briefing, Albert Mohler

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

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

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

Part I

A Secular Culture Looks for Meaning Everywhere: Four Articles in Sunday’s New York Times Illustrate the Modern Search for Meaning

One of the hallmarks of modernity of the modern age is a desire to seek answers within rather than without. As you look through most of human history, it has been assumed that the truth is outside of us and our responsibility is to come to terms with that external truth. That has to do with the truth of the world around us, of course, but it has ultimately to do with the ultimate questions of meaning. To put the matter just as simply as you might imagine, until recently, almost every human being believed that our meaning in life, our identity and our existence, whatever meaning we are to find in the universe is planted there by God. It is an external definition. It’s an external reality. Christians understand biblically that God made us in his image so that we can know him.

But as you look at the world today, it’s increasingly clear that millions upon millions of people are looking for all the answers to the big questions of life within rather than without. All of this became very clear in just one day’s print edition of a single American newspaper—not just any newspaper, it’s The New York Times—not just any edition, it was the Sunday edition. But in the edition of this past Sunday, December 8, 2019, there were articles including these, the front page of the Sunday Styles section, a headline, “A Time For Peace, Quiet, and Tea.” The subhead: “In Los Angeles, Some Women are Finding Serenity in a Cup.” Then another article with a headline, “Experiencing the Silent Treatment.” As we will discover, this doesn’t actually mean silence, but hold that thought for a moment. Another headline, this one from the wedding section. The headline: “Stressed Before the Wedding? A Therapist Could Help.” And then from the editorial page of the same edition of the same newspaper, an article with the headline, “Hypnosis Changed My Life.”

Common to all of these articles is evidence of a common spiritual quest, a common spiritual hunger. Again, Christians understand that, that hunger is evidence of the fact that God made us in his image and made us to know him. But increasingly, what we see here is that in a secularized age, we’re witnessing the realization of what G. K. Chesterton warned of a century ago. When people cease to believe in God, they do not believe in nothing, they begin to believe in everything. And in one day’s edition of this newspaper, there’s a whole lot of everything.

Let’s go first to the big article with the headline, “A Time For Peace, Quiet and Tea.” Emma Carmichael, the reporter, tells us from Los Angeles, “A reasonable question one who has never attended a tea ceremony might have in advance of attending her very first tea ceremony is: What happens at a tea ceremony?” Now that would appear to be the key question that this reporter should answer. And the pronoun here, her, is not accidental. This is an article not only about tea but about empowerment and mysticism and women. Cited in the beginning of the article is Baelyn Elspeth who had, “hosted a carefully planned tea sit in Topanga Canyon,” that in Los Angeles. We’re told, “She was cagey and would only tell me that it would feel formal.” She said, in anticipation of the reporter attending the tea, “All I have to say is that we’re going to gather together and drink tea.”

The article then states, “Ms. Elspeth, a 37-year-old former model, actress, and dancer who now makes her living serving tea worldwide and holding ceremonial space for women, prefers for newcomers to go to their first ceremony without expectations.” In her words, “Tea is a nurturing, beautiful warming plant and it can do all kinds of things. It spans the spectrum. So for me to say, this is what you can expect, it robs you of an unlimited access to experience that you’d have otherwise.”

She rooted her new tea work in what she described as a series of serendipitous events. They included her neighbors in Venice going traveling, detour in Bali, unable to travel to Japan because of an earthquake, but she tells us, someone in Thailand had shared a book with them called the Way of Tea written by an American man named Aaron Fisher who lived in Taiwan and had taken the name Wu De. They had corresponded.

Wu De had offered an invitation if they ever found their way to Taiwan. So they ended up staying in Taiwan and studying the lineage at his tea and Zen center, Tea Sage Hut, for two months. Now seriously, we’re looking at an article in which we are told that an American named Aaron Fisher moved to Taiwan, renamed himself Wu De, and Americans are now going across the Pacific in order to gain his insights about meditation through tea in his tea hut. This individual now “regularly take study trips to Asia with Wu De and his other longest serving students, often with members of the community they’ve established through the Tea Sage Hut and the Global Tea Hut, its monthly magazine, and tea subscription service. In March 2013, on a trip to Taiwan, she was given the tea name, Tien Wu, which she was told means heavenly dance.”

The reporter then tells us about with this individual going to attend a tea ceremony. Her first, she says, was in October in Topanga Canyon under a large shady tree on private property off Route 27. The hostess was already there. “There was a brown mat directly in front of her with a set of ceramic bowls to her left and a kettle on a brazier to her right. Somewhere, a Bluetooth speaker was stashed away and playing the kind of soft, dulcet melodies heard in expensive spas. There was an afternoon breeze and not a cloud in the sky.”

The article continues, “The week before, Ms. Elspeth had sent an email to the group, a collection of women who live in and around Topanga and who have found their way to meditation practices in recent years with arrival instructions and an encouragement to wear comfortable and natural fitting clothes in soft colors, earthy tones.”

She said in her email, “Our intention is to harmonize with the natural elements of nature that will be surrounding us.” It turned out, according to the reporter, that this was evidently open to various interpretations. “There was a beautiful green jumpsuit, a dress that looked like a canvas bag with pockets, but with somehow also flattering and flowy burnt orange balloon pants.” If you’re thinking what I’m thinking—yes, exactly as found in nature.

There’s more to the article. We are told that the hostess first “rinsed each bowl with water, which she later described as a ‘physical and energetic cleansing for her guests to witness,’ then she brewed the first pot of tea. She poured the first batch quickly down the line of bowls. It was only part of the ceremony,” according to the reporter, “that seemed at all haphazard, like a bartender dumping a cocktail shaker into a row of shot glasses.” The hostess then placed a bowl in front of every guest to which the bowl corresponded. “The first time she did this,” we’re told, “she made unsparing eye contact with everyone and we returned this gesture in some way.” Included in the guests were individuals identified as a yoga teacher, a musician, and former supermodel.

Later, the article tells us, “The conversation here was expansive and contemplative, but it occasionally drifted in and out of lucidity for me. At one point, the hostess explained that tea had helped her understand how her herself was harmonized with nature.” In her words, “The only way to do that was to empty myself like the center of the tea seed, so that in that infinite potential of emptiness, the form falls away and the formless blossoms into this dance of the elements. And I’m just this empty seed pouring the water and the water is the same water that’s flowing inside my body. We just have to have this expression of wholeness,” she said, “everyone feels that in some way, shape, or form.”

With some honesty, the reporter acknowledges, “I had lost the thread on what she was saying, but it seemed to have resonated deeply.”

“The form falls away and the formless blossoms.”

Now here is where there are very deep worldview issues that come to the surface. We are really looking here at a form of mysticism that celebrates formlessness over the form. Again, this is a very strange turn in hyper modern Western culture. It’s a turn towards trying to embrace meaninglessness rather than meaning, trying to de-propositionalize all experience, trying to harmonize oneself with nature and also trying to look within rather than without by a form of mysticism in order to find some kind of meaning, but again, it turns out to be formlessness, which is also a sign of the influence here of Eastern forms of thought.

Back in the 1960s, when Zen Buddhism began to appear in popular American culture, it appeared in part because it gave the radicals of the ’60s a way to turn decisively away from the entire Western way of thinking, a way of thinking that is based upon propositional truth and objective reality and chronological time and modern mathematics and the fact that truth is external to us and that our business, our responsibility, is to know what is true and to accept the truth. In at least the popular forms of Zen Buddhism that became influential in the United States, the goal was not to fill one’s mind with truth, but rather to empty one’s mind of everything in order to embrace this empty vacuum of formlessness. You see all of that coming back in this tea ceremony in Topanga Canyon.

One of the participants at the tea ceremony said, “We’re in a time where people are so toxic, toxically lonely. We can see that with all the young men that are going out in this country and doing atrocious things in the name of God knows what. I think that what everyone’s desperate for is intimacy, but you know what we’ve been doing here? Nothing. It’s been pointless.”

The reporter also in a moment of candor said, “I’d found myself waiting for a revelation while my legs cramped. That revelation never came.”

The last word in the article, however, goes to the hostess of the tea ceremony by her English name, by the way, not her tea ceremony name, and it is she who’s been going across the Pacific learning how to be the equivalent of a tea master. Her last words were these, “All we’re doing is sitting down and drinking tea. Some people would say it’s a complete waste of time.”

Of course, the whole point of the article is to insist that it was not a waste of time. This is an article that made up most of the front page of the Styles section in the New York Times and the better part of two internal pages as well. This is considered to be an important article, but it fits within the whole wellness mentality, which is the latest version of this kind of Eastern meditation meets new age spirituality meets internal focus that has marked American culture now for the better part of the last half century.

The editorial page article was “Hypnosis Changed My Life.” It’s by Ilana Kaplan identified as a Brooklyn based music and culture critic and writer. The whole point of this article is about the emotional stress the writer was undergoing that was helped massively, she says, by hypnosis. Notice again the theme of formlessness here. During the experience of being hypnotized, the writer tells us, “Soon enough, musical chimes rang in my ears. As my eyes fluttered shut for 20 minutes, my mind floated in darkness as Joanne read a nonsensical script full of suggestions.” I’ll stop there. Notice again, a nonsensical script full of ‘suggestions’—‘suggestions’ put in quotation marks. The article continues, “Straightforward statements that create a hypnotic state for my overworked thoughts.”

The article continues, “As she recited a slew of jumbled words, it felt as if a magic wand was sprinkling tranquility around me like glitter. A tingling overcame my body as the chimes circled my brain like waves. And with that, a small part of my unease was sucked out of my body. By the end, she counted to five and my eyes struggled to open from what felt like a deep meditation. My mind didn’t feel controlled but slightly calmer.” Notice the same kind of theme here. We’re living in a chaotic world. We have to find some kind of meaning and tranquility and we’re not going to look for that meaning and peace without ourselves, we’re going to look for it within ourselves, but that takes help and it also takes evidently a slew of nonsensical words.

Part II

The Post-Christian Character of Society: Humanity’s Deep Spiritual Hunger on Full Display

The third article was by Caren Osten Gerszberg. This was the one with the headline, “Experiencing the Silent Treatment.” The subhead, “The Goal During a Meditation Retreat, Spend a Week Being Mindful and Remaining Quiet.” But in this case, as I said, the word “silent” doesn’t actually mean silent. It means silent part of the time, not silent the rest of the time.

Gerszberg writes, “Holding a transparent plastic pouch, my cell phone zipped inside with a white label displaying my name in bold letters, I followed the line as it snaked toward the front of the meditation hall. With a knot in my belly, I inched forward and approached the small stage where five meditation teachers sat silently. When it was my turn to stand front and center, I placed the bag into a deep wicker basket, piled high with other phones and plastic bags, waiting for the reverberating gong of a Tibetan singing bowl to announce its surrender. I walked back to my meditation cushion, took a deep breath and felt a wave of lightness come over me.”

She explains, “This ceremony was the start of my silent meditation retreat in February at the Insight Meditation Society, a retreat center on 400 wooded acres in Massachusetts, just 60 miles from Boston.” She says that when her youngest was ready to go to college, she felt like she was ready to take the next step in her meditation practice and that was the silent retreat. She says, “Silent retreats had been attracting meditators for thousands of years and with recent research confirming the benefits of mindfulness and meditation, reduced stress levels, lower blood pressure, and improved sleep, for example, a growing number of travelers are going on them.”

Beth McGroarty, Vice-President for Research at the Global Wellness Institute said, “The meditation retreat is one of the fastest growing trends within the fastest growing sector in tourism: wellness travel.”

Well, at the retreat, the writer tells us that she had an assignment, a yogi job, and in this case, hers was cleaning the bathrooms. She asked if she had a choice. The leader said, “No, not unless you have a physical disability preventing you from doing the job.”

“In that instant, I thought back to the mindfulness lessons and podcasts I listened to over the years, reminding myself to take a breath and just be with whatever I was feeling. (Jealousy? Disappointment? Irritation?).” Whatever she felt, evidently, she was ready to be with it.

Later, she writes, “After dinner, all 100 of us yogis went to the meditation hall where we were introduced to the retreats’ three teachers and two teacher trainees. In preparation for the week ahead, Mr. Goldstein”—he, by the way, is Joseph Goldstein, a co-founder of the Meditation Society. According to the article, he had a few suggestions: “Relax and be alert, maintain a continuous practice of being mindful even when you aren’t in the meditation hall, and slow down.”

Now remember, this is a silent retreat but she writes, “Talking was permitted in only a few instances during small group meetings scheduled with each other after each evening’s Dharma Talk delivered by a teacher on a specific Buddhist teaching or practice.” I’ll simply interject here, evidently Buddhists, when giving a speech, actually have to speak like the rest of us. We’re also told that time was allotted different conversation and asking questions after the talk and during one hour of mindful open time on the retreats’ final afternoon. Once again, the effort is to try to rid the mind of thinking. Mr. Goldstein actually says, according to the article, “Thoughts are like little dictators telling us what to do and we often listen to them.”

It was worth reading the whole edition of the New York Times just to see that one quote. I return to it again. “Thoughts are like little dictators telling us what to do.” Well, that’s exactly what some thoughts are. They are like little dictators. One of those thoughts could be like two plus two equals four. That is like a little dictator dictating truth. It also turns out to be not only true but rather essentially true. The last thing we should want to do is to rid our minds of essential truth, but you’ll notice here the basic rebellion against the idea that the truth is outside of us and that we are accountable to that truth. If you think of that statement, that thoughts are like little dictators, recognize an increasing number of people who think that doctrines are like little dictators telling us what to believe and that laws are like little dictators telling us how to behave and that anytime you have a thought that includes specific content, it is oppressive by the very fact that it contains content.

At the end of the article, the author asked the question, “Did a week of silence change my life?” She answers, “I hadn’t come on retreat in search of that kind of epiphany.” And then she said in parenthesis, “I have a therapist for that.” Well, again, that statement just about says everything. She didn’t go to the sort of silent, silent retreat in order to achieve a breakthrough or an epiphany. No, she doesn’t need the retreat for that because she has a therapist.

But that brings me on this theme to the final article. That’s the one with the headline, “Stressed Before the Wedding? A Therapist Could Help.” This one’s by Alyson Krueger, and as I said, it’s in the Vows section, the wedding section, of The New York Times on Sunday. The article is not so important to go into with any detail. The point is this, we are told in this article that a wedding can be stressful, that planning a wedding can be complicated, that it can raise some big questions, and some people might disagree. So what would be the answer that sophisticated New Yorkers should have to that problem? Well, of course, it is a wedding therapist because evidently, not only does the therapist offer the promise of epiphany for the writer who went on the silent retreat, now we are told that in one of life’s major transitions, you probably need a therapist just to get through it.

Now, one of the things we need to think about as Christians is the fact that all of these articles are pointing to a very deep perception of human need. This is something we need to listen to. Christians listening to the chatter of the world around us, including what we see is this entire system of articles in one day’s edition of The New York Times, we need to listen because it reveals an enormous and very deep spiritual hunger. That’s important for us to know. And it also reveals a very widespread spiritual confusion. But one of the issues Christians should think about is that if we do not begin with a biblical worldview, then where would we end up other than this? The answer is that this is just a generalized human confusion that takes place when after Babel in the confusion of human wisdom, you find human beings just trying to ascribe meaning or rescue or redemption or epiphany to just about anything.

But this is also evidence of a basic post-Christian character of much of our society. This newspaper is written first of all for the inhabitants of New York City, a very hyper modern urban area that is populated by people who evidently don’t even think about Christianity as they’re trying to think about the big questions of life. Or at least, as reflected in The New York Times, it appears that traditional, biblical, historic Christianity is so far in the rear view mirror of this culture that it’s not even worth mentioning. But we’ll leave all of this for today recognizing that it demonstrates that great contrast between the biblical worldview and a modern new age worldview that doesn’t use that name for branding, but is essentially the very same inwardly directed, amorphous and content free spiritual form of seeking.

Part III

What Is a Banana and a Piece of Duct Tape Worth? Apparently $120,000 — An Unsettled Culture Clearly Seen in Subversive, Modern Art

But then next, there is no way we can go one more day without discussing the banana taped to the wall. As we’re talking about the signs of our culture and what people believe and what they value, let’s go back to when the original banana was still stuck with tape to the wall. The New York Times once again reported, Guy Trebay was the reporter, although this story has made it all across the world in various headlines of one sort or another. This headline—this was before the disappearance of the banana— “It’s One Expensive Banana: Stampeding Billionaires Take Over Art Basel Miami Beach for the Annual Fair.” The annual fair here is indeed the Art Basel Miami Beach Art Fair. It is a feast, a celebration of hyper-modern, celebrity-driven art, and billionaires fall all over themselves rushing to buy the latest Avant-garde art.

In this case, what was at least called art, as Trebay reports, “Leave it to Maurizio Cattelan. The first flight of VIP collectors had barely arrived at Art Basel Miami Beach, the art fair that some call the running of the billionaires, and the satirical Italian artist had already won the battle for Instagram. All he needed was a banana and some duct tape. In a gesture straight out of the Duchamp playbook, Mr. Cattelan emerged from production hibernation with his first sculpture created for an art fair in 15 years.” He called the piece “Comedian,” and we are told it was “the end point in a creative process that saw him cycling through renditions of the fruit in resonant bronze before settling on the real thing.” Yes, let’s just make clear, not just one, but three different versions of his banana duct taped to the wall sold to very wealthy art collectors—not one, but three, and something between $120,000 and $180,000 a piece.

Why did I not go into art?

But of course, this raise all kinds of the questions that come in the course of experiencing or even noticing modern art. The first and most fundamental question is: is it even art? But in a culture and economic sense, it’s art if someone makes it and someone else buys it and sticks it in their home or in their museum. In our culturally confused time, that is all that is required to make art, art. But in this case, the art became an even more farcical example of the breakdown of meeting in modern art, and that’s because the headline about the very expensive banana that had already gone worldwide was followed by the headline that appeared the next day in The Washington Post: “A Rogue Artist Ate the $120,000 Duct Taped Banana at Art Basel Declaring Its Performance.”

Derek Hawkins reported, “If you duct tape a banana to a wall at a posh art gallery and slap a title on it, is it really art?” He continues, “For the collector who paid an eye-popping $120,000 last week,” I interject again, it turned out there were three, “the answer is yes.” But then the question, “How about if you pull that pricey piece of fruit off the wall, peel it, and eat it in front of a crowd of confused onlookers? Does that count as art to?” Now all of this is familiar to anyone following the art world because now, you have not only the visual arts and the dramatic arts, you have what is called performance art. And this is transgressive art that takes the form of some action that gains attention and is usually offensive. Performance art is one of the biggest trends in the postmodern movement. And one of the things about performance art is that it really doesn’t require much performance as much as it does transgression. And in this case, you had one artist effectively making farcical another artist because this performance artist went and took the banana off the wall and ate it. And now, a $120,000 banana is, as The Washington Post pointed out, making its way through a performance artist’s intestinal tract.

Monday’s edition of The New York Times after the taping of the banana and after the eating of the taped banana, they ran an article with the headline, “A Reluctant Defense of the Now Split $120,000 Banana as Art.” And the subhead of this article was, “A Work That Tests Our Certainties.” Well, of course, it does. That’s the very point. It is at least intended to unsettle our certainties. Again, you see the very essence of modern art. This takes us back especially to the early years of the 20th century when you had such art as the Dadaist movement or, as you had someone like Marcel Duchamp, who actually declared his movement anti-art.

It was Marcel Duchamp who famously or infamously in 1917 posted as what was claimed to be a great work of art, a disconnected urinal. This particular work, claimed to be art, captivated much of the 20th century. It is in every single major history of art in the Western world. And of course, it was farcical. It was also intended as part of the modernism of the day to be a revolt against the settled truths of Western civilization, and that included Western Christianity and capitalism. It was intended to be subversive. And as you might imagine, even as the expensive banana was eaten, so the disconnected urinal was, let’s just say, used.

But Maurizio Cattelan is actually a very well-known artist of this movement. My wife and I and several others were at Blenheim Palace, that is the ancestral home of the Duke of Marlborough. It was in that house that Winston Churchill was born as the first son of the second son of the Duke of Marlborough. It is larger than many royal palaces and is the only home not owned by royalty in the United Kingdom that is legally known as a palace.

But even as we were walking through the palace and all of its elegance and grandeur, the artwork of Maurizio Cattelan was everywhere on display: a horse hanging like a chandelier from the ceiling, Pope John Paul II downed by a meteorite. All of this, room by room, as we made our way through Blenheim Palace.

Blenheim Palace, of course, is supposed to represent the height of Western civilization. Maurizio Cattelan’s art within Blenheim Palace is supposed to mean the repudiation of the same. But it tells us something that the current Duke of Marlborough who lives at Blenheim Palace believed that it would be making the right moral statement to invite Maurizio Cattelan to put all of his art throughout the palace itself.

But that then takes us to Maurizio Cattelan’s most famous art in recent years, and that was a solid gold toilet. Yes, a toilet. You’ll notice a certain preoccupation here.

That was placed Blenheim Palace by the current Duke of Marlborough where, within days, it was stolen and the massive gold toilet, estimated at value somewhere between $3 million and $6 million has not been found and it is unlikely to be found because it was probably melted down.

Again, I stood at the very scene of the crime just days after it took place in which I could look over the crime tape and see where the toilet had been. Behind me was the very bed in which Winston Churchill had been born as the symbol of Western civilization, and right across the hall was the crime scene where the missing gold toilet by Maurizio Cattelan had once stood, but it stands no more.

All of this we looked at today just symbolizes something very, very troubling and unsettled about our civilization and culture at this time. But frankly, it also means that today, trying to understand the culture, on The Briefing, I had to talk about a tea ceremony, hypnosis, a silent retreat that wasn’t silent, and then of course, about a banana taped to the wall that turns out to be art, and then about a urinal and a toilet and the banana making its way through, well, you already know the story.

Some days, I don’t just worry about the culture, I worry about myself.

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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