The Briefing 08-28-15
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated
It’s Friday, August 28, 2015. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Duke freshman rejects explicit graphic novel assignment over temptation, not offense
Millions of young Americans begin their first year in American colleges and universities just this year. And with their new arrival on campus came a host of new questions. That’s almost universal, and that’s endemic to the entire process of higher education. Butt when it comes to some students in some schools there are particular questions that are of particular importance to the Christian mind. And they are particularly challenging to the Christian worldview. One of those stories this year that makes that point emphatically clear comes from Duke University. The University that was established, long related to the United Methodist Church, has become a bastion of liberal education in America, one of America’s most prestigious universities, but a University that has been doing his very best to place itself on the left in terms of the culture on any number of issues. Clearly no longer identified with the Christian worldview that gave University’s birth, very much now identified with the mainstream of the academic elite in the United States.
First-year students at Duke University, before they even arrive at the campus, are expected to read a common book. A book that will become the basis of some of their conversation as they are new students and as begin the process of their higher education at the University there in Durham, North Carolina. The book chosen for summer reading by first-year students at Duke this year is by Alison Bechdel, and the novel is known as a graphic novel that goes by the title Fun Home. As Claire Ballentine reported for the Duke Chronicle there at the University, a number of freshmen were skipping reading the book for moral reasons.
As she wrote,
“ For some members of the Class of 2019, the choice of “Fun Home” as a summer reading book was anything but fun.
“Several incoming freshmen decided not to read “Fun Home” because its sexual images and themes conflicted with their personal and religious beliefs. Freshman Brian Grasso posted in the Class of 2019 Facebook page July 26 that he would not read the book “because of the graphic visual depictions of sexuality,” igniting conversation among students.”
The report goes on to say that the graphic novel, again written by Alison Bechdel, chronicles her relationship with her father and her issues with sexual identity. Grasso wrote in his post to the class of 2019 Facebook page for Duke, “I feel as if I would have to compromise my personal Christian moral beliefs to read it.”
But then the report from Ballentine goes on to say that this ignited a controversy not just among the first year students in coming at Duke, but amongst the entire university community. As Ballentine writes,
“Many first-year students responded to the post, expressing their thoughts on Grasso’s discomfort with the novel. Some defended the book’s images as having literary value and said that the book could broaden students’ viewpoints.”
Freshman Marivi Howell-Arza said,
“Reading the book will allow you to open your mind to a new perspective and examine a way of life and thinking with which you are unfamiliar,”
Brian Grasso is not the only incoming first-year student to refuse to read the novel on moral grounds. Freshman Jeffrey Wubbenhorst said he based his decision not to read the book on the graphic images that are found within the text. He said,
“The nature of ‘Fun Home’ means that content that I might have consented to read in print now violates my conscience due to its pornographic nature.”
Another, a young woman, also a freshman Bianca D’Souza, said that she adknowledged the novel would discuss important topics, but she did not find the sexual interactions appropriate and “could not bring herself to view the images depicting nudity.”
As you might expect at least some upperclassmen were quick to dismiss the freshmen concerns. One of them, Brendan McCartney said,
“Another year, another “scandal.” I use the term loosely. If we call having a porn star a “scandal,” then this probably qualifies as well. Is anyone surprised?”
There you have a unique upperclassman insight into what he expects at Duke University. He expects another ‘scandal,’ as happened earlier having a porn star on campus. Now it’s a book accused to being pornographic. Then he asked the question, is anyone surprised? He writes,
“A group of freshmen have opted out of reading “Fun Home”, Duke’s latest summer reading selection. The students believe that reading the graphic memoir — which deals with topics as controversial as feminism, sexual orientation, and mental health — would compromise their Christian morals.”
Now, this editorial appears also in the Duke Chronicle, and here you have an upperclassman speaking down to these freshman, saying these are very immature concerns. And furthermore he diminishes the moral nature of their concerns by saying that they were opposed to topics as controversial as feminism, sexual orientation, and mental health. You will note that Mr. Grasso said, along with the other two students quoted in the news article that their concern was specifically the graphic visual content that was included also in the book. Mr. McCartney goes on to write,
“This is not “Fun Home”'s first rodeo with allegations of immorality. Despite receiving critical acclaim (along with enough awards to fill a glorified trophy case), the novel has been subject to repeated calls for its removal from libraries, course syllabi and university-approved reading suggestion lists.”
Brendan McCartney’s editorial comment appeared in the pages of the Duke Chronicle published on campus, as did an article by Gabriel Rosenberg and Jessica Namakkal. Namakkal is identified as assistant professor of the practice of international comparative studies and women’s studies. Gabriel Rosenberg is identified as assistant professor of women’s studies. The professors write,
“With around seventeen hundred students in the incoming class, there were bound to be some people who reacted as these abstainers did. But it might be helpful for the Duke community and the larger world to place those “several” abstainers in the context of the otherwise enthusiastic reception of the student body to both Fun Home and Alison Bechdel.”
They then go on to say that one night in recent weeks,
“Bechdel spoke to a packed house of students at the Durham Performing Arts Center and received a standing ovation. Earlier that day, Bechdel gave a question and answer session with equally excited students at the Duke Coffeehouse.”
Those articles were all from the Duke Chronicle, published on the campus, reflecting something of the internal Duke controversy and conversation over the issue. But the controversy didn’t stay limited to the Duke campus in North Carolina, as evidenced by an opinion piece that was published in the Culture High and Low column of the Los Angeles Times written by Carolina A Miranda. She writes that if students, at least some students (remember they were dismissed as just ‘several’ students) in the Duke incoming class have moral problems of the book Fun Home, especially with the graphic images, there are other books they really shouldn’t read if indeed they have moral concerns. She cites the student Brian Grasso, who had expressed his concerns about the visual content he described his pornographic, and then Miranda writes,
“Grasso says he would have read the book if it had been just text. It's the drawings, in his mind, that veer into pornography.But how different are images on the page from images created by words in your head?”
.She then goes on to make an argument that coming from the secular worldview is entirely predictable and important for us to face. She says that if these Christian students have their Christian moral sensibilities offended, if they are afraid they will sin by reading this book Fun Home, then there are other books they also ought to avoid. First she says, Oedipus the King. She says,
“It's a classic of the Western canon, replete with incest and murder — not to mention gory eyeball violence.”
She mentions a second; Shakespeare’s play MacBeth, saying that it is “a steaming pile of turpitude.” She then mentions one of the most famous novels of the modern age: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, reminding us that that was about adultery. To that she adds Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, which she describes as “rife with all kinds of questionable and corrupting behavior” and finally - brace yourselves. You have to expect this - she says there’s one more book that is filled with all kinds of sin that morally sensitive incoming students at Duke should not read if they are offended by the images found within the book Fun Home. That book is the Bible Miranda simply says this,
“Where to begin? The story begins with an unmarried naked couple running around a jungle — and then it just goes downhill from there.”
With so many millions of students populating America’s college and university campuses, and with so many these issues now becoming filtered down to high school and even middle school levels, this is an important issue for Christians to think about. You have two arguments here that are already in play. On the one hand you have the argument represented by the students in the incoming class at Duke University who say they should not be forced to read this book, and indeed they did not read the book, because they would’ve been led into sin by the images, the acknowledged to be sexually explicit images, found within what is described as the graphic novel. On the other hand you have the worldview represented by those who say there should be no offense here. It should simply be part of the experience of higher education to be forced to read things that are outside your comfort zone, outside your own convictional worldview, in order to make you think, in order to understand how others think, and in order to identify with the experiences of others outside your own personal limited experience.
Christians need to a knowledge of the entire enterprise of higher education - for that matter of education itself - often includes being confronted with material that is new, sometimes shocking, sometimes troubling, sometimes requiring very critical and complex Christian thinking. We need to understand that that is exactly what should be expected in any authentic process of education. But over against the quick dismissals of the students we need to recognize that those who are pushing for this novel - indeed those who chose this graphic novel chose it with an intention that reflects their worldview and their understanding of education. And in that choice is reflected a huge transformation that has taken place on elite college and university campuses all across the United States . Whether it’s Duke University or the Ivy League, or in all likelihood your local college or university. That worldview suggests that one of the central purposes of higher education is to aid and to abet, to drive and to cause to thrive the moral revolution that is taking place all around us.
The academic elites in the United States have not been casual bystanders to this moral revolution. Long before something like same-sex marriage was discussed on the streets and in the courtrooms of America it was being discussed in the law schools and in the faculty clubs. Long before these issues were even thinkable in terms of public policy, they were being driven by the ideological worldview of those who said that the great project of the modern age is to liberate humanity from bondage to an oppressive sexual morality, largely explicitly rooted in the Christian worldview. To state the matter bluntly, the choice of this graphic novel, which is by any estimation filled with very sexually explicit material, and the fact that it is clearly supportive of the LGBT revolution, the choice of that book tells you that those who were behind it weren’t just looking for literary value. They weren’t just looking for a treatise or a tome that would be a catalyst for intellectual development. They were looking to make a moral point. And they did make that moral point.
And making a moral point on the other side was Brian Grasso and several of his fellow incoming first-year students at Duke. Mr. Grasso actually articulated his concerns very eloquently in an opinion piece published in recent days in the Washington Post. He wrote about his experience at Duke, saying,
“As a Christian, I knew that my beliefs and identity would be challenged at a progressive university like Duke.My first challenge came well before I arrived on campus, when I learned that all first years were assigned “Fun Home,” a graphic novel by Alison Bechdel.”
As he made clear, the book includes cartoon drawings of explicit repeated sexual acts. Mr. Grasso then wrote,
“After researching the book’s content and reading a portion of it, I chose to opt out of the assignment. My choice had nothing to do with the ideas presented. I’m not opposed to reading memoirs written by LGBTQ individuals or stories containing suicide. I’m not even opposed to reading Freud, Marx or Darwin. I know that I’ll have to grapple with ideas I don’t agree with, even ideas that I find immoral.
“But in the Bible, Jesus forbids his followers from exposing themselves to anything pornographic. “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” he says in Matthew 5:28-29.”
Grasso then went on to say,
“I think there is an important distinction between images and written words. If the book explored the same themes without sexual images or erotic language, I would have read it. But viewing pictures of sexual acts, regardless of the genders of the people involved, conflict with the inherent sacredness of sex. My beliefs extend to pop culture and even Renaissance art depicting sex.”
Finally, as he concludes his article he acknowledges that he is well aware that, “my ethics make me an anomaly on campus in comtemporary culture and even among many professing Christians.” Intelligent Christians understanding the process of education and understanding that that means being confronted with strange, new, and even challenging ideas, we come to understand our responsibility nonetheless is to remain faithful Christians even as we are learning. Even as we are reading. Even as we are watching. Even as we are thinking.
And this young Christian men is very clear about the fact that his Christian discipleship would be compromised. His faithfulness to Christ would be violated by looking at these sexually explicit drawings that are published in this book that was assigned to him by Duke University.
His opinion piece in the Washington Post is a very mature and eloquent argument made by a freshman, by a first year student at Duke University. Grappling with the issues he says, and he acknowledges, that being on that progressive campus but that he knew he was going to be challenged in terms of his Christian beliefs. But the distinction he makes years very important. It is one thing to be challenged in terms of worldview, and in terms of belief, in terms of thinking, in terms of analysis, in terms of worldview. It’s another thing altogether to be required to sin, to enter into a context in which the reading or viewing a materials brings about the very occasion of sin.
This is a very crucial distinction for Christians of any age, in any context, but it emerges very clearly in this controversy focused at Duke University. And the controversy also tells us a very great deal about where we now stand in terms of the culture of higher education, where the book assigned in terms of summer reading for the incoming class is a book that all persons involved in this controversy acknowledge includes graphic, visual, sexual content. For those who are the most influential leaders in shapers of higher education in America that just makes perfect sense. And it’s a good thing that we all know.
Dispute over Planned Parenthood videos' authenticity shows need for official investigation
Next, just in terms of an update, the Planned Parenthood videos have been back in the headlines. In this case, it is because a group hired by Planned Parenthood has released a report indicating that they charge that the videos were altered because there are significant gaps in terms of the narrative in the videos, and even as they said that, however, they acknowledge that none of the dialogue is invented. In other words, they acknowledge everything that was said was actually said. As Jennifer Haberkorn of Politico reports,
“A report commissioned by Planned Parenthood has found that the sting videos targeting its tissue donation practices contain intentionally deceptive edits and inaccurately transcribed conversations and are missing footage. But there is no evidence that the anti-abortion group behind the attack made up dialogue.”
The mainstream media acknowledged by the way, that the group behind this was known as Fusion GPS. We talked early in this controversy by the fact that that is a liberal advocacy firm that was hard by Planned Parenthood in order to defend it. They made some serious charges about what they allege is manipulation within the videos. Meanwhile, Mark Hemingway writing the Weekly Standard points out that most of the mainstream media, including Politico and the New York Times failed to mention that the report was produced by a Democratic opposition research firm.
But from a Christian worldview, the most important thing about this development is the fact that we want to know the truth. We’re not afraid of the truth. It’s Planned Parenthood that is deathly afraid of the truth. So at this point let’s simply say, let’s call upon an investigative authority such as the United States Congress to form a special investigative committee to find out exactly what did happen. To have subpoena power in order to coerce witnesses to tell the truth, in order to find out what did happen. Let not just look at what people say about the videos in terms of the media reports, let’s ask those who have the responsibility for our government to investigate and find out exactly what is true in terms of the reality.
Planned Parenthood profoundly fails the moral test, in terms of the very essence of what they represent. And in terms of the fact that the last thing they actually want is an investigation, an actual investigation with subpoena power, about what is really happening behind those videos. That is the one thing they do not want to happen, and that’s the bottom line.
10th anniversary of Katrina reminder of value and fragility of civilization
Finally, the going to this weekend we need to recognize that Saturday represents the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina hitting the city of New Orleans and the entire Gulf Coast area, reshaping the entire Gulf Coast and bringing death and devastation in its wake. We should remember that 10 years ago the storm that everyone knew was going to be significant, but no one knew would be this deadly hit most especially the area of New Orleans. Bringing 1,833 deaths, bringing over $150 billion of damage, reshaping millions of individual lives, reshaping communities, and bring about a fundamental change in terms of how we understand nature and its threat as represented in these giant storms. Katrina now stands as the most costly national disaster in the history of the United States of America. And even as we look back over the span of a decade, it is clear that even as much debris has been cleared and many communities have been rebuilt, that much work still remains to be done. Because one of the realities we come to understand is that when a giant disaster like this takes place, there is a toll, there is damage that goes far beyond anything that can be restored in terms of new construction, in terms of financial compensation. If nothing else Hurricane Katrina, like so many other natural disasters, reminds us all over again just how dangerous this world is and just how small we are.
As we pray for those whose lives continue to be shaped by the experience of Katrina, as we pray for communities that are remembering 10 years later, let’s remember that this isn’t just the anniversary of a storm. It is a reminder on the one hand of just how fragile civilization can be. And on the other hand just how precious civilization really is.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing. For more information go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College just go to BoyceCollege.com.
I’ll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.