The Briefing 04-21-14

The Briefing 04-21-14

The Briefing


 April 21, 2014

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


It’s Monday, April 21, 2014. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.


The death toll continues to rise and hearts continue to be broken in South Korea, as that ferry disaster in South Korean waters continues to unfold and as the death toll continues to rise. However, the numbers are now differentiated between the dead and the missing, but all of the missing are now presumed to be dead. There are approximately 60 bodies that have now been recovered. That leaves well over 200 still yet to be found; a total that is expected to rise to 302. Adding to the tragedy is the age of most of the dead: 16 and 17-year-old high school students on the equivalent of a spring break. Parents who had arrived at the port after they heard of the disaster had been told that their children had been rescued. One parent told The Financial Times, “We came to meet our children after the initial announcement that most of them had been rescued, but the reality was completely different.” Indeed, it was different, and a part of what is now becoming central to the story is that this is a moral disaster, not so much a technological disaster. In other words, someone is responsible for this; it need not have happened. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, they’re all kinds of questions about what kind of maritime principles and guidelines might have prevented this, but as it turns out, everything that might have prevented this was in place. And, yet, something went horribly awry upon this ferry, leading it eventually to capsize, and, hours later, for those who had been told to remain in the lower decks, to be drowned in the icy waters off of South Korea.


But as we made our way through last week and the story became even darker and more ominous, as The Financial Times reports, the captain of the vessel has now been arrested. It is known that he was resting when the accident took place. He was not at the helm of the ship. As a matter fact, it was the third officer, a young woman, age about 26, who had no experience whatsoever in some of the most treacherous waters in the Pacific, who was at the helm at the time of the accident. The captain himself, along with the third officer, has been arrested. The captain has apologized at least in part for what is now known as his unconscionable behavior. As one grandfather of a 17-year-old victim said, “How could he tell those young kids to stay there and jump from the sinking ship himself?” Well that’s exactly what the captain apparently did. As a matter fact, there is video evidence of the captain abandoning the ship long before others abandoned the ship and with hundreds left to drown.


As Christopher Drew and Jad Mouawad report for The New York Times:


Ever since the Titanic sank on its maiden voyage, carrying its captain and many of the passengers with it, the notion that the captain goes down with his ship has been ingrained in popular culture.


Well that’s a very interesting opening sentence because it roots the morality in popular culture. Actually, morality is far older than that. There are very long, centuries old, perhaps even millennia old, maritime principles that hold that when a ship is sinking, the captain has a responsibility to get everyone off the ship before he abandons the ship himself. But as Drew and Mouawad report, for the second time in just over two years, a sea captain has put his own life ahead of those of his terrified passengers. The first was in Italy, the captain of the now-famous or infamous Costa Concordia, and now the captain of this South Korean ferry. As they report:


A much-publicized photo from the latest accident shows the Korean captain being helped off his own ship, stepping off the deck to safety even as scores of his ferry passengers remained below where survivors believe they became trapped by rushing water and debris.


As the reporters indicate, this behavior has earned the captain moral outrage.


Maritime experts called the abandonment shocking — violating a proud international (and South Korean) tradition of stewardship based at least as much on accepted codes of behavior as by law.


John Padgett, III, a retired United States Navy Rear Admiral and former submarine captain, said, “That guy’s an embarrassment to anybody who’s ever had command at sea.”


The reporters go on to explain that civil courts in the United States have long viewed captains as having a moral and legal obligation to protect their passengers and ships, but the cases in South Korea and Italy seem likely to test the notion of criminal liability in disasters. In other words, we’re now living in a new moral age and evidence of that new moral age now comes in the most unexpected way. It comes in the cases of two captains and the near universal, social, moral outrage at their behavior, abandoning their ships even as their own passengers perish, but there seems to be very little consensus that in this new moral age, anyone’s going to be able to make those criminal charges stick. The article in The New York Times makes very clear that the ferry took two and a half hours to sink. Survivors have reported that the crew told passengers it was safer to stay inside the ship rather than to come out on decks where they might have been rescued, likely now dooming them. The captain says he later issued instructions for passengers to evacuate the ship, but it remains unclear if that was conveyed to passengers.


Drew and Mouawad give some interesting historical background. As you look back to 1814, the Navy, that is, the United States Navy, issued rules that require the captain to remain with the stricken ship as long as possible and to salvage as much of it as he could. One man quoted in the article is Dave Warner, who is the spokesman for the Naval History and Heritage Command of the United States Navy. He said, “If it becomes necessary to abandon the ship, the commanding officer should be the last person to leave.” Famous for this, as this article indicated in its opening, was Captain E.J. Smith of the Titanic. He was probably steaming too fast when the giant ship hit an iceberg, but he later, as they say, won praise for helping to save more than 700 lives. It was he who insisted that women and children be evacuated first, and he stayed near the bridge as the ship went down.


There are other accounts in this article of similar captains who acted in the same way, who refused to leave their ship until everyone had been evacuated. One of the most interesting and recent cited here is Captain Chesley Sullenberger, III. He was the captain of the jet, the US Airways Flight 1549, that was forced to ditch in the Hudson River. He was known for twice checking the entire sinking cabin of his jet before he then abandoned the jet himself. He made sure that everyone was off. He checked it twice.


So what we now know about this disaster is that it was a moral disaster in the very beginning. It was human action, it was human inaction, it was was human wrong action that led to the ferry sinking, and it was an even more disastrous human moral action that led to what we now know to be, in all likelihood, the absolutely unnecessary drowning of so many young people in terms of this disaster. But the interesting point of maximum outrage seems to be that the captain abandoned his ship; abandoning his passengers to their icy deaths. And we look at this and we just have to ask the question from a Christian worldview perspective: Why are people so outraged about this? In an age in which we’ve tried to argue, as a society, that virtually all moral principles are relative and thus to be bent to circumstances, in an age in which most people become their own brand of situation ethicists, why in this situation is the captain’s action categorically wrong? Something in us tells us that what he did was objectively, categorically wrong, but why? It can’t be merely out of social and cultural conditioning because the reality is that people virtually everywhere in the world are on absolute agreement that what the captain did was categorically wrong. This points to the fact that morality isn’t quite so contextual and relative as many modern and postmodern people want to claim it to be. It also defies the fact that even as many people want to claim that all of these moral principles are merely the products of social conditioning and social construction, the reality is that there’s something in us that simply says this is wrong. Even when we can’t argue exactly why it’s wrong, we know it’s wrong.


The Christian understands that this is evidence of the fact that God made us in His image as moral creatures. This is the principle that is known in Christian ethics quite simply as the fact that there are certain things we cannot not know. We can’t not know them simply because God made us in His image. One of the things we cannot not know is that it’s wrong for someone who has responsibility to abandon a situation in which he saves himself and leaves others to drown, especially in the context in which he is almost surely responsible for the entire disaster from top to bottom, in terms of his responsibility as the ultimate steward of every single soul on that ship. Something in us cries out that there is something horribly wrong in this picture: the picture of a captain getting off of his vessel, leaving others to drown. But a postmodern, post-Christian world is very hard-pressed to explain why it’s categorically wrong. But that’s where the Christian has to understand this is only explainable in terms of scriptural understandings of what it means to be human, of what it means for God to have created us in His image as moral creatures, and for each of us, every single one of us, to know things we simply by that very fact cannot not know.


Shifting back to the United States, The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday; the headline of the story is this: “Scientist Clone Adult Cells Into Embryos.”  Gautam Naik is the reporter for the article. As he explained, scientist for the first time cloned cells from adult humans to create early-stage embryos, and then derived stem-cell tissue from the embryos that perfectly matched each donor’s DNA. This is big news. It’s big scientific news, but it’s also news with a huge moral set of consequences. As reporter, Gautam Naik reports, the research is another advance in creating stem cells, which can be turned into any kind of body tissue to potentially treat ailments ranging from heart attack to Alzheimer’s. Last year, scientist reported the creation of the first early-stage human clones, using infant and fetal cells, rather than those from adults. The new experiment confirmed that striking and controversial breakthrough, and also shows the technique with a few tweaks works on mature cells. That as reported by The Wall Street Journal.


An interesting explanation for why the scientific world says this is important is offered by Robert Lanza, co-author of the study. He said, “The proportion of diseases you can treat with lab-made tissue increases with age. So if you can’t do this with adult cells, it is of limited value.” Now, again, the headline is “Scientist Clone Adult Cells Into Embryos.” One of the things the headline announces, and accurately announces, is that clonal technology is back in the headlines. This is a form of human cloning. We need to recognize that that is exactly what we’re talking about here. The cloning of a human embryo is the creation of an artificial embryo that is created using the genetic material of a donor—in this case of two different donors. And in this case, as in all others, the difference between what is called therapeutic cloning and reproductive cloning is simply the context. In other words, this is exactly the same procedure that would be used if someone is trying to clone an actual human being. The only difference in terms of procedure is that the embryo would at that point be implanted into a woman so that it could then develop into the full gestation period and eventually be born. That didn’t take place here, but notice the only reason it didn’t take place is because they didn’t do it. There is nothing in this technology that would’ve prevented this. In other words, this headline tells us that the brand-new, brave-new age of human cloning is this much closer to us. Very successful cloning of two embryos taken from human adults—two men; again, they were aged 35 and 75.


The other thing we need to note from a Christian worldview perspective is the injury of all this to human dignity because these embryos were created simply so that they could be destroyed. This kind of human embryonic stem cell research is only important in terms of the medical research because they want to remove the genetic material from the embryo they have cloned. In other words, they are creating a human embryo. Let’s face it: that means they are creating a human being, biblically defined. Every single one of us started out as an embryo. And they are then destroying that embryo in order to remove its genetic content. What this amounts to is the sacrifice of an embryonic human in order to treat human diseases for others.


Gautam Naik reports, “The latest experiments mark something of a revival for medical approaches known as therapeutic cloning, which grew out of the techniques that led to Dolly the cloned sheep. The method got bogged down in ethical and political controversies.” Well that’s a very interesting assessment, reporting that these clonal techniques have been “bogged down in ethical and political controversies.” Well I guess they are not bogged down anymore because The Wall Street Journal, reporting that these clonal techniques had come to an end in these controversies, is now reporting with their own headline that they’re back. We need to note with grave concern the two big issues related to this headline. The first is that human clonal technologies are back. That’s bad news. The second thing we need to note is the assault upon human dignity in which we have a human embryonic medical research taking place, in which an embryo is created only to be destroyed. We must all pray that there will soon be medical treatments for heart disease and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and so many of those diseases that are now claimed to be the very topic and focus of this kind of medical research. We need to hope that there will be stem cell technologies and treatments that will help people with severe burns and those who have organ damage and any number of other things, including massive neurological consequences that might be reversed with stem cell treatments and technologies. But we need to be very, very clear that the stem cells that should be used in medical research are those that are taken from adult stem cells that require absolutely no cloning; that require the creation of no embryo and the destruction of no embryo.


The interesting conclusion of Gautam Naik’s article is this: “Scientists are uncertain which approach will prevail”—that is, the approach that uses adult stem cells or that approach that creates an embryo only to destroy it. You know, that’s an interesting sentence in which to end an article of this consequence, saying that scientists are uncertain which approach will prevail, as if it really doesn’t matter which way the science goes, but, of course, it does. Because nothing less than human dignity is hanging in the balance.


Looking at the intersection of theology and entertainment, we’ve looked at the Noah movie and controversies about it. Mother Jones magazine is out with an interesting article about Darren Aronofsky, that is, the director of the movie, and the fate of the movie Noah. And, interestingly enough, Mother Jones is a magazine of the cultural and political left and it begins this particular article by citing me. They cite my article on Aronofsky’s film and they quote me as saying I expected to be irritated by the movie, but I found myself grieved. They then quote me as characterizing the film’s environmentalism as leading to “a horrifying anti-humanism.” Now let me just be very clear here. It isn’t the environmentalism that necessarily leads to an anti-humanism. This film is driven by an anti-humanism that isn’t made in anyway necessary by its environmentalism. There’s an ideology that is driving this. The interesting thing about the Mother Jones article is that it is announcing a discussion that Darren Aronofsky is going to be leading in Washington, DC, this week. That is on Wednesday. According to this article, the director is going to be on hand to talk about the environmental and religious themes in his new film, that is, Noah, and their implications for modern issues like climate change. Now what’s also interesting by the Mother Jones article is this paragraph:


Yet there is a very strong case to be made that the film is not just provocative—it captures something very deep about the Noah story. Noah was the “first environmentalist,” according to Aronofsky, whose acclaimed previous films include The Wrestler and Black Swan. Aronfsky certainly has not been shy about the film’s green content. “There is a huge statement in the film, a strong message about the coming flood from global warming,” Aronofsky told The New Yorker.


Well that’s very interesting. I wonder if Aronofsky has actually read the biblical account because the biblical account includes the covenant God made with Noah in which He said there will be no second flood; that He would never destroy the earth again by water. As a matter fact, as James Baldwin, the African-American preacher poet put it, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign. No more water; the fire next time.”


But the really important article on the intersection of theology and entertainment with explicit reference to the Noah movie was found in the weekend edition of Financial Times, and writer Randy Boyagoda, a novelist whose latest novel, Baker’s Feast, is now published in the US and in the UK, he has written an article entitled “Biblical Flood As Hollywood Discovers Religious Epics: The Bible Shifting Place in Our Cultural Lives is Revealed.” This is one of the most thoughtful and interesting, even important, articles I’ve seen on this kind of issue in a very long time. Boyagoda has written a brilliant essay on what these movies tell us about the state of our culture and about its secularity. He writes, “This year Hollywood seems unusually interested in the Bible.” He mentions some of the movies that are out; others that are coming. He says, “There hasn’t been this much Hollywood interest in biblical material since the last midcentury, when movies such as Quo Vadis, The Robe, The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, Solomon and Sheba, The Big Fisherman, and King of Kings” were all made between about 1951 and 1961. He explained that those movies “came out to popular and critical success, establishing what we now expect from Bible movies: that they be outsized spectacles of event and feeling, frequently melodramatic, and occasionally lurid, but usually respectful of their source material.” Now Boyagoda writes that in order to make clear these new movies don’t feel so responsible to be respectful to the biblical material.


Boyagoda points to Aronofsky’s Noah movie and others soon to come out and he says this—and this is really important—he says these movies suggest a shift in the Bible’s place in our cultural lives, more so than the continued church-family success of the movies that are seen to be more respectful to the Bible. He then says this:


Indeed, the first world culture [he means the developed world] is now staggeringly self-confident in its secular ethos: its thinkers, tastemakers and film-makers have become so far removed from the histories…and moral propositions housed within the Bible, there’s no longer any reason to treat the Bible as a sacred text, or to attack it, or to shock its holdout adherents.


Just think about that one paragraph. First of all, those of us who believe the Bible is the word of God are identified as “holdout adherents,” and then the cultural creatives in this society, the cultural elite in the first world, in the developed world, especially North America and Northern Europe, they’re described as being “so far removed from the histories and moral propositions in the Bible that they no longer treat it or see any reason to treat it as a sacred text.” Boyagoda then says:


In other words, we seem to have reached a moment when the Bible is becoming a grand and rich storehouse of fantastic, ethically charged stories liberated from the responsibilities, risks, and demands that come of two millennia of globe-spanning belief in the book as the sacred writ of God. Instead, films such as Noah suggest the Bible’s status as an untapped source of amazing mythology, teeming with striking figures and stark tales just waiting to be remade by technologically advanced, self-affirming non-believers equipped with their own notions of good and evil.


Now, as I said when I mentioned that this article is important, I find this analysis to be the clearest I have seen virtually at any point, in terms of a secular analysis of what’s going on in these movies, secular movies dealing with the Holy Scriptures. Boyagoda explains that Darren Aronofski has presented Noah as “a tough talking eco-warrior,” he says that it is “easy edification come entertainment.” He says this is largely why the movie is doing so well at the box office and the review columns because it’s not about the moralizing of the Bible. It’s about Aronofski’s environmental moralizing—the only kind of moralizing people now pay money to buy tickets to see. He describes the Noah, that is, the character Noah as depicted by Aronofski, as a villain himself, emerging as a fatalistic and self-loathing believer in open conflict with his loved ones because of the rigidity of his devotion to God’s plans for the destruction and renewal of the world. Boyagoda then writes:


This fatalistic conviction turns Noah into a ship-bound egotistical tyrant who threatens his very family – because this is what God wants him to do. So rendered, the character becomes a perfect example of an astonishingly self-assured secular imagining of the dangerous and deadly extremes you can go to when you believe in God and try to obey His commands.


Well in reading this incredibly perceptive and, indeed, enlightening article, I can only wonder why this secular novelist sees so clearly what so many self-professed Christians seem unable to see: that this movie is a secular retelling of the Noah story in explicitly secular terms. And, indeed, the morality of the movie is a deliberate replacement of the morality of the Noah account as found in Scripture and that the people who are now making these movies, not just this movie, but so many others, are making them with no sense of moral accountability to treat the Bible as a sacred text. They are now, as he says, so distant from the histories, from the narratives, and from the moral propositions of Scripture that they don’t even feel any need to apologize for them. They just take them as mythology and retell the story in their own way. That is explicitly what Darren Aronofski has done, but, of course, the bigger problem is the failure of so many evangelical Christians to recognize it. That’s the bigger problem and the most haunting realization that comes by reading Randy Boyagoda’s excellent essay in The Financial Times.


Thanks for listening to The Briefing. Remember Ask Anything: Weekend Edition. An edition came out last Saturday and one will come out this Saturday as well. 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’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

Podcast Transcript

1) The South Korean Ferry Tragedy – A Moral, Not Technical, Disaster

S Korea Arrests Ferry Captain, Financial Times (Song Jong-a)

Breaking Proud Tradition, Captains Flee and Let Others Go Down With Ship, New York Times (Christopher Drew and Jad Mouawad)

Human Error Suspected as Hope Fades in Korean Ferry Sinking, New York Times (Choe Sang-Hun, Su-Hyun Lee and Jiha Ham)

2) The “Brave New World” of Successful Human Cloning Draws Very Close

Scientists Make First Embryo Clones From Adults, Wall Street Journal (Gautam Naik)

3) Recent Hollywood Productions Reflect The Bible’s Shifting Place in our Culture

Special Event: “Noah” director Darren Aronofsky discusses faith and the environment, Mother Jones (Chris Mooney)

From Noah to Moses, why the renewed interest in Bible films?, Financial Times (Randy Boyagoda)

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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