday.com, or call toll-free at 1-800-FL-TODAY and ask how you can get a copy of the book—
1-800-358-6329. That is 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY”.
By the way, I quickly want to again say a word of thanks to those of you who help support the ministry of FamilyLifeToday and who, at the end of 2011, made a year-end contribution. We appreciate your support. We’re still doing some of the tabulating here at FamilyLife to see how we ended up. We’ll keep you posted online if you want information about where we were in relationship to our matching-gift opportunity.
I just want to make sure you know how much we appreciate your support. Your financial gifts are what make this program possible. You help us cover the production and syndication costs for this program, keeping us on the air and on the internet, all around the world. Thanks again for helping to support the ministry. We really do appreciate you.
We hope you can come back with us tomorrow when we’re going to hear Part Two of Marvin Olasky’s story and hear about how God got a hold of his life and caused him to see some things he’d never seen before while he was a graduate student at the University of Michigan. We’ll talk about that tomorrow. Hope you can be here.
I want to thank our engineer—his name is Keith Lynch—and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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