briefing, Albert Mohler

Thursday, August 27, 2020

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

It’s Thursday, August 27, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

What Do You Have Left When You Abandon a Theological Worldview? The Problems of a Therapeutic Worldview

Are you depressed or bored? That’s an important question, and it was asked, interestingly enough in last Sunday’s edition of The New York times, in an article that was published on the Opinion page. Richard A. Friedman was the author, who’s a Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. And it’s an important question when it comes to psychiatry and psychology, “Is a patient depressed or merely bored?”

It turns out to be pretty important to that particular profession, because the difference might be whether or not the psychologist or the psychiatrist is paid for the conversation, because depression is a clinical diagnosis. Boredom is not. Boredom is just a part of being human. But has it always been? A very interesting question. Friedman begins his article by saying, “There has been a lot of talk recently about how the coronavirus pandemic has unleashed a mental health epidemic of depression and anxiety.” He goes on to say, “That the pandemic has amped up our stress levels is certainly true. Indeed, there have been a few highly publicized surveys showing that the levels of general psychological distress are on the rise,” but then he says this, “But I worry that calling this a wave of clinically significant depression or anxiety might be premature. What if we’re just bored out of our minds?” Now, this might not appear to be one of the most pressing questions of our time, but it really is interesting, and for Christians, it’s a very important question.

Now, as we’re looking at this, we understand that here, we have a prominent psychiatrist asking the question as to whether there is a wave of depression and anxiety right now in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic or merely boredom. Later in the article, he writes, “Clinical depression is characterized by an inability to experience pleasure, insomnia, loss of self-esteem, and suicidal thinking and behavior among other symptoms. In boredom,” he says, “the capacity for pleasure is totally intact, but it is thwarted by an internal or external obstacle like being quarantined.”

He goes on to say in a parenthetical statement, “(Boredom also produces none of the other symptoms of depression.)” He then says, “While boredom isn’t depression, the mass experience of boredom isn’t something frivolous. In fact, boredom is an aversive and nearly universal psychological experience that can lead to trouble, which makes it worthy of our attention.” Now, it’s also interesting for Christians to reflect upon the fact that nothing directly analogous to depression or to boredom shows up in Scripture, but in the description of the human condition, both are actually there. The Bible doesn’t, in any translation, really talk about being bored. And for one thing, Friedman, the psychiatrist, in Sunday’s edition of The New York Times says that, “Boredom is a fairly recent invention.”

How could that be so? He says this, “The very concept of boredom seems to be a modern invention. As Luke Fernandez and Susan J. Matt wrote recently in Salon, the word boredom did not enter the lexicon”–and that would mean the dictionary–“until the mid-19th century. Before that, tedium was an expected part of life. It was only with the rise of consumer culture in the 20th century that people were promised nearly continuous excitement; boredom was the inevitable consequence of such unrealistic expectations.”

Well, I can see why a psychiatrist might write that, but a Christian might have to think in different terms. But I just think back to, say, 1678 or so, when John Bunyan wrote his classic, Christian treatise, that narrative known as Pilgrim’s Progress. Now, one of the things we note is that at least a part of what Bunyan made clear was the allure of the world, for example, in the infamous Vanity Fair, was the fact that there was no tedium, but constant excitement. But that’s not a natural human state of affairs. Children might think that they deserve to be constantly excited, but in reality, a part of what it means to be human, at least in biblical terms is that we are not made for a constant state of excitement. For one thing, as we look at the Bible, it doesn’t talk so much about being happy as it does about being joyful, and joyful is a disposition that is theologically defined, even as happiness as a very passing experience. One of the oddities and ironies of the Christian life and the power of the gospel is that we can be simultaneously unhappy and joyful.

Happy has a great deal to do with external circumstances in this life. Joy has to do with the eternal truths of the goodness of God and His grace and mercy, demonstrated to us in Christ Jesus. We can actually be unhappy when it comes to our current bodily experience in this world, but we are not to be without joy, which is the inevitable product of the gospel of Jesus Christ. But, of course, psychology and psychiatry are looking at this from a very different perspective, what we would call a therapeutic perspective. Often on The Briefing, I have talked about one of the seminal works of the 20th century, Philip Rieff’s book, The Triumph of the Therapeutic. His point made decades ago, is that a new therapeutic mentality was supplanting an older reality-based, more theologically-informed worldview. To put it this way, the therapeutic, the entire therapeutic enterprise, telling us that we deserve to be happy and we need to be authentic and we should be well, and that if there is a problem, it’s outside of us and therapy is the answer to escape from it. That is a modern invention, but it’s not a modern temptation.

Now, Rieff made those observations decades ago in the last half of the 20th century when The Triumph of the Therapeutic was relatively new. At this point, it’s not new and it hasn’t gotten better. It is now so pervasive that just about everyone in our society thinks with therapeutic intuitions rather than intuitions based in an understanding of truth and theology. It’s a reordering of human expectations of the definition of what it means to be human, and the idea that boredom is something that we have to overcome is a fairly new human temptation. By the way, one of the things that Friedman points to is the fact that studies have shown, and of course, you expect a psychiatrist to get to what studies have shown. Strikingly, he writes, “67% of men and 25% of women found being alone with their own thoughts so unpleasant that they chose negative stimulation over no stimulation.” That actually goes a long way towards explaining many of the self-destructive behaviors that have taken a hold of American society, and particularly seem to afflict younger adults and teenagers.

One of the points Friedman makes is that adolescence itself is a period of time in which it is most difficult to deal with boredom, and when boredom appears to be a most unnatural state. But if Friedman’s going to argue that historians would point to boredom being a fairly recent invention, the question is, “What came before boredom?,” and he suggests rightly, I think, that what came before boredom as a modern category is tedium, when we speak of something being tedious. That is not so exhilarating because it’s the same thing over and over again, but that has actually been the lot of human beings throughout most of human history. As you’re sewing, the next stitch looks pretty much like the stitch that came before. As you’re farming, the next row looks pretty much like the row that came before. The cycle of the seasons means that you have planting, and reaping, and preparing all of these things on a cycle that repeats year after year, after tedious year, if you give yourself to tedium.

The Marxists accused the invention of the factory is being the very engine of tedium. Just think about one worker taking one bolt, putting it in one place over and over and over again, hundreds of times a day, thousands of times a year. “One cog in a giant machine,” the Marxists said, and many on the American left agreed with them, but the fact is that’s pretty much what human life has been like in one way or another, but yet again, even in that context, there was the absolute wonder of seeing how you could have all these raw materials and parts by an assembly line, put into something that would actually crank on the other end of the line and someone would drive off. Farming, rightly understood, is not just a matter of planting a seed and making sure that weeds don’t take over, waiting for a harvest, it’s a matter of watching the majesty of the world that God has made in which the planting of a seed leads to the eruption of a plant that leads to the production of a harvest. One of the main points of Second-wave feminism in the 1960’s and ’70s is that motherhood is an absolutely tedious and boring experience, one diaper after another, wiping one runny nose after another, preparing one meal after another, washing one dish after another, you can pretty much figure how that goes, and then you had cultural observers, especially on the left, who pointed to the experience of men, then working not only in factories, but in offices, suggesting that they had been reduced to just men wearing identical gray, flannel suits.

Meaningless acts in a meaningless world. Tedium, boredom, no joy, no meaning, no purpose, and there certainly is a very important issue that Richard Friedman is pointing to here. He points to this constant need for stimulation. He says, “The fact is that humans crave, to a varying degree, stimulation, and a quarantine effectively prevents us from getting very much of it. Those who are more novelty and sensation seeking, like teenagers, are particularly prone to boredom. So are people who use lots of recreational drugs, because at baseline, they are walking around in an understimulated state in which the everyday world feels uninteresting.” And certainly, there’s a lot of insight in that observation. There are countless millions of people around us who crave and demand constant stimulation.

The digital age has just accentuated that expectation. So is therapy the answer, well, in this case, the entire article is occasioned by the fact that here, you have a prominent psychiatrist who isn’t really sure that’s so. Now, make no mistake, he believes that depression and anxiety are real and diagnosable, and they need to be treated. He is talking about the distinction between depression and anxiety on the one hand, and boredom on the other. Frankly, it’s refreshing to see a major psychiatrist, even raising the question as to whether something might not be a diagnosable mental disorder, and that’s because as you look at The Triumph of the Therapeutic and the takeover of so much of the modern mind by the therapeutic, just consider this. I did a little research to be able to point to some specifics here about the expansion of the therapeutic age.

I’m looking at just one major authority, and that would be the book known as The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It’s the effective guide to what is and is not a mental disorder at any given time, that tells you something about how all of this is developing and expanding. Let me give you the numbers. Back in the 1950’s, when the first edition of the DSM, as it is known came out and identified 60 different mental disorders. The second edition came out in 1968. The third in 1980.

By the time the fourth edition came out in 1994, the DSM identified no less than 297 disorders. Now, what’s going on there? Well, a lot of background. For one thing, you have the moral revolution on the gay issue, and that led to a complete reversal between 1972 and 1973 of what the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association said about homosexuality. Prior to the change, they said that homosexuality was a mental disorder.

On the other side, they said, no, it’s not. Now, obviously psychiatry and psychology don’t turn on a dime like that because of diagnoses. They turn on a dime like that because of ideology and politics, very well documented in that change, but there’s more. There was the realization back in 1972 and 1973, that if the homosexuality issue, and now, of course, it’s LGBTQ+, that plus sign is very crucial, if the homosexuality issue were not a mental disorder, then psychiatrist and psychologist couldn’t charge because insurance companies wouldn’t pay without a code, and so they cleverly came up with the idea that homosexuality is not a mental disorder. That again, a radical shift, a 180 turn from just the year before, but they said that any kind of uncomfortability with homosexuality might be caused by external oppression, any kind of anxiety or other kind of response, it might be coded and identified as a dysphoria or another kind of mental disorder that would allow a code, an official diagnosis so that insurance companies would pay.

Folks, that’s how the world works. The latest edition by the way of the DSM, and every one of them is very controversial, came out in 2013, and what it shows is I just have to say how basically unscientific this supposed science is, because if you can add that many diagnoses, it meant you were incompetent to see them back in 1952. Or they all of a sudden just developed between 1952 and 2013 .Or you’re making this up as you go along. Now, there are Christians, psychologists and psychiatrists who will tell you that those things are not fundamentally true, but almost every one of them will speak honestly about their concerns about The Triumph of the Therapeutic. What about Christians? Well, we understand that depression and anxiety, yes, are real. And by the way, Christians don’t deny the fact that depression is sometimes physiologically based, but we also understand that seen in biblical terms, a lot of what is described as depression is a spiritual issue, a theological issue, not so much a psychological or psychiatric issue.

Again, we’re not denying, and Christians shouldn’t deny, given our understanding of the psychosomatic whole of the human being, that is, that we are body and soul, body and spirit in such a way that we can’t separate neatly in this life the one from the other. Our body will affect our mind, our mind will affect our bodies. Yes, we know that. We ought never to deny that, but when you’re looking at the rampant diagnoses that are being made right now, as evidenced in this article, well, what you see is the fact that when you abandon a theological worldview about all you’ve got left is a therapeutic worldview, but before leaving this, let me just ask, “Can a Christian rightly ever be bored?” Well, by the common definition of not being constantly stimulated and exhilarated, the answer is obviously yes.

Once again, we go back to the biblical categories. We’re warned against sloth. We’re told to discipline the mind. We are told to be focused on Christ. We are told to saturate our minds in scripture. We are told to bring every thought captive to Christ, and yes, in this life, there will be moments of happiness and unhappiness. There will be moments of exhilaration, and, by the way, that in itself can be good or bad. There will be moments of great pleasure. There will be moments of great pain, but the context of all of this for the Christian is the objective category of joy. Now, many parents learn early on what they learned from their parents when they were children. As soon as the child complains, a teenager complains about being bored, make sure that child is so busy that child will never complain of being bored again, until the next time, when you do the same thing.

One final thought about Christians when it comes to boredom, if we find ourselves being bored, it is because we are not obeying Christ in, for instance, finding ourselves absolutely possessed by an excitement of reading the Word of God and coming to know more about the one, true and living God. If you can read this Scripture and study theology or be busy, obedient to Christ, if you’re sharing the gospel with someone, if you’re helping someone to build a family, to strengthen a marriage, to raise a child, if you’re helping to build human civilization because it’s a part of God’s good pleasure, it’s going to be really hard to be bored. But it is incredibly fascinating that that question should appear in just that form in Sunday’s edition of The New York Times, whose readers evidently really do struggle with being bored.

Part II

There’s a Revolution Coming for Your Child’s Toys: Will Their Toy Box Meet the Culture’s Demands?

Next, that very same newspaper, The New York Times, has been publishing a special section in some Sunday editions at home, and it’s about the context of COVID-19 and the pandemic, and shelter-in-place orders, and the at least partial shutdown of the economy, kids being at home–all of that has led to some special articles on how to think about parenting and family and home in the midst of this.

Last Sunday’s edition had an article entitled, “Diversify Your Child’s Toy Box.” And this article basically is just about a perfect illustration of the modern conceptions of diversity and the celebration of otherness, and for that matter, the fact that one ought to be certain that one’s children will grow up on the right side of the moral revolution. When you consider The New York Times, you know what that paper would consider the right side to be. Shanicia Boswell writes the article, beginning with this quote, “Research has shown children become aware of racial differences as early as 3 years old, and children often mimic their home life dynamics, classrooms and daily interactions with their toys.” Now, this is an interesting insight and it makes sense. One of the arguments made early in the article is that parents, and we should say this about Christian parents as well, would do well even to use toys as an opportunity to remind our children of God’s glory, in the fact that human beings don’t all look alike, and the fact that God has made us is male and female, but again, that’s going to run into trouble with the new toy revolutionaries, and that becomes very clear later in the article.

We as Christians understand that there are some kinds of diversity that we ought rightly to celebrate. They’re the very kinds of diversity the Scripture celebrates. When we understand that Christian eschatology–that is, when we’re looking to the Kingdom of Christ and it talks about men and women from every tongue, and tribe, and people, and nation–that’s the kind of diversity in which God glorifies himself, and thus, his people are defying pleasure. But when it comes to other forms of diversity, well, how about the denial of the gender binary? That shows up in this article, but then again, that’s not an argument for diversity. That’s an argument for insanity. Diversity means male and female, as in male and female created He them, but when you deny the so-called gender binary and put everyone on a sliding scale, well, good luck, even if you try to join that revolution, finding enough dolls to fit everywhere on that spectrum.

It’s ludicrous. The article gets right to the point about this, by the way, “Since diversity is not just about race, consider how your toy, game and book selections might also include people with nonconforming gender identities, different abilities, and a range of faiths and ages.” Now, once again, I have to ask just how seriously this article is written, but I think it’s written with utter seriousness indeed with unctious seriousness. I think this reporter actually believes that this is what parents should do. “Go to the toy box.”

Do you have a Jewish doll, and a Buddhist doll, and a Hindu doll, and a Christian doll? Do you have a Liberal Protestant doll and a Christian Fundamentalist doll. And don’t forget the Mormons and the unification church and the Hare Krishna. It’s going to be a very interesting and ecumenical toy box, but the other evidence gained here is how a moral revolution has to be institutionalized, and this kind of march towards revolution in the toy box, it has to be actualized by people who will now feel guilty about their toy boxes.

Part III

The Redefinition of What It Means to Be a “Good Parent” — Hint: Convictional Christians Don’t Meet the New Criteria

But that observation takes me to another article that recently appeared in a major newspaper. This one’s the Washington Post. The author is Steven Petrow. The headline is “Advice to parents on raising a happy and healthy LGBTQ child.” Now, again, the Washington Post, you kind of expect where this is going to come from, but nonetheless, you can’t help looking at it. One of the things that becomes very clear in this article in a quotation that comes from Joe Kort, a clinical psychotherapist and author of “LGBTQ Clients in Therapy.” He said this, “Family matters most. If you’re a high rejecting family, you’re going to put that child in harm’s way.” Just think about that term. That’s what I want to point to, a “high rejecting family.”

What does that mean? It would mean a family, for example, that cannot enthusiastically embrace and celebrate a child’s declaration of say a same-sex orientation, the same-sex behavior, same-sex identity, or any kind of point or any kind of morphology related to the gender continuum, the non-binary gender continuum, but this shows us two things. They’re both really important to recognize, but one of them is not explicit in the article, and that’s why I want to point to it. It’s implicit. What’s that? It’s the redefinition of what it means to be a good parent.

What I want to look at is that language, “a high rejecting family.” The only way not to gain that diagnosis is to be a non-rejecting family, which means a family that no longer holds to a biblical standard of morality when it comes to sex and gender, sexuality, sexual behavior. Now, you’ll notice that high rejecting in this sense does not mean a family that kicks the child out of the house or disowns the child. That’s not even what it’s talking about. It’s talking about a failure to celebrate and affirm.

Now, that’s not so revolutionary. We’ve seen that coming, but what I want to point to, the implicit rather than explicit dimension of this article, is that what you have here right out in public is a redefinition of what it means to be a good parent, and being a good parent is not just a matter of private concern by definition and by law, it’s a matter of public concern, and so here you have the worldview that says, “A parent who is rejecting in any way is not a high affirming parent, is a parent that probably doesn’t deserve to be a parent.” Now, just keep that in mind, when you see the news stories about one parent or another, or sometimes both, as happened near Cincinnati, where you had a mother and a father who did not celebrate and affirm the gender transition of a teenage child, and so a judge there took the teenager out of the custody of the mother and father, and put the child in the custody of a grandparent who agreed to affirm. Now, as a Christian looking at this, I just want to make certain that we see what’s happening before our eyes.

What you have here is a redefinition of good parenthood, not just as a matter of argument, but increasingly, as a matter of what will become law, what will become legal precedent, what will become, what works of the bureaucracies, of child welfare systems and all the rest. We are already at the point that if you were to identify as someone who holds to a classical, biblical Christian understanding of any number of issues, it is unlikely that you will be approved by many state agencies or secular agencies for either adoption or foster care for children. Another ominous dimension of this article is that the article doesn’t have to come out and say sny more than the article about diversity in the toy box had to come out and say, “If you, as a parent, aren’t enthusiastically going along with this, you probably shouldn’t be a parent.” But understand that there are those who are making that argument right now. There are judges making that argument.

There are medical doctors making that argument. There are those in the child welfare system making that argument. There are social workers making that argument. There are liberal preachers making that argument. There are all kinds of authorities and those in control of education in this country who absolutely agree with that argument and don’t believe that parents should even have a say or even have the knowledge of what their children and teenagers are being taught about these issues when it comes to sex education, gender education, and what is now coming under the rubric of ethnic studies.

Bringing all this to a conclusion in our consideration today, beginning with depression and boredom, and then getting to diversity in the toy box, and then the revolution that puts parenthood at risk, let me just put it this way. These days, it’s just inevitable that some of these authorities are going to say that in the toy box, you’re going to need a drag queen doll, so that you can have drag queen story hour right in your own home, and understanding what that means, you’ll understand what I mean when I say that certainly won’t be boring, but the very thought of it is depressing.

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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