briefing, Albert Mohler

Friday, April 24, 2020

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

It’s Friday, April 24, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

When a News Story Isn’t Really News: The American Library Association Releases Its List of the 10 Most Challenged Books of 2019

When is a news article actually news or when is a news feature something that isn’t, upon reflection, actually news at all? It comes down to the fact that sometimes, there are presentations made in the media, the visual media, television, the internet, newspapers, you name it, that are presented as news stories, but are actually a feature trying to get your attention in order to push some kind of agenda one way or the other.

One of the things we pointed to repeatedly is the fact that sometimes, you have a news story that emerges from what is claimed to be a scientific study or a study undertaken by this group or that group. It comes down to publicity, not only for the group, but also for its cause.

There’s a pattern to this and that pattern is reflected in an article that appeared in yesterday’s edition of the New York Times. The reporter is Christine Hauser. The headline: “Common Thread In Challenge Books: Issues of Gender And Sexual Identity.” Let’s take a closer look.

Well, the word “challenged” in the headline has a quotation mark around it and what that means is that there are claims that some of these books are challenged, but the opening paragraph is stronger. Hauser writes, “Eight of the 10 most challenged books last year were based on LGBTQ subjects or narratives, the American Library Association said in its annual ranking of books that were banned or protested in schools and public libraries.”

That takes us back to the Banned Books Week event that takes place annually, generally in the Fall. And as we point out in connection with that observance, when you’re looking at the books that are claimed to be banned, the one most important thing to recognize is that virtually none of those books are or have ever been banned in any logical or truthful sense of the word “banned.”

And as you’re thinking about the claim that a book is banned, you would think that that means that some kind of official authority has said, “You can’t sell that book. You can’t read that book. You can’t have that book in your library. Possession of the book is criminal, reading of the book is going to be forbidden.” That’s the actual shape of censorship throughout much of the world today. And there are vast regions of the world today where it is illegal to own a book or to read a book, to publish a book, a particular title. And furthermore, there are nations and societies in the world today where you have totalitarian regimes that actually kill people if they are in possession of certain books. Back during the time of the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc, you could easily end up in the Soviet prison system, known as the Gulag, merely for possessing forbidden literature.

The literature nonetheless got spread about in informal publishing. It was known as Samizdat and it would often appear just with a bundle of papers with a string around it. That’s how many of the greatest works of the 20th century emerged from figures such as Vasily Grossman or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. You’re talking about books that actually were banned, authors that were imprisoned or worse. You’re talking about materials that were criminalized. But when you’re talking about this list on the American Library Association, it sometimes comes down to a parent or a preacher complaining about a book in a library, a school library, or more commonly a public library. And that’s supposed to be news in yesterday’s edition of the New York Times. You’re going to be interested in some of these examples.

The article by Christine Hauser tells us that one of the books that has been banned or protested in schools and public libraries was a book that parodied Marlon Bundo, that is the rabbit owned by the Vice President of the United States, Mike Pence. Yes, I am reading from the New York Times that refers to a rabbit owned by the American Vice President. And a parody of that book that was issued by John Oliver, the comedian of late night television. The title of his book was Last Week Tonight with John Oliver presents A Day In The Life Of Marlon Bundo.

This particular book, written by Jill Twiss and illustrated by E. G. Keller is identified this way in yesterday’s New York Times: “The book, a gay romance between two bunnies, was the brainchild of the HBO comedy host, John Oliver, who described it as a mocking rebuke of the Vice President’s opposition to gay and transgender rights. The book parodies one written by Mr. Pence’s daughter about a bunny who observes the Vice President.”

We are told that there was at least one challenge against the book over its LGBTQ content and political viewpoints and we are told that one critic said that the book was, “Designed to pollute the morals of its readers.” In one instance that is identified in this report from the American Library Association, someone wrote on the book itself, “Girl bunnies marry boy bunnies. This is the way it always has been.” Well, let me assert here that I’m certainly not suggesting that someone deface a book, much less public property, but the fact is, if you want to get little bunnies, you do need a girl bunny and a boy bunny. That’s true whether or not John Oliver likes it or not.

The article in the Times cites Deborah Caldwell-Stone, Executive Director Of The Library Associations Office for Intellectual Freedom, that’s the office that compiles the list. She said, “This year, we saw the continuation of a trend of rising numbers of challenges to LGBTQ books.” She went on to say, “Our concern is the fact that many of the books are age appropriate and developmentally appropriate books intended for young people. But they are being challenged because they allegedly advance a political agenda or sexualize children.” We are then told by the Times, “The challenges come from parents, legislators, and religious leaders.”

Now, perhaps more important than anything else in this article is the fact that it does turn out that parents are often the enemy of the intellectual freedom of the library and of the children’s section. More importantly, these parents dare to exercise discretion over what their children do and do not read.

This points to the fact that when you are looking at a group like the American Library Association, you are not looking at an ideologically neutral group. The Professional Librarians’ Association has been trending left for a very, very long time. Now, you might argue, going back to the mid-point of the 20th century, that they had a legitimate concern out of the censorship of political viewpoints, but they got over that a long time ago. Their concern now is becoming an agent to normalize the entire array known as LGBTQ. And just in case you think that that’s being read onto their agenda. Let me tell you, as you read the report, that is exactly what they’re telling us.

Well, if you like numbers, you’re going to like this one. The Office for Intellectual Freedom said that in 2019, there were 377 attempts—not 376, not 378—377 specific attempts to remove books or materials in libraries, schools and universities. Now again, what are we talking about here? Well, in order to get on that list of 377, now remember that is out of a population of more than 300 million Americans coast to coast. Here we have a news story in the New York Times about this great threat to civil liberties and intellectual freedom that is represented by specifically 377 protests against some book in a library.

The list of 10 most challenged books in the article includes the title George by Alex Gino, which we are told is a story about George, a 10 year old transgender child. This is a boy who has secretly renamed himself, of course, the article says herself, Melissa and dreams of playing Charlotte, the female spider in a fourth grade production of Charlotte’s web.

Then the book Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out. The book that relates to the Vice President’s pet rabbit. Then a book that is entitled Sex Is A Funny Word. Then another book entitled Prince and Knight, written by Daniel Haack and thus we read these words, “Josh Layfield, a pastor in Upshur County, West Virginia, met with library administrators to object to the book, which is about a Prince and a Knight who fall in love, with the pastor describing the book as ‘a deliberate attempt to indoctrinate young children, especially boys, into the LGBTQA lifestyle,’ that, according to the Library Association’s field report.” The newspaper then tells us, “It was temporarily removed from the library, but later returned.”

So this is the most influential single newspaper in the United States that is featuring now concern about one pastor in West Virginia who protested one book that was removed from a library temporarily and then restored. This is supposedly news. In an interview about his book, the author who was given the opportunity, given this article, said that the book is, “A sweeping epic romantic adventure that features two men as the leads. A genre,” which he said, “was practically nonexistent in children’s books.”

And as you’re thinking about why all this matters, the author said, “I was hoping to fill that void. When kids only see a certain way of being only white protagonists or straight romances in the media they consume, then that is the template for what is normal for them.” Again, what you have here is an explicit statement that the book was written in an effort to redefine normal, which is exactly what we’ve been talking about.

I’m not going to go further down the list, but you pretty much get the idea. The point here is that the American Library Association, which is not ideologically neutral but is solidly and consistently by its own public declarations enthusiastic about the LGBTQ agenda, what you have here is an open acknowledgement that there have been a few challenges. How many? 377 over the course of 12 months coast to coast. Thus almost a full half page in yesterday’s print edition of the New York Times.

Part II

The Far-Reaching Effects of the Ever-Expanding Sexual Revolution: U.S. Intelligence Policy Impacted by LGBTQ Impetus

But then also, an article of greater significance in yesterday’s edition of the New York Times. This one by reporter Julian E. Barnes. The headline: “U.S. Spy Agencies Weigh Sharing Less Information with Anti-LGBT Nations.” The article here has to do with the fact that the Acting Director Of National Intelligence, former ambassador Richard Grenell, is now seeking to use the authority of the United States government to deny access and sharing when it comes to national intelligence with countries that criminalize or otherwise repress LGBTQ behaviors and relationships.

The article tells us that about 69 countries criminalize homosexuality, mostly in the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia. But just think about this for a moment. We’re talking about the Office of National Intelligence and the Director of National Intelligence. Richard Grenell is the Acting Director of National Intelligence. He was appointed to that post by President Donald Trump, who had previously appointed him the United States Ambassador to Germany.

He is now identified by the New York Times as the first openly gay member of a President’s cabinet. But the New York Times article by Julian Barnes acknowledges the fact that denying American intelligence and cooperation in intelligence to some nations on this list would be rather contradictory to America’s national interest when it comes to security issues with countries such as Saudi Arabia or Egypt. Director Grenell said that he has the backing of the White House. He said, “We have the President’s total support. This is an American value and this is United States policy.”

The New York Times then says, “Mr. Grenell would not say whether the administration was considering withholding additional cooperation or ratcheting back current intelligence sharing with countries that criminalize homosexuality. His office,” we are told, “is forming a group to review the issue and develop ideas intelligence officials said.”

In an interesting statement, the Acting Director of National Intelligence said, “If a country that we worked in as the United States intelligence community was arresting women because of their gender, we would absolutely do something about it. Ultimately, the United States is safer when our partners respect basic human rights.”

Well, clearly, there’s a moral argument to be made there, but I’ll just go out on a limb and say I don’t think where it matters that the United States is going to deny intelligence sharing with nations such as Egypt and Kenya and Saudi Arabia merely because of this concern.

More than anything else perhaps the article reminds us that there is nothing that is not in a very real sense ideological. You think about the LGBTQ revolution and you think, well what would that have to do with espionage, spy craft, and national intelligence? Well, evidently it has something to do with it now. That’s not to say it never had anything to do with it, but I don’t remember any kind of article like this in which you had the Acting Director of National Intelligence say that this is now a part of American national policy.

And we’re likely, if we’re honest, looking at the shape of things to come because we are looking at the fact that this man identified as the first openly gay member of a President’s cabinet is in this President’s cabinet, and thus, we are looking at the fact that at least some issues are becoming more normalized, even in a more conservative or at least a very Republican administration, something that you might have expected to occur in a more liberal and clearly Democratic administration.

On at least some of these issues, especially LGBTQ issues, there is mixed messaging coming from various authorities. It’s probably also true that the majority of Americans, when it comes to a post like the Director of National Intelligence or the Acting Director of National Intelligence, Americans are probably going to be far more concerned about competence and ability in that role than anything related to any kind of sexual agenda or sexual identification. But it’s another issue entirely to wonder whether Americans want to have some kind of policy along those lines actually applied when it comes to the office of national intelligence. Those are two separate questions.

But the important thing about these two articles is the fact that we observe that in an ever expanding moral revolution, just about everything gets drawn within the vortex of that revolution, whether it’s books for children and teenagers at the public library and a pseudo-event about 377 challenges or whether it comes down to an office such as the Director of National Intelligence. But the big issue here is to note the moral revolution and how it works and how it expands its argument.

Part III

Spycraft and Espionage in the Context of the Pandemic: Even Spies Have to Work from Home?

It’s also interesting at this point on the connective issue of intelligence to note that in the midst of the coronavirus, all kinds of interesting issues are coming to light. One of them is the fact that when you are thinking about national intelligence, espionage, and spy craft, well, the Wall Street Journal ran an article not long ago that is indicating that the coronavirus has put a damper on the work of spies.

The difficulty or complexity presented by the coronavirus, as reported by Warren Strobel and Dustin Volz, who write, “Thousands of personnel at major intelligence agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, which conducts electronics eavesdropping, are working in staggered shifts. In any given week, as much as half of their workforce is sent home while the other half reports to work sites, according to current and former U.S. intelligence officials.”

So what this tells us is that under the conditions of the coronavirus—shelter in place orders, stay at home orders, requirements that people work at home and teleconference rather than meet in person— well, that puts a suppressive effect upon espionage, spy craft, spies going to work, and spies meeting together as spies do as they’re spying on each other and with each other.

The article in the Wall Street Journal tells us that these very same intelligence organizations are facing unprecedented challenges, given the fact that there are so many security issues around the world today. Their job has never been bigger and in one sense never been more urgent, but they’re having a hard time doing it when you have a shelter in place order.

But there’s more to it than that. My favorite sentence in the entire article comes down to this. After describing the problem, this sentence appears in the article, “The CIA declined to comment.” Well, it’s no fun being a spy if you have to talk in public about it and the business of the CIA does not come down to telling us what the agency is doing but rather not telling us what it is doing. And when you have an article like this about spies, espionage, intelligence gathering, the interesting thing is not when the Central Intelligence Agency, more commonly known as the CIA, refuses comment, but when it makes a comment. And on this story where the Wall Street Journal has comments from many others, when it comes to the CIA, the CIA say, “No comment.”

Part IV

Have You Been Speaking on the Phone More in the Pandemic? Apparently So Has Everyone Else—We Need the Human Voice

A couple of other very interesting articles as we come to the end of the week, a couple of them have to do with the phone. The New York Times ran an article about the fact that one of the unexpected results of the shelter in place orders has been the fact that people are on their phones more. You say, “Well, that’s not a surprise.” Well, here’s the surprising angle. They’re on their phones talking on their phones, which Americans in recent years had done far less of on their phones, smart phones or otherwise. But now they’re doing more of it. The shelter in place orders, the isolation, the staying at home—all of this has led to more Americans using their phones as phones.

As Cecilia Kang reports for the New York Times, “Phone calls have made a comeback in the pandemic. While the nation’s largest telecommunications providers prepared for a huge shift towards more internet use from home, what they didn’t expect was an even greater surge in plain old voice calls, a medium that had been going out of fashion for years.”

The numbers are actually pretty staggering. Verizon tells us that it’s now handling an average of 800 million wireless conversational calls a day. The interesting fact here is that that means every day of the week, the cellular networks are now experiencing the volume of calls times two then have habitually been made in recent Mother’s Days. I find that factor rather amazing. Every single weekday in the United States right now, Americans are talking so much on their phones that they’re talking twice as much as they have talked in previous Mother’s Days.

Every day right now is Mother’s Day times two and not only with mothers. What does this tell us? Well, when you look at this article, it tells us a great deal about how, for instance, the cellular networks and telecommunications companies are trying to respond to the challenge. But from a worldview perspective, the interesting thing is this: when we are in a time of stress, when we are in a time of worry, when we are under pressure, what we need more than anything else is the human voice.

Texting is not enough. Internet communication, not enough. Digital transmission of information, memes, pictures, videos, not enough. What do we need? We need voice to voice conversation. Thus, that old phone call, the relic of an antiquarian past actually comes back. It’s not past. It’s present.

The article in the New York Times pointed to the unexpected nature of this development. Jessica Rosenworcel, identified as a commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission said, “We have become a nation that calls like never before. We are craving human voice.” Again, we are. We are craving human voice. We’re craving it, even in a conversation because in a time of stress, our basic humanity comes to the fore and our human needs are a part of that. We have the need to connect and that need to connect is a part of the image of God within us.

Part V

America’s Loneliness Crisis Heightened by Stay at Home Orders: It’s True—It Is Not Good for Man (or Woman) to Be Alone

But then a few days later, the Wall Street Journal ran an article apparently completely unrelated and it comes to us yet with a similar theme. This article is by Aaron Zitner. The headline: “Callers Get An Earful From Nation On Edge.” This one, to me, has even greater emotional poignancy. It tells us that people whose business is to call people, who are accustomed to the people they call hanging up on them as hastily as possible, are actually now hanging on the line and wanting to talk, even to those who are doing calls, trying to sell something or trying to confirm an appointment, trying to do business over the phone by voice. Well, these callers are finding out that their jobs are being complicated by the fact that the people they call now have an insatiable desire to talk.

Zitner tells us, “A homebound nation is turning to the telephone to connect with the outside world amid the coronavirus pandemic. For customer service agents and others who work by phone that has added new tension and emotion to normally routine calls.

“People are quick to pick up calls that in the past might’ve gone to voicemail and eager to share their anxieties. While the agents aren’t on the front lines of hospital work, they say they are bearing some of the emotional weight of a frightened public.”

Rebecca Mollere of Phoenix, a 24-year-old who conducts consumer survey said, “People will just start talking about one thing and it snowballs from there.” She then told about a woman alone with two young children who told her that she hadn’t talked to anyone outside the home for days. The next sentence, “A man who had just lost his job, wanted to talk through his financial fears.”

The article cites Mark Pereira of Fort Wayne, Indiana, who said, “We have callers who want to go on and on on random things because they are lonely and at home and don’t have anything better to do.”

He continued by saying, “And then you have some people who are afraid and just want to talk.” One of the issues that certainly should be of our concern is the epidemic of loneliness in America and this was something that long predates the coronavirus. But under the stress test of this pandemic, loneliness becomes even more apparent and even more acute.

Christians understand this at an even deeper level than someone who has to explain it in merely secular terms. We have a theological explanation of the need, but we also have a missiological understanding of the opportunity. There are people right now who desperately want to talk, even as they’re hanging on the phone where just a few weeks ago they would have been hanging up the phone hurriedly. Loneliness is a very real cry from the heart. It is also a very real threat to health.

Let’s remember that the God who created us is also the God who said, “It is not good for man to be alone.” The first context of that, of course, was the need for the woman and the institution of marriage. But the principle pertains in a larger context. It is not good for us to be alone. We were not meant to be alone.

There are different ways of not being alone these days, and I am thankful for technology that allows us to be together when we’re not physically together. But there are people right now who aren’t together with anyone at all. There may be someone that you need to call.

The final word in the article was given by a woman in Philadelphia who said, “It’s the human touch that everyone needs right now.” Well, we know that that’s always true. It’s always been true, but it’s especially true right now.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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