The Briefing 03-31-14

The Briefing 03-31-14

The Briefing


 March 31, 2014

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


It’s Monday, March 31, 2014. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.


Once again, columnist Ross Douthat of The New York Times offers an analysis that simply compels our attention. The title of his article in Sunday’s edition of that newspaper is this: “The Christian Penumbra.” The word penumbra is perhaps seldom used these days. It refers to the fact that around a given thing is often a lesser form of the same thing. The image is often used of light. Around a strong light there is a dimmer form of that light. It is looking like the same thing, but it is not actually the same thing. That’s why he used the word in this column. As he writes:


Here is a seeming paradox of American life. One the one hand, there is a broad social-science correlation between religious faith and various social goods — health and happiness, upward mobility, social trust, charitable work and civic participation.


Yet at the same time, some of the most religious areas of the country — the Bible Belt, the deepest South — struggle mightily with poverty, poor health, political corruption and social disarray.


But those words are simply his introduction to the issue. The following paragraph states his case:


Part of this paradox can be resolved by looking at nonreligious variables like race. But part of it reflects an important fact about religion in America: The social goods associated with faith flow almost exclusively from religious participation, not from affiliation or nominal belief. And where practice ceases or diminishes, in what you might call America’s “Christian penumbra,” the remaining residue of religion can be socially damaging instead.


This is a profoundly important article and it offers a very important analysis. The issue is this: social science research increasingly demonstrates that there are social pathologies, such as rates of poverty, rates of social injustice, rates of divorce and marriage breakup, rates of cohabitation and children born out of wedlock, in regions in the country that simultaneously register the highest levels of religious belief. This appears to be a contradictory reality. How can there be such high rates of religious belief and such poor rates of religious faithfulness, to put the matter bluntly? Ross Douthat helps us in offering this article because he writes about a religion that is predominantly influenced by American evangelical Christianity, and, though he identifies as a confessing Christian, he is himself is not an evangelical. In other words, he’s in a better position to write about this than someone who is an evangelical. He is not writing as an insider to the movement, but rather as one who is observing this contradiction and trying to determine what is actually going on here.


And, in terms of what is going on here, Ross Douthat gets to the point in that key paragraph. As he writes, “The social goods associated with faith flow almost exclusively from religious participation, not from affiliation or nominal belief.” Now that states something that evangelical Christians should understand immediately. What Ross Douthat here cites from social science research as the so-called “goods of faith,” are what we might call “the fruits of faithfulness.” In other words, our understanding of the Christian life drawn from Scripture is that obedience to Christ brings about many things, good things for us, including what is defined here as social goods. In other words, a good in terms of how we build society and how we enhance and enrich our own lives: goods such as marriage and faithfulness in marriage; goods such as success in raising children based in the fact that these children are born within the covenant of marriage. In other words, to put the matter bluntly, it means not becoming a statistic of social science, not joining into one of the social pathologies.


In making his case in this essay, Ross Douthat cites sociologist Charles Stokes, who has pointed out through his research that practicing conservative Protestants have much lower divorce rates and practicing believers generally divorce less frequently than either the secular or the unaffiliated in the same community. But the lukewarmly religious are, as Stokes points out, a very different matter. What he calls nominal conservative Protestants, who attend church less than a twice a month, actually have higher divorce rates even than the non-religious, and, as Douthat writes, you can find similar patterns with other indicators—out-of-wedlock births, for instance—are rarer among religiously engaged evangelical Christians, but nominal evangelicals are a very different story. He then goes on to suggest we probably do know why this is the case. After all, one of our most basic biblical instincts is to understand that a nominal faith is sometimes worse than no faith at all. He writes:


It isn’t hard to see places in American life where these patterns could be at work. Among those working-class whites whose identification with Christianity is mostly a form of identity politics, for instance. Or among second-generation Hispanic immigrants who have drifted from their ancestral Catholicism. Or in African-American communities where the church is respected as an institution without attracting many young men on Sunday morning.


As Douthat points out, all three of these populations would identify to a pollster or a social scientist as religiously-affiliated. They would do so for one reason or another and they probably consider themselves religiously-affiliated, but in terms of religious participation and actual patterns of faithfulness according to their convictions and beliefs, there are few if any.


Douthat then writes this:


For believers, meanwhile, the Christian penumbra’s pathologies could just be seen as a kind of theological vindication — proof, perhaps, of the New Testament admonition that it’s much worse to be lukewarm than hot or cold.


Well, indeed, that is exactly what should come to our minds and, furthermore, we should understand that the idea of being a nominal Christian is something that simply isn’t found in the Scripture. It is actually antithetical to the gospel, and we need to recognize—and we must recognize this quickly—that many forms of so-called cultural Christianity actually do not serve to lead people into the Christian faith and deeper levels of confessing faithfulness, but, rather, they vaccinate people into thinking that they actually are Christians when in biblical terms, in gospel terms, they profoundly are not. Douthat writes:


Among religious conservatives, not surprisingly, the hope is that traditional forms of faith — if left to build, or re-build, without being constantly disfavored, pressured and policed — can make a kind of comeback, and fill part of the void their own decline has left.


That’s exactly the case. He writes there with incredible perception. That is exactly what many of us are trying to do, especially gospel-minded evangelicals, through our churches. He then warns, though:


On the secular side, though, there’s a sense that there’s a better way — that a more expansive state can offer many of the benefits associated with a religious community, but in a more enlightened, tolerant, individual-respecting form. And if delivering these benefits requires co-opting or constraining religious actors — be they charities and schools or business owners — well, that’s either a straightforward win-win, or a relatively modest price to pay.


He’s even more perceptive in that paragraph. Douthat actually lives and operates in the world he here describes; a world, especially on the cultural left, that sees liberation from Christianity in particular as a great human gain. Furthermore, they sincerely have confidence that the state, the political state, rather than the church can actually begin to fill the needs that are left by an eclipsing Christianity and do something about these social pathologies. Of course, as study after study has demonstrated, even though government can do something—and government does have a God-ordained role—it cannot fill the void left by an eclipsed church or a disappearing family. Neither the church nor the family, in terms of roles and responsibilities, can be replaced by the state; no matter how expansive it may become or how much money it may gain for itself. It simply lacks the ability to do what the church and the family are assigned to do.


From an evangelical perspective, the most important aspect of Ross Douthat’s very important column is the fact that lukewarm religion, cultural Christianity or nominal Christianity, all should be seen not as doors that often lead to people entering into faithful, believing Christianity, but, rather, as a barrier, perhaps as I said before, a vaccination, that makes people think that they are Christians and, thus, miss the gospel altogether. And when they miss the gospel, they miss all that comes with the gospel. In this sense, the social science data tells us what we should profoundly always know: you cannot expect non-Christians to live as faithful Christians.


Before leaving Ross Douthat’s article, I do want to point out one other issue he raised within this essay. That is his use of the term “identity politics.” We need to acknowledge, we need to understand that for many people in the United States, when they say they are Christians, they’re not making a theological statement at all. They’re making an identity statement, and that identity statement is often laden with political agenda; in other words, identity politics. We better be the people who are so gospel minded that we never confuse identify politics with Christian identity.


We often hear the expression that demographics is destiny. That’s an overstatement to be sure, but it is still a statement that points to a fundamentally true reality. That’s this: demographics do point us to the reality that the world is changing and we had better pay attention to those changes. And those changes are not only matters of statistical information, population shifts, and all the rest, they point to changes in the way human beings live. And if you love human beings and wish to reach them with the gospel, if you care about how they live together, and if you care about the fate of them individually and in community, you have to pay attention to this kind of demographic data. That’s why Thursday’s edition of The Wall Street Journal should have our attention in an article by Neil Shah entitled “Smallville, USA, Fades Further.” The article refers to data from the Census Bureau that became available last Thursday, and it revealed that nearly 60% of America’s rural counties shrank in population in just the last year. That’s up from 50% of rural counties that lost population in 2009 and 40% in the 1990s. As Shah writes:


In all, almost eight in 10 of the counties that lost population over the past three years were outside of metropolitan areas.


Rural America—which encompasses roughly three-quarters of the nation’s landmass—has seen slower population growth for a decade, as more young people move to urban and suburban areas for jobs and even aging retirees seek out more-populated places to live.


Neil Shah’s article is another important indicator of the future direction of our society, but as it looks backwards to demographic data, it actually points to the present and tells us what we should be seeing right now as we look at North America, as we look at the United States, as we look at our mission field here. Rural America is declining in population. As he writes, it has experienced slower population growth. But the statistics actually indicate it’s not just a slower growth, it is an exorable decline. There is a net reduction in population in eight of ten of America’s rural counties. He writes, “The population decline from pockets of Midwestern states such as Iowa, Illinois and Kansas comes at a time of rapid expansion elsewhere.” The population loss is especially acute in America’s farm belt. But not just in the Midwest and the Great Plains, but now reaching into Western Pennsylvania, Western New York, and some of the industrial areas in the rural countries closer to northern cities such as Detroit and Toledo.


In other words, this is becoming a matter that isn’t geographically-destined by region, as in Northeast or Southwest, but rather by the distinction between more metropolitan and more rural areas within the United States. Now let’s keep in mind the fact that at the opening of the 20th century, seven out of ten Americans lived in a farm community and not in a city, and, yet, by the time we get to the end of the 20th century, a majority of Americans lived in metropolitan areas for the first time. Now we see that that pattern is becoming even more extreme. The urgencies here are becoming even more acute. There are rural counties that are losing the ability to have school systems and hospitals. The evacuation of people, especially young people, from these counties has been accelerating in recent years. But the new data, coming from the Census Bureau, indicates that even as death rates are continuing to grow in these areas—in many of these counties death rates outstrip birth rates—but an increasing number of Americans at retirement age and beyond are also deciding to leave rural America and to move to more metropolitan settings. Part of this is so that they can be near the younger members of their own family, part of this is so that they can be near social services and medical care, and part of it is just because there are fewer compelling reasons for many people to stay in more rural areas in the United States.


As Neil Shah writes in this article, one of the things that has clearly accelerated this pattern is the fact that Americans continue to have fewer babies. He writes, “The number of births in the [United States] last year [that’s 2011, as measured by this report from the Census Bureau] exceeded deaths by the smallest margin in 35 years.” On the other end of the age spectrum, it is also very telling that the Census Bureau reports that the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the entire United States last year was The Villages, a retirement community in Central Florida.


We should note that these demographic changes point to massive cultural and moral changes as well. There’s a great distinction between the experience of growing up on a farm or in rural America in a rather intact and insular community and, on the other hand, growing up in one of the vast megacities in America or even one of the fast-growing metropolitan areas that isn’t a megacity. We’re looking at a change in the way Americans live and we’re looking at a change in the way Americans expect to live. One of the things that comes through loudly and clearly in this data is that it is inconceivable that there could be any major change that would reverse these patterns in the near future. This appears to be the pointer toward the shape of America for the next generation and beyond.


Writing in USA Today on the same information from the Census Bureau, reporters Greg Toppo and Paul Overberg point to another issue that is underlined in this research. The delay of marriage among young people is also leading to very significant demographic consequences, including the acceleration of moving to and staying in metropolitan areas. Younger people in America are moving to these metropolitan areas in order to get jobs and perhaps because they also aspire to live in a metropolitan environment. But reversing the trends that took place in previous generations, they’re not moving to the suburbs after they get married and have children because, to put the matter bluntly, they’re often not getting married and not having children.


From a Christian worldview perspective, that is a far larger issue than the impact of demographic change. That refers to a moral change; a moral change that is both effected by and then, in return, affects the way Americans live, the shape of American’s lives, the contours of American character. The experience of getting married and having children brings about profound changes in the lives of an individual. Society after society has demonstrated the understanding that those particular experiences bring social stability and social cohesion, a great sense of responsibility on the part of young people as they move into the comprehensive duties of adulthood. When they fail to move into those comprehensive duties, there are vast changes in their lives as well as in the society at large, and we’re beginning to see some of them now. And they show up in the strangest places, such as in the information that comes in the cold statistical format of the US Census Bureau.


Finally, at my website at, this morning I published a massive article (about 2,500 words) entitled “Drowning in Distortion—Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Noah.’” I can’t deal with the entire issue here, but on last Friday’s edition of The Briefing, I pointed out that the main thing that we should learn from this controversy is that the Bible’s quite capable of telling its own story. As a matter of fact, it tells its own story infinitely better than anyone or anything else, including and especially Hollywood. I was familiar with much of the controversy about the film and had read just about every informed essay that I had seen, but on Saturday night, I went to see the movie. And, having seen it, I came to a different conclusion than I expected. I expected to be both entertained and irked by the movie. I knew from many of the things that had been written about it that Darren Aronofsky took several significant liberties with the biblical text. That’s problematic enough, but almost any film, expanding out the bare structure of a biblical story, is going to have to invent something in terms of the expansion of the narrative and especially the creation of dialogue. But when I saw the film, I wasn’t irked; I was deeply distressed. There’s much in the film to respect, in terms of the way Aronofsky tells a story. He’s quite a skilled moviemaker and cinematography is clearly his heart, but when it comes to the story of Noah, he doesn’t just add to the story; he fundamentally distorts the story. He turns Noah into a sociopath and as he is on the ark, you see a different Noah than is in any sense revealed in Scripture. Furthermore, he puts in the mind of Noah certain issues that are in the Bible clearly ascribed to the mind of God. This is a fundamental problem.


There are other problems with the movie—most of them are rather minor compared to these—and yet there are huge distortions of the story. The huge distortions are the problem. He distorts the character of God and the character of Noah. He fundamentally changes the story into something it isn’t in the Bible. And, no, the problem isn’t that he includes the environmental theme—there are certainly elements in the Genesis account in chapters six through nine—but those elements are not the point of the story. Totally lacking from Aronofsky’s movie is the understanding of the function of Noah and the Noah narrative within the Old Testament. Missing entirely is the understanding of the covenant made by this covenant-making God.


Our best response as Christians isn’t outrage. Christians tend to get far too excited and far too exercised about the products of Hollywood. After all, let’s just remember, it is an entertainment industrial complex. It, however, is making a moral statement with this movie, a deeply theological statement, and everyone involved with it will be judged for that, as will be everyone who watches the movie. We’re judged by everything we read and by our response to it. Our responsibility is to think as Christians and I certainly hope that Christians think very Christianly when they see this movie or find themselves talking about it.


I go back to where I was on Friday. The big issue here is our responsibility to tell the Bible story, to let the Bible speak for itself, and to tell the story on its own terms. But perhaps the greatest lesson from this controversy in the movie over Noah is the realization that if we do not tell this story and tell it rightly and tell it truthfully, someone else will tell the story, and we’re generally not going to like the way they tell it. Again, that full essay, all of it, is found at


Thanks for listening to The Briefing. Remember Ask Anything: Weekend Edition. Call with your question in your voice to 877-505-2058. That’s 877-505-2058. For more information, go to my website at You can follow me on Twitter by going to For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to For information on Boyce College, just go to I’m speaking to you from Destin, Florida, and I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

Podcast Transcript

1) How can there be such high rates of religious belief and such poor rates of religious faithfulness?

The Christian Penumbra, New York Times (Ross Douthat)

2) Demographics point us to reality world is changing, and we better pay attention

Smallville, USA, Fades Further, Wall Street Journal (Neil Shah)

3)Distortions in Noah Movie: The Bible is quite capable of telling it’s own story

Drowning in Distortion – Darren Aronofsky’s Noah,



R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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