Tuesday, September 1, 2020
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Tuesday, September 1st, 2020. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Corporations Turn to Religion in This Secular Age? The Continual Rebranding of Spirituality Without Theology
To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, "When one stops believing in God, that person then doesn't believe in nothing. That person begins to believe in just about anything." And abundant evidence of that is found in our increasingly secular but still extremely religious world." Now, one footnote here. We as Christians understand that as we are made in God's image as spiritual creatures, we're always going to be spiritual. The question is, what kind of shape will that spirituality take? It's either going to be the worship of the one true and living God, or it's going to be some form of idolatry. And trust me, the world is trending hugely, energetically into idolatry. But it's also embracing confusion in a huge way and that includes ersatz religion, or false religion, a new artificial religion.
Direct evidence of this is found in Sunday's edition to the New York Times, the entire front page practically of the business section that ran with the headline, "Doing God's Work." It's by reporter Nellie Bowles. The subhead in the article, "Divinity consultants are on a mission to usher in soul-centered corporate rituals." Now let's just stop for a moment. Soul-centered corporate rituals? Since when do the words corporation and ritual go together in any kind of religious context? Well, the answer to that would be, now, in our supposedly secular age, the energies that had been devoted to religion are now being channeled into something very, very different. And when you're talking about the West, that means specifically that the energies that had been devoted to Christianity are in this secular age being devoted to something other than Christianity. But it's on the ruins of an abandoned Christianity in many circles. Let's look at the story.
As Nellie Bowles tells us "In the beginning there was Covid-19, and the tribe of the white collars rent their garments, for their workdays were a formless void, and all their rituals were gone. New routines came to replace the old, but the routines were scattered, and there was chaos around how best to exit a Zoom, onboard an intern, end a workweek." She then writes, "The adrift may yet find purpose, for a new corporate clergy has arisen to formalize the remote work life. They go by different names: ritual consultants, sacred designers, soul-centered advertisers. They have degrees from divinity schools. Their business is borrowing from religious tradition to bring spiritual richness to corporate America." Now, just about everything you need to know about this nonsense is in those words just cited. The most important of those words are the fact that this new business is borrowing from religious tradition to bring spiritual richness to corporate America.
Since when do words like "corporate" and "ritual" go together, or "corporation" and "religion?" We are told that a secular world, the corporation as a secular corporation is a soulless entity that is to have absolutely no religious identity whatsoever. Except it does. We as Christians understand that as God made us in his image of spiritual creatures, we can never be anything other than spiritual. Again, the question is, what will the shape of that spirituality be? In this case, frankly, bizarre. Speaking of theological education, by the way, right here on the front page of the business section of Sunday's New York Times is this statement, "In simpler times, divinity schools sent their graduates out to lead congregations or conduct academic research. Now there is a more office-bound calling: the spiritual consultant. Those who have chosen this path have founded agencies — some for-profit, some not — with similar-sounding names: Sacred Design Lab, Ritual Design Lab, Ritualist. They blend the obscure language of the sacred with the also obscure language of management consulting to provide clients with a range of spiritually inflected services, from architecture to employee training to ritual design."
Well, it just may be that soon when you receive your bill from a corporation for services, it might have a line item about ritual that is a background cost to the corporation. This is a huge story in the New York Times, but one of the things I want to point to is that this might not be such a huge development after all. There are really two different issues to look at here, both of them squarely. The first is whether or not this is a thing in the first place. Is this corporate ritual, the development of consultants as ritualist, is this really a thing? Is it really an important development? Does it deserve this kind of attention in the New York Times? I think the answer to that is that it, yes, is a new reality. But I'm also going to argue it's not nearly as big a story as the New York Times would make it appear.
That turns out to be the second issue. Why would the New York Times devote this much attention to something that almost assuredly is a passing fad, a passing phase in corporate life? Well, over the course of the next several minutes, we'll consider both of those issues. First of all, what are we looking at here? We're looking at the fact that even as the front page of the business section of the New York Times tells us divinity schools, theological schools used to send out their students into congregations. By the way, emphatic footnote, that is exactly what we do at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. We're in the world of that which we are now told these have left behind. We haven't left that behind. One of the schools that has left that behind is the Harvard Divinity School. But here's another important point. The Harvard Divinity School left orthodox Christianity behind, oh, something like 200 years ago.
Several years ago, in the same newspaper, the New York Times, an article was run about what's happened to theological education, and the interest was primarily on the left where so many divinity schools are really not providing clergy because they really don't have that many churches left in the ruins of liberal Protestantism. So they had to come up with something different for the graduates of these very well-endowed schools to do. The article in the Times then profiled graduates who were doing things like becoming ritualists and organic farmers. The article also cited me speaking of the fact that now the majority of students enrolled in accredited theological education are actually conservative evangelicals because we actually still believe in historic biblical Christianity and teach it. And we're still sending out pastors to go into churches and missionaries to go into the world because we still believe the gospel.
But what we're looking at here is the fact that all of that's of very little interest to the New York Times. What is of interest is the development of alternative religion in this secular age. The article makes clear that these corporations are trying to hire these ritual consultants in order to bring a benefit to employees, yes, but also to revolutionize their corporate culture. They're looking for something that is absent. That just points, as a very powerful sign, to the need of humanity for the gospel of Jesus Christ. There is a spiritual hunger that is rapacious, and the rise of these ritual consultants in American business are a sign of that. The article cites many people, including one man who's established what is known as the "Sacred Design Lab," another who has established an entire institute devoted to "helping build the spiritual foundation for a loving world." Who could be against that?
Later, the author Tara Isabella Burton is cited. She's the author of a new book entitled, Strange Rites: New Religions For A Godless World, and her argument is that there has been an unbundling of ritual and spirituality and theology. And as the New York Times tells us, "In the unbundled world, people pick what they want from different faiths and incorporate it into their lives — a little Buddhism here, a little kabbalah there. It is consumer-driven religiosity." Well, exactly. That is exactly what it is, consumer-driven religiosity. Burton then goes on to say, "The idea is that what we want, what feels good to us, what we desire, that all of this is constitutive of who we are, rather than community. We risk seeing spirituality as something we can consume, something for us, something for our brand." Yes, exactly. That's precisely what is going on here. It's the rebranding of religion into this vague spirituality and ritual without any transcendent meaning or truth whatsoever.
But we're looking at a society hungry for that and we're also looking at a society in which you have corporations saying, "Let's buy into that", hoping that it will fill a void in our corporation. But we as Christians know the void isn't in the corporation, the void is in the individuals. Nellie Bowles, the reporter, later in the article writes this, "Their larger goal is to soften cruel capitalism, making space for the soul, and to encourage employees to ask if what they are doing is good in a higher sense. Having watched social justice get readily absorbed into corporate culture, they want to see if more American businesses are ready for faith." But notice, the faith here is, as I've often described, simply a consumer driven faith in faith. There is no object. Christians understand that the only faith that matters is faith in Christ. We believe in justification by faith in Christ. We don't believe in justification by faith in faith.
Later in the article, a man by the name of Casper ter Kuile is mentioned, identified as co-founder of Sacred Design Lab. And he went on to say, "The next white space in advertising and brands is spirituality." Well, now wait just a minute. I've seen that name before. As a matter of fact, I've mentioned it on The Briefing before. Sometime before, just about five years ago, as a matter of fact, back on November the 27th of 2015, Mark Oppenheimer, reporter from the same newspaper, the New York Times, cited the very same individual Casper ter Kuile. He was then identified as a student at the Harvard Divinity School who had written a report entitled, "How We Gather." The title of the article in the Times was, "When Some Turn To Church, Others Go To CrossFit." And this article in the New York Times and another one that ran at the Atlantic by Julie Beck was making the argument that spirituality was now being channeled into the cult of the body and the idea of fitness, particularly with CrossFit becoming something of a church for people even developing a community that had an evangelistic fervor for CrossFit.
Five years ago, and just this week, the New York Times sites the very same man about a very similar phenomenon, although the church five years ago was CrossFit. Now the church is the American corporation seeking a spiritual soul. In a crucial section of the article, Nellie Bowles writes, "At Harvard Divinity School, scholars have been studying the trend away from organized religion for decades. Their consensus is that while attendance at formal services is at a historic low, people are still looking for meaning and spirituality." Dudley Rose, the Associate Dean for Ministry Studies, noted that secular spaces were doing a surprisingly good job of fulfilling this desire. He said, "People were meeting what they identified as spiritual needs but doing them in organizations they had no apparent spiritual connection. Like SoulCycle," he said, "people would cite SoulCycle."
So we changed brands from CrossFit to SoulCycle, but we're certainly continuing on an interesting theme with the Harvard Divinity School excited about the fact that all of these alternative new religious rituals and programs are doing surprisingly well and fulfilling the desire left behind in the abandonment of traditional religion, and that means in particular Orthodox Christianity. You put all this together and it tells you to do just about everything you need to know about the spiritual confusion in America today and the fact that, especially in what's left behind after the near collapse of Liberal Protestantism, there's hardly even a vapor of theology left. It's now all just vague ritual and consumer spirituality. It's all about CrossFit and SoulCycle. And it has nothing to do with the Bible or traditional Christian theology. That's so old school.
Another sad sign is not just the reference here to the Harvard Divinity School, but the reference to an historic Protestant denomination, that would be the Episcopal church in the USA. Now, that's been a very liberal denomination for a matter of about a century, and in particular, more recent years, it has decided to embrace just about every leftist cause imaginable. There are still evangelicals within the Episcopal church, but they are increasingly on an island of sorts. Evidence of that comes in this article because it concludes by citing the Episcopal Bishop of Chicago, Jeffrey D. Lee. It turns out that he had helped to organize a three day retreat last year with Casper ter Kuile and "the purpose of the retreat was to allow spiritual entrepreneurs to brainstorm with traditional religious leaders." He described one participant as an experience designer creating potent rituals for executives.
The article concludes, "Bishop Lee said he was happy to find the religious impulse at play, even if it was in places where the ultimate calling was profit. 'We're really aware of being on the shadow side of religious observance, a truly historic decline,' he said, 'so there's some good news in here for how people are hungry for ritual.'" Well, if ritual is what you're selling, I guess you can be happy that people are hungry for ritual. But historic Christianity doesn't come down to ritual. It comes down to the gospel of Jesus Christ. It comes down to the truth that we are sinners desperately in need of a savior and that the father has provided all that is needful for our salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ, and in particular and his sinless life, his death, burial, and resurrection from the dead. But if you are going to embrace this kind of theological nonsense, I would at least plead with you, go do it in American corporations. Don't do it in anything that dares to call itself a church.
A Celebrity Wedding Officiant? Religion Marketed as a Consumer Good
But next, as we're thinking about this kind of spiritual confusion, I want to stay in the very same edition of the newspaper, but I want to move to the vows section. That's always an eye-opener having to do with modern marriage in the New York Times. The profile by Alex Strauss in this case is about the Reverend Roxy. That would be the Reverend Roxanne Burchfield, a minister of the Evangelical Church Alliance. By the way, I have no idea what that is, but it doesn't appear to be evangelical or church. But this particular Reverend is the founder and owner of Married By Rev Roxy, "an officiating and premarital counseling service in Brooklyn." She has, we are told, "become a high profile officiant performing ceremonies on hit reality shows like Netflix's 'Love Is Blind,' VH1's 'Love and Hip Hop,' and 'Married At First Sight.'"
She's done more than 200 custom weddings she says, and she's big into ritual as well, as well as narrative. When asked the question, what makes your ceremonies different? She says, "I know how to talk to an audience. I want to tell a story. I want to leave an impression on your guests. I can ask a couple the right questions to create their narrative. This is a collaborative effort. The couple gets to approve the ceremony. Most officiants," she said, "don’t do that. They use a script and fill in names. Words have meaning. One word could trigger someone in a negative way. Then I deliver that couple’s story as if I’ve known them for their entire relationship." When asked, "What's your process?" the Reverend Roxy said, "I put about 18 hours into each couple. Half of that is the narrative I’m creating, the quotes and sacred text. I ask seven questions that reveal important points in their journey and relationship. And I always ask myself, 'How do I make their story come alive and be interesting?' And how do I make people forgot about cocktail hour."
Now, this just brings us full-circle to say that this is an article that reveals just about everything wrong in the world. First of all is the idea that a wedding, any kind of Christian wedding, is actually to be about the couple's self-expression and their narrative. There is to be a narrative in a Christian wedding, but it is to be the narrative of scripture, the narrative of God's establishment of marriage, the narrative of Christ blessing of marriage. This is all in the traditional Christian wedding service and there's a reason why we use that service, and it is because what it should not be is an ultimate exercise in self-expression and creating a narrative. But this takes us back to the realization we saw in the first issue and that is that religion in general, for many Americans, is just another consumer good. Ritual, narrative, wedding, put it all together in a package that says everything I want to say about me, or for a couple, everything we want to say about us, because that's who it's all about.
But, again, one point to make here is that all of this is completely detached from traditional biblical Christianity. It's as if that's so far back in the background that we don't even remember it anymore. But, again, let's just understand that it's either biblical Christianity or a form of nonsense. That's what we're left with. That's not politically correct, but it's true. It's also true that we're living in a world in which reality is increasingly detached from the public consciousness. It's almost as if irrationality has become the new worldview eagerly to be embraced.
Rampant Confusion in the World of Higher Education: Should We Expect College Students to Be Responsible in a COVID-19 World?
National Public Radio, NPR, ran an article yesterday by Elissa Nadworny entitled, "Preventing College Parties: Shame and Blame Don't Work But Beer Pong Outside Might." Well, the article here is about the fact that the spread of COVID-19 is a very real threat to the ability of colleges and universities to continue to offer on campus instruction. That's just fundamentally true, and now, infamously, some major universities have already had to shut down just days or weeks into the fall semester. The most famous of these is the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that had to shut down largely due to student behavior that led to an outbreak of COVID after just one week of classes. It was humiliating for the university, but not so much for the students. And that's the point. The thrust of the article in NPR is that colleges need to do something other than shame and to blame students, even for student misbehavior. But the students are pressing back. "Students at The Daily Tar Heel, the student newspaper at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, shared their thoughts about this when we visited their newsroom a week after that university moved its semester online, citing coronavirus clusters seeded by student parties."
Anna Pagarsic, a senior at UNC and the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper said, "If the success of your plan relies on 18- to 24-year-olds being responsible, then maybe it's not a very good plan." She continued, "The power dynamics of an 18-year-old versus this big university with its million-dollar endowment, you can't argue with that." Now, we see all kinds of routine nonsense in life, but this is the kind of nonsense that can only come from a student at a prestigious university where that student had to be very smart to gain admission. This isn't normal nonsense. This is a rarefied level of nonsense. Here you have the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper at the University of North Carolina saying that the university should have known better than to believe that students would actually abide by common sense rules that would allow the university to operate.
These are the very same students that had demanded in classroom instruction. The university went to considerable expense and inordinate planning, but the one thing they could not overcome was bad behavior among students. And it comes down to the party culture at major American colleges and universities, such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The party culture won. The article at NPR tells us that this is just the nature of 18-to-22 year olds and that it is irresponsible to assume that they could follow rules and act responsibly and even act adults. Again, that statement made by the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper was, "If the success of your plan relies on 18- to 24-year-olds being responsible, then maybe it's not a very good plan" Well, let me state the obvious. That's the only plan a college or university can have.
Brandon Stanley, a senior and managing editor at The Daily Tar Heel, another student, said, "I will give students a smidgen of the blame, just a smidgen of it. I think that the university gets the most blame, because they brought back thousands of students." Well, that's what the university's business is and that's what the students and their parents were demanding. But evidently they were expecting the university to be able to defy reality, reverse biology, act in absolute indifference to a pandemic because students are going to go to alcohol driven parties, especially with fraternities and sororities, and even if that breaks the rules, they're going to do it because that's why they're there. That is 0.1 of my consideration of the story. That is why many of these students are actually there. The number one product many students want from this kind of university is the party culture. The education, trust me, is secondary, and these students have made that abundantly clear.
If they cared about the education, then they would not have given themselves to the rule breaking and irresponsible activity. They say they've come for the education, but if they really valued the education then the University of North Carolina wouldn't have been in the position of sending them home after a week. And now the students dare to say back to the university, "It's your fault because you expected us to act like adults." Huge issue behind this, by the way. College students weren't always considered adults, but they demanded to be recognized as adults. If you go back in American history, just about a half century, they were not considered adults. They were considered extensions of their family entrusted to a college or university and to the staff and faculty of that university. As a matter of fact, legally, those universities and their administrators were identified as in loco parentis, that is legally, they were recognized as being in place of the parents.
They had a right to set the rules, they had a right to discipline students, and they had a right to make very clear that they had authority over the students. Students, by the way, at that point, 18-year olds, did not even have the right to vote. But all that changed in the aftermath, especially, the Vietnam War, and the entire shift went towards students being recognized as adults and treated as adults, having the rights of adults. But that also means the responsibility of adults. By the way, there's a flurry of articles saying that 18-to-22 year olds can't act responsibly because of they're still developing late adolescent brains. But the refutation of that is the fact that all over the world, there are 18 to 20 year olds acting very responsibly, thank you. This biological excuse is right here in this article. "Many college students still have developing brains, so it's not that they aren't informed or that they don't understand the risks — it's that they're wired differently."
By the way, in that older system, in which the colleges and universities were understood to be the extension of parents with parental authority, well, here's something to underline. Parents back then were understood as having authority and they exercised that authority. Now you've got millions of American parents who probably never exercised authority in their home in the first place who are now dumping off their children at elite colleges and universities and saying, "Just go do what you've come here to do," which means party. Colleges back then had what were known as parietal rules. That was moral rules of behavior. You even had institutions such as the University of Michigan or the University of Texas or the University of Georgia, secular institutions, that would have expelled a student for having premarital sex. Now, the universities basically are the home of sex parties.
All of this is a very sad sign of our times, but at the same time, it gives me enormous encouragement in a different way. It makes me look at the young people, say 18-to-22 or even younger and just a little bit older, who are acting with enormous responsibility. They're demonstrating incredible maturity. They have come to receive education on the campus. And that's why you can explain the fact that they are keeping the rules. They do understand what is at stake. They are acting with incredible responsibility. And that's true right now at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. It's true at Boyce College, and I get to see it with my own eyes. They are the living refutation of what's being said by these student leaders, so to speak, at places like the University of North Carolina.
The goal of parents should be to produce young people like this, who grow up right on time, and understand the stewardship of higher education and respect moral principles and rightful rules because they understand that this is how we actually demonstrate love of God and love of neighbor together. And it's because they have come, after all, for the actual intended product of higher education, which is, here's a radical thought, education. In the midst of this pandemic, a lot of things are becoming clear and one of the things that is becoming clear is the abject confusion and deliberate corruption of the world around us. Christian homes, Christian families, Christian churches, and, yes, Christian institutions are to be islands of sanity in the midst of this confusion, and where we see it we should be thankful. I want to say from the bottom of my heart, I see it and I'm thankful.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
I want to tell you about something that excites me tremendously. This fall, in just a matter of weeks, I'm going to be teaching an online, synchronous--that is live--course entitled, "Preaching and Preachers." It's going to be a tour de force of biblical exposition. We're going to be looking at model expository preachers of the last 60 or 70 years. We are going to be watching their sermons and then we're going to be thinking about the meaning of this preacher, what this model of preaching means, how the preacher exposits the biblical text, how this ends up in the preaching event. We're going to be looking at model sermons from very important preachers, and we're going to be learning everything we can looking at them in their context and in the flow of Evangelical preaching over the course of, say, the last two generations.
We're going to be looking at figures such as W. A. Criswell, John R. W. Stott. We're looking at Martin Lloyd-Jones, R. C. Sproul, John MacArthur, Billy Graham, Adrian Rogers, Sinclair Ferguson, Alistair Begg. We're going to be looking at African-American models of preaching, such as Gardner C. Taylor, E. V. Hill, and H. B. Charles Jr. And that's just a hint of the kind of fun we're going to have in this class, and what I hope will be an enormous contribution to the ministries of those in the class in expository preaching, the preaching of the word of God, which is our great passion. For more information about the course just go to sbts.edu/mohlercourse. Very easy. All you have to remember is sbts.edu/mohlercourse, one word.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can find me on Twitter by going to twitter.com.albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to spts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.