The Briefing 04-15-15

The Briefing 04-15-15

The Briefing


April 15, 2015

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


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

1) Moral contradiction of life of Nobel winner Günter Grass shows absolute need for divine grace 

Sometimes it almost seems that events conspire to make a common point. That seems to be the case today, and that point is the meaning of history. How close history is to us, and sometimes on the other hand, seemingly how far.

The first headline it comes to our attention was the obituary for Günter Grass, the Nobel prize-winning novelist from Germany. Stephen Kinzer’s front page article in the New York Times reads, “Writer Pried Open German Past, but Hid His Own.” Now the first thing we should note is that this obituary in the New York Times landed on the front page. That tells us something. When the death of an individual makes the front pages of the New York Times that’s really important – in this case the front page itself. And Stephen Kinzer’s obituary for Günter Grass tells us from the very beginning what is at stake. He writes,

“Günter Grass, the German novelist, social critic and Nobel Prize winner whom many called his country’s moral conscience but who stunned Europe when he revealed in 2006 that he had been a member of the Waffen-SS during World War II, died on Monday in the northern German city of Lübeck.”

He died at age 87, after living there in Lübeck for a matter of decades. As Kinzer tells us in this front-page obituary in the New York Times, the interest in Günter Grass is really twofold. First of all, because of his stature as one of the major novelists and literary figures of the 20th century. Secondly, because of the great moral contradiction that was revealed to the world in the year 2006.

But we also cannot separate Günter Grass from the events of the 20th century, most importantly the Nazi regime and World War II. That’s what makes his life really interesting. That’s what made his literature so historically compelling, and that’s what makes his own moral contradiction front-page news when his death occurs and the New York Times puts his obituary right in front of the world.

Günter Grass wrote the Tin Drum. It was published in 1959, and as it was published Günter Grass became in so many ways (as the media are now acknowledging) the moral conscience of Germany in the postwar period. Günter Grass was a 15-year-old when he entered into military service in the Third Reich. He claimed that military service was both involuntary and largely outside of any arena of combat. The major literary theme – indeed the literary obsession of Günter Grass and especially of his most famous novel the Tin Drum – was the moral inadequacy of Germany. What he understood to be a moral immaturity that led to the fact that the nation did not and could not resist seemingly the demonic allure of the Nazi regime.

One of the primary issues of Günter Grass was the enormous guilt that was born by the German people. A guilt, he accused in 1959 and following, that the German people were not acknowledging. His literary stature is attested by the New York Times in these words;

“He was propelled to the forefront of postwar literature in 1959, with the publication of his wildly inventive masterpiece “The Tin Drum.” Critics hailed the audacious sweep of his literary imagination. .. The “Tin Drum” became a worldwide triumph.”

The New York Times continues,

“In awarding Mr. Grass the Nobel Prize in 1999, the Swedish Academy praised him for embracing “the enormous task of reviewing contemporary history by recalling the disavowed and the forgotten: the victims, losers and lies that people wanted to forget because they had once believed in them.””

In awarding Günter Grass the Nobel Prize for Literature the committee cited, “one of the enduring literary works of the 20th century.”

For many on the political and ideological left in Europe and in the United States Günter Grass became not only a literary but a moral hero. A hero for claiming that Germany was not fulfilling its moral responsibility in facing up to the horrors, the evil and atrocities of the Nazi regime and of German complicity with that regime. A complicity that Günter Grass made clear extended to ordinary Germans. In that sense Günter Grass was appreciated both by the political left and the right when it came to the moral conscience of Germany, when it came to responsibility for the Holocaust and for World War II.

But Günter Grass was also very popular with the ideological and political left because of his persistent criticisms of the United States and of the West, of NATO, and of the Western military alliance. Günter Grass was well known as a lifelong friend of Fidel Castro, and as a supporter of the Marxist revolutionary government in Nicaragua back in the 1980s –  the government known as the Sandinistas.

But Günter Grass was also lionized because it was understood that his personal life was consistent with his literary works. But all that was shattered in the year 2006 and that more than anything else explains why his obituary was page 1 news. As the obituary published yesterday in the Wall Street Journal stated,

“In 2006, he admitted that after voluntarily joining the German military as a 15-year old in 1943, he was drafted in 1944 into a Nazi Waffen-SS division. The confession, which contradicted his earlier accounts of his military service, came as a prelude to the German publication of an autobiographical book called “Peeling the Onion.””

Günter Grass said in an interview at that time,

“What I accepted with the stupid pride of youth I wanted to conceal after the war out of a recurrent sense of shame. But the burden remained, and no one could alleviate it. I did everything I was ordered to do [speaking of his Waffen SS past] without a second thought.”

As the Journal states,

“The belated acknowledgment fueled a fresh debate on Germans’ Nazi secrets and the guilt of those alive at the time. Mr. Grass’s decadeslong concealment of his Waffen-SS enrollment drew accusations of hypocrisy in Germany in light of his status as a formidable moral authority close to Germany’s political center-left.”

That’s if anything, an understatement. Just imagine that someone emerges in the decades after World War II in Germany as the moral conscience of his people calling out war guilt on the part of the Germans, but claiming that he did not fundamentally share in that guilt. Only later – decades later in 2006 – did he reveal that he actually served as a teenager in the Waffen SS (one of the most feared, violent, and evil branches of the evil Nazi regime).

Again in something of an understatement, Stephen Kinzer’s obituary in the New York Times.

“Mr. Grass was hardly the only member of his generation who obscured the facts of his wartime life. But because he was a pre-eminent public intellectual who had pushed Germans to confront the ugly aspects of their history, his confession that he had falsified his own biography shocked readers and led some to view his life’s work in a different light.”

Once again, that statement that they viewed his life’s work in a different light is surely something of an understatement. The Wall Street Journal is closer to the reality when it actually uses the word ‘hypocrisy.’ Günter Grass in 2006 was revealed as having participated in the Waffen SS, and not only that having done everything he was commanded to do. And not only that serving in a time when the Waffen SS was involved in some of the most horrifying moral atrocities of the Holocaust and the Second World War. And so Günter Grass became during the earlier decades after the war the moral conscience of the German people by writing the Tin Drum and his so-called Danzig trilogy. But when it came to writing his own autobiography in 2006 he had to reveal not only that he was a moral arbiter of German guilt, but that he had been an active participant. And he also wrote about the fact that as a teenage boy he had been attracted to what he called the ‘black and white values of the Waffen SS.’

If anything this front-page obituary of Günter Grass in the New York Times and the larger international conversation that is occasioned by his death points to the fact that the history of World War II is closer to us than many people might imagine. There are still many Americans alive today who fought bravely in the European and Pacific theaters of World War II. They confronted face-to-face the evil of the Nazi regime. There are still people living today who are among the allied soldiers who liberated the Holocaust prison camps and saw with their own eyes the evil of the Nazi atrocities that included the murder of about 7 to 12 million people – mostly Jews – in the concentration camps and in the ovens of Auschwitz, Treblinka, Birkenau, and so many other death camps. The moral weight of history is underlined by this obituary and by the death of Günter Grass, and by the moral controversy that emerged in his life and in the larger culture in 2006, and comes in the light on the occasion of his death in Germany on Monday.

For every single one of as sinful human beings there is a history. There is an autobiography that reminds us of our absolute need for divine grace, and for the gospel of Jesus Christ, and for that justice that can come only on the Judgment Day of God.

From a Christian worldview perspective the really shocking thing isn’t that the Günter Grass hid his history as a teenager with Waffen SS. No, the really interesting thing from the biblical worldview is the fact that what Günter Grass really represents in a way that we can sympathize and understand is that human beings made in the image of God want to come to a moral understanding of our own times and of our own history. We want to find a way for there to be an accounting – a moral accounting – that will finally alleviate our guilt. But as Günter Grass understood, and as he confessed in 2006, even writing the works of literature that made him lionized after the war could not alleviate his guilt. Note from a biblical perspective what we find Günter Grass is the reminder of the fundamental fact that we are moral creatures because God made us that way, and of the fundamental fact that we all know a guilt that we cannot resolve on our own.

And finally, we come to find out the over against the cultural pretensions of our age or any age, there is no salvation and a novel nor in a novelist. That too is an important lesson from this obituary.

2) 150 years after Lincoln assassination, moral weight of slavery on America cannot be ignored

Next, in terms of the history far closer to us (not in time but in geography) how many Americans had noted that yesterday – April 14, 2015 – marked the 150th anniversary of the assassination of Pres. Abraham Lincoln. It should tell us something about the stunted and rather minimal historical consciousness of Americans that when the day passed very few had actually noted the fact that 150 years ago yesterday, on that very day the President of the United States who finds his way onto the American penny and into the American heart was assassinated in Ford’s theater as there in Washington DC he had gone to watch a play with his wife.

The best historical reflection published in the mainstream media yesterday was found in an article by James L. Swanson and Michael F. Bishop found in the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal. The headline of their article; “A President Who Lived and Died for Liberty.” As Swanson and Bishop wrote,

“One hundred and fifty years ago, on April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln went to the theater.

“The day began as one of the happiest of his life. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender on April 9 had elated him, and he had been more buoyant than at any other time during his presidency. Three-quarters of a million men had fallen in the Civil War over which he had presided, and the conflict had almost consumed him.”

Swanson and Bishop cite a letter written by Pres. Lincoln to Illinois Congressman Owen Lovejoy in which he said “This war is eating my life out. I have a strong impression that I shall not live to see the end.”

Swanson and Bishop then write that on the afternoon of 14 April during the carriage ride with his wife the very day of his death he said,

“Mary, I consider this day, the war has come to a close. We must both be more cheerful in the future. Between the war and the loss of our darling Willie [you’ll be reminded that their son that died during the war] we have both been very miserable.”

As Swanson and Bishop then write,

“Freed from the vexations of war and death—no more would he have to send armies of young men to die—Lincoln dreamed of the future.”

But then the next words by the two authors; “It was not to be.” Indeed, it was not to be, and we now know that John Wilkes Booth, an actor, had planned to assassinate the President of the United States and when he had the opportunity 150 years ago yesterday he took it, shocking the nation and changing world history.

This also underlines the fact that it was on April 9 (just about a week ago) that America could have understood the matter of historical consequence remembering that the surrender of the South at Appomattox had happened 150 years ago that day. Then just five days later came the assassination of the Pres. thus five days later comes the 150th anniversary of that tragic event.

But when we’re thinking as Christians about the burden and the lessons of history Abraham Lincoln serves as a particularly complex and interesting test case. Because one of the things we need to keep in mind – remember how often were now being told that Christians have to get on the right side of history? – when were being told about the inevitability of same-sex marriage and other issues of the moral revolution, one thing to keep in mind is this; during his own time there was a very mixed verdict when it came to Abraham Lincoln. As a matter of fact even right up until the day of his death, there were those in the North – not only in the South – who saw Abraham Lincoln as an evil figure. As a political tyrant. And they were quite certain back in the year 1865 that history would render a very negative judgment on Abraham Lincoln. Of course that hasn’t happened.

One of the interesting things, by the way, that was noted on the 150th anniversary of Appomattox was the fact that about 70,000 books have been published on the American Civil War since that day of Southern surrender. That’s 70,000 books. That is more – if you count them – than the number of days since Appomattox until now. That tells you something of the interest in the Civil War (by the way not only the United States but in many other nations as well). And the reason for that fascination is inherently moral. We are fascinated with the Civil War and we are fascinated with Abraham Lincoln because of the enormous weight of the moral issues that were involved in that war. At the center of that moral question was the whole issue and institution of slavery. And we now bear the reminder 150 years after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln that it was once conceivable, legal, and considered moral in much of the United States for people to sell fellow human beings as if they were mere objects.

And even as we remember the complicity of the South in terms of slavery, we are also reminded that the North was involved right up until the very years prior to the war in an open involvement in the slave trade. The more we look at American history and the issue of slavery, the more it becomes apparent to us that like Germany after World War II, but in a different moral context, America is still dealing with the guilt of slavery, of endemic racism, and of the legacy of the Civil War.

It is tempting in almost any historical review to try to separate things in the simple black and white. But it isn’t so simple. And as a matter of fact even as the great evil of slavery had to be eradicated, looking back from the distance of 150 years it is still shocking to us to see how very costly the eradication of slavery was. We’re talking about a war in which there were 750,000 men killed on both sides. It was a horrifying conflict. And at the center that conflict was Abraham Lincoln. And at the center of Lincoln was as he knowledge at so many turns his own tortured moral conscience. Abraham Lincoln was not elected as an abolitionist, but he died as an abolitionist. Abraham Lincoln did not state at the beginning of the war that it was a war over slavery, but rather that it was a war to perpetuate and preserve the union. But by the time the war was at its midpoint (and certainly by the time that it ended) Abraham Lincoln had been through the moral crucible of the leadership as President of the United States during its most fractious and horrifying years, coming to the understanding that as he stated at Cooper Union some years earlier, the nation could not survive divided between slave and free.

From the vantage point of 150 years, Abraham Lincoln still is very difficult to understand. He was often inexplicable and confusing even to his closest associates at the time. The religious worldview of Abraham Lincoln is itself quite difficult to discern. He appears to be quite frequently a quoter of Scripture and Scripture found its way into many of his most moving addresses, including his second inaugural address. But Abraham Lincoln was in terms of his own personal faith very remote. If anything, his references to is own beliefs tend indicate some form of Deism. And the final analysis; there is no way to read Abraham Lincoln’s heart. There’s no way to come to an adequate conclusion of exactly what he believed. But it is clear that he believed that God existed, and that he was judging in history. And as he stated in his second inaugural address, he believed that history would judge both sides in terms of the horrifying conflict of the Civil War, and he believed that America might well never get over its moral guilt and responsibility for slavery. And those were prophetic words back in 1865. They’re prophetic words even now in 2015.

The closer you look at Abraham Lincoln, the more confusing the man often becomes. That’s one of the lessons Christian should ponder in terms of the Christian worldview in history. There is no way we can look into the mists of history and actually come up, by means of secular historical investigation, with an adequate understanding of a human heart or the human mind. Even once a well-documented is Abraham Lincoln. But we also cannot avoid – and Christians must understand this – the moral questions that come with an understanding of the events of history. In particular for Americans, the Civil War, and its aftermath and the importance of singular individuals such as Abraham Lincoln.

By the way I mentioned James Swanson as the co-author of what I thought was the best article reflecting on Abraham Lincoln’s death, and I would also commend his book written several years ago entitled “Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer.” Published back in 2006, it’s one of the best books on the aftermath of the Civil War. It’s an example of the way history should and can be written.

Finally, just a few years ago the last Confederate widow died. This was documented because there was a last Confederate widow living into the 21st century who was receiving military death benefits for a husband would had served in the Civil War. Now, clearly – you can do the math – we’re talking about a very young girl who had married a very old veteran of the Civil War. But still, just in terms of the facts in American history, the last Confederate widow died in recent terms in just a matter of years ago.

3) Death of sibling of last Chinese emperor reminder of proximity of history

But another reminder of the bridges of history comes to us also from the pages of yesterday’s edition of the New York Times. This too is an obituary. Didn’t make the front page –  as a matter fact it was in the middle of the front section in page A17. Here’s the headline: “Jin Youzhi, 96, Siblings of China’s Emperor.”

As Patrick Boehler reports for the New York Times, we’re talking about the fact that just a matter of days ago the half-brother of the last Emperor of China died. Most Americans thinking back to Chinese history and thinking of the age of the Chinese Empire would imagine that we’re talking about centuries ago. But actually, no. The fall of the Chinese Empire came in the early decades of the 20th century, and the last Emperor of China’s surviving half-brother died only a matter of days ago. The Manchu Dynasty had ruled China for 268 years, and claimed a royal ancestry going all the way back to the time of the Old Testament.

Shift back 100 years to the year 1915, and shift to Europe in the years of World War I and remember that most Europeans lived at that time in imperial nations that were ruled by a crowned head; a king or an emperor or a Kaiser. You don’t have to go that far back to find history in a very different shape of the world than it is now. That too is one of the lessons of history.

For Christians history’s important because it’s not as Henry Ford said one time ‘just one event after another.’ It is the unfolding evidence of the judgment and justice of God. And unfolding evidence of the fact that we are awaiting a divine consummation, a judgment that is yet the com and will be final and perfect. And as Christians also remember, a city that has foundations whose maker and builder is God.

Every human empire will fall, and every human empire will fall also under the judgment of God. But we’re awaiting the kingdom that will never fail and will never end. And for Christians that is the most important lesson of history.


Thanks for listening to The Briefing. For more information go to my website at You can follow me on Twitter by going to Remember we’re taking questions for Ask Anything: Weekend Edition. Call with your question in your voice to 877-505-2058. That’s 877-505-2058. For more information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary go to For information on Boyce College just go to


I’m speaking to you from Orlando, Florida and I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.


Podcast Transcript

1) Moral contradiction of life of Nobel winner Günter Grass shows absolute need for divine grace 

Günter Grass Dies at 87; Writer Pried Open Germany’s Past but Hid His Own, New York Times (Stephen Kinzer)

Günter Grass, Nobel Prize-Winning German Writer, Dies Aged 87, Wall Street Journal (Anton Troianovski and Mary M. Lane)

2) 150 years after Lincoln assassination, moral weight of slavery on America cannot be ignored

A President Who Lived and Died for Liberty, Wall Street Journal (James L. Swanson and Michael F. Bishop)

3) Death of sibling of last Chinese emperor reminder of proximity of history

Jin Youzhi, Sibling of China’s Last Emperor, Dies at 96, New York Times (Patrick Boehler)

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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