The Briefing 05-28-14

The Briefing 05-28-14

The Briefing


 May 28, 2014

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


It’s Wednesday, May 28, 2014. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.


We’re living in what is accurately described as a highly secular age, but one thing becomes more and more apparent as you look under the surface. Even the most secular people aren’t as secular as they think themselves to be. Evidence of that comes in various forms, but on Sunday, in the arts and leisure section of The New York Times, several articles appeared that made that point emphatically. On the front of that section of Sunday’s newspaper was an article by Lorne Manly entitled “Lost Without a Prayer.” It’s about a new HBO series called “The Leftovers.” It’s based on the novel of that name by Tom Perrotta. It’s described as an intimate family drama that examines faith, loss, and grief through a post-apocalyptic drama. Well as you come to see the story behind the story, you’ll see that director Damon Lindelof says:


This show is about the condition of living in a post-apocalyptic world where, if you look out the window, it doesn’t look like the apocalypse happened. But it did.


A closer look at this indicates that the origin of the story goes back to Tom Perrotta, who when writing a previous novel indicated an interest in several evangelical characters who appeared in the novel and, as he says, “while researching that unfamiliar world, he was constantly struck at how often the rapture came up as a literal part of people’s faith.” That’s very interesting. So in other words, trying to go and get background information to write realistically about evangelicals, he came to understand that several evangelicals, many evangelicals, believe in a rapture and they believe in it literally. That appears to be so odd to him that it became a part of his novel. He says that this interest in the rapture spilled over into the novel that became The Leftovers. He said, “One of the things that happened was I started to think of the rapture as an amazing metaphor for loss, and particularly sudden loss.” He asked the question about the rapture, “What if it was random?” He said that would take a wrecking ball to one’s entire belief system. Well, as a matter of fact, this takes a wrecking ball to secularism because, on the one hand, what it demonstrates is the fact that secularism, as we said, isn’t quite so secular. Secularism can’t get away from what Tom Perrotta calls even the rapture as a metaphor for sudden loss. Now he asked the question, “What if it were random?” and it is, at least in the story. In other words, there’s no differentiation, there’s no explanation for why the people who suddenly disappeared by the millions did, but there is the sense of loss and that loss brings forth the kinds of questions that the secular worldview can’t answer. So to answer them, the director in this case and the author of the novel had to go back and pick up the metaphor of the rapture because it turns out there’s no secular answer to these questions.


The second article is by Michael Paulson. It’s inside the same section. It’s about an off-Broadway theater group that is basing a new production on the hymns of the Shakers. And if you’re not familiar with the Shakers, they were a religious group that appeared back in early 19th century in the American Northeast; later had communities elsewhere. They were part of the utopian movement in American religion in the 19th century. They were a heretical offshoot of Christianity. After all, they believe that the founder of the movement, Sister Ann Lee, was the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. They got their name as Shakers because of shaking, an ecstatic dance that was a part of their corporate worship. They are also known, of course, in American culture for their food, their furniture, and their architecture, their simple hymns. What they’re also known for, however, is their celibacy. It was the central religious teaching of celibacy that more than anything else explains why there are no shakers around today.


But what’s really interesting about this group known as the Wooster Group, this off-Broadway production, is that they decided to take these Shaker hymns and put them on the stage. As The New York Times explains it, the way it works is that there are several women who are on the stage singing the hymns and they are later joined by four younger men. But once again, the story behind the story is what’s really interesting. The woman who came up with this, Elizabeth LeCompte, had a Christian upbringing. Her father was a Disciples of Christ minister, but, according to Michael Paulson, she now calls herself a pagan for whom theater is religion. She says that the Wooster Group itself is now a utopian community, even like the Shakers.


But even as they’ve decided to revive the Shaker hymns, they’re not reviving the Shaker theological principle of celibacy. This is another one of those attempts to go back and to pick something up from the religious past, demonstrating the exhaustion of a secular age. But the most insightful aspect of this comes at the conclusion of Michael Paulson’s article where Kate Valk, the director of the production is quoted as saying:


Original Shaker dancing was not just the beautiful steps and patterns you can read about or see in drawings or journals, but, during Mother Ann’s time, barking and leaping and unstructured ecstasy. We use the record as a relic that we are fetishizing, that we are committing ourselves to recreate, interpret, channel.


This is not historical or religious or anthropological. But there’s a love for the aesthetic and the dedication to the spiritual aspect of work, which is something that we find in our own house here. I love imagining that we sing these songs and make up these simple dances as an expression of what we do. It lifts my life up in the theater.


Well listen to what she said. She said this isn’t historical. It’s not religious or anthropological, but she says there’s a love for the aesthetic and a dedication to the spiritual aspect of the work. So there you have it. If you’re looking in a nutshell for how people are trying to be spiritual but not religious, there you have it. The director of this program who says we’re going back and singing Shaker hymns, we’re putting Shaker shaking right on the stage, but it’s not about religion. It’s just about spirituality, as if that were possible. What you have here is just another parable in human form, demonstrating the exhaustion of secularism. The secular age, as it turns out, can’t answer the questions it raises. Two articles from the arts and leisure section of Sunday’s edition of The New York Times make that point very powerfully.


Next, a case study on why you have to be very careful in analyzing news reports that come from the media. Last week, the United States Census Bureau put out a report on the population of American metropolitan areas. It’s an interesting report in itself. Immediately, chambers of commerce all over the United States rushed to find out where they ranked in terms of their metro area. But the headlines in two different newspapers, appearing on the same day, dealing with the same report, indicate how the news media can take the story in the direction that it wills.


For instance, you have an article by Neil Shah in The Wall Street Journal. The headline is “Suburbs Regain Their Appeal.” The same day in USA Today, the headline in the article by Greg Toppo and Paul Overberg is “Will This be the Decade of the City?” And what you have here are two headlines that indicate two different, radically different interpretations of the same data, of the same baseline report from the United States Census Bureau. By the way, there’s evidence for both of these headlines—at least in part. It turns out that cities continue to grow. That’s why USA Today came out with the headline “Will This be the Decade of the City?” indicating by the graphic that appears also with the article that if you look at America’s metropolitan areas, the inner cities are themselves growing, the larger metropolitan areas are growing even more. But why would The Wall Street Journal then come out with a headline that says “Suburbs Regain Their Appeal?” It’s because if you look at the same data, you come to understand that even as the growth in the inner cities has begun to slow down, the growth in the suburbs has begun to speed up. And that’s a very important issue.


So why in the world did USA Today come out suggesting that what we have here is just a continuation of the growth of the inner cities? Why would The Wall Street Journal, on the other hand, believe that the suburbs regaining their appeal would be big news? Well it’s because they’re trying to sell different things. When you look at The Wall Street Journal, you’re looking at the major American newspaper for the business community, and the business community wants to know where the consumers are. And this is a big story indicating that the rise of the appeal of the suburbs indicates that if you’re looking for the consumers who are going to be buying the things that families buy, the suburbs are going to be hot again. Why would USA Today and The New York Times and so many other metropolitan newspapers point to the growth of the cities at the expense of the suburbs? Well it’s because, politically and culturally, the cultural elites have a great condescension toward the suburbs. They do not believe that real life happens in the suburbs. American novels in the 1950’s and 60’s forward have habitually pointed to what they would call the plastic, artificial life of the suburbs. Real life is what takes place in the cities.


So what you have here in one sense is a worldview clash appearing in conflicting headlines in two different newspapers, appearing on the same day, dealing with the same U.S. Census Bureau report. But if you look behind the headlines and you look at the articles themselves, you come to understand there’s a great deal of common ground. But if you just read the headlines, you’re going to go away with a false impression. Actually, you’re going to get a false impression if you read either of these only in terms of headline. You have to look at the story itself. Oh, in terms of worldview implications, there are many here, but one of them has to do with the fact that, indeed, the business community wants to know where people are and where people are going because, after all, they want to be there to sell them things. How much more important should those who are driven by a great commission imperative be very concerned to watch these population and demographic shifts to understand where we have to be because that’s where the people are?


Another indication that the vast change is taking place in American family life appears in a similarly unexpected place. Amy Gamerman, writing on May 22nd in The Wall Street Journal, in an article about architecture and homes, indicates that the big new development in luxury homes is the disappearing dining room. It turns out that in many American homes—and what you look at in an article like this is the fact that these are identified as architectural or home design trends. In other words, this is expected to spread throughout the rest of the country. The new “in” thing is going without a dining room. And why do you no longer need a dining room? It’s because families no longer sit down and have a meal together. It’s because the hospitality of the domestic setting in terms of the family meal, especially the evening meal, has disappeared in so many homes that the dining room is itself no longer necessary. That space is being devoted to other uses inside the home.


Christians looking at this have to recognize that, after all, there is no biblical architecture, but there is a biblical design of the family and there is something that is woefully wrong when all of a sudden one of the trends in American architecture is the fact that we don’t need dining rooms anymore. As the article by Amy Gamerman makes clear, increasing numbers of families, if indeed they are intact families at all, are eating in the kitchen, at the bar, before the television, on the go, or, as the article also makes clear, they’re not even eating in the house at all. The idea that there’s a meal that is prepared in the home, by the family, for the family, enjoyed by the family sitting together, with mother and father and children sitting at the table and having interaction, that has simply so disappeared from the picture that it’s now disappearing from the home designs as well.


But put this development alongside other reports that we have cited frequently, indicating that sociologists have pointed to the fact that whether or not a family has a meal together is a single determinant in many, many families of whether or not there’s an increased risk of the child, the children in the family, not graduating from high school, finding themselves arrested, and confronted by the police, or involved in any number of other pathologies. It turns out that the simple institution of the family meal has a massive impact on the family life. And it turns out that the absence of that meal has very damaging effects on the family. But now the family’s not even in the picture in terms of the meal and the dining room’s not in the plan and that tells a great deal not just about architecture, but about ourselves.


Continuing to look at issues related to secularism, there’s a headline new story out of London, published by The Telegraph. That’s one of the major London newspapers. The headline is this: “Christianity Will Rise as Skeptics Die Out, Geneticist Claims.” The geneticist is Steve Jones, a very well-known, very influential geneticist in terms of contemporary science. He has said that there could now be a resurgence of Christianity. Why would that happen? Well he makes the point very clearly. It’s because of two things that go hand-in-hand. One of those things is where you find an outbreak of population, you find also an outbreak of religious belief. It’s a very interesting demographic or sociological trend. Steve Jones, writing from a secularist perspective, points to that and says, “Look. Here’s what’s happening. Where you have growing populations, you find the very people who are most likely to believe in God.”


This goes back to a Thinking in Public conversation I had with Mary Eberstadt last year. Her book entitled, How the West Lost God, reverses the equation that many people think of in terms of secularization. Most people tend to think that America became secular or Europe as well—in fact, Europe before America—that the West became secular and then stopped having babies. But she points out that the stopping of having babies is what actually produced in many ways the secularism because, as it turns out, the experience of raising children makes one inherently more likely—in terms of documented research, clearly more likely—to attend church and to indicate that one believes in God. Somehow theism and the experience of parenthood seem somehow to go together. But now you have this geneticist in Great Britain saying that, well, maybe there’s going to be a resurgence in Christianity because, as it turns out, where you find population and especially population growth, you tend to find religious belief and that belief, as he points out, is more likely to be Christian.


But there’s a second issue here and this takes us back to The Wall Street Journal where years ago James Taranto, an economist who writes a column for that paper, wrote what later became known as the Taranto Affect. It doesn’t have to do with secularism per se; it has to do with abortion. Taranto wrote about the fact that eventually the population of the United States is almost assuredly going to become more pro-life. Why? Because pro-lifers have babies and they don’t abort them, so it’s simple math, said James Taranto. You’re going to have a society that’s becoming more pro-life because those who are more pro-choice or pro-abortion are having less babies, in the firsthand, and also aborting many of those babies on the other. It’s simply math, he says.


Now Steve Jones comes along to say the same thing about a resurgence of Christianity. Why? Because it’s Christians who are having babies and it’s secular people who overwhelmingly are not. There is a clear differentiation in birthrates between those who are religious believers of any sort, but Christians in particular, and those who are secular. So if you put that together, you have a new affect. We’ll call this the Steve Jones Affect and it comes down to this: there are going to be increasing percentages of believers in many societies, especially those that have a receding population, because the only people left having babies are likely to be religious believers, and in the West, they are most likely to be Christians. It’s a very interesting article. Christians can’t look at this as a sure thing because there are other factors involved, but it does tell us something. So along comes a prominent geneticist, looking at the biological and sociological data, to say, “Well if you look out there at the suburbs and you see all those people having babies, they’re not likely to be secular.” Now whether you see that as good news or bad news—he doesn’t exactly say which—the reality is it’s simply a matter of math. Christians shouldn’t look at this as any excuse for complacency, but it does reveal a great deal, once again, about the exhaustion of the secular worldview. So exhausted that those who are most committed to it are now, as even sociologists indicate, the least likely to have babies.


Finally, in keeping with our theme of looking for cultural signals about shifting worldviews, Sunday’s edition of The New York Times also had an article in the wedding section of the style section and it’s by Abby Ellin. It’s entitled “Raise Your Hand for an Engagement Selfie.” It’s about the fact that an increasing number of women getting engaged to be married in New York and in other major American cities are having therapy or procedures done on their hands so that the picture of their hand with their engagement ring put on social media can be more attractive. This is known as the engagement selfie, and, as Abby Ellin reports, an increasing number of women are doing this.


“Absolutely, the rise in social media is a reason people are getting a ton of stuff done, not just to their hands,” said Dr. David Bank, the director of the Center for Dermatology in Mount Kisco, N.Y., who has been offering hand lifts since 2005 and has conducted studies on hand injectables.”


By the way, there’s big money in terms of these cosmetic procedures on hands. Two treatments of something called I.P.L. (intense pulsed light) and chemical peel treatments and two syringes of an injected gel substance called Juvéderm Voluma XC cost $3000. In Manhattan, a single micro-dermabrasion treatment can range from $200 for one visit to $1000 for a package of six. There are other things here indicating that some women are spending multiple thousands of dollars for what are called “hand lifts” just in order to have an attractive engagement selfie.


Back in 2012, The New York Times reported on this hand-lift procedure, indicating that an enormous number of women, especially middle-aged women, were going to doctors asking for this kind of procedure. Well, if anything, this demonstrates it’s the fact that our worldview has absorbed a very toxic assumption, and that is that artificiality is to be preferable to the real. Here you have the Christian worldview distinction between the pretty and the beautiful; the beautiful and the good and the true. In the Christian worldview, these are always united. Where they are divided, something has gone horribly wrong. Genesis 3, by the way, is the explanation for the division of the good, the beautiful, and the true. And what you have here are increased numbers of women who are simply saying, “My hand has to be attractive in that selfie or my hand has to look like I’m 20 years younger than I am, or I’m not attractive; I’m not beautiful.” The Christian worldview alone can explain why the face of that child with Down’s syndrome is genuinely beautiful; while that face on the airbrushed fashion magazine is merely pretty. The loss of the distinction, the confusion between the beautiful and the pretty is what explains this headline in the style section of The New York Times. It explains why so many women are going to these lengths—insane lengths and very expensive lengths—just in order to have a hand that they believe will look good on their engagement selfie or a hand that will make them look considerably younger than they actually are.


Let’s look at it from a Christian perspective. Women and men, but in this case women in particular, get those hands by doing the kind of work that is honorable: by changing diapers, by washing dishes, by doing the kinds of things that demonstrate that these hands were made for some kind of use, not just for an engagement selfie. It is a denial of the beautiful to insist that everything has to be by our passing and very artificial standards pretty.


A headline like this in the style section of Sunday’s edition of The New York Times indicates that we have swallowed a poison pill of prettiness at the expense of true beauty. But it’s one thing for this to be true of The New York Times; it’s another thing altogether for Christians to swallow that same poison pill. We’re the ones who must ever keep in mind that the good, the beautiful, and the true are the same. And we’re the ones who have to keep in mind that it is our Christian responsibility to lean into beauty; never to settle for pretty. And it is our Christian responsibility to say to those among us, we won’t trade beauty for prettiness. After all, the cross itself isn’t pretty, but it is beautiful.


Thanks for listening to The Briefing. For more information, go to my website at You can follow me on Twitter by going to Remember the periodic releases of Ask Anything: Weekend Edition. The season for the spring of 2014 has come to a close, but we’re still taking your questions. Call at 877-505-2058. That’s 877-505-2058. We’ll try to use your question when we start the new series later in the summer. 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) Secular revival of religious artifacts exposes exhaustion of secular age

Lost Without a Prayer, New York Times (Lorne Manly)

A Resurrection of Eternal Joy, New York Times (Michael Paulson)

2) Clash of worldviews in differing interpretations of Census Bureau data

Signs of a Suburban Comeback, Wall Street Journal (Neil Shah)

In latest U.S. Census figures, cities continue growing, USA Today (Greg Toppo and Paul Overberg)

3) Disappearing dining rooms reveal shift in American family life

Luxury Homeowners Who Ditched the Dining Room, Wall Street Journal (Amy Gameran)

4) Secularists are dying off while religious people reproduce

Christianity will rise as sceptics die out, geneticist claims, The Telegraph (Sarah Knapton)

How Does Secularization Really Happen? – A Conversation with Mary Ebderstadt, (Albert Mohler with Mary Eberstadt)

5) Confusion of prettiness for beauty leads to popularity of ‘hand lifts’

Raise Your Hand for an Engagement Selfie, New York Times (Abby Ellin)

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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