Tuesday, Oct 2, 2018

Tuesday, Oct 2, 2018

The Briefing

October 2, 2018

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

It’s Tuesday, October 2, 2018. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Deeper than sex: Why Christians must recognize that what divides us is more fundamental than we might think

Given the enormous array of media sources aimed at us, given all the cable news networks, all the social media, all the television, all the periodicals, newspapers and the rest, it’s very easy for Americans to believe that we are pretty much on top of the news. Indeed, there’s the argument that there is no excuse for not being up on the news.

But Christians must understand and we must constantly remind ourselves that our responsibility is not merely to skim along the surface, nor even to listen merely to the level of debate that is now sustained in our nation and in the media. Our responsibility is to look deeper at a far more foundational and fundamental level, at the level we commonly referred to as worldview. This is the level of first principles. This is the level that’s pre-political, even pre-sociological. This is the level that requires us to ask the most basic questions. It’s the level that requires us to ask some questions that others do not ask.

Every once in a while, you notice that someone is beginning to ask these questions in public. In one sense, it’s almost an embarrassment to our secular society that these kinds of fundamental questions will be asked. From time to time Ross Douthat columnist for The New York Times dares to ask these embarrassing questions. He does so in a recent column entitled in An Age Divided By Sex.

Now, you’ve probably anticipated that the background to this column is the controversy over the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court, the accusations and the arguments going back and forth and what is revealed Douthat argues is that America is not just divided over a Supreme Court nomination, but divided over sex.

Now, as we shall see, I think we as Christians have to go to an even deeper level and understand that something even prior to sex divides us. But it’s very important that Douthat gets us this far. Douthat begins by going back, after all, he has also served as a film critic to the movies of the 1980s, the ’80s being the decade of so much of the accusation and counter accusation in the recent senate hearings.

But as Douthat points out, if you were to look at the mass popular movies of the 1980s, you would detect a vision of sexuality that is wildly at odds with contemporary feminism and the MeToo movement. But you would also see by and large a vision of sexuality that is antithetical to cultural, social and moral conservatism.

Douthat writes about the sexual culture of what he calls the age of Bill Clinton and now what he refers to as the age of Donald Trump. He then writes, quote, the world of Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford’s youth, the world that’s given us this fall’s nightmarish escalation of the culture war was not a traditionalist world as yet unreformed by an enlightened liberalism. It also wasn’t a post-revolutionary world ruled by social liberalism as we know it today.

Rather, he argues, it was a world where a social revolution had ripped through American culture and radically demoralized society, tearing down the old structures of suburban bourgeois Christian morality, replacing them with libertinism, end quote.

That’s an extremely important set of sentences there. And Ross Douthat, a keen observer of the culture is really onto something when he notices how America was transformed, not only as you look to the decade of the 1980s, but looking at the ’50s, the ’60s, the ’70s, the ’80s and beyond. But Douthat makes the point that liberals often look back to this era and say that what was happening is that American system society was being liberated from a repressive Christian sexual morality. But as Douthat points out, by the time you reach the 1980s, America is already pretty well liberated from anything that looks like a Christian biblical morality.

On the other hand, as Douthat reminds his readers, the 1980s also serves to remind us that America was not the world of moral and social liberalism that many modern people of the left, progressives and liberals as they may style themselves, want to remember the ’80s to be. And again, Douthat just points to the mass movies, the most popular movies and he says when you look at those movies, I won’t even go into the detail he offers in his column, you’re simply looking at a vision of unbridled sexuality, especially young sexuality that is wildly at odds with what at least the progressives and liberals say is their moral vision today.

Part II

Two rival moral impulses meet on the battlefield of American politics: Understanding the competing realities behind the clash over Brett Kavanaugh

But Douthat’s column becomes only more interesting when he writes that this means quote, that the culture war as we’ve known it since has not been a simple clash of conservatives who want to repress and liberals who want to emancipate. Rather he writes, it’s been an ongoing argument between two forces, feminists and religious conservatives. That both he said want to remoralize American society, albeit in very different ways, end quote.

That’s a brilliant point of analysis. Douthat is pointing to the fact that in America today there are rival sexual moralities, rival sexual moralizing impulses. This means that America is not currently facing a cultural right, cultural conservatives that want to moralize while the left does not want to moralize.

Rather, he’s absolutely correct that in America today, there are competing moralities and in the main, the dynamism of the moment is between conservatives who want to moralize sex in one way and liberals who want to moralize sex in a very different way. The Senate hearings of last week are simply the latest example of this kind of clash. Not just a clash between Republicans and Democrats. That’s a minor part of this picture. Rather a clash of two different ways of looking at sexuality.

And in this case, we’re not talking about the hearings themselves nor the participants in the hearings. We’re talking about two greater impulses found in American society, both of which are driven by a moralizing mission. Douthat is absolutely honest and he makes an extremely cogent point when he underlines that fact. A fact that he is not the first to make, but he has made it profoundly in the pages of the New York Times, the kind of place where this kind of argument is not commonly found.

Douthat continues in his article, quote, the irreducible core of their dispute is the question of legal abortion, whether it represents progress or regress, unnecessary human right or a grave evil. But then in addition to that division he argues, there is a more complicated contrast and their sexual ethics. Religious conservatives generally want to restore the sexual order of a more Christian past, restoring ideals of chastity and monogamy that the ’60s and ’70s dissolved.

But feminists, he continues, believe these older rules were just a means for men to subjugate women. So it’s better to maintain or further sexual emancipation while imposing the most stringent moral norms around consent, instead of fruitlessly trying to tame less to the theory goes, we can re moralize sexual culture, he writes, by taming misogyny, extirpating toxic masculinity and reeducating men, end quote.

Here, we’re on the kind of territory we routinely discuss on The Briefing. The fact that a sexual morality of consent simply can’t bear the dignity and weight of human sexuality. The fact that modern autonomous individualism simply can’t carry the freight for individual identity, not to mention for individual self-worth. We’re looking at the fact that there are two competing moralities that have met not only in recent controversies, but on the battlefield of American culture and politics for more than a half century by now.

Douthat then turns to a contemporary political application, when he compares his understanding of the failure of the left when it comes to Bill Clinton and the failure of the right, that means the moral left and the moral right when it comes to Donald Trump. Thus his reference to the age of Clinton and the age of Trump.

But what unites them, at least in terms of those two individuals, is the fact that neither of them is understandable, apart from the sexual revolution and ironically, to the decade of the 1980s. Douthat also turns to make some argument about how feminism and religious conservatism can find some common ground. That’s a less persuasive part of his argument. But it’s an argument worth attention.

But what’s most important to us as Christians looking at this article is the fact that the New York Times has actually run this kind of column by an individual like Ross Douthat who understands that the headlines are pointing to something far more fundamental. But here is where I believe Christians need to understand there’s an even deeper level, a deeper divide.

It’s true that when you cut through the controversies in the headlines, you find these two competing moralizing energies related to human sexuality, the feminist impulse with its morality of consent and the conservative Christian or conservative religious position that is driven by an understanding of the limitations of what it means to be human and a revealed sexual ethic. That is revealed in Scripture, but also revealed in Creation.

But this is where Christians must understand there is an even deeper conflict and even deeper level of struggle. And for this, I want to turn to one of the most important books of the modern era. It was written in 1987, the author is Thomas Sowell, still now living, but retired as an economist, most closely identified with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. That 1987 book was entitled, A Conflict of Visions.

And in this book, Sowell points to the fact that there is a fundamentally different vision of humanity and even of reality that underlies so many contemporary controversies, all of them, as a matter of fact. So much so that Sowell begins to book by asking why it is that we find so many people standing opposite one another on so many seemingly unrelated issues?

It might be economic or political, it might be capital punishment or the ethics of war, it might be abortion or homosexuality, it might be something completely different. But as Sowell points out, this is actually predictable. Because at the most fundamental level, they are operating out of a rather consistent vision. And what we’re seeing is thus a conflict of visions.

Sowell defined the basic conflict between what he defined as a constrained division of humanity and an unconstrained division of humanity. That appeared back in 1987 to be a somewhat quaint characterization. It appears far less quaint and far more powerful now.

Sowell we should point out is a man of the right, he is a conservative and his understanding of human nature and of reason and of existence is well defined by that constrained vision. That means that humanity is constrained. We are not autonomous individuals, unrestrained and without constraints. We are defined, we do not so much get to define.

And this is where Sowell points out that many of the impulses of our contemporary conflicts are between those who see human nature as constrained and those who see human nature as unconstrained, an ongoing experiment. Unconstrained by the existence of God, unconstrained by any kind of permanent, objective moral law, unconstrained by any limitations when we think of morality. Morality thus becomes in this unconstrained vision, simply a human experiment that we can direct or redirect as we see fit in any given age.

So I’m thankful for Ross Douthat’s column. I’m very appreciative of the fact that the New York Times would run a column of this kind of substance, pointing to a more fundamental level of meaning and truth than what is usually found in the headlines.

At the same time, I have to press us further. As Christians, we must look even beneath the conflicts of vision that we see in the debates over sexuality and understand that there is something not only pre-political and pre-sociological and pre-economic. there is also a fundamental truth that is pre-sexual. Our modern, highly sexualized, socially permissive society really doesn’t believe that. That’s why its vision is overwhelmingly unconstrained.

But Christians understand not only that we are tied to a constrained vision of humanity, but that that constraint is not something we have put upon ourselves. It is something that has been placed upon us, by no coincidence, by a Creator, who created us, yes and even now constrains us.

Part III

Speaking a new language: How the Protestant left has deconstructed and reconstructed Christianity

The next, another rather surprising development, this one the cover story and the October edition in print of the New Republic. The New Republic is one of the most vulnerable names in American journalism. It’s a magazine largely read by the cultural elites in the United States. It has been variously at stages been identified with the American political center and also with the center left.

The New Republic’s cover story has the headline The Evangelical Opposition: Liberal Christianity in the Age of Trump. The words in the cover story headline are in the shape of a cross, with the opposition going dow, evangelical going across and all the words super imposed over a strangely purplish sepia toned photograph of President Donald Trump.

The first big issue with the story is the fact that the cover once again reads the evangelical opposition. Then in smaller type, Liberal Christianity in the Age of Trump. The headline on the inside of the magazine is this, The Struggle for a New American Gospel: A Liberal search for God and Faith in a Divided Country. The article is by Bryan Mealer.

It’s interesting as you would expect. It’s also important as a theological and cultural barometer of our times. Now, the bottom line in this is that what we have in this cover story is the kind of article that a magazine like the New Republic would run about the kind of Christians it finds interesting or at least a kind of religious folk. Because as we shall see, there’s not much Christianity here.

There’s a fundamental issue with that cover though, using the word evangelical and then the word liberal as if the two are the same. When of course, they are not and the New Republic is culturally savvy enough to understand that they’re playing with words a bit here. That becomes very clear when throughout the article by Mealer, most of the characters are referred to as being not evangelical, but former evangelicals. Now defined as religiously and theologically liberal. How liberal are they? Well, extremely liberal.

Mealer writes about being raised in a conservative Christian home and in a conservative Christian Church. Then he writes, quote, when I graduated from high school, I joined the over 60% of church going people 17 and older who according to a recent study, walked permanently out the door. Whenever he said I found myself missing God, I went looking for him not in church but in literature, weed, that means marijuana and in the dim lights of last call, end quote. That clearly referring to a bar.

But more recently Mealer, author of a recent book on Texas history, found himself in a church, a liberal mainline Protestant church. It began as he writes in the First United Methodist Church in downtown Austin. But more recently, he has associated or attending Trinity Church of Austin. It’s a church in which he describes services where, quote, I saw gay couples and transgender people sitting alongside white haired Methodist women.

The pianist he said quote, shared that it was the anniversary of his coming to this church and then explained how his last congregation had ostracized him for being gay. He began to cry as he spoke, Mealer writes and I felt my own tears running down my face.

He then writes this, at Trinity, I realized I could be both liberal and Christian, that the church could be an affirming and reconciling place for gay and transgender people, along with advocating for the poor and oppressed. It was liberating. Mainline Protestant denominations he writes, such as the Episcopalians figured this out years ago, if not on an institutional level, certainly in many of their churches.

But growing up he says, I was always taught these people were going to Hell. Well, he writes about going back to church, but only going back to church because he discovered this liberal Protestantism and the liberal theology that goes along with it. He writes about his particular search for meaning and religious significance in the post-Trump era.

He writes about some of the guides that he found, including figures such as Rachel Held Evans and Shane Claiborne. Generally he refers to these individuals and others as former evangelicals, who have since moved into Protestant liberalism.

In an extremely telling paragraph he writes quote, my return to faith in this time of crisis was part of a larger deconstruction. He puts that in quotation marks. A term borrowed from Jacques Derrida that’s become popular of late in the Christian community, especially among liberals. When applied to Christianity, he writes, it’s complicated. At its most basic, he says it’s a natural process of seeing the Bible and its teachings from a fresh perspective as one gets older or switches denominations.

Later, he writes this, quote, deconstruction is where the old canards fall away and the heart can be changed. And for many, it’s where God reveals himself in the very people they were taught to condemn. It’s when Jesus stops looking like an action figure, culture warrior and more like the brown skinned revolutionary who preached radical love, end quote.

Part IV

A modern version of the unconstrained vision comes to life in the pages of The New Republic

Now, this deconstructionism is of course one of the central tenets of the intellectual movement known as post modernism. It deconstructs the text by first deconstructing the author. Derrida was famous for arguing about the death of the author. This means that the individual living now has the intellectual right Derrida assumed and he openly argued, to deconstruct the text and to reconstruct it according to our contemporary needs for meaning.

Now, it’s one thing if you apply that to some work of literature in the past. It’s another thing if you for example, try to apply that to the United States Constitution. Well, now we’re back in the recent headlines. But it’s an even more fundamental issue if you’re trying to direct that deconstructionism to the text of the Holy Scriptures, the Word of God. Along the path of deconstruction, Mealer points out that he received help not only from figures such as Rachel Held Evans and Shane Claiborne, but also from Rob Bell. He defines Bell as, quote, having been condemned by traditional evangelicals for questioning the existence of Hell and quote, other controversial stances, end quote.

Well, indeed, because Rob Bell has in his own way, along with others represented not merely an attempted redefinition of what it means to be evangelical, actually, most of these figures have given up on that. Now they’re in a whole scale effort to try to redefine what it means to be Christian and quite intentionally so.

He writes about the liberation he experienced and coming across the program known as the Liturgists created by Michael Gungor and Mike McHargue. Gungor by the way in this article is sometimes referred to by a Hindu-ish name that would be Vishnu Dass, which according to the article was given to him by the spiritual teacher, Ram Dass when on a retreat in Hawaii. The other individual, Mike McHargue, according to this article is now often referred to as Science Mike because he makes so many arguments related to cosmology. It doesn’t appear that Science Mike is actually a scientist, though interestingly, Mealer points to to atheist scientists Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan as also being helpful guides in his theological development.

Mealer rights of an assortment of other theological guides, especially through books. He describes his stack of books including CS Lewis, Thomas Merton and Marcus Borg. He says he’s also a quote, added writers and biblical scholars who offered a modern interpretation of liberal faith. This includes explicitly in this paragraph, Rob Bell’s book Velvet Elvis. He talks about Rachel Held Evans’s book, Searching for Sunday.

But then comes this paragraph, quote, these people helped me speak a new language, and then gave me the tools to tear down the moldy firmament that had long and trapped in my beliefs, things I’d been told never to question, Heaven and Hell, the bodily resurrection, the Rapture and the end of days. Where it once removed from their confusing and narrow constraints and with proper theology and interpretation, those stories took on newer and greater meaning. The kingdom of heaven was finally ripped from its mansions and pearly gates he writes and was brought to its proper place on Earth, among the homeless, disabled and the immigrants seeking asylum, as a profound way, he says, of living, we can experience now through our actions. This is, he concludes, what deconstruction became for me, taking all the old stories and watching the mythology crumble and then re-examining them in a way that brought benefit to my life and for the first time ever, actual hope, end quote.

The article is very extensive and it’s basically a new form of apologetics, you might say, for a liberal Protestant theology. But it’s actually so liberal it’s not really even recognizably Protestant. The testimony for that comes in the non-Protestant figures who were cited here. The commonality is a liberal critical approach to Scripture, the deconstruction of historic doctrine central and essential to Christianity and an instinctive and effusive mysticism. That’s what defines his new reconstructed, after deconstructing theology. He reconstructed it after deconstructing classical Orthodox Christianity.

What makes the article more interesting than any other fact is that it appeared as the cover story in the October 2018 edition of The New Republic. The New Republic is one of those magazines that probably thought itself quite safe a long time ago from having to run any article about Christianity of any form. But in the editor’s note in this current edition, editor J.J. Gould comments and I quote, there’s a whole other level to this story that goes considerably deeper into the history of the modern West, to the long association between ideologies of liberation and radical secularism.

It’s common today, he says, for people to understand the self-actualization of humanity in terms of a freedom from theistic narratives about our place in the cosmos, our reason for being, our divine purposes versus fallen desires, he writes, I suppose, he says, it has to be one among Western history’s many ironies from a hard secular perspective that a Christian view of personhood was originally responsible for the modern idea of the human being as an individual, with all the interiority of heart and mind and all the related significance of free choice.

Well, he goes on and on and on. But he talks about the current tensions between secularism and theism, which he says are real and profound and won’t abate in the imaginable future.

Now, there’s that conflict again. Gould very importantly, and accurately points to the conflict as being between secularism and theism. And this again, is in the current editor statement for the October 2018 edition of The New Republic. You just have to understand how rather astounding it is that a secular magazine like this, in this era, in this age, would feel compelled to offer this kind of explanation. That in itself is extremely telling.

But this oddly enough, takes us back to Thomas Sowell, that fundamental conflict between a constrained vision and an unconstrained vision. Did you hear it? That word actually appeared in Mealer’s article when he was talking about how he had liberated his faith from classical Christianity.

He said this again, quote, things I’ve been told never to question, heaven and hell, the bodily resurrection, the Rapture and the end of days were at once removed from their confusing and narrow constraints, end quote. Constraints. There it is again. This reminds Christians that a part of our fundamental worldview is that our worldview is constrained. Our theology is constrained, our doctrine is constrained, our preaching is constrained. Well, everything is constrained because as Martin Luther said, we are captives to the Word of God. We are constrained by Scripture.

This, Christians understand is the most basic conflict of visions going far beyond what’s considered either in the New York Times or The New Republic remarkable as both of these articles are. It’s about the most basic conflict between the constrained and unconstrained visions when it comes to whether or not we are constrained by truth and in theology. Everything else, we should note, simply follows.

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 tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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