briefing, Albert Mohler

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

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

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

Part I

Is Math Oppressive? Seattle Public Schools Think So: What This Reveals and Why Christians Should Celebrate Math

Christians need to step back and watch massive intellectual shifts that show up in the most unusual and unexpected ways. For example, as we shall see today, how math is going to be taught to children in Seattle.

But hold that for a moment and just consider the fact that when we look at the modern age and you have the distinction between fact and value, that was a part of the problem of modern thinking. That division between fact and value insinuated that facts are facts, such as two plus two equals four. But value statements and all statements of theology and morality were put by modern philosophers into that category of value, they lacked objective truth. They were not as certain. They were not factual. And thus the assumption was that all theological claims are basically matters of opinion. And eventually all matters of moral judgment are just matters of opinion.

But there had been the assurance that in the modern age that distinction between fact and value would still leave the world coherent. After all, we still had agreed upon facts. But then came post modernism in the last part of the 20th century, and post modernism was a step beyond modern thinking, beyond modernity. In the postmodern movement, and during that period in the late 20th century, you had prominent philosophers and intellectuals who began to argue that truth itself was merely an illusion, that truth was socially constructed and that all truth claims were disguised forms of oppression in one way or another.

But, of course, even as some of the most modern thinkers pointed out, you might have postmodern art, and you might have postmodern architecture, but you couldn’t have postmodern surgeons and airline pilots, and you couldn’t have postmodern engineers. Why? Because engineers and surgeons and airline pilots have to deal in the realm of facts. They have to operate with the understanding that truth is not merely socially constructed, but it’s a matter of corresponding with reality.

As I’ve often quoted Francis Schaeffer, he said that if you look at the modern age, you see the problem of this division between fact and value in a so-called two story house. The first story was the story of facts, modern people said, and the second story was that story of value or opinion. And Francis Schaeffer and other Christian thinkers were prophetic in pointing out that when you look at that two story universe, it won’t work. You can’t suggest that two plus two equals four is categorically a different kind of statement than God was in Christ incarnate.

But you can understand why after the Enlightenment modern people wanted to argue this. It’s because they wanted a revolution in morality, and in order to get a revolution in morality, you have to argue for something like the relativity of truth. But again, note this, at least until our conversation today on The Briefing, you have probably not heard anyone deny the fact that two plus two equals four, and that the universe depends upon the fact that two plus two equals four, that it’s a matter of fact, not merely a matter of opinion, much less a matter of oppression.

But that was so yesterday.

Robby Soave, reporting for Reason Magazine, gives us an article with the headline, “Seattle public schools will start teaching that math is oppressive.” Now, millions of school students have thought that math assignments were oppressive, but in this case we’re talking about math as a knowledge, math as an arena of human intellect, math as a matter of fact. Once again, two plus two equals four, three times three equals nine, those kinds of facts, that kind of math.

But Soave reports, “Math is a deeply frustrating subject for many elementary and high school students, but Seattle public schools are gearing up to accuse math of a litany of more serious crimes: imperialism, dehumanization, and oppression of marginalized persons.”

The article in Reason continues, “The district has proposed a new social justice-infused curriculum that would focus on ‘power and oppression’ and ‘history of resistance and liberation’ within the field of mathematics. The curriculum isn’t mandatory, but it provides a resource for teachers who want to introduce ethnic studies into the classroom vis a vis math.”

The story was first reported in Education Week, that article stated, “Seattle’s four-page framework is still in the proposal stage. If adopted, its ideas will be included in existing math classes as part of the district’s broader effort to infuse ethnic studies into all subjects across the K-12 spectrum. Tracy Castro-Gill, Seattle’s ethnic studies director, said her team hopes to have frameworks completed in all subjects by June for board approval.”

Robert Q. Berry III, identified as president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, evidently no real friends of math, said, “Seattle is definitely on the forefront with this. What they’re doing follows the line of work we hope we can move forward as we think about the history of math and who contributes to that, and also about deepening students’ connection with identity and agency.”

Notice what’s missing from that statement by the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. What is missing is what is known as math.

The reporter for Reason tells us that the proposed framework is “fairly terrible.” I continue, “It’s chock full of social justice jargon that sounds smart but is actually vapid. What does it mean,” he asks, “to decode mathematical ‘beauty’ or ‘identify how the development of mathematics has been erased from learning in school?'” The proposed framework says that it will “re-humanize mathematics through experiential learning and facilitate learning independently and interdependently.” As Reason Magazine reports, “That’s a fancy way of saying almost nothing at all.”

But you begin to see the agenda behind this when the Reason report tells us, “Students will be able to identify the inherent inequities of the standardized testing system used to oppress and marginalize people and communities of color.” They’ll be able to explain “how math has been used to exploit natural resources, and explain how math dictates economic oppression.”

Soave points out that even as these statements are made, they are presented as non-debatable, not even as discussion points.

Rod Dreher commented, “In the future, historians will look back upon the suicide of our civilization and will see this poison for what it is. In Seattle, the city’s public schools have decided that everything, even mathematics, has to be seen through the lens of oppression and racism.” Helpfully, Dreher actually provided actual screenshots from the guidelines, which we will just let speak for themselves.

Under the category of definition of terms, I read, “Power and oppression as defined by ethnic studies are the ways in which individuals and groups define mathematical knowledge so as to see ‘western’ mathematics as the only legitimate expression of mathematical identity and intelligence. This definition of legitimacy is then used to disenfranchise people and communities of color. This erases the historical contributions of people and communities of color.”

Just to make the point clear of what’s going on here, under the column, “Where does power and oppression show up in our math experiences?”, we are provided with a series of questions. Again, this is a screenshot of the actual proposed framework. “Who gets to say if an answer is right?” That is now presented as a matter of oppression. The idea that there is a single right answer to a mathematical question, and that there is someone in authority who has the right to say this answer is right and that answer is wrong. That entire context is now couched within a context of oppression and liberation.

So now the only assumption you can draw from this framework is that there should be no one who is able to say that a mathematical answer is right or wrong, because the very category of right or wrong is culturally oppressive. And then there are other questions, “What is the process for verifying the truth? Who is smart? Who is not smart? Can you recognize and name oppressive mathematical practices in your experience?”

Again, consider this category, “Oppressive mathematical practices.” Now Christians looking at this, even as we understand the confusion that abounds, we would be the first to admit that in a fallen world, anyone can use anything nefariously, anyone can use anything wrongly. Mathematical facts and figures can be used insidiously to make wrong arguments. But the point is, it’s the argument that’s wrong, not the math.

And this is where Christians have to understand what mathematics is, this would be very helpful for us. As a matter of fact, just consider the fact that mathematics has been a part of human experience for as long as human beings have had fingers on which to count. Counting has been an important part of the human experience, and counting is the very essence of the beginnings of mathematics. You begin to count, and thus you are a mathematician.

A report came out in the mainstream media just this week indicating that before they even have categories such as one, two, three or four, human infants show the ability to count, even by the motion of their eyes. And furthermore, the actions of their hands.

But this is where Christians need to understand that Christians have been deeply, deeply involved in mathematics, going all the way throughout the history of the Christian church. But let’s fast forward a bit to the rise of mathematics in its modern sense. Where did it come from? Who were these mathematicians? Overwhelmingly, they were explicitly churchmen. They were professors of mathematics, who were themselves also theologians.

That’s one of the reasons that a mathematician like Isaac Newton, who was a Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge University, is buried in Westminster Abbey. And that’s one of the reasons why it was deeply appropriate given the fact that Isaac Newton, for example, understood mathematics to be a revelation of the very character of God and the purpose of God in creation.

The Christian worldview based in Scripture understands that we count because God made us to count. Even in the biblical doctrine of creation, the revelation in the first chapter of Scripture, we have counting. God created the cosmos and everything within in six days, six successive days. Count them: one, two, three, four, five, six. And on the seventh day, he rested.

God has also embedded his character, even as Paul tells in Romans 1, his invisible attributes in the created order, such that the symmetry of that order and the objective continuation of that order is a revelation of his creative purpose, his glory, his sovereignty, his rule over all creation even now. It is a revelation of God’s glory in creation that two plus two does equal four. That two plus two equals four everywhere, for everyone. That two plus two has equaled four, does equal four, and will equal four.

It is also no accident that some of those who are now teaching mathematics have inevitably veered over into proposals that amount to atheism. Just consider someone like Steven Hawking, who by the way was also the Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge University. Why does that happen? It is because if you are going to tamper with the basic structure of math, then you’re going to have to argue for a very different explanation for the cosmos, and thus you’re going to come up with a very different theological rationale as well.

But those who are operating in those realms of math are still unable to offer any explanation as to why anything exists in the first place. Not to mention why the cosmos as it does exist, exists as it is.

Christians looking at this story have to understand that it doesn’t simply affirm an educational confusion. That educational confusion is profound, and it goes back to the kind of rebellion we have seen in academia and in learning, especially since the 1960s, the pushback that you cannot tell a student the student is wrong without oppressing that student, or even in a wave of psychotherapeutic kind of concern, wounding that child’s ego or self-esteem. That’s one of the reasons why there have been arguments that students shouldn’t take tests, and that no one should present facts as facts, because those facts turn out to be rather oppressive.

By the way, do Christians understand that facts are oppressive? Well, in one sense, yes. What do facts, what does truth oppress? Falsehoods.

But as I said, there’s something even deeper here. And that deeper issue is a rebellion against an orderly creation. A rebellion against a hierarchy of meaning and a rebellion against the very idea of authority. That is what is basic to this kind of proposal, you do not have that spelled out in so many words in this proposed curricular framework, but nonetheless, it’s all there in the words that are given to us.

Christians must understand, as we began, with the fact that any good thing can be distorted in a sinful world and used for a bad purpose. But the answer to that is not to deny that two plus two equals four, but rather to make sure that justice is served by the fact that everyone everywhere has access to the knowledge that two plus two equals four.

The biblical worldview takes math itself seriously, and even as an issue of justice. But not in this kind of Marxist critical frame, but rather in a simple frame as you see revealed in Scriptures that say that weights and measures must be honest. A biblical understanding of justice when it comes to math is that everyone everywhere has the same mathematical tables, that the mathematical tables are the same for the rich and the poor, for anyone living anywhere on earth.

And the Christian worldview reminds us that liberation will only come in the truth, and that means that actually teaching the truth is the only way to bring about true liberation. In essence, we come to understand that denying truth means leaning into insanity.

Part II

What Does “Evolving Faith” Look Like? The Seduction of Seeking to Make Christianity Relevant in a Secularizing Culture

But next, we turn from mathematics and what this headline reveals about our cultural confusion, to a theological and spiritual pattern of confusion revealed in several articles recently released by Religion News Service.

The first by Roxanne Stone entitled, “Evolving Faith conference offers evangelical refugees shelter.” We’re told in the beginning, as the report comes from Denver, Colorado, that the Evolving Faith 2019 conference is actually the second annual. It’s described as “a gathering of progressive Christians, most of whom had an evangelical background.”

Later in the article we are told, “The brainchild of two Christian authors and bloggers, Sarah Bessey and the late Rachel Held Evans, Evolving Faith is aimed at ‘wanderers, wonderers, and spiritual refugees,’ though,” we are told, “most of the weekend’s attendees had come to hear refugees specifically from traditional (mostly white) evangelicalism discuss how to remake its image.”

Now, of course, you’re looking at the fact that Rachel Held Evans tragically died as a young mother just a matter of months ago, and yet she, along with Sarah Bessey, is one of those who started this conference, and we also have to note with honesty that they started the conference in order to shift the entire identity of American evangelicalism away from the theological foundations that make American evangelicals evangelical.

“In practice that meant making ‘inclusion’ an oft-referenced goal for the conference. The speaker list alone made that clear, a Christian who’s-who of black, brown, LGBTQ and female voices. At a time when many Christian conferences have come under fire for having primarily cisgender, straight white men on stage, Evolving Faith featured only one: Pete Enns, who, during the ‘Evolving Faith & Bible/Theology’ session, described his own journey toward becoming an ‘agnostic Christian.'”

Now, just note this far in the article what you have already perceived, and that is that this is not an attempt at a minor rebranding of evangelicalism, but rather rebranding evangelicalism to include agnosticism. We can go just as far and say this is a form of insanity, but it’s a form of insanity that is often contagious and it interests the media. That’s why this is a story from Religion News Service.

But no one reading, or for that matter, I think writing this article, nor those participating in this conference, actually think that they are going to be successful in rebranding evangelicalism. Rather they are trying to mainstream a very different understanding all together of Gospel and theology and doctrine and Bible. And for that matter, Christianity and Christian ethics.

Just remember the fact that central to this is the inclusion of persons defined as LGBTQ, among other very interesting identity politics designations. Jeff Chu, we are told, welcomed the crowd to the Evolving Faith conference. He “welcomed a long list of groups ranging from introverts to the disabled, from the ‘frozen chosen’ to the pansexual, from ‘you who do sex work to pay the bills,’ and you who are clutching your pearls because I just said ‘sex work.’”

The central paragraph in the story explains, “In 2015, Rachel Held Evans and the iconoclastic Lutheran minister Nadia Bolz-Weber teamed up with Jim Chaffee, a Christian-industry management agent, to produce the Why Christian Conference, to bring together thinkers and writers to talk about how faith was, or could be, relevant to a secularizing culture.”

There’s the formula you need to watch for, you need to listen for those words, to make Christianity relevant to a secularizing culture. The formula is this, if you are determined to make Christianity relevant, you will abandon Christianity. It’s because it starts with the assumption that Christianity as Christianity isn’t relevant.

The Christian affirmation is that Christianity is ever relevant. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Christianity, the Christian truth claim, the Christian Gospel, does not change, and it is always relevant — relevance mostly described as being true in articulating the good news of how sinners can be made right with God through the atonement accomplished by the Lord Jesus Christ.

The event was poignant, to be sure, after the sudden death of Rachel Held Evans. But the article takes on an even more tragic tone when we read, “Dan Evans, Rachel Held Evans’ husband, also spoke during the opening session, reading an excerpt from a book she had been working on before her death and which will be published posthumously in 2020.”

In his remarks, Dan Evans “opened up about some of his own personal struggles with faith and Christianity, embodying a theme for the conference and a common thread within the audience: a journey of deconstruction and an uncertainty of where to go from here. ‘I’m agnostic,’ Evans said. ‘I haven’t been public with this. I wish I was certain we were all going to live forever, I wish I was certain we are all going to heaven. I wish I was certain I would see Rachel again. But it doesn’t seem very likely to me. I don’t know.'”

Evangelical Christians can only read and report like this with heartbreak.

Activist Lisa Sharon Harper said, ““I think our faith is evolving now, because we are waking up to the reality that that faith, that twisted, malformed faith that spoke human hierarchy into the world and reinforced it, we’re finally waking up to it and saying ‘no.’ But now we have to figure out,” she said, “what it’s supposed to be. What is the vision for what it’s supposed to be?”

Again, just incredibly revealing. There is uncertainty followed by uncertainty, followed by a lack of certainty that certainty is even possible. But it does offer us a very clear glimpse of what an evolving faith looks like. Evolving from faith to what?

Part III

Anglican Church of Canada Sees Evangelism to Jewish People as Anti-Semitic: A Reminder of the Priority of New Testament Evangelism

The second article, also from Religion News Service, is written by James Rudin. It’s titled, “Christian churches own up to the futility of converting the Jews.” Rudin writes, “In July, the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada voted to remove a longstanding prayer from its liturgy that called for the conversion of the Jewish people to Christianity. The deleted wording will be replaced with a new invocation called: ‘For Reconciliation with the Jews.'”

Bishop Bruce Myers urged Anglicans, “To acknowledge and repent of the church’s participation in anti-Semitism, to stop singling out Jews as a target for our evangelistic efforts, and to assume a humble and reconciliatory stance with our Jewish elders in the faith. Anglicans,” he said, “should be ever mindful of Christianity’s deep Jewish roots.”

Indeed, of course, Christians should be ever mindful of our own deep Jewish roots, the deep Jewish roots of biblical Christianity. No doubt about that. But notice what is being argued here. It is being argued that it is anti-Semitic to share the Gospel with Jewish people, that it is anti-Semitic to argue that Jewish persons, along with all others, are sinners who can find salvation only through faith and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Notice something else, repeatedly, evangelism that is extended to Jewish people is defined as targeting Jews. The only to avoid that, as this news article makes clear, is to argue that Jews do not need Christ.

But there is a deep confusion, which can only be intentional, it is also driven throughout this article, there is an agenda here. We read, “The Anglican Church’s recent action joins similar steps taken earlier by major church bodies and prominent Christian leaders alike in a serious and systematic effort to rid Christianity of long-held teachings on conversion. That endeavor,” said the article, “includes powerful statements from Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis, as well as from two of the most prominent Protestant leaders of the last hundred years: Billy Graham and Reinhold Niebuhr.”

The article continues, “In 1973 Graham declared, ‘I believe God has always had a special relationship with the Jewish people. In my evangelistic efforts, I have never felt called to single out Jews as Jews. Just as Judaism frowns on proselytizing that is coercive, or that seeks to commit men against their will, so do I.'”

But notice what Billy Graham said and what he didn’t say. Billy Graham did not say that there was any excuse for Christians not sharing the Gospel with anyone. He did not say that Jewish people do not need to hear the Gospel, or that anything other than the Gospel of Jesus Christ might save. And he didn’t even argue against evangelism that leads to conversion, only against “proselytizing that is coercive.”

Compare that to the next paragraph in the article, “Fifteen years earlier, Reinhold Niebuhr was even more blunt. He said, ‘Christian missionary activity among the Jews are wrong not only because they are futile. They are wrong because the two faiths despite differences are sufficiently alike for the Jew to find God more easily in terms of his own religious heritage than by subjecting him to a faith which must appear as a symbol of an oppressive majority culture. Practically nothing,’ said Niebuhr, ‘can purify the symbol of Christ as the image of God in the imagination of the Jew from the taint with which ages of Christian oppression in the name of Christ tainted it.'”

But Reinhold Niebuhr here completely abandoned biblical Christianity and the Gospel of Christ as revealed in Scripture. It is right to point to the sin of anti-Semitism in any form. But the worst form of anti-Semitism is to conform and to corrupt Christian theology in such a way as to argue that we have no responsibility to preach the Gospel to the Jewish people.

But the agenda of this article becomes clear when you understand that it insinuates that there is something shameful in sharing the Gospel with the Jewish people. But at this point we need to remember the testimony and admonition of the most famous Jewish convert to Christianity in the history of the faith, that is the Apostle Paul. Writing in Romans 1:16, “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God unto salvation to all who believe, to the Jew first and also to the Gentile.” To the Jew first, that is actually the priority of New Testament evangelism.

And the Apostle Paul would also remind us that if we are ashamed of the Gospel, we are actually ashamed of Christ.

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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