The Briefing 02-23-15

The Briefing 02-23-15

The Briefing


February 23, 2015

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


It’s Monday, February 23, 2015.  I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

1) Oscars reveal extent of Hollywood influence through control of stories world tells

Well last night was the Oscars ceremony and I’m not going to be talking about any of the awards. I want to talk about what the Academy Awards night tells us about Hollywood and its influence in the United States and beyond. One of the most interesting things about the development of the Oscars ceremony and the massive national television audience that follows it – not to mention the entire cosmic swirl of social media that now emerges around this event – is the fact that it is all out of proportion to any kind of sanity when it comes to the actual meaning of the culture and the actual direction of the culture. And yet, once again, we have to have a second thought. Maybe it’s not so out of proportion as we might wish to think.

Last night there was inordinate attention to celebrity. On recent days we’ve talked about the development of micro-celebrity and now nano-celebrity. We’re looking at celebrities that are made, they are socially constructed, they are coiffed, they are airbrushed, and of course they are then paraded out in front of the audience. One of the interesting things about the Oscars ceremony is that we are now, by virtue of the rather unbelievable television coverage and the media attention, we are now taken into what’s before the comes before the what comes before the actual ceremony.

And what we’re looking at is the fact that Hollywood is throwing a giant celebration of itself. And by the way, its own self-aggrandizement comes down to the very name of the organization that holds the Oscars ceremony. It’s known as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – really? I mean arts and sciences have been traditionally a part of the university and college curriculum. Arts and sciences has been a serious intellectual investment and endeavor and now we’re talking about not something that is new – this was after all the 87th annual ceremony of the group that did name itself nearly 90 years ago – the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. And as much as it’s easy to dismiss, I mean after all in the pre-publicity to the entire event there were actually major newspapers that were running articles on the slenderizing undergarments worn by some of the celebrities – female in particular – as they were to walk that carpet; all the way from the driveway into the theater where the Academy Awards was to be held.

Needless to say, we are now lightyears away from the relative humility of the Academy Awards in years past or at least decades ago. Whereas the Wall Street Journal recognized in an article on Friday, it’s almost impossible to believe an actor of the golden age of Hollywood like Jimmy Stewart having anything to do with the kind of artificial celebrity that was very much a part of the entire event last night. Given the attention one would think that what took place last night in Hollywood was at the very center of the universe, and of course it isn’t. Far more important is what happens in basically any home, in any congregation on the Lord’s Day. But in terms of the actual culture, the culture as it is consumed and as it is received by millions of Americans and then hundreds of millions beyond, the reality is that even as Hollywood is self-aggrandizing, it is in many ways the center of the culture production business – in particular Hollywood seems now to have control in the largest part of the stories that the world tells.

If we put that into perspective, it is a massive power – the power to tell the story. Those stories used to be told face-to-face around campfires and insight households, those stories used to be told in narrative form in the form of the printed book, in the form of novels and literature, the stories used to be told on dramatic stages going all the way back to ancient Greece, but those stories were told over and over again and they were seen by perhaps hundreds – eventually perhaps read by thousands. But Hollywood’s exports are now seen by millions, hundreds of millions. And we must not miss the point that if you have the power to tell the story, you have the power to shape the culture. And Hollywood believes it has that power right now, and at least a lot of what was on display last night was Hollywood bragging about the fact that it has that power.

It is the power to combine narrative and celebrity. You put those two things together in the multibillion-dollar business of Hollywood and you end up with a massively important center of cultural production. And it is not without a moral message. That’s one of the most interesting things we also see in the lead up to the Academy Awards. For instance, in the weekend edition of USA Today in the entertainment section was a headline story that reads, Pop-Culture Chips Away at the Trans Taboo it’s written by Maria Puente of USA Today and she’s telling us that Hollywood is now exercising its role to change the American mind on the issue of the transgender revolution. She says at this stage the transgender revolution is at something of a tipping point. She cites Michelle Hindley age 23, a transgender woman starring in her first feature film, who says,

“In a way all publicity is good publicity. Anyone who knows the history of this kind of moral revolution knows that’s one of the early stages – the stage at which all publicity is seen as good publicity. Just forcing the issue, forcing Americans to say the word is at least one portion of the victory, one step along the way.”

And the issue that I want us to focus on here is that Hollywood is intentionally becoming the major engine for not only telling the story, but for forcing the conversation. And that’s exactly why USA Today ran this headline article in the weekend edition. No coincidence that it came out the very weekend of the Academy Awards ceremony. Puente goes back to 1999 when Hillary Swank won an Oscar for the movie Boys Don’t Cry and she writes,

“The growing visibility of films and TV shows featuring transgender characters, actors, or both, has been having an impact.”

And of course that’s the point. That’s at least in part what Hollywood is celebrating in terms of its cultural power; what you saw on display last night. USA Today, that bills itself as the nation’s newspaper in terms of the popular sense, has been actually pointing to this for some time. USA Today a couple of years ago ran an article suggesting that when same-sex marriage is legalized coast-to-coast – something that USA Today predicted would happen, even two years ago – they said that Hollywood should serve as the honorary best man at the ceremony, since Hollywood bears an inordinate responsibility (either blame or credit depending on which side of the revolution you’re on) for forcing the revolution and fueling its velocity.

A final note on this, I want to cite an article that appeared on by Edward Rubin. He’s writing about the fact that the 50 Shades movie has been incredibly popular, selling a good many millions of tickets even in the old so-called Bible Belt; and he exultant in this, he is very pleased with this. And as you think about the power of Hollywood just consider the moral revolution in terms of these sentences from his article. He writes that the old morality of higher purposes is being replaced by a new morality centered on human self-fulfillment. According to this rapidly advancing worldview, he says, and yes those are the very words he uses,

“…the purpose of sex is pleasure, and fulfilling sex is an important element of most people’s general life experience.”

The major point he’s making is that this idea of self-actualization or self-fulfillment is now the driving energy, the driving moral principle, of the Hollywood industry. And what I want us to note is this: the 50 Shades movie in and of itself shows the power of Hollywood to grant something of a moral permission to people who evidently are looking for moral permission from Hollywood.

And one of the most interesting things is how you trace the moral revolution looking at particular pictures you can identify – you could identify by name – saying that when that picture arrived it made a change in the culture; people bought tickets to see the movie, and they talked about the movie as if it’s a matter of art, but it’s of course far more than a matter art as art always is. Once the story is told and it gets inside the human heart the narrative as a power unto itself, and the telling of that story is an amazing power. And what we’re looking at in the current moral revolution would be unthinkable, it would be impossible, put bluntly, it just wouldn’t have happened – not without Hollywood. So if you were watching the Oscars last night and you saw that massive exercise in Hollywood self-congratulation just remembers so far as they are looking at it, they have a lot to congratulate themselves about.

2) Journalist recognizes inability of secularists to diagnose authenticity of ISIS theology

Next we’ve been talking a lot lately about the mismatch, the imbalance, between the secular worldview of the increasingly secular West and the very ardent theological worldview of a resurgent Islam. We’ve also been looking at a spate of articles indicating that there just might be something of a turn in the Western mind when it comes to understanding the theological nature of the challenge we now face. But you’re also seeing a reverberation going through the culture in which, amongst the elites, there’s an ongoing debate about whether or not they can actually deal with a theological challenge as a theological challenge; whether they can admit, at heart, that it’s actually theological.

Now if that sounds absolutely implausible just keep in mind the fact that there are many people who actually think themselves to operate in such a secular worldview that they do not have a toolkit, they don’t have any categories, for dealing with any kind of theological truth claim. And they don’t have any toolkit for understanding people who operate from a theological worldview. As we will see, that has to do with people who are far, far away, but it also to do with people who might be living right next door.

In the aftermath of that very important article I talked about last week by Graeme Wood that ran in the Atlantic, arguing that yes we should understand that the Islamic state is theological, as he says, it’s very Islamic. We also now have a response to Graeme Wood. It’s written by Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig and it comes from the New Republic. She asked the question, Is ISIS Authentically Islamic? Ask Better Questions. Why? She says, if it comes to answering the question, is the Islamic state Islamic? She says, how would we, especially those in the secular press, be able to say?

When it comes to journalists and politicians, she says, whether of the left or the right, the reality is that most simply don’t have any kind of adequate theological framework for answering a question as inherently theological as the question of whether the Islamic state is actually Islamic. She writes about the kind of people who might be able to answer these questions, identifying them as religious studies scholars and theologians. But then about the question she writes,

“But these are not the kinds of questions that can be answered in the terms we rely on within the typical framework of public debate in our liberal democracy. Our public deliberation relies on the idea that ‘religion’ is a constant, stable category that can be established empirically, but is not sensitive to the internal logics of individual religions.”

Now that’s journalistic confusion for the fact that what she’s actually admitting here is that most politicians and journalist don’t know enough theology to be able to make a theological judgment. And so she warns both politicians and journalism, we had better not try to make that assessment.

She writes about Western culture, especially the Western elites, and she speaks of the influence of the enlightenment. She says,

“These Enlightenment ideas include the notion of a religious tolerance that confines certain beliefs and practices to a specifically religious sphere,”

By the way, that’s one branch of the Enlightenment we might say; that’s largely the French Enlightenment – that is not the more English speaking Enlightenment – the more conservative enlightenment that gave birth to the United States and our experiment in ordered liberty. But she doesn’t seem to acknowledge that. Instead, let me use these words again, she says that the Enlightenment ideas

“…include the notion of a religious tolerance that confines certain beliefs and practices to a specifically religious sphere,”

Now if you keep that in mind that will explain Frank Bruni’s article I cited some weeks ago in which he said that religious liberty should be confined to what happens in pews and homes and hearts. That’s that specifically religious fear. In other words, you’re free to have your religion, just keep it to yourself. But she goes on writing about these issues from the enlightenment saying it includes,

“…the idea that reason provides a stable, universally accessible guide to investigating all manner of problems.”

There you have the modern myth of universal reason. Now there is a strong biblical component of a universal understanding of reason, that God made us as rational categories, but when it comes to Western secular rationalism, that is hardly a universal worldview. She acknowledges, and this is what’s really important, the limitations of the modern secular worldview in understanding religion. In a really important sentence she writes,

“In the liberal formation, a lapsed Catholic who rarely makes it to Mass is as authentically ‘religious’ as the deeply observant Jew who never works on Shabbat. Which, for the purposes of our government, is a good thing.”

Really interesting there. Here you have a secular journalist writing for the New Republic saying that not only are most of the elites, especially in the secular spheres (politics and journalism seem to be her particular interest), incompetent to make theological judgment, she goes on to say that the entire worldview is premised upon a lack of judgment in matters of religion. Such that, and her sentence is actually brilliant, she says, to those who are steeped in this tradition a nonobservant Catholic is just as religious as an observant Jew.

Now if you take her sentence at face value – which we should, I think it’s an amazingly honest statement – you come to understand why so many of the Western elites, particularly in the most elite levels of the governmental bureaucracy in the world of journalism, can’t deal with theological issues. They simply have already decided that there are no theological issues with which to deal. Religion in their view is simply a cultural practice, it’s a cultural phenomenon and it’s something that can be understood merely by reason and something that should eventually be restricted to an entirely private sphere.

She gets right to her point when she says,

“…most of our public discussions of religion take place within this liberal framework, we lack a grammar and vocabulary for arguing about the content of religions in the public sphere. Because our presumptions about how to source religious authority are largely private and rarely interrogated in public (especially in interfaith contexts)…”

Now remember, by the way, we were quoting that Princeton professor that Graeme Wood cites, who said that the last people to understand the real theological issues are those who show up in so many interfaith circles. She seems really to understand her point when she writes,

“But most of our public discussions of religion take place within this liberal framework, we lack a grammar and vocabulary for arguing about the content of religions in the public sphere.”

So what she’s saying here, it’s a very important statement, is that these elites don’t know how to deal with the truth claims of various religious systems because having excluded issue of truth, they really don’t know what to do with truth claims.

Then finally, more or less surrendering to what she acknowledges is the problem, she says,

“A moment of high religious tension is probably not the best one in which to try to develop a public language for debating these truths.”

The final surrender comes in this line,

“And since we are neither equipped nor posed to develop such a language right now, the question of whether or not ISIS is authentically Muslim seems endlessly fraught and otiose.”

In other words, it’s useless publicly. But that just points to the problem. It’s not useless to the people who are driven by their worldview into the movement we know as the Islamic state and the larger movement of Islamic terrorism. It is simply untenable for the intellectual elites in the West to say we don’t understand what they’re about, we lack a grammar and vocabulary to understand what they’re about, so it really in the end won’t matter what they’re about. Oh, yes it will; as the headlines every day seem to show.

3) Digital migration of social interaction results in difficulty in developing close friends

Finally, last Wednesday saw a very important article appeared in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. It should the attention of us all, but in particular it should have the attention of parents. The headline is, Wanted: A Best Friend, it’s written by Sue Shellenberger and she writes this,

“Parents and psychologists are discussing a subtle concern: Children today face a lot of obstacles to having a best friend.”

This is a really interesting article. It tells us that many children, many children especially in the elementary and middle school and even high school years, now lack what most of us had during those years and that is a set of friends and even a best friend. A conversational friend that was known and looked back to, even in adulthood, as someone who was not only a friend, but a very close friend – an important part of our childhood, an important part of our adolescents, an important part of our growing up.

As Shellenbarger writes,

“Many forces are contributing, from the much-discussed rising screen time and less free neighborhood playtime to the growth of team sports and changes in how schools organize classes. Parents can help their children overcome the hurdles, researchers say, by helping them learn the nuances of finding and keeping close friends, and not by intervening in playground battles.”

In a very important paragraph she writes,

“Having a best friend has a bigger influence on children than shallower friendships, research shows. It buffers a child from stress, loneliness, teasing and abuse by peers. Children with best friends tend to be kinder and friendlier and have a better reputation on the playground. They also have less depression and anxiety through adolescence and beyond, research shows.”

Now one of the major insights in this article is the twofold development of problems that are keeping children from developing friendships. And they are documented in this article. The first is, as she says, the documentation of rising screen time. And it’s not just the time. One of the things the article documents is the migration of friendship from real-life face-to-face conversations and spending time together in space and time and history rather to a digital presence. Shellenbarger writes,

“While texting and social networking online can help maintain close friendships when children are apart, online connections also put pressure on children to have a larger number of shallow contacts.”

This is really interesting,

“A 2012 Stanford University study of 3,461 girls ages 8 to 12 found those who spent a lot of time multitasking online had fewer and poorer-quality friendships.”

The second documented issue is that of organized sports and other activities for so many children. The article cites Fred Frankel, the author of the book Friends Forever who writes that spending more time of extracurricular activities and sports is draining time from best friends too. In his words,

“Teams are overall a good thing, and a place to meet potential friends, but they don’t replace the benefits of a best friend. Many psychologists agree that having a best friend is one of the most significant social outcomes of childhood.”

When we think about the price that our children and adolescents pay for modernity, this is one of the prices we need very much to keep in mind. And I think it’s really good for all of us, especially those operating from the biblical worldview, to understand that friendship is not merely some kind of social convenience, it is a reminder that we are created in God’s image as relational creatures and we need the relationships that are rightly defined as friendships. One of the interesting lamentable aspects of all this is that many of the parents who had best friends as children are not noticing that their own children don’t have best friends. I guess I can remember the good old days when parents were worried about what friends their kids have, now there’s an even greater poverty of kids who simply don’t have friends and that is more than a tragedy .


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

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.


Podcast Transcript

1) Oscars reveal extent of Hollywood influence through control of stories world tells

An Oscar Moment Before the Selfie Age, Wall Street Journal (Bob Greene)

“50 Shades” of Confederate grey: Why the Christian right is losing power over Southern morality, Salon (Edward L. Rubin)

2) Journalist recognizes inability of secularists to diagnose authenticity of ISIS theology

Is ISIS Authentically Islamic? Ask Better Questions., New Republic (Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig)

3) Digital migration of social interaction results in difficulty in developing close friends

How to Find a Best Friend, Wall Street Journal (Sue Shellenbarger)

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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