Thursday, December 6, 2018
Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Thursday, December 6, 2018. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
President Bush becomes ‘our brother George’: Biblical truths behind the state funeral for George H.W. Bush
The 19th state funeral in the history of the United States of America is itself now history, the state funeral for the late 41st president of the United States, George Herbert Walker Bush. On Monday of this week, I discussed his life in worldview analysis. On Wednesday of this week, I discussed the fact that we are looking at a state funeral, and we considered how that is distinguished from other funerals.
But this morning, as we are the day after the state funeral, we can now look back and make some interesting and important observations. For one thing, just shortly before the service, the full document of the service order was released by the National Cathedral and the Bush family, indicating the breadth and depth of the official state funeral. As I predicted yesterday morning, the greatest theological, doctrinal, biblical, and gospel content would come in the form of the prayers, because they would come from the historic Book of Common Prayer, of the Church of England in the beginning, but specifically of the Episcopal Church in the United States, and they would come from readings of Scripture and in hymns.
And the hymns in yesterday's state funeral were majestic. They were majestic, traditional hymns, and of course, in those hymns came far more than just the words of the hymns. For those who had ears to hear, there was a story behind the inclusion of every single one. In general, the hymns came from the long tradition of hymnody of the Christian church. Some of them go so far back that they were translated originally from the Latin. The selections for congregational singing included such hymns as Praise My Soul, the King of Heaven. Again, a very classically Christian hymn, pointing to Christology, the identity and worship of the Lord Jesus Christ, described as the King of Heaven.
And of course, we also heard the hymn O God, Our Help in Ages Past. That hymn, going back to the 17th century, has been one of the greatest, most traditional hymns of Christian comfort, based upon the fact that as the psalmist told us, it is the Lord who is indeed our help, our strength, and our refuge, not only in ages past, but for all ages to come. It includes one of the most humbling lines of any hymn, about the mortality of humanity and the passage of time and history.
That stanza from the hymn O God, Our Help in Ages Past should be far more familiar to Christians than it is. It states, and I quote, "Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all our years away. They fly, forgotten as a dream dies at the opening day." Now, what's interesting there is that in that version of the hymn, it has now been somewhat revised and updated, perhaps most importantly because of the impulse towards inclusive language, language that would in all cases include both men and women, males and females. The original form of that verse from the 17th century was this. I think it's even more humbling. "Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away. They fly, forgotten as a dream dies at the opening day."
Now, of course, in that, as is so often the case in the New Testament, when it speaks of sons, it means sons and daughters. When it speaks of brothers, it means brothers and sisters. But the specificity of time, like an ever-rolling stream, bearing all its sons away, that's a very deeply humbling text, or should be, for every single Christian.
Later in the state funeral, the Armed Forces Chorus with the United States Marine Orchestra included the hymn Eternal Father, Strong to Save. That's another very venerable, important Christian hymn, but there's a story behind that hymn, and it is one to which I pointed yesterday. It is this: that hymn is often referred to in the United States as the Navy Hymn. It was written based upon Psalm 107 by William Whiting in 1860. Since then, it has been honored, especially by both the American and the British navies, now considered, if not formally then at least regularly, the Navy Hymn. It has also been adopted in the United States by the Marine Corps and in the UK by the Royal Air Force and the British Army and Navy. It is a really important hymn.
It includes the words, "Eternal Father, strong to save, whose arm hath bound the restless wave, who bids the mighty ocean deep its own appointed limits keep. O hear us when we cry to thee for those in peril on the sea." You can understand why that hymn would be so important, such a treasure, such a comfort to those who are on the sea or whose loved ones are on the sea. But what wasn't, perhaps, noticed by most who were in that cathedral or watching the funeral is the explicit Trinitarian character of that hymn.
The first hymn begins with the words "Eternal Father.” The second verse, "O Christ.” The third, "Most Holy Spirit.” The Trinitarian conclusion is this. "O trinity of love and power, thy children shield in dangerous hour. From rock and tempest, fire and foe, protect them from where'er they go. Thus evermore shall rise to thee glad hymns of praise from land and sea." Perhaps one observation that evangelicals should make is that so many of our services are actually bereft of so much of this traditional language, which includes such factors as when all verses of this hymn are sung, it is a complete affirmation and confession of the Trinity, of the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The beautiful hymn at the conclusion was the historic piece, For All the Saints. It was sung by the congregation. That's a hymn that was sung in this setting by the famed British composer of the 20th century, Ralph Vaughn Williams. It includes the words, "Thou wast their rock, their fortress, and their might, thou God their captain in the well-fought fight." Notice something else. So much of this historic Christian hymnody understands our struggle in the world to be a fight. This hymnody bears witness to the fact that there are forces of light and darkness, that indeed the Christian life takes place within a dangerous world, that our survival, anyone's survival, but in particular the survival of the saints, those who are believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, is entirely due to the loving providence of a sovereign and omnipotent God.
You'll also notice that in a time of this kind of national observance, with a death being here observed, in a funeral service that actually takes the form of a state funeral, when a hymn is chosen, notice something. The hymns that are chosen are not only amongst the most traditional and the most beautiful, they are among the most filled with traditional biblical content. Notice something even more specifically. In a time when people are thinking about life and death, they turn to language not about some god who's doing the best he can under the circumstances, not about some god of modern liberal or process theology who's bumbling his way around his own management of the cosmos, not about a god who's merely well-intended.
No, the songs that are sung are about an omnipotent, sovereign, self-existent God, not a god who merely has a benign will or a benevolent intention, but a God whose will is accomplished, not only on earth but in heaven, not only on the land but on the sea. You will notice the instinct here towards the confession of, and the singing of the praises of, the God of the Scripture, because no lesser god, no idol will do.
There were other dimensions of the service that might have gone without adequate notice by those in the cathedral and by those by the millions who were watching the service. For example, when the Irish tenor Ronan Tynan sang the song The Last Full Measure of Devotion, it might have been missed that those words were not merely the words of a song. They were very important words drawn from Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.
And as we're thinking about the biblical content in the service, this leads us to another observation. We are talking here not only about a service that was a state funeral for a fallen president of the United States, it was also a service in an Episcopal cathedral that followed the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. Now, that of course goes all the way back to the Reformation. Modern revisions have made it theologically weaker than it was in the beginning, but nonetheless, leaving that aside for a moment, enough of the traditional biblical, traditionally Reformation-based Anglican conviction shines through that it should not go without our knowledge. It shouldn't go without our acknowledgment, because something really important happened during the service yesterday, and most of those who were observing it, even participating in it, certainly didn't understand what was happening.
It was what was happening in the nomenclature by which the former president was recognized and named. Throughout the entire service, he was President George Herbert Walker Bush. He was sometimes referred to as President Bush. Sometimes he was referred to as President Bush 41, distinguishing him from his son, who led the eulogy, President George W. Bush 43. But at one point in the service, everything changed, and no one seemed to have noticed. It changed during the prayer that was led by the cathedral's Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope, and in that prayer, she began with these words that led to a response from the congregation in a participatory prayer. Canon Cope said these words: "For our brother George, let us pray to our Lord Jesus Christ," and she continued. At that point in the service, he was not former President George Herbert Walker Bush. He was not former President Bush. He was not President Bush. He was not George Bush. He was merely our brother George.
Now, where do we go to find that kind of language? We have to go to the Reformation. We have to go to the original form of the Book of Common Prayer. We have to go to where, in the rite of mourning, you find this kind of language, and when you find it, you are reminded of the fact that there is a basic biblical point being made here. When it comes to who we really are in Christ, when it comes to how we think of one another in Christ as Christians, at the end of the day it doesn't matter if someone is ever called "president" or "king" or "Your Majesty" or anything else. All that matters on the Day of Judgment is this: our brother George.
But before leaving the service, we also need to recognize there were a couple of other revisions, and one of them was in the words that immediately followed that very important Reformation-based gospel-established reality of calling the former president our brother George in Christian language. No, it's the language that follows that points to another conundrum of this particular service, of the National Cathedral, and of the theological liberalism of the Episcopal Church in the United States. Canon Cope not only began, "For our brother George, let us pray to our Lord Jesus Christ," but she continued by saying, "Our Lord Jesus Christ, who said, 'I am resurrection, and I am life.'" Well, actually, the Lord Jesus Christ said, "I am the resurrection, and I am the life."
As the English Standard Version rightly translates the verse, Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live. And everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die." And of course, looking at this strange and ironic and tragic reality of the liberalism that has so infected so many churches and denominations, you also have to recognize a very strange irony.
Because of the historic hymns and the historic liturgy of many of these churches, remember, for example, that the Apostles' Creed was a part of the president's state funeral yesterday, that most venerable statement of orthodox Christian doctrine that declares the major structural doctrines of the Christian faith, the irony is that in so many of the liberal churches that have abandoned the faith, the reality, the truth still shines through in the liturgy, whereas in many evangelical churches, by at least what they would say they believe in their worship services, you wouldn't hear anything of this theological depth or of this biblical substance. In both cases, however, it's not merely an irony, it's a tragedy, and it's a tragedy we ought to observe in a moment like this.
But as a final note about the particulars of the service yesterday, I want to point out that the final aspect musically of the service was the ringing of bells. But there was a very strange way of expressing this in the program. It's very historical, but to most Americans it will certainly seem very strange. The program simply said this: "The Washington Ringing Society will attempt a quarter peal of Grandsire Caters in thanksgiving for the life of President George H.W. Bush." Now, what in the world are Grandsire Caters, and why in the world would the Ringing Society merely attempt a quarter peal of those bells rather than accomplish it? Well, the reason for that is quite simple. It's a very tricky operation. You're talking about a cathedral with towers and the giant bells in the towers. A full peal of those bells, as measured historically, might last as much as three hours. It would involve no less than 5,000 different musical changes of the bells.
A quarter peal amounts to, you might say only, 1,250 musical changes of those massive bells, but then again, who can count in the midst of all that activity to 1,250? And it would take about 45 minutes, even for that quarter peal. And so rounding the numbers off, and with more than a little dash of humility, the ringers and the cathedral simply announced that such a quarter peal of the massive bells would be attempted.
The end of a religious dynasty: Are the Bushes the last establishment Protestant family in American public life?
One final big worldview issue as we consider the closing of a major chapter in American history yesterday, I tweeted during the service, the state funeral, "An argument can be made that the Bush family is the nation's last establishment Protestant family, representing a religious dynasty in the United States that is fast disappearing, it's clear in this state funeral." Now, I had a lot of people on Twitter ask me, "What in the world are you talking about? What is this Protestant establishment, or the last establishment Protestant family? What kind of religious dynasty are you talking about?"
Well, as it happens, I found out later that Ross Douthat of The New York Times had written a column of similar observations, he writing as a Catholic columnist, my comment as a Protestant. There were other similar observations, but it comes down to this. You have to understand that throughout most of the decades of the American experience, the governing elite in the United States has been WASP, that is, white Anglo Saxon Protestant. It has been white, which is to say, European origin, Anglo Saxon, English-speaking Protestants who have been at the very top of the cultural elite politically, economically, of course socially, governmentally.
You go down through the list. Look at the presidents and CEOs of the corporations. Look at the presidents of the universities. Look at those elected to Congress, elected especially to the Senate, which was the most WASP of all organizations, considered by many to be the world's most exclusive WASP club throughout much of its history. And of course, look the Oval Office, or I mean by that, look at the presidency of the United States. It has been overwhelmingly white Anglo Saxon Protestant.
Now, in this secular age, there are many Americans who think that the white Anglo Saxon is all that matters. The Protestant was simply extraneous or accidental. Not so, not clearly so. Indeed, sociologists and historians such as Max Weber referred to the Protestant work ethic. The distinction here is that Protestant theology and the Protestant worldview led to a certain understanding of the world, of the necessity of labor, of the importance of work, of the centrality of commerce, of the honorable nature of public service. All of this was not just socially derived, it was theologically derived.
Now, of course, it did take the form of a very aristocratic elite, but as Ross Douthat makes clear in his article, making the same point that I made yesterday, the reality is that such an elite does have its benefits. The benefits are the kind of legacy of honorable service that was represented by George Herbert Walker Bush and seems to be so absent from so many in the world today. Ross Douthat communicated this very clearly in his column yesterday when he wrote, "Those virtues included a spirit of noblesse oblige and a personal austerity and piety that went beyond the thank you notes and the boat shoes and the prep school chapel-going, a spirit that trained the most privileged children for service, not just success, that sent men like Bush into combat alongside the sons of farmers and mechanics in the same way it sent missionaries and diplomats abroad in the service of their churches and to their country."
In an age of increasing multiculturalism and secularism, that Protestant nature of the American leadership elite is far less significant now than it was. We need to note, not entirely insignificant, because one of the most important facets of an aristocracy is that it lasts longer than anyone expects. Ross Douthat was very, very honest I thought, as a Catholic columnist for The New York Times, to point out that not having such an establishment also comes with a cost. The forces of progressivism in this country will celebrate the fact that that aristocracy is so much more a part of the past than the present, much less the future. But as Douthat says, that does come with a cost, and we're seeing much of that cost right now.
2018 words of the year: What our language reveals about our culture?
But next, finally, while we're thinking about signs of the times, Christians understand that language is not only an artifact and a product of culture, language changes us. It changes the terms of debate and conversation. And innovations in language are never merely innovations in words, they are also innovations in meaning. They themselves tell us a great deal about our times. That's why we should note that with the end of the year 2018, two major dictionary organizations in the world, the publishers of the Oxford Dictionaries and at dictionary.com, they have chosen their 2018 words of the year, both of them very revealing.
At dictionary.com, the 2018 word of the year is "misinformation.” Now of course, there's a political overlay to all of this, but what's interesting is the fact that what dictionary.com is pointing to here is that the word "misinformation" is now so often used by, you should note, both sides of most arguments that it has become an indispensable part of the cultural conversation. That's why they designated it the 2018 word of the year. dictionary.com also said, interestingly, that they chose "misinformation" rather than "disinformation", because "disinformation" implied intention and effect, but they are more concerned merely with effect, not with the intention of someone who might have passed along what's here identified as misinformation.
But if you shift from dictionary.com to the Oxford Dictionaries, I'll just say a little more authoritative in an historical context, the Oxford Dictionaries identified the 2018 word of the year as "toxic.” Now, that might be a little more surprising, because well, the word "toxic" has been around the English language for a very, very long time. However, it is interesting, as the Oxford Dictionaries point out, that in most previous eras the word "toxic" was applied to something that was poisonous, something that had a toxic effect. There could be a toxic chemical, or there might be a toxic drink, or there might be a toxic substance, but now we're talking about "toxic" as an adjective that is applied to very different words, such as the 2018 compound of the year, "toxic masculinity.”
The Oxford Dictionaries pointed out that "toxic masculinity" has been used so often since it became widely used early in 2018 that it chose it as not only its word of the year but as the evidence of the fact that something big, fundamental, and important is happening in the culture. Jennifer Schuessler, reporting on the choice by the Oxford Dictionaries for The New York Times, reminds us that back in the 1990s, in a financial crisis, Americans began to hear the term "toxic debt", meaning a debt that was so poisonous that it would kill the organization, the bank or the company that held onto so much toxic debt. Or it might be used in different way to speak of debt that had become so under-collateralized that it no longer had value. There were banks thus holding toxic debt.
But as you look at 2018, we're not talking about toxic debt, we are talking about toxic masculinity. The newspaper said, "More recently, there's been an explosion in the use of the phrase 'toxic masculinity'. The only grouping that has occurred more frequently over the past year in Oxford's sampling of online news sources and blogs has been 'toxic chemicals', that according to one of the officials with Oxford Dictionaries." Now, while that does tell us something, evidently "toxic chemicals" is still more widely used even than "toxic masculinity.”
But here's the big worldview issue when it comes to toxic masculinity. Most of the people who are using it mean to imply the problem of men behaving badly, but here's the really sad thing. We're living in a society that has no idea of a healthy, rightful masculinity. We're living in a society so fundamentally confused that these days, when the word "masculinity" is used, it's a tragedy that the word "toxic" so often precedes it. We're a society so confused, it doesn't have any idea how to use the word "masculinity" without irony or warning. From a Christian perspective, that's about as confused and as sad as it can get.