briefing, Albert Mohler

Thursday, August 8, 2019

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

It’s Thursday, August 8th, 2019. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Hollywood Present the ‘Matter of Fact’ Abortion: And Then Adds the Obscenity of Humor

As you look at the cultural landscape of the United States and try to understand our society, it’s hard to miss the significance of Hollywood. And Hollywood isn’t just a place in this sense, it’s an entire massive multi-trillion dollar industry. As you look at it and come to understand what it represents, you also come to see that it is and has been one of the major engines of moral change, even if the moral transformation of the United States.

Just consider, for example, a recent headline from the New York Times, the articles by Cara Buckley, the headline “Hollywood and the Matter-of-Fact Abortion.” Here’s the subhead: “Series and films depicting the procedure as an everyday occurrence have markedly increased, a scholar finds. Writers say they’re showing what they know.”

Now, look at the headline just for a moment, “Hollywood and the Matter-of-Fact Abortion.” As in, “Abortion is just normal, deal with it. It’s not an issue. Keep moving.” But then that last part of the subhead in which we are told that the writers of these television series and Hollywood films are “showing what they know,” which is to say, they’re really writing out of their own personal experience with abortion, having had abortions.

Buckley writes, “At a recent conference outside Los Angeles, a national women’s rights lawyer stood before a select group of Hollywood heavyweights to issue a demand and a plea. With a woman’s right to choose in jeopardy,” we are told, “the lawyer, Fatima Goss Graves, said more abortions should be portrayed in narratives on screen.” In the lawyer’s words, “The stories on abortion do not match our reality.”

Now, just look at that paragraph. We are told about this select attendance conference, a private select group there in Hollywood. They’re defined as Hollywood heavyweights, and we are told that a national woman’s rights lawyer stood before them to make both a demand and a plea. It’s hard to miss the meaning of what’s being conveyed here. And then we are told that the demand and the plea is that these writers and Hollywood heavyweights would portray more abortions in narratives on screen.

The story continues, “The attendees, agents, celebrities, and producers at an invitation-only diversity summit held by the talent agency CAA, took Goss Graves’s message in stride. As it turns out,” the article tells us,” the industry is already begun shedding one of its longest held taboos. In recent years, we are told, abortions are taking place or being talked about on television at record levels, often in shows created or written by women.”

One of the persons cited in the article is Gretchen Sisson, a sociologist at University of California, San Francisco. It’s her research that’s being cited in the article. She said, “You’re definitely seeing more of the matter of fact, ‘I’m pregnant. I don’t want to be. I’m going to have an abortion.’” She said, “It’s gone way up in 2019.”

Buckley then reports, “So far, halfway through the year, nearly two dozen characters in streaming shows, movies, and television have had or talked about having abortions. Many unapologetically, a development that would have been unthinkable a decade ago and one that has angered some abortion foes.”

Now again, just consider the context here. This is an article in a liberal, very pro-abortion newspaper, The New York Times. It’s a newspaper than more than any other media outlet represents the Eastern establishment elite. It’s writing about the Hollywood West Coast creative elite and what they share in common is the idea that abortion is just no big deal. And that those who think that abortion is a big deal, well, their anger by this development, but they’re just going to have to deal with it.

The article documents series and episodes that represent what’s called this matter of fact abortion. I’m not going to catalog them in detail, but we are told that those portrayals “are a marked departure from how abortion was depicted or not in storylines from the ‘80s through the early aughts. Characters facing unplanned pregnancies then usually agonized about what to do, or if the show was set in the past, weighed back alley procedures. Babies were often carried to term or lost to miscarriage. Terminations led to psychological or physical problems or death. It’s not,” says the paper, “that today’s characters come to their decisions without deliberation, but that they are decisive and forthright.”

It is very interesting to note that the citation of one series comes with this explanation. “Nine of the eleven people credited with writing those episodes were women.” But again, what doesn’t seem conceivable on the West Coast or on the East Coast is the reality that in the United States, women on average, are even more pro-life and anti-abortion than men. This also underlines the reality that if you’re looking at the writing teams when it comes to screenplays for Hollywood big pictures or you’re looking at streaming or broadcast television, you are looking at an alternative moral universe from most of America. That’s been true for a long time. One of the realities that the LGBTQ community has triumphalistically celebrated for a long time is that communities outsize influence in Hollywood, and if anything, that’s a radical understatement.

It’s also interesting to look further in Buckley’s article where Kate Langrall Folb, director of Hollywood Health & Society is cited. She said, “In terms of narrative broadcast prime time over four years, it’s been pretty thin.” That’s a complaint about the net amount of television or entertainment attention to abortion. This is a complaint about that. We are told that the organization she represents, that is Hollywood Health & Society, it’s straightforwardly described in the New York Times article as “an initiative at the University of Southern California promoting accurate representation of health issues.”

Now just ponder that again for a moment. When you see words like “health issues” and “accurate representation,” you understand that it is an interest group or even in this case, an academic institution. You are looking at an agenda, and the agenda is also extremely clear.

We just need to go back to that opening paragraph where the context is clearly a pressure system. It’s a demand being made by a national woman’s rights lawyer to a group of Hollywood heavyweights. Now note what had to take place even for this context to exist. The Hollywood heavyweights had to exist. They had to care deeply what this woman’s rights lawyer and the activist community she represents wanted them to see. They had to show up for the meeting and then they were faced with a demand. They had to know that was coming when they accepted the invitation, to what’s described here as “an invitation-only diversity summit held by the talent agency CAA.”

Now, just think about this for a moment, who’s absent from that meeting, that invitation-only meeting? Anyone who’s going to rain on that parade. Furthermore, who’s absent from that meeting is anyone who represents the vast mainstream of America. Here’s one of the biggest ironies and anomalies of American culture: Americans consume untold amounts of this entertainment, cultural product, but they have almost no connection to the people who are writing them.

And furthermore, the people who want you to watch these programs don’t like you. They don’t like your worldview. They consider most of America to be fly over country. You see this reflected over and over again, but Americans still watch. They still buy the movie tickets. They still go. They take their children and allow their children and young people to watch. They also have to understand that they are thus a part of the equation, but not a part of the equation on the creative side, only on the consumer side. On the creative side, well, you see the agenda right here.

But before I leave the New York Times article, it’s interesting that it concludes by siding Nick Loeb. He’s the director of the forthcoming movie “Roe v Wade.” But according to the article, he “echoed the notion that Hollywood was neglecting swathes of anti-abortion Americans at its economic peril.” Now, it’s not at all clear to anyone looking at the bottom line that that intentional ignorance, that neglect does come with any kind of economic peril. There is however, a moral peril.

But here’s what makes the article more interesting as it concludes, “Loeb, who is also known for his legal fight with his former partner, Sophia Vergara, over frozen embryos, said distributors have already made offers sight unseen for his film, which stars John Voight, Stacey Dash and Loeb as the anti-abortion activist Bernard Nathanson.” Loeb concluded, “Nobody is speaking for us. Hollywood doesn’t speak for us, but when people make movies for us, they’re loved and they’re adored.”

It’s going to be very interesting to see how that movie, “Roe v Wade,” fairs in the Hollywood landscape. But what is really interesting is the fact that it’s just a warning to us right now that Jon Voight and Stacey Dash and Nick Loeb are likely to be almost instantaneous outsiders in Hollywood simply because they participated in the film.

But as we think about what the New York Times depicts as the matter of fact abortion, we need to look at an article in the current issue of Ms. Magazine, that flagship magazine or the feminist movement in the United States.

The headline in this article, “Abortion Becomes Ordinary.” The subhead: “When TV Comedies like Shrill Tackle Abortion, They Do Away With The Drama.” The article is by Aviva Dove-Viebahn, and she writes about the history of the portrayal of abortion in Hollywood and in American entertainment. “Since its inception, television has showcased abortion storylines primarily in dramas, so it’s no wonder many of these narratives diverged from the truth of most actual abortions, explains Gretchen Sisson, a sociologist and principal investigator of abortion onscreen.”

Sisson said, “The presumption is that onscreen abortion stories have always been—and perhaps should be—unfunny. Abortion is a topic of such controversy that it must be portrayed in a fraught and dramatic way.” Speaking of her recent study, she said, “It’s remarkable that TV comedies seem to be tackling abortion storylines more openly, accurately, and yes, humorously than ever before.”

That’s diabolical language, but just think about it for a moment. We’re being told multiple important truths in these two articles put together. We are told that Hollywood is trying to present abortion now as simply a matter of fact, not morally significant. There’s no drama to it. It’s just a “I’m pregnant and I no longer want to be pregnant” decision. “Life goes on,” they want to say. But now you have Ms. Magazine and its article telling us something even more subtle, telling us that a significant shift in the way that Hollywood wants America to understand abortion is in moving the issue from rare appearances in dramatic presentations to comedies. The big issue here: if you’ll laugh about it, you can consider it morally unimportant.

Ms. Magazine has been pro-abortion, ardently uncompromisingly pro-abortion from the beginning, and it is celebrating the fact that abortion is now being moved by Hollywood into comedic lines, making it even, the word appears in this article, “humorous.”

Just one line I’m going to cite partially from a comedy. This is the HBO series, “Veep.” A woman has an abortion, and the male character is identified as “the proud father not-to-be” who aids in her recovery. Just consider that the proud father not-to-be, he’s the man who got the woman pregnant. Now he and she are both in full agreement about this abortion. He’s proud to be the father not-to-be, rather than the father to-be.

We might well and accurately say that there is a major dividing line in humanity between those who see that as profoundly tragic and others who see it or at least to tell us they see it as funny. The article concludes in Ms. Magazine by speaking of the goal of “normalizing women’s experiences.” That is speaking of abortion. That’s the word “normalizing.” We have to look at that for just a moment. Normalizing means two things. It means making normal or presenting as normal, and you can understand that agenda immediately.

If America can be convinced that abortion is just normal, not morally significant, then America will move on and the pro-abortionists will have free rein. But we have to understand a second issue and that is that the word “normal” is based upon the word “norm,” and that means what is established as a standard. And that’s the biggest, most fundamental issue we need to see here. These moves by Hollywood and these moves bringing pressure on Hollywood, these celebratory messages coming within Hollywood, they’re all about re-norming America on the issue of abortion.

And here’s where Christians have to consider the fact that entertainment in our own minds and in our hearts is never morally neutral. There is messaging going on. What we have to note, and it’s particularly insidious when you consider the angle in this article that speaks of shifting from drama to humor, this is one of the ways that moral change takes place within us when we do not invite it and we do not recognize it. It is because indeed, if we can be changed so as to laugh at something to see it as humorous and lighthearted, then we have ourselves just furthered the process of creating a new moral norm at the expense, we should note, of the sanctity of life in the womb.

Part II

Abortion and Liberal Judaism: Understanding the Theological Landscape

But next we shift to another big article on abortion. This one was on the front page of USA Today. The headline: “Judaism Seeks Voice in Abortion Debate.” The subhead: “For Some of Religion’s Leaders, Biblical Judgments Don’t Apply.”

Lindsay Schnell was the article’s writer. She says, “When Alabama Governor, Kay Ivey, a Republican, signed into law in May, one of the nation’s most restrictive abortion bans, she invoked her faith.” The governor said, “To the bills many supporters, this legislation stands as a powerful testament to Alabamians deeply held belief that every life is precious and that every life is a sacred gift from God.” Then Schnell writes, “This is a familiar argument for the Republican Party when it comes to abortion access.”

I’m going to stop there for just a moment, let’s consider what the governor said. She spoke of the citizens of Alabama and their “deeply held belief that every life is precious and that every life is a sacred gift from God.” Let’s just note something fundamental, that’s not some odd marginal sectarian theology. That is a basic presumption of Western civilization. That is indeed a moral knowledge that we understand as Christians is implanted in us by the fact that we are made in God’s image. The language here is not overtly theological at all. It simply speaks of every life as precious and every life as being a sacred gift from God.

But the setup of that paragraph is to tell us that many Jewish leaders and Jewish citizens in the United States disagree with that statement that came from Alabama’s governor. And the headline story in USA Today is suggesting the fact that Christians have an outsized influence, and religious people, many religious people, are actually pro-abortion. That’s an argument we need to look at very carefully.

By the way, it was really interesting to see USA Today cite Psalm 139, “You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion as I was woven together in the dark of the womb. You saw me before I was born.” That’s the translation that USA Today cited. But then the article continues, “But for many leaders in the Jewish faith, such interpretations are problematic and even insulting.” The article then cites Danya Ruttenberg, a Chicago based rabbi. We are told that she’s written about the Jewish interpretation of abortion.

She said, “It makes me apoplectic. Most of the proof texts that they’re bringing in for this are ridiculous. They’re using my sacred texts to justify taking away my rights in a way that is just so calculated and craven.”

Wow. “Calculated and craven.” “Her sacred text.” Speaking of the fact that the “proof texts that they’re bringing in for this are ridiculous.” Seriously? Ridiculous?

But what is revealed in this article is the fact that the Jewish authorities in the main cited and referenced in this article—and they do represent the vast majority of Jewish citizens in the United State—are extremely liberal, not only when it comes to politics, but also to theology.

Their view of Scripture is not the view of say, medieval Judaism, and it is certainly not the view of Evangelical Christianity. This is a very big story, but it’s big for reasons that you can count on USA Today not intending. The article goes on citing various Jewish arguments for abortion. Most importantly, the rabbinical assumption that life does not begin until the baby takes its first breath. Later in the article USA Today says, “But what is often left out of the conversation is how Jews who read the Hebrew Bible, referred to in the Christian circles as the Old Testament, argue that their tradition condones abortion if the mother’s life is at stake, it even insists on it.”

Well, that’s true if you’re looking at Reform Judaism. But this raises an issue, and that issue is just how many Christians understand the Jewish movement in the United States. When you’re looking at this question, it simply reminds us that the majority of the Jewish people in the United States, if they are religiously affiliated at all, are likely to be affiliated with some branch of Reform Judaism, but Reform Judaism is itself a very liberal movement.

Some studies indicate that less than 50% of the Jewish people in the United States and the majority of those in Reform Judaism say that it is not important that there be a belief in a personal God, and many of them indicate they have no belief in a personal God. That shows up in the article. It’s certainly here in the foreground.

As you’re looking at Judaism in the United States, about 90% to 95% of the Jewish population is comprised of those described as Ashkenazi Jews. That is they’re a part of the diaspora or the scattering of the Jewish people, and most importantly, they came from central and eastern Europe.

Less than 50% of those identify with a personal belief in God. Instead, Judaism was largely translated into tradition. About five to six million Americans identify as Jewish in some sense amongst those who identify as religiously affiliated, the Orthodox represent about 10%, conservative Judaism about 18%, and Reform Judaism about 35%. Now, if that sounds like, say Christian denominations, well, there’s a reason for that. You might call these Jewish denominations, although they’re more likely referred to as Jewish movements.

Orthodox is the right. It’s the conservative representation, but again, the most recent estimates indicate about 10% of American Judaism identifying in some way with Orthodox Judaism. Reform Judaism is the left wing, as we have seen about 35%, and Reform Judaism is like very liberal Protestantism. No belief in God is even required and the movement is incredibly situated on the political left, one of the most predictable constituencies for liberal movements in the United States and for the Democratic Party.

The Middle Movement is Conservative Judaism, but it’s not really conservative in any sense today. That represents 18%. It’s also the group that has been shrinking in numbers most quickly, probably because of the simple reality that mediating systems that try to have some kind of halfway position between theism and atheism, they don’t work too well. They don’t last very long. That’s true, whether the group is Protestant historically or Jewish.

It’s also important that Christians understand, as we think about our Jewish neighbors, that Judaism today is overwhelmingly described as Rabbinic Judaism. That goes back specifically historically at least to the 14th century to the year 1342, with the final formation of what is known as the Babylonian Talmud. That’s a multi-thousand page commentary on the Jewish tradition produced by rabbis. What we need to note—and by the way it goes back in his formative stages at least to the fourth century—what we need to note is that priestly Judaism, which came to an end at least in the sacrificial system with the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 1870, it was succeeded by Rabbinical Judaism.

And what’s most important to understand here is that in Rabbinical Judaism, the authoritative texts that is so often cited is not the Old Testament, it is rather the Talmud.

Part III

Religion Without Theology: It’s a Pattern Beyond Protestantism

By the way, thinking about Reform Judaism in the United States, the New York Times ran an article recently with a headline, “Gay and Once Divorced Rabbi Broadens Judaism’s Tent through Her Experiences.”

There are about three things to note in that headline. First of all, we’re told about a rabbi who is a woman, who is gay and has been divorced. The article is by Dan Bilefsky, and it is datelined from Montreal because Rabbi Lisa Grushcow is now serving as the first openly gay rabbi of a large synagogue in Canada. The article indicates that she is now divorced and remarried with two daughters and a third child on the way. She’s married to another woman.

She said, “Her struggles had helped shape her inclusive approach to Judaism during posts in Manhattan and in her current role as the first female senior rabbi at the 137-year-old Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom, a sprawling Reform synagogue in Montreal’s affluent Westmount neighborhood.”

She had been identified, we’re also told, as “one of America’s most inspiring rabbis by the influential Jewish publication, The Forward.” We’re also told, “She has edited a seminal book on Judaism and sexuality.” There is also reference here to the fact that she “works to improve ties between Canadian Jews and Muslims; and counsels lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews from Newfoundland to Mexico.”

There are several ironies in the Jewish situation in the United States. One of them is that even as the Orthodox are the smallest group or movement in Judaism, they still have a very high birth rate. And over time, even in cities such as New York with very large Jewish populations, the Orthodox are growing and the other groups are shrinking.

A couple of thoughts to ponder here, one of them is that when you encounter theological liberalism, it looks pretty much the same wherever you find it.

It looks pretty much the same in a gay, divorced, same sex married rabbi of Reform Judaism in Montreal, as when you look at the same kind of clergy, the same kind of female minister that would show up also advocating the LGBTQ movement and just about everything else. And also what you have in this is a fundamental theological redefinition of everything, and most fundamentally that means a theological redefinition of God.

But finally, as you think about these stories and you consider the fact that the word “religious” shows up again and again, just consider how little is actually conveyed by that word. When you have USA Today saying that even as conservative Christians and Roman Catholics have an outsized influence on the issue of abortion, and also make theological claims and other religious arguments are more neglected, one of the things we need to note is that when the word ‘religious” is used like that, it doesn’t necessarily imply anything theological.

But that is actually the kind of religion that modern liberal American society thinks would be best. Religion that’s religious in some sense, but not very theological because if it really does become very theological, it’s also likely to become very moral. And those moral judgments and the theological beliefs behind them are what really concern an increasing number of secular Americans. The gay rabbi in Montreal is exactly the kind of religious leader that Hollywood thinks would be just about fine, safe, no threat at all.

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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