The Briefing 08-26-14

The Briefing 08-26-14

The Briefing


August 26, 2014

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


It’s Tuesday, August 26, 2014.  I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

1) In face of Islamic State atrocities, secularists struggle to explain evil

The reality of evil is front and center in the international imagination; driven most emphatically in recent days by the images of the cold-blooded execution of American journalist, James Foley, at the hands of the group known as the Islamic State. The image has seared the moral imagination of virtually everyone who has seen the still image, much less the video. And the knowledge of the fact that this man was killed in a cold-blooded public execution as an act of undiluted terrorism has reminded many people, who had  hoped to think otherwise, that evil is indeed a reality and a very dangerous reality among us. But one of the things that also becomes very clear is the inability of the secular worldview to come to terms with what evil is, and what it means.


This point was made very clearly, and we should say honestly, in an opinion piece published yesterday in the Washington Post by columnist Richard Cohen. He speaks of his own previous reluctance to use the category of evil. He said, quite straightforwardly,


I used to not believe in evil. When Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union “the evil empire,” I thought it was a dandy phrase but also a confession of ignorance. The word itself connotes something or someone diabolical — bad for the sake of bad. The Soviet Union was bad, I conceded, but not for no reason.


But Cohen ends his paragraph with these words,


Reagan had it right, though. The Soviet Union was evil.


Cohen then moved to the execution of James Foley by the Islamic state and said,


Now we are facing a different type of evil… It seems to love death the way the fascists once did. It is Sunni, so it massacres Shiites. It is radical Sunni, so it eliminates apostates. It is Muslim, so it kills Yazidis, a minority with a religion of its own, and takes as plunder their women as concubines. Men are shot in graves of their own making.


Cohen then says the Nazis are back. Dressed differently, speaking a different language, and murdering ostensibly for different reasons – but actually for the same: intolerance, hatred, excitement, and just because they can. He then makes a very interesting assertion that the Islamic State’s behavior is, in his words, beyond explication. He says it goes beyond human understanding the people can act with such violence and hatred as they do. He says that murdering, and torturing, and enslaving, because this is what it wants to do, is evidence of fact that the Islamic State is at its very core evil.


Cohen then turned his attention to Auschwitz, perhaps the preeminent symbol of the evil of the Nazi regime and recalled the late Jewish thinker Primo Levi, who as a boy knew the experiences of the horrors of Auschwitz at first hand. He recounts Levi as a boy having the experience of trying to slake his thirst by breaking off an icicle, only to have a brutal Nazi guard knock the icicle from his young hand. Levi, shocked by the brutality, turned to the guard and asked “Warum?” (Why?). The guard replied, ‘Hier ist kein warum’ (here there is no why). As Cohen then writes,


There was no why in all of Auschwitz.


In Cohen’s view evil is a reality he has had to come to terms with, in terms of the fact that it is a reality. But at the most fundamental level Cohen doesn’t see evil as something that can be understood or explain. It simply must be resisted, fought, and hopefully defeated.


Similarly, last weekend’s edition of the Financial Times published in London included a full-page consideration of evil; this time written by the British author Martin Amis. Amis also turned his attention to Auschwitz and to the unspeakable horrors of the Nazi regime. He also cited Primo Levi, pointing to the Jewish thinker as one who echoed the fact that evil exists but that it cannot be explained. Amis recounts the sheer horror of Auschwitz and looks to the Nazi leaders, unable to come to any conclusion about the ‘why’ of their inexplicable evil. He found himself in the position of looking at Hitler, at a recent effort to explain Hitler by a modern author. Amis suggests that the entire effort was misdirected, for Hitler cannot be explained. He goes back to Primo Levi, citing one of his writings where he spoke about the Nazi leaders saying that their words simply are incomprehensible to us.


They are non-human words and deeds, really counter-human … [T]here is no rationality in the Nazi hatred; it is a hate that is not in us; it is outside man …


That’s a remarkable statement and it is heartbreaking given the fact that Primo Levi knew these horrors firsthand, barely escaping the killing ovens of Auschwitz himself; only later, in despair, to commit suicide. The Christian worldview, we need to note, not only affirms the existence and reality of evil, but also points to the fact that evil is, in a sense, perhaps even a horrifying sense, explicable.


The very word evil is necessarily theological. Indeed it is difficult, if not impossible, to come to even a definition of evil without reference to the existence of God as the ultimate determinator of good and evil, the judge of the just and the unjust. Without a theistic point of reference, a divine determinator of right and wrong, the understanding of evil simply fades into some sort of continuum of human behavior and moral analysis. But I want to give Richard Cohen and Martin Amis credit for grappling with the issue in the first place. This is in itself a moral achievement in our highly secular and morally relative age. The fact that these two writers, both prominent in their fields, can look at the reality of the Islamic State or Auschwitz and see the undeniable reality of evil is in itself a moral achievement. That is much to be preferred over the kind of blithe moral relativism that has led some professors to indicate that they have difficulty getting their university students even to make a moral verdict on something like the Holocaust as being objectively, unquestionably, in all times, in all places, evil.


But these two articles also point to the necessity of the Christian worldview as the only worldview that has an adequate understanding of evil. Now we need to acknowledge at this point that the Christian worldview cannot fully explain evil. We too are left with questions; questions about the complexity of evil and the mechanisms of evil in the human heart and human society. This question has vexed Christian theologians throughout the centuries. Leaving us with the kind of witness offered by the great reformer Martin Luther who argued that, in the end looking at the reality of evil in its face, when asked for the question why and what now, Christians can only point to the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. But that is the point. Because the Christian worldview based in Scripture tells us that evil is indeed a reality. But it is a reality that is defeated, in one sense, and fully will be defeated, in another, by the King of kings and Lord of lords, who, on that day that ends all days, will point back to the day of his own crucifixion, will point back to his own cross, and make very clear that that is where the serpent’s head was bruised by his heel.


The Christian worldview also points us to the most haunting realization about the power of evil and sin. It is, contrary to the assertion of Primo Levi, something that is inside man, not just outside of us. It is inside the human heart. And it was one of the great Jewish prophets who made this point most emphatically. It was the prophet Jeremiah 17:9 who made the point clear when he said,


The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.


There is no way to explain the reality of evil if we look only outside of the human heart. It is in the heart, the Scripture says emphatically, that evil takes up its residents. There is perhaps no more horrible realization than that; which also points us back to the cross and to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ as the only solitary remedy for our sin.

2) Churches conforming views of sexuality all see decline of congregants

A very interesting article appeared in recent days at The Federalist where Alexander Griswold suggests “How To Shrink Your Church In One Easy Step,” the subtitle of his article, Every major American church that has taken steps towards liberalization on sexual issues has seen a steep decline in membership. Griswold directly addresses the argument that America’s churches have to get in line in the sexual revolution or lose membership, lose attendance, and social standing. As he writes, many are concerned, especially with the millennial generation, suggesting that so long as churches remain in the face of opposition to gay marriage…


those churches will shrink into irrelevancy when gay marriage (inevitably, we are told) becomes a settled political issue.


As Griswold writes,


These arguments often see church acceptance of homosexuality as a carrot as well as a stick. It isn’t so much that denouncing homosexuality will drive people away from church, but that embracing it will also lead people into church. LGBT individuals and their supporters, [he writes] many of whom hold a dim view of religion after a decades-long culture war, will reconsider church if denominations remove their restrictions on gay marriage and ordination.


But he goes on to document the fact that a growing number of churches and denominations have follow this logic, already taking significant steps toward liberalizing their understanding of sexual issues –  especially homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Griswold then says,


The evidence so far seems to indicate that affirming homosexuality is hardly a cure for membership woes. On the contrary [he says], every major American church that has taken steps towards liberalization of sexual issues has seen a steep decline in membership.


This is where Griswold article grows, not only truly interesting but very important. Because not only does he take the argument head on, he also looks at a statistical review of membership and attendance in several denominations that have liberalized their understanding and teaching when it comes to matters of sexuality, in particular homosexuality and same-sex marriage. He looks first to the Episcopal Church that rocked the Christian world in the year 2003 by electing and consecrating an openly gay man as the Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire. Griswold then writes,


In 2002, the number of baptized U.S. members of the Episcopal Church stood at 2.32 million. By 2012, that number had fallen to 1.89 million, a decline of 18.4 percent. Meanwhile [he notes], attendance has fallen even more steeply. Average Sunday attendance in its U.S. churches was 846,000 in 2002, but had fallen almost 25 percent by 2012 to only 640,000. Other signs of congregational liveliness have fallen even further. Baptisms have fallen by 39.6 percent, and marriages have fallen by 44.9 percent.


He then turns to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. And in its 2009 church-wide assembly that group decided to extend ordination to gay men and women in what were termed “committed monogamous relationships.” At the same time the assembly passed an amendment allowing churches


To recognize, support and hold publicly accountable life-long, monogamous, same-gender relationships.


Griswold then notes that in the period from 1987 to 2009, that was when the mainline denomination was organized in its current shape, the average decrease in membership each year was only .62%. But after the liberalization of the denomination’s stance on sexuality, membership declined a whopping 5.95% in 2010, 4.98% in 2011.


Since 2009, [he writes] more than 600 congregations abandoned the denomination, with almost two-thirds joining conservative Lutheran denominations.


Griswold then turns to United Church of Christ noting quite accurately that it is inhabited the far left fringe of American Christian denominations. As he says,


In 2005 United Church of Christ became the first U.S. mainline Protestant denomination to support same-sex marriage, and has been an outspoken voice in the gay marriage debate ever since.

He then goes on to document that the UCC has been bleeding members for decades. He suggests that the decline rapidly accelerated after the gay marriage vote. Since the year 2005 the denomination has lost a quarter of 1 million members, a decline of 20.4% over just seven years. With an average of 39 congregations leading the UCC annually from 1990 to 2004, more than 350 congregations departed in the next three years. In final words on UCC Griswold writes,


2013 marked a particularly grim milestone for the denomination, as membership finally fell below one million. If the post-2005 rate in membership losses doesn’t taper out, the denomination will cease to exist in 30 years.


Griswold then turned to the Presbyterian Church USA, the mainline liberal Presbyterian denomination. He points to the years 2006 and 2010 when the denomination began to formally liberalize its understanding on the question of homosexuality, homosexual clergy, and same-sex marriage. He says,


In 2006, 2.2 million people were members of PCUSA, a number that dropped 22.4 percent to 1.85 million by 2013. PCUSA’s decline accelerated significantly after approving the ordination of non-celibate gay and lesbian clergy in mid-2011, [that] led to the creation of an alternative denomination in 2012.


As he writes,


If post-2006 trends continue, the denomination will cease to exist by 2037.


Meanwhile he turns to the churches that have stood by the historic Christian teaching on sexual morality as revealed in Scripture. He suggest that those churches, including conservative denomination like the Assemblies of God and the Southern Baptist Convention, have been spared the kind of membership losses experienced by the mainline liberal Protestant denominations. The Assemblies of God continues to grow, and as he writes,


Even theologically conservative denominations that are declining, such as the Southern Baptist Convention, began declining much later and much less drastically than other denominations. The Southern Baptist Convention has only declined by 3 percent since its peak in 2007—an average of less than 1 percent annually—and recently has actually been adding congregations.


We should note carefully that no church or denomination, or for that matter no individual Christian, should establish the moral understanding on questions of sexual morality on the basis of membership statistics and church attendance. But we should also note that even as Christians should always base their understanding of such issues on the sole authority of Scripture, it is instructive to see the churches and denominations that have abandoned or accommodated the scriptural message in order to meet the modern expectations of the sexual revolutionaries have experienced, not an influx of members who had been previously alienated by the church’s understanding of sex, but instead a hemorrhaging of members and a steep precipitous falloff in terms of church attendance. Finally, we should note that any church or denomination that has abandon clear biblical teachings and the historic understanding of the Christian church concerning sexual morality, has surely abandon other key and crucial doctrines long before the issue of sex arrived at the front burner. The evidence offered by Alexander Griswold is simply too important to miss and too important by far to ignore.

3) TV uses infidelity as source of comedy

Finally a couple of notes about the intersection of popular culture and the Christian worldview, USA Today recently featured an article by Ann Oldenberg about the fact that the television medium is now turning to adultery, in a big way, as a major theme. As she points out, adultery is hardly new; but a positive depictions of adultery, in terms of the mainstream media, is something that is rather new. It has also caught the attention of even secular analysts. One of them quoted in the articles, Donna Barnes, the founder of a dating site, who said:


A generation ago, you never talked about having an affair. Then Oprah got us all talking about these things. And now that we’re all talking, the next step is we’re living things out more and less afraid — and TV’s catching up.


Interestingly, one of the telling facts about so many of these television shows is that even as they try to focus on adultery they can’t avoid making an eventual negative judgment about it. The creator of one of these shows known as Married said, and I quote,


We knew there was some comedy to be mined…[people] say to me a lot: ‘Oh, monogamy is not natural.’ And I always say, ‘Well neither are toilets, but when you don’t use them, things get very messy.’


That may not be as sophisticated moral analysis, indeed it’s not. But it is, in its own strange way, a testimony to the fact that even the secular entertainment industry can’t find a way to dress adultery out; without it, revealing itself in the end to be, even use the words of Andrew Gurland, very messy. Of course the biblical understanding is that adultery is far worse than being very messy. But it is telling in its own way, that the moral shape of the universe, as God created it, comes back to reveal the evil and the harm of adultery, even in the words of a television show creator who can do no more than say it’s very messy – at least he understands that.

4) Entertainment industry’s fixation on end of world demonstrates centrality of theology

Meanwhile, TIME magazine’s James Poniewozik, writing about the same entertainment industry, points to the popularity of shows about apocalypse, in terms of America’s current popular culture. He says,


Today the world ends several times a week. You can see humanity decimated by virus (TNT’s The Last Ship), a civil war among angels (Syfy’s Dominion), infertility (Lifetime’s The Lottery) and unexplained sudden disappearance (HBO’s The Leftovers). [And as he writes,] And that’s just this summer. Stick around and you can witness civilization destroyed by plague (Syfy’s coming adaptation of 12 Monkeys), aliens (TNT’s Falling Skies) and a mysterious collapse of technology (Amazon’s The After).


Interestingly Poniewozik also points out that in most of today’s post-apocalypse series, in his words,


Disaster no longer comes from geopolitical conflict or ideological terrorism… [Instead] We die from mystery phenomena or pestilences that don’t even have the decency to hate us.

But, all these convoluted and interesting plot lines to the side, the most interesting aspect of all this is the fact that there is a deep hunger for an understanding of the end. Indeed, there is a moral hunger for an end that resolves the great moral quandaries of the age, in such a way that there’s moral satisfaction. Or if there can’t be moral satisfaction, there can at least be the exhilaration of knowing that at some point history comes to an end; by virus or plague, or technology, or infertility, or something else that a television director-producer may be able to come up with.


Once again we finally have to note this entire theme is inherently and inescapably theological. In a supposedly secular age, even our popular culture demonstrates the fact that we can’t get away from theology. We can’t get away from the big questions. We can’t get away from questions about sin and judgment and restitution and justice. We can’t get away from them because God made us that way and even as God made us in his image and gave us the innate knowledge of himself within us and the moral conscience, that is also a testimony to his glory, we come to understand that the human imagination simply cannot resist pondering the meaning of the end. Of course that’s not the end of the story, the story continues, not only to the end, but what comes after the end.


Thanks for listening to The Briefing. 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


If you’re considering call to ministry, I want to invite you to attend one of Southern Seminary’s Preview Days. The next is coming up on October 17. We will be glad to have you as our guest. For $25 we will cover your two nights of lodging, as well as all your meals on preview day. It’s an important opportunity to consider your call to ministry as you spend time on the seminary campus, getting know professors and fellow students as well. Joined by the faculty, I would be pleased to meet you. That’s on October 17, for more information visit I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing





Podcast Transcript

1) In face of Islamic State atrocities, secularists struggle to explain evil

The Islamic State is evil returned, Washington Post (Richard Cohen)

Martin Amis on Hitler and the nature of evil, Financial Times (Martin Amis)

2) Churches conforming views of sexuality all see decline of congregants

How To Shrink Your Church In One Easy Step, The Federalist (Alexander Griswold)

3) TV uses infidelity as source of comedy

Infidelity on TV is becoming quite a common affair, USA Today (Ann Oldenburg)

4) Entertainment industry’s fixation on end of world demonstrates centrality of theology

TV Goes to the Ends of the World, TIME (James Poniewozik)


R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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