Wednesday, Aug 29, 2018

Wednesday, Aug 29, 2018

The Briefing

August 29, 2018

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

It’s Wednesday, August 29, 2018. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Why do we lie? What we learn from watching the secular world grapple with the big questions of life

Why do we lie? Why do children lie? How do we understand the different between the truth and the lie, and why do we know internally even before we are told that lying is wrong and telling the truth is right?

Sometimes it’s really interesting to see a secular world grapple with these big questions and try to answer them with the toolbox that a secular worldview provides. It’s a limited toolbox because you can’t talk about God, you can’t talk about being made in God’s image, you really can’t talk about conscience, in any way other than thinking of it as some kind of mechanism produced by natural selection or evolution. But never answers the fundamental question of why? Why is right to tell the truth? Why is it wrong to tell a lie? Why is it that virtually every parent wants the child to tell the truth rather than to tell a falsehood?

Those are huge questions, and it’s interesting that The Washington Post recently turned to new scientific research to try to answer these questions. William Wan and Sarah Kaplan reporters of The Washington Post tell us, “We all do it sometimes even though we know it’s wrong, but here is the problem with lying research shows that the more you lie the easier it gets, and the more likely you are to do it again.”

Now again, that didn’t come from some kind of moralistic literature, that came from The Washington Post. The article continues turning to science, very modern science. Diane Reilly behavioral psychologist at Duke University said, “The dangerous thing about lying is people don’t understand how the act changes us.” Now we’re just a few lines into this secular article in a major secular newspaper about a secular consideration of truth and the lie, and already two huge issues of moral importance have been underlined. The first came in the second paragraph where we are told and I quote again, “Research shows that the more you lie the easier it gets, and the more likely you are to do it again.”

Now let me just ask you, honestly did you need research for that? It’s not uninteresting that secular scientific research indicates that very truth, but it’s also really important for us to understand we knew that before any researcher provided any such evidence. The second issue that is already here in this article, hardly one tenth of a way through the article is the statement by a psychologist that, “The dangerous thing about lying is that people don’t understand,” he said, “How the act of lying changes us.” Again a massive moral insight. Here we have a secular authority reminding us that the active lying much less getting better at lying overtime brings about a change in us. Now, that’s a profound insight that is certainly affirmed in scripture. What’s interesting in this case is that it is also being affirmed within a secular context.

One of the most insidious dimensions of lying is that eventually the liar himself or herself loses grip on reality, loses the distinction even in the liar’s on mind between what is true and what is false. It brings about a change also, a deep moral character change within an individual’s life. And perhaps most ominous of all is the knowledge of just how early lying starts.

On The Briefing not long ago we looked at the fact some cognitive and developmental psychologists were indicating, oddly enough or you might say ironically enough, that learning to lie is recognized by some psychiatrists and psychologists as a necessary intellectual milestone in the life of a young child.

Now as we saw, this argument has even been taken to the extent that parents are asked if their children have lied, as if they’re being asked if the child right on schedule has learned to walk and to talk. It’s a developmental stage. That’s odd enough, but as this article points out, even some in the secular community are beginning to wonder what exactly they’re looking at when they look at a two year old liar.

One in Kaplan writes, “Psychologists have documented children lying as early as age two. Some experts even consider lying a developmental milestone like crawling and walking because it requires sophisticated planning, attention and ability to see a situation from someone else’s perspective to effectively manipulate them.” Now, here is another issue. This is why most children are rather incompetent at lying. It is because those children, the younger they are most particularly, those children lack the toolkit of empathy and getting inside another’s mind to the extent that they’re really able to bring off a convincing lie. Most parents can recognize a young child lying almost immediately.

This gets to another issue that cognitive and developmental psychologist look at, and that is the change in the expertise of lying that often comes with adolescence. Why? It is because one of the developmental milestones of adolescence is the ability to do abstract cognitive thinking, that is, to step outside one’s own mind for a moment and to enter into the mind of another. That is actually a stage, a developmental stage, of adolescence that throughout the centuries has helped to define adolescence. This can lead to turmoil and anxiety as the adolescent, all of a sudden, imagines how other people are thinking. Perhaps even seeing the very adolescent. This is one of the problems of peer pressure in adolescents. It is because, all of a sudden, at this stage of life individuals start thinking a very great deal and sometimes worrying, sometimes even obsessing a very great deal about what others think.

The article in The Washington Post actually takes some even more interesting turns. Consider this “For most people lying gets limited as we develop a sense of morality and the ability to self regulate.” Well, let’s just pause for a moment. Where in the world, how in the world, when in the world do we as human beings, all of a sudden, develop a sense of morality? Where does that sense of morality come from? Let’s ask it another way. Why is it that virtually every single conscious human being knows that lying is wrong? It’s not just a human being, it’s almost universally understand that there’s a distinction between the truth and the lie, it is the fact that there is almost universally an understanding that there is a moral imperative to tell the truth rather than to tell a lie. That telling a lie is effectively a breaking of a moral law.

That we need to know is not something that actually has to be taught. It emerges from within us, and the question would be, why? How? Now, the biblical word view has an immediate answer to that. And that is that every single human being is made in God’s image and a part of what it means to be made in the image of a God who is himself true is to understand the distinction between truth and a lie and the fact that the truth is the good, and the lie is the evil.

So, we should just ponder the fact that here you have scientists wondering how it is that most people do begin to limit lying because of this development of a sense of morality. Where does it come from? Just to state the matter succinctly, there is no way that a materialist, naturalist, evolutionary worldview can explain why such moral judgments are absolutely universal. And not only that, universally strong, and valid, and persistent.

But then the article takes another turn, “Harvard cognitive neurologist Joshua Greene said, ‘For most of us lying takes work.’ In studies, he presents his study subjects with a chance to deceive for monetary gain while examining their brains in a functional MRI machine which maps blood flow to active parts of the brain.” The article continues, “Some people told the truth instantly and instinctively, but others opted to lie and they showed increased activity in the frontoparietal controlled network which is,” As I read from the article, “Involved in difficult or complex thinking.”

“This suggests,” Says The Washington Post, “That they were deciding between truth and dishonesty and ultimately opting for the latter.” Now what’s so important about this? Well, let’s just look at how this section of the article began. As it turns out, to no surprise from the Christian worldview, “Lying takes a great deal more work than telling the truth.” Now why would that be so? Because in lying you have to invent a reality other than reality. In lying, you have to construct a situation that you did not experience. You have to create an alternative universe, so to speak. And you’ve got to work hard intellectually to keep that alternative universe straight. The impetus behind this article, as we have noted, is the deep curiosity in the secular mind as to why human beings lie.

But then the article takes yet another interesting turn and I quote, “Scientists don’t really know what prevents all of us from lying all the time. Some believe that truth telling is a social norm we internalize, or as a result of conflict in our brains between the things we want, and the positive vision of ourselves that we strive to maintain. But,” Says the post, “The curious thing about this preventative mechanism is that it comes from within.” Really the Duke psychologist said, “We are our own judges about our own honesty. And that internal judge is what differentiates psychopaths and non psychopaths.”

Let’s unpack that for just a moment. So, we’re being told here that a psychopath is one who does not have that internal control mechanism or judgment to determine the difference between the truth and the lie, and to believe and to tell the truth rather than to believe and tell a lie. So, the distinction here is so important, it’s a distinction between a psychopath and a non psychopath.

From a Christian understanding, the truly stunning part of this article is the affirmation that secular scientists have come to the conclusion that the moral judgment against lying comes from within ourselves. Now, that is raising a huge question. Why would it come from within ourselves? What part of ourselves does it come from? Why is it that all human beings have this innate understanding that lying is wrong and telling the truth is right?

Once again the biblical word view starting in Genesis 1, tells us exactly why. It is a reflection not only of God’s creative intent, it is a reflection of God’s own character as totally true. Finally, on this issue there is yet another turn in the tale in this article, “External conditions also matter in terms of when and how often we lie. We are more likely to lie research shows,” Let me just pause and say isn’t it interesting that on this kind of issue the insistent authority invoked again is scientific research. “But,” going back to the article, “Research shows that we are more likely to lie when we are able to rationalize it, when we are stressed and fatigued, or when we see others being dishonest.” The next line is most crucial.

“And we are less likely to lie when we have moral reminders or when we think others are watching.” Wow, when we think others are watching. Other human beings? Well, that’s the implication in the article because this is a secular article that can’t imply any being beyond human beings. But this is where Christians look at that and say, “No, that’s exactly the way it works.” And Christians understand that the bible reveals not only the existence of God but the omniscience of God. The reality that we are being watched and most powerfully the Christian biblical understanding that we are being watched not only without but within.

That is to say, that the holy omniscient God knows everything. He even knows our thoughts before we think them. As the bible says, “Nothing is hidden from his sight.” So, as we look at this article the really interesting thing is the secular quest to try to understand something as basic as why we know that telling the truth is right and telling a lie is wrong. Answering the question of where it comes from, “This desire to tell a lie and how it is that we don’t lie,” as this article says, “All of us all the time.”

Once again the Christian worldview answers that we are built for truth. We were created for truth. There is in us not only the knowledge of the distinction between the truth and the lie, and not only a knowledge that telling the lie is wrong, but we are actually fueled with a great desire to know the truth. As that great towering theological figure Augustine said back in the fifth century, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee,” speaking of God. That’s true of the very impulse reflected in this article towards truth. God made us to desire truth, and God saw to it that we are redeemed by truth. Even by Jesus Christ our Lord who famously said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

Part II

As families turn to Netflix they find increasingly explicit content and insufficient parental controls

Next just a few days ago USA Today ran an opinion piece with the headline “Netflix has turned its back on families”. Tim Winter wrote the piece, “I think it’s important,” he begins, “Netflix is the entertainment industry’s Trojan horse – a seeming gift for families allowing parents some control over what their kids can watch. In reality,” he says, “What Netflix delivers should give parents extreme pause.”

The next paragraph is crucial, and I quote, “In just two decades Netflix has gone from being a relatively small scale DVD sales and rental company, to an entertainment industry super power with about 125,000,000 subscribers worldwide and the ability now to attract A-list writing and acting talent while garnering top awards and industry accolades.” But as Tim Winter goes on to explain, “Unfortunately during these years of stratospheric growth, Netflix seems to have given little thought to the family audiences that have proved to be the backbone of the company and,” says winter, “Provided the solid foundation for expansion and stability that has attracted investors and enabled Netflix to make multimillion dollar development deals.”

Now at this point, let’s just ask the question, what in the world has Netflix done wrong? Winter begins by saying that Netflix at least gives parents some degree of control over what their children and teenagers are watching. But as you might suspect, it turns out that Winter is accusing Netflix of giving on one hand, and taking away even more with the other.

It was on Netflix that so many people saw the series “13 Reasons Why.” It was a Netflix original series that is believed by many authorities to have led to a suicide contagion. As Winter writes “When asked about the controversial program during the 2018 shareholder meeting, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said, “Nobody has to watch it.” Now that’s a very morally significant statement coming from a corporate CEO. A corporate CEO of an entertainment company saying that no one has to watch the product. So, therefore by implication Netflix can offer just about anything no matter how dangerous, or how rancid, or how pornographic, because no one’s being forced to watch it.

Winter cites a 2017 analysis by The Parents Television Council that revealed that nearly 60% of Netflix’s original offerings were rated as he says, “For mature audiences only. Just one percent of all of the original offerings on Netflix were rated for general audiences.” Again you’re talking one per cent. Furthermore, only eight percent of all these original offerings on Netflix were rated PG. But as we’re talking about existent or non existent parental controls, or perhaps more specifically sufficient or insufficient parental controls, Winter writes “Although Netflix does offer some parental controls, our research found that even if a child might not be able to stream adult rated content, when those controls are turned on, there was nothing to prohibit a child from browsing through an adult user’s profile where he might see highly sexually suggestive titles and cover art.”

Later in the article it turns out that the situation is a bit more complex and dangerously so, “It’s important to note that Netflix recently added a way to let parents block individual titles and that’s good step. But,” Winter continues, “But this also requires parents to know about each and every title available on the platform. With the thousands of titles available at any one time, that’s impossible.” It’s an important article, and it’s timely too, given the great shift in American viewing habits towards streaming content. And as this article makes clear many parents may think that they are fully in control of the kind of content that’s being streamed in their own household the reality is, it’s probably not so. Of course, behind all of this is a great size makeshift in America’s entertainment culture towards content that is far more violent, increasingly explicit, and also by any adequate moral evaluation often downright pornographic.

Part III

Neil Simon, the sadness behind humor, and how comedy reveals something about each of us

But then that takes us to another story. We go to New York, specifically The Broadway, as well as to Hollywood and recognize the death just days ago of playwright, Neil Simon.

The headline on the front page of the print edition of the New York Times was this: ‘A Broadway Master Who Paved the Way for a Sitcom Explosion.’ Neil Simon died Sunday in Manhattan. And Manhattan was in so many ways his home, both artistically and physically. He died at age 91, and his lifetime spanned that great explosion in entertainment and popular culture that occurred in the United States during the 20th century. Neil Simon began by writing jokes for comedians, and some of those comedians entered the new entertainment medium of television.

Of course, Neil Simon was best known as a playwright. At one point, he was the leading playwright in the United States. And even as that might sound like a very New York thing, in reality the story is told on Broadway during the 20th century, often made their way into mainstream American culture. Especially Neil Simon’s stories. Some of those stories included television programs such as The Odd Couple. It began in the mind of a playwright, ended up on the stage at Broadway, and before long, ended up in the living rooms of America in black and white, and later in color.

The story of Neil Simon’s life also points to the centrality of the Jewish experience, in the united sates in the 20th century. So, many of the stories that Neil Simon told were stories that took Jewish family experience from the great depression and beyond into the hearts and minds of Americans, writ large. That’s not a small or insignificant matter. It’s also not insignificant to understand that Jewish traditions of comedy worked their way into mainstream American culture throughout the 20th century in ways that even many Americans did not understand. Many of the most famous comedians in America on the stage, on radio, and on television as well as in Hollywood films were Jewish. And many of the comedic traditions were also deeply Jewish.

Neil Simon represented that tradition perhaps more than anyone else. His only competitor during many of those years might have been Woody Allen. But Neil Simon also represents another reality about comedy in a fallen world. Much of his comedy, much of his humor, was deeply rooted in deep sadness and pain. Neil Simon had an excruciatingly difficult and sad childhood.

He said at one point that if he had died as a child it surely wouldn’t have been from laughing. Later in life Neil Simon discovered that he can make people laugh. And making audiences laugh was the most affirming experience that he had, had. In a memoir Neil Simon wrote, “When an audience laughed, I felt fulfilled. It was a sign of approval, of being accepted. Coming as I did from a childhood where laughter in the house meant security, but was seldom heard as often as a door slamming every time my father took another year’s absence from us. The laughter that came my way in the theater was nourishment.”

Charles Isherwood in his obituary in the New York Times pointed to this reality when he wrote simply, “Agony is at the root of comedy.” That’s not something many people think about, but it is often true. Some of the most incredible humor has come from the darkest moments. The Christian world view helps us to understand that the comedy comes from the excruciating experiences of being human. And as we understand, that is something that takes on a particular importance and danger as well as glory in a fallen world. There is something glorious about humor. About the fact that God made us able to ring out humor even in the midst of the saddest situations. There’s also something very dangerous about humor because the way we laugh, and the reason why we laugh turns out to have a great deal of deep moral and even spiritual significance. And then this takes us to yet another article on Neil Simon’s death in the New York Times.

It ran on Monday the headline is this: “Big Laughs and Then a Shift in Culture.” Jesse Green writes the column, and he raises some very important issues. Most importantly it is this, “Neil Simon in a long life on Broadway and beyond outlived the comedy that made him so famous during that very same century.”

Why would that be the case? It is because America’s taste in comedy changed even as Neil Simon was still producing plays, and movies, and programs for television. How did that happen? Well, Jesse Green points in the right direction when he affirms, as the headline in this article states, that there was a great shift in the culture. A great shift in comedy? What did that look like? How did that happen? Well, think about the Netflix issue, and the understanding that there has been a great change in America’s entertainment, the stories we watch; whether they’d be dramas or comedies. We then understand how comedy has changed. And here is something we need to note. Not only has popular entertainment become far raunchier, and more explicit, sometimes even more pornographic, but our comedy has taken some of the same terms. Many of the leading comedians of the last decades of the 20th century, and the first decades now over the 21st century have made their comedic reputations on being raunchy, filthy mouth, and often pornographic and explicit in their comedy.

And Americans as it turns out are now buying and listening to what they would have repudiated and judged to be indecent just a matter of a generation ago. There’s also something interesting about the fact that the comedic structure of Neil Simon’s comedy came down to the fact that it was one line, two line, punchline. One line, two line, punchline. That’s the way the joke structure worked. And his comedy largely came down not only to comedic context but to specific jokes and laugh lines.

But what Jesse Green doesn’t say explicitly is something that is also very true here and that is that the comedic context and culture of the United States over the last several decades has shifted from the more classical form of humor to a very cynical form of irony.

There’s a certain wholesomeness that provided the context even for the stories that Neil Simon told. Even when those stories were not so wholesome, they only made sense over, against and over aching the wholesome reality. That reality is what is now derided by many comedians. It becomes the fodder for irony. An ironic relationship with truth and goodness and often a very relativistic if not nihilistic denial of truth, and goodness, and beauty is what now drives so much of our comedy. What’s important for all of us to recognize is that that tells not only about comedians, it tells us about ourselves. The way we laugh, why we laugh, when we laugh is one of the most revealing truths about us.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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