Thursday, February 18, 2021
It's Thursday. February 18, 2021.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
The Polar Vortex Across the United States Reminds Us of the Fragility of Humanity: A Call to Pray for Those Endangered and Suffering Right Now
Much of the continental United States is under a deep freeze right now. It's a so-called polar vortex that has reached far into the United States, and it has led to emergency situations and numerous deaths all across the country. We're talking about something that is virtually unknown in the United States. A band of below-zero temperatures, and of course, ice and snow with successive bands coming. Reaching all the way down to places like Houston, Texas, going all the way down to San Antonio, going all the way up across the United States in a diagonal of cold.
One of the few places in the United States that is not suffering from this kind of cold is the peninsula of Florida. Beyond that, most of the country is in unprecedented cold. And it comes to remind us of the fragility of humanity over against what for generations we've referred to as "the elements." It turns out that we as human beings facing not only the immensity of the cosmos, but for that matter, the immediacy of our own atmosphere find out just how fragile we are.
The weather headlines are now reminding us of several things. Even as right now we are praying for those who do not have power, electricity, gas, they do not have heat in their homes. They do not have water that they can use. They do not have a reprieve coming from this weather anytime in the next few hours. Food is running out. You have major stores, including grocery stores that are closed. You have an energy grid breakdown in states such as Texas. Now, that is something that frankly is just unusual to say.
But you're talking about the fact that the state of Texas and the organization that runs its energy grid is now telling us that they had not expected anything like this. Either in terms of the length and the nature of the cold and the weather, or of the demand for energy that has, of course, commensurately spiked. It's not an accident. The need for energy is great at the very time energy is now unavailable to many people.
Now, the Christian worldview just reminds us, for example, of the fact that the universe is made for human habitation. But that's not to say that in a fallen world, the weather is always conducive to human health and happiness, or even survival. We understand that human beings can exist only within a fairly narrow band of weather. Our adaptability is limited. We understand that human life is actually possible only within a certain spectrum of weather. And in the great worldview perspective, this reminds us of what is known as the cosmic anthropic principle.
The fact that as you look at planet Earth, it appears to be uniquely, deliberately, intelligently designed for the emergence of life, and to sustain in particular human life. If you work to shift our own universe even just slightly, almost even infinitesimally, if you were to move planet Earth closer to the sun, or further away from the sun, if you were to change the gravitational pull on planet Earth. If you were to make even what astronomers would calculate to be very small changes, life as we know it would be impossible.
You get too far from the sun, and the planet turns into a giant frozen wilderness. You get too close to the sun, and everything simply melts or evaporates. But even as, of course, the cosmic anthropic principle reminds us that the cosmos looks as if on planet Earth there was an intelligent, intentional design to sustain life. We're living in an increasingly secular age that tries to find any other explanation than for the fact that God created the earth as a human habitation.
But we also understand our human fragility. We are helpless against much weather. It gets too hot and we don't have protection, we will eventually die. It gets too cold and we do not have protection, we will eventually die. You have the reality that all over the world you have not only hot and cold, you have wet and dry. Too dry, we starve. Too wet, we drown. But beyond the more than clear evidence of the fact that God created the world as the theater of his glory, he created human beings in his image to be the only beings who understand that, we also come to understand as these weather headlines and all too real weather threats remind us we are out of control of the weather.
There is almost nothing we can do to change the weather. Virtually nothing at all that makes any real difference. We can adapt to weather. We can respond to weather. We can plan for weather. But we cannot change the weather. You think about the power of, say, the office of president of the United States. You think of organizations that claim great power, including the U.S. government. Or you might also say the United Nations. But the shared and humbling experienced throughout all of human history is that the weather is unavoidable. And it is, when it comes to human power, unchangeable. It is one of the most fundamental reminders of the fact that we are small in the scale of this universe. We are too small to affect anything as large as the weather.
But even as we have no control over the weather, and that just reminds us also of the failure of the modern conceit. The modern conceit is that people in the past were powerless, but we're now powerful. Look what we can do. We can split the atom. We can dam up rivers. We can do all kinds of things that people before us couldn't do. We can invent vaccines. We can do all kinds of great things. But here's one very humbling reminder of our finitude. Anyone from the past, even the most ancient biblical past, could show up and say, "I had as much control over the weather as have you. As much or as little."
The one thing we can do as Christians, we understand, that is big, is that we can pray for those who are endangered, and threatened, and suffering right now in the face of the weather. And the other big realization is that the weather does change. It doesn't always change for the better. But in the cosmos that God has created, and on this planet that he created for his glory and as a human habitation, the weather does change. In most places, rather regularly. But right now, it's also humbling to recognize that the only weather that really matters is the weather that we have to deal with right now.
Rush Limbaugh, Radio’s Dominant Talk Show Personality, Dies at 70: How Conservative Talk Show Radio Emerged as a Major Force in America
But next, yesterday came the news of the death of radio talk show host, Rush Limbaugh. And even as Limbaugh was a fixture in American radio for the last several decades, he also had an outsized personality and impact on American culture. At the end of the day, he was one of the few individuals in his own generation who actually could have claimed to have changed American public life. Not only in terms of the transformation of radio, but a major impact in American politics as well.
So, what are we talking about here? Well, as you talk about radio, recognize that when Rush Limbaugh first began his career in radio, and as so often the case, it was not a spectacularly successful start to his career. He started his career in radio at the very time that radio appeared to be in eclipse. Radio was a major factor in American culture, entertainment, news, information. The ecosystem of the media was in apparent decline at the time that Rush Limbaugh came along, and started The Rush Limbaugh program in the early 1980s. By the time Rush Limbaugh began that program, television was considered to be the premier communications medium.
Radio, that had emerged earlier. After all, we're really talking about radio in the form we know it emerging from right about 1900. Radio was in eclipse, because television added the visual to the audio and it became a very powerful format. Far more American homes had radios in, say, the 1940s than they had televisions. But the reality is that by the time you reach the 1970s, televisions, including color televisions, were in just about every American household. And the audience gravitated to television.
Radio had been absolutely transformational in American culture and in American politics and entertainment going back to the early decades of the 20th century. The radio became a major fixture in homes. Radio, serials, programs, comedies, dramas, murder mysteries, they became the entertainment of the day. And of course, radio also brought news. Transformed the news industry into the broadcast age.
But the radio broadcast age also came driven by a radio elite. There were the local level. Local radio hosts with small powered stations, but it was the big A.M. clear channel stations that reached entire communities, entire states, regions, and eventually reached a national audience in some cases. Those clear channel stations, much like the United States and its interstate system, were great symbols of the modern age and of the fact that the age of mass transportation, mass politics, mass information came with the need for mass media as well.
Radio was on the leading edge. It defined early broadcasting. But it was television that put radio in retreat, and then things changed. What changed? Well, for one thing, you have the emergence of the kind of radio hosts hosting the kind of program that Rush Limbaugh brought. But then there were other changes as well.
He started The Rush Limbaugh program in 1983. It was known as The Rush Limbaugh Show. And he started it on one radio station in California, KFBK. But by the time you reached the end of that decade, Rush Limbaugh is a household name in America. What happened? Well, the most important change came not in technology, but in politics and in law. In 1987, the Federal Communications Commission repealed what was known as the fairness doctrine. Now the fairness doctrine had been put in place in 1949. The Federal Communications Commission is the federal agency that regulates radio. The airwaves, by the way, are considered to be public property in the United States. The FCC controls access to the radio spectrum on behalf of the people of the United States, and it sets policies.
Otherwise, you'd have competing stations on the very same frequency. They would knock each other out. You would have monopolies that would completely take over the information ecosystem. The FCC stepped in. And the fairness doctrine that was put in place in 1949 said that when there was a controversial issue, equal time had to be given to both sides of the argument. There was actually another part of the fairness doctrine that was that in return for access to these public radio frequencies, radio stations, and later television stations, had to give time to the discussion of controversial issues. When I was a boy, radio and television news often had a public interest segment in which they would take on a controversial issue, and you had to give equal time to both sides.
Now, you might say that that makes sense from the regulator's point of view. But what it wasn't in most cases was interesting. It wasn't very interesting at all. The fairness doctrine was repealed in 1987. And at that time, you all of a sudden had the opportunity on radio and on television. But what became important was radio. You had the opportunity for highly opinionated hosts to drive highly opinionated audiences with highly opinionated messages. And that was the very essence of The Rush Limbaugh Show.
And by the time you reached just a few years after he started it on one station, by 1988, the show was nationally syndicated. And by most estimates, by the year 2020 when Rush Limbaugh announced that he had stage four cancer, it attracted around 27 million listeners a week. 27 million people. Now, just consider that. Consider the power of speaking into a microphone to 27 million people a week. But even that was probably a decrease from the height of popularity of The Rush Limbaugh Show back when he had basically no competition, and long before you had the rise of cable news networks. That also changed the media ecology.
Rush Limbaugh came in. And by the late 1980s, the early 1990s, he was the dominant factor in talk radio. And talk radio became the dominant medium on AM radio bands. The AM radio world became a talk radio world. So, people living in our time thinking of opinionated talk radio, they might think that Americans always had access to that kind of programming. Not true. Not true even before 1987. Just true for the last several years, and no one dominated that scene like Rush Limbaugh. He had a huge personality. He branded himself with that personality. He had a big voice, a big laugh. He also had very big opinions. Talk radio is also a format in which if you say something that is wrong or proved to be wrong, well, there's always tomorrow. And you just keep going. No one kept going like Rush Limbaugh.
But Limbaugh also proved something else, and that is that our radio audience gravitated to a clear message. It gravitated to agreement rather than disagreement. And that's not to say that everyone who listened to Rush Limbaugh agreed with him. Some people listened because you have conservatives listened to liberals. They're fascinated by them. You have liberals who listened to conservatives. They're fascinated by them. But by and large, the biggest segment of those listening to Rush Limbaugh were, well, they call themselves ditto heads. They agreed with him. And if you were running for president or you had a major issue in American public life, Rush Limbaugh was often the conservative who opened the door to the airwaves.
Three U.S. presidents appeared on his program. That started with George H.W. Bush, Bush 41. It continued with George W. Bush, Bush 43. And most recently, it continued with President Donald J. Trump, who awarded Rush Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom during the State of the Union Address in 2020.
There's no way actually to measure quantitatively in any adequate sense the impact of talk radio on American politics. But it is clear that the rise of the modern conservative movement in the United States was largely ... at least since 1987, fueled by the energies of talk radio. And even right now, talk radio, programs and hosts talk radio as a conservative media ecology offers an alternative to the mainstream media. A very clear alternative, and it becomes a rallying point for many conservatives in the United States.
But this raises another issue. And it is really, really interesting. Just consider this question. Why is conservative talk radio a big winner, and liberal talk radio a big loser? And that is an undeniable pattern. Conservative talk radio works. Liberal talk radio doesn't work. Why? This can't be explained by arguing that liberals don't have viewpoints when conservatives do. Nope. That's not true. It can't be because liberals don't have arguments, and conservatives do. No. I think conservatives generally have the winning argument, but liberals have arguments.
It can't be because liberals don't have big media personalities, and conservatives do. It can't be that, because it's not true. Frankly, the liberals have more star power than conservatives. They basically own Hollywood. So, what is the explanation? Well, there may be two big explanations. One is that conservatives actually are looking for and were long looking for a way for conservative messaging finally to break through the major media. That becomes part of it. The major media had been predominantly liberal for decades. Conservatives didn't have access that the liberals had to the so-called "mainstream media." The Tiffany media.
Instead, conservatives finally found their voice on talk radio, and it turned out to be extremely effective. You might put it another way. Liberals really don't need talk radio because they've got CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times, the Washington Post. You just go down the list. It was conservatives who were looking for a voice. The liberals already had their voice. But there is another I think even bigger issue here, and that is this. Talk radio is a format that gives itself to an audience looking for an explanation for what's going on in the world with a basic sense that what's going on is wrong. And that leads to a different issue.
Liberals have good reason to have been very pleased with the direction in this culture over the last several decades. It's conservatives who had deep concerns about the direction of the culture. It's conservatives who have been looking for an explanation. A cogent, intelligent explanation. Talk radio, of course, had to be entertaining. Because if it wasn't nobody would listen. But the amazing thing is that Rush Limbaugh, and many others who followed in his stead, proved that arguments on political issues themselves would build an audience.
And the historical context meant that that audience was driven to talk radio. No one turns out to have been more important for that development than Rush Limbaugh. But if you're wondering why a conservative Rush Limbaugh worked on talk radio and a liberal Rush Limbaugh probably wouldn't and certainly hasn't and probably won't. Well, I hope these factors are at least part of the explanation.
An Embarrassing and Tragic Headline for Evangelicals: New Report Confirms Serial Sexual Misconduct and Abuse by Ravi Zacharias
But finally, today we have to turn to headline news, which is for evangelical Christians not only tragic but embarrassing. I'm talking about the revelations that have come from RZIM, that is, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, that the late evangelist, Ravi Zacharias, who died back in May of 2020 was guilty of massive and grotesque sexual misconduct. He lived what his own board has acknowledged to have been a double life. And that double life finally caught up with him.
But actually, as we shall see, that double life was at least hinted at in the latter years of his ministry. What am I talking about? Well, the Board of Ravi Zacharias Ministries released a report. They had undertaken to hire a law firm to investigate accusations of a very credible source that were made against Ravi Zacharias. Accusations that had to do with the fact that he had owned two eastern massage parlors that had been located in the Atlanta area. He was accused by some of those who had worked in the parlor of sexual misconduct.
But when you think about it, the very nature of that kind of massage therapy matched to an evangelical ministry. Let's just say that doesn't work. But somehow that, however, was kept out of the knowledge of most evangelicals. Including evangelical leaders, who frankly had no idea that Ravi Zacharias had been in the business of a massage parlor, as well as international apologetic ministry. The reality is that this is one of those tragic headlines that captures our heart and pierces it, simply because this appears at first glance to be so implausible. And yet it turns out to be true.
One of the things we see here is the nature of the report coming from this law firm. It reveals that there are credible accusations, along with evidence of the fact that it's not just that Ravi Zacharias lived a double life. But that he was guilty in at least one case of what's described as rape.
In the statement released by the ministry's board just days ago, the board stated: "We believe not only the women who made their allegations public, but also additional women who had not previously made public allegations against Ravi, but whose identities and stories were uncovered during the investigation."
"Tragically," said the board, "witnesses described encounters including sexting, unwanted touching, spiritual abuse, and rape." They went on to say, "We are devastated by what the investigation has shown, and we are filled with sorrow for the women who are hurt by this terrible abuse."
Now, I mentioned Ravi Zacharias on The Briefing about the time of his death talking about his massive impact in terms of evangelicalism. An impact that comes down to at least two different dimensions. One was the fact that he became known for the intelligent defense of the Christian faith, and for his willingness to go on college campuses and elsewhere in order to defend the biblical Christianity. The other thing was that he had put together a network that was truly multinational, including speakers, and those who had platform access in many parts of the world where evangelical Christians in the United States had not gone.
But there were warning signs, and I was aware of one of these warning signs. It had to do not with his sexual behavior, but with his education. He was often referred to as Dr. Ravi Zacharias, and there were claims made about study at places like Oxford and Cambridge. I had only a couple of encounters with Ravi Zacharias when we shared speaking responsibilities. But in one of them, simply at dinner after the session I just asked him ... there were three of us at the table. I asked him straight forwardly, because I naively simply wanted to know where he had done his doctoral work. The answer was, let me just say, evasive. Evasive to the point that it was embarrassing. So embarrassing that Ravi Zacharias arranged that we never actually had any conversation beyond that.
He and his ministry admitted years later that he did not have an academic doctorate, even though he had been introduced as having one. That's a problem, and it's an embarrassment that across the evangelical world it's not a solitary problem. But when you come to the sexual misconduct, the reality is that in 2017, it came to the awareness of most evangelicals that at least some accusations have been made against him. But his board declared that he was cleared of those charges that had to do with sexting, and a relationship with a woman who was not his wife. A settlement was reached with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, but little more than that was known. And at that point, the question was raised: just how exactly without offering ample evidence is such a charge or accusation cleared?
The biblical standard that we find in text, such as verse Timothy 3 and Titus is that you are not to have an ill repute. You're not to have charges made against you that are not made clear. An accusation of bad moral character, of a bad reputation against one minister, becomes largely a slander against Christianity if that minister continues with the accusation not cleared. The open letter that came from the International Board of Directors of RZIM and its investigation of Ravi Zacharias, and again, they turn to a law firm known as Miller & Martin, it is absolutely devastating.
Actually, from a Christian worldview understanding, it's heartbreaking. Because it also raises another huge issue that we're going to have to talk about on a future edition of The Briefing. And that issue is what happens to the preaching of one who is later discovered to have led a double life, and to have had a deservedly bad reputation? Someone who it turns out was living a lifestyle that is incompatible with the message preached? What do we do with the message? What does this say about those who came to a saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ because of Ravi Zacharias's ministry?
Well, the Christian church has had to deal with that kind of question before, and we will turn to answering that question tomorrow. It turns out that the original context of that question came when you had ministers of the church who had committed apostasy by denying the faith during the time of the Roman persecution. How did the church deal with that? Well, that raises a very relevant issue to thinking about the aftermath of the Ravi Zacharias controversy today.
But there is another issue, and on this issue we have to end. When you are looking at this kind of horrifying headline of a moral nature, it reminds us of the biblical truth that we must be careful. Our sin will find us out. Now, that doesn't always mean that that sin is revealed even in human history to fellow human beings. But as the Bible makes clear, just think of a text like Hebrews 4: Nothing is hidden from God.
Just three quick thoughts of immediate urgency given the tragedy of Ravi Zacharias's ministry here. One thing, there has to be an adequate process of oversight and accountability. And that means there had to have been a knowledge. There must have been, but there wasn't. There needed to be a set of guidelines in place such that no Christian minister could ever have this much time to get into this much trouble over this many years. That simply should not be possible.
The other insight is that an independent ministry with a self-perpetuating board has an even higher burden of responsibility in this regard when compared to someone that from the outside can intervene in a ministry, just to say. The issue in the SBC, the Southern Baptist Convention, is very different. The trustees of our boards are elected by the convention. They're not chosen by the ministry. And eventually, the Southern Baptist Convention itself can come in and take control if necessary in order to save the integrity of a ministry.
The third urgent issue is also really, really important. When you think about it, it is virtually impossible that no one knew enough to connect enough dots to know that there was a huge problem in this ministry, and there was such a problem for years. There is responsibility in that knowledge even as there is moral responsibility in the acts that were undertaken by Ravi Zacharias. The Bible does tell us that the devil is roaming to and fro, seeking whom he may devour. The same New Testament in James 3:1 tells us that not many of you should be teachers. Because teachers, after all, will incur a stricter judgment.
We also have to recognize that the Christian church, and in particular this ministry, owes a responsibility of care to those who were victimized by the ministry. This also is something that Christians have often overlooked. Very real women were harmed in very real ways. They were scandalously preyed upon by one who did so even as he was claiming the mantle of Christian ministry. It's a tragedy beyond imagination to go astray. But it's even more horrifying to lead others astray.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
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 sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.