briefing, Albert Mohler

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

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

It’s Tuesday, April 14, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Plans for Field Hospital in NYC’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine Shelved: What’s the Story? Hint: Think Theology

As you follow the timeline, it became apparent that New York City was going to become a tragic epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis. It did, of course, and in the midst of that with New York authorities crying out for help and trying to provide adequate hospital beds, it was announced that there would be a temporary field hospital, an emergency field hospital, set up in Central Park. But then came controversy when it was discovered that the organization that would be offering and operating this temporary emergency field hospital in Central Park would be none other than Samaritan’s Purse, the Christian ministry that is so well-known for caring for children and others around the world and, of course, has had a major medical missions arm for a very long time, and Samaritan’s Purse would be doing this as a charity, a demonstration of its Christian mission.

But all of that was simply too much for many on the progressive left in New York. Almost immediately there was an outcry with people condemning Samaritan’s Purse for being an evangelical organization caught in the act of holding to evangelical conviction, and you had politicians backtracking and trying to explain to their constituents why in the world they would have anything to do with allowing even an emergency field hospital set up by Samaritan’s Purse in New York’s Central Park.

New York Senator Brad Hoylman, openly gay, protested the partnership with Samaritan’s Purse and he demanded that other politicians gain assurances from Samaritan’s Purse that LGBTQ patients would be treated on an equal basis with others. He went on to say, “It’s a shame that the federal government has left us in the position of having to accept charity from such bigots.” Now, as I pointed out at the time, there is so much irony in this, just consider Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan. Consider the fact that Samaritan’s Purse was there after New York City had said that it needed help. Samaritan’s Purse is there as a demonstration of Christian generosity and Christian care and, of course, American’s Purse is there for all of those who would have been referred to it, presumably mostly by New York hospital authorities. The hospital system behind the larger operation is the very well-known Mount Sinai Health Services Center there in New York City.

New York Mayor Bill De Blasio, famously of the Democratic left, in a meeting with members of the press and the public made clear that when he discovered that Samaritan’s Purse was the organization behind the Central Park Field Hospital, he acted immediately to contract leaders at Mount Sinai to make certain that there would be no discrimination on the basis of medical care. Now, consider for just a moment that Samaritan’s Purse has never discriminated on the basis of its care, it has never discriminated amongst those who would be the beneficiaries of its care, and what you have here is simply the accusation that an evangelical organization is discriminatory simply by being evangelical.

We are looking at the reality that Samaritan’s Purse is an evangelical Christian ministry established by Franklin Graham, who is after all an evangelist, and the son of the most famous evangelist of our times, of the 20th century, Billy Graham. The organization, Samaritan’s Purse, has a statement of faith that includes this language, that God “instituted monogamous marriage between male and female as the foundation of the family and the basic structure of human society. For this reason,” says Samaritan’s Purse, “we believe that marriage is exclusively the union of one genetic male and one genetic female.” Now just to state the obvious, that is just basic biblical Christianity. That is also the basic logic of all human civilization up until very recent times. It is also, we should note, the historic, nearly universal teaching of the Christian churches, and with the exception of that last language that is required only by very modern times, one genetic male and one genetic female, there would be absolutely no controversy throughout all of church history with the wording that is required of volunteers by Samaritan’s Purse, the statement of faith of the organization.

On its website, Samaritan’s Purse is not shy at all stating, “The primary mission of Samaritan’s Purse is to share the gospel of Jesus Christ and we seek volunteers who have the same mindset. We ask the volunteers review our statement of faith and agree to support the ministry guidelines of Samaritan’s Purse.” Again, just basic evangelical Christianity, the basic kind of organizational principles you would expect of any evangelical ministry. Let’s just underline again, Samaritan’s Purse is not shy. They are not in the slightest bit evasive about stating what their mission is, primarily to share the gospel of Jesus Christ and they’re doing so in a very generous way, in an extremely caring way, even in a way that exposes Samaritan’s Purse volunteers to risk as they are operating this field hospital in Central Park.

But the reason we’re talking about the entire issue today is the fact that there is a subsequent story that is, if anything, even far more interesting than the story that originally broke. In this case, it has to do with the fact that days ago it was announced that the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, that is the Episcopal Cathedral in New York City, would also become like Central Park, the location of an emergency field hospital. This emergency field hospital, we were told, would be located in the nave of the giant cathedral and also in the church’s crypt. There will be a staging area in the crypt that’s underneath the nave, that is the central portion of the cathedral. The nave specifically is the very long aisle in the center of a Gothic or Romanesque cathedral. In the case of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, you’re talking about a nave that is over 600 feet long.

The church historically known as the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine has been the Episcopal Cathedral now for over a century in New York City. It’s a parable unto itself. It is a hulking structure. It was begun as a Romanesque cathedral, and in the early decades of its construction it was shifted to a Gothic or neo-gothic design, but the cathedral’s never been finished. By most reckonings, it’s about three-fifths finished, but it is also historically claimed as the largest Gothic cathedral in the world, albeit unfinished. By other reckonings, it’s at least within the top six largest religious structures on planet earth.

One of the interesting backstories to all of this is the inability of Episcopalians, historically the most elite and richest denomination of Protestants in America, to complete the cathedral in, of all cities, New York City. When the cathedral was begun in the late 19th century, Episcopalians represented the largest single denomination by membership in New York City. But all of that, of course, changed and Episcopalians, as the Wall Street Journal pointed out over a decade ago, are now endangered of going the way of the dodo, that is extinct. More on that in just a moment.

But the contrast here is between the unfinished Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine near Morningside Heights in New York City and the very long ago finished Roman Catholic St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. St. Patrick’s Cathedral is, of course, the most famous religious structure in New York City and there it is, right in prime real estate on Fifth Avenue. The big issue was that if you were to go back to either the 19th century or the early 20th century, the Catholic community in New York would have been largely an immigrant community made up numerically, particularly with Irish and Italian immigrants, but also Eastern Europeans and many others as well, and you had this enormous immigrant, Catholic pride, especially Irish Catholic pride, in this cathedral to be named for St. Patrick, no less, and it was completed as a matter of tremendous Catholic pride. Meanwhile, in the year of our Lord 2020, the Episcopalian Cathedral is no more than three-fifths finished.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral is right there in the heart of New York City with its towering spires, but there are no towering spires in the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, and by the way, there is not a temporary emergency field hospital there either. Days after it was announced that the cathedral would become the site and host of an emergency field hospital, it was announced that it would not do so. So it was and then all of a sudden it wasn’t. You suspect there’s a story there? Well, you suspect right.

The story is this: The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine has been very famously attached to the LGBTQ community for decades now in a denomination that has been swerving far to the left for a matter of generations, the Episcopal Church in the USA. You’re looking right now at the fact that one of the bishops of the Episcopal Church in New York City right now is often referred to as the first lesbian bishop in the Episcopal Church. The newspaper in New York, known as Gay City News, ran an article April the 8th by Matt Tracy that tells the story in the beginning that is as it was before it wasn’t: “Anti-LGBTQ Samaritan’s Purse at St. John the Divine Triage Center.”

Now this triage center is the same thing as the emergency field hospital. The point is, it was discovered, to the shock and dismay of many connected with the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, that Samaritan’s Purse would be running not only the field hospital in Central Park, but also the proposed and announced field hospital in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Matt Tracy in this article at Gay City News wrote, “The juxtaposition of Samaritan’s Purse, a conservative, non-denominational Christian evangelical humanitarian group and an LGBTQ-friendly Episcopal church working together is a sign of the dire health crisis that has pummeled the city and strained hospitals throughout the five boroughs.”

The next paragraph, “In more stable times, the two religious groups would have no reason to partner up. St. John the Divine performs marriages of same sex couples and has welcomed LGBTQ clergy, a far cry from the actions and rhetoric of Franklin Graham and his Samaritan’s Purse,” says the report. I continue, “which requires workers to sign a statement of faith that rejects queer relationships and dismisses the existence of transgender and non-binary people.” Now, let me just go back to the statement of Samaritan’s Purse. What it does is refer to human beings as genetically male or genetically female. Let’s just say that the fathers of the Christian church would not have understood the necessity of putting the word “genetic” in that phrase.

Part II

A Parable in the Pandemic: Liberal Theology in the Mainline

In an interview with a very liberal group known as Democracy Now! for its programming, the current dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine Episcopal Bishop Clifton Daniel said that he rejects the values of Samaritan’s Purse, but nonetheless, he would welcome their help. The Dean said, “We’re in the business of saving lives and helping people. If you’re in the desert dying of thirst and somebody hands you a glass of water, you don’t check their driver’s license, you just say ‘thank you.’”

Well, that was then and this is now. Now, the announcement came from the Episcopal Diocese in New York that the hospital, because of the flattening of the curve, so to speak, would not be necessary, but the New York Times, ABC News, and other news reports have made very clear this isn’t first and foremost about the fact that the hospital isn’t needed, but rather that Samaritan’s Purse isn’t wanted in the cathedral. A report by Ella Torres and Aaron Katersky at ABC News tells us, “The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, the country’s largest Gothic cathedral will not be turned into a temporary field hospital amid the novel coronavirus crisis after an ‘impasse,'” that word is put in quotation marks, “developed between the progressive church and a controversial organization that was offering to help with the construction.” The next sentence, “A cathedral spokeswoman told ABC News the staff had a really hard time dealing with past comments from the organization about LGBTQ people and decided not to move forward.”

Liam Stack, reporter for The New York Times who had reported on April the 6th that the cathedral would be the emergency field hospital, ran a story also on April the 9th. That’s just three days later with the headline: “Plan for Cathedral Hospital Stalls Amid Concern Over Evangelical Role.” Stack reported, “The Episcopal church did not realize that Samaritan’s Purse would be involved in the project when it offered the use of the cathedral to Mount Sinai Health System last month and the slowing rate of hospitalizations might have created an opportunity for all parties to step back from a fraught situation, according to officials.”

The most important statement in this article comes from the Episcopal Bishop who is the current Dean of a cathedral. Again, Dean Clifton Daniel. He said, “The cathedral and Samaritan’s Purse have very different creeds and very different core beliefs and commitments, but we here at the cathedral were willing to set those differences aside, severe as they are, in the service of this city and community.” Now, as to whether or not the cathedral was or was not willing to set those issues aside, it becomes very clear from the spokesperson for the diocese that there was, at least, a lot to the story. But regardless of why the diocese says in the past, now we’re in the future, that the field hospital will not be in the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, it is nonetheless true that official spokespersons for the diocese and the cathedral have indicated the fact that the evangelical nature of Samaritan’s Purse was at the heart of the issue.

There are so many interesting issues and profound ironies in this context in New York City, the story of what was until it wasn’t. You can consider not only the unfinished hulking cathedral of St. John the Divine, but the fact that it now becomes something of a parable of that increasingly deep divide between orthodox Christianity and whatever is this new religion that is openly worshiped at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City. That cathedral itself has been associated with heterodox and heretical teachings and practices as services and ceremonies that are absolutely contradicted by biblical Christianity, but it is also a parable of the denomination it represents there in New York City.

The Episcopal Church, of course, became the Episcopal Church by name because of the American revolution. Prior to the revolution, the denomination now known as Episcopal was simply the Church of England, but in the revolution, all of that was changed and it became the Protestant Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Church, as it is known, has been the denomination that is produced president after president, business CEOs. It is the most established of the establishment, mainline Protestant denominations. And going all the way back to the period during and after the Reformation, even in the Church of England and then in the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries, it became so inclusive of theological positions that, inevitably, it has followed a very leftist trajectory.

The Episcopal Church by now has become the theological umbrella for just about any doctrinal or theological system you can imagine, or technically no theology at all. Going back more than a generation, the Episcopal Church actually had an atheist bishop. It is also ironic that Dean Daniel would speak of the fact that the Episcopal Church there in New York and Samaritan’s Purse have very different creeds. The word “creed” is the irony there because the Episcopal Church is not truly a creedal denomination, not in terms of requiring actual belief in certain theological propositions in order to be a member, a priest, or even a Bishop. But in the functional meaning of creed, yes, you’re looking at Samaritan’s Purse and the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine as holding two fundamentally different creeds, which goes back to that brilliant point made early in the 20th century by the great Presbyterian theologian J. Gresham Machen, when he argued that when you were looking at Orthodox Christianity and Protestant liberalism, you are not looking at two variants of one religion; you are looking at two different religions. In his own way, Dean Daniel of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, made that point in almost those words.

But before leaving this story and its worldview significance, just consider that if you were hypothetically to think what might bring together an evangelical groups such as the ministry, Samaritan’s Purse, and the mainline Protestant, very liberal Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City, what might bring them together? Well, your answer might be a national emergency or a pandemic. For a very brief amount of time, it looked as if that might actually happen, but it didn’t, and that’s the bigger story and that’s why we’ve given it so much attention today on The Briefing. Don’t miss the point.

Part III

Seismometers Detecting Strange Silence? The Missing Noise of Humanity’s “Thumping Pulse”

But next, as we are thinking about the pandemic and we’re thinking about the restrictions and limitations on human activity right now, consider a very interesting article that comes from the New York Times by Robin George Andrews. The headline: “Life’s Pulsating Beat is Now a Murmur on the World’s Seismographs.” I found this really interesting. Seismology is the measurement, of course, of vibrations and movements of the Earth’s crust and surface. Seismology is the study of the surface of the earth and, of course, we think of seismologists and we think of seismographs, primarily, as we’re thinking about tremors of the Earth’s surface we’re thinking about earthquakes. But the big story here is that seismographs are currently indicating the quieting of the earth surface in much of the world, in particular in the United States. Human activity has been so abruptly halted and minimized during the context of the pandemic with shelter-in-place orders and life as we know it being interrupted, that actually it is showing up in measurable seismographic evidence coming from modern science.

Andrews writes, “Seismometers may be built to detect earthquakes, but they’re mechanical ears hears so much more: hurricanes thundering hundreds of miles away and meteoroids exploding in the skies on the other side of the planet. Even the everyday hum of humanity, people moving about on cars, trains and planes, has a seismically detectable heartbeat. But,” says Andrews, “coronavirus has upended our lives. Hoping to curtail the pandemic spread, nations have closed their borders, cities have been shut down, and billions of people have been instructed to stay home. Today, in cities large and small, the thumping pulse of civilization is now barely detectable on many seismograms.”

It’s not just in the United States. It is being measured as this story tells us in places “as far flung as California and Croatia.” We’re told, for example, that London is no longer buzzing. A seismologist at Royal Holloway, the University of London says that the seismometer in her suburban house was clocking a 20% to 25% reduction in average weekly noise. In the center of London, another seismometer registered a 30% drop. Perhaps the most interesting issue here is the evidence of a missing morning rush. It’s now a morning quiet.

The article also tells us “the bustle of college students the world over has gone. David Cornwell, a geophysicist at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, has been watching the seismometer in a colleague’s office. Compared with peak noise during a normal day, the noise levels on the university’s King’s College campus have dropped by 60% since its students were sent home.” With the younger set, it’s also true as Andrews tells us, “The pitter-patter of children has also been quieted.” The article tells us about a seismometer located in a school for children in Nepal that has been normally kind of interrupted “with the pandemonium of children running to and from their place of learning. But now,” I quote, “those noise levels have completely vanished.”

This particular article is merely looking at the curiosity of it all, but from a Christian worldview perspective, there’s something deeper here and that is that the seismographic evidence has been pointing to human activity, and we just need to note that according to the biblical worldview, human beings were designed for, created for, made for activity. That activity is a part of the taking of dominion and stewardship that is the assignment to humanity in the very first chapter of the first book of the Bible. It is the interruption in that activity that has to be explained, not the activity itself.

The scientists are interested that they are now able, as the story says, “to better hear the planet’s natural tectonic soundtrack.” As was explained in the article, “With the volume of humanity reduced, we can detect smaller earthquakes like how it’s easier to hear a phone ring in a library than at a rock concert,” that, according to one of the seismologists. But take my word for it, as much as I love a library, God did not make us to be only in a library. There is something unnatural for the entire world to sound like a library. It’s supposed to sound very differently—the pitter-patter of children’s feet in a school, the activities of college students on the quad, the activity of factories and industries and organizations and people and, yes, even rush hour in London.

We’re all trusting right now that the stay at home and shelter-in-place orders are prudent and timely and that they are making a difference in slowing the spread of a deadly virus. But make no mistake, even though those actions right now might be necessary, they are not natural. It’s not an accident that natural also means noise, and I think by now most of us are aching to hear those noises once again. That’s natural and it’s right.

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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