The Briefing 05-14-14

The Briefing 05-14-14

The Briefing


 May 14, 2014

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


It’s Wednesday, May 14, 2014. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.


The Massachusetts Institute of Technology was established in 1861. The people of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts felt that they needed an institute that would be geared toward the burgeoning industrial revolution that was then reshaping the entire nation, and MIT, as it became popularly known, became quickly one of the leading institutions of science and technology in the world. According to the institute’s current publicity, the faculty includes now at least 81 Nobel laureates. It is respected around the world for its contributions to science and technology. But it has a new claim to fame. Last Friday, the chancellor to the institute sent the student body an email in which he said that in response to recent requests concerning commencement that the consensus of the institute now was that a neutral, nonreligious invocation would be welcome and broadly appealing.


Now the cause of this email is itself of interest. Students have begun to appeal the fact that up until now, including through the 2013 commencement ceremonies, there had been a somewhat religious invocation. It was a rather nonspecific, nonsectarian religious prayer, but it was still a religious prayer of some sort, and that was simply too much for some students. Students initiated the demand for a change and the demand for a secular invocation. And according to this email that was sent by the chancellor of the institute to it students, a secular invocation is exactly what they demanded and is what they will now get.


News coverage about the change credits graduate student Aaron Scheinberg of MIT with leading the charge by means of making an argument. In his argument published online in the institute student newspaper, he said:


A graduation prayer is an exclusive ceremony directed toward those who believe in a god — some 40 percent of the student body, according to the 2012 survey by [the student newspapers]. The rest of graduation is broadly accessible and intended to have meaning for all students.


In the 2013 convocation prayer, Chaplain Bob Randolph invoked “God of Abraham, Jesus, and Mohammed” to include religious minorities.


Well evidently that wasn’t enough. Including, “the God of Abraham, Jesus, and Mohammed,” within the prayer didn’t make it nonsectarian enough. There was still some theistic reference and that is simply too much. Aaron Scheinberg argues that it becomes a divisive issue for the graduates and has no place at the graduation ceremony. He concluded his essay by writing:


The Founding Fathers wisely disconnected government from religion to keep the latter from acting as a divisive force. Likewise, graduation should be a great celebration of unity among MIT students — a celebration not just of our individual accomplishments, but also of our collaboration, commiseration, and common values. The ceremony should unite us. Every segment and speaker in it should make an effort to ensure the ceremony belongs to each and every one of us.


Now what I want us to note is the singularity of the offense identified here. This is not an offense that something was stated with which anyone might disagree because, after all, how possible is it that in any kind of ceremony in which there would be any kind of content in which there might be any speaker who might say anything at all, what is the chance that nothing would be spoken that would be divisive in any sense, nothing would be spoken with which no one would disagree? But that’s the standard that is held forth here, but not for the commencement speaker, not for any other portion of the commencement ceremony, but only one portion. That portion is identified as the invocation.


Now what’s really interesting in this is how in the world you can even envision a truly secular invocation because the invoking is supposed to be, by the very nature of its historic rootage and its terminology, it is supposed to be invoking the presence of one who was watching from afar; in other words, invoking God, invoking a deity. That does imply theism; no way around that. But that is simply too divisive, writes this student, and evidently he convinced enough of his fellow students that they demanded en masse that the invocation must go. And yet, oddly enough, the invocation’s going to stay. It’s just going to be a so-called secular invocation. Well then what or who is being invoked? The answer is it’s going to be a meaningless exercise. It is an exercise, however, that demonstrates the sterility of a totally secular culture, a secular culture that is now so allergic to any kind of even offhanded, angular, nonsectarian reference to theism that any assertion at all that an invocation might have a place in a ceremony like this is simply dismissed as divisive.


The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is rightly famous for the many technologies and industrial developments and innovations, indeed, inventions that have come from the institute since 1861 when it first opened its doors. But 2014 brings a new invention: a secular invocation. And now we can thank the technocrats at MIT for the invention of that.


Further evidence of what she calls the closing of the collegiate mind comes from Professor Ruth Wisse. She’s writing in an op-ed in Monday’s edition of The Wall Street Journal. Ruth Wisse is professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard University. She’s the author of several books and now she is the writer of a very feisty opinion piece at The Wall Street Journal, and one that demands our attention. She writes:


There was a time when people looking for intellectual debate turned away from politics to the university. Political backrooms bred slogans and bagmen; universities fostered educated discussion. But when students in the 1960s began occupying university property like the thugs of regimes America was fighting abroad, the venues gradually reversed. Open debate is now protected only in the polity: In universities, muggers prevail.


It’s almost as if she were writing in response to the decision taken right down the river there in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at MIT, but she’s writing about the larger problem of the closing of the collegiate mind, of the fact that on college and university campuses across America and indeed also across the world, especially in Europe, what you have is a closing of the mind, a closing of the intellectual discussion, and it’s basically being closed to any option on the right, to any conservative option, and, furthermore, to any option that has anything to do with the Christian worldview. Ruth Wisse writes:


Universities have not only failed to stand up to those who limit debate, they have played a part in encouraging them. The modish commitment to so-called diversity replaces the ideal of guaranteed equal treatment of individuals with guaranteed group preferences in hiring and curricular offerings.


She goes on to document case after case in which legitimate discussion has simply been shut down by the university and often at the instigation of students who have shouted down speakers or shutdown forums altogether. She also writes about the fact that on many of America’s leading college campuses, you can’t have a debate because the issue is considered absolutely closed. For instance, Ruth Wisse writes that just this year she was asked by a student group to participate in a debate on modern feminism, but they couldn’t find anyone to debate the other side (the other side being the pro-feminist argument). Why could they find no one to argue for feminism on the campus of Harvard University? Because there was not one faculty member who’d agree to the argument. They instead said the debate is over. There is no need for an argument. If you enter into a debate like this, you act as if it is a debatable issue, and they were unwilling even to enter into that debate. Why is the argument so often one-sided? Ruth Wisse writes:


Because conservative students do not take over buildings or drown others out with their shouting, instructors feel free to mock conservatives in the classroom, and administrators pay scant attention when their posters are torn down or their sensibilities offended.


So in other words, writes Professor Wisse, the only way you can get attention on this kind of college campus in these politicized circumstances is to do what the liberal students do: to misbehave and take over a campus building, to form a protest, or to shout down a speaker. But that’s what conservative students do not do and because they don’t do that, they’ve lost their voice. The liberals have simply taken over the entire public square not by winning the argument, but by shutting the argument down.


Ruth Wisse ends her column by writing:


In Nigeria, Islamists think nothing of seizing hundreds of schoolgirls for the crime of aspiring to an education. Here in the United States, the educated class thinks nothing of denying an honorary degree to a fearless Muslim woman who at peril of her life, and in the name of liberal democracy, has insisted on exposing such outrages to the light. The struggle for freedom is universal; would that our universities were on its side.


The specific instance she is referencing there is the fact that just a matter of weeks ago Brandeis University withdrew its invitation to grant Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the proponent of women’s rights under Islam, an intended honorary degree at its convocation. They said that upon retrospect, after student protest brought the matter to their light, they decided that some of her statements against Islam were simply not in keeping with the values of the University. She had said nothing new. What mattered was a student protest and they were shutting down someone who was speaking on their behalf.


The point made by Ruth Wisse is both urgent and important. When it comes to higher education, increasingly but in a pattern that started in the 1960s, to use that that old expression, “the inmates are running the asylum.”


These stories should remind Christians of the fact that we should never refrain from debate; never shrink from the opportunity for debate because the Christian worldview is based upon the fact that we have confidence in truth, God’s truth, revealed truth, and that means that when an issue is up for debate, we need to enter the debate, not run from it and certainly not shut it down. Shutting down a debate is a sign of intellectual insecurity. That’s something that Christians should recognize and be very wary of on our own behalf. We should never retreat into intellectual insecurity. We’re the people who should enter the debate with confidence, knowing that in the end, the truth will out.


We are regularly reminded that our culture reflects us. In other words, we produce the culture, the culture then serves as something of a mirror identifying who we are, what we believe, what our values are. Douglas Coupland, writing over the weekend at The Financial Times, writes about the changes in television culture. He writes, “On April 19, 1995, I bought my first genuine adult TV set: a 27-inch Sony Trinitron.” He writes about it because it was on a date he remembers. It was the date of the Oklahoma City bombing that it was delivered to him. But he writes to indicate just how much our culture and technologies have changed since 1995. He says we still use the phrase “watch TV,” but it doesn’t mean what it used to mean. He says, “I used to watch TV back then. By that, I meant I’d go into the living room and turn on the TV set, saying, ‘Gosh, I wonder what’s on TV right now. I think I’ll run through the channels.’” He says it’s hard to imagine anyone in 2014 doing this, even, he says, his parents. “Over two decades, our collective TV viewing habits have changed so much that it’s actually quite hard to remember old-style TV viewing.” But let’s remember that old-style TV viewing for a moment. There were a limited set of channels, and the news networks and the entertainment networks and altogether even the early cable networks tended to be quite respective of the fact that, especially during family time, there would be young eyes looking at the set. And furthermore, they believed they served the public purpose and therefore had a mission that included, at least to some degree, not only informing the American people, but also reflecting the American people in terms of appropriate content. All that went away in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, and beyond, and now it is gone so entirely that, like Douglas Coupland remembering his first TV set with a cathode ray tube, watching television or going to the movies now means something entirely different than it did then.


In that light, an article that recently appeared in USA Today by Bryan Alexander deserves our attention. His headline: “This Summer the R Stands for Raunchier.” Earlier this week, we talked about the return of “Rosemary’s Baby,” revealingly not on the big screen this time, but rather brought to us by NBC on television. Now Bryan Alexander comes back to tell us that this summer is going to be the raunchiest in any recent memory in terms of movie releases. He says comedy, smutty, silly, sleazy season has erupted. Hollywood, he tells us, is presenting fifteen R-rated yuck fests on its crucial summer slate. He says it began last week with a movie entitled “Walk of Shame,” but it’s continuing through at least fourteen other movies already announced for release, already rated R, and already intended to out-disgust every previous movie yet released. Alexander quotes Paul Dergarabedian, a senior analyst for the movie tracking company Rentrack, who said, “Going for the R rating goes against conventional wisdom, but when it comes to comedy, particularly in the summer, it’s the R rating that gets you street cred.”


So in terms of our modern American culture, if you want street cred at the summer cinema, you have to be raunchier than those who come before. It’s the R rating that gives you the street cred. Director-actor Seth MacFarlane, already known for many of these kinds of films, said, “That’s the advantage of the R ratings. To say whatever you want to say and not be constrained.” He then went on, “Comedy has to constantly be pushing the lines to be funny. It cannot be soft.” Well it appears there’s very little soft about the raunchy comedies being released to the American public this summer, but this does not just reflect Hollywood. It reflects what Hollywood tells us Americans want and even demand when they think about summer cinema. They’re not looking just for warmer weather; they’re looking for raunchier movies. And, as a matter fact, this article in USA Today makes clear that the movies likely to be the most revenue producing are those that are also the raunchiest when it comes to content.


One of the movies coming out this summer is entitled “Neighbors.” Director-screenwriter Nicholas Stoller says, “Audiences need a compelling reason to go to the movie theater. You need something that’s sort a shocking, something you haven’t seen or experienced before.” Well that demonstrates the kind of raunchy one-upmanship that now reflects modern Hollywood, but, let’s be very clear, that means modern Hollywood now reflects the American people. The American people want a yuck fest, according to USA Today, that is raunchier by the movie, that stretches the imagination and pushes past the boundaries. This goes back to what we talked about with “Rosemary’s Baby” where one of the most keen, insightful observers concerning the release of that new television series tells us that it’s almost impossible to desecrate anything anymore because the boundaries of desecration have almost disappeared. Virtually everything has now become so sexualized, so eroticized, even ‘pornographified’ that it’s hard to come up with any way to be raunchier than the movie that came before. That’s where Stoller’s next comment becomes particularly insightful. He says, “That’s my whole theory: a small budget and you stay under it. Even if your movie doesn’t do that well, you’ve made your money back. It just makes me a lot less nervous.” But what makes him less nervous? Being raunchy enough to guarantee at least enough ticket sales to cover the cost of making the movie.


Another line that is very instructive from this USA coverage is the fact that movies have to “get wild so that they get noticed.” That is an incredibly revealing statement. You have to get wild, get sexualized, get ‘pornified,’ get the R rating, and get raunchier than the movie that came before you in order to get attention. Now, again, Hollywood is very responsible for this. Every single producer, director, every single movie house that releases a movie like this, every single cinema location that features a movie like this bears moral responsibility, but so does American at large and so do any of us who cooperate with this kind of raunchy market. If we encourage these movies, if we allow our own young people to see these movies, if we facilitate in any way the success of these movies, if we even laugh at these movies, we cooperate with the ‘raunchification’ of the culture. We become a part of the problem.


Of course, the problem with the raunchy culture is that it often is funny. At least in a fallen world, it often brings the biggest laughs. That’s why they call these raunchy movies yuck fests: they lead to laughter. But our laughter’s also very revealing about us. As a matter of fact, humor is one of the greatest gifts God has given us, but it is also one of the most fallen of God’s gifts, one of the most corrupted. The fact is that Christians perhaps may be the last people on earth who understand that humor is itself a moral barometer. We laugh because we sometimes can’t help laughing, but why can’t we help laughing? It’s because we’ve seen something that shows the sinfulness and foibles of the human condition. Christians have plenty of evidence of this just looking in the mirror. We don’t need to add to that evidence by encouraging this kind of Hollywood production.


We also should be troubled by the fact that there is evidently no end. There’s no end game to this kind of debauchery. Once you start down this trail, there simply seems no way to return because if you want to sell tickets, you have to exceed every movie that came before you in this kind of notorious misbehavior. But it’s going on for now and it’s continuing for the foreseeable future. But thanks at least in part to this article in USA Today and these very explicit statements from Hollywood insiders making these movies. We can’t say we weren’t warned. Now if we become a part of the problem, we know we’re becoming a part of the problem.


Thanks for listening to The Briefing. Remember the weekly release of 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’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

Podcast Transcript

1) MIT’s secular invocation illustration of the sterility of totally secular culture

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT

MIT Secular Students Successfully Lead Charge for Non-Religious Invocations at Graduation, Friendly Atheist (Hemant Mehta)

Opinion: God is at your graduation, The Tech (Aaron Scheinberg)

2) Liberal student opposition to debates closing the collegiate mind

The Closing of the Collegiate Mind, Wall Street Journal (Ruth Wisse)

3) Increasingly raunchy modern Hollywood moral barometer of modern American people

My TV, Financial Times (Douglas Coupland)

Crude rules: R-rated comedies dialing it up a notch, USA Today (Bryan Alexander)

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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