Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019

Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019

The Briefing

January 30, 2019

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

It’s Wednesday, January 30, 2019. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing. A daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Growing secular antipathy to Christianity on display as New York Times reporter looks to “expose” Christian schools

We can all sense the growing levels of antipathy towards conventional Christians, when the secular society makes very clear it’s displeasure, that’s stating it mildly, when it comes to Christians who dare to believe historic biblical Christianity. The most glaring example of this came in recent days as the wife of the Vice President of the United States, Karen Pence announced that she would resume teaching art at an evangelical Christian School in Northern Virginia, suburban Washington, DC.

There was secular outrage at the fact that Mrs. Pence would teach in such a school since this cool in its policies, in its doctrine, in its teachings actually dares to represent historic biblical Christianity. It is a Christian school that clearly associates with the Christian tradition. A Christian tradition of over 2000 years. The very existence of Christian institutions. schools, we could expand that to colleges and universities, foster care and adoption homes and agencies, hospitals. You can go down the entire list. That existence of a conventional Christian institutional world has become a matter of secular outrage.

Now, there is a very interesting observation of developments even in just recent days. It is made most eloquently by William McGurn writing in the main street column of the Wall Street Journal. The headline of the article, ‘Reporter Trolls Christian Schools.’ One of the things that we simply must observe here is that the controversy over Karen Pence teaching at Emmanuel Christian School in Virginia has become something of a catalyst for secular reporters, deciding they had better look into this subversive and dark world of Christian Schools. McGurn tells us about a reporter for The New York Times Dan Levin who last Thursday on Twitter announced this. “I am a New York Times reporter writing about exposed Christian Schools.” He continued, “Are you in your 20s or younger who went to a Christian school, I’d like to hear about your experience and its impact on your life.”

Now the important thing to observe there is that what this New York Times reporter announced that he is going to be writing about, was expressed with the #ExposeChristianSchools. It’s not the #writeaboutChristianSchools. It’s not the #I’mtryingtounderstandChristianSchools. It was the #ExposeChristianSchools. And of course, then there was that announcement, an invitation to those who might see the tweet, who are in their 20s or younger who went to a Christian school. The reporter said, “I’d like to hear about your experience and its impact on your life.” Life McGurn goes on to explain the #ExposeChristianSchools was created by Chris Stroop, a self described ex-evangelicalism. And we are also told that Stroop designed the hashtag., “In response to news that Karen Pence, the Vice President’s wife is returning to her old job teaching art at a Christian School in Virginia.”

In his own way Mr. Stroop invited “fellow Christian school grads to share their stories about”, end here is a direct quote again, “how traumatizing those bastions of bigotry are.” We know this much the #ExposeChristianSchools was released by someone who was very clear about his antipathy to Christian Schools. He announces that he is an ex-evangelical who attended one of these Christian schools. He made his own judgment very clear when he spoke of Christian Schools as, “those bastions of bigotry”. Now McGurn points to the fact that on Twitter and elsewhere, there was an immediate blowback to this New York Times reporter inviting people who evidently share the judgment that Christian Schools are bastions of bigotry to contact him and tell their stories. Again, he described his journalistic mission with the #ExposeChristianSchools.

In light of the blowback, just pointing to the fact that this was very clearly an improper exercise of journalism. Levin responded that he wasn’t really trolling for grievances, as McGurn says to fill out an attack peace. Instead, the reporter insisted he was really interested in all experiences, “including positive stories”. McGurn then points to David Harsanyi, a senior editor at the Federalist. By the way Harsanyi identifies as an atheist and as a supporter of same sex marriage. That is to say, he makes very clear that he does not share the worldview of Karen Pence. Nonetheless, he said that it would take what he described as a saint like leap of faith to believe that this New York Times reporter had really been aiming for anything like balance.

Harsanyi wrote, “Anyone who’s ever worked as a journalist can tell you that exposing someone does not typically or perhaps ever entail the pursuit of positive stories.” Now that should simply be obvious to anyone who saw the tweet and understands the context. It is implausible to state the very least to believe that the #ExposeChristianSchools was an invitation to participate in what would be even by intention, a so called balanced article on Christian Schools, and their impact on young people. But in an unusual way, McGurn actually turned to make the case for Christian Schools. He said of them, “Among the features that set Christian schools apart is the command to see the face of Christ in each child. Human Nature being what it is,” he says, “reality often fall short. But it remains a beautiful expectation, a reminder that the children before you are not to be only taught but loved.”

He continued, “Loving them means teaching them the truth, even the most difficult and unpopular parts of Christian teaching. That includes limiting sexual union to a man and a woman within marriage. These teachings-” he goes on to argue, “… aren’t meant to condemn or frustrate, they are meant to instill in young people the truth and dignity about sexuality and the human person to help them lead healthy and happy lives.” Speaking of this particular development with the reporter trolling about Christian Schools, McGurn concludes, “What isn’t fair or reasonable is the extraordinary argument we’ve heard so often these past few weeks, that teaching the Christian tradition is itself hateful and unchristian.”

That is a point we have sought to make over and over again. One of the key accusations considered a very powerful argument of the secular world around us, is that it is somehow unchristian to believe the truths of the Christian faith. It is unchristian to associate with the teachings the Christian Church has taught and believed, for over 2000 years. That it is unchristian, to hold to the understanding of the Bible as the very Word of God, a Word that must be not only read and received, but obeyed.

Part II

Having abandoned objective truth claims, religious left faces uphill battle as it tries to gain political traction

Next, one of the patterns we need to note is how often this kind of argument is coming up again and again. Surprisingly, shockingly, and even wrongly invalidly from secular sources. How in the world can a secular source try to say to Christians, it is unchristian to hold to Christian truths. That’s a theological argument. That’s basically following a religious logic.

How does a secular society do that with a straight face? Well, the answer to that is it often tries to do this with the complicity and cooperation of theological liberals. Those who have departed from Christian truth but still want to be identified as Christians. National Public Radio reported recently on this development, Tom Gjelten reported a story with the headline, “Provoked by Trump, The Religious Left Is Finding Its Voice.” It was released by NPR on January the 24th. Gjelten is a veteran reporter, he knows a story when he sees one. He writes, “Religious conservatives have rarely faced too much competition in the political realm from faith based groups on the left. The provocations-” he says, “… of President Trump may finally be changing.”

Gjelten gives some historical background. He explains that nearly four decades after the formation of the Moral Majority and the larger movement known as the New Christian Right. He tells us that there is now an effort by liberal religious leaders to coalesce in support immigrant rights, universal healthcare, LGBTQ rights and racial justice. He cites Reverend Jennifer Butler, identified as an ordained Presbyterian minister and the founder of the group known as Faith in Public Life. She said, “We believe that faith is a critical role to play in shaping public policies and influencing decision makers. Our moral value,” she said, “speak to the kinds of just laws we ought to have.”

We are told, however, that she founded the group in 2005. Let’s simply note that’s going on 14 years ago. But the logic of this report from National Public Radio is that in the current political climate, there’s an opportunity for a resurgence or you might even say a surgent of liberal Christianity in political action in the public square. Another more liberal religious woman cited in the article Tara Agnew Harris who worships at Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. That’s a very well known extremely liberal Baptist Church in Charlotte. She said, “To me Jesus talked about reaching out to the poor, reaching out to the marginalized, reaching out to the oppressed. Sometimes” she said, “I feel that traditional Christian beliefs have been hijacked.

I think many people in the United States when they hear about Christian beliefs, they think it has something to do with a certain fundamentalist mindset.” Now let’s just try to be fair and look at this dispassionately. Here you have a woman complaining that when people in the larger society hear the phrase Christian beliefs, that’s actually put again, in quotes in the article, they somehow have a reflex to believe it has something to do with a certain fundamentalist mindset. Now, here’s something we need to keep in mind, when you have someone writing from this perspective, or making this kind of comment from the religious left. When they refer to fundamentalism generally, they have no real idea what fundamentalism is. What they’re really referring to is historic Christianity.

In this sense, just about every major branch of Christianity in its major doctrinal affirmations will be considered fundamentalist. In this sense, merely believing in objective revealed truth and in the binding nature of that truth, it’s enough to get you labeled a fundamentalist. There is more in the article telling us about the particular issues the religious left is concerned about. But the most interesting observation made in this article comes down to the relative difference within, on the one hand liberalism and the other hand conservatism of those who identify as religious or specifically Christian. Here’s the bottom line, it turns out that the religious left doesn’t have the same kind of distinctiveness from the secular left as the Christian right has from the secular right.

Gjelten tells us, “A major disadvantage for any faith based movement on the left, is that it draws on a smaller base. Survey show” he says, “that liberals are less religious than conservatives by such measures as belief in God, church attendance or the importance of faith in their lives. Fewer than a third of liberals,” he tells us, “say they have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in organized religion. Nearly half of all liberals under 30 have no religious affiliation.” Now just as a matter of statistics that would indicate that the religious left faces some very significant challenges. But this is exactly where Gjelten’s report gets so interesting, because he tells us, “Perhaps for that reason the political agenda of the Faith In Public Life Organization, and other groups on the religious left at first glance doesn’t seem all that different from that of groups on the secular left, such as”

“In contrast,” he says, “the religious right has a more unique identity with an evangelical Christian agenda, that secular conservatives don’t necessarily share.” He cites Henry Olson of the Ethics and Public Policy Center who said, “The secular right may agree on some issues, but they are primarily motivated by a concern about what they argue is the growing power of government. They are more interested in preserving the constitution than the Bible.” Now here’s where I want to go beyond the NPR story and just point to one of the major historic patterns of the last century or so. The religious left, the theological liberals in Protestantism of the early 20th century made the argument that if Christianity is going to keep its traction in the culture, then it must abdicate its historic Biblical beliefs. It must accommodate itself to a larger secular worldview. It must, well you might say de-supernaturalize its doctrines.

Christianity was turned into a social gospel, and the ology was simply made into an intellectual exercise. Abandoning a claim of divine revelation and setting itself directly in opposition to historic Christian doctrines, ranging from the virgin birth to an understanding of Jesus Christ as fully God and fully man. The bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ became an embarrassment, and again with a logic that this was necessary in order to maintain traction in an increasingly liberal culture, the Protestant liberals made that bargain. But here’s where they ended up. Not only did they abandon the faith, but they also ended up in a situation where the Christian church following that logic, liberal Protestant Christianity, it lost its traction in the culture. Why? It wasn’t that the culture wasn’t necessarily pleased with the liberalism, the abandonment of supernatural doctrines. It comes down to the fact that for the most part, the secular left sees no need whatsoever for a religious left.

If you’re going to hold to the positions of the left you really don’t need any kind of religious much less theological justification at all. Later in the article the report at NPR Tom Gjelten says and I quote, “Activists on the left should welcome the emergence of a religious core in their ranks, because when political activity is morally inspired, it becomes more passionate as conservatives already understand. Liberals,” he says, “are famous for being cerebral. A religious left may bring more energy to the progressive movement.” I want to turn that argument in a different direction and simply say that the moral arguments made by the religious left, and the moral arguments made by the religious right differ not only in the positions taken, but in the authority that is invoked.

The secular left can speak in only rather tepid, generic general terms when it comes to any kind of biblical foundation, any kind of theological argument. But when it comes to understanding the worldview of evangelical Christianity, conservative Christianity in America, the positions that are held are not held because they are conservative, they are held and the arguments that are made for them should come down to the fact that it is what God would have his people to believe. It is what God defines as the sanctity of human life and human dignity. It is what God has revealed in Scripture. It is what is authoritative before we even enter the position, before we enter the picture.

It is the objective authority of the self-existent God, and thus the authority of his revealed Word. Furthermore, it is the biblical understanding of God as Judge and of Scripture as truth. In this sense the religious left and the religious right are not best understood as something like bookends on a political shelf. Instead, they are two fundamentally different ways of understanding all reality, ultimate reality long before you get to politics.

Part III

Why the prospect of human composting represents a devaluing of human dignity

Next, as we’re observing the changes that are coming in secular America, a very important article appeared in last Sunday’s edition of The New York Times. Here’s the headline. “Ashes To Soil, Washington State Considers Human Composting.” It is Kirk Johnson who writes the story. He says, “Leslie Christian recently added unusual language to her living will. After death, she hoped her remains would be reduced to soil and spread around to help out some flowers or a tree. In essence, compost.

It seems really gentle, she said, comforting and natural.” Johnson then tells us that the Washington State Legislature is now considering a bill that would make this state the first in the nation. And he goes on to say, probably the world to explicitly allow human remains to be disposed of and reduced to soil through composting or what the bill calls recomposition. In the sub header the article the issue is made pretty clear, “Some see a gentle return to nature others cringe.” Johnson tells us, “In truth composting is an ancient and basic method of body disposal. A corpse in the ground without embalming chemicals or a coffin or a quickly biodegradable coffin become soil over time.” Now here we want to make a qualification. When the reporter tells us that in truth composting is an ancient and basic method of bodily disposal,” that runs directly into his claim that this bill before the Washington State legislature would become the very first of its kind anywhere in the world.

What’s really going on here? Well, of course, the Bible tells us that we have come from dust and to dust, we shall return. But this does not get to burial practices. Of course, over time, a buried human body will return to the soil in this case, that’s nothing unnatural. What actually makes this news story a news story is the fact that what is being contemplated here and called recomposition, or as the story says composting, is something that is quite deliberate and it is innovative, and as the New York Times recognizes, it’s not an accident that the proposal is being considered in one of the most secular states in one of the most secular regions of the United States.

Johnson writes, “In America, there are regional patterns to what comes of bodies after death. In the South and Midwest, where religious or cultural traditions run deep. More families opt for caskets and concrete vaults and fewer choose cremation, experts say. In the northeast, where family roots sometimes extend back centuries, people often favor burial and local cemeteries alongside ancestors.” Now to be honest, I don’t understand that supposed that qualification a difference between those in the northeast and those in the South and Midwest, because if you have been anywhere in the Midwest, and especially in the south, then you will note that family graveyards, long term patterns of being buried with one’s extended family. This is something that is deeply ingrained, it’s also visibly evident.

Just consider driving through the rural south and looking at how many cemeteries are right in the church yards, right beside the church building itself. But going back to Johnson’s report, he writes, “In the Pacific Northwest, by contrast, death is treated somewhat differently for reasons that sociologists and religious experts have long pondered. It’s a region we are told where transient newcomers have defined the culture since pioneer days. Church attendance is among the lowest in the nation. Preservation of the environment is a central concern.” Now you don’t have to think hard in worldview terms to understand what we’re being told here. There’s a difference in the operational worldview in a generalized sense of people in the south and the Midwest on the one hand, and those in the Pacific Northwest, church attendance reflects that same distinction in worldview.

There’s a basic difference in the composition of the worldview that leads to a difference in what is proposed here as human recomposition. We are effectively told here in the New York Times that for a majority of people in the Pacific Northwest, environmental concerns are far more important than theological concerns. Johnson writes, “In Washington State, a larger percentage of residents are cremated than in any other state. Washington has more so called Green cemeteries, which encourage a return to nature without manicured lawns and chemicals than most states, only California and New York have more. Well, let’s put an asterisk there. They also have a vastly larger population. And we are told that in those states, “Laws allowing physicians to help terminally ill patients hasten their deaths known as death with dignity were pioneered in the Pacific Northwest.”

Now, why would the New York Times put those things together? Well, let’s understand. It is because of the very clear fact that they are related. They are commonly understood by the distinctive worldview that is represented overwhelmingly in the Pacific Northwest. I’m not going to dwell on the details of the proposed technology, but it is clear that the intention here is that the human body be prepared in such a way that it is put into the ground without a coffin, and without any chemicals, without any kind of vault, so that as quickly as possible, there is a biological breakdown of the human remains. Now, at this point, the story takes a somewhat counterintuitive turn, because you might think that this kind of process of composting and human body would mean that it would be less expensive than the process of more traditional burial with coffin, and vault, and cemetery plot and all the rest. But the New York Times tells us in actuality it would cost even more.

Apparently, as the story unfolds, this kind of human composting would have to take place in designated places with the kind of oversight and supervision that might be required. Environmental and ecological concerns surely taken into full account as well. But then we are told by one authority promoting the process, “It certainly is feasible that families would take home a small portion,” that means that the soil, “that they would keep for a long time. Or families could bring home a small amount that would be entered into their landscape, placed under loved ones favorite tree, similar to what people do with cremains.” It is also extremely important to recognize that some who are proponents of this new process of composting human bodies, argue for the precedent of cremation. And we are told that cremation which is now used in more than half of all deaths in the United States has, “led to an erosion of essential rituals remains.” Remains we are told, are often just picked up from a crematory and that’s that.

This individual went on to say, “This is not simply a process to convert bodies to soil. It’s also about bringing ritual and some of that ceremony back.” Now Christian should hear that clearly and we should consider what it is that we are hearing. What we are hearing in that comment, is an effort on the part of a secular society, in a very secular region of the increasingly secular United States, trying to come up with some kind of secular alternative to the Christian understanding of burial, respect for the body and rituals, including what is commonly referred to as a Christian funeral. There is also in this article, the acknowledgement that in many cases in the United States, when it comes to cremation, there is no ritual whatsoever. The cremains are simply picked up and they are put somewhere and that’s that period.

It is for this reason that throughout the last 2000 years until very recent times, virtually all branches of Christianity were adamantly opposed to cremation. It should also remind us why the Christian church from the very beginning based upon Jewish precedent, which is also found in scripture understood the necessity of ritual when it comes to death, and a ritual that takes a specifically theological shape. Finally, we need to note that reflected in the story is a long term devaluation of human dignity, of the meaning and the worth of human life as reflected in this case, not so much in a secular view of life, as it is in what happens in a secular view upon death. It is one thing to understand that God has told us from dust you have come and to dust you shall return, as compared to what is now described in this legislation as the potential of human composting. The very existence of that phrase much less to proposed legislation in Washington state should be at the very least enough to get the Christians attention.

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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