Thursday, Mar. 22, 2018

Thursday, Mar. 22, 2018

The Briefing

March 22, 2018

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

It’s Thursday, March 22, 2018. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

The absurdity of sin: In aftermath of Austin bombings, the search for answers is underway

The headlines yesterday indicated that a major, murderous mystery had been resolved in Austin, Texas, but a closer look at the situation just reveals that solving one part of the mystery just points to how much of the mystery may never be resolved. This comes after a series of bombings terrorized the city of Austin Texas, injuring six, killing two, and of course we now know there were multiple bombs, including some that never made it for delivery, deadly delivery, there in the city of Austin.

Even as of Monday, there was the suspicion that this was a serial bomber who might continue to strike and strike again. A massive investigation and later a manhunt was undertaken, and then yesterday came the news that early on Wednesday, Mark Anthony Conditt had blown himself up, even as the police were zeroing in on him, about to apprehend him, after he had been located inside his vehicle. The suspect in the case now dead, Mark Anthony Conditt was identified at a 23 year old white man. Other pieces of information came in, including the fact that he was homeschooled and came from what was described as a very all American, stable family.

Now, when this kind of awful headline strikes and then strikes again and again, our natural, human instinct is not only to end the horror, it is not only to find the criminal behind it, but it is also deeply within us, instinctive to try to explain it, to try to come up with motivation. As of this morning, there is no known motivation. There is no clear understanding of the pattern. It is not known if some or several of the victims were targeted, but it becomes increasingly clear that as of Monday, law enforcement officials came to the conclusion that at least some of the bombings were not targeted.

As we seek to understand the motivation and even to understand the crime, this raises a host of questions, including would it make more sense to us if the victims were targeted, or would it make more sense to us, in rational terms, if the victims were random? Of course there’s no easy answer to that, and that points to a basic understanding of the Christian worldview, and that is this. Sin is itself absurd. Absurd’s the right word here, because absurd means that it cannot be rationally explain. That points to what the Christian worldview underlines, and that is the fact that even though we might come up with some degree of explanation, some understanding of motivation, the reality is we cannot plumb the depths of any single human heart. regrettably, according to the biblical worldview, we cannot even plumbs the depths of our own heart.

In a statement released yesterday, the governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, expressed understandable relief that this series of bombings is now believed to come to an end, but at the same time, he went on to promise what the governor might not be able to deliver. Speaking of the fact that the suspect had two roommates who are cooperating with police authorities, the governor said, quote, “Through those roommates, as well as being able to access social media accounts, as well as getting into the house and gathering information, we’re going to learn so much more over the next few hours.” He went on to say, “Before the sun sets today, we will have so many other pieces of the puzzle,” end quote.

Well, we might, but we might not. We might have some of the pieces of the puzzle, as the governor describes them. Some might some quickly. Some might come more slowly, but the reality is we will never have a complete understanding of the puzzle, because humanity itself is a puzzle, and the closer you get to this kind of demonstration of graphic sinfulness that has led to murderous intent, the puzzle just becomes all the more complex. It’s very understandable that the governor would make this kind of promise. It’s understandable that every single one of us is driven by the instinct to understand. We want to understand. There is this basic, moral need to understand, but we also need to step back for a moment and recognize that even if we understood more, we might find out that we actually understand less.

Now, just consider in comparison the horrifying murders that took place inside that school, that high school in Parkland, Florida, just a few weeks ago. Consider the fact that the suspect in that case, very much alive and now in custody, that that suspect, Nikolas Cruz, was well understood for a very long time to be incredibly troubled. We now know that there were numerous, numerous is an understatement, calls to 911 and cries to authorities for help. We know that there were many school teacher, those who were involved in helping to provide leadership for the young man, those who had given him a home after the death of his mother, there were many who understood he was deeply troubled, and needed help, and might be a danger, but society did nothing, even with all these signs, even after, as we know now, the state of Florida, at least some agencies, had sought some kind of institutionalization of Nikolas Cruz even back in the year 2016.

But then you look at the suspect in the case in Austin, Mark Anthony Conditt, and at least at this point, all the information coming presents the exact opposite picture. No one seems to have seen this coming. No one appears to have understood this young man to be deeply troubled. No one seems to have anticipated that he might turn violent. When these crimes began to come to the light of day, it appears that virtually no one at the time said, “Oh. We have a suspect as to who might be responsible.”

That biblical worldview that reveals the truth about fallen humanity reminds us of the fact that we will never actually be able to read another human being as much as we would want to. Furthermore, we certainly can’t understand, even in everyday life, who we might really be sitting next to, especially in a context where we do not know the person, because even if we had some indication, some sign, we would still be unable to read the mentality, the worldview, to read the intentions and motivations of any single human being. We simply do not have the ability to read the human heart. But then consider, on the other hand, the fact that we do at times have real information, real data concerning what’s been demonstrated by a human being. In this case, just take Nikolas Cruz, again, of Florida. He demonstrated the fact that he was violent and unstable, and it was known that he had guns and that he had violent intent, and yet those around him did nothing. In this case, we speak specifically of law enforcement officials and others who were in a position to do something, but didn’t.

Finally, on this story, even as we continue to pray for and to grieve with the people of Austin, Texas, even as investigators and law enforcement there try to explain questions that in the end might be inexplicable, even if just giving a bit of clarity in the midst of this confusion might be possible, we have to recognize that there is a fundamental question about why human beings do not see what perhaps even we might see. Is it because we do not know, or is it because we will not know? Is it because we cannot see, or because we will not see? Sometimes we ourselves seem to be unable to answer the question.

Part II

The two-edged sword of technology on display in Facebook’s most recent controversy

Next we shift to another major headline story and in this case, an international headline story. It has to do with Facebook and social media, but specifically it has to do with Facebook and the acknowledgement that has been made by Facebook itself and by its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, that an app was able to gain and then to manipulate the personal data of about 50 million Facebook users and to do so for a political purpose. It’s also of interest and it’s very controversial that Zuckerberg remained silent on this, until he made a statement at Facebook.

In that statement, Zuckerberg said, quote, “I started Facebook, and at the end of the day, I’m responsible for what happens on our platform.” He went on to say, “While this specific issue involving Cambridge Analytica should no longer happen with new apps today, that doesn’t change what happened in the past. We will learn from this experience to secure our platform further and make our community safer for everyone going forward,” end quote. But that statement, which is quite a bit thinner than many might first hear it to be, is also coming after Facebook has now suffered a massive loss of public credibility and also a loss in the stock markets, because investors understand that perhaps for the first time since Facebook became a publicly traded equity, Facebook is now looking at a basic threat to the survival of the social media platform and certainly the survival of its reputation.

From a biblical worldview perspective, the most important thing to understand in this story is the two edged sword of technology. Some technologies can bring about great good. Others bring about evil, but the reality is that even the most benign of technologies is still a technology that can almost always in a fallen world be not only used, but be misused. As you look at the statement made by Mark Zuckerberg, what he’s claiming is that Facebook was in this case misused. The social platform was taken advantage of. An app misused the information that came through Facebook. According to Zuckerberg, he started the company, and he’s going to fix the problem.

But we now know that Zuckerberg and other officials at Facebook knew about this vulnerability for a very long time and didn’t solve it. Furthermore, we also know, even looking at the statement from Zuckerberg, even as he said, “I started Facebook, and at the end of the day, I’m responsible for what happens on our platform,” he went on to say, “The language here is extremely important. While this specific issue involving Cambridge Analytica should no longer happen with new apps today …” Just look at that. What should we hear?

Well, first of all, he speaks of this specific issue, limiting the promise that he’s making to fixing this issue, but then he goes on to say that this kind of misuse should no longer happen. Well, should is a very interesting word to use. If should is used here in a moral context, then the misuse should never have happened, but should, as we understand it in this context, probably isn’t basically addressed as a moral issue. Perhaps it’s addressed as a policy issue or perhaps even understood as a technological promise. In any event, should turns out to be a very weak word when contextualized in this promise.

Those who are committed to a biblical worldview are not committed to opposed technology in and of itself. That would be incompatible with the mandate that is given to humanity by the creator in Genesis, chapter one. Here, again, we should simply remind ourselves that a wheel is a technology, every bit as much a technology as is the microchip, but every technology comes with both promise and threat, and every use can be transformed into a misuse. When it comes to the more sophisticated, advanced technologies, well, the more sophisticated and advanced promises they bring come also with more sophisticated and advanced threats and opportunities for misuse.

It was the French Protestant theologian, Jacques Ellul, one of the most important Protestant thinkers in Europe in the 20th century, who underlined the fact that with every technology comes a risk and that the clearest risk in technology is that what we claim we use turns out upon reflection to be using us, that the contract between the servant and the master can get completely upended with many technologies without human beings recognizing what is happening. At the background of this, Jacques Ellul made very clear, is the fact that technology, the more sophisticated and advanced technologies, the more complicated and often celebrated technologies actually can become disguised forms of idolatry.

Looming over this entire controversy is the entire world of modern social media. The words social media are themselves a bit complicated when you put the two together. We know what we’re talking about, but we still don’t understand the meaning or the impact of social media in our lives individually or communally, but we do know this. In a way that even George Orwell and Aldous Huxley in the 21st century could not have foreseen in their worst nightmares, social media has lured millions and millions, indeed hundreds and hundreds of millions of us to surrender our own personal, private information and give it to the world, or at least post it on Facebook and to give Facebook as a company access to much of our lives in a way that in previous generations only perhaps a family member, or an attorney, or a personal physician might have.

Then we can hardly be surprised when someone, having access to that information, misuses it, perhaps for a political purpose, perhaps for a consumer end, perhaps for some kind of economic or social agenda. In any event, the misuse of the data becomes possible, because the collection of the data has become actual. Christians are those who understand, because we understand sin, that if something can be misused, it will be.

Part III

Why “the man who knew too little” isn’t as ignorant as he wants you to believe

Well, next, this reminds me of a major essay that appeared in the New York times just a few days ago. It was written by Sam Dolnick, the headline, The Man Who Knew Too Little, the subhead, Upset By Trump’s Election, An Ohio Man Began An Experiment. Is Ignorance Truly Bliss?

Now, that article looked pretty interesting. Here is a man we are told knows too little, and he is ignorant of contemporary affairs. Dolnick’s article, begins, quote, “At first the experiment didn’t have a name. Right after the election, Eric Hagerman decided he’d take a break from reading and the hoopla of politics.” We’re told that he was very offended by the election of President Trump, quote, “And so Mr. Hagerman developed his own eccentric experiment, one that was part silent protest, part coping mechanism, part extreme self-care plan. He swore that he would avoid learning anything that happened to America after November the 8th, 2016.” Mr. Hagerman said, and I quote, “It was draconian and complete. It’s not like I wanted to just steer away from Trump or shift the conversation. It was like I was a vampire and any photon of Trump would turn me to dust.”

The article in the New York Times goes on to say that the experiment was just going to be for a few days, but as Dolnick writes, “But he,” that means Hagerman, “Is now more than a year into knowing almost nothing about American politics. He has managed to become shockingly uninformed during one of the most eventful chapters in modern American history.” “He is,” says the New York Times, “As ignorant as a contemporary citizen could ever hope to be.” What he doesn’t know about, well, according to the New York Times, he doesn’t know about Russia. I assume that means recent headlines. He doesn’t know about James Comey, doesn’t know about Robert Mueller, doesn’t know about Las Vegas, the travel ban. He doesn’t know about language, including alternative facts. He doesn’t know about recent crimes and horrifying headlines.

Now, the article takes an interesting turn when it tells us that Mr. Hagerman, age 53, quote, “Lives alone on a pig farm in Southeastern Ohio,” end quote, but if you’re drawing any generalization about Mr. Hagerman, you’re probably entirely wrong, because as the story actually concedes rather shortly after that statement, Mr. Hagerman has just decided to live alone, or at least to live in the company of pigs, somewhere in Southeastern Ohio. He hasn’t lived most of his life on a pig farm in Ohio. No. Prior to that, he had a very different life. He was a corporate executive at Nike. Indeed he was the senior director of global digital commerce at Nike.

According to the New York Times, he worked with teams of engineers to streamline the online shopping experience for Nike. Before that, he also had major jobs at Walmart and Disney, but evidently after making his fortune, he decided that he wanted to trade all of his colleagues at Nike, Disney, and Walmart for the company of pigs. He said, quote, “I worked 12, 14 hour days. The calendar was completely booked,” but Dolnick says, “Three years ago he decided that he had saved enough money to move to a farm, make elliptical sculptures, and eventually opt out of the national conversation entirely,” end quote.

“Mr. Hagerman,” the article also goes on to tell us, “Calls his so-called experiment The Blockade. He is blockading himself from news, living on this farm on Ohio, knowing nothing, or so we are told.” But the artificiality of all of this just raises some basic questions. If this man’s really just living on an isolated farm alone in Ohio, why are we reading about him in a major essay in the New York Times? How would anyone know? Then we have to ask another question. Is it really possible that he doesn’t know what he tells us he doesn’t know? Then what would be the conditions of his ignorance?

This reminds me of a story told by Clarence Jordan decades ago. Jordan told the story of a rich, young man who with his wife decided to go to South Georgia, and to join the farming community there, and to live amongst those who were economically not privileged. He declared himself to be poor, but Clarence Jordan retorted to him that he really isn’t poor, because poor isn’t a choice. He said, “You have options. There’s always someone you can call. You always have rescue from poverty. The real poor do not have anyone to call. They do not have such a rescue.” He turned to the young man and said, “You’re not poor. You’re just playing poor.”

So, in this case, by the time you finish the New York Times article, this man isn’t really ignorant. He’s just playing ignorant. Furthermore, he appears to be playing ignorant so well that the New York Times decided it was worth three different print pages of the extension of his story. Deciding effectively not to watch the news or even supposedly to cut yourself off from the national conversation, doesn’t mean that you really don’t know what you claim you don’t know. This is a reminder to us all of a basic biblical understanding that there are so many things that we actually, if honest, cannot not know. We might not be following contemporary headlines. We might not know the latest gossip. We might not know some of the names that Mr. Hagerman says he does not know, but in all the big questions in life just cutting off a line on November 8, 2016 does not actually make you ignorant. You’re just playing ignorant.

But that raises another really interesting question, doesn’t it? If this man is actually just living alone on an isolated farm in the heart of the country, why would we be reading about him in the New York times? I think we all know. It’s because behind this is the fact that he had previously held major corporate positions, not by accident perhaps, in digital marketing at Disney, Walmart, and Nike. If you take the full measure of the irony in this story, just consider the fact that the New York Times is not known for knocking on the doors of Ohio farmers asking what they know and think about the world.

Part IV

Doomsday insanity: Prepping goes mainstream with high-end “go bags”

But before leaving the world of nonsense, I want to turn to a very different newspaper, in this case the Wall Street Journal, a very different article, this one by Mark Penn, who’s been a veteran consultant to Democratic campaigns, but his current business is in identifying economic and social microtrends. He’s the author of a book coming out soon entitled Microtrends Squared. In the book, he talks about some microtrends that he says might have mega meaning, and one of them he says is arm chair preppers. He writes, quote, “Americans are more worried than ever before about being prepared for sudden disaster.” He goes on to say, “This used to be the province of a few who built bunkers and stocked it with survival rations, but a new, more mainstream industry is growing.”

Penn then goes on to write about a newly branded, more mainstream version of prepping that perhaps is tailor made for urbanites, and sophisticates, and millennials. He says at the heart of it is what’s called a go bag, quote, “To be grabbed and put to immediate use.” He then tells us, quote, “A New York based startup called Preppi sells consciously stylish ones with prices starting at $175 and topping out at $4,995.” Yes, folks. There are evidently people ready to pay about $5,000 for a Preppi go bag. Then, in case you were asking, “What would human survival depend upon?”, we were told that the high end version, quote, “Includes night vision goggles, a scented candle, and caviar.”

My favorite part is where the story … Remember, this is intended to be a very serious story. The Wall Street Journal continues, quote, “A id’s backpack survival kit for $275 comes stocked with,” here’s the company’s words, “All the necessary supplies, such as food, water, and first aid items, as well as plenty of fun.” Some days it seems almost as if the human race is going all at the same time insane, but this story simply reminds us that there are only a few out there presumably, perhaps a few hundred, maybe even a few thousand ready to shell out between 175 and roughly $5,000 for a Preppi survival bag. But anyone who has read the Book of Revelation knows that when the end of the world comes, you’re not going to be concerned about caviar. It is really hard to imagine that seriously minded people are going to say, “Hey, Honey. The world is coming to an end. Grab the kids, and grab the go bag. Remember, kids, you’re going to have plenty of fun.”

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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Barring the end of the world, I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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