Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019

Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019

The Briefing

January 29, 2019

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

It’s Tuesday, January 29, 2019. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

When a religious text is taught, a religious message is communicated. What does this mean for states considering Bible classes in public schools?

The front page of USA Today just days ago was this, “Bible classes in public schools? Why Christian lawmakers are pushing a new wave of bills.” Erin Richards is the reporter, she tells us, “A wave of ‘Bible literacy’ bills emerging in state legislatures would allow more students in public high schools to study the Old and New Testaments.”

She continues, “Proposals from lawmakers in at least six states would require or encourage public schools to offer elective classes on the Bible’s literary and historical significance. That’s a more narrow focus,” she tells us, “than what’s typically covered in courses on world religions.”

“Some of the lawmakers,” she tells us, “and leaders of Christian groups supporting the bills, say they want to restore traditional values in schools and give students a chance to study the religious text deeply.”

Republican State Representative Aaron McWilliams of North Dakota told USA Today, “The Bible is an integral part of our society and deserves a place in the classroom.” He’s the sponsor of a bill there in North Dakota that would require the state’s public high schools to offer an elective Bible class.

A front page story like this in a paper like USA Today is based upon some kind of controversy or conflict, it shows up in the next paragraph. “Opponents say the measures come perilously close to violating the constitutional line between church and state and, in practice, might overstep it. They say the proposals are part of a coordinated effort by evangelical political groups pushing model legislation in several states.”

Well, indeed, many of these contemporary efforts are rooted in organized efforts to try to press for the legalization, or even the requirement of these elective courses, especially in high schools, about the Bible. The leader of the group Americans United for Separation of Church and State rather predictably responded, “State legislators should not be fooled that these bills are anything more than part of a scheme to impose Christian beliefs on public schoolchildren.”

Richards then goes on to report that in the year 2018, states including Alabama, Iowa, and West Virginia considered such legislation. A Bible literacy bill has been introduced in Florida as well as Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota, Virginia, and West Virginia. That according, interestingly enough, to the American Civil Liberties Union better known as the ACLU.

And Richards also reports that in 2017, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin had signed in to law a similar bill. It, according to Richards, “created guidelines for public high schools to offer electives on the literature of the Bible and Hebrew Scriptures.” That’s just the way it’s expressed in this USA Today front page story.

That Americans United for Separation of Church of State’s CEO Rachel Laser quoted earlier in the story went on to say that the Bible studies classes are likely to, in the words of USA Today, “convey a religious message and preference.” Which, she argued, would violate the First Amendment, which USA Today says, “Guarantees that the government won’t act in a way that prefers one religion over another and that people can practice whatever religion they wish.”

Now there is a lot to unpack here. First we should look at the claim that the Bible should be a part of the curriculum of the public schools, especially for high school students, because it is argued that a basic level of biblical literacy is necessary in order to understand the United States of America. Is that true or is it false? Well, in some sense it is certainly true.

The Bible was so much a part of the background and the foreground of culture, not only in the time of the formation of the United States, but throughout most of American history until fairly recent very secular times. References to the Bible abounded in politics and entertainment, a background knowledge of the scriptures was something that was taken for granted.

But it’s not only that, if you were to go back to the early decades of what was known as the public school movement or the common school movement in the United States, you would discover that even many of the textbooks, especially those identified as readers, they were the books that were used with children not only to teach them reading, but also English and English usage, so many of those books included explicit biblical texts as material to be read and memorized and understood by which the English language was also to be understood. That especially with the background in the King James Bible.

But in this sense, historical accuracy points not only to a baseline of biblical literacy within the culture and especially within those that would lead the culture, but it also points to the fact that the only available worldview for most Americans was one that was a continuation of European culture that was explicitly based upon a fundamental affirmation of central Christian truth claims.

You simply cannot understand what we would well identify as Western civilization without acknowledging the fact that it was the Christian worldview and central Christian truth claims, an assumption of Christian truth and morality, that gave birth to that civilization. Gave it meaning and gave it moral authority.

If you look back at one of the statements made by Rachel Laser, the President and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, you are reminded of her claim that the Bible study classes are likely to convey a religious message and preference. Well, in some sense, of course that’s true. The subject matter of the courses is to be the Bible, not some other religious text.

But there is another point here that thoughtful Christians should analyze very carefully. We should acknowledge that any time any kind of religious text is going to be discussed or studied or read, much less taught, some kind of religious message is going to be communicated.

Now, here’s where the problem comes down to where Americans might not agree on the appropriateness of such message. Secular Americans are absolutely afraid of it. They are allergic to the idea that any kind of acknowledgement of Christianity would be in the curriculum of the public schools. By the way, that organization now known as Americans United for Separation of Church and State, was originally named Protestants and Others United for Separation of Church and State because the organization earlier in the 20th century saw the threat of Catholicism as the greatest danger.

Earlier in that USA Today article, Richards had argued that biblical literacy and even a study of the historical significance of the Bible is, in her words, “a more narrow focus than what’s typically covered in courses on world religions.” That again is interesting. It’s interesting because it appears in this article that the default, the norm, over against which these elective Bible studies might be considered, would be a study of world religions.

But, as Christians, we also need to recognize you can’t talk about any of the world’s religions without making some kind of judgment as to whether or not what is taught is true, whether the morality is binding. But what’s really interesting is that behind this is the assumption held by so many in our secular society, and especially on the left, that somehow there could be an academic study of religion that isn’t in any sense religious.

But thoughtful Christians, we need to remind ourselves that there is no real possibility of worldview neutrality. Every teacher, and for that matter every student, operates on the basis of some worldview, some kind of judgment is going to be made.

But this reminds me of an editorial that appeared earlier this month from the Editorial Board of the South Florida Sun Sentinel. The editors wrote, “A legislator from Jacksonville wants to make the public schools offer optional courses on religion and the Bible. That’s something to worry about.”

Well, the editors surely send their signal about their own position in the very first paragraph telling us that the very fact that there could be optional classes in the public schools on religion and the Bible is something to worry about.

The editors continue, “There are many good reasons to teach comparative religion, given the worsening climate of bigotry in this country. Indeed, many groups that defend the separation of church and state, including such faith-based organizations as the Baptist Joint Committee and the American Jewish Congress, encourage such instruction.”

“As written,” say the editors, “however, the bill is vague and open to the question of whether it’s simply another attempt at Bible study, a subject best taught in houses of worship and family homes.”

Now again, the assumption behind this editorial and the groups including the Baptist Joint Committee that represents generally more liberal Baptist bodies and the American Jewish Congress is that there can be some kind of neutrality, some kind of objective stance from which world religions, with all of their truth claims and all of their differences, can somehow be taught in a way that doesn’t make judgments.

The editors themselves confuse matters somewhat in the way they use terms like mandatory and optional. The bill that is proposed in Florida would mandate that the schools offer optional classes, no student would be required to sign up.

But the most interesting and important part of the article in the Sun Sentinel editorial is where they point to what’s missing they say in the bill and that is, “The teaching of comparative religion, what the world’s major faiths believe, and how much they actually share in common, including the principle of treating others as you would have them treat you.”

The next sentence, “That kind of education, if conducted properly, is a natural antidote to religious bigotry.” Religious bigotry? Now, that’s making a judgment. But making a judgment is incompatible with teaching religion as if you could somehow achieve neutrality. Neutrality means not making judgments, but the editors of the newspaper make their own judgment and you can simply understand exactly what they’re saying here.

They are saying that if you reduce all the world religions to what the editors claim is in common, including the principle, this is a quote of their article, “of treating others as you would have them treat you,” well then there’s no problem. But if you actually talk about the truth claims of different religions, if you talk about their differences in teaching, well, you’re going to be making judgments and almost as if to anticipate that, the editors say that the only judgment that can be made is a judgment rightly against what they call religious bigotry. Which we can simply and quite accurately suspect means the people of those world religions who actually believe those world religions to be true rather than the other religions. And, right at the center of the bull’s eye would be classical, biblical Christianity.

Later in the Florida editorial we read, “Those who call for the careful teaching of comparative religion point out that the courses must be well-planned and taught only by people trained against promoting their own faiths or denigrating others.” That sounds almost ideal if you’re thinking from a secular worldview and thinking theoretically. But I simply dare any honest person to explain exactly how that is supposed to take place.

And, of course, in the background to this is the obvious that is not noted and certainly not acknowledged by most which is that secularism is also a worldview. It is simply taken as the default and thus explicitly religious worldviews are held out to be the exotic oddities here. And those who hold to a form of secularism or humanism, well they’re supposed to be just value neutral worldview objective.

Actually, biblically minded Christians understand that there is a great deal loaded into this question. Whoever does the teaching is eventually going to make judgments and if you look at the way the public schools are given these kinds of assignments, oftentimes some of the very Christians pressing for many of these classes will be very disappointed with the kind of judgments that will come from the instructors.

Part II

A secular allergy to prayer? What the battle over prayer at school board meetings tells us about the secular agenda

But thinking further about the engagement of the secular mind with so many of these questions at the intersection of the public school, I want to turn to another article. This one recently published in The Wall Street Journal, the reporter is Joe Palazzolo. He writes, “The United States Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of prayers during state legislature sessions and town council meetings. Now the justices may be asked to clarify the separation of church and state in a new forum: school board meetings.”

Well, later in the article he writes, “The invocation of Christian beliefs, Bible readings and prayer were regular features of school board meetings in the Chino Valley Unified school district in California. In 2014, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a group of atheists and agnostics that uses advocacy and litigation to wall off government from religion,” again, these are the words of The Wall Street Journal, “filed a lawsuit challenging the practice.”

We are told that in July of 2018, a three judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, that is often considered the most liberal of the Appellate Circuits in the United States Courts, sided with the Foundation and ruled that the prayers violated the First Amendment.

But it is really important to note, as The Wall Street Journal cites a rare rebuke that came from eight judges on the very same 9th Circuit that would include, says The Journal, nearly a third of the Court’s full-time judges wrote or joined dissents to express their opposition to the judgment of the three judge panel. They said that the ruling shouldn’t stand, calling the decision a needless mistake.

They pointed to a decision in 2017 by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans which upheld a school district’s policy of inviting not just school board members, but students to deliver invocations before monthly school board meetings. Now one of the most interesting aspects of this article is what we can only describe as the secular allergy to the idea that someone somewhere, even in some kind of government or political setting, would dare to pray.

But the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as the Supreme Court in a case related to city council meetings, it made very clear that citizens do not surrender their First Amendment rights to the free exercise of religion simply when they walk into some kind of government arena or when they enter into some kind of political process.

By the way, I want to note one of the most interesting, I’ll go on to say ridiculous, parts of the argument made by that three judge panel comes down to the fact that they argued that school boards differ from legislatures such as we would note the U.S. Congress which begins with prayer, because, said the panel, these school boards exercise control and authority over impressionable students instead of acting as their peers and equals.

Quoting the decision, “This is not the sort of solemnizing and unifying prayer directed at lawmakers themselves and conducted before an audience of mature adults free from coercive pressures to participate that the legislature prayer tradition contemplates.” Instead, they are saying it’s one thing for adults to pray, it’s another thing for school children to pray.

But wait just a minute, that doesn’t even necessarily have anything to do with the situation in which the prayer might happen before a school board. But as we have so often seen, the secularist agenda is very clear. It’s at least honest and usually straight forward, they want to remove any reference to God, any openness or exercise of religious liberty from any kind of public forum. Especially from any kind of public forum that can be defined as in any way related to any form of government.

Part III

Japanese minimalism goes mainstream: Understanding the worldview dimensions behind the Marie Kondo phenomenon

But next, we look to Marie Kondo. If you do not know of her, you are about to and she has become something of a sensation in American popular culture. She’s the author of the book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and she is also the star of her own television program on Netflix, which is entitled, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.

Now she has become very popular because she is expressing what is often described as a form of Japanese minimalism. Bringing the magic of a Japanese minimalist culture to the local American home, which means throwing out an awful lot of stuff.

The KonMari method that she is popularizing has become a sensation in America because it seems to run counter to the Western methodology of accumulation rather than the kind of minimalism that Marie Kondo represents, what she teaches and effectively preaches through her books and also her video series.

But what Christians thoughtfully must keep in mind is that when you are looking at Marie Kondo as a phenomenon, you are also looking at some rather significant worldview dimensions that are largely missing from those Americans who are watching her series or reading her books.

Christopher Harding, writing in The New York Times, offers an article entitled, “Spiritual foil to a soulless west.” He writes, “A diminutive Japanese woman kneels, eyes closed, caressing a rug with open palms. She appears to be praying to a house. She greets it, thanking it for its services. In her new Netflix series, the de-cluttering guru, Marie Kondo, is shown not just sprucing up people’s homes, but also re-imagining them as sacred spaces. Channeling her experience as a former assistant at Shinto Shrine, along with the related belief that life, even consciousness of a kind, courses through everything.”

Now this is where Americans, so susceptible to just about any kind of phenomenon coming from elsewhere, even if it’s an artificial phenomenon, fail to recognize the massive worldview, indeed theological dimensions behind the phenomenon that is so fascinating. And that so many Americans almost instantly embrace.

For instance, when you’re looking at Marie Kondo, The New York Times makes very clear that you cannot separate her approach to life and meaning and stuff, or even to space, you can’t separate it from the fact that she’s a former assistant at Shinto Shrine and that in her worldview, everything, including every material object, includes some kind of consciousness.

Now what Americans have seen, and evidently have seen with fascination, is Marie Kondo say that you shouldn’t have anything in your house that does not bring about joy. She goes on to say that if you find something that does not bring you particular joy, then you should be without it, you should get rid of it. But she says you shouldn’t get rid of it without thanking it.

She gives illustration after illustration of turning to an object that you are going to discard and thanking it for the contribution that it brought to your life, or the joy that it brought at some previous stage in your life. It doesn’t bring you the same joy now, that’s why you are discarding it. But you don’t discard it disrespectfully, you discard it only by recognizing with thankfulness that it once brought you joy.

Now, behind that worldview and encapsulated in what is described as Shintoism, that is historic Japanese religion that includes ancestor worship, behind this is an understanding that is basically animistic, that means that it is understood that there is an animist or a spirit within just about everything, including all material objects. Now, that’s a worldview that’s comprehensible, but of course it is also a worldview that is directly contradicted by scripture. This is where, to go back to that idea of a neutral approach to world religions, I’ll go so far as to argue that it’s ridiculous to think that somehow a teacher can say on the one hand you have a belief that every material object has a spirit or consciousness and on the other hand, you have a worldview of theology that says exactly the opposite, but you should simply draw your own conclusions.

Christopher Harding understands what’s going on here. He says that Americans are drawn to Marie Kondo, especially the way the book is written and the video series is developed, because the program “helps create the impression of a cultural chasm being bridged. Ms. Kondo’s own kindness is tinged with sadness at these desperate Americans, their homes and minds filled with trash.”

Harding later writes, “Marie Kondo is the most successful participant in a larger trend of the past few years, packaging lifestyle advice as the special product of Japanese soil and soul from which Westerners might usefully learn.” He continues, “We’ve had Ichigo, which translates as the familiar concept of value and purpose in life. We have had forest bathing as though the soothing power of nature had not occurred to people like Wordsworth and Emerson. Such advice books,” he writes, “are the latest installment in an old tradition, Japan and its culture marketed as a moderating force in a world otherwise overwhelmed by the west.” He goes on to say and by materialism as well.

But what’s really interesting is that Harding and several others now have pointed to the fact that this was a part of Japan’s reinvention of itself after the devastating experience of World War II. Japan’s unique contribution, it was argued by many, would be that it would offer a more spiritual understanding of life and even of material objects than was found in the consumer driven west.

Harding goes on also to explain that this is why so many Americans, you can think of the 1960s and ’70s and beyond, became so interested in Zen Buddhism because it appeared to fall right into this kind of narrative. I want to add to Harding’s insights by pointing to the fact that you are looking, whether it’s Zen Buddhism or the kind of Shinto based minimalism of Marie Kondo, you are looking at claims that one can be spiritual without any kind of specific theistic accountability. There’s no specific god that demands that you believe in him or obey him.

Harding recognizes something like this when he says that Zen advocates “worked with allies in the United States and elsewhere to present it as the answer to Westerner’s prayers. Meditation promised direct spiritual experience shorn, that means without Christianity’s increasingly unpalatable doctrines and institutional authority.”

Adam Minter, writing for Bloomberg Business Week, cites a Japanese historian who suggests that not only does Marie Kondo’s idea of minimalism as an ideal run into conflict with the actual experience of many Americans, this historian points out that it also conflicts with the experience of most Japanese people.

Minter writes, “Kondo is the most high-profile representative of a wave of Japanese minimalism gurus who have gained attention in the past decade. Yet, far from being a new phenomenon, many of ideas associated with the ‘Japanese art of de-cluttering,’ as Kondo calls it, date back to an early 20th century Japanese enthusiasm for the ‘scientific management’ methods of Frederick Winslow Taylor.”

But the ironic aspect of all that is that Frederick Winslow Taylor wasn’t Japanese, he was American. He actually was one of the primary theorists of the Industrial Revolution and the practice of efficiency. It became the very foundation of the American factory, producing all of those consumer objects that Marie Kondo wants us to get rid of. But of course, not to get rid of without saying thanks.

Historian Eiko Maruko Siniawer, quoted in the article by Minter, says, “She is peddling an aspiration in Japan as much as she is in the U.S. It’s not like Japanese homes actually look like that. In fact, they don’t. Which is why,” she says, “people in Japan, as in the United States, are buying her book.”

Speaking of books, by the way, and Marie Kondo, I have to point to a recent article that appeared in The Washington Post and I’ll simply admit it irritates me. Marie Kondo takes what she argues about the decluttering of American homes and says it needs to include books. She says that Americans need to get rid of the vast majority of the books in their homes and, you saw this coming, retain only those books that uniquely give us the spark of joy.

Now I’ll just say that that is a step too far. When Marie Kondo takes her “Kondoizing,” as The Wall Street Journal calls it, to books, well she doesn’t bring about a spark of joy in me.

On her program, Kondo said, “Take every single book into your hands and see if it sparks joy for you.” Well, some books might actually bring you a spark of joy, but some of the most important books you’ll ever read, well they don’t bring you joy, they make you think.

And furthermore, Christians understand that if you really do appreciate a book, then thank the author if you can, but don’t thank the book. The book, contrary to Shintoism, doesn’t have a spirit.

To be honest, I’m surrounded right now by endless piles of books and articles and printed material. Not every part of it brings me joy, but being surrounded by all these words really does bring me joy, of a sort.

But I’ll simply end by saying I won’t thank the books, but I will thank you 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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