Monday, Jan. 8, 2018
Tags: Alex Stone, Audio, Character, Christian B. Miller, Golden Globes, Handmaids Tale, Hollywood, Margaret Atwood
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Monday, January 8, 2018. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
We’ll see virtue signaling and moral messaging at the Golden Globes. We’ll ask why teenagers are so attracted to dystopian fiction. We’ll look at secular advice to reform moral character, and we’ll find a major American newspaper tell parents to celebrate when their children learn how to lie.
Virtue signaling and moral messaging at the Golden Globes
Plenty of worldview issues were on full display last night in the Los Angeles area with the 75th annual Golden Globes awards ceremony. There was a great deal of expectation built upon this particular ceremony because it was the first opportunity for Hollywood to be on full display in this kind of ceremonial context after the controversies surrounding Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and his fall. But of course there's always a great deal to do in terms of the worldview engagement of the Golden Globes or the Academy Awards or just about any other major media and celebrity event. But last night was yet another opportunity for Hollywood to tell us what Hollywood thinks Hollywood is all about: what's most important, who's in and who's out and what's au courant in terms of the culture.
But there was a particularly heightened awareness in terms of the morality of Hollywood last night, and last night was largely a display of continuous moral or virtue signaling. But beyond that there were some inescapable issues that given the context Hollywood had to address. Seth Meyers the comedian who emceed the event launched almost immediately into a moral declaration in the form of barely disguised comedy in terms of defining the post Weinstein era. But that was just the beginning. Actresses dressed in black, the hashtag me to, on and on last night went, but one of the most important worldview dimensions has to do with two particular awards presented last night.
Now in just one particular footnote to this we need to note that the awards last night were presented officially by a group known as the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Back in 1944 this group of mainly international correspondents decided to come up with an alternative to the Academy Awards largely because they thought those awards slighted foreign films and cultural products. But most of that has been lost in terms of the distinction, and the Golden Globes now are basically just seen as the little sister events to the Academy Awards coming later in the spring.
But the two awards of greatest significance last night were the awards for best drama and best actress in a drama. The best drama was The Handmaid's Tale, the best actress by no coincidence Elizabeth Moss who stars in that particular series on Hulu. The handmaid's tale is a classic dystopia. Margaret Atwood the Canadian author explains that it follows in the same tradition at least in her mind as 1984 and Brave New World and other famous dystopian novels of the 20th century. But something we certainly need to keep in mind is that The Handmaid's Tale is actually one of those dystopian novels of the 20th century. Margaret Atwood, a very liberal Canadian author, first published that work in 1985. That's really crucial because if you're listening to the cultural commentary about The Handmaid's Tale both the novel and the television series most would have us to think that Margaret Atwood had pointed the storyline of her dystopia towards what we’re facing now in America and especially as Hollywood is responding to the politics of the current moment. But that wouldn't be true. The novel was first published in 1985.
So even as most of the conversation last night and in the current context suggests that we should be looking at The Handmaid's Tale entirely through the political and cultural lens of 2018, that's just not intellectually honest. Margaret Atwood wrote her novel and published it in the mid-1980s describing a feminist vision of dystopia in which women are subjugated by religious men. She draws freely from what she understands to be Old Testament symbolism and furthermore presents costumes and descriptions that seem to be something of a distorted image of New England Puritanism. And of course she paints this as a form of Christian and religious theocracy. At the same time she has in various interviews tried to suggest she's really not trying to indict Christianity writ large, but rather what she sees as a particularly power-hungry form of Christian theocracy.
But one of the interesting things is that Margaret Atwood's own description of the dystopia she presents in the story has changed rather markedly over time. When the story was first released, there were certainly feminist aspects related to questions of reproduction abortion and sexuality and marriage that came to the surface, but many of those were actually subjugated to other arguments about Atwood's message. She herself indicated that at least part of her message was about the United States in terms of its domineering influence over the northern neighbor Canada, the nation of her own citizenship. But even back in the mid-1980s Margaret Atwood was suggesting that there were political messages that were very important to her story, and she warned about the impulse to theocracy in the then current American presidential administration.
But let's just remind ourselves that was President Ronald Reagan. Atwood basically renewed her charges of theocracy every time a Republican was elected as president: when George Bush was elected in 1988, when George W. Bush was elected in the year 2000 and of course when Donald Trump was elected in 2016. But intellectual honesty compels us to recognize that when Margaret Atwood is talking about theocracy in her vision of the dystopia she's actually talking about any legal mechanism to regulate marriage or sexuality in a way that doesn't meet her feminist expectations. So throw questions such as assisted reproduction and abortion and others into the mix and you pretty much have the picture of the very low level of what it takes for Margaret Atwood to declare a theocracy.
But even if Hollywood is given to dystopias, it’s also given to a certain messianic complex in which Hollywood repeatedly claims to be able perhaps in a solitary fashion to rescue the culture from what it sees as moral backwardness. That explains a great deal of the virtue signaling last night. But even as we might be troubled rightly so by that development, we also need to understand that Hollywood isn't wrong when it prides itself on having an outsized influence on the worldview of the culture and the zeitgeist, the spirit of thinking of the age. One bottom-line reflection on last night is this – Hollywood recognizes there is a very real worldview conflict in this nation and if Hollywood understands it so should we.
Why are teenagers so attracted to dystopian fiction?
But next while we’re thinking about the impulse toward dystopia, not only in this moment but in other cultural moments as well, just a few days ago National Public Radio ran an article by Elissa Nadworny. And she writes about why teenagers and adolescents find the end of the world so appealing. Nadworny writes about spending a night talking with teenagers in the public library in Holland, Michigan. They were sitting around the table, she explains, talking about dystopian novels that interest them. She said,
“Tonight the book club is meeting to talk about House of The Scorpion by Nancy Farmer — the gathering,” she explains, “is part of the library's young adult programming.”
But even the library described the book of this discussion as being dystopian. Some adults, according to the news report, aren't so happy about teenagers reading dystopian fiction. But Nadworny wants us to know that it is particularly of interest to adolescents, and she wants to explain why. One possible explanation comes early in this essay. The facilitator of the reading group asked the question, would it be ethical to clone a human being? Now the aspect we’re talking about here of interest in dystopian fiction is the fact that it is by the mechanism of this kind of fiction that some teenagers actually have their very first deeply thoughtful considerations of big ethical issues such as cloning. One 16-year-old responded to the question by saying,
“No, I don't think it is.”
Meaning that he doesn't think it would be ethical to clone a human being. We’re then told that,
“The conversation goes on for nearly an hour — flowing from clones, to whether or not manipulation is evil, to how screwed up adults are….”
Explaining the popularity of this kind of dystopian fiction among teenagers, the 16-year-old, a young man by the name of Will, went on to say,
“There tends to be a common teen-angst thing, like: 'Oh the whole world is against me, the whole world is so screwed up”
Another 16-year-old young man said that teenagers are cynical. He went on to suggest they should be. In his words,
“To be fair, they were born into a world that their parents kind of really messed up.”
Well that's a world that is like really messed up from Genesis 3 forward. But that's not to make the young man's observation wrong. It’s just to suggest it's a little bit late to date the big problem in the world to his own parents’ generation. But then again every generation of adults messes up the world at least in some aspect. Nadworny writes,
“The plots in dystopia feel super familiar. That's kind of what makes the books scary,” she says, “— and really good. Think of it like this:” she suggests, “Teen readers themselves are characters in a strange land. Rules don't make sense. School doesn't always make sense. And they don't have a ton of power.”
One expert cited in the article is Jon Ostenson who teaches about young adult dystopian literature at Brigham Young University. He published a paper back in 2013 that involved the survey of this kind of literature. He said,
“I had to take a break for quite a while — unfortunately there's not a lot of utopian fiction to balance that out.”
Now let’s just think about that for a moment. Here you have a serious scholar and adult at a university suggesting that he was a bit overwhelmed by the level of dystopia in what's called young adult fiction. That tells us something. He points out the fact that there's not a lot of balance in terms of the literature addressed to teenagers these days. Another authority cited in the article was Lawrence Steinberg, who is a psychologist at Temple University. He suggests that what makes dystopian fiction perfect for the developing teenage brain is the fact that,
“their brains,” he says, “are very responsive to emotionally arousing stimuli.”
He goes on to say that during adolescence,
“there are so many new emotions and they are much stronger than those kids experienced,” he suggests, “when they were younger.”
“When teenagers feel sad, what they often do it put themselves in situations where they feel even sadder,” he says, “They listen to sad music… they watch melodramatic TV shows. So,” he argues, “dystopian novels fit right in, they have all that sadness plus big, emotional ideas: justice, fairness, loyalty and mortality.”
In one very important sentence in the essay, the research is summarized as stating,
“As the brain develops, so does executive functioning. Teens start to understand argument, logical reasoning and hypotheticals.”
There's a lot of wisdom in that, and we know that that is one of the hallmarks of adolescence. The ability to accomplish what is referred to here is executive functioning but is probably better understood as the ability to handle complex cognition or to accomplish abstract thinking. Or to put the matter another way, you’re never going to meet a five-year-old philosopher, but you will meet many 15-year-old philosophers. Something has changed in terms of the executive operation of the brain as psychiatrists would put it. But this is where Christians operating out of a biblical worldview have to think very carefully about what is being presented to us in this kind of essay.
First of all we have to recognize that dystopia is in one sense real in a world without God. That is to say the biblical worldview would make clear that the worst dystopia imaginable to us is the reality when humanity is left without God. When humanity rebels, just consider what we have in the early chapters of the book of Genesis. It goes very quickly from creation to dystopia. But that's the whole point when it comes to the Christian worldview. There's the realism of that dystopia, but then there is the redemption that is promised is in the gospel of Jesus Christ. By God's mercy, by his power and grace alone through the atonement accomplished by Jesus Christ, we are as sinners rescued from that dystopia by means of what is explained as the gospel of Jesus Christ. And the entire story line of the Bible is unique in pointing to the reality of that dystopia in the horrible reality of the fall but not leaving us there as God who was rich in mercy has acted for our salvation. But then again we also have to remind ourselves that the gospel affirms the fact that for those who are without Christ who remain in rebellion against God, the dystopia that will be real is a dystopia that far infinitely exceeds anything that is possible in terms of dystopian fiction.
But there's another insight that is particularly important for Christians in this article. It has to do with the fact that that one professor mentioned that many teenagers who are struggling with these big issues tend just to make themselves even sadder, potentially even more depressed by moving from one horrible story of destruction and despair to yet another, and adding to that music and movies and television that will reinforce that kind of horrible reality. We really do need to recognize that the secular world and its lostness really doesn't have a much better story than either secular utopia on one hand or a horrifying secular dystopia on the other. Neither one is healthy, and furthermore neither one is real. At times what we all need is a certain amount of detoxification and rescue from the popular culture around us. In that respect, it might be particularly urgent for teenagers. But in terms of that need, teenagers are surely not alone.
Secular advice to reform moral character
Finally the weekend saw a couple of very interesting articles about morality, human morality in two major newspapers – The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. The Wall Street Journal, Christian B. Miller, who is a professor of philosophy at Wake Forest University and the author of a recent book entitled The Character Gap: How Good Are We?, talks about how we can encourage what he describes as our better angels. Of course that's a reference to an expression by President Abraham Lincoln. It's one of those articles about character that is explicitly secular, has some very good points, but in the end doesn't turn out to be all that encouraging. He suggests three major ways that we can improve ourselves morally. We can improve our own moral character. The first one in the article is what he calls moral reminders. He says,
“Often we know the right thing to do, but we get distracted or lose sight of what really matters.”
He suggests moral reminders to put this into context as a catalyst for better moral character. The second he suggests is role models who he says,
“can help us see the world in a new way.”
And finally he suggests what he calls education in self-awareness. He points out the fact that some people seem to be ethically immobilized out of fear of being embarrassed by acting. He suggests that the moral imperative is to act even if in doing so one might be embarrassed. But as I said, it’s not that those three suggestions are wrong. It's just that that's a pretty flimsy foundation for thinking about actually improving the moral character of humanity, but at least Professor Miller wants to improve the moral character of humanity.
Major American newspaper tells parents to celebrate when their children learn how to lie
A very different approach was taken by Alex Stone in an article that ran over the weekend in the New York Times. Here's the stunning headline,
“Is your child lying to you? That's good”
No, seriously, that's the headline.
“Is your child lying to you? That's good”
What's the point? Well Alex Stone refers to research that we’ve cited before suggesting that the children who learn how to lie the earliest are the children who turn out to be smarter. It takes a certain amount of intelligence to learn how to lie. Early in the article he asked this question,
“Why do some children start lying at an earlier age than others?”
His answer, I quote,
“What separates them from their more honest peers? The short answer is that they are smarter.”
Sometimes a headline is at least largely misleading in order to get our attention. But in this case, the headline,
“Is your child lying to you? That's good”
is backed up by the argument made in the article. But then get ready for this curveball in the article. Stone writes and I quote,
“The psychologist Kang Lee, who has been researching deception in children for more than two decades, likes to tell parents that if they discover their child lying at age 2 or 3, they should celebrate. But,” says the article, “if your child is lagging behind, don’t worry: You can speed up the process. Training children in executive functioning,” there’s that term again, “and theory of mind using a variety of interactive games and role-playing exercises can turn truth-tellers into liars within weeks”
No kidding. Here you have a serious article in a serious newspaper, the New York Times, arguing that parents should celebrate when their two or three-year-olds learn to lie because it indicates they are intelligent. And if their toddler is lagging behind, the article actually supplies advice on how you can speed up the process. Stone then writes,
“For parents, the findings present something of a paradox. We want our children to be clever enough to lie but morally disinclined to do so.”
By the way in the humanist mash that is represented by this article, Stone goes on to suggest that one of the worst things parents can do in order to reinforce truth telling and to therefore disincline a child from lying is to punish a lie. Instead, he actually suggests paying children to encourage them to tell the truth. We really are living in a world turned upside down when parents in a major American newspaper are told to celebrate when their toddlers lie to be concerned if they haven't yet learned a lie and then are offered tactical advice on how to teach them to lie. And then comes what's acknowledged as a moral paradox – think about that as an understatement – when parents want their children to be smart enough to lie and yet morally disinclined to do so. The advice given about the latter dimension is not only woefully inadequate it's ludicrous. This is moral confusion at its worst, but it's the kind of moral confusion that upon reflection is inevitable in terms of the worldview that is behind it. It's a moral disaster. It's a catastrophe. It's a moral world turned upside down. And that's no lie.
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'm speaking to you from Orlando, Florida, and I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.