The Briefing 01-15-15

The Briefing 01-15-15

The Briefing


January 15, 2015

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


It’s Thursday, January 15, 2015.  I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

1) Muslim call to prayer at Duke reveals vacuum of secularism must always give way

There’s going to be a new sound heard every Friday at Duke University. As Duke Today, the campus newspaper reports,

“Members of the Duke Muslim Students Association will chant a weekly call-to-prayer from the Duke Chapel bell tower beginning Friday, Jan. 16 [or tomorrow]. The chant, called the ‘adhan,’ announces the start of the group’s jummah prayer service, which takes place in the chapel basement each Friday at 1 p.m. The service [according to the campus newspaper] is open to the public.”

Responding to the announcement Adeel Zeb, identified as the Muslim chaplain at Duke, said,

“The adhan is the call to prayer that brings Muslims back to their purpose in life, which is to worship God and serves as a reminder to serve our brothers and sisters in humanity. The collective Muslim community is truly grateful and excited about Duke’s intentionality toward religious and cultural diversity.”

In the Huffington Post a woman identified as Christy Lohr Sapp, the Chapel’s Associate Dean for Religious Life, she told the campus newspaper,

“This opportunity represents a larger commitment to religious pluralism that is at the heart of Duke’s mission. It connects the university to national trends in religious accommodation.”

There is so much to consider here but the most important statement cited in the media thus far is the one from Christy Lohr Sapp. Recall her first statement,

“This opportunity represents a larger commitment to religious pluralism that is at the heart of Duke’s mission.”

Well one thing’s for certain, that wasn’t the mission for which Duke University was established. Its roots go back to an earlier institution known as Trinity College but due to a huge multimillion dollar benefaction made by the Duke family of North Carolina in the early 20th century, the name of the institution was changed to Duke University and Duke has become one of the most illustrious private universities in America – indeed one the most respected academic institutions in the world.

What’s especially noteworthy from a Christian consideration however is that Duke University itself represents the radical secularization of institutions that were established on a clear Christian foundation; not just a foundation of Christian attitude but a very clear commitment to Christian truth. Duke University, though many contemporary students would surely be shocked to find out, was established as a Methodist institution – actually under Methodist control.

But as historians of higher education in America have noted – some celebrating, some lamenting – the middle decades of the 20th century saw a great secularization of so many of these church established institutions. Vanderbilt University, Syracuse University, the University of South Carolina joined Duke University as Methodist institutions that were radically secularized during this period. But the secularization that took place in the middle portion of the 20th century was followed by an era of even more radical secularization. It’s very interesting to note that that middle period of secularization was largely aided and abetted by church leaders who basically conceded the battle and ceded power over the institution to self-perpetuating boards of trustees and then more than anything else, to a basically self-perpetuating faculty.

No one traced this more accurately than James Tunstead Burtchaell, then of the University of Notre Dame, in his 1998 book entitled The Dying of the Light. The subtitle: the disengagement of colleges and universities from their Christian churches. In his most interesting example, Burtchaell went into great detail about the secularization of another Methodist institution, Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.

Last year you will remember Vanderbilt was in a great deal of controversy – indeed it was not only in 2014 but reaching back to 2012 and 2013 – when University announced that all student groups recognized by the University must have not only an all-comers policy, that is any student could join, but had to make leadership open to any student regardless of any theological or doctrinal conviction or any sexual or other moral issue. In other words, you had groups such as InterVarsity Christian fellowship effectively kicked off the Vanderbilt University campus because, of all things, they believe that a Christian institution should have Christian leaders – at least committed to a basic core of Christian truth.

Burtchaell traced what he called the disengagement of historic institutions from the Christian churches. And Vanderbilt was simply one of his examples. Duke University was also mentioned in a study. Duke itself forms its own parable about secularization in the 20th century and now and the 21st. But as we have so often noted, secularism is something like a vacuum. It simply doesn’t stand. We’ve noted in recent days how even the French Prime Minister has stated that France must remain committed to its core values including secularism. But if anything has been demonstrated, not only in recent days but in recent decades in Europe, it is that secularism simply isn’t enough glue to hold a society together.

Furthermore, secularism and inevitably gives way to some form of resurgent theology. In Europe the great issue is a resurgent Islam and that’s what makes the announcement that comes from Duke University so puzzling in terms of the contemporary environment. But then again, maybe it’s not so puzzling after all. Once again, secularization creates a vacuum that’s going to be filled by something.

But there is a parable here, perhaps even multiple parables. We have an institution that was established as a Christian institution, specifically Methodist. As Burtchaell notes, the secularization, the disengagement of these institutions from their churches, first began with the commitment that the institutions would not be sectarian – that is, committed to any specific denomination. Quite shortly that commitment to non-sectarianism became a commitment to a non-Christian identity. Or we could put the progression this way, first the institution declares that it will be nonsectarian but generically Christian, but quite quickly that generic Christian identity becomes either thin or an embarrassment or both. And thus you have a spokesperson for Duke University’s Chapel saying that what Duke is now committed to is an interfaith pluralism.

But the second portion of Christy Lohr Sapp’s statement is also very important where she said, and again I quote,

“It connects the university to national trends in religious accommodation.”

That ‘it’ in that sentence refers to the University’s decision to allow a Muslim call to prayer from the University’s Chapel bell tower every Friday afternoon. But is that possibly even true? Is there indeed a national trend toward religious accommodation? Well let’s just remember the fact that there isn’t any trend towards evangelical accommodation at a university like Vanderbilt and furthermore, we’ve been watching the marginalization of historic Orthodox Christianity from University system and University campus one after another.

Recall also last year the California state University system making the same kind of announcement for all of its campuses that was made previously by Vanderbilt University. So what is this new trend that is cited by the Chapel’s associate Dean for religious life in terms of national trends and religious accommodation? In this case it is a specifically Muslim accommodation. And just consider what’s actually going to be taking place here. The announcement from Duke Today tells us that every Friday afternoon there will be a public moderately amplified Muslim culture prayer from the Duke University Chapel bell tower.

Now just put this into a contrast; would there be any possibility whatsoever that the University would allow an evangelical call to prayer? Perhaps reading a biblical prayer or a historic Christian prayer with moderate amplification? Of course not. Can you imagine the response of Duke University’s faculty if some Orthodox Christian prayer were to be amplified by a public sound throughout the campus, every week on a specific afternoon? It’s frankly unthinkable. Duke University, by the way, in terms of its accommodation is also noted for the fact that it removed the company Chick-fil-A from its campus because of that company’s president’s statements in support of the biblical view of marriage.

But here’s the bottom line of this very sad parable. Beginning tomorrow afternoon there will be a Muslim call to prayer ringing across the campus of Duke University from its historic chapel bell tower moderately amplified. Just imagine what the founders of Trinity College or Duke University would’ve thought of that. There’s the parable in miniature. You have a university that has gone from being explicitly committed orthodox Christianity, explicitly under the control and governance of the Methodist Church, to an institution that is pervasively secular – after being generically Christian. But now the public sound moderately amplified being heard every Friday afternoon at Duke University is a Muslim call to prayer. It’s frankly hard to exaggerate the meaning of this parable.

2) Rise of value of “meaningfulness”  secular substitute for spiritual dimension of life

But wait a minute; let’s talk about meaning for just a moment. And the occasion for talking about meaning is a very important opinion piece written by David Brooks in the New York Times published on January the sixth; the title of his column, The Problem with Meaning. Brooks writes about the fact that in modern post-Christian America there’s a great deal of attention to an individual’s quest for meaning. He cites John Gardner from a statement made a few years ago in which he said,

“Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you. … You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life.”

But as David Brooks says approvingly, his colleague April Lawson nails it when she says that meaning has become the stand-in concept for everything the soul yearns for and seeks. Brooks then wrote,

“It is one of the few phrases acceptable in modern parlance to describe a fundamentally spiritual need.”

But then he comes back to ask, what do we actually mean when we use the word ‘meaning’? Well it could mean, he says, that life is supposed to be about more than mere material possessions. So good so far. Second he says it might mean that life is more satisfying as a meaningful life that as a merely happy life. He goes on to say,

“In this way, meaning is an uplifting state of consciousness. It’s what you feel when you’re serving things beyond self.”

Again, so good so far, but what David Brooks points to is the fact that this is a constructed reality. It isn’t based in any objective fact, it’s, as John Gardner himself said, how we put our life together in terms of what we consider meaningfulness.

David Brooks is exactly right to suggest that what we’re looking at here is a secular substitute for what is basically a very spiritual dimension. And I appreciate the fact that he notes that. David Brooks goes on to suggest that the problem with meaningfulness is that it isn’t tied to anything objective – it isn’t even tide actually to a larger culture or larger society. He says this,

“Meaningfulness tries to replace structures, standards and disciplines with self-regarding emotion. The ultimate authority of meaningful is the warm tingling we get when we feel significant and meaningful. Meaningfulness tries to replace moral systems with the emotional corona that surrounds acts of charity.”

He then says bluntly,

“It’s a paltry substitute. Because meaningfulness is built solely on an emotion, it is contentless and irreducible. Because it is built solely on emotion, it’s subjective and relativistic. You get meaning one way. I get meaning another way. Who is any of us to judge another’s emotion?”

He then concludes,

“The philosophy of meaningfulness emerges in a culture in which there is no common moral vocabulary or framework. It emerges amid radical pluralism, when people don’t want to judge each other. Meaningfulness emerges when the fundamental question is, do we feel good?

Real moral systems are based on a balance of intellectual rigor and aroused moral sentiments. Meaningfulness is pure and self-regarding feeling, the NutraSweet of the inner life.”

Well, David Brooks is really onto something when he suggests that meaningfulness is superficial. It’s evanescent. It’s indeed merely emotionalism in another disguised form. He’s wrong when he suggests that morality is simply a mix of intellectual vigor and aroused sentiment – it’s of course about a great deal more than that. It’s about one word that is missing from the discussion in terms of David Brooks’ column and that is truth.

Meaning, we need to note, is simply no substitute for truth. It’s no substitute for reality. Oddly enough we’re now hearing even in evangelical circles the transference of meaningfulness for truth. For instance someone will speak a worship experience saying that it was meaningful. In saying so an evangelical can mean something, say something, or say nothing at all; because in the larger secular context the word meaning is explicitly separated from any claim to truth. But a worship service, in the Christian understanding, according to the biblical worldview, should only actually be meaningful if it’s based in truth – if the truth is declared and the truth is affirmed. If what took place in the service of worship was the declaration of truth, the preaching of truth, the open embrace of truth, the confession of truth, and a very clear statement of obedience to truth.

I really appreciate how David Brooks refers to meaningfulness as what he calls the ‘NutraSweet of the inner life,’ we can certainly understand how that term becomes not only apt but extremely relevant. Sadly however David Brooks just doesn’t take his argument far enough. It’s not enough to see meaningfulness as a very slim substitute, we have to go on and answer the question: a substitute for what? And the answer to that is abundantly clear – it’s a substitute for truth.

3) Genetic screening for pregnant women creating dangerous Brave New World for human dignity

Finally, a recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Bonnie Rochman is entitled Pregnant Women Face a Confusing Array of Genetic Tests. This article ought to have our attention. Rochman writes,

“Women expecting a baby or planning a pregnancy are being pitched a fast-growing array of tests to check if they are carriers for hundreds of mostly rare genetic diseases.”

She goes on to say,

“Such genetic testing, called carrier screening, has long been targeted mainly at people of certain ethnic groups such as Ashkenazi Jews, who are at higher risk for some conditions such as Tay-Sachs disease. Now, companies that offer carrier screening are promoting the idea that testing everyone for many diseases is a more effective way to reduce the number of babies born with serious disorders, including cystic fibrosis, a life-limiting lung condition, and Canavan disease, a fatal neurological disorder.”

We need to look really carefully at that statement. You’ll notice it’s not about reducing the disorders, it’s about reducing the number of babies born with these disorders and that’s the real problem here. Two key paragraphs in Rochman’s article make the ethical issue abundantly clear – even though it’s basically buried deep within the article. She writes,

“Most carrier screening is performed on pregnant women or in infertility clinics. Testing companies are trying to encourage people to get screened before getting pregnant. A spokeswoman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, a trade association representing health insurers, said women who plan to get pregnant typically are covered for carrier screening.”

Then comes the bombshell paragraph,

“If a disease is detected after conception, the choices are to have the baby or end the pregnancy. If both parents are found to be carriers for a disease before they conceive, they have more options. They could get pregnant as usual but do early prenatal testing to see if the fetus has the disorder. Or they could opt for preimplantation genetic diagnosis. PGD, as it is known, tests individual embryos during in vitro fertilization for the presence of a particular disease. Only healthy embryos are implanted.”

So here we see the ethical problem looming large. Women, couples indeed, are being encouraged to have these tests done – very pervasive genetic tests. But the aim of the testing is not to do anything about the disease; in fact these diseases often can’t be cured. But instead it is to reduce the number of babies born with the disease. Now just keep in mind the fact that the number of babies born with Down syndrome has been radically reduced, so much so that some obstetricians are saying that they now rarely see a baby born with Down syndrome. The genetic odds of Down syndrome have not been reduced – no effective way of treating Down syndrome in the womb before birth has yet been discovered. So what’s happening is that these babies who were discovered to be the carriers of the Down syndrome gene are being aborted in the womb.

Similar efforts are not being undertaken for other disease that can be genetically marked and that’s explicitly what we find in Rochman’s article. She explains, rather chillingly and rather straightforwardly, that couples who have this kind of testing done after conception have the option of either having the baby she says or aborting the baby and thus avoiding the birth. Furthermore, the ethical complexities when it comes to in vitro fertilization are also made clear when this form of preimplantation genetic diagnosis is used to sort out the embryos in order merely to implant the embryos that meet genetic qualifications – the others are simply destroyed, at least in time.

Christians operating out of a Christian worldview and committed to the sanctity of every single human life at every point of development should not discount all of this genetic testing. After all parents should, if available, find out if the two parents (the mother and the father) are both carriers of certain genetic diseases. That information would guide them in terms of whether or not to seek to become pregnant, but the issue in terms of actually reaching the point of in vitro fertilization – not to mention the conception of a child – changes the moral context absolutely. We’re no longer then talking about a decision as to whether or not to have a child, we’re talking about a fact that a child has been can conceived.

Christians committed to a biblical worldview that affirms the sanctity and dignity of every single human life can’t begin to sort out either embryos or infants in terms of who deserves to live and who deserves to die. In its own way what we now have in terms of the wild wild West of reproductive technology here in the United States, we now have technology and other issues coming together to suggest that we need to set some minimum standards for acceptability of a fetus or of an embryo. If the fetus or embryos simply doesn’t meet those basic standards of acceptability, than discard them – either the fetus or the embryo. We’re also looking at the fact that a profit motive comes into play here with health insurers often wanting these test to be done and the babies not to be born if they’re going to become basically huge cost centers for the insurer.

In America, sad to say, we’re not only looking at the wild wild west of reproductive technologies, we’re looking at a very dangerous brave new world when it comes to human dignity.


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 I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

Podcast Transcript

1) Muslim call to prayer at Duke reveals vacuum of secularism must always give way

Muslim Students at Duke to Begin Weekly Call-to-Prayer, Duke Today (James Todd)

Duke Chapel to Allow Muslim Call to Prayer, Huffington Post (Cavan Sieczkowski)

2) Rise of value of “meaningfulness”  secular substitute for spiritual dimension of life

The Problem With Meaning, New York Times (David Brooks)

3) Genetic screening for pregnant women creating dangerous Brave New World for human dignity

New Genetic Tests for Women Who Are Expecting, Wall Street Journal (Bonnie Rochman)

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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