The Briefing 03-25-15

The Briefing 03-25-15

The Briefing


March 25, 2015

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


It’s Wednesday, March 25, 2015.  I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

1) Exchange of ideas shut down on college campuses in order to protect students’ emotional state

Most Americans are generally unaware of the exactly what’s going on on the most influential and prestigious American college and university campuses. While most Americans would at least like to think that what’s taking place on those campuses is a robust exchange of ideas, what’s actually happening is quite different.

In an interesting insight into what’s actually happening was offered in the Sunday edition of the New York Times in an article by Judith Shulevitz entitled Hiding From Scary Ideas. The subtitle of her article is a question: “do students really need cookies and play-doh to deal with the trauma of listening to unpopular opinions?” She writes about Kathryn Byron, identified as a senior at Brown University and a member of its sexual assault task force. According to Shulevitz, Byron considers it her duty to make Brown a safe place for rape victims – free from anything that might prompt memories of scandal.

So Byron found out last fall that a student group on campus had scheduled an organized debate about campus sexual assault including Jessica Valenti, a prominent feminist, and Wendy McElroy, a libertarian. She was quite alarmed that McElroy had been invited. She told Shulevitz,

“Bringing in a speaker like that could serve to invalidate people’s experiences, and could be damaging.”

Then Shulevitz writes,

“Ms. Byron and some fellow task force members secured a meeting with administrators. Not long after, Brown’s president, Christina H. Paxson, announced that the university would hold a simultaneous, competing talk to provide ‘research and facts’ about ‘the role of culture in sexual assault.’ Meanwhile, student volunteers put up posters advertising that a ‘safe space’ would be available for anyone who found the debate too upsetting.”

Now note what follows,

“The safe space, Ms. Byron explained, was intended to give people who might find comments ‘troubling’ or ‘triggering,’ a place to recuperate. The room was equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma.”

Now keep in mind that the debate that was at the center of the controversy here was not over the morality of rape, it wasn’t over the reality of rape on college and university campuses, it was over the relationship between rape and campus culture. That was simply considered too troubling for some of the students at Brown. Shulevitz writes,

“Safe spaces are an expression of the conviction, increasingly prevalent among college students, that their schools should keep them from being ‘bombarded’ by discomfiting or distressing viewpoints. Think of the safe space as the live-action version of the better-known trigger warning, a notice put on top of a syllabus or an assigned reading to alert students to the presence of potentially disturbing material.”

Very interesting from a worldview perspective; Shulevitz traces the idea of this kind of safe space and the trigger warnings back to what she identifies as:

“…the feminist consciousness-raising groups of the 1960s and 1970s”

She says it can also be traced to gay and lesbian movements of the early 1990s. As she explained,

“In most cases, safe spaces are innocuous gatherings of like-minded people who agree to refrain from ridicule, criticism or what they term microaggressions — subtle displays of racial or sexual bias — so that everyone can relax enough to explore the nuances of, say, a fluid gender identity.”

But she goes on to say that the notion that ticklish conversation must be scrubbed clean of controversy has a way of leaking out and spreading. And her article is about that idea leaking out and spreading. It’s about the shutting down of conversation, free expression, and even the exchange of ideas, on what are considered to be the most prestigious American university campuses.

Now Brown University is one of the exalted institutions of the Ivy League, and yet we’re talking about female students who were admitted to that prestigious university who are so troubled by a debate on campus – not a debate over the morality of rape, not a debate over the reality of rape, but simply a debate over the relationship between rape and the campus culture – that they required a safe space that included cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-doh, calming music – remember all this – pillows, blankets, and a video of frolicking puppies. She asked the obvious question – that is Judith Shulevitz – ‘Is this actually anything that is believable as what is now to be considered normal on the American college and university campus?’

But what she writes about is increasingly normal. It is increasingly the fact that a substantial discussion of ideas is being shut down on these campuses in favor of the emotional protection of students based upon whatever the students declare their emotional needs to be. Shulevitz then writes, and I quote,

“I’m old enough to remember a time when college students objected to providing a platform to certain speakers because they were deemed politically unacceptable. Now students worry whether acts of speech or pieces of writing may put them in emotional peril.”

Shulevitz, herself a feminist, points back to a controversy that emerged in late 2014 in England’s Oxford University. As she writes,

“At Oxford University’s Christ Church college in November, the college censors…canceled a debate on abortion after campus feminists threatened to disrupt it because both would-be debaters were men.”

Shulevitz quoted the student treasurer there at the college at Oxford who said,

“I’m relieved the censors have made this decision. It clearly makes the most sense for the safety — both physical and mental — of the students who live and work in Christ Church.”

Now remember this is a statement about the safety, both physical and mental, of students who are merely going to be subjected to a debate over the morality of abortion. That was simply considered, using the language of the day, too dangerous for students. Some observers of the college and university campuses of today, including especially those from the left, are pointing out the what’s being shut down is any kind of academic freedom or freedom of expression or the exchange of ideas on the college and university campus. Eric Posner, professor at the University of Chicago Law School, is cited in the article as writing at last month that,

“…although universities cosset [that is to protect] students more than they used to, that’s what they have to do, because today’s undergraduates are [too vulnerable]”

Posner wrote,

“Perhaps overprogrammed children engineered to the specifications of college admissions offices no longer experience the risks and challenges that breed maturity. If college students are children, then they should be protected like children.”

And that is what we’re now facing. Even on a university campus like Brown, an Ivy League institution that is known as one of the most liberal institutions in America, but liberal in this case certainly does not mean the free expression of ideas; it means the shutting down of ideas like the shutting down of that debate over abortion at Oxford University.

But Shulevitz is also pretty honest in her article in pointing out that what gets shut down is often any kind of conservative argument or conservative debate, or even the inclusion of a conservative in a debate. But something else Christian should note with great care and concern is the fact that the Christian gospel itself, or any reference to Scripture, anyone who would dare to uphold a scriptural teaching when it comes to something like the definition of marriage or of sexual morality, is likely to face the same kind of complaints. That is that citing biblical authority for sexual morality or speaking of any kind of traditional sexual understanding in terms of the moral structure of marriage is simply something that creates an unsafe space for students in terms of their emotional well-being.

It does tell us that something very serious is going on when a very significant feminist author like Judith Shulevitz writes a piece published on the front of the review section of the New York Times Sunday edition, at least pointing out the incredulity that should meet the fact that you’re looking at students at a prestigious university who are defined by a safe space that includes play-doh and cookies and coloring books and videos of frolicking puppies as a way of avoiding debate.  As even the New York Times understands, you really can’t have education if students are afraid of being emotionally injured by the exchange of ideas.

2) Aging Baby Boomers retaining drug use underlies political shift on drug laws

One of our responsibilities as intelligent Christians engaging the culture around us is to understand how moral change takes place within a culture. And there is evidence about this from several different directions; one of them is a recent article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal. It was on the front page of Monday’s edition, the headline Aging Baby Boomers Hold Onto Drug Habits. Reporters Zusha Elinson writes about the fact,

“Older adults are abusing drugs, getting arrested for drug offenses and dying from drug overdoses at increasingly higher rates”

She says,

“These surges have come as the 76 million baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, reach late middle age. Facing the pains and losses connected to aging, boomers, who as youths used drugs at the highest rates of any generation, are once again—or still—turning to drugs.”

The big point of her article is that the moral change taking place in America when it comes to the use of drugs is being driven at least in part by the fact that baby boomers are returning to their drug habits of the 1960s and 70s. She cites an authority from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who said, and I quote,

“Generally, we thought of older individuals of not having a risk for drug abuse and drug addiction. As the baby boomers have aged and brought their habits with them into middle age, and now into older adult groups, we are seeing marked increases in overdose deaths.”

Elinson then writes,

“Experts say the drug problem among the elderly has been caused by the confluence of two key factors: a generation with a predilection for mind-altering substances growing older in an era of widespread opioid painkiller abuse.”

Elinson quotes Neil Howe, a historian and author of several books on generational trends, who explained the baby boomers have always stood out for their willingness to break with convention and take risks which, from the early days, included taking drugs.

“They themselves continue to behave in a less inhibited fashion even as younger generations turn away from that type of risk taking,”

I point to this article, and it’s a truly massive article, because it underlines at least in part how moral change takes place within a culture. That moral change over the issue of drugs, including the drug of choice – that is marijuana – these days, has to do with the fact that the baby boomers actually didn’t leave their drug using habits behind. They have continued them even as they go into advanced adulthood, and they’re dragging the culture along with them. The legalization of marijuana is popular among the young, but in one of the most startling moral trajectories of our time it is also very, very popular among many baby boomers who are pressing for the legalization of the habits that they involved themselves in when they were teenagers and college students and young adults.

Moral change often takes place because in the passage of one generation to another there is a significant moral transition. On the issue of drugs there has been a very significant and very fast moral transition. It can’t be explained merely by younger Americans buying into the idea of normalizing drug use and legalizing marijuana. It can only happen because older Americans are actually joining with many now younger Americans in calling for this massive moral and legal change. Several times we pointed to all the different complexities that have to do with legalizing marijuana, including the fact that the states that have gotten into this have often discovered that they are unable to keep even the youngest Americans from access to marijuana once they make it widespread.

The Wall Street Journal article also points to the fact that habits that are begun in the early years of life are often difficult to overcome later. The article cites Jamie Huysman, that is a 60-year-old clinical advisor to the senior program at care and treatment centers, who said,

“If you have a trigger, and your youth is caught up in that Woodstock mentality, you’re going to revert back,”

That in itself is a very insightful comment. It’s also extremely revealing that when it comes to many of these baby boomers the legalization of marijuana and the use of so many drugs, including illegal drugs and prescribed painkillers, now is not only because they claim to be doing so on behalf of a younger generation, but because they intend to continue their habits well into old age.

3) Influence of deceased Michael Graves reminder of spread of postmodernism beyond architecture

Next in a fairly rapid sequence, three articles about three engines of cultural and worldview change that evangelical Christians often don’t think about. They are: architecture, fashion, and museums. First, last week national and international media reported on the death of Michael Graves. As Robin Pogrebin of the New York Times reports,

“[He was] one of the most prominent and prolific American architects of the latter 20th century, who designed more than 350 buildings around the world but was perhaps best known for his teakettle and pepper mill, died on Thursday at his home in Princeton, N.J.”

Now as Pogrebin also writes,

“Mr. Graves was first associated with the New York Five, a group of architects who achieved cult-like stature by helping to redefine modernism in the 1970s.”

But the big issue with Michael Graves is this: he became one of the most famous postmodern architects. Many American Christians thinking of the term postmodernism and understanding the vast intellectual change that came with it in the 1990s in particular, understand that it has a great deal to do with literature and philosophy; the change of a worldview towards the rejection of the understanding of truth as objective and towards a radical relativism. But many Christians don’t understand that the word postmodern, and the entire phrase postmodernism, was really first applied to architecture in the United States. And one of the most leading postmodern architects was none other than Michael Graves.

He was known for designing buildings that included both modernist and classical elements. He designed buildings including the Portland municipal building in Oregon and the headquarters of the Humana Corporation in Louisville, Kentucky. In so many of the cases of his buildings, if you look at one side it appeared to follow one style of architecture while another side looked very different. His postmodern designs were neither modernist nor classical, but they included elements of both. An aspect of his building might include classical elements like pediments and columns, but they will be mixed with very radical modernist symbols like giant balls or cones. The term postmodernism applied to architecture referred to the intentional mixing of these modernist and classical elements. Postmodern architecture represented something of a relativizing of architectural principles and the rules of the past.

But one of the things that an intelligent Christians needs to think about is this: even though the architecture might’ve been called postmodern, the engineering that held the building together wasn’t postmodern at all. Even while there might have been the flaunting of architectural conventions in order to argue against any kind of enduring truths or enduring principles, if the building is not hold together it had to be held together by objective truth and enduring principles. The appearance of these buildings may have been decidedly postmodern, but the engineering was most assuredly not. If the engineering had been postmodern, the building wouldn’t have stood because engineering isn’t a matter of relativity and it is nearly impossible to come up with the building that will stand that is defying the very idea of objective truth.

But one of the most important issues for Christian insight is the fact that when an idea like this gains cultural expression it doesn’t stay contained where it originates. Before long, postmodernism wasn’t merely being applied to architecture and art and aesthetics, but to every other arena of life – including claims of truth and morality and the interpretation of texts. Pretty quickly postmodernism came to subvert the idea of objective truth in any arena. What started in architecture didn’t stay in architecture.

4) Fashion shows present gender as fluid in effort to redefine aesthetic values of culture

The same, revealingly enough, is true of the fashion industry. Not long ago in the New York Times there was an article by Guy Trebay on recent fashion shows in Paris; the title of his article, Fluidity and the Idea of Gender. And he writes about recent fashion shows, especially in France, in which young models went across the stage wearing designs and themselves appearing as if they were in a fluid state of gender. He writes about some of these shows in which models appear “of vaguely indeterminate sex.” He also cites a show in which,

“The pale scrawny boy models, hair slicked down like geeks, looked fairly interchangeable with the pale scrawny girl model….”

Both the boys and the girls, as he still identifies them in this article,

“…had the same uncooked look of late adolescence, a time when everything to do with future sexuality still seems in germination.”

That’s exactly as he wrote this sentence.  But the big point, in terms of this article, isn’t about the fashion shows in Paris, it’s really not even about the fact that gender fluidity seems to be a major factor in terms of the fashion shows of the spring of 2015. No, the major point of this article from my interest is a statement that is quoted from one of the designers who said this:

“If you can change aesthetic values, you can change the values of society,”

That is an incredibly revealing statement made by a fashion designer. It’s a statement some might dismiss as being of artistic arrogance, but he’s onto something and he knows it. If you can change the aesthetic values of a society, what society considers normal and true and beautiful to look at, then you can change the values, the moral values, of that society as well.

It’s the Christian worldview that understands the unity of the good, the beautiful, and the true, and if you can fool a society into believing that gender is fluid simply by the expression of fashion – even the demonstration of a fashion show – then you really can bring about, or at least you can accelerate, moral change. Even as what starts in architecture won’t stay in architecture, what starts in terms of reportage in the fashion shows of Paris won’t stay either in Paris or in the field of fashion. What they’re about is not just selling clothes, what they are about – as this article makes abundantly clear – is changing the moral values of society, not only by the clothes they design and not only how they present them, but by how they change society in changing the way people see. It’s the biblical worldview that reminds us, if you can change what people understand to be beautiful, you have just changed also what they understand to be true.

5) Secular reporter finds fact that museums communicate beliefs as well as facts unusual

Finally an article that appeared just recently in a special museum section of the New York Times, this one by David Gelles and he’s writing about the fact that an increasing number of museums are getting into advocacy. He chooses two examples; the first is the Museum of Tolerance which is located in Los Angeles. He says it acknowledges that it’s not an ordinary Museum of artifacts and documents; instead it aims not only to remind us of the past but to remind us to act – acts you might say on the left. Then he goes to the cultural right, indeed to the Christian world, and identifies his other example as the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky – that is suburban Cincinnati – and he writes about the creation Museum that it’s a 70,000 ft.² space that “brings the pages of the Bible to life.” In his words,

“…the Creation Museum presents a counterargument to the theory of evolution with a series of exhibits that make the case for the theory of intelligent design.”

Well he gets that almost right, actually the Creation Museum makes far more than a claim for intelligent design, and it makes a claim to be demonstrating evidence of divine creation. But the interesting thing, in terms of this article, is not just that he sees advocacy – this writer – in the Museum of Tolerance and in the Creation Museum, what’s really interesting, is that he doesn’t see it elsewhere. Implicit in his article is the idea that there are normal museums that are somehow value neutral and then there are advocacy museums. The Christian thinking carefully will understand that it is impossible to have a value neutral Museum, every Museum and every exhibit is advocacy of some form. Every single person who puts together every single exhibit is operating out of a worldview and that worldview will become increasingly apparent when one looks at how the exhibit is put together. Christians walking into a museum, into any Museum, have to understand just as opening any book or watching any entertainment products that a worldview is actually on display. No, the really interesting thing about this article is not where the author sees advocacy in museums, it’s where he doesn’t.


Thanks for listening to The Briefing. In the fall of this year Boyce College will be opening our new Northland campus in Dunbar, Wisconsin. Beginning this fall we’re going to train students in the north woods to serve the church and to engage the culture through a variety of undergraduate degree programs offered at the Northland campus. If you or someone you know is considering college, learn more about our Northland campus at

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Podcast Transcript

1) Exchange of ideas shut down on college campuses in order to protect students’ emotional state

In College and Hiding From Scary Ideas, New York Times (Judith Shulevitz)

Universities Are Right—and Within Their Rights—to Crack Down on Speech and Behavior, Slate (Eric Posner)

2) Aging Baby Boomers retaining drug use underlies political shift on drug laws

Aging Baby Boomers Bring Drug Habits Into Middle Age, Wall Street Journal (Zusha Elinson)

3) Influence of deceased Michael Graves reminder of spread of postmodernism beyond architecture

Michael Graves, 80, Dies; Postmodernist Designed Towers and Teakettles, New York Times (Robin Pogrebin)

4) Fashion shows present gender as fluid in effort to redefine aesthetic values of culture

Rick Owens, Valentino and Louis Vuitton: The Fluidity of Gender, New York Times (Guy Trebay)

5) Secular reporter finds fact that museums communicate beliefs as well as facts unusual

Museums Showcase Attitudes and Beliefs as Well as Objects, New York Times (David Gelles)


R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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