briefing, Albert Mohler

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

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

It’s Wednesday, April 10, 2019. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

The soap opera that is the college admissions scandal continues to unfold as Felicity Huffman makes a public statement confessing her guilt

One of the most common forms of entertainment, it turns out, all over the world is the dramas often televised that are sometimes called soap operas. In the United States they got that name by the fact that detergents, laundry detergents, tended to advertise during those daytime dramas, and the dramas tended to go on and on and on. They had precursors in radio, but eventually the daytime, soap opera became a fixture in the United States, and we are recently told also in other nations of the world. But the only thing better than a soap opera, in this sense, is when real life turns into a soap opera. And that’s what’s been happening in so many fronts, but most particularly perhaps in the story about the 50 Americans who are arrested in a federal indictment because they largely parents, but also have some coaches had conspired in order that the parents could gain an unfair advantage for their children in gaining admission to some of America’s most prestigious colleges and universities.

The first pleas were entered just this week in federal court. The best coverage comes in USA Today by Maria Puente. She reports, “Actress Felicity Huffman is among 13 parents charged in the college admissions scandal who pleaded guilty to bribery and other fraud to get their kids into elite colleges and universities.” That announced by federal officials on Monday. We are then told that there are others— remember 50 were indicted who have not yet entered pleas—some of them apparently intend to fight the charges. There’s a huge story here. As I said, it is a soap opera. What made soap operas so interesting was the excruciating moral dilemmas, which were often featured. Featured sometimes in an almost cartoonish way, but nonetheless they were featured and in one sense the televised soap operas became something of a moral barometer in the United States. You might say the same thing is true of this story. But what was most important in moral terms in the announcement made Monday by federal authorities was the statement from actress Felicity Huffman.

She said, “I am in full acceptance of my guilt and with deep regret and shame over what I have done. I accept full responsibility for my actions and will accept the consequences that stem from those actions.” She continued, “I am ashamed of the pain I’ve caused my daughter, my family, my friends, my colleagues, and the educational community. I want to apologize to them.” She continued, “And especially I want to apologize to the students who work hard every day to get into college and to the parents who make tremendous sacrifices to support their children and to do so honestly.” Later she wrote, “My daughter knew absolutely nothing about my actions and in my misguided and profoundly wrong way I had betrayed her. This transgression toward her and the public I will carry for the rest of my life. My desire to help my daughter is no excuse to break the law or engage in dishonesty.”

Now, as this soap opera unfolds, this is a very interesting development. This is a rather comprehensive acknowledgement of guilt. It is also an expression of shame. Is it genuine or not? Well, morally speaking, there are arguments to be made on both sides. You could easily argue that this is a statement of convenience. What would be that argument? Well, here’s one point in that argument. 97% of all federal indictments lead to a guilty plea. Get that number straight, 97%. Why is that the case? That’s a vastly larger number than you would find at any other level of law enforcement. Vastly larger than state courts, vastly larger than local courts. Why do those indicted by federal authorities plead guilty 97% of the time? Well, for two basic reasons. The first is the fact that federal authorities generally do not move to an indictment until they are overwhelmingly certain of a conviction. But the second is that the federal government of the United States is so powerful that it has the resources to prosecute just about any charge that it makes. Resources that vastly outstrip a criminal defendant.

Thus only the defendant’s most determined to prove their innocence dare to actually risk a federal trial. Felicity Huffman clearly decided that she did not want to risk that trial. But that doesn’t fully explain the comprehensiveness of her statement. She states that she is guilty. She states her sorrow. She gives details of her misbehavior and misconduct. She acknowledges that it was wrong, that it was illegal, that it caused harm to others. She talks about the embarrassment and shame she has brought her family and her friends and, of course, her workplace colleagues as well. It is a rather comprehensive statement. It’s an extremely well-written statement. If you are going to argue that it is an illegitimate or insincere statement, then you’re going to say only a very expensive legal team could have written a statement that is so comprehensive and apparently airtight and designed to gain maximum sympathy from a federal judge handing down a sentence after this plea agreement.

If you’re going to argue the opposite, if you’re going to argue that it is a sincere statement of remorse and contrition then the best argument you can make is that the specifically moral language that was deployed in this statement would not be necessary unless it was fully intended. There is a great deal of moral judgment in this acknowledgement. For example, she acknowledges wrongdoing. She acknowledges criminality. She acknowledges guilt. She even uses the word transgression. Now, that’s one of those words that isn’t often used in contemporary English. It refers to sin. It refers to transgressing the law. It’s not necessarily a theological word, but in modern America it’s pretty close to being a theological word. But of course the words “guilt” and “shame” are. Christians understand they are essentially theological. They are inseparable from a theological worldview, from a moral order that requires right and wrong as objective realities.

You can’t transgress a law that isn’t really a law. You can’t be guilty unless there is genuine guilt and wrongdoing, and if you experience shame, the question is, is that shame deserved? Was the behavior shameful? And shameful again, it refers to something that requires an objective right and wrong behavior that is shameless and behavior that is shameful. It’s interesting, the, in the USA Today coverage, so-called reputation managers are cited saying that Felicity Huffman’s decision is probably smart just from the perspective of reputation management or how to handle a scandal. She comes out right away and acknowledges guilt. She has reached a plea agreement with the federal authorities. The judge is likely to act in fairly short order and she can move on with her life and with her career. And of course the whole story is about her concern for her daughter moving this fast and moving this comprehensively could allow her daughter also to have a better chance of moving on with life.

So if you’re going to make the argument that it’s insincere, just bring in the reputation managers. What does that tell us about our contemporary age in order to give credence to that claim? But here’s where Christians have to understand something. Put yourself in the position of the judge who will have to hand down a sentence in this case on the other side of the plea agreement. Do you believe that this statement is sincere or not? In reality, you can’t know. You cannot read the human heart. Even the wisest of human judges is not omniscient. In John 2 we are told that Jesus didn’t have to be told what was in man because he knew man. That is to say, our sovereign God is omniscient. He knows our hearts. There is nothing hidden from his sight, but even the wisest human judge is going to have to judge on the basis of evidence, but also at some level on a basic intuition, the intuition of whether or not it is more likely or not that this is an individual who statement of contrition is legitimate.

In any sense however, we have to understand a bigger lesson, a lesson about the role of justice and of the rule of law in any civilization or a society. It is vitally important. It’s very significant that a moral statement like this be made in public and addressed to the public after this indictment in lieu of bringing this to trial. This is extremely important because it is a reminder of the moral order in which every single civilization must operate. It is a reminder of the common responsibility that all citizens have to act and to live according to the law. It is a reminder of the fact that breaking the law is not just a matter of inconvenience or a lack of etiquette. It is a moral wrong that the entire society must name for what it is including most importantly in this case, the person who is accused and is now admitting guilt.

That’s why in what the courts call allocution, someone who has made a plea agreement and is pleading guilty must accept responsibility for the crime, must accept guilt and with that guilt also must accept the shame. So sometimes a soap opera turns out to be more than a soap opera, especially when it turns out to be a real life story. A story lived out right now in the federal courts and being lived out in headlines all across the nation, but Christians understand when you look at something like this, there is always a far bigger story. Our insights and attention should be addressed to a far deeper level: what this tells us about the rule of law and civilization, what this tells us about actual objective guilt, what it tells us about the experience of shame and what it tells us that even in a society so confused as ours. It is still a clear matter of understanding right and wrong.

That is something that was acknowledged in this actress’s statement, something that was made in a public statement addressed to the entire American people, something that points to a moral reality that is bigger and more real than even most Americans listening to this headline news want to acknowledge.

Part II

Major media is finally acknowledging ‘Unplanned’ because of its box office success: What this tells us about the role of film in driving the culture

But next, we turn to yet another story out of Hollywood. This one, a very different story. This one from yesterday’s edition of The New York Times. The headline: “Anti-abortion in Hollywood.” The subhead: “The makers of Unplanned have a hit despite hurdles.” Reggie Ugwu is the reporter. In the story he writes, beginning from Clifton New Jersey, “It was a rare packed house for a weekend in the suburbs, and when the movie was over, the sold out crowd of about 100 last Wednesday spilled haltingly into the light. A few gaggle of nuns in their habits and at least one colored priest wore their dispositions on their sleeves. Others communicated and muted gestures, dabbed at tears, or lingered for long stretches in the popcorn-strewn vestibule of the multiplex here as if still processing the deliberately provocative movie they had just seen.”

The movie they’re discussing here is of course Unplanned, and the biggest story here is the fact that it is a story. The fact that the mainstream media is finally giving attention to this pro-life movie precisely because it is now a box office phenomenon and the mainstream media did their best to ignore the story, but they can’t ignore it any longer and thus the story gets very interesting. The New York Times goes on and says, “Since March 29 similar scenes have played out across the country as faith based groups and to many others have gathered in mass to see Unplanned, a new movie that a scathing portrait of abortion rights in general and planned parenthood in particular.” Let’s just stop there. It’s something of a moral victory that those words appeared in the New York Times in any context, at any time. This is important because first of all, it is a story and it’s a big story.

It is a story that is now demanding national attention, attention that includes the words that the picture paints, a scathing portrait of abortion rights in general and planned parenthood in particular. Then we are told, “Unplanned has banked on its ability to draw such motivated crowds despite what the filmmakers, Christian opponents of abortion, hoping to make a dent in Hollywood described in interviews as a torrent of adversity.”

Now, here’s that torrent described in the news article. “First they said came the denial letters from companies holding the rights to songs they had hoped to include on the film’s soundtrack. Then it was an R rating from the Motion Picture Association of America, normally a kiss of death in Evangelical, Mormon, and other religious communities.” The story goes on, “Television networks too rejected the films trailer as too political to touch. The official Unplanned Twitter account, erroneously linked to online trolls, was temporarily suspended on opening weekend and the star of the movie, Ashley Bratcher, has struggled to book TV interviews outside Fox News and the Christian Broadcasting Network.”

Now we covered those issues as we looked at the opening of this film and we understood what an anomaly it is, what a challenge it represents to the regime of abortion rights and what a challenge it represents to Hollywood. We have seen the very issues of adversity cited here and we discussed them previously on the briefing. What makes this new is the fact that the story is now appearing not coming by some form of Christian media, but instead in the entertainment section of the New York Times, that’s news.

The article continues telling us, “Of course no film is entitled to media exposure and in each of the above cases, the companies and networks denied singling out Unplanned.” We’ll stop there and say that was a rather evasive analysis, one that I do not believe mainstream media would allow in other circumstances. But the article continues, “The belief among anti-abortion communities that powerful forces have arrayed against the film has kindled long-smoldering claims of liberal and anti-religious bias in the media and Silicon Valley, and it has animated high profile conservatives who have risen to the movies defense seeking to turn it into the latest battle front of the culture wars.”

Now, let me just point out the movie itself. Let’s be honest, the movie was intended to ignite a new front in the culture war. That is exactly why the movie was made. This is a message movie. That’s an honest assessment. Here’s where we have to understand that just about every movie these days is a message movie, some more so than others. But most of the movies are coming with a very progressive or liberal message, and Hollywood is unapologetic about that. Hollywood gives many of its biggest awards to the movies with the most left word messaging. It’s a self-congratulatory culture in which Hollywood rewards those who send the moral messages that Hollywood wants sent. Unplanned is sending the exact opposite moral messaging and that’s what makes it interesting right now even to the New York Times. Why? Because the box office success of the film has defied all expectations and the movie has now taken in more revenue than it costs to make. That in Hollywood speaks loudly of the fact that there is an audience for this film.

The writers and directors of the film are Chuck Konzelman and Gary Solomon. Solomon is quoted in the article as saying that he hoped the movie would be “the cultural moment that overturns Roe v. Wade. That,” he said, “would absolutely be a victory for us.” Meaning those who made the film and acknowledging the messaging of the film and the hope of how that message would affect the American people leading to a greater concern for the sanctity of human life and eventually leading to a recovery of human life and human dignity amongst the American people. The question is, can a movie do that? This is where Christians have to understand, no, it is unlikely that a movie can do that, but it’s where we also have to understand that narratives drive a culture, and sometimes narratives plus visuals greatly affect a culture. Sometimes the images and narratives that bring about moral change are rooted in something like the crucible of war.

But just consider the fact that the images known as the ultrasound have brought about a profound moral change in the consciousness of Americans about the inhabitant of the womb. Those images sometimes taped up on the refrigerator, now shared digitally, sometimes described as “our son” or “our daughter,” “little brother” or “little sister”—they have made it a lot more difficult to deny the inherit humanity and dignity of the baby in the womb.

Interestingly, the New York Times article says that Unplanned has, “Demonstrated the box office power of a passionate demographic that often says it is overlooked, if not persecuted, by left-leaning Hollywood.” Hold that thought for a moment. Here’s how the article continues, “The filmmakers said they want the same treatment as that given to films favored by the abortion rights movement such as RBG, the documentary about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.” Konzelman also referred to the announced film that will star Sandra Bullock as the former Texas state Senator Wendy Davis, who has championed against restrictions on abortion rights. He said, “When any of the places that turned us down for advertising turndown, Sony or Paramount or Universal with the Sandra Bullock movie From The Other Side.” He concluded, “I dare say not.” And we would have to say in response that that is almost assuredly what we see here is a double standard and yet there is at least in this article the acknowledgement that there just might be the faintest possibility of such a double standard.

And even that acknowledgement in this article in the New York Times tells us that this movie and the reality that it presents is now so front and center at least in much of America’s culture that this movie cannot be ignored. This New York Times article has another section that demands our attention. I read, “The abortion scenes earned the movie it’s R rating for some disturbing bloody images, which meant that it’s trailers couldn’t run in front of non R rated films or even on some Christian radio stations, but the filmmaker said they weren’t willing to compromise on the graphic portrayals which are central to the films appeal to viewers as a self-proclaimed expose that promises hard truths.” We simply have to assert here that those images are central to the story. The story of a woman working at Planned Parenthood who saw the images of the baby being a boarded on the ultrasound and recognize it’s humanity just before it was suctioned and torn apart to death.

The graphic scenes tell the story of this woman assisting in an abortion who was looking at the ultrasound image of a baby at 13 weeks who was according to the article, “Frantically squirming away from a doctor’s probe.” The doctor’s cited in the article, the doctor we remind ourselves who is an abortionist said that “while an ultrasound of a 13-week-old fetus may show a visible head and body, the notion that it would be fighting for its life is misleading.” The doctor said, “If you watch an ultrasound, certainly there is movement, but it’s not kicking his legs or recoiling. There is no neurological capability for awareness of danger. That part of the brain is simply not there yet.”

Now just imagine the audacity of that statement made by an abortionist. The article contains it, and there is no corrective argument from any other obstetrician gynecologist. That’s supposed to be the last word and we’re supposed to move on. But as we think about this movie and as we think about the moral horror of abortion, we have to hope, we have to pray that America will not just move on.

Part III

What the revival of Alex Rodriguez from disgraced baseball outcast to popular broadcaster tells us about the moral compass of America

Finally, yet another story about a Hollywood movie, this time, however, the article comes from the sports section of the Wall Street Journal: “How A-Rod Explains Modern America.” Now, what is this story? Well as Jason Gay tells us, “I’m not sure the film makers behind the new documentary Screwball set out to make a baseball movie that explains America, but they did.” He’s writing about the documentary known as Screwball that has to do with the performance enhancing drug scandal that rocked major league baseball. At the center of that story was Alex Rodriguez more commonly known as A-Rod. The point made by the movie, the point that is picked up by the Wall Street Journal’s Jason Gay, is that this movie points to the fact that A-Rod is, if anything now more popular than ever. But what makes Gay’s argument really interesting is that he says that the very people who had everything invested in exposing the scandal are the very people now who under a new set of moral terms want to move on and make A-Rod a hero, not the subject of the scandal.

Gay rights about A-Rod, “No player got hit harder for biogenesis…” (That’s the company involved in the scandal of performance enhancing drugs) “…more than Rodriguez who was suspended from baseball for a season after an ugly battle with Major League Baseball. Rodriguez eventually returned to wind down his playing career” Gay writes, “But since then he’s embarked upon one of the most successful second acts in modern life from performance enhancing drug pariah to thriving entrepreneur and an analyst on both Fox and ESPN.” Jason Gay asked the question, how could that have happened? Only in modern America. Here’s where he draws the larger moral lesson, “If you are wishing A-Rod would live out the rest of his life and performance enhancing drugs, purgatory, it’s not happening. Not only is it not happening,” he writes, “but forces that once wanted to bury him are now fully invested in his revival.”

Gay continues writing, “There’s no way Rodriguez would have his TV platforms if the powers that be including current baseball commissioner Rob Manfred weren’t on board. Baseball,” he writes, “once said to believe that it’s serious about keeping the sport clean, but baseball also wants as much A-Rod as it can get.” Billy Corbin, the director of the movie, explained to this moral transformation with these words, “He’s more liked and more famous than he ever was as a player. I don’t knock his hustle.” He said, “I don’t begrudge him that. God bless him. It’s remarkable.” Gay then writes, “You could see this as cosmically unfair and it probably is. You could see it as hypocritical of baseball and it probably is that too.” Corbin calls Screwball a movie about the new American values and it’s possible to see in Rodriguez’s rise and erosion of standards. Gay then writes, “What does his high perch in baseball say to players trying to do it the right way is the public’s memory really this short? Does A-Rod mania make Lance Armstrong want to pound his head against a wall?”

We need to pay particular attention to the way Jason Gay ends the article. “The public’s moral compass is constantly pivoting. If the present is appealing enough, the past doesn’t always matter.” He concludes, “The return of Alex Rodriguez is indeed remarkable and for some more than a little maddening but,” he analyzes, “it’s also a story of where we live now.” Now remember the headline: “How A-Rod explains Modern America.” Here you have a Hollywood movie that becomes the subject of a news article in the sports section of the Wall Street Journal in which an analysis of a movie about a scandal in baseball becomes the opportunity for a sports writer to say there must have been a major moral transformation in the United States. We must be operating by a new set of moral values. This particular movie pointing to this particular scandal points to the fact that this is a new America morally speaking.

As we conclude, just consider these words in the sports pages of the Wall Street Journal. The public’s moral compass is constantly pivoting. It’s a story of where we live now. The movie tells the story of the new American values.

So today on The Briefing we have three different stories dealing with three apparently very different moral issues that all have their commonality in Hollywood, and the commonality in the fact that these stories turn out to be incredibly telling about moral change in modern America and the role of Hollywood and entertainment. That should give us enough to think about for today.

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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