I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Today we will look at religious liberty threatened in the state of Iowa specifically on the campus of the University of Iowa, and then we will see religious liberty threatened even more explosively when Chinese authorities dynamite a major church in that nation. We’ll be looking at the issues of work and welfare and at the distinction between political intentions and political reality. And then we’ll be looking at the dichotomy between a false warning that was heated in Hawaii and a real warning that is being ignored to eternal peril.
We’ve been watching the inevitable collision between religious liberty and sexual liberty. Sexual liberty of course being a newfound, newly constructed liberty that isn’t actually in the U.S. Constitution not mentioned at all but has recently especially by action of the U.S. Supreme Court been enshrined as the nation’s primary liberty. That inevitable collision comes because when you’re looking at religious conviction in general and Christian convictions specifically you are looking at a worldview that cannot bend the knee to the sexual revolution not without theological accommodation, compromise and surrender. And when you’re looking at where these conflicts are likely to come, one of the most important front-line arenas is the American college and university campus.
That’s why today’s news takes us to Iowa City, Iowa and the main campus of the University of Iowa identified by the Associated Press quite naturally as the flagship institution of higher education in the state of Iowa. David Pitt of the Associated Press as reported and published in the Washington Post reports this:
“The University of Iowa is caught up in a legal fight with a conservative Christian student group that denied a leadership position to a student who is gay.” As the reporter tells us, “The case pits a university policy barring discrimination based on sexual orientation against the religious beliefs of a 10-member group called Business Leaders in Christ.” He goes on to tell us, “The group sued after the state’s flagship university in Iowa City revoked its campus registration in November.”
Now as Pitt goes on to report this group known as business leaders in Christ declares itself open to everyone but requires its leaders to affirm a statement of faith. That statement of faith reflecting historic biblical Christianity rejects homosexual practice and behavior.
“The university,” says Pitt, “respects the right of students, faculty and staff to practice the religion of their choice but does not tolerate discrimination of any kind.”
This is where we need to stop and reflect upon what we have just read. We have just come to understand that in the name of eliminating all discrimination the University of Iowa will openly, candidly discriminate against a Christian group. Notice also the very ambiguous and intentionally confusing language that is employed here. The University says that of course it respects it always respects the rights of faculty and staff and students to practice the religion of their choice. But here’s the problem – that respect goes right up until the point that that religious practice offends the new sexual morality of the university administration. We should note that this small student group in the business school at the University of Iowa is explicitly Christian in its identity and mission statement. It says that it exists in order to encourage and mentor students on, “how to continually keep Christ first in the fast-paced business world.”
But the group has run afoul of university administrators because it requires a belief statement of those who will serve as leaders. The group lost its registration and as the Associated Press tells us the loss of that official registration means that it can no longer reserve campus meeting space. It can’t participate in student recruitment fairs or access funds from student activity fees. It can’t use even university wide communication services. Amongst the beliefs the group requires of leaders is the fact that all should embrace not reject their God-given sex, and it also requires that they support the idea that marriage can be only between a man and a woman. The statement of faith says,
“Every other sexual relationship beyond this is outside of God’s design and is not in keeping with God’s original plan for humanity”
After being stripped of their official recognition, the group has now filed a federal lawsuit against the university claiming an abridgment of its own religious rights furthermore freedom of association and freedom of speech. But in one of the most interesting arguments made in the case, it is abundantly clear that this group is claiming that the University of Iowa is rejecting any group’s ability to have leaders who support the actual identity and mission of the group. Eric Baxter an attorney from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty representing the students said and I quote,
“Every organization to exist has to be able to select leaders who embrace its mission” He went on to argue, “You would never ask an environmental group to have a climate denier as their leader. It’s the same thing here.”
Meanwhile a spokeswoman for the university said that the institution has what she defined as, “a right and obligation to ensure an open and nondiscriminatory environment on campus.” She said that all, “on-campus groups must guarantee ‘that equal opportunity and equal access to membership, programming, facilities, and benefits shall be open to all persons.’”
Now here we encounter the kind of language that is now customary in the sexual revolution. It’s language that justifies discrimination in the name of opposing discrimination. When you have this inevitable conflict of liberties between religious liberty and the new sexual liberty, make no mistake the University of Iowa is choosing sides. It is clearly choosing to prize and to defend sexual liberty even at the extreme of de-certifying, denying official registration to a student group established by Christians for Christian conviction in a clearly Christian identity and mission statement. It simply has no place in the modern American university according to this logic.
We also need to know that similar kinds of cases against this kind of university discrimination have already failed, one of them most famously from a law school in the state of California, and we need to note that this not only affects public universities but many private universities as well. It’s been years ago now that Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee took similar action against Christian organizations leading to the departure from the Vanderbilt campus of many prominent Christian ministries, including the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. In the name of absolute nondiscrimination, many Christian groups on campuses are now being discriminated against even being denied the right to require leaders of organizations, serving a Christian purpose, claiming a Christian identity to be Christian. In a brilliant rejoinder to the University’s action and its statements, a young man by the name of Jacob Estell, a business student there at the University and a member of the group, said,
“Like the higher-ups at Cal State,” that’s the law school of which we spoke, “the officials at my school have told our group that we must ‘revise’ our religious beliefs to their satisfaction.” But then he writes, “our beliefs weren’t made by us, and they can’t be changed by us — and certainly not just to please coercive university policies.”
Here you have this college student making the absolutely essential argument. This group didn’t make up Christianity. They are claiming Christian identity. Christianity is a revealed religion. It is based upon the Scripture. The Christian church has held uniformly for 20 centuries that marriage is and is exclusively the union of a man and a woman, and it has held to a consistent sexual morality in terms of the sexual moral judgment based upon the very issues of contention in this case. Regardless of how the case turns out in the courts and far beyond the importance of the constitutional interpretation that will be key here, the theological understanding of the church is most important. And that’s what Jacob Estell has made very clear. When speaking of Christian conviction, he stated, “our beliefs weren’t made by us, and they can’t be changed by us”
If only every Christian organization and every Christian congregation understood that fact, just as boldly.
But even as we give necessary and proper attention to this inevitable collision between sexual liberty and religious liberty, we have to understand that in some places the denial of religious liberty is a lot more dangerous and sometimes a lot more explosive.
Saturday’s edition of the New York Times included the headline,
“Chinese Police Dynamite Christian Megachurch”
Russell Goldman reports that, “Chinese police officers demolished one of the country’s largest evangelical churches this week, using heavy machinery and dynamite to raze the building where more than 50,000 Christians worshiped.”
Now as you look at the story, it’s clear that this church that is the building known as The Golden Lampstand Church had been unregistered. But as the New York Times indicates even as it is believed that China now includes far more than 60 million Christians about half of them are believed to worship in nonregistered congregations. That’s important. It’s important to recognize that China has taken on a newly aggressive atheism and has especially identified evangelical Christianity as a modern foreign threat. We also need to note that the Chinese government following the familiar pattern of dictatorships claims to have the right to register all organizations. There is no freedom of religion or freedom of assembly in the nation of China under communist rule. But it’s also really important for us to understand that in this modern global civilization the tyrants in China did not fear international backlash even after it’s no exaggeration dynamiting a major Christian church building in China.
As we’re thinking about the fact that there are Christians those claiming the name of Christ around the world who are in constant danger, we need to recognize that when we speak about the infringements of religious liberty in the United States – we’re speaking here about something real – but we’re speaking elsewhere about something a good deal more deadly and a good deal more urgent. Back in the year 2000, communist authorities arrested many of the leaders of the church and also confiscated Bibles. Now they have gone so far as to blow up the building. In a very public statement that the Chinese government expects to communicate in a way that is unambiguous. It sees Christianity as a threat.
And of course Christianity is a threat to any totalitarian regime because the Christian faith underlines the fact that there is no ruler, no king, no emperor, no president, no premier, no party leader who claims authentically any total power. That power belongs to God alone. And in that sense with 20 centuries of church history behind us, we can now assure the communist authorities in China that if they thought they could extinguish the gospel of Jesus Christ by blowing up a building they’ve deluded themselves. But we should also note that if the Chinese party in China thought that it was making a statement of its power by excluding this church it was actually demonstrating its weakness and its paranoia.
But now we shift back to the United States where we look at developments that remind us of the difference between political intention and political reality. The story’s by Kerry Jackson. It’s published as an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times. That in itself is important. The headline,
“Why is liberal California the poverty capital of America?”
It’s asking a very good question. In this case Kerry Jackson asked, why if California has only 12% of the nation’s population it has about 1/3 of those in the nation who are dependent upon welfare of one form or another? The answer to the question is really interesting. The author points out that it’s not because California policymakers have neglected to wage a war on poverty. One way or another California has spent between the years 1992 and 2015 $958 billion in social welfare programs. That’s $958 billion. In many places in California welfare recipients can continue to receive financial benefits through social welfare programs even if their family income is 200% above the poverty line. So California has a very liberal state government that declares itself to be committed to eliminate poverty, but after spending $958 billion in 23 years, it has actually led to the increase of poverty levels in the state.
As Jackson writes:
“The generous spending, then, has not only failed to decrease poverty; it actually seems to have made it worse.”
Jackson then goes on to ask the question, why? And he raises an issue we’ve discussed previously on The Briefing. And that is the fact that as he documents back years ago:
“In the late 1980s and early 1990s, some states — principally,” he points out, “Wisconsin, Michigan, and Virginia — initiated welfare reform, as did the federal government under President Clinton and a Republican Congress.”
But he points out that the common thread in this welfare reform was a work requirement. As he writes, “Welfare rolls plummeted and millions of former aid recipients entered the labor force.” He then writes, “The state and local bureaucracies that implement California’s antipoverty programs, however, resisted pro-work reforms. In fact, California recipients of state aid receive a disproportionately large share of it in no-strings-attached cash disbursements. It’s as though welfare reform passed California by, leaving a dependency trap in place. Immigrants,” he points out, “are falling into it: 55% of immigrant families in the state get some kind of means-tested benefits, compared with just 30% of natives.”
So the first answer Jackson gives to the question, why would poverty be rising even in the face of this incredible anti-poverty spending? Is the fact that there is a decoupling, a moral decoupling of receiving the benefits and the expectation of work. As I’ve pointed out many times, that’s a biblical principle now verified in public policy.
But secondly Jackson points to another fact. The California government includes 883,000 full-time equivalent state and local employees. He says that California which obviously has an enormous bureaucracy includes a disproportionate number of these bureaucrats who work in social services, and many he argues would lose their jobs if the typical welfare client were to move off the welfare rolls. He points to a perverse incentive we need to note often affects government, the perverse incentive to make the problem worse in order to justify increased spending and increase staffing.
So I’m simply going to submit that I’ll accept the best of intentions on the part of those in California leadership in eliminating poverty. The fact is there policies and programs are not working. They are making the problem worse, and there are moral and there are financial reasons why. The worst of these reasons takes the form of perverse incentives in which the government actually creates financial and political incentives to make the problem worse rather than better. When we look at this story in terms of biblical analysis, what we should see is that all of the key insights though extremely relevant and modern are actually found within the logic and often the explicit teaching of Scripture. The Scripture certainly warns against the moral not to say the permanent separation of labor and income, and it does so in such a way that it creates a lesson that is now being learned by the state of California the hard way if sadly enough it’s being learned at all.
Meanwhile the biggest news of the last several days has come from the state of Hawaii, and it has to do with the false alarm, a false warning given by the government concerning an imminent attack by ballistic missile. About 8:07 AM on Saturday morning Hawaii time, an alarm went out to residents and tourists in Hawaii,
“BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
As Amy Wang reported for the Washington Post,
“A more detailed message scrolled across television screens in Hawaii, suggesting, ‘If you are indoors, stay indoors. If you are outdoors, seek immediate shelter in a building. Remain indoors well away from windows. If you are driving, pull safely to the side of the road and seek shelter in a building or lay on the floor.’”
As the story continues to unfold, there have been two different explanations for how the false alarm was sent. One explanation blames a shift change and a miscommunication in a computer instruction. The other has said that an employee simply pushed the wrong button, making the distinction the wrong choice between an alarm as a test and alarm as a reality. According to this explanation, there was a choice on a drop-down computer menu between test missile alert and missile alert. The employee we are told chose the wrong option by accident. This would be a disaster at any time but a particularly acute disaster when there are heightened fears of a ballistic missile attack from North Korea.
But while we are thinking about the inefficiencies of bureaucracy, perhaps the worst part of the story from Hawaii has to do not with the wrong alert alarm that was set out at 8:07 AM, but the fact that it took 38 minutes for a correction to be sent along similar lines of communication. That doesn’t mean that it took 38 minutes for authorities to determine that the alarm was wrongly sent. It means that it took 38 minutes, 38 torturous minutes for Hawaiians, in order for the message to be corrected. Why? Because we are now told the state government had authority to use the federal communication system to send the alert but not in order to withdraw. The bureaucracies had come up with no approved language for withdrawing an alarm. So while state and federal bureaucrats were arguing over which language could be appropriately used in order to withdraw the alert, the fact is that the residents and tourists of Hawaii were living through 38 minutes of sheer terror. It’s also instructive to note that it would take less than 38 minutes for ballistic missile attack from North Korea to reach the Hawaiian Islands.
Rest assured that at some level heads will roll. There will be some placement of accountability and blame with some kind of consequence. But we should also note a couple of huge lessons. The lesser of these lessons has to do with the fact that we are very vulnerable to this kind of false alarm. At several points during the Cold War, we came frighteningly close to a nuclear attack that would have lead to a nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union over what amounted to false alarms. But for Christians I think the bigger lesson here is not the false alarm that had to be corrected, but the real alarm that is so often ignored.
I’m thinking about the gospel alarms found in Scripture. I’m thinking about Ezekiel Chapter 33 where the prophet Ezekiel is identified as the watchman whose responsibility it is to blow the trumpet when the enemy approaches Israel. As we read in Ezekiel Chapter 33:
“if he sees the sword coming upon the land and blows the trumpet and warns the people, then if anyone who hears the sound of the trumpet does not take warning, and the sword comes and takes him away, his blood shall be upon his own head. He heard the sound of the trumpet and did not take warning; his blood shall be upon himself. But,” Ezekiel is told, “if he had taken warning, he would have saved his life. But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, so that the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any one of them, that person is taken away in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at the watchman’s hand.”
In verse seven of Ezekiel 33, we read:
“So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel.”
And just as the prophet Ezekiel was made in this sense a watchman over the house of Israel, every pastor, every preacher is made a watchman over his own congregation, bearing the responsibility to issue the warning. If he issues the warning and people do not respond to the warning, then their responsibility is their own. But if the preacher or the prophet fails to sound the warning, then the Scripture makes clear God will require the judgment of the prophet or the preacher.
I also think of the key Biblical text of Hebrews Chapter 12, speaking of what happens when sinners reject the call to salvation and the warning of divine judgment which is to come. In Hebrews we read in Chapter 12 verse 25:
“See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven.”
So from a Christian, from a gospel minded, from a biblical perspective, the really important story here is not the false alarm that was heated, but the real alarm that is ignored.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing. For more information, go to my website AlbertMohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to @albertmohler.For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College just go to boycecollege.com.
(This podcast is by R. Albert Mohler, Jr. Discovered by Christian Podcast Central and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Christian Podcast Central, and audio is streamed directly from their servers.)
I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Today we’ll see the persistence of truth in an age of untruth, we’ll ask is the truth really more important than ever before, we’ll see the cultural rift between California and Washington D.C., we’ll look at the battle for our eyeballs in modern television programming, and we’ll ask what we can learn from those constant drug ads.
The most noteworthy aspect of yesterday’s edition of the New York Timeswasn’t a news story, it was an advertisement. An ad placed by the New York Times about the New York Times about truth. Yesterday’s edition included a full page with these few words,
“The truth has power. The truth will not be threatened. The truth has a voice.”
At the bottom of the page, the simple iconic masthead the New York Times.But just the day before in Sunday’s edition of the paper, timed for that evening’s Golden Globes Awards program, the New York Times on the first of these pages had the words,
“He said. She said.
He said. She said.
He said. She said.”
And then 144 more times, an unbroken,
Very clearly was the New York Times signaling its own virtue associating with the #metoo campaign and the political messaging sent at the Golden Globes concerning the issues of sexual harassment. It was a pretty unnuanced message. Again,
“He said. She said.
He said. She said.
He said. She said.”
And then 144 times,
The second full page in the New York Times about the New York Timessimply had the words,
“The truth has a voice.”
At the bottom of the page, again, the iconic masthead of the New York Times.Now it’s really clear what’s going on here, the New York Times is signaling by means of these ads that it is the authoritative voice for truth in the culture, that it cares deeply about truth, that it — perhaps alone — is committed to finding the truth and giving the truth a voice. This follows last year’s first effort in this series by the New York Times, that time it was scheduled to coincide with the Academy Awards presentation. The messaging back then in 2017, I quote,
“The truth is hard. The truth is hard to know. The truth is more important than ever.”
That last line is the most important of the claims made by the New York Times, and in accordance with this particular advertising campaign it actually draped those words around its building.
“The truth is more important than ever,”
claims the Times.
Well, before looking further and more deeply at the issue of truth in our contemporary moment, it is really important for us to recognize that from a biblical perspective it simply is not true that the truth has never been more important. It is true to say that it’s never been more important and it’s never been less important. For Christians, according to a biblical worldview, truth is always the paramount question. It has never been less important. It’s actually a fairly ludicrous claim on the part of the New York Times, are they really suggesting that going back to that paper’s own history, if you look at the last decades of the 19th century, the truth wasn’t so important? When you look at two cataclysmic world wars during the 20th century, the truth wasn’t so important. When you look at the depression, the Cold War, and everything that followed, the truth was less important then than it is now. Of course, that’s not a serious claim that they would make. It is, however, the background impulse to their current advertising campaign. We know what’s going on here, it’s very similar to the kind of campaign and posturing undertaken by the major newspaper in the nation’s capital, the Washington Post. Just several months ago that paper began printing under its own masthead the words,
“Democracy dies in darkness.”
In both cases you have two major newspapers, two of the most influential newspapers in the world, claiming their priority in terms of the business of truth telling, and in the words of the Washington Post implicitly, saving democracy. Saving democracy from what or from whom? Defending truth against what? Well of course the most immediate challenge that is reflected in these campaigns is what is referred to as fake news, it’s the destabilization of the entire truth and information and media universe. But this is where Christians really do need to think a bit more deeply about this than the New York Times and the Washington Post. Is it because we are less invested in truth? No, to the contrary; it is because we are far more invested in truth. It’s also because we understand that the New York Times really does pride itself, along with the Washington Post and other major media, in being very concerned about the truth; they have entire journalistic teams of reporters and writers and editors and levels of editors and then publishers and all the rest, all supposedly working together in order to reveal and to report the truth. And of course when it comes to a story, let’s just take a routine story like a break-in in a neighborhood, if we’re looking for report on that break-in, we want to know the factual answers to who, what, when, and where, of course, why would help also. But as we’re looking at that we recognize that the very secular reporters and editors and publishers of the news media, they really do believe in the facts, they want to get to those facts when it comes to a break-in in a home. But when it comes to bigger and more complex questions, well at that point, the editors and the reporters and others tend to mix up their own categories. The New York Times when they’re claiming to be the voice of truth, they’re not just speaking about what they take pride in in terms of their rather objective reporting about major events. No, they’re implying that also about their analysis; they’re claiming truth for their own worldview. This is where Christians also have to understand that one of the hallmarks of the modern age as we know it is the denial of certain forms of truth, the existence of objective truth when it comes to morality, and, furthermore, when it came to the movement known as postmodernism, the denial of objective truth at all.
Now as we’re looking at this, we understand that no society can actually operate in any same way while denying all objective truth. So what you have in the contemporary world are two rival visions of truth, sometimes in the very same mind. You have a level of objective truth, and that’s understood to be, well to go back to our story about a break-in in a home or the robbery of a store, there are facts and those facts are merely be taken as facts, they’re facts because they are true because they correspond with reality. But when it comes to a question of morality, well, there’s a second dimension of truth, and that’s often hand-in-hand with the rejection of the fact that there can be any moral facts there are only moral opinions. The Christian thinker Francis Schaeffer pointed to this in his most important book, that book was written in 1968, the title, Escape from Reason. Schaefer famously argued that in the modern secular mind there was actually a two-story picture of truth; a lower story that consisted of facts and an upper story that merely contained opinions. The lower story was cognitive, the upper story was noncognitive. As Schaefer indicated, the denial of objective truth in matters of morality was the modern age’s way of putting all those questions, that it wanted to answer in a very different way, beyond the cognitive level of facts into the noncognitive level of mere opinion.
So we have to recognize that the modern age has been trying to argue that there are some facts, those facts are understood to be true, true in the sense that they correspond with reality. In the modern cultural moment you see this especially affirmed amongst persons who reduce all matters of fact to what’s often limited to science, fact-based research they say. But when it comes to questions of morality such as whether or not an unborn human life is actually human, whether or not abortion is right or wrong, whether we can know that abortion is either right or wrong as moral facts, well at that stage everything’s simply kicked up into the second story into a matter of opinion, then it’s just a matter of which opinion gains majority status and support. We need to understand that that is the essence of modern politics and cultural conversation. We need to understand that that is the worldview that drives those identified as the cultural creatives, those who are the producers and the directors and the storytellers in Hollywood and beyond. We need to understand what Francis Schaeffer warned about as this two-story picture of truth, it is being drilled through every level of the culture, it is being drilled especially through every level of education, particularly higher education, but there’s plenty of evidence these days that it is also being drilled down even into kindergarten and grade school in terms of much of the official curriculum.
It is encouraging, in one sense, that the New York Times is so interested in truth, even if it comes in the form of a self advertisement, but when it states that the truth has never been more important, Christians agree with every single word so long as it’s followed by the fact that the truth has never been less important either. For Christians, the truth is not just important, it is ultimate.
Next, I turn to looking at that deep cultural divide we see an America, we’re not the only ones who see it, the New York Times and others see it as well, sometimes referring to not just one America but two Americas speaking of that very deep moral and cultural divide. Recently, the New York Times ran a front-page article by Tim Arango, the headline,
“One America Fights Another As Rift Widens.”
The subhead is interesting,
“California pushes back against White House.”
Now it’s not just California and the White House, but that particular dynamic is the initiating catalyst of the story. It’s really about that great worldview divide that separates Americans, and when it comes the state of California there is no doubt where the majority of the political leaders in that state stand, almost all of them are California Democrats. But when it comes to the rest of America, is California now foreign country? Arango writes,
“In many ways it feels like that these days, as the growing divide between California and the Trump administration erupted this past week over a dizzying range of flash points, from immigration to taxes to recreational marijuana use.”
I think in many ways it’s that last issue that has the front place attention here. Last week Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the federal government would be reversing a few Obama era executive orders that it indicated that the Department of Justice would not pursue investigations and prosecutions of federal marijuana laws. There are now about eight states that have legalized recreational marijuana, and the Obama administration had announced that where the states had done so, the feds would not prosecute even though in all 50 states and in all American territories the use, the possession, the distribution, and the sale of marijuana remains a federal crime. So you now have a dynamic between those states that have legalized marijuana and the federal government, but what’s really interesting is what this shows us about how, in a moral Civil War, people or states for that matter can change sides and change arguments pretty quickly. Back during the 1950s and 1960s it was largely southern states using a state’s rights argument who sought to defend segregation laws and the larger nation, especially led by those who were ardently anti-segregation, argued that the states had no right to violate federal laws or federal decrees. That was a major dynamic, on the one hand you had an argument about states rights, on the other hand you had a prevailing argument about federal supremacy on such questions, but when it comes to marijuana all of a sudden California is singing a very different tune. California has learned to sing the anthem of state’s rights over the issue particularly of legalized marijuana.
We have often observed that the closer you get to one of the oceanic coasts the more liberal the society becomes on many moral and cultural issues. That’s true on the East Coast, but particularly in the Northeast, but it is true on the entirety of the West Coast, the United States Pacific Coast. Just consider this political profile,
“In California, every state leader is a Democrat, including the governor and the leaders of the State Senate and Assembly. Of the state’s 53 members in Congress, only 14 are Republicans, and,”
the article in the Times goes on to say,
“analysts believe several of them are in [serious political] jeopardy [in the 2018 midterm elections].”
One of the interesting dimensions of this article in the Times is that it identifies a certain impulse in this liberal direction in the state of California and traces it back to the Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. He had begun to use the language of California being
“an almost nation-state. And,”
Then, as the paper goes on to say,
“many Californians feel that way.”
The most important issue for us is to understand that the worldview distinction is real and that eventually it becomes tangible in politics, in laws, legislation, and policies. California knows that; frankly, we all know that, but what you’re looking at in this article is the recognition of a very deep divide that seems only to be getting wider and deeper at the cultural moment. Interestingly, with many other issues also on the table, marijuana has emerged as one of the key issues of contention leading even a state like California all of a sudden to begin talking about state’s rights reversing the very kind of arguments it had made decades ago. But that really goes both ways when you consider the fact that the current US Attorney General Jeff Sessions was making many of the same arguments in terms of very different issues also a matter of decades ago. What makes the story even more interesting to Christians is our understanding, just as we were discussing on the previous story, that that divide is actually deeper than the secular mind can understand.
Meanwhile, as we’re the thinking about the media programming and advertising, a story in yesterday’s edition of the Times indicated that more TV shows are now vying for our eyeballs than in any previous time in history. Last year, John Koblin tells us, there were 487 original scripted programs, that’s a record breaker that follows last year’s record breaker of 455. Koblin explains,
“The staggering growth largely comes from the seemingly endless budget lines that help produce new shows for streaming services.”
Now one of the things we need to note is that we are looking here at streaming services primarily. The big three producers of scripted programs on television now are FX, HBO, and Netflix. Now just remember that that’s contrasted with what we would’ve understood even a matter of just a decade ago. Where are CBS and NBC and ABC, not to mention the major cable networks of yore. But from a Christian perspective, one of the most interesting aspects here is what this underlines in terms of the continued influence of television programming, it’s not going away, it’s not going away in terms of influence in the culture, it’s also not going away in terms of the competition for our eyeballs because this is where we always need to remind ourselves that programming is not really to entertain us, it is to entertain us in order to send advertising to us. That’s what pays the bills. Make the mistake, Hollywood does want to send moral messages in its entertainment but it can only do so successfully if it gets advertisers to foot the bill, and it’s a big bill. We are told in this news article that Netflix is going to spend over $8 billion in terms of production for this programming in just the next 12 months; $8 billion. I also found it interesting to find embedded in this article that just about every one of these individual programs cost on average $3 million. Somebody’s got to pay for a lot of advertising to make that commercially worthwhile.
Meanwhile our advertising does reveal a great deal about ourselves, that’s why I was drawn to another article this time in the advertising column of theNew York Times. Joanne Kaufman writes that if you think you’re seeing more drug ads on television, you actually are. Koplin tells us that
“According to Kantar Media, a firm that tracks multimedia advertising, 771,368 [drug] ads were shown in [the last year documented, which is] 2016.”
There is every reason to believe there were more in 2017 and will be more in 2018. That number again over, 770,000 drug ads. She goes on to report by means of citing John Swallen,
“TV ad spending by pharmaceutical companies has more than doubled in the past four years, making it the second-fastest-growing category on television during that time.”
Now one of the interesting things is what’s documented in this article about this shift in these drug ads. It’s no longer primarily driven by pharmaceuticals for what would be called minor health problems, it’s now for major and massive health problems. Why? Well the article the Times argues it is because the television audience is trending older and because we are living longer, and as we do so more serious health problems represent themselves and the drug companies are battling amongst themselves in the war for our health and more urgently for our health dollars.
It’s also perhaps interesting to note that these health advertisements, drug ads, are directed primarily at television viewers for dramas and news shows. Speaking of the newly more serious drugs addressed in these ads, we are told by Thomas Lom, a consultant,
“In the old days, it was allergies and acid reflux and whatnot. … Now, it’s cardiology issues. It’s cancer.”
Now if you’ve been looking at these ads you’re probably thinking what I’m thinking, how would anyone want to take these drugs once they have to tell us what the FDA requires, which is about the potential side effects, some of them truly horrifying, some potentially clarifying, others, admittedly, mystifying. But one of the interesting dimensions of what’s reported in this story is that all of those dreaded side effects the FDA requires to be cited don’t seem to have much of an effect upon the impact of the advertising. Part of this is because, authorities say in the article, that drugs that are to have a dramatic effect, well, are understood to sometimes come with dramatic other effects. But there’s something else in the article about the confusion that comes with white noise. That is to say we find ourselves tuning out what we’re not really interested to hear, and it tells us something about human nature, that we are more interested to hear the benefits of the drug than what might be the unavoidable side effects. But authorities in the article also say that the advertising might actually appear to be more credible and more truthful if the side effects are listed along with the primary benefit, but that takes us back to where we started on the issue of truth. It turns out that even a society in a modern age that wants to escape the question of truth simply can’t.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing. For more information, go to my website AlbertMohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to @albertmohler.For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College just go to boycecollege.com.
(This podcast is by R. Albert Mohler, Jr. Discovered by Christian Podcast Central and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Christian Podcast Central, and audio is streamed directly from their servers.)
I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
A Catholic cardinal, a former president of the United States and an evangelical pastor walk into the op-ed pages of the New York Times: three conversations, three worldviews on display. Then, why resolutions fail and why the humanistic worldview crashes upon contact with reality.
As we know the biggest questions of life, the biggest questions of worldview are often there lurking right under the headlines. Sometimes, however, they actually become the headline. How about this question—am I a Christian? That was the actual headline in an opinion piece written in the New York Times published on Christmas Eve by influential New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. The full headline was this,
“Cardinal Tobin, Am I a Christian?”
Now before looking at the article itself let’s just acknowledge that’s the most important question we could consider. Here you have a very influential columnist asking the question. And as we shall see, not for the first time, am I a Christian? He asked the question in April of last year addressed to an evangelical pastor in New York, Pastor Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church. He then asked the question last Christmas Eve of former President Jimmy Carter. And now he asked the question of the Cardinal Archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, Cardinal Joseph Tobin. Kristof begins his article with these words,
“What is Christmas about, anyway? Can I be a Christian if I doubt the virgin birth? Can a woman become a cardinal? What would upset Jesus today?” Kristof then says, “I put these blunt questions and more to Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, who was appointed by Pope Francis and is in his mold. Here’s our conversation, edited for space and clarity.”
Now as I said, this is the third of these conversations, and what makes this particular trio of article so interesting is that they basically cover the most important waterfront of Christian theology. The first was addressed to an evangelical Christian, the second to a rather conventional liberal Protestant and now to a rather moderately liberal Roman Catholic. But in all three of the responses, we have a predictable response exactly according to the worldview and to the comprehensive theological system. That is to say that the Cardinal Archbishop responds like a rather conventional Roman Catholic. Former President Carter responded like a fairly predictable liberal Protestant and likewise the evangelical in this trio, Pastor Tim Keller, also responded in a predictably evangelical way. But we are talking about three very different sets of responses to his question am I a Christian?
Kristof begins almost all of these articles by acknowledging his own doubts, his own particular form of skepticism, particularly when it comes to the virgin birth. Kristof speaks to the Cardinal saying that he considers himself to be one who reveres Jesus’s teachings, but he says,
“I have trouble with the miracles — including, since this is Christmas, the virgin birth.” He went on to say, “In Jesus’ time people believed that Athena was born from Zeus’ head, so it seemed natural to accept a great man walking on water or multiplying loaves and fishes; in 2017,” he says, “not so much.”
He then asked, “Can’t we take the Sermon on the Mount but leave the supernatural?”
The Cardinal responded by saying that people are, he guesses, free to take whatever they want. He goes on to say, however, “The most mind-boggling miracle is the incarnation. We believe that the Creator of the Universe, the one who existed before time and before anything else, became one of us. If you accept that, then there are a lot of other things that don’t seem to be quite as unbelievable.”
Speaking of Christianity and particularly of the ministry of the incarnate Christ, the Cardinal said:
“It’s not a magic show. All of the miracles were not isolated or simply altruistic events. They were actually pointing,” said the Cardinal, “toward who God is, and who this carpenter from Nazareth really was.”
Now a similar answer came from Pastor Tim Keller just about a year and a half ago. He insisted that when it comes to the supernatural truth claims of Christianity, those revealed in Scripture, they are to be believed just as they are presented. And what you have here is a very interesting issue when you compare it with the response that came a year ago Christmas Eve from President Jimmy Carter. The former president of the United States made clear that he did not believe that all of the supernatural events that are revealed in Scripture were important to Christian belief. He made himself the deciding factor saying that he and he argues all human beings basically decide what to believe. Former President Carter said you don’t have to decide to believe the virgin birth. Tim Keller said oh yes you do. The Cardinal Archbishop of Newark, New Jersey similarly says yes, it’s a part of historic Christianity. What’s interesting there? Well it is the understanding that here you have an agreement between the evangelical and the Roman Catholic, somewhat at odds both of them with the liberal Protestant.
Cardinal Tobin is exactly right. The miracles are not presented in Scripture as a magic show. They are not to bring attention to themselves, but rather they are pointers to the identity of Christ as the incarnate son of God. When Kristof posed the same question concerning the virgin birth to Tim Keller, he responded by saying if something is truly integral to a body of thought you can’t remove it without destabilizing the whole thing. He went on to say a religion can’t be whatever we desire it to be. He suggested that it would be incongruous to declare oneself a member of Greenpeace and then he says come out and say climate change is a hoax. If that were to happen, Greenpeace would ask him to resign. He said,
“I could call them narrow-minded, but they would rightly say that there have to be some boundaries for dissent or you couldn’t have a cohesive, integrated organization. And they’d be right,” said Keller. “It’s the same with any religious faith.”
Again, President Carter affirmed that he personally also believed in the virgin birth of Christ but because he decided so to believe and didn’t want to impose it upon others. So what is the authority for belief? Well here you have the three major options on the Christian scene today. The Roman Catholic would say that the authority for doctrine is indeed the magisterium, the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Responding to Kristof on a moral question, the Cardinal said:
“Catholic tradition didn’t fall out of the air and decide something capricious. It’s based on all sorts of lived experience of people trying to follow Jesus closely.”
Those people are the magisterial authorities of the Roman Catholic Church, most importantly, including the Pope, who appointed this man as Cardinal. When it comes to religious authority asked of President Jimmy Carter, he speaks of his own internal cogitation, his own internal form of faith. He said,
“My belief in the resurrection of Jesus comes from my Christian faith, and not from any need for scientific proof. I derive a great personal benefit from the totality of this belief, which comes naturally to me.”
That’s a really interesting statement and is shared by many Protestant liberals who believe that faith does come quite naturally that religious authority comes from inside. The former president went on to speak and say:
“eventually I decide what I believe, as an integral part of my existence and a guide for my life. This is based on what I consider to be the perfect life and example of Jesus.”
The most important issue there is where he says I decide what I believe. That’s a quintessentially modern statement. But that very modern statement, actually a rather secular statement, becomes mixed with Christianity and what results as liberal Protestantism. When Kristof pressed the former president on how he decides doctrinal questions or questions of biblical interpretation, Carter said, “I make a decision on what to believe.”
Again, he makes the decision on what to believe. Meanwhile, turning to Tim Keller asked the same kind of questions, Keller responds by citing Scripture. That’s the rightful evangelical reflex. That’s the correct Protestant reflex. So here in these three different conversations with New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, you have the three different alternatives when it comes to settling the question of religious authority. The Roman Catholic cardinal says it’s the Roman Catholic Church and its interpretation of Scripture is translated into tradition. The liberal Protestant says eventually it comes down to what you and I decide to believe. The evangelical turns to Scripture citing the four Gospels and the entirety of the New Testament. Defending the New Testament is the source for how we know even who Jesus is and why he came and what he accomplished. So for the Catholic the answer is tradition. For the liberal Protestant, the answer is reason and experience, and for the evangelical, the response is Scripture.
Now before turning to Kristof’s last question, I want to recognize that I have engaged him on these questions myself going back for about 15 years, and I also have to acknowledge and state with respect the fact that Kristof has been struggling with these questions now very publicly for so long. A particular doctrinal stumbling block for Kristof is the virgin birth, but it basically comes down to his skepticism about anything that is claimed to be supernatural, including anything that is claimed of Jesus. But here we have to note that Kristof does represent a very quintessentially modernist form of skepticism. This is the kind of skepticism that came into modern Western life in the aftermath of the Enlightenment, most importantly in the aftermath of the Enlightenment’s insistence on human reason as the only authoritative way of knowing.
But Kristof’s last question has to do with the exclusivity of the gospel. The question as to whether it is required that persons confess and believe that Jesus Christ is Lord in order to go to heaven. The three answers also reveal those three great alternatives – Roman Catholicism, liberal Protestantism and evangelical Christianity. After making very clear his skepticism concerning the historical claims concerning Jesus, his willingness to accept Jesus as a moral teacher but not as the supernatural son of God, Kristof straightforwardly asked the Cardinal, “Am I a Christian?”
The Cardinal responded, “I would think that if you haven’t completely closed the door on the possibility that God has more to say to you, then I think you’re in the tent.”
The important thing to recognize here is that Scripture teaches otherwise. But what the Cardinal said though contrary to Scripture is absolutely consistent with the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching especially after Vatican II. Former President Carter is in basic agreement. When Kristof asked him the same question, making reference also to Gandhi, asking if Gandhi is to be consigned to hell, the former president said:
“I do not feel qualified to make a judgment. I am inclined to give him (or others) the benefit of any doubt.”
So the Cardinal says that someone who has the belief system of Nicholas Kristof is in the tent. The former president of the United States says he’s not going to render a judgment, but he would give any individual the benefit of the doubt. But finally when evangelical Pastor Tim Keller was asked the same question, am I a Christian? And then Kristof went on to elaborate, can I be a Christian while doubting the resurrection? Keller answered:
“I wouldn’t draw any conclusion about an individual without talking to him or her at length. But, in general, if you don’t accept the Resurrection or other foundational beliefs as defined by the Apostles’ Creed, I’d say you are on the outside of the boundary.”
The article with Keller actually goes on rather considerably after this with Keller offering a rather robust defense of the supernatural claims concerning Jesus made in Scripture and their centrality to the Christian faith. But here you have those three alternatives once again. The Roman Catholic says just about whomever you are you are inside the tent unless you slam the door in God’s face. The liberal Protestant says I’m not gonna really make a decision about that, but I’ll give to all people the benefit of the doubt. Meanwhile the evangelical bound by Scripture says, here’s what the Bible teaches.
It really tells us something that Nicholas Kristof is asking this question and struggling with these issues so publicly. This is the third of these articles and now we have a tripod of sorts in order to understand the major worldview alternatives that are presented to us here in the 21st century. One final thought about this trio of articles, what this tells us is that even in this secular age, especially perhaps when it comes to Christmas and all the conversation about the incarnation of Jesus Christ, even the people who don’t want to ask these questions can’t help themselves. We need to remember that and be ready with the right answer.
But next shifting from Christmas to New Year’s, it seems that the secular world is also fascinated with a very pressing question. Why is it that so few New Year’s resolutions make it even to the midpoint of the New Year’s first month? David DeSteno, who is professor of psychology at Northeastern University, in an article also published in the New York Times on how to keep your resolutions, he says that willpower is for chumps. To make a change, you don’t have to feel miserable. But anyone reading this article is likely to feel pretty miserable about the statistics. He tells us that by January 8 about 25% of all resolutions made by people for the new year have fallen by the wayside. He then goes on to say that by the time the year ends less than one out of ten of those resolutions is reported even by the resolvers to have been faithfully kept. Meanwhile over at the Wall Street Journal, another multipage article in resolutions, in this case Daniel Pink, a major essayist, argues that if we’re going to try to keep our New Year’s resolutions we need to take into effect and into our own thinking the kinds of insights that can come from science on how to back up willpower with certain kinds of practices and insights that might increase the odds of keeping those resolutions.
But what’s really important about both of these articles from the Journal and the Times and frankly pretty pervasive through the media is the fact that what we see here is the failure of a humanistic understanding of human nature to survive conflict with reality. Reality is pretty tough, and it’s especially tough on any kind of artificial understanding of humanity. That’s an understanding of humanity devoid of the image of God and also stripped of any understanding of sin. What are you left with then? Well the modern secular understanding of humanity is basically evolutionary. And yes that comes right out in the New York Times article. DeSteno argues,
“From an evolutionary perspective, the fact that exercising willpower doesn’t come naturally to us makes a lot of sense.”
He explains that for millennia what led to success wasn’t the ability, for example, to study for exams, or save for retirement or go to the gym. But rather in terms of our evolutionary history, what mattered most was immediate action for survival. Now just think about this for a moment. Here you have a secular understanding of humanity explaining that evolution actually programmed us for an absence of willpower. If we are going to blame someone for the failure of our resolutions to survive the new year, we can just blame our ancestors and the process of evolution. The modern secular humanistic understanding of humanity basically presents a very rosy picture of what it means to be human. But that rosy optimistic picture of humanity crashes in terms of reality. It simply doesn’t work. It doesn’t work in the crib. It doesn’t work on the playground. It doesn’t work in the mirror. It doesn’t work with New Year’s resolutions.
Now we have to blame something then for the failure of this optimistic, humanistic understanding of what it means to be human, so we’ll have to blame something like evolution. But that’s also a problem because if it is indeed an evolutionary problem it’s not going to be one that we can deal with no matter how much willpower we might try to muster. We’re not going to overcome the impetus and the trajectory of evolution in a single generation. That’s why those who try to hold to this evolutionary understanding of humanity find it virtually impossible to hold to an optimistic view of humanity. It becomes inherently pessimistic because evolution according to the theory as it is propounded simply presents us with facts and the way things are. There’s not much of an opportunity for change not to mention redemption.
This explains why our secular neighbors based upon a very vague understanding of both human nature and evolution will insist that human beings are basically inclined to good. They’ll deny the basic Christian insight of original sin not to mention total depravity and just argue that human beings are inclined to the good. They just sometimes do that which is wrong or fall short. But of course that doesn’t explain the headlines. It also doesn’t explain ourselves, our knowledge of ourselves. It doesn’t explain why less than one out of ten of our resolutions survives to the end of the year. And honestly, that’s probably overly optimistic. We also need to understand that if you do hold to this evolutionary understanding of humanity then human beings are just a cosmic accident, and given the way human beings behave, you’re simply going to come to a very pessimistic understanding of the human reality and from the very beginning without any expectation or hope of redemption. This is why the contradiction between biblical Christianity and the modern secular worldview is and always is a matter of direct collision and antithesis.
The biblical worldview explains full well why so few of our resolutions survive the new year. It’s because of sin and the effects of the fall. But this doesn’t leave us with a pessimistic understanding of humanity, but rather a realistic understanding of humanity. And furthermore the biblical worldview begins with the fact that every single human being is made in the image of God not a cosmic accident. But every single human being is also a sinner bearing the full weight of what it means to be a sinner. And thus, the biblical worldview explains reality as we know it, reality as it is.
But the biblical worldview also points as far beyond the quandary of crashed resolutions by pointing us to the sure hope of our redemption. God has not left sinful humanity in our sin but has made provision for our redemption atonement for our salvation through the life, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. That is why the gospel of Jesus Christ is such good news, and it also explains why if you are left with any other worldview you can’t possibly explain humanity. It really does tell us something profound that even before the new year dawned America’s most influential newspapers were running multipage articles on the fact that New Year’s resolutions were destined to fail. But of course we have to correct that by saying that the resolutions don’t fail the resolver does. Our most basic human needs can’t be met by greater resolution. It can only be met by redemption.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing. For more information, go to my website AlbertMohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to @albertmohler.For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College just go to boycecollege.com.
(This podcast is by R. Albert Mohler, Jr. Discovered by Christian Podcast Central and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Christian Podcast Central, and audio is streamed directly from their servers.)
We’ll look at the moral mayhem of last week in Congress, we’ll look at our brave new world of political morality, we’ll see why Christians should be deeply troubled by surrogate parenting, and we’ll consider the pope’s proposal to change the translation of the Lord’s Prayer.
We are living in one of the most genuinely tumultuous times in American political history, but it’s not just politics, we are looking at major tectonic shifts in terms of the political landscape, the historical landscape, the cultural landscape, and as Christians understand there are inescapably unavoidably moral issues front and center as well. Trying to figure all these things out as the world is in motion represents a rather significant challenge, and we’re looking at two of the most tumultuous weeks in modern political history. I speak of last week and this week, both weeks are certain, even as now we’re speaking just on Monday of this week, to be tumultuous and to be very significant.
First, last week we saw the resignation of no less than three major congressional figures. First came the resignation of Representative John Conyers of Michigan, the longest-serving member of the House of Representatives in office for 52 years, who left after multiple accusations by women of sexual misbehavior. Then on Thursday came the resignation of Minnesota Senator Al Franken. It was one of the strangest resignations, it was one of the strangest resignation speeches ever in the history the United States Senate. And then, even as those two resignations were shocking enough came Friday’s even more bizarre resignation of yet another member of Congress, in this case Representative Trent Franks of Arizona. We’re facing moral mayhem here, and it’s playing out at one of the most hyper-politicized moments in American history. We’re also looking at some of the most urgent and sometimes most bizarre moral charges made against anyone in public leadership. It appeared that something like a dam was breaking just a matter of weeks ago in terms of the revelations first against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, but then we have to put this in a longer historical context and understand that even in terms of the immediate wave this goes back to the charges made against Fox News figures Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes and their subsequent firings or resignations. You then come to understand that we’re looking at something that seemed to begin with TV news and then went to Hollywood and has now arrived in Washington DC. At least when we’re talking about John Conyers and Al Franken the charges were understandable, most Americans could understand what was being alleged here, and when it comes to someone like Al Franken, or for that matter to someone like Congressman Conyers, what might be most significant about their exit from the United States Congress is the fact that they went out without anything that could adequately be called an apology. The editors of the Wall Street Journal responded to Senator Franken’s sort of resignation speech with an editorial entitled, “Al Franken’s Non Sequitur.”
As the subhead on the editorial said,“The Minnesota Senator says he’s innocent but resigns anyway.”
In the aftermath of the senator’s announcement, spellbinding enough in terms of the drama on the floor the United States Senate, what was missed is what becomes apparent when you look at the text of the senator’s statement. What he said was that he was innocent of doing anything that would bring shame upon the Senate during the time that he was a senator. Now that seems to be something of an acknowledgment that he did participate in actions that would bring shame upon the Senate even though they were committed before he entered the Senate.
In the same newspaper, former presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan described his departure as being without grace, but Peggy Noonan also pointed to something that was very important to understand about Al Franken long before these accusations and his announcement that he was leaving the Senate. As she writes,
“Mr. Franken’s weakness as a political figure was having no sympathy for those who disagree with him, not bothering to understand how the other side thinks, while always claiming for himself the high moral ground. This now common attitude,” she says, “frays political bonds; once it was considered poor political comportment.”
All that was very much on display in the senator’s speech on Thursday in the United States Senate because the senator seemed to say that he thinks of himself as a strong defender of women and their rights and their dignity even as he basically has admitted to actions that would contradict those beliefs. But in one of the most interesting analyses of the Franken situation, Gail Collins, a major opinion writer at the New York Times says that the entire controversy about Al Franken really isn’t about Al Franken. She writes this,
“Ten years from now, do you think we’ll be talking about where we were when Al Franken announced he was resigning from the Senate? You never can tell.” She then says this, “It was an historic moment that had virtually nothing to do with Franken himself.”
What could she possibly be saying here? She’s saying that Franken was basically just the symbolic victim of a massive change, a massive moral and political change in the United States. Later in her column she writes this,
“Franken was a good politician, and many Democrats hoped he might grow into a presidential candidate. But,” she writes, “it was his destiny to serve history in a different way. He was caught up in a rebellion of epic proportion, one that was not just about unwanted groping but a whole new stage in the movement of women into the center of public life.”
Now remember this is written by a major opinion writer well known to be a feminist at the New York Times. She argues, absurdly, that the entire controversy that led to the resignation of Senator Franken really isn’t about Senator Franken at all. Instead, he is simply a creature of political destiny. His destiny, however, was not to be a future president of the United States under the Democratic banner but rather “his destiny,” she says, “was to serve history in a different way. … caught up in a rebellion of epic proportion.” A rebellion she says, which is basically about, “the movement of women into the center of public life.”
All this points to the fact that no matter where one falls on the political spectrum something about what it means to be human is to try to understand these events over against some big tableau or landscape of history. For Gail Collins that means arguing that what she calls the “Great Al Franken Moment,” wasn’t actually about Al Franken at all.
But when we get to the third resignation, a stunning resignation that came Friday, we are entering entirely new moral territory in terms of our brave New World and the United States Congress. For reasons of modesty I’m going to have to paraphrase the New York Times article just a bit here. Katie Rogers writes that
“Representative Trent Franks announced Friday that he would resign from Congress immediately after accusations emerged that he had offered $5 million to a female [Congressional] employee to be a surrogate mother for his children, and that she and another female employee worried that the lawmaker [intended to bring about the pregnancy himself.]”
Rogers then reports, “Mr. Franks, Republican of Arizona and one of the House’s most ardent social conservatives, had said Thursday that he would leave the House in January, and he admitted that he had discussed surrogate pregnancies with two employees.”
We now know beyond this, that the House Ethics Committee had opened an investigation, but we know something else, we know that the Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, a speaker as the very same party as the congressman, came to the conclusion that whatever he had talked about with these women was absolutely intolerable.
Now one of the old rules in Washington is that if you have really bad news you want to drop it on Friday afternoon, it often gets lost. This is one of those new stories that shouldn’t get lost. In terms of how Christians should understand this we need to understand that we are looking here at the intersection of modern biotechnology and assisted reproduction, and we’re looking at moral and political issues that no previous generation ever had to confront. The New York Times was right to identify Representative Franks as one of the most socially conservative members of the United States Congress. Throughout his political life he has been a reliable pro-family and pro-life vote. But in the news attention that came to us on Friday with the announcement of the congressman’s resignation, we came to understand that he and his wife have a child that was made possible by in vitro fertilization and the use of a gestational surrogate. It appears that the congressman with or without the knowledge and cooperation of his wife had proposed gestational surrogacy to at least two other women, in this case employees in his congressional staff.
But in terms of Christian worldview concerns this is where the situation goes absolutely bizarre because it isn’t yet clear exactly what the Congressman asked these two women to do. This is where we need to understand that if we are talking about surrogacy, we’re talking about something that is one of the most lamentable developments in terms of the modern age and assisted reproduction; we’re talking about something that from a biblical worldview perspective involves several issues of complicity. In the first place, this is impossible, true surrogacy, without in vitro fertilization and one of the big problems in in vitro fertilization is the creation of embryos outside the normal biological process, and many, indeed it is now believed perhaps most of those embryos, are never even transferred into a womb, instead they are simply put into deep-freeze and eventually destroyed. True surrogacy, in terms of the fact that you have a couple who has a biological embryo that is gestated within yet another woman, that requires in vitro fertilization, so this kind of surrogacy was impossible until the last several decades when IVF has become more common and, at least as it is sold, more effective. But this involves something else and that is the fact that you’re looking at hiring a womb. Now there may be any number of biological reasons why this would be necessary, there may be any number of reasons why a woman would not be able to carry her own embryo as a baby developing in her womb to term. But we’re also talking about something that is extremely morally complicated, just consider the fact that this modern biological technology has now allowed someone to be hired as a womb for rent, so to speak, and this is where we have to understand that God has made us in such a way that a woman cannot simply carry a child, as if it is some kind of product, there’s a relationship in that gestational period between a woman and the unborn child within her; there is something deeply unnatural about severing that bond. Furthermore, we’re looking at the fact that this is highly commodified and very commercialized. We are told in the United States, often described as the Wild, Wild West of modern reproductive technologies and arrangements, the average price for a gestational surrogate is something like $30,000 plus current support plus all kinds of medical support, you’re talking about only the very wealthy being able to afford this kind of surrogacy. In an interview published at National Review, Jennifer Lahl, a nurse who’s been working with a broad coalition against surrogacy for years, she’s the head of an institution known as the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network, she very rightly pointed out to National Review that you’re looking at an economic imbalance here that she could describe very powerfully in these terms, you will might hear of a Hollywood celebrity hiring some kind of domestic servant to be a surrogate, you never hear of the transaction the other way around.
Now just to remind ourselves, we believe that every single human being at every point of development, that includes all of those embryos produced by IVF, we believe that every single human life is sacred and that that sacredness and dignity goes back even to the moment of conception; we remind ourselves that means fertilization. But we also have to remind ourselves of the fact that not every way of bringing about a baby is morally legitimate. To put the matter as bluntly as possible: In order for someone to achieve a baby by means of surrogacy, it generally requires not only the expenditure of a massive amount of money and also requires hiring someone who is virtually always in an inferior situation politically and economically to function as a gestational surrogate, it requires severing the baby once born from that surrogate, and it requires the creation of what we now know are tens of thousands of human embryos that will never even be transferred. If you think about the span of American presidential history, I think it’s fair to say that George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, fast-forward to Lyndon Baines Johnson and Richard Milhouse Nixon, could understand the accusation against Senator Al Franken and the result, but none of them could possibly understand the exact charges made against Arizona Republican Congressman Trent Franks. These charges and his eventual resignation are actually only sensical in very modern times on the other side of the great bioethical and biomedical divide.
Gail Collins said last week, we were looking at what she calls, “The Great Al Franken Moment,” but by the time the week was over, we were looking at the Great Trent Franks Moment as well. All this seems to happen at the epicenter where we find happening simultaneously a sexual revolution and a brave new world of reproductive technology.
Next, as we’re speaking about unexpected but rather important news stories Julie Zauzmer and Stefano Pitrelli reporting for the Washington Post tell us,
“One of the best-known prayers in the English language might need an update for the sake of theological clarity, Pope Francis suggested in an interview this week.”
The reporters go on to say, “The words in the Lord’s Prayer that ask, ‘Lead us not into temptation,’ can cause confusion, [the Pope] said. To make it clear that God would not lead anybody toward sin, the Pope suggested a better translation of the Greek prayer from the New Testament would be something along the lines of, ‘Do not let us fall into temptation.’”
Now as the report goes on, the Pope has been giving laxity to bishops around the world to revise and to re-translate the liturgy of the church, but as I told the New York Times in the immediate response to this news story, we are here talking about the Lord’s Prayer not about the Pope’s prayer.
Elisabetta Povoledo, Laurie Goodstein, and Alan Cowell reporting for the New York Times put it in a larger context:
“It has been a question of theological debate and liturgical interpretation for years, and now Pope Francis has joined the discussion: Does the Lord’s Prayer, Christendom’s resonant petition to the Almighty, need an update?”
“In a new television interview,” we are told, “Pope Francis said the common rendering of one line in the prayer — ‘lead us not into temptation’ — was ‘not a good translation’ from [the] ancient texts. ‘Do not let us fall into temptation,’ [the Pope said,] might be better because God does not lead people into temptation; Satan does.”
The Pope said, “A father doesn’t do that. … He helps you get up right away. What induces into temptation is Satan.” As the reporter said, “In essence, the pope said, the prayer, from the Book of Matthew, is asking God, ‘When Satan leads us into temptation, You please, give me a hand.’”
When called by the New York Times I did indeed say that I was shocked and appalled by the proposal, but I wasn’t alone, there are a good many Catholic traditionalists and others who were likewise appalled; although, not always for the same reason. My main concern is not with the long-standing tradition of the church or the elegance of the liturgy, my concern is with the nature of the New Testament as the very Word of God, speaking specifically of the gospel of Matthew, and my concern is not the fact that the Lord’s prayer in this petition or any of the text of Scripture might require some explanation, that’s actually the job of teachers and preachers of the Word of God. The biggest issue I have with this is what it insinuates about the nature of Scripture and what it misconstrues in terms of the task of translation. No one should underestimate the complexity of the translation task, we are looking in this case at words that were almost surely originally spoken by Jesus in Aramaic, they were later recorded, as we find them in terms of the Lord’s prayer in one form of the Gospel of Luke and another more familiar in the Gospel of Matthew, and then we’re looking at the challenge of translating from New Testament Greek into contemporary languages, for us that means contemporary spoken English. But the task of translation, as simply as we can argue, is not the same as the task of exposition or of explanation. It is the task of the church and the leaders of the church, the preachers of the church, to offer explanation and exposition. It is the part of translators to do their very best, to discipline themselves, to offer as close as possible a direct translation. The argument for this is formal equivalence, but even when it comes to what is called dynamic equivalence, most modern dynamic equivalence translations would not dare to go so far as what the Pope suggested here. Now the Pope was not theologically wrong to make clear that God does not lead his human creatures to sin. That’s not based upon papal authority, that’s right from the book of James chapter 1 verses 13 and 14. We are told that no one who sins can say that he or she sinned because God tempted the individual to do so.
In terms of translation what’s undeniable is that the Greek verb behind this petition of the Lord’s prayer in Matthew clearly involves God as an actor not just as a preventer of action. The Greek word that is most commonly translated temptation here, peirasmos, actually means either temptation or testing. This is where we need to recognize that as we pray, ‘lead us not into temptation’ we are praying to the God, who the Old Testament tells us did allowed Job to be tested; furthermore, we are told that the Lord, the Father, even led Jesus into the wilderness in order to be tested. In his massive commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, the late New Testament scholar R.T. France of Great Britain got this exactly right. He writes, and I quote,
“The question is sometimes raised how the notion of God’s “bringing us into peirasmos” is compatible with his absolute goodness, but this involves two mistakes,” said professor France. “Firstly, a negative request is not necessarily imply that the positive is otherwise to be expected,” as he explains, “a husband who says to his wife ‘Don’t ever leave me’ is not necessarily assuming that she is likely to do so. Secondly,” France says, “Peirasmos is not in itself always be understood as a bad thing: it was after all the Holy Spirit who took Jesus into the wilderness ‘to be tested.’”
But my second big concern here has to do with the nature of Scripture itself because much of the discussion especially in the media and in the culture after the Pope’s pronouncement is based upon the fact that we have the right one way or the other to decide what Jesus actually meant and then to conform the text to our expectations. It is true that we do not have the Aramaic of Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer but this is where the evangelical, the historic church doctrine of Scripture reminds us that we affirm verbal plenary inspiration. What does that mean? It means that we have in the Greek New Testament by the very sovereign power of God exactly the words we need to know exactly what Jesus said. It is the words that bear this inspiration — every single word the full weight of that inspiration. So what that means is that the fact that we lack the Aramaic of Jesus as spoken to the disciples is not a problem because we have the New Testament Greek with those very words in the Greek form as given to us, not only by Matthew but by the Holy Spirit. Those issues, I believe, are far more important than the issue of tradition, but even from an historic Protestant understanding, we do see that tradition is not unimportant. There is something very important to the fact that Christians throughout the centuries have used this language, and in the English language, we’re talking now for almost 500 years, using this very language in order, faithfully and rightfully, to pray the prayer that God taught his disciples to pray. If we are to tamper with the basic form of that translation that we had better have a very good argument based not in contemporary understanding but rather in translation.
Finally, and oddly enough, there might be no shortage of quasi-evangelicals who hearing of the Pope’s proposal think it might not be such a bad idea. That just might change the Lord’s Prayer into a prayer that some might think they like better, but we must affirm the fact that our sovereign, omnipotent, all-loving God does sometimes allow his creatures to be tested. Jesus taught his own disciples that it certainly is not wrong to pray to the Father that we not be tested, but it certainly would be wrong to change the translation to appear to make the Scripture say that God never tests us.
We’ll see what explains Ireland’s turn to the left and on Australian states turn to euthanasia. We’ll see the moral dimension of secularization and the shifting ground of medical authority. We’ll see why the millennials are turning to horoscopes, and we’ll see the belief vacuum at the heart of the modern embrace of the occult.
This is going to be a big week at the United States Supreme Court, particularly on Tuesday morning, when the nation’s highest court will hear oral arguments in the case known as Masterpiece Cakeshop vs. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. That might sound like innocuous language. It might sound as puzzling language. What in the world do cakes have to do with civil rights or religious liberty? But what we’re facing here is a major case that will have a great deal to do with the future of religious liberty in this country, and we’ll be looking at it more fully tomorrow in anticipation of the oral arguments later in the day.
In the meantime we’re going to shift ground to Ireland, a major story that appeared Sunday in the New York Times, the headline, “Demise of the Church’ Tilts Ireland to the Left.”
Liam Stack is the reporter for the article, and what he is telling us is that there has been a massive moral change in the nation of Ireland just in the span of one generation about 30 years. He writes about the fact that it is now likely that there will be a constitutional change in Ireland, a constitutional change to repeal the eighth amendment, which will then allow the legalization of abortion in what had been not only the most pro-life countries on earth, but one of the most Catholic as well. Stack then writes:
“What are the driving forces behind this significant shift in voter attitudes toward abortion and other social issues?”
He concludes, “Ireland was long a bastion of Catholic conservatism, a place where pedestrians might tip their hats and hop off the footpath when a priest walked past. But economic and technological changes helped propel a shift in attitudes that accelerated with the unfolding of far-reaching abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church in the 1990s.”
The key sentence here, “Over a generation, Ireland transformed from a country where 67 percent of voters approved the constitutional abortion ban to one where, in 2015, 62 percent voted to legalize same-sex marriage.”
In this article Liam Stack documents the shift to the left on so many moral and ethical issues that is now undeniable in Ireland, and even as it is undeniable, that shift requires a great deal of explanation. Now in the United States we’ve noticed a similar kind of shift, a shift just in a period that can be documented to about seven years, between about 2007 and 2013 when Americans virtually flipped in terms of the question of same-sex marriage. In 2007 a clear majority of Americans said that they did not support the legalization of same-sex marriage by 2013 that had virtually reversed about 60 plus percent in both cases. As we remarked previously on the Briefing, what makes that particular shift so noticeable is that conceivably it actually involves some of the very same people effectively changing their minds on the question of same-sex marriage in just a process of about seven years. That tells us a great deal about how moral change takes place here in the United States. But in Ireland it’s the question of abortion that is front and center because if there is been any single moral teaching that has been made clear in terms of that country’s Catholic heritage it has been opposition to legalized abortion.
Liam Stack documents Ireland’s shift to the left.
He says that Ireland, “decriminalized homosexuality in 1992, removed restrictions on the sale of contraception in 1993 and legalized divorce in 1996. The Irish voted twice, in 1992 and 2002, to permit abortion if the mother were deemed a suicide risk. In 2015, the country passed a gender identity law favored by transgender rights groups.”
Now those are just several indications in terms of the shift to the left and Ireland, but where the Christian worldview would point us is even deeper than these illustrations. It would be to the fact that this kind of shift on moral or cultural issues requires a prior shift, a shift that is more fundamental than ethics, a shift that is actually in terms of the most basic questions of worldview, most particularly a theological shift having to do with the existence and nature of God. Here we get to the very nature historically of religion. The core of the word of religion includes the sense of binding, and thus where you find genuine religious authority, you find what is called binding authority. This can be explained very easily. A religion is understood to be binding if for instance belief in that religion would prevent you from taking an action or performing an act that you would otherwise do. If you are bound in terms of the teachings of that faith then it is genuinely functioning as a faith and as a worldview in terms of your life. One of the things we need to note is that long before most people declare themselves to be secular the first great step of secular transition in their lives is the fact that religion whatever the religious faith they claim loses its binding authority.
But it’s not just a matter of individuals. What we’re looking at here in Ireland is the fact that the Catholic Church has lost the binding authority of its teachings amongst the citizens of Ireland, and the vast majority of those citizens at least historically have identified as Catholic. And furthermore as Liam Stack indicates in this article, they have even shown a remarkable deference to the Roman Catholic Church and to its clergy. But that was then this is now, a fundamentally changed situation there in Ireland. But this story points us to something else that evangelicals had better note very, very carefully. It turns out that in this article the Catholic Archbishop of Ireland, that is Diarmuid Martin, and Liam Stack the report in this article, agree that there were two basic fundamental shifts that explain the headline of the demise of the church in Ireland tilting to the left.
The first has to do with what they describe as massive social changes. Those include economic and political changes also technological changes. We would simply summarize this under the larger theme of secularization. But the second issue is not so much sociological. It is moral. It is the priestly child abuse crisis in Ireland that appears to have been more than anything else the fuse that exploded the secularization of that historically Catholic nation. And yet knowing the history of Ireland even as reflected in this New York Times article, the Priestly child abuse crisis was only one of the great corruption crises that rocked the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland over the course of the last several decades. Archbishop Martin who as Stack says has generally received pretty high marks for how he more recently has dealt with these scandals explained:
“It was a crisis of trust in the church, a crisis of betrayal by the church — and you can’t regain trust just by saying to them, ‘I’m sorry.’ ”
So as evangelicals in the United States are wondering in this country how regions that had been closely identified with the moral teachings of Christianity can have moved so far so fast. Well we have at least the first part of the equation here. We have that process of secularization that is clearly taking place and with that secularization comes a liberalization of morality. That’s something that seems to happen in virtually every single case. But in Ireland we have a further warning, a warning that should be heard by all. And that is the warning that once there is a moral crisis that shakes the church to its very foundations from that it is very, very difficult to recover. And thus oddly and sadly enough but important for us to recognize, the eventual legalization of abortion in Ireland might will be traced to a clergy sexual abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church. That’s the kind of sobering message we dare not miss.
But next we shift to another international story, this one not from Ireland but from Australia on a similar theme. Adam Baidawi reports for the New York Times that one state in Australia has now voted to legalize euthanasia. Now this headline comes even as the Australian government is in the process of legalizing same-sex marriage. But here we’re looking at a very different moral shift, but one we should note that seems to go hand-in-hand with the sexual revolution. Euthanasia is also only made possible morally and legally speaking because of a vast secularization of the worldview in the West. As Baidawi reports, this new law now adopted in the Australian state of Victoria will allow citizens there, “with a terminal, incurable illness — and, in most cases, a life expectancy of less than six months — to obtain a lethal drug within 10 days of requesting it.”
Now as we think of euthanasia the issue arises so often in the news it would be natural to make the mistake of thinking it is legal in many jurisdictions. Of course, it is not. As Baidawi says, Victoria and Australia now, “joins the Netherlands, Canada, Belgium, Colombia and Luxembourg in legalizing euthanasia.”
Now just note that list of countries. It’s not vast: the Netherlands, Canada, Belgium, Columbia and Luxembourg. But Baidawi goes on to say:
“Several other countries — and states and jurisdictions in the United States, including California, Washington, D.C., and Oregon — have passed laws allowing assisted suicide”. Now he goes on to say that, “Globally, assisted dying advocates have long argued for it on grounds of compassion and averting prolonged physical suffering for the terminally ill.”
But when you look at this several things come very quickly to mind. In the first place what is often called assisted suicide quickly becomes physician-assisted suicide, and then that begins to justify euthanasia, first what is called passive but then active. That means taking actions positive actions to actually bring about death, and yet then it’s another slide from what is called voluntary euthanasia to involuntary euthanasia. When you look at some of the nations in Europe, including the Netherlands and Belgium, it is now conceivable that one can demand euthanasia simply because one is run out of meaning in life, and furthermore you know have assisted suicide, physician assisted suicide, active euthanasia being applied even to teenagers and children.
Premier Daniel Andrews who is the leader the government there in Victoria state and Australia assures the world that the legislation passed there is in his words the most conservative of any jurisdiction. In his specific words he said that Victoria’s law is, “most conservative voluntary assisted dying model that has ever been proposed — let alone implemented — anywhere in the world.”
Just consider how many words he had to use in order to describe the law he declares to be so conservative: “voluntary assisted dying model.” Opponents of the legislation noting what has happened in so many other nations and jurisdictions warned that the current restrictions that are defined as so conservative are not likely to last very long. But there’s another very important worldview aspect of this story. It’s the revelation that the Australian Medical Association did not support the law. Lorraine Baker identified as the president of the Victoria branch of the Australian Medical Association said this, extremely revealing:
“Historically, for the medical profession, everything is about preserving life. That is such a fundamental ethical principle over centuries. However,” she says, “we’re living in a society where now, in first world countries, life can be prolonged. Therefore, by default, apparent suffering can be prolonged.”
Now just notice how she began the sentence. She began the sentence saying that for the entire history of the medical profession, I’ll use her words again, “everything is about preserving life.”
Dr. Baker even if she appeared to be laying the groundwork for physicians adopting physician-assisted suicide went on to say that the majority of her colleagues unsurprisingly she said were opposed.
Finally on this story another very interesting worldview observation. It has to do with the fact that in this case the head of the medical society said that this is a matter we’re talking here about euthanasia, we’re talking about assisted suicide, we’re talking about life and death, she says that it’s a matter that is larger than medicine. Ultimately she said a matter for society and the government. But just notice how arbitrary that is. How often we are told now that we are to accept the sole authority of science and often specifically of medicine. We are told that when it comes to abortion the only meaningful moral participants are in the words of the Roe v. Wade a woman and her physician. But now you have at least one major physician officer in Australia saying now wait just a minute this is to big an issue for doctors who by the way are overwhelmingly opposed to it. What do we observe here? Well we observe just how these kinds of arguments work in public. When the authority of medicine is for your argument, then cite it. When it’s against your argument, then say it’s an issue bigger than medicine. In both of these cases from Ireland and from Australia the big story is the loss of the binding authority of historic Christian morality and behind that the loss of the binding authority of the historic biblical understanding of the sanctity of human life.
Next coming back to the United States, recently a couple of very interesting articles on an upsurge of interest amongst modern Americans, particularly amongst Millennials, in horoscopes and astrology. Kari Paul reporting for Market Watch tells us that Millennials are in her words, “ditching religion for witchcraft and astrology”
The article begins:
“When Coco Layne, a Brooklyn-based producer, meets someone new these days, the first question that comes up in conversation isn’t ‘Where do you live?’ or ‘What do you do?’ but ‘What’s your sign?’”
She said, “So many millennials read their horoscopes every day and believe them.”
We’re told that Lang herself is involved in a number of nonreligious spiritual practices. She said, “It is a good reference point to identify and place people in the world.”
That’s a very interesting way to express what she sees is behind this upsurge especially amongst Millennials in terms of horoscopes and astrology, “a good reference point to identify and place people in the world.”
Then Kari Paul goes on to tell us:
“Interest in spirituality has been booming in recent years while interest in religion plummets, especially among millennials.”
We are also told surprisingly enough in this article, I quote again, “more than half of young adults in the U.S. believe astrology is a science.”
Now that’s pretty troubling in and of itself that’s a confusion of astronomy and astrology, but it points to an even deeper worldview confusion. By the way that should be contrasted remember that’s more than half of young adults in the United States who confuse astrology with the science. The article tells us that less than 8% of citizens in China make the same mistake. There’s some other interesting dimensions to the article. We are told that, “The psychic services industry,” maybe you didn’t even know that industry existed, it would include, “astrology, aura reading, mediumship, tarot-card reading and palmistry,” amongst others, identified here as, “metaphysical services.”
We are told that it, “grew 2% between 2011 and 2016.”
In terms of money we’re told that is now worth $2 billion annually. We’re taken to a Brooklyn-based metaphysical boutique where we are told that the store offers workshops like, “‘Witchcraft 101,’ ‘Astrology 101,’ and a ‘Spirit Seance.’”
But in terms of the Christian worldview by far the most significant dimension of this article is a comment made by a proponent indeed a purveyor of astrology who commented about what she calls a belief vacuum in the society. She said:
“There is a belief vacuum: we go from work to a bar to dinner and a date, with no semblance of meaning. Astrology,” she explained, “is a way out of it, a way of putting yourself in the context of thousands of years of history and the universe.”
Now what this speaks to for our purposes more than anything else is indeed the belief vacuum that now marks our society. And you also see here a very profound way of revealing a spiritual need. She describes astrology as a way out of it. She means a way out of the vacuum, “a way of putting yourself in the context of thousands of years of history and the universe.”
That is exactly a part of what every single human being needs. We need to understand where we fit in the universe where we fit in the cosmos. Now here we must understand that the longing that leads so many people to astrology is not only not going to be met by witchcraft, the occult, astrology or any semblance thereof, but we also have to go further and say it will only be found within authentic biblical Christianity. The only worldview capable of explaining why the cosmos exists and what indeed our part is within it. But it certainly is true that within every heart is a desire to try to place ourselves in the context to use those words again of thousands of years of history and the universe. That is exactly what we all need.
In the article there is also a celebration of figures such as celebrity Gwyneth Paltrow, a former actress, now a corporate CEO in terms of this kind of occultic business. We are told that she and her company offer a variety of spiritual ware including a Jade egg that costs $66 rooted in ancient Taoist practice. She has an $85 Goop medicine bag that supposedly is, “‘inspired by the Shaman’s medicine bag from various indigenous traditions.” And she also offers for $59 a tarot card deck that features mystical artwork that we are told, “mirrors Native American patterns.”
Meanwhile perhaps an even more amazing article by Alexandra S. Levine that appeared in the New York Times. Here she writes:
“Astrology has long had its believers and its cynics, but for a craft so often criticized for being nonscientific and, in some cases, fraudulent, horoscopes still cover the pages and websites of publications in New York and across the globe.”
Now wait just a minute. What in the world does it possibly mean to say that astrology has often been criticized for being nonscientific and then put the words in some cases fraudulent? Does that mean that the New York Times believes that some horoscopes might not be fraudulent? Well I don’t think so. Why? Because this article on horoscopes in the New York Times also explains why the New York Times does not and has never featured horoscopes. The article itself is interesting in every single way. The headline, “Horoscope Writers Lean on the Stars to Help Make Sense of the World.”
But even as within the article there appears to be a debate amongst astrologers and amongst the horoscope writers as to whose legit and whose fraudulent, it turns out that at the end of the day even they seem to understand there is nothing objective to anything that they’re doing. One of the commercial advocates of astrology and horoscopes said:
“Between different astrologers, describing a chart is like poets describing a tree. You’re going to get 20 different poems.”
That source identified as Eric Francisco Coppolino a writer of horoscopes for the Daily News in New York explained the hunger behind horoscopes and their popularity with these words,
“Most people are shellshocked right now. They’re in pain. The world is devastating. People are exhausted. And a purpose of the horoscope at that point becomes a spiritual touchstone.”
That statement again is extremely revealing, but it also points to a hunger that can’t possibly be satisfied by horoscopes and astrology. A hunger that can’t actually be satisfied with anything short of the knowledge of the true and living God. And yet the most devastating refutation of any hope that that hunger can be met and satisfied by astrology is given by the prophet Isaiah. In Isaiah chapter 47, verses 13-14, Isaiah writes,
“You are wearied with your many counsels; let them stand forth and save you, those who divide the heavens, who gaze at the stars, who at the new moons make known what shall come upon you. Behold, they are like stubble; the fire consumes them; they cannot deliver themselves from the power of the flame. No coal for warming oneself is this, no fire to sit before!”
In verse 15 Isaiah concludes:
“Such to you are those with whom you have labored, who have done business with you from your youth; they wander about, each in his own direction; there is no one to save you.”
And when Isaiah speaks, Isaiah has the last word.
We’ll see theology work back into the headlines, but this time it’s Islamic theology; we’ll see incomplete justice or incomprehensible crimes; we’ll see the fall of yet another tyrant and understand why Western academics support those tyrants; then we’ll see the New York Times try to secularize Thanksgiving.
Theology roared back into the headlines over the weekend but in this case it wasn’t Christian theology but Islamic theology. This has to do with the tragic attack that took place at a mosque in the Sinai Peninsula, where Egyptian officials report that over 300 persons were killed in a mass attack and over 100 persons seriously wounded. What makes this a particularly ominous development is that this was an attack believed to have been undertaken by forces loyal to the Islamic state. Indeed the attackers arrived in a caravan of armed vehicles that were flying the flag of the Islamic state, and we’re looking here at something that has surprised many Western observers, we’re looking at the attack by the Islamic state on a mosque. That requires some kind of explanation. The first explanation is that this represents yet another departure of the Islamic state from the already murderous ideology of Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda had a basic rule, and that was attacked non-Muslims not Muslims. The Islamic state has not followed that rule, and the current state of violence in both Pakistan and now in Egypt indicates an escalation of Muslim on Muslim attacks in the name of the Islamic state. But why this particular mosque? Immediately after the attack was announced it was also mentioned that this was a mosque that was associated with Sufism, with the Sufi movement within Islam. That immediately informs us that theology is very much front and center in this story, that’s because Sufism is considered by most Orthodox Muslims to be not only heterodox but actually not even a legitimate form of Islam.
Immediate reports in the international media after the attack did often mention the fact that the attacked mosque was associated with the Sufi movement, but it’s also interesting to note that many in the international media failed to recognize the fact that since at least 2016 there has been an expanding pattern of attacks by the Islamic state upon Sufis. This attack took place in Egypt but specifically in the Sinai Peninsula; Christians hearing that geographical designation will certainly remember that this is where for 40 years the children of Israel wandered. It’s a desolate Peninsula and it is sparsely populated, but this attack took place in one of the regions few population centers.
After the attack I had to wonder how long it would be before major media began to ask the question: Does theology have anything to do with this? Almost right on time the Washington Post ran an article dated Nov. 25 with the headline, “Why Muslim Extremists Attacked This Mosque in Egypt.”
Similarly, the New York Times ran a headline on Sunday, “Why Does ISIS Kill Sufi Muslims? Because It Sees Them as Heretics.”
All that in a headline. Of course one of the most interesting aspects of all this is that the word heretic would appear in a contemporary headline in the New York Times under any circumstance, but as we remind ourselves over and over again theology matters, it always matters, it’s always lurking fairly closely under the headlines, it rarely, in this age, gets to the very headline itself, and that’s a part of the story here. But it’s also important to recognize that Western media trying to interpret this Islamic conflict have to recognize that there are two major branches of Islam: the Sunnis and the Shia. And it’s true that the Sufis can be members of either the Sunni or the Shia, and they are for the most part mutually hated by both.
The New York Times report gets it exactly right when it identifies the hatred of both the Sunnis and the Shia, but the Sunnis in particular, toward the Sufis by saying that the hatred is rooted in:
“the tradition of visiting the graves of holy figures. The act,” says the report, “of praying to saints and worshiping at their tombs is an example of what extremists refer to as ‘shirk,’ or polytheism, [that] according to [a source identified as] Brill’s Encyclopedia of Islam.”
But at this point, we simply have to note another problem with the Western media. It’s not just those who could fairly be described as Islamic fundamentalists who hold to this suspicion of Sufis; this would be a mainstream Muslim response. Alexander Knysh, identified as the author of two studies of Sufism, he’s also a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Michigan, spoke of the Sunni opposition to the Sufis saying,
“They believe Sufi shrines are the most egregious expression of that shirk. … You are turning to a mediator, who is inserting himself between the believer and God, and in this way it becomes a kind of idol.”
So now you have a specifically Islamic term, shirk, referring to this kind of polytheism or idolatry, and you also have the word heretic that appears in the New York Times headline. In this secular age and particularly with the kind of secular worldview that marks a newspaper like the New York Times, the word heresy or heretic is not an expected word in any headline. When it appears we also have to answer the question: Why this word; why now? The answer is very straightforward: You cannot possibly interpret or understand this horrible news coming out of Egypt without acknowledging the reality of the theological. The problem is according to that secular worldview that might be true in Egypt, in this case in the Sinai Peninsula, but it certainly wouldn’t be true here. Those behind the secular worldview are absolutely certain, or at least they say they are certain, that theology will virtually disappear, everywhere, but a news story like this reminds us that it hasn’t happened everywhere, yet. And it hasn’t happened even very close to the home of the New York Times, they just think it has.
Another major story on the international scene broke last week as the New York Times reported, “It was the closing of one of Europe’s most shameful chapters of atrocity and bloodletting since World War II.”
They say, “With applause inside and outside the courtroom at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, General Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb commander, was convicted [last] Wednesday of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. He was sentenced to life in prison.”
The Times went on to tell us, “It was the last major item of business for the tribunal in The Hague before it wound down, a full quarter-century after many of the crimes on its docket were committed.”
Speaking of the crimes of Ratko Mladic, we are told that from 1992 to 1995 it was determined that he “was the chief military organizer of the campaign to drive Muslims, Croats and other non-Serbs” in order to create an ethnically cleansed society. In 1992 about 45,000 persons were driven from their homes as Drew Hinshaw and Lawrence Norman report for the Wall Street Journal.
In the year 1995, Mladic and his troops lined up and then executed about 8,000 men and boys, and they did so in what became known as the Srebrenica massacre, identified as “the worst killing on European soil since World War II.”
The numbers themselves are absolutely shocking, we’re talking about just one year, just one village, 8,000 men and boys executed in a straightforward attempt to try to exterminate the entire Muslim and Croats population.
From a Christian worldview perspective there are some very important issues to understand in this new story. The first is we are talking about justice very long denied. We’re talking about crimes that took place, in some cases, 25 years ago. We also have to face the fact that Ratko Mladic was not convicted of his crimes to a jury of his peers there in the former Yugoslavia; instead, this had to come at the hands of an international tribunal set up specifically to address the crimes including genocide undertaken in the Yugoslavian Civil War.
Janine di Giovanni, the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, reminds us of the fact that sometimes wars end but justice is never really served. From a Christian perspective we simply have to say that that sometimes actually needs to be restated as a usually. Di Giovanni also reminds us of the fact that justice, in this case a criminal conviction and a life sentence came, a quarter century after the crimes, means that it is very unlikely that this particular conviction or sentence is going to be a deterrent to those who would undertake similar kinds of atrocities.
Di Giovanni asked, “what kind of message does the process send to victims of current conflicts? For those living in conflict in Syria, in Zimbabwe, in Yemen? Will,” she asked, “Mr. Mladic’s verdict, 22 years in the making, inspire hope that justice can be delivered fairly and without delay? I think not,” she concludes. Di Giovanni notes, “Justice sometimes comes slow. But 22 years is too long for people to wait. The Nuremberg trials, in which 12 Nazis were sentenced to death, took place shortly after World War II ended. Tribunals,” she underlines, “should begin while the crimes and the evidence are fresh.”
Getting to an even deeper level, she writes, “The message we should send to those who continue to act with impunity is that they will be hunted down, that they will not escape justice. The mechanisms,” she says, “that ensure international justice need to be given more teeth and not appear exhausted, cynical and misguided, as the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia all too often did.”
The Christian, the biblical worldview, emphatically affirms the imperative of justice, but at the same time it makes very clear that this kind of justice is never actually going to be adequately addressed by any human court. That doesn’t mean that a human court should not, it simply means that no court can actually come up with any punishment that corresponds to the gravity of the genocide. We also have to note the fact that she uses the phrase, “the mechanisms that ensure international justice.”
Here we simply have to note, there are no mechanisms that ensure international justice, and if anything this particular verdict and even the conviction affirms that very point, coming so long after the crimes and coming in a court that was set up on a temporary basis just to adjudicate these cases. One of the sad but real lessons of history is that when a people will not hold their own leaders accountable, it’s very hard, if not impossible, for any other authority to do so.
It’s also important to recognize that even though there is no question about the guilt of General Ratko Mladic, the reality is that he had hundreds and thousands of co-conspirators involved in this genocide. At this point, 22 years later, to call this justice served is a slander to justice.
Next, also in the international scene, we have to observe the passing, at least from power, of one of the most notorious dictators of the 20th and now the 21st centuries. We’re talking about Robert Mugabe, for 37 years the strongman of Zimbabwe. It was Robert Mugabe who led a guerrilla effort over against the government of Rhodesia, effectively in 1980 toppling the regime and becoming the de facto dictator of a new nation that was renamed Zimbabwe. For the first several years he was the prime minister but from 1987 forward he was the president of the nation, and yet it was not in any sense a legitimate democracy. The elections that produced massive victories for Robert Mugabe were understood both internally and externally to be shams. And speaking of genocide, it is now very well documented and was known even at the time that in 1983 Mugabe and his party, known as the Zanu-PF, had also engaged in genocide, killing about 20,000 members of an opposing tribe. Mugabe, age 93, was toppled in a coup that he didn’t believe would actually come, he had good reason to believe that it would never come after 37 years of tyrannical rule. It’s also instructed us that when it did come, it came largely because of the fact that he’d announced a succession plan that involved the power going to his young wife, Grace Mugabe, who, if anything united the nation in terms of hatred of the idea that she might become president.
We’re talking here about the fall of yet another tyrant in the case of Robert Mugabe, one who repeatedly compared himself to Jesus declaring himself to be more important, even in his words, better. But there’s a particular angle to the fall of Robert Mugabe that should have our attention, it has to do with the fact that several major Western universities representing the intellectual elites and the liberal impulse in this country, had celebrated Mugabe as a liberator when he came to power, and had even awarded him honorary degrees. This was true the University of Massachusetts, it was true of Michigan State University, it was true in Scotland at the University of Edinburgh. What makes those three universities most significant is that all three of them later, but much later, rescinded those honorary degrees. The University of Massachusetts gave the degree in 1986, rescinded it in 2008; the University of Edinburgh also gave the degree in 1986, rescinded in 2007; Michigan State University awarded the honorary degree to Mugabe in 1990, rescinded it once again in 2008.
Bret Stephens gets it exactly right as a columnist in the New York Times when he says,
“When the University of Massachusetts decided in 2008 to rescind the honorary degree it had awarded Robert Mugabe 22 years earlier, it noted that Zimbabwe’s dictator had once been seen ‘as a force for democracy and reform.’”
But then Stephens says, “Even then the self-deception was breathtaking.”
Later Stevens writes, “The scale of Mugabe’s killing, estimated as high as 20,000, might not have been known to the good people of Amherst in 1986: Mass graves,” he says, “would continue to be unearthed for years afterward. But,” he says, “there was no mystery about his methods. The real mystery”, he says, “is why Western liberals and progressives so often fall for the Mugabes of the world, and why they seem to learn so little from successive and inevitable disenchantments.”
It’s really interesting that Bret Stephens points to the left in the United States, and very specifically to academics, we are here talking about universities awarding and then rescinding these degrees, and he says that it’s because it appears that Western academics have a particular vulnerability to offering a form of worship to dictators who take power, supposedly in the name of the people. The most glaring of these by no surprise was Fidel Castro, the dictator of Cuba, and yet it also has to be noted that many of these academics also become apologists. Bret Stephens goes on to say there might be another explanation, and that is the fact that,
“Ever since Jean-Jacques Rousseau tried to write a constitution for Corsica in 1765, Western thinkers have been tempted by the prospect of influence abroad, along with the power that comes with it, particularly when both are denied to them at home.”
Another way to put this would be to say that many on the left, particularly the academic left, see these revolutions as great and grand social laboratories. But by now we know that every single one of them turns out to be murderous, and every one of them, as Bret Stephens recognizes, fails and disappoints. And, of course, we’re not just talking about mass murder in the case Robert Mugabe, we’re also talking about spectacular, almost undefinable incompetence.
The headline in the Economist of London got straight to the point, and I quote, “The Man Who Wrecked a Country.”
The final words of Bret Stephens’ column deserve full citation. He says this:
“But Mugabe also had his apologists and admirers, and Zimbabwe’s tragedy is just a fuller version of a post-colonial story of disastrous ideological experiments accompanied by foreigners who cheered those experiments and then looked the other way when they failed. There needs,” he says, “to be a reckoning with them, too. The world’s poorest countries,” he concludes,“deserve better than to be the petri dish for Western experts who know too little and a field of fantasy for Western progressives who dream too much.”
On that story, Bret Stephens deserves to have the last word.
Finally, we observe the fact that the Thanksgiving holiday is now over are yet another opportunity for secular confusion. Just consider an editorial that appeared in the New York Times, timed for Thanksgiving Day. It states,
“In these days of anxiety and alienation, Thanksgiving offers the warm embrace of inclusiveness. Particularly for many people with families and faiths rooted in other lands, no other holiday, not even the Fourth of July, has so great a capacity to make them feel American.”
The editors, again, we’re talking here about the New York Times, then go on to write, and I quote,
“Thanksgiving’s origins are also Christian. But it has evolved into something both secular and spiritual, a day devoted to family and amity. Perhaps,” say the editors, “that explains its unwavering appeal for believers and nonbelievers. … Thanksgiving,” they say, “is at heart more than parades, or football or even country; there’s no flag-waving or chest-thumping. It is about shared bounty and shared humanity.”
From a worldview perspective, the interesting thing to note here is that the New York Times seems to believe that Thanksgiving is only worthy of commemoration and national celebration if indeed it has successfully been turned into a secular holiday. You can read that editorial over and over again but that’s the inescapable conclusion.
Again, the editors say that Thanksgiving, “has evolved into something both secular and spiritual.”
They see that evolution, of course, as a cause of celebration in itself.
Finally, in terms of worldview analysis, let’s just remind ourselves of the end of that paragraph, “Thanksgiving is at its heart more than parades or football or even country; there’s no flag-waving or chest-thumping.”
The final sentence, “It is about shared bounty and shared humanity.”
Notice what’s absent. What’s absent, of course, in this secular redefinition and celebration of Thanksgiving, is, well, Thanksgiving, but then it’s virtually impossible to pull off anything you could actually call Thanksgiving from a secular worldview.
Today, three questions: who decides if a judge is well-qualified, can we separate art from the artist and what is really comprehensive about comprehensive sex education?
Every culture requires certain central institutions, pillars, foundations of the culture that make the culture itself possible. In terms of American society, American culture, government is one of those essential pillars. It’s only one, but nonetheless it is a very important pillar that makes our culture possible. And within government the role of the courts is extremely important. The courts and thus judges and justices fulfill a very important responsibility of stewardship on behalf of the entire society. The rightful functioning of the courts is a prerequisite then for the rightful functioning of the entire society. But that raises a crucial issue, who will sit on those courts? Who will be the judges and the justices?
Now from the very beginning this has been not only a constitutional and legal question. It has been a political question. And here is where in terms of worldview analysis we need to think very carefully. The founders and framers of the American constitutional order did not say that it would be right and healthy if judges and justices were appointed by members of the bar in particular, looking to the profession of lawyers and saying you choose from amongst yourselves who you believe should serve on the courts. Rather appointments to the courts of judges and justices, that authority was put in the hands of elected representatives most importantly in the constitutional responsibilities of the president of the United States, but not to the President alone. Our Constitution requires not only that the president would nominate, but that the United States Senate must confirm anyone appointed to a federal judgeship or ultimately to the United States Supreme Court.
Before even entering into contemporary controversies, we need to recognize just how wise that system is, and also what was intended, what was made very clear in terms of that constitutional system and requirement. What is made clear is that the courts belong to the people, and ultimately the people get to decide who will be the judges in the justices because the people will elect the representatives and the chief executive of the nation who will make the nomination and then proceed to the confirmations. In the late 1700s when the American constitutional order was coming into being, there were three very central professions to every Western society. They were the clergy and the lawyers and the doctors. Law, medicine and ministry were the three central professions. Since then, of course, there has been a multiplication of vast expansion of the number of recognized professions, and since then something else has happened. The professions have become increasingly self-designated, self-policed and self-defined.
Now from a Christian worldview analysis even at this point, one of the things we should think about is the fact that when you’re looking at these professions you are looking at professions that for the most part became exceedingly, explicitly secular over the course of the 20th century. And in the case of many of these professions, they moved in a decidedly liberal direction, sometimes with no apparent tie to their own professional identity and responsibility. The next observation in terms of worldview is that the professional societies, associations and organizations thus have in our contemporary culture an outsize influence. And sometimes an influence that isn’t well known by the American people. Here is an example drawn from contemporary headlines of controversy. Here you have the Wall Street Journal reporting and I quote,
“The American Bar Association has been a key gatekeeper for the federal courts since it began evaluating judicial nominees in the 1940s, but,” says Joe Palazzolo, reporter for the Wall Street Journal, all this is changing.
But for that matter it’s not a particularly new controversy. It has been a controversy building for a matter of years. Later in the article he writes,
“For decades, the ABA’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary, the evaluation committee’s formal name, has evaluated judges for their competence, integrity and judicial temperament, issuing grades that range from ‘well qualified’ to ‘not qualified.’”
He then summarizes and I quote, “The ratings are meant to help presidents and senators, who may not be familiar with individual judicial candidates, make informed nominations and votes.”
But over the course of the last several decades, the American Bar Association has moved progressively and very clearly to the political left. And for that reason, President George W. Bush and now President Donald Trump have derecognized the American Bar Association as having a first word in terms of certifying and evaluating presidential nominees to the federal courts. That has of course not stopped the American Bar Association and its standing committee from issuing its grades and its evaluation of nominees to the federal courts. That’s what leads to the most immediate controversy. It has to do with a judicial nomination from the state of Nebraska. In this case the nominee to the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis from Nebraska is the former Deputy Attorney General of that state, Steven Grasz.
As Palazzolo reports,“Tensions between Senate Republicans and the association, the largest organization of lawyers in the nation, have escalated in recent weeks after the ABA pronounced a Nebraska lawyer unfit to serve on the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals,” why? Because of his, “‘deeply-held social agenda.’”
Palazzolo then tells us that in his submission of papers to the Senate panel Mr. Grasz wrote that a member of the evaluation committee that interviewed him for the American Bar Association repeatedly referred to Republicans and conservatives as you guys or you people and also asked for Mr. Grasz’s personal views on abortion, the death penalty and adoption by same-sex couples. The interviewer for the Bar Association said the lawyer tried to pressure him to admit that his personal views would infect his judicial work. William McGurn writing in the Main Street Column for the Wall Street Journal summarizes the issue this way,
“The object of the ABA’s attention is Leonard Steven Grasz, a former Nebraska chief deputy attorney general who’s been nominated for a seat on the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The ABA has slapped Mr. Grasz with a ‘not qualified’ rating, saying he’s too biased and too rude to be a judge. Given that much of this rating,” says McGurn, “is based on accusations that are not detailed and from accusers who remain anonymous,” he says, quite rightly, “it reveals more about the organization that issued it than it does about,” the man at the center of the report.
Now it’s interesting that just about everyone who is writing about this controversy mentions that the word rude appears in this report without any particular documentation whatsoever. It’s not even defined. There is no elaboration. It’s also increasingly clear that the judgment of the Bar Association against this particular nominee has virtually nothing to do with his judicial temperament, but everything to do with his views, his personal views on controversial moral and social issues. Views that are clearly at odds with the American Bar Association, but views that also we must recognize represent tens of millions of Americans and furthermore represent the Chief Executive of the nation, the President of the United States, who is entrusted by the Constitution with the right to make such nominations. Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse has openly condemned the American Bar Association for what he sees as a personal assassination attempt. He said and I quote,
“The ABA is running a smear campaign based on the idea that Steve is a kale-hating, puppy-kicking monster,” but says the Senator, “no one in Nebraska on either side of the aisle recognizes that man.” That is, the man described by the American Bar Association.
The Senator also said in recent comments on the floor of the Senate, “We should completely dispel with the fiction that the American Bar Association is a fair and impartial arbiter of facts.”
Once again, we need to remind ourselves that the American Bar Association Committee accused this nominee of holding to a, “passionately held social agenda.”
You put that together with the fact that the interviewer for the Bar Association spoke to this nominee in terms of you people, and we have a pretty good idea of just how antagonistic the Bar Association is to conservative nominees precisely because they are conservative nominees. And we should note holding to positions that are anathema to the Bar Association on issues such as, most importantly, abortion. In terms of the maximum influence of the ABA in this process, we date that back to the invitation granted to the Association by President Dwight Eisenhower, but that was the 1950s. That was when professional societies and organizations when the professions themselves were growing vastly in terms of influence and authority in our society. But we now know in retrospect that was also the very era when they began to swerve politically, and almost every one of them swerved significantly to the left. As Christians think about our society and how it actually works, here’s a pretty good lesson for us all. A lesson that comes in just a couple of words from an American Bar Association interviewer to a presidential nominee, speaking of “you people.”
Next, given all the controversy and debate over art and artists and well a new avalanche of sexual and moral accusations, the New York Times asked a question that really must be asked, and we have to think carefully as Christians about the answer. The question is this: can you separate art from the artist? Now we need to keep in mind that the fundamental argument about separating art and the artist has come from the cultural left rather than from the cultural right, but it is a question that gets pressed upon every single one of us when it comes to our own engagement with entertainment and art, or for that matter, with many other aspects of our lives and culture as well. But just considering what’s happened in the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein accusations and those related to actor Kevin Spacey and so many others, of course historically, the Roman Polanski charges going back several decades in the United States, the question has been, can you actually separate art and the artist in such a way that you can appreciate the art, you can appreciate the movie, you can continue to watch the television program while being filled with moral repulsion against the artist or the actor or whoever is involved in this particular dimension of art?
Amanda Hess writing in the Critics Notebook column of the New York Times raises this issue anew, and even as she writes the article, it’s clear she understands that the terms of debate have fundamentally changed just in the course of a few years. In her article asking this question, she points back to a roundtable published in 2009 by the very same newspaper, her newspaper, the New York Times. At that time, the center of the controversy was about Roman Polanski who committed a horrible sex crime against a young girl, and yet he was protected by the artistic class and furthermore still celebrated even to the point of being given an Academy award after all of this was well known. That was back in 2009, and in this roundtable several people prominent in American culture and the cultural elites at least defended to some extent the idea that you can fundamentally separate art and the artist. Jay Parini, a well-known writer who taught then at Middlebury College asked the question, can one really separate the art from the man or woman who creates that art? Then he answers, the answer is yes, definitely. He then expanded to say there are many examples in history, too many great artists who were terribly flawed human beings, behaving very badly and hurting those around them. If anything, audiences easily make this distinction, he said. Nobody looks at a Picasso painting in a museum and says quote,
“I should not take this work seriously because Picasso cheated on his many wives and was abusive to his son.”
Now at this point I have to interject from a Christian worldview perspective, the fact that Mr. Parini misses the point that most of the people looking at that painting, for instance a Picasso at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, will be unaware of the moral context. The elites have access to that information when, especially when it comes to elite art, the rest of us simply do not have. But I would also want to make a point from a Christian worldview perspective that when it comes to an artist like Picasso, those particular accusations were actually of a piece with his larger commitment to what we would call the overthrow of traditional Christian sexual morality. Damon Lindelof, a television producer, said that he had recently considered this question back in 2009 when he was walking through a major European art museum, and as he considered art and the artist, he thought to himself, “Man oh man, what a load of perverts.”
And yet Lindelof said he went on to consider that the art was still beautiful. He said, “It is still eternal.”
So even as he seems to understand there is indeed a moral dimension, especially to the artist, he’s suggesting that we can look at the art independent of the artist. But here again, just keep in mind the fact that he admits that as he walked to this museum his first thought was, “what a load of perverts.”
Mark Bauerlein who teaches at Emory University actually makes an argument suggesting that,
“The moral scruples that constrain bad behavior work precisely against the artistry needed to describe,” he means for example, “Satan corrupting Eve and to portray a rebel without a cause.”
Bauerlein went on to say, “People understand that, and so they judge the sins of artists and writers more lightly, perhaps taking a vicarious pleasure in them. Only,” he says, “when the artist goes too far does a moral push-back arise.” He summarizes, “it’s a delicate compromise, ever-shifting as general social standards evolve.”
Well we’re talking about a roundtable, the New York Times in 2009 and let me tell you those moral standards have evolved even amongst the cultural elites in terms of what they now believe is moral and is to be expected in terms of moral judgment when it comes to artists or actors or producers or at least they say that moral judgment is changed or it has at least changed for some time for some people. Jonathan Gilmore in the roundtable who taught philosophy and humanities at Yale University at the time said,
“One may condemn an artist for her odious views without that compromising one’s defense of the art in which those views are revealed.”
I understand the argument, but I don’t think it’s quite that simple. I think as we are walking through a museum, or reading a book or we are, for that matter, observing a movie, the reality is we inescapably make these judgments if we have the information. At the very least, we understand you can’t completely separate art and the artist. You don’t have the art without the artist, and furthermore as Amanda Hess makes clear in her recent article of the Times, the reality is that we tend to play up the role of the artist in interpreting the art. She candidly points to Hollywood, suggesting that if you can understand this principle anywhere, you can understand it there where Hollywood plays up the role of the artist in the art. As she says,
“Meanwhile, the entertainment industry seems quite interested in conflating the art and the artist as long as it helps sell movie tickets.”
So recognizing the fact that we can never completely sever art in the artist, this doesn’t mean that we go through the great museums of the world taking down paintings. It does mean that we as Christians understand that we have no art without the artist, and you never have an artist of any kind because you never have a human being of any kind who is not a moral creature. And that morality is going to show in every dimension of the individual’s life. Amanda Hess seems to recognize in her more recent article in the New York Times that the fundamental separation of the art and the artist is impossible even as the cultural left has been arguing for that separation for decades now. From a Christian perspective perhaps we should put it this way, we understand that you really can’t understand art, you can’t rightly understand the meaning of art without understanding the artist. And once you understand the artist, you can ever separate the artist from the art.
Finally, headline news out of Lexington, Kentucky, coming from the Lexington Herald Leader, the headline, “Abstinence, birth control, intimacy? What should Lexington sex education classes teach?”
Well, it turns out that the catalyst for the article is the formation of a group known as Lex Ed, which is committed to bring, “comprehensive sex education to Lexington.”
The purpose statement of this alliance is,
“We believe that Lexington’s schools deserve comprehensive sex education including medically-accurate information about reproduction and preventing pregnancy, STI prevention, healthy relationships, sexual violence, consent, self-esteem, LGBTQ health and identity, and domestic violence.”
The organization’s coordinator said that sex education across public schools in Kentucky, well, she says it’s inconsistent. She went on to say, “many schools center their sex education around abstinence.”
I’m not going to go into any details of any sex education curriculum. I’m simply going to say that by now we know exactly what we’re dealing with when we see the term comprehensive sex education. It sounds good. Who would want a sex education that isn’t comprehensive? But what we need to understand is that that is now well recognized code language for bringing the sexual revolution, a moral revolution to a public school classroom K-12 near you. That purpose statement pretty well indicated the commitment of this organization to that sexual revolution. But just in case we missed the point, the allied organizations behind the coalition include the National Organization for Women, the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood and the Fairness campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy organization in Kentucky. It’s being presented to the people of Kentucky as if what we really need is just a more comprehensive sex education. But what this really represents is a comprehensive sexual revolution. And this is where Christians have to remind ourselves over and over again when you say sex education you’re saying morality. The only question is whose morality?
We’ll see a resurgence of paganism in a supposedly secular age, we’ll see why Halloween is growing darker and darker, why evangelical Christians should care about what’s happening on a Catholic college campus, and this is the week in which we will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
We’ll trace once again a pattern of the secularization of religious institutions of higher education in this country. We’ll see why the politicization of higher education, the liberalization of higher education, means that inevitably the sexuality issues become front and center, and we will come to understand the danger in arguing that the cross is anything other than a Christian symbol even in order to defend a war memorial.
The concerns of the heart are still rightly very much directed to Sutherland Springs, Texas, and grieving families, a grieving congregation, an entire grieving community there, but the political discussion of the week is likely to be dominated by the new Republican sponsored tax reform legislation. If adopted, it would be the most comprehensive reform of the American tax system since the 1980s and the Reagan administration. But as we will see in a closer consideration of that proposal later this week, as we look at tax policy in a nation, we’re looking at the heart of its economic considerations, a balancing effort. And that also means that there are always very hard choices to be made. In every reform of the tax code there are both winners and losers, and we’re going to be looking at the fact that when a tax system is adopted by a government, certainly a government the size of the government of the United States, it is embedded with economic disincentives and incentives. They are both in place in order to change economic behavior and eventually economic behavior tends to conform to the new tax code. So it’s going to be a very interesting week in terms of the political and thus the economic debate, but it’s already an interesting week on other fronts as well.
Just a few days ago on The Briefing we looked at a controversy on a Catholic university campus that should be of intense interest to American evangelicals. That campus is Georgetown University. It’s traced all the way back to the revolutionary era in the United States, and of course it has been considered one of the leading Jesuit institutions of higher education in the world. It’s also, this is no secret, increasingly secular and liberal. There have been very serious charges about the theological direction at Georgetown University made by conservative Catholics, Catholics who actually believe Catholic theology. But what’s been going on that campus has everything to do with the sexual revolution as well. The original controversy has to do with charges made against a group of students, an officially recognized student organization known as Love Saxa, an organization that dares actually to believe and to contend for the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church on matters of sexuality. In particular, it defines marriage just as the catechism of the Roman Catholic Church defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman. As the leadership of Love Saxa has said, Catholic teaching simply doesn’t allow for any other definition of marriage.
But this has run into a head-on collision with the fact that Georgetown University has openly claimed in terms of its administration to be the most gay friendly Catholic university in the nation. Two students on behalf of a larger group of students brought charges against Love Saxa claiming that they violated the moral standards of the university concerning how students are to treat one another and speak of one another because any organization that would actually define marriage and human sexuality the way the Catholic Church does would be offering a doctrine of hate to the fellow students at the supposedly Catholic Georgetown University. Just last week the student government was unable to come to a decision after hours of debate, but all that changed as the Washington Post reported on Saturday, it changed on Friday. As the Post reports,
“A panel of Georgetown students decided not to take action against a pro-heterosexual-marriage campus group that had been the subject of a complaint accusing it of fostering hatred and intolerance.”
The Post report continues, “After deliberating behind closed doors until after midnight Friday, the Student Activities Commission voted 8-to-4 that no sanctions should be imposed on Love Saxa, which advocates for marriage as ‘a monogamous and permanent union between a man and a woman,’ the group states in its constitution.”
Now the report in the Washington Post goes on to offer considerable detail about the fact that the two students who brought charges against Love Saxa are now threatening that they’re going to appeal the decision by the Student Activities Commission to the official administration of Georgetown University, an appeal you can be sure the administrators of Georgetown would very much like to do without. As the Post states the matter rather diplomatically,
“The committee’s ruling is not binding, and is merely a recommendation to the university’s director of student engagement, who can choose to accept, amend or reject it. The issue,” says the Post, “will now probably come before the university on appeal, raising the question of how administrators at Georgetown, the United States’ oldest Catholic and Jesuit institution of higher learning, will handle the controversy.”
As you might expect, the student government organization indicated that it had taken the complaints offered by students seriously, but it did not find that it ought to defund and derecognize Love Saxa. This also has to be placed in the context of enormous public scrutiny, including the scrutiny of many Catholics around the country waiting to see if the student government would vote that a student organization that holds the Catholic doctrine could not be recognized on a Catholic university campus. One of the students who brought the charges told the Post that the decision is, “a big step backwards.”
He went on to say that the decision, “calls to question the university’s reputation and self-made claim of being the nation’s most queer-friendly Catholic campus.” He went on to say that funding of tuition money for Love Saxa, “advocates for traditional marriage and against queer marriage and queer lives.”
Ultimately, he said, speaking of LGBTQ students on the campus, “we’re being forced to pay for people who hate us.”
That’s the kind of language that is now just taken for granted on public university and elite private university campuses, but the big point here is that this is Georgetown University, the oldest Catholic and Jesuit institution in the United States. But it is abundantly clear that Georgetown has been moving away from Catholic doctrine for decades now, especially since the 1960s and 1970s. And the student is not exaggerating in this case. There can be no question that Georgetown’s administrators have been working very hard also as driven by the universities increasingly secular and liberal faculty to be just as these students say the most LGBTQ friendly Catholic University campus in the nation.
Now, in order to understand this in context no one believes that this decision is likely to be final, and everyone understands the decision was made under duress with an awful lot of people, especially Roman Catholics in the nation, getting ready to be outraged if Love Saxa had been defunded and derecognized. But it’s probably only a matter of time. The reason why that is so is of upmost importance in terms of the Christian worldview. In the last report on this issue I discussed the increasing secularization of religious higher education in the country, but speaking of this specific pattern, Anne Hendershot writing in the current edition of City Journal published by the Manhattan Institution actually names it for what it is. The headline of her story, “Taking the Catholic Out of Catholic Universities.”
As she says, “Rather than embrace the good, the true, and the beautiful, many of the schools,” that is the historically Catholic schools in this country have, “adopted the politically correct fads of secular universities.”
That’s exactly what we see here on the campus of Georgetown University. Hendershott points back to 1990 and the concern of the Pope then, Pope John Paul II, that Catholic universities were revolting against Catholicism. In that year the Pope handed down an encyclical named ex corde ecclesiae, and in it he required that every Catholic college and university must have a certificate known as a mandatum from the local bishop ensuring the orthodoxy of Catholic doctrine and morality taught on the campus. It led to an outrage on the part of American Catholic college and university administrators, and there has barely even been lip service given to the Pope’s command. Furthermore, as Hendershott says professors on many of these campuses who actually support Catholic teachings, “have come under siege on their own campuses, usually with little support from their academic administrations.”
Hendershot points in particular to Georgetown University and a 2013 official charge made against the University by William Peter Blatty, the novelist and author of the novel The Exorcist. He filed what is known as a Canon law petition with the Vatican demanding that Georgetown University be denied the right to call itself Catholic. He told an interviewer at the time that proclaiming Georgetown to be Catholic is dishonest. He said that the University presents a Catholic façade and alumni dinners, in the novelist’s words, “they will make sure there is a Jesuit in a collar at every table, like the floral arrangement.”
Blatty identified Georgetown University as in his words the leader of the pack of the Catholic colleges, “failing to live up to their Catholic identity.”
So, what’s the most important take-home for this for American evangelicals? Well we need to recognize that most of what is called Christian higher education is no longer even remotely or distantly Christian. The process that these Catholic observers are noting taking place on Catholic University campuses has happened overwhelmingly when it comes to the Christian colleges and universities in this country. And that would include, by the way, almost all of the major institutions of private higher education in this country. Almost all of them were established as officially and confessionally protestant at least in terms of their founding worldview, and they continued for a very long time trafficking off of their Christian reputation, even as they trampled upon Christianity’s doctrines and moral teachings.
But it is also the case that there are still some continuing Christian colleges and universities that take that Christian commitment very seriously and offer a comprehensively Christian and biblical academic preparation for young people. But they are relatively rare. They’re getting thinner and thinner on the ground, and the great danger reflected in this controversy at Georgetown is that Catholic parents and Catholic students will assume that an institution is Catholic simply because it claims a Catholic identity. The same danger comes to evangelical parents and students who may often believe that a college that was established by evangelicals is still in terms of its convictions on doctrine and morality distinctively evangelical. That has to be tested.
But there are two other ancillary observations here. The first is there really are no Catholics who can be all of a sudden surprised about Georgetown University. It has been sending the signals of its liberalization and its secularization for decades now. It’s a little late all of a sudden to catch on. But secondly, when you are listening to the arguments made by Georgetown by the administration describing the University when a university is advertising itself as the most LGBT friendly university in the Catholic world in the United States, you can hardly be surprised that it’s doing its best to live up to its advertising.
Next we shift to another story in the area of Washington D.C. As the New York Times reports,
“Five miles from the United States Supreme Court, a 40-foot-tall World War I memorial in the shape of a cross has stood for nearly a century. Now, it is at the center,” as Emily Baumgaertner says, “of a battle over the separation of church and state that may end up on the court’s docket.”
She goes on to tell us that the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit declared last month that the Peace Cross as it is known in Bladensburg, Maryland and sits on state owned the land of the state has been maintained at public funds is unconstitutional. As Baumgaertner reports, this could lead as a ruling to the fact that the nation is effectively cleansed of memorials on public grounds across the country that could be construed as religious, specifically as Christian. The New York Times piece is sounding the alarm about the fact that the Supreme Court might have to rule on this case, and thus face again a question that it has not only sought to avoid in decades past, but has hopelessly confused in terms of its own decisions. In 2005, the Supreme Court handed down not one but two different decisions in terms of this kind of question, the constitutionality of religious symbols and messaging in public monuments. And the two different decisions based upon cases from two different states led to two different conclusions handed down by what’s supposed to be one Supreme Court.
Several things become very clear in this story. This past weekend I went to Bladensburg, Maryland, in order to see the piece cross for myself, and it’s clear to state the very obvious that it’s a cross. It’s also clear that it was erected as a World War I Memorial, specifically a memorial to the 49 fallen soldiers in American uniform in World War I who had served from Prince George’s County here in Maryland. It was established by a private organization. But it was eventually deeded over to the state, and the state has maintained it for the last several decades. This has lead of course to secularists complaining that a cross in the form of this kind of memorial on public property maintained with public funds, well you’ve guessed it, is an unconstitutional establishment of Christianity as the state religion.
Now I also noted that most of the people driving by the Peace Cross in Bladensburg apparently gave very little attention to it, but this just points to the fact that there are people using the very language included in the New York Times article on the part of one of the legal defenders of the cross who are seeking to cleanse the nation at any cost and at all costs of any kind of overt Christian symbolism that just might be anywhere near public property. One of the constitutional scholars cited in the New York Times article is Douglas Laycock at the University of Virginia Law School. He said that the 2-1 ruling by the three-judge panel was absolutely right. He said that indeed the cross,
“asserts the truth of one religion and, implicitly but necessarily, the falsehood of all other religions. Its secondary meanings,” said the professor, “as in honoring war dead, are entirely derivative of its primary meaning as a symbol of the Resurrection.”
In the arguments made before this Federal Court of Appeals, it was interesting that some of the opponents of the cross said that they would have less concern about a posting of the 10 Commandments because after all Moses was a lawgiver and the government is also a lawgiver. But of course that obscures the fact that the secularists have been doing their very best to also make certain that there is no biblical reference whatsoever even within the precincts of the American judiciary where we might note it is often prominently displayed in public buildings, including the home of the United States Supreme Court.
But the other interesting thing for Christians to note here is not just the fact that secularists have such an allergy, even to Christian symbolism in this culture, that tells us something about the increasing secular hostility, but it also points to the fact that some of the arguments made by the defenders of the Peace Cross should be rather alarming to Christians who believe in the gospel and thus see the cross and the empty tomb as God’s definitive acts, the atonement accomplished for our salvation. And thus Christians, Christians who love the gospel and Christians who thus love the cross can never defend the cross as an essentially secular symbol. But that’s exactly what the defenders of the cross in this case might have to do legally. There can be no question that the historical origin of this particular memorial was a desire by the citizens of Prince George’s County, Maryland to honor the 49 fallen of World War I from their own county. That’s a very dignified and solemn and honorable concern. But it’s clear now that some of the very defenders of that Peace Cross in a now very secular moment are going to have to argue at least constitutionally that even though it’s a Christian cross, it doesn’t actually represent Christianity, not theologically or spiritually.
In this case, even though I disagree with Douglas Laycock’s analysis of whether or not the court ruled rightly, I believe that it did not rule rightly. It is interesting that he said that the secondary meanings of the cross, “as in honoring war dead, are entirely derivative of its primary meaning as a symbol of the Resurrection.”
There is a good bit of theological truth in that statement even if we differ with the legal analysis offered by this professor. So as Christians honestly and understandably press back against the secularist pressure to completely cleanse as in theological or doctrinal cleansing the entire nation of all public references to Christianity, something by the way, that is not only mean-spirited and purely at odds with the American founding in terms of the founders own Christian references, but it is also irrational and it’s something that can’t possibly actually be accomplished. Just try to deny and to destroy and to eradicate every reference to biblical Christianity in American history. But this controversy does serve to remind us that we had better listen to ourselves as we make public arguments. And one of the arguments we must never hear ourselves make is any argument that defends a memorial in the shape of a cross at the expense of the atonement accomplished on the cross and in the empty tomb. Any denial of the power of the cross is just too high a price to pay in order to defend the cross as a war memorial.
We’ll see a resurgence of paganism in a supposedly secular age, we’ll see why Halloween is growing darker and darker, why evangelical Christians should care about what’s happening on a Catholic college campus, and this is the week in which we will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
We live in the midst of a culture that considers itself, defines itself, as secular. It considers itself pervasively secular, and with every passing year increasingly secular, and, yet, as Christians consider that claim, we also have to look at what happens every single year, especially, most recently, on the very last day of October. It’s the holiday that is now so well-known as Halloween. It has ancient roots — we’ll be looking at those in just a moment — but the most important thing to recognize is that it can now be argued that Halloween is the biggest spiritual holiday on the American calendar. Now, in order to make that argument, you have to understand that this society has been ardently secularizing the holidays that have been known as Christmas and Easter, the festival of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead. When it comes to the birth of Christ and of the resurrection of Christ, those two central holidays of the church year have now been taken over by a consumer society, and so far as that society is concerned it’s more about Santa Claus and Easter bunnies than anything else. But when it comes to Halloween, we need to note that we are seeing the opposite pattern. We are seeing a holiday that has been re-spiritualized. Indeed, it has been increasingly paganized, repaganized. But of course that’s going back to its roots and before we go there we need to recognize that the issue that is most important for the Christian worldview is understanding what the society increasingly sees as the point of Halloween, and the biggest observation to be made there is that Halloween, in recent decades, has grown ever more dark. It’s darkness has now become the central issue in terms of its cultural fascination, and that cultural fascination also makes Halloween a big consumer event. The annual consumer spending on holidays right now has Christmas still ranked number one, Halloween ranked number two, and Valentine’s Day ranked number three; all the other holidays are distantly behind. That consumer behavior tells us something of what’s going on in terms of these holidays, but the most interesting pattern is the big jump that Halloween has made. Just a matter of a few decades ago, Halloween was a peripheral, rather minimal, American holiday, wasn’t big in terms of retail or consumer behavior. It wasn’t big in terms of cultural impact. It was largely thought of as a holiday for children associated with school parties and childhood trick-or-treating, something very different than what Halloween now represents, and this is caught the attention of those who are taking a close look at American culture.
Historian Nicholas Rogers is the author of the book Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, he’s a professor of history at York University in Canada. He speaks of the rise of Halloween in modern America as a transgressive holiday, that is to say it’s no longer really about children innocently dressed up in costumes, it is rather about adults celebrating and emulating transgressive behavior, morally transgressive behavior, but beyond that, theologically transgressive behavior. It is an opportunity now seized by this society that calls itself secular to demonstrate not only an interest in spirituality, but an interest in specifically pagan forms of spirituality, and amongst those some of the darkest forms.
In his book, Rogers very carefully traces the historical development, most importantly, the pagan roots of what we now know as Halloween. It wasn’t known as Halloween then. Actually interestingly enough, Halloween was the name that was given to this particular season of the year, a three-day period by the medieval Christian church, but long before that you have to go back to ancient European Celtic pagan practices. As Rogers makes clear, this was rooted in the Celtic festival known as Samhain. It is spelled S-A-M-H-A-I-N but pronounced sao-win, and this was a festival that came at the summers end in pagan Europe. As he explains,
“Paired with the feast of Beltane, which celebrated the life-generating powers of the sun, Samhain beckoned to winter and the dark nights ahead.”
Now, even as we go back to ancient European Celtic paganism in terms of the roots here of Samhain now traced to Halloween, we also need to concede that there is ample documentation of the fact that there were animal and human sacrifices historically associated with that pagan festival. Now there’s also an historical basis documented by some historians to the fact that what we would now call transgressive sexual practices were also a part of the ancient festival and its pagan celebrations, and we would also simply have to note that that wouldn’t be entirely shocking given the sexual practices of ancient paganism that were often associated with festivals of one kind or another. And for that matter, you don’t then just have to go back to pagan Europe into the Celtic practices, you can look at the ancient near East and the Canaanites just for another parallel example.
But what gets the attention of many of these secular historians observing American culture today is the big question as to why supposedly postmodern, post-Christian Americans have embraced Halloween and have particularly darkened Halloween with what appears to be a consumer-driven, intentional re-embrace of this ancient paganism — the darkest roots of the holiday and the ancient festival. All of this can basically be traced to the last 30 years or so with the 20th century. As you go into that period, you’ve got something like “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” as the iconic matter of entertainment, but by the time you get to the end of the 20th century, you are looking at “slasher” films and some of the darkest cinematic presentations of evil and of violence that Americans have ever tolerated. But now not merely tolerate but apparently celebrate. It tells us something that this fascination with the occult comes as America has been sliding into post-Christian secularism. While the courts remove all theistic references from America’s public square, the void is being filled with a pervasive fascination with evil, paganism, and even new forms of the occult.
But it’s also of note that both secular and Christian Americans tend to be rather equally unaware of how Samhain became Halloween. That too is an interesting part of the story of the Christian church. During the medieval centuries, the Christian church, medieval Catholicism in particular, began to pick up many of the festivals of the ancient world, especially of ancient Europe and its traditions, and, in effect, embraced them and Christianized them, and the Christian church, in terms of medieval Catholicism, chose a three-day period, which would represent October 31, November 1, and November 2 as a holiday season in the church year known as “All hallow tide.” The three days were identified — I’ll work backwards — as in terms of November 2, “All Souls Day” or “the day of the dear departed,” that’s a day in which the church recognizes the dead; and then, working backwards, November 1, which is “All Saints’ Day,” a day of celebrating the saints officially canonized and recognized by the church; and then October 31, which would be “All Hallows’ Eve,” the eve before All hallows tide involving All Saints’ Day and All Souls Day. But in terms of our modern, secular, and consumer society All Saints’ Day and All Souls Day have been basically disregarded and it’s all come down, oddly enough, to the night before, All Hallows’ Eve, but it is interesting that in this consumer-driven society, re-embracing the dark side of this holiday, it’s interesting to note that All Saints’ Day and All Souls Day have basically been now marginalized, indeed, disregarded, and all the attention is on what historically was the day of preparation for those two days All Hallows’ Eve or Halloween.
A parallel development to this re-darkening of Halloween has been the fact that many Christian parents and Christian churches have become increasingly concerned about the involvement of their children, and, furthermore, their own involvement in any kind of holiday that has now become so expressly and explicitly dark. So embracing of not only transgressive behavior but frankly of pagan and occultic practices. One of the hallmarks of the Christian worldview, of the worldview based in Scripture, is that it and it alone can explain evil in terms of its origin, in terms of its reality, in terms of its threat, and, of course, eventually in terms of its defeat, but that’s the whole point. The Christian biblical understanding of evil is the only worldview that can take evil as seriously as evil deserves, but at the same time it never allows evil to have the last word, and one of the most pervasive and continuous of biblical themes is the absolute prohibition against ever celebrating evil in any of its manifestations. The Christian is not allowed to celebrate evil, is not allowed to celebrate death, and is not allowed to celebrate the darkness, but rather, we are to be a people of the light and we are to celebrate in Christ the victory over evil, and of course the victory over death.
Perhaps there is an inverse relationship between a society’s understanding of the festival of the resurrection on the one hand, and this celebration, this re-darkened pagan celebration of death. In that light, one of the biggest, most important questions we can ask of any worldview is this: Which has the last word, good or evil, life or death? The answer to that question determines everything, and it will be interesting to see how many people knowingly or unknowingly answer that question in their own way on Tuesday.
But now we shift to Washington DC in the campus of Georgetown University for a story about a meeting that is going to be held today, a big step for that university, a university that goes all the way back to 1787. That is, even before the U.S. Constitution. The university was chartered in 1829. It is the oldest Catholic institution of higher education in the United States, and it is considered to be the premier Jesuit institution of higher learning outside of Rome. Why is this such a big deal for evangelicals? Because just consider the headline that appeared in the Washington Post, “Georgetown Students Have Filed a Discrimination Complaint Against a Campus Group Promoting Heterosexual Marriage.”
We knew that this story had to come. The question was when and the question was where. Well, the answer the first question is now, even today, and the answer to the second question is Georgetown University. That Catholic institution, by the way, is not so important as the meaning of this event. This is not just limited to Catholics in terms of interest; although, there must be many Catholics who are interested in what will take place today, but rather, this raises the huge question for all of us as to whether in this postmodern age, in this age of moral relativism, in this age of legal same-sex marriage, any religious institution can continue in terms of even allowing students to hold to the religious convictions the university supposedly represents.
This is a big story and it just gets more interesting. As the Washington Post reports,
“A Catholic student group at Georgetown University that promotes the benefits of traditional marriage risks losing its funding and other university benefits after being accused of fostering hatred and intolerance.”
The group’s name mixes English and Latin is known as Love Saxa, and as the Washington Post says,
“[It] advocates for marriage as ‘a monogamous and permanent union between a man and a woman.’”
That’s in the constitution of this student organization at Georgetown University, a university that is formally Catholic, and by its historic identity, Jesuit. A university that as a Catholic university certainly understands that the official catechism of the Roman Catholic Church defines marriage just as this student group does. In other words, what we’re looking at here is the huge question as to whether a Catholic university has any room for Catholic students.
The article in the Washington Post at least sets the issue squarely with these words,
“That definition of marriage happens to be in line with that espoused by the Catholic Church, raising the question of how administrators at Georgetown, the United States’ oldest Catholic and Jesuit institution of higher learning, will handle the controversy if it eventually comes before them.”
What’s going to happen today on the campus, we are told, is that the larger body of student organizations is going to decide whether it will recognize or reject the recognition of Love Saxa as an official student group. If they lose that recognition, they lose a certain amount of funding from the university student affairs budget, but they also find themselves basically identified as a pariah organization, not welcome on campus, not welcome to use rooms, not welcome to advertise their meetings, much less to trumpet and communicate their message. This story just gets more interesting, it gets a lot more interesting, when we see that the immediate controversy arose because of a column published in the Hoya, which is the Georgetown student university newspaper. It was written by the head of Love Saxa, a young woman by the name of Amelia Irvine, she wrote the article beginning,
“I’m a 20-year-old virgin. I know what you probably think about me.” She says, “I’m also the president of Love Saxa, a group dedicated to healthy relationships and sexual integrity.”
She goes on to say that even though the group has been misunderstood, she wants to set the record straight, and this is an organization that is committed to historic Catholic understandings of marriage and sexuality and to chastity, a word that in some of the campus discussion has been openly mocked. In her article, she also said this,
“I will address another highly-debated topic: same-sex marriage. Love Saxa’s definition of marriage does not include same-sex couples, as we believe that marriage is a conjugal union on every level – emotional, spiritual, physical and mental – directed toward caring for biological children. To us, marriage is much more than commitment of love between two consenting adults.”
Now, let’s simply interject here. That’s the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. Shortly after that opinion piece ran in the Hoya, the editors of the student newspaper officially responded in an editorial in which they stated,
“Love Saxa’s constitution also identifies it as ‘a space [for students] to discuss their experiences of the harmful effects of a distorted view of human sexuality and the human person.’”
The editors then said, “By characterizing the LGBTQ experience as ‘a distorted view of human sexuality and the human person,’ Love Saxa has codified a mission that is fundamentally intolerant and hateful.” The editors continued, “Moreover, Love Saxa has also publicized its opposition to the right to marriage for members of the LGBTQ community through its actions.”
They went on to say, indicting the organization that they had dared to have someone on campus to speak like Ryan Anderson, a well-known defender of marriage and a fellow at the Heritage Foundation. The editors then concluded:
“By actively advocating a limited definition of marriage that would concretely take rights away from the LGBTQ community, Love Saxa differentiates itself from other Catholic organizations on campus. Though these other groups may agree with Love Saxa’s definition of marriage, actively and vigorously promoting this definition — one that is directly intolerant of the LGBTQ community — is not a primary focus of their missions, as it appears to be for Love Saxa.”
In other words, this Catholic student organization on the campus of America’s oldest Catholic University, a university that still claims a Catholic identity, this student organization is now being accused of holding beliefs that are, let’s get this straight, absolutely congruent with the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Los Angeles Times recently ran a piece asking the question, “Are Georgetown Students Intolerant for Agreeing With the Pope?”
The words I read from that editorial against Love Saxa in the Hoya are amazing enough, but the editors go on to say:
“Though Georgetown is a Catholic institution that respects the church’s view of marriage, its student groups nevertheless have a responsibility to care for and protect the entire student body.”
Now, let’s just understand what’s going on here. This is what we can only describe as Orwellian doublespeak. It’s the language of saying we respect the Catholic Church’s teaching, but when someone shows up on this campus to teach it, we will not only disrespect them, we will seek to eradicate them from the campus discourse. Of course the background to this also is very interesting, Georgetown University in the 1990s adopted a statement of its Catholic identity as being one of “centered pluralism.”
According to one of the deans there, the centered pluralism means that Catholicism anchors or centers that identity, but that its religious identity is reflected in its students and faculty as pluralistic. So, in other words, pluralism rules. What we see here is Georgetown University openly embracing a non-Catholic identity while simultaneously claiming to be Catholic, claiming to respect the teaching of the Catholic Church, while not respecting anyone who actually teaches that teaching. No doubt some Catholic historians will look back to the secularization of the American Catholic University in an episode such as 1967 in the Land O’ Lakes statement that was adopted under the leadership of the then fairly new president of the University of Notre Dame Father Theodore Hesburgh, and even as there were many Catholics then who understood that it was opening the gate to the secularization of Catholic higher education, well most of them probably couldn’t have imagined a time when a student group at Georgetown University would be accused of the crime of actually holding to classical Catholic teaching.
For evangelical Christians, the big issue to observe here is that this pattern won’t stay on the campus of Georgetown University, we’re going to see this pattern show up again and again because the secularization of higher education, well, it’s not limited to Georgetown University, it’s certainly not limited to Catholic institutions. It is found rather overwhelmingly in institutions that were established unquestionably on historic and confessional Protestant commitments, and what we have seen is the secularization of college after college, university after university, including many that still claim, oddly enough, some continuing Christian, even Protestant identity. They might claim, we’ve seen the formula now at Georgetown, to say that they respect the teaching of the historic church, they just won’t respect anyone who teaches that teaching.
But, of course, invoking that historic confessional Protestantism points to the most important events of this week: The commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation. That commemoration and celebration is going to focus much of our attention this week, and rightly so. I wanted to discuss some these headline stories that we needed to discuss this week in order that during the week we can look not only to the headlines, but also to the meaning of the Protestant Reformation, and understanding the issues that were most important then that turn out to be equally and enduringly important now. Was the Reformation necessary? Was it a failure? Was it effective? Is it over? Those are huge questions, questions that we rightly face at any time, but especially as we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. So while millions and millions of Americans get ready to celebrate Halloween. We’re going to get ready to commemorate one of the most important events in the history of the Christian church. While millions get ready to celebrate paganism, we’re going to celebrate the recovery of the gospel. It’s going to be a most interesting and very full week.
We’ll see one of humanity’s deadliest enemies: fire in northern California; we’ll see just how quickly concern emerged as marijuana crops are going up in smoke; we will see Hollywood expel one of their own leading figures for sexual misbehavior — the very misbehavior they sell in their movies; and we will trace the moral development back to the source.
Some the most fast-moving and deadly wildfires in recent American history continue to threaten much of northern California, specifically the area popularly known as wine country. Over 200,000 acres have already been destroyed and much of it is absolutely flattened by the fire. That 200,000 acres is an area 15 times the size of Manhattan, and the fires have been deadly. As of yesterday evening, at least 40 people have been killed and in Sonoma County, California, alone 174 human beings remain missing. You’re looking at the destruction of over 5,700 buildings, houses, and other structures, and you’re looking at a fire that moves so quickly that law enforcement and first responder officials are telling us that many people were trapped by the fire; they were unable to run or for that matter even to drive out of the fires because the fires were moving so quickly. Swept along by high winds and also accelerated by the very unusual dry season that California has experienced just in the last several weeks and months, and that upon what is considered to be a multi-year drought. We can only imagine the anguish and the anxiety there in northern California. Many people lost their homes, others have lost their livelihoods, most devastating of all, some have lost their loved ones, and others do not yet know they have.
One of most haunting figures in the news reports is that 174 people remain missing in Sonoma County. Officials and loved ones there hope and pray that many if not all of those 174 will be found alive, but the fear is that at least some of them will not. Even as these headlines came out of Northern California, other headlines told us of similarly deadly wildfires in the nation of Spain, those fires are believed to have started in Portugal, and back in June of this year forest fires in Portugal — also fast-moving, trapping many people — killed at least 69 people, caused, it is believed, by a dry thunderstorm. Of course, we’re called to pray for all those who are in danger, all of those who suffered loss, our hearts go out to them, and of course we also want to honor those very important first responders. In particular, firefighters and other rescuers who put themselves intentionally in the line of fire in order to save other lives, and one of the interesting things that is going on there in Northern California reminds us of the particular value of human life because all of the major television networks and others covering the fire have made clear that law enforcement and fire officials there have had to make the decision that human life is valuable above all other goods. An entire community of buildings can be lost, it’s the community of persons, of human beings, who are most important, and furthermore, it’s not just a community or a collective of human beings it is every single human life.
It’s very important for us to note an affirmation of the biblical worldview, even amongst persons who do not believe that they hold to anything like the biblical worldview, or even just a residual remainder of it, but you do see in this context of urgency and deadly danger how there is the immediate recognition that human beings, above all others and all else, deserve our utmost and most urgent rescue in consideration. It’s also very humbling for us to recognize that historians make the argument that the development and the control of fire was essential to the very conception of human civilization. Civilization amongst human beings requires the ability to cook food and also the ability to harness fire in order to provide warmth and to use its energy for that which aids human life and even in some senses makes human existence possible, but at the same time fire, which can be such a friend to humanity, can also be such a deadly enemy.
When it’s out of control, fire is a deadly contagion that spreads, as we have seen now in northern California, more quickly than the human imagination can even bear, but it’s also really interesting to note how quickly the media get to some other stories. You might think first of all the personal interest stories; those are very important in terms of our understanding of the events, but how’s this for headline? Trevor Hughes, reporting forUSA Today, gives us this story:
“Pot Farmers Fear Crops May go up in Smoke.”
Similarly, Daniel Victor and Maya Salam of the New York Times gives us the headline:
“Northern California’s Marijuana Crop Burns off in Wildfires.”
The story in USA Today begins with these words from Calistoga, California,
“Marijuana farmers and dispensary owners across Northern California are nervously watching as wildfires burn through some of the state’s prime cannabis growing areas and destroy valuable crops, which could drive up prices for consumers across the country.”
Now, given the gravity of what we’re talking about here, isn’t it at least a bit shocking that here you would have a lede paragraph inUSA Today that tells us that the net result of all this, something that should be lost to our attention even now, is the fact that prices for marijuana might go up in the aftermath of the fire.USA Today quoted Eli Melrod, identified as the CEO of Solful Dispensary in Sebastopol, in northern California. He said, “This is right smack in the middle of people’s harvests … It couldn’t have been worse timing, frankly.
The USA Today story goes on to tell us something that was rather shocking to me at least, “A single marijuana plant can be worth up to $5,000, but,” USA Today tells us, “pot growers can’t get crop insurance like traditional farmers or the vintners whose grapevines tend to get most of the attention here.”
The explanation to that comes later in the story where we are reminded that marijuana is still considered a class 1 forbidden and illegal substance by the federal government, and, thus, there is no availability of crop insurance, and furthermore, the entire business of marijuana has to be conducted — to this point — in cash, even in a state like California, which has legalized what they call recreational marijuana. But the USA Today story plus the New York Times story also gives us a very different vantage point of the finances behind what’s going on here. We are told in the USA Today story that the legal business of cannabis there in the state of California brings about $2.76 billion of revenue into the economy; that’s $2.76 billion in terms of the legal cannabis business, but then we turn to the New York Times article published on virtually the same day and it tells us that even as California, “has long been the country’s illicit hub of growing marijuana,” that illegal market in California is estimated to be $7 billion a year. Now you can quickly do the math and understand that the illegal market in California is more than twice the size of what’s considered there to be the legal cannabis growing market, and furthermore, as these articles make clear, a part of the problem is that many of these marijuana growing areas are purposefully hidden within the other vegetation. In other words, they’re right in the middle of the fires. USA Today also quoted Jessica Lilga of Alta Supply, identified as a statewide wholesale cannabis distributer based in Oakland, she said, “It’s just sad that we live in this underground world where we can’t discuss the true extent of the damage.” She went on to say, “All remaining growers who did not literally lose their crops will be affected.”
Now, USA Today also says it is unclear, an interesting choice of words, exactly how many people even work in the cannabis industry in Northern California, and even how many cultivation operations, as they are called, exist. It’s very telling how quickly the mainstream media got to the story of marijuana, even in the context of these very deadly fires. It didn’t take them long to get there. Actually, it didn’t take them long at all.
We will stay in California for the next issue of our concern, which is the expanding and unfolding scandal concerning the fallen Hollywood titan Harvey Weinstein. As Brooks Barnes of the New York Times reported on Saturday,
“Hollywood’s de facto governing body, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, voted overwhelmingly on Saturday to “immediately expel” Harvey Weinstein, breaking with 90 years of precedent and turning one of the biggest Oscar players in history into a hall-of-fame pariah.”
Oh, there’s a big story here, but at the center of the story is not just Harvey Weinstein, but Hollywood and the Hollywood culture. Hollywood more than any other collective of people on earth is adept at virtue signaling and even the mainstream media understands that that’s in large part what’s going on right here. Virtue signaling by the 54 member board of governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The big expansion of the scandal here has to do with the fact that it’s now clear that many people knew that Harvey Weinstein was a serial abuser, a serial sexual abuser of women, and yet they didn’t stop it, they didn’t do anything, they didn’t even talk about it, or least they didn’t talk about it in any way that mattered. The most authoritative sources inside Hollywood and the most influential observers of the culture in the mainstream media are clearly pointing to the fact that there was a conspiracy of silence that involves some of the most significant power figures there in Hollywood. That would include producers, directors, actors, and for that matter just about everyone that’s a part of the entertainment industrial complex, but we also know that that virtue signaling is taking place here because of the language used by the Academy. In their statements in which they said that the vote was “well in excess of the required two-thirds majority.”
The statement from the Academy said:
“We do so not simply to separate ourselves from someone who does not merit the respect of his colleagues, but also to send a message that the era of willful ignorance and shameful complicity in sexually predatory behavior and workplace harassment in our industry is over. What’s at issue here,” said the statement, “is a deeply troubling problem that has no place in our society.”
Now here’s what’s so important, I’ll give credit to the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, even the Hollywood reporter, some of the most influential news media covering Hollywood; they have understood was going on here. Even as on Saturday, the Academy voted to expel Harvey Weinstein, included in the current and long-standing membership of the Academy are those who have already been known for and even convicted of sexual offenses against women, and in the case of director Roman Polanski, even of sexual abuse of a 13-year-old girl. Brooks Barnes of the New York Times gets right to the issue,
“Although largely symbolic, the ouster of Mr. Weinstein from the roughly 8,400-member academy is stunning because the organization is not known to have taken such action before — not when Roman Polanski, a member, pleaded guilty in a sex crime case involving a 13-year-old girl; not when women came forward to accuse Bill Cosby, a member, of sexual assault.”
Barnes went on to make very clear that the Academy, having voted to expel Weinstein on Saturday, continues to have members it has accepted even in the midst of criminal convictions for sexual abuse of a minor, others have admitted to the same without criminal charges and the list of serial sexual abusers in the Academy is evidently both well-known and long-standing.
I go back to the official statement released by the board of governors of the Academy on Saturday when they said,
“the era of willful ignorance and shameful complicity in sexually predatory behavior and workplace harassment in our industry is over.”
Well, it’s not even over for the Academy, and it’s not over, by their own admission. The Academy statement also went on to say that it would “work to establish ethical standards of conduct that all academy members will be expected to exemplify.”
But Jo Ellison writing in the Financial Times of London, points out that the products of the members of the Academy are themselves sexually abusive and predatory. In the words of her column,
“Meanwhile, sexually graphic content and scenes of sexual violence have become so prevalent we barely even notice it any more, let alone feel any outrage.”
She’s talking about movies. She goes on to say:
“Film is bad, but so is television — currently being trumpeted as inhabiting a golden age and funded with huge studio investments.”
As you continue through her column, she ends by saying:
“That the Weinstein narrative has unfolded against the more general debasement of our screen culture [she says it can’t] be a coincidence — it’s a culture that, until last week, [she argues,] was being greenlit, produced and promoted by [Harvey] Weinstein.”
She says he’s only one predator; the entire business is predatory, morally predatory. Furthermore, in his column in yesterday’s edition of the New York Times, Ross Douthat points to the intersection of moral change in music and in the movies in the 1960s and 70s, and he cites the 60s and 70s because in his sickening admission in recent days Harvey Weinstein said:
“I came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different.”
Ross Douthat points to the music culture of the 1970s also headquartered there in the Hollywood area and he cited Matthew Walther in his recent article in the magazine The Week, in which he says that much of the entertainment culture of the 1970s, including rock music and Hollywood was “a spree of statutory rape.”
But then, just to make the Christian worldview aspect of this so very revealing, Manohla Dargis, writing in the critics notebook column of the New York Times, offers us this headline at the end of last week:
“Weinstein Is Gone. Hollywood’s Sin Isn’t.”
The important issue here is not so much the article but the appearance of the word “sin” in the headline. Back in the 1970s, the very decade cited by Harvey Weinstein in explaining why he had abused so many women and also by Ross Douthat pointing to the moral change that took place then, in that very decade, the prominent psychiatrist Karl Menninger wrote a book entitled Whatever Became of Sin? Dr. Menninger’s point then was that in that very permissive, therapeutic, and increasingly even then secularized culture sin had basically disappeared from popular consciousness in conversation, but now we see that in the year 2017 sin is back in the headline of the New York Times on the front page of the arts section in the critics notebook column. Why? Well the Christian worldview explains it fully. There’s no other word that will do; this is not just miss behavior, this isn’t just a transgressive action, this is a serial sexual abuser and we’re talking here about something that demands the word sin. But of course Christians understand, you don’t have to get to Harvey Weinstein, you don’t even have to get to Hollywood to find the word sin absolutely indispensable and necessary, absolutely accurate in pointing to ourselves as much as any other. But isn’t it interesting that on the one hand, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences kicks out someone for sexual perversity, but lets others remain as full members, even convicted of child sexual abuse, and then turns around and awards Oscars to films that represent sexual abuse and perversity.
I want to go back to the official statement released by the Academy on Saturday that statement in which they said that the Academy wanted “to send a message that the era of willful ignorance and shameful complicity in sexually predatory behavior and workplace harassment in our industry is over.”
That’s what they said. We will soon find out they meant it.