briefing, Albert Mohler

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

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

It’s Wednesday, January 29, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

The Central Moral Scar of the 20th Century: Implications for 21st Century Christians 75 Years after Auschwitz

Across the landscape of the 20th century, the central moral scar is known as the Holocaust, the deliberate killing of about six million Jewish citizens of Germany and central Europe between the years of 1941 and 1944. There were other incidents of genocide throughout the 20th century, and of course, there were other horrifying moral atrocities including World War I and World War II, the communist experiments that left deaths in the tens of millions, but the deliberate, intentional strategic effort to try to remove the Jewish people from the face of the earth under the jurisdiction of the Third Reich is the moral event of the 20th century that defines moral evil not only for that century, but anywhere and anytime there is the memory of that horrifying reality. And one of the issues here in worldview is understanding that it was a reality. It took place in space and time and history.

There’ve been those who tried to deny the historical reality or the scale and scope of the Holocaust, but that is not intellectually tenable. The evidence is simply overwhelming and the reality is beyond any kind of denial. There have been those who have tried to minimize the impact or the knowledge and memory of the Holocaust. They’ve been those who have tried simply to evade dealing with it. But as we saw just in the recent days in which we marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp, it is not something that can be put out of sight and out of mind.

The very names of the concentration camps and especially the death camps are now emblazoned upon the moral memory of human beings who survived the 20th century or who now look back upon it. But as you’re thinking of those names, there are none that are more horrific than Auschwitz and Birkaneu. And Auschwitz alone, it is estimated that over one million Jewish people were killed in the deliberate effort to murder the Jewish people, and that’s out of a total of about six million. This week marks the 75th anniversary of what is called the liberation of Auschwitz, and that took place as Soviet troops overtook the German troops. And we now know the Germans knowing of the Russian and Allied advance tried to eliminate the evidence at Auschwitz, both by blowing up the facility itself and by forcing the remaining population held captive there in Auschwitz on a death march, in which additional thousands died.

The effort undertaken by Adolf Hitler and other leaders of the Third Reich to try to eliminate the Jewish people from the planet began in 1941 in an earnest way, but it took on an entirely new and deadly character in 1942. On the 20th of January of 1942, in a lakeside suburban villa outside of Berlin, a conference known as the Wannsee Conference decided on the total elimination of the Jewish people. It became known, in Nazi Germany, as the “Final Solution to the Jewish Problem.” That horrifying language is what set the technology and the organizational ability and the deadly intentions of the Nazi regime into a coordinated effort, and it eventually led to the deaths, as we now know, of millions.

The liberation of Auschwitz 75 years ago came even as it is now undeniable that Western authorities and, at least to some extent, Western populations have become aware of the reality of the extermination camps and the efforts undertaken by Nazi Germany. There was actually no excuse for the West to be unaware in the first place because Hitler had trumpeted not only his general anti-Semitism, but his particular hatred for the Jewish people. And of course, long before Europe was drawn into the total conflagration of World War II, there were already very clear signs of the deadly anti-Semitic intention of the German regime.

The very fact that this week marks the 75th anniversary of the Allies taking control of the Auschwitz camp, it’s a reminder of the fact that many of the survivors, the very few amongst the total population who did survive the war, there are very few of them who are surviving now. The New York Times tells us that in the observance that was held 15 years ago, there were about 1,500 survivors present, this year, only about 200, and as the reporter Joanna Berendt tells us, “For many, it is likely to be their last visit.”

There are huge worldview questions, of course, behind the Holocaust. The first of them is simply the question, why? Why would anyone be filled with such intense hatred, and with the specific hatred of anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism, to actually determine that it was a national purpose to eliminate the Jewish people from the face of the planet? That is almost impossible for us to comprehend. But this is where Christians understanding the reality of evil and human sinfulness actually know that there is no evil that is unimaginable amongst human beings who can imagine such horrifying evil, and not only imagine it as we now see, but do it. And furthermore, there was the intersection of the deadly intention of Hitler with very long strains of European anti-Semitism that had gone back surely to the medieval period. But as we know from reading the Bible, anti-Semitism is as old as the Old Testament itself.

The knowledge of how the death machinery of the Third Reich operated, simply also underscores the fact that human beings can apply the massive intelligence that God has given us, and even the massive organizational abilities that the German nation under the Third Reich had demonstrated, even the powers of industrialization and transportation and modern communication, in order to orchestrate the mass murder of millions of people.

But another massive worldview issue we need to confront is the burden of history, the reality of dealing with history, and the moral import, the moral weight of that history. When it comes to look into the 20th century, the Holocaust stands right there at the center of that century as the great moral question that must be answered. But even now, there are efforts to rewrite that history or to manipulate that history, and it comes down to how even modern nations and their governments and regimes try to interpret the Holocaust.

This came fully to light in a conflict this week between the nations of Poland and Russia. In a very significant event held in Jerusalem just days ago, an event that drew no less than twenty-seven different heads of state, heads of government, or royal representatives, there was comprehensive condemnation of the evil of anti-Semitism, of the evil of the effort to murder the Jews, and particularly, the evil of the Holocaust undertaken by the Third Reich. At that event in Jerusalem, Russian president Vladimir Putin was present, but the president of Poland was not present. He refused to go after comments were made by Putin in which he claimed that Russia was a victim of the Holocaust, Russian Jews in particular blaming Poland. Meanwhile, at another event held at Auschwitz earlier this week, marking the 75th anniversary, the Polish president was present and the Russian president was not invited.

When you look at Russia and Poland in 2020, you are looking at two rival attempts to interpret the Holocaust to their own national memory and their own national interest. It is in the interest of Vladimir Putin to pose as if Russia were merely an innocent actor, especially when it comes to the Holocaust and underlining the fact that there were Jewish citizens of Russia who were murdered in the midst of that horrifying event. But the president of Russia doesn’t want to talk about the non-aggression pact that Joseph Stalin, the head of the Soviet Union, had signed with Adolf Hitler that was basically an act of betrayal, not only to the Jewish people writ large, but in particular, to the democratic West.

Meanwhile, it is in the interest of the Polish government to blame the entire Holocaust on Germany without acknowledging, as historians now make very clear, that there was complicity in the Holocaust by many different governmental units and by many citizens throughout Eastern Europe. That point was made absolutely clear by historian Timothy Snyder in his epic book, Bloodlands.

Christians also need to think about the context of the Holocaust within the 20th century and recognize that it was a modern representation of a very ancient hatred, but it is also something that is driving many recent events and headlines. After all, the headline in yesterday’s edition of the New York Times was “Auschwitz Survivors Warn Against Silence in Face of New Perils.” A previous headline in the same newspaper about the anniversary noted, “75 Years After the Liberation of Auschwitz, A Fear That ‘Never Again’ Is Not Assured.” The background to that language is that in the aftermath of the second World War and the knowledge of the Holocaust, Western nations were absolutely determined to do whatever is necessary to prevent any recurrence of that kind of anti-Semitism, not to mention genocide and mass murder.

The implication of these headlines is that 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, anti-Semitism is still a real and present danger, as of course it is. And this is where Christians committed to Scripture understand that it is the Christian church that bears a particular responsibility for the stewardship and safety of the Jewish people. That is why Christians have a stake in this question that goes far beyond the rest of the world that has a responsibility that is, of course, almost impossible even to calculate. Christians also have to understand that it is the same sinful impulses, it is the same diabolical reasoning that leads to anti-Semitism now and the anti-Semitism of centuries past, and the anti-Semitism of the Third Reich. We have to understand that that very deep hatred reveals not only a hatred of the Jewish people, but a hatred of the Creator who made covenant with them.

This is where Americans also need reminding that our historic support for and partnership with the state of Israel, going all the way back to the fact that the United States was the first nation to recognize the state of Israel in 1948, that relationship and that affection goes back to the memory of how the world failed the Jewish people and how the American people understood a unique responsibility, not only to honor the Jewish people, but to honor the Jewish people’s rightful demand to a homeland. There are many millions of people in the modern world who also need to be reminded that the state of Israel as a Jewish state was actually a mandate of the United Nations in the aftermath of the second World War, and at least in part, politically, that was explained by the Western revulsion to the events of the Holocaust and the recognition of just how close the Jewish people had come to extermination, the Nazi plan.

Part II

Natural Evil, Moral Evil, and the Judgment of God: When Faced with Great Evil, Christians Must Put Their Trust in the Justice of God

But there’s something else that Christians need to keep in mind, and that is that the 75th anniversary of the Holocaust serves as a reminder of the fact that this kind of moral evil often becomes such a stumbling block for people, that it became an engine for atheism in the 20th century. We need to think about this for a moment. There are two great symbolic events that have taken place in Western history, each of which became something of a catapult for atheism within the Western mind. The first of them came just about 200 years before the second World War. It is the event known as the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. That is an example of what we call natural evil. There wasn’t a human being who created the earthquake, there was no human responsibility. It led to massive death and it also led, and this is why we’re thinking about it today, to many people asking basic questions about the meaning of the universe and God’s responsibility for the universe that he governs.

The question of natural evil became very much central to the Western mind, at least to the educated Western mind, through that event of 1755. It was moral evil that became the second catalyst event, and that was the Holocaust in the 20th century. If you look at the Jewish people in the United States today, it is very clear that the Jewish population trends towards a far more secular identity than most Americans would recognize, and at least in part, that came out of the kind of discussions that came in the aftermath of the Holocaust. And all of this simply underlines for Christians, the fact that we have a responsibility to declare the gospel of Jesus Christ and the totality of the biblical worldview because it is only the biblical worldview in the context of the gospel of Christ that explains both why there is natural evil and why there is moral evil, and how they will be and can be resolved in the ultimate justice of God, and how—here’s the other chastening, humbling lesson—they will not be resolved by any kind of human action short of the judgment of God.

There is of course the human responsibility to effect as much justice as we can, but just think about the end of the Holocaust and think about even the Nuremberg trials and the other war crimes trials that have followed. They have been only, if even this, a drop in the bucket of the justice that is do. We must do that justice in so far as we can. But at the end of the day, it is absolutely humbling to recognize just how short the human reach is when it comes to achieving genuine justice. The 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz reminds us of all of this and lessons we dare not miss, lest we forget.

Part III

Amusing Ourselves to Death, Revisited: Over 500 Scripted Television Series Aired in 2019

But next, ironically enough, thinking about the weight of moral meaning, we need to look at the superficiality of contemporary American culture. One window into that superficiality is found in a news story that also ran in recent days in the New York Times. This one’s by John Koblin, and the headline is this, “It’s Not an Illusion, Peak TV Is Showing No Signs of Slowing.” Now, what would Peak TV mean? Well, it refers to the fact that at some point, there will be something like a high watermark of the amount of television production that is possible. At least in theory, there will come such a high water mark, but evidently, it hasn’t come yet. As Koblin reports, “It has been on a steep upward trajectory for years, and in 2019, it finally happened. There were,” he says, “more than 500 scripted television series in the United States last year, a high.” Now, let’s just stop there for a moment, 500 scripted television series. That’s not 500 scripted television programs, 500 scripted television series.

Koblin goes on to say, “The estimated number: 532 comedies, dramas, and limited series that were broadcast or streamed, that according to the research department of the cable network FX, which tabulates and releases the figure every year.” Koblin then goes on to tell us, “It marked the first time the 500-show threshold had been crossed, representing a 7% increase over the number of scripted shows just in 2018.” That also represents an increase of 52% since 2013. That year is crucial because it is the year that streaming “started to become a habit for many viewers, with the debut of ‘House of Cards’ on Netflix.” It’s also interesting to note “the FX tally did not include reality shows, daytime dramas or children’s series. If those were included, the number would swell to significantly more than 1000.”

It is also interesting to note that these figures now come annually from FX. Back in 2015, it was the chairman of FX, John Landgraf, who argued that there was then, in 2015, “simply too much television,” and it is he who is credited with coining the term “Peak TV.” As the New York Times tells us, it was Landgraf who predicted that an inevitable decline was likely to set in soon, but as the Times tells us, “Instead, the growth has seemed endless.” So again, what we’re being told here is that in 2019, there were more than 500 scripted television series either that were available by broadcast or by streaming video.

But then that reminds me of one of the most important books written about American culture in the last half century. This one goes back to 1985, 35 years ago. The author was a professor and head of the Media Ecology Laboratory at New York University. His name was Neil Postman, and the title of his book just about says it all, the title, Amusing Ourselves to Death. The subtitle of the book, “Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.” Neil Postman was arguing, 35 years ago, that the American mind was being transformed and debased by a spectacular form of mesmerizing entertainment in the form of television. And he was looking at the statistics of American television viewing back in 1985 when the country only had three broadcast networks, and when you were looking at television, it had only a minor fraction of the options that viewers have today.

Neil Postman’s point, made back in 1985, is that America was becoming a culture of absolute amusement at the expense of truth and meaning. He was looking also at the particular vulnerability of children growing up in the age of the set rather than the age of the book, and he understood that there was a different kind of mental formation taking place by watching television than by reading a text. Reading a text changes the mind and forces forms of mental operation that simply are not existent or operational in viewing television. But again, that was 1985, the options were extremely limited.

Back in 1985 in this book, however, Neil Postman was warning that the American people were becoming the most entertained and the least informed people in the Western world. He spoke about the great transformation taking place in the United States from the age of the text to show business, the age of show business where everything is entertainment. Again, his title, Amusing Ourselves to Death. And there was abundant evidence that Americans would rather have then followed the entertainment of a laugh track on a situation comedy than to have dealt even with face-to-face conversation, the time given to television viewing often at the expense of other activities including face-to-face conversation with the family at the dinner table, not to mention the engagement with a text.

But there was even more behind this, and this connects us with the totalitarian dangers we looked at in our first issue, and that is the fact that as Neil Postman reminds us, many Americans during the age in which the communist revolution was still unfolding with the Soviet Union, there were many Americans who feared that the future was dark under a totalitarian regime that would try to enforce and coerce the minds of the people by censorship, largely by cutting off information much like in George Orwell’s novel, 1984. But in one of history’s strange ironies, Neil Postman argued the future was actually turning out to be a very different form of government and societal mind control, this time by the benign entertainment that was predicted by Aldous Huxley in his novel, Brave New World.

As Postman wrote, “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared is that there would be no reason to ban a book for there would be no one who wanted to read one.” He continued, “Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information, Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passively and egoism. Orwell,” he said, “feared that the truth will be concealed from us. Huxley feared that the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.” And that was written in 1985. Here we are in 2020, looking at the television’s statistics for 2019, and what would it mean to go back and tell now the late Neil Postman that the dozens of shows he was worried about in 1985 had been supplanted with over 500 scripted series available to Americans in 2019. If television was a threat to the human mind then, what in the world has it become now?

Finally, considering all this, Christians should reflect upon a couple of very important questions. One is, to what extent do we really want to be entertained at the expense of being informed? To what extent do we want to watch merely narratives on a screen rather than to understand and be a part of the narratives taking place in the world around us? How much time are we willing, after all, to give to a screen? It’s not so much in a box as it was in Neil Postman’s age as it is now on a flat electronic screen that we can carry in our pockets or put into our briefcase. The reality is that the challenges for Christians now when it comes to the stewardship of these technologies, that stewardship is greater than ever before. And it’s not just the stewardship, it is the knowledge that a technology is never merely neutral. It makes effects upon us. The effects of television are something that most people just don’t want to think about.

This is not an argument that human being should never watch television, that Christian should never give themselves to entertainment. That’s not the argument. The argument is Christian should never do so without very strong self-consciousness and reflection about what it really means to our lives, and how we should be good stewards of our time, and how we are to guard what kind of messaging is coming into our eyes after all.

But there’s one final point in all of this, and that is the fact that God’s people are a textual people. That’s true in the Old Testament as God gave the children of Israel the Torah and the prophets and the law. It is true in the New Testament as we are given all of the writings in the New Testament. Together, God has given us a text, the Holy Bible, 66 books, and it is the sole authority within the life of the church. It is God’s word to us, inerrant and infallible, verbally inspired by God, and it is irreducibly a text. It is a text to be read. It is a text to be meditated upon. It is a text to be memorized. It is a text to be taught. It is a text to be preached. All kinds of technologies have come and gone and will come and go, but the church of the Lord Jesus Christ is left fundamentally with the technology of a text, a technology that requires reading.

When you think of this headline story in the New York Times about all of this entertainment, perhaps you ought to think about this: “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of God endures forever.”

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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