briefing, Albert Mohler

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

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

It’s Tuesday, March 17, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

The Day Sports (and a Lot More) Ended—For Now. What Will America Do?

Writing on Sunday his sports column for the New York Times, John Branch wrote, “The last game in my town was a girls junior varsity lacrosse game on Thursday night. The spring season,” he tells us, “was just getting started. Fans were spread across the metal bleachers, not in acts of social distancing, but because there were only a few dozen of us. Still,” he wrote, “we knew the world had changed.”

Indeed we do know that the world has changed, and that includes the world of athletics. Just consider that we would not have imagined a few days ago a headline such as this, “The Day Sports Stopped In America.” But there has been a stop to sports, to athletic endeavor, to organized athletic competition. And that includes everything from little league and tee ball all the way up to the professional sports leagues and everything in between—middle school, high school, intercollegiate athletics, right at the point of March Madness at its most intense. And all of that simply underlines just how fragile our entire social fabric is. But then again, it causes us to look a little bit deeper at that social fabric in order to understand what it means, why it exists, and how it is likely to survive even the end of sports for some time in America.

But the point being made by John Branch is that Americans have become accustomed to our games, to organized athletics, to team sports. And especially with an intensity that has massive economic and cultural implication. But furthermore, as you’re just thinking about organized sports, even now there are huge questions on the minds of many. What will they do with their time now that they’re not going to be watching or attending live athletic events? What are they going to do with their imagination now that they are not thinking about their brackets for the NCAA tournament, or for that matter just about anything else? Or to put it in other terms, what exactly will they be betting on in the sports gambling businesses where there aren’t going to be many sports? It’s hard to imagine exactly how they are going to base their wagers.

But nonetheless, all of this points to far deeper issues of Christian consideration. For one thing, a bit of historical analysis is probably helpful here. Wherever you find human history, you find something like sport, you find something like athletics, all kinds of reasons for that. In one sense you could say that it’s a part of obedience to the command to take dominion. It’s an exercise of athletic excellence. It’s a demonstration of human ability. It’s also a demonstration of team sport and the ability of human beings to work together. It can bring out the very best in human beings, and like any other dimension, including the arts or literature, it can not only bring out the best, it can sometimes bring out the worst, and it most often brings out something in between.

But now that our lives are so disrupted, it is really important for us to recognize that in recent centuries, most importantly in the 20th century, people in many Western nations earned and began to take as an expectation, a considerable amount of time devoted to leisure. They could attend games, they could follow sports, and most recently they could satiate themselves on an endless stream or broadcast of television sports, streaming sports, just about every kind of broadcasting and internet casting you can imagine to the extent that you could simply watch on multiple screens athletic events from all over the world simultaneously. But they have almost simultaneously come to an end.

One pressing economic question is, exactly what will fill the space that had previously been filled by sports, particularly by sporting events. But as Christians, think about this, we need to recognize that the morality, the sociology, the economic dimensions of all of this, just point to some even deeper issues. There is a quest within us to watch something, to be involved in something. There is a desire within us to have the fellowship of others who find the same events, the same activities, the same sports fascinating. There is a sense of camaraderie. There is a sense of belonging to something that comes with team sports. There is a sense of human achievement and the celebration of that achievement that you see even in something like the Olympics. And especially there you also have the team sports concept expanded to the level of nations. That parade of flags is not just a demonstration of all the different nations of the world who are competing in the Olympics, it is also a demonstration of political allegiance and of patriotism, country by country, state by state, Olympiad by Olympiad.

But the existence of sports as a mass reality also points to the reality of the social structure of which it is a part. It is a part, but it’s only a part, an important part. But we need to recognize that before there could be this vast network of an industrial complex of modern athletics and sport, not only on the national and local, but on the international levels, there has to be a certain fabric of civilization.

And here’s where the Christian worldview reminds us that that begins with the very opening chapters of Scripture. It begins with the creation of human beings as the only creatures made in God’s image. And given to human beings are abilities and a consciousness, an awareness, a social principle that doesn’t exist self-consciously in other animals. Other animals have the equivalent of something like a family. They have mating pairs. They have herds, and schools, and swarms. But amongst human beings, and uniquely amongst human beings, you have the ascription of meaning to those social endeavors, and to every thread of that fabric of what makes society, society.

As we’re thinking about all of this, basically slowing down, if not coming to a stop in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, we should also recognize our thankfulness for the fact that we as human beings are actually capable of being conscious of the world around us, and of doing something about it. Sometimes we do the kinds of things that are required, for instance, in a time of war. Just think of the 20th century, two horribly consequential World Wars. Sometimes it comes in building an economy. And of course right now we are looking at an economic picture that is not only cloudy, but is almost certainly going to bring a great deal of economic pain. We’re looking at the fact that the economy is not just made up of the stock exchanges, and the big banks, and the financial centers. The economy is actually made up of the countless individual economic decisions that are made by the human actors who are living, first of all, in your house or apartment, and then in proximity to you in your neighborhood, and then expanded out in concentric circles until eventually you are looking at the totality of an economic system representing an infinity of decisions that are being made, except right now many of them are not being made, or at least many of them are being deferred.

Economic uncertainty, we should note also as we’re thinking in terms of worldview, economic disequilibrium and uncertainty brings a pause in economic activity as human beings, thinking consciously about what is taking place around them, are not certain what to do in their purchasing, and in their planning, in their investing, and in their retirement. They’re simply going to have to think all this through, which means we are simply going to have to think all of these things through.

And of course we are also looking at the fact that as important as sports is, it’s extremely important to understand that just about every other aspect of society. With athletics, you can now include the artifacts and interests of so-called high culture. Just think of museum culture, and think of the demonstration of the arts and music and all the rest. It is not just the athletic stadiums that are going to go silent, it is the symphony halls as well.

A couple of worldview observations in keeping with this. For one thing, we’re going to have to decide what to do with our time that we had previously been investing in either something like the arts or something, on a far more popular level, something when it comes down to athletics, and sports, and other kinds of cultural events. The reality is all of those are going to be put on pause.

When will they pick up again? We don’t know. We don’t know what the new normal will be on the other side. We do know that the basic interest of human beings and the basic patterns of human social behavior are not likely fundamentally to change. At some point the games will begin again. And at some point all of the sporting events will begin to attract the same kind of fascination. Once again the fields will be filled with little leaguers, and eventually the museums will be filled with people. Also, we can at least hope, the symphony halls as well. But amongst the many things that we must recognize is the fact that we’re going to have to decide how to fill our days and our time when they are not filled with the kind of interest in preoccupations and activities that had filled them before.

There are a lot of God honoring ways we can use that time and Christians must recognize that one of the things we can do is continue to reach out and make contact, human contact with people, even if we are not able to do it face to face with a knock at the door or sitting beside one another in the stands or the bleachers. We still have the capacity to reach out to one another, to stay in communication, and to care for one another. Furthermore, in the hours that we’re going to be spending not doing the things that we previously had done, there are books still to be read, there’s a Bible to be studied, and of course at the most fundamental level there are meals to me made, there are children to be cared for, and there are children also to be educated, taught within our homes, because they are not attending classes in a classroom elsewhere.

But next we also have to recognize as the President of the United States made clear yesterday, we are looking at a fairly long period, longer than many Americans would like to imagine, in which we are going to be in this modified and altered state of existence. We are going to be looking at a longer period of an economic shutdown beyond anything that we’ve experienced outside the context of total war in the United States. And the president could not have been more clear in his statements yesterday about the danger of having human beings, in our context, in any kind of collective presence, any kind of group. He gave the number as ten, but the reality is that ten is just less dangerous than twenty. And ten is yet more dangerous than five. What’s the magic number? There is no magic number. But the fewer the better in this context.

Part II

Responsibility and Freedom in a National Emergency: When Urgency Curtails Liberty

Next, the New York Times ran an interesting opinion piece recently. Farhad Manjoo wrote his column with the headline, “Everyone’s a Socialist in a Pandemic.” An interesting headline, an interesting article. Although the article is not quite so interesting as the headline. Farhad Manjoo is basically making the argument that the plausibility of socialism rises in our imagination in the pressure of a kind of pandemic like this because people have to care for one another, there has to be a distribution of limited economic and medical assets. And of course you have a breaking of the normal rules of the economy as we have known it. And of course, all of those things indeed are now taking place, or at least they are factors as we are looking at our response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Manjoo began his article, “All it took was a pandemic of potentially unprecedented scale and severity, and suddenly it’s like we’re turning into Denmark over here.” Well the response to Farhad Manjoo is, not quite. The United States is not turning into Denmark. But when he misses is the fundamental issue that Christians should perceive. And that is that in a context of an emergency like this, you do the kinds of things you otherwise would not do. There is in a very real economic sense, a different set of rules and priorities. And this is true even in a legal or constitutional sense.

When the President of the United States declared a national emergency last week—he also declared a national disaster—he not only freed up billions of dollars and other forms of national assets, he also exercised or at least indicated his openness to exercising, extraordinary powers as President of the United States in the face of this kind of challenge. Those powers are yet constitutionally untested. But if they have been tested before, it was in the context of massive military operations. You can think of even Abraham Lincoln suspending the right of Habeas Corpus during the Civil War. Or think about the special powers that were claimed and exercised by the American government and by the American president in the context of World War I and World War II.

Americans in a normal context would not allow the suggestion that they had to have rationing coupons to buy rubber tires for their cars. They wouldn’t have accepted under normal circumstances the order that they had to use self-tinted margarine rather than butter. But when called to defeat the Axis powers in World War II, Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, Americans were willing to do then what they otherwise would not have been willing to do. But it’s not just that they were willing. It is that they were required to do so because the government undertook to itself an authority to intrude into economic decisions, even personal decisions, because of the necessity of the war effort.

Something like that is the most apt metaphor for the challenge we now face as we’re confronted by the coronavirus. We have Americans who will be accepting requirements we otherwise would never have accepted peacefully. We’re going to be accepting orders and all kinds of policies that would never have been received well previously. And Americans are even going to do what they would tell themselves they would never do, simply because right now it’s clear they are the right things to do.

In such a context, by the way, it is really interesting to note that the political debate and dynamic continues. It sometimes just gets amplified and channeled through this kind of crisis situation. In his article Farhad Manjoo wrote, “And wasn’t it almost funny how everyone and their doctor was suddenly extolling the benefits of government funded healthcare for all?” Well, actually that was not true then, then being last Thursday March the 12th when this article appeared, but it certainly is not true now. Even though on Sunday night Bernie Sanders tried to make the argument. But even Joe Biden wasn’t accepting the argument, throwing back the obvious fact that Italy has a government-funded healthcare system—a single payer system as Bernie Sanders is fond of claiming—but it did not help Italy in the face of this deadly epidemic where it is now concentrated. Political decisions are largely to blame, it is now believed, for the fact that the virus snuck up on the Italian nation when it was not known that it was spreading.

An historical perspective points out the fact that if you look at the 20th century just to take two nations, for example, Britain and the United States, the fact is that both of them faced very hard questions after the Allied victory in the Second World War. How and when could they unleash the powers of their economies after all the constrictions and the sacrifice of the war effort? An historical perspective would indicate that the United States did a far better job than Britain in unleashing that economic activity. After the Second World War, the United States experienced decades of unprecedented economic expansion. Of course, within those decades, there were small periods of contraction. But the reality is that the graph of the American economy after the Second World War shows what happens when you unleash the economic powers of a people, such as the people of the United States, an entrepreneurial spirit, an expansion of business and economic activity. All the things that helped to build the American economy, which after all is not just about a set of economic figures, but about the flourishing and the continued prosperity of a people.

We’re now facing a challenge unprecedented, not only in our experience, but in an American historical experience going back at least a century. In order to find anything on this scale, you would have to go back to the 1918 pandemic of the Spanish Flu. The deadliness of that pandemic and the effect it had on American culture should be a chastening factor upon us all. But it should also remind us that one of our responsibilities on the other side of this crisis is going to rebuild what has been lost. But it’s also a reminder that in the midst of this crisis, we must not only pray, though we must most fervently pray, we must also work. There are many things to be done and it’s going to be up to us to do them.

Part III

What’s the Answer to Our Civilizational Crisis? Hint: It’s Not ‘Rewilding'

But finally, as we’re thinking about human civilization and our Christian responsibility when that civilization is under threat, I want to point to another recent article that appeared. This one was the front page of the style section in Sunday’s edition of the New York Times. The article is by Nellie Bowles and the headline, “Fleeing Babylon for a Wild Life.” The subhead: “Some people wary of civilizations prospects are preparing for a one way trip to the stone age.” This is one of those articles that really does demand our attention, because at the heart of this is a basic dishonesty that is itself very illuminating.

Nellie Bowles writes from Okanogan County, Washington, “When the end comes, some will not be waiting in a bunker for a savior, they will stride out into the wilderness with confidence ready to hunt and kill a deer, tan its hide, and sleep easily in a hand built shelter close by a fire they made from the force of their two palms on a stick.” She then continues, “Four hours from the Seattle airport in a Valley called Matthau near a town called Twist, Lynx Vildon was teaching people how to live in the wild as we imagined stone age people did, not so they could get better at living in cities or so they could be better competitors in Silicon Valley or on wall street. Lynx has said, ‘I don’t want to be teaching people how to survive and then come back to civilization. What if we don’t want to come back to civilization?'” Bowles then summarizes, “Some people are now considering what it means to live in a world that could be shut down by a pandemic.” She also goes on to say, by the way, that some people, “Are already living like this. Some do it because they just like it. Some do it because they think the end has in fact already begun to arrive.”

Now it would be easy to look at this and think perhaps this is just further media coverage of a group of left wing wackos from the West coast. There would be truth in that assessment. But the reality is that it points to a basic dishonesty in our civilization. For one thing, it is not honest, let’s just state the obvious, to believe that you have fled from civilization if you are giving interviews to the New York Times. Let’s just set that straight.

Later in the article Bowles tells us, “A couple of times a year, Lynx, she goes by the name professionally though it is not her legal name, teaches a 10 day introduction to living in the wilderness. When I arrived for the program,” Bowels writes, “Lynx ran to me, buckskins flying, her hands cupped tightly around something that was smoking.” Later Bowles writes, “Her property looks like a kidnapper’s layer from a movie, but her dream, she told those of us gathered is a human preserve. Her vision is called The Settlement. It will have a school where people can come in street clothes and learn to tan hides. But to enter the preserve itself will mean giving oneself over to it.” Lynx said, “You walk into it naked and if you can create from that land what that land has to offer, then you can stay there. It’s going to be these feral rewilded people. I’m thinking in two to three generations there could be real wild children.”

Well here’s a little hint Lynx, you won’t have to wait two or three generations to find wild children. I could show you some right now.

People are paying thousands of dollars for Lynx to tell them how to rewild in the wilderness fleeing civilization. And of course there is the accustomed new age angle to all of this. “We woke up the next morning and gathered around the open fire for boiled eggs. Soon we would learn how to chop down a tree. First Lynx greeted the tree. She put her hands on it. ‘If you’re willing to be cut down, will you give a yes?’ She asked the tree. She tugged the tree. She calls it a muscle test. ‘Apparently,’ says Bowles, “’The tree said, yes, we have to kill to live,’” she said.

There’s a consumer side to this as well. We’re told that many of the students, “had brought elegant knives and axes from rewilding festivals.” Bowles then explains, “There’s a booming primitive festival circuit with names like rabbit stick rendezvous, hollow top, and Saskatoon circle.” But when confronted, she says with an actual tree, they didn’t want to use those. “There was an old ax they used instead. Its head periodically flew off each time narrowly missing someone. The tree eventually fell a foot from my tent.”

Later in the article explaining the event, Bowles wrote, “The vibe was a mix of Burning Man, a Renaissance fair, and an apocalyptic religious fantasy. There was no doomsday prepper gun room—what would happen when bullets ran out? Nor,” she writes, “was there a sort of koombaya gentle love of nature yoga class vibe.”

As you might also imagine, there was a sexuality that was apparent. “Our clothes made a statement. We were not backpackers, no artificial colors, no carabiners and dangling straps, and sexless seafoam green fleece. Here we wore tight leather pants. The whole point was to bring our animal selves here, and animal selves should attract mates.” There are people in the article who claimed to be animists worshiping nature itself. You also have the entire theme of rewilding. You also have the acknowledgement, “We talk about getting back to earth, but we don’t know anything about it.” That’s pretty honest. It was also honest for them to admit that just about everyone after a very short amount of time was absolutely odiferous, absolutely odiferous, naturally so.

The irony in this entire parable was made clear when it turns out that Lynx charges $600 for a 10 day class. Speaking of the fact that she evidently still remains in civilization as she’s calling for everyone to leave civilization, Lynx said, “I have to have my foot in two worlds to maintain some semblance of how I want to live in this world.” The article also tells us about a group of young adults in their twenties and thirties who are rewilding. They call themselves the heathens. And they, “sometimes call the cities they came from Babylon, all the same, all fallen.” Well indeed, all the same all fallen.

But here’s where Christians look at this and simply have to recognize that every single civilization is itself a form of Babylon. Every single human civilization will one day fall. But it’s not going to fall by a group of rewilders who believe that they can consult their wine specialist at the local grocery store before heading out with their highly decorated knives to talk to trees about whether or not the trees want to be cut down. And if civilization does come to an end, there will be no more New York Times. And if you think you’ve left civilization, you actually are fooling yourselves if your name appears in an interview article in the New York Times.

But as it come to conclusion, the saddest part in all of this is that there are people who believe the answer to our civilizational crisis is trying to flee from it. The current context of the coronavirus challenge reminds us, that for Christians, what we need to do is to strengthen the bonds, to reweave the fabric, to uphold the virtues that God has revealed, to hold our children close and to love our neighbors. To do all the things that are necessary, not just for the continuation of civilization, but for our obedience to the God who made us.

The great worldview divide may come down to those who believe that the future is in children who are newly wild and in children who are raised according to the nurture and admonition of the Lord. The first way leads to chaos. The second to civilization. And brothers and sisters, according to the Christian worldview, civilization is itself an achievement and God’s gift.

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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