The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Friday, April 9, 2021

It’s Friday, April 9th, 2021.

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Robert Mundell, Nobel-Winning Economist, Dies at 88: A Look at Mundell’s Thought on the Growth of the Economic Pie

Well, it’s going to be a very interesting Friday today on The Briefing. We’re going to start with two very important obituaries and end with Godzilla vs. King Kong.

But first, to the obituaries. Robert Mundell, a father of modern economics died in recent days at age 88. He received the 1999 Nobel Prize in Economics.

And it might seem that this is something remote and fairly unimportant to the Christian worldview. Even though major media have given some attention through formal obituaries to the death of Robert Mundell, the fact is that most people do not recognize that economists have an outsize influence within not only the American economy, not only the world economy, but the economy of ideas. Modern economics, as it really emerged only in recent centuries is an intellectual discipline that has a great deal to do with trying to explain not only how human economies work, but how humans work.

Economics is sometimes dismissed as the dismal science, but in reality, the conversations and debates that take place in modern economics often have a very real and tangible effect on individual lives, not just the larger operation of economies, but one of the issues we have to face is that by the mid-point of the last century, there was no general consensus as to how international economics worked. It was actually a mystery to many how the individual economies of different nations interacted in an international or a global sense. And Robert Mundell basically invented an entire new science of how to understand a modern international economy.

If you want to think about how boring economics can sound, just consider the certificate that was given to him when he won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for 1999, the Nobel Committee credited him “for his analysis of monetary and fiscal policy under different exchange rate regimes, and his analysis of optimum currency areas.” Most people are probably lost before they get past two or three words of that certificate, but then the Nobel Committee, and this is now over 20 years ago, said, “Mundell chose his problems with uncommon, almost prophetic accuracy in terms of predicting the future development of international monetary arrangements and capital markets.”

The New York Times, Tim Redburn writing the obituary then commented, “Professor Mundell is credited as the co-developer of the Mundell-Fleming Model, which added a crucial dimension to the field by creating an elegant way to move beyond the study of self-contained national economies.”

Jacob Frenkel, the former governor of the Bank of Israel wrote concerning Professor Mundell, “You have created modern open economy, macro-economics, my generation of economists owe you all that we know.” That’s an amazing tribute, but what does it have to do with our analysis by a Christian worldview? Well, our interest in economics as Christians is an understanding, yes, how economies work. Yes, how human beings work as economic creatures, God made us economic creatures. That’s a part of Genesis 1. That’s a part of the dominion and stewardship command. That’s a part of the creation mandate. But in considering that, we have to understand that economics also has to account for why certain economic goods don’t happen.

How would optimal human flourishing actually occur? And there you have economic debates. And yes, you have a divide between conservative and liberal economists, but here’s where you have to understand that if you look at the Nobel Prize, one of the interesting things is that the Nobel Committee has awarded a good many of the Nobel Prizes to both conservatives and liberals. Because when it comes to understanding matters economic with all the tangible effects, the Nobel Committee has understood this is actually an ongoing debate. That’s a rare intellectual humility these days, but it’s also important to get to the fact that Robert Mundell is often credited with developing what has been called supply side economics that in the United States is associated with political conservatism.

The understanding that you lower the tax rate in order to encourage economic growth, believing that that will eventually help everyone. The other way to put it is that a rising tide lifts all ships. The liberal economists hold to a very different understanding with the suggestion that high taxation gives the state money that it can then redistribute towards human goods.

But in considering this, there’s a point that was made by Robert Mundell that should be really, really important. And it’s just one of those honest issues that an economist would raise, an honest question than an economist would ask. Here’s his question. He said, “If you care about the poor, would the poor be better off with a smaller piece of a bigger pie or a bigger piece of a smaller pie?” Now, in one sense, that is a crucial distinction between conservative and liberal economics. It’s often not put that way, which is one of the reasons that Robert Mundell was a very important economist.

Again, “If you care about the poor, would the poor be better off with a bigger piece of a smaller pie?” That’s the more liberal position, using the government to control the economy in such a way that there is an income redistribution or a wealth redistribution. Or he said, “Would the poor be helped more by a smaller piece of a bigger pie?”

Now that’s a very key insight in itself, because the point that was made by Professor Mundell is this, if you really care about people and trying to lift people out of poverty, you shouldn’t be concerned so much with what other people make. You should be concerned with whether you’re actually benefiting and building the wealth of the poor. Are you actually lifting them out of poverty into greater prosperity? That’s a very legitimate question. That’s where Christians really do have an interest, and I’m not arguing that in this sense, there’s an absolutely right economic answer to the question.

I tend to agree with Professor Mundell and these issues, but the point is, if we are committed to trying to alleviate poverty, if we’re actually committed to trying to benefit human beings and lead to human flourishing, there are some very big questions we have to face. There are some very real debates that aren’t simplistic. They’re not reducible to right and wrong. Sometimes in matters economic there are consequences to economic policies that are foreseen and others that are not foreseen, but I think it is very clarifying to say that it might well be that the poor are better off with a smaller piece of a much bigger pie than a big piece of a much smaller pie. If you mention pie, you have my attention. And that picture, I think, is morally clarifying.

Part II

Hans Küng, Theologian Lionized by the Left, Dies at 93: A Lesson in How to Become a Hero in an Ever-Secularizing Culture

The other obituary has to do with a German theologian. Now it takes some work in the 20th and 21st centuries to become a famous or infamous German theologian. But Hans Küng did that. He taught at University of Tübingen for years, and he died just this week at age 93. Douglas Martin in the obituary for the New York Times begins this way, “Hans Küng, a Roman Catholic theologian and priest who’s brilliantly disputatious, lucidly expressed thoughts in more than 50 books in countless speeches advanced ecumenism and provoked the Vatican to censure him, died on Tuesday at his home in Tübingen Germany. He was 93.”

Now, the way you begin an article like this tells you a great deal about whether you have a newspaper like the New York Times saying this guy is a hero or not a hero. Here, you have the kinds of adjectives that are actually rarely used in an obituary. We’re told that the professor and priest was brilliantly disputatious and that he had lucidly expressed thoughts, and that he found himself in trouble with the Vatican. Well, indeed he did find himself censured by a number of popes, just about all the popes of his adult life.

He was eventually removed from licensure to teach as an official Roman Catholic theologian. And he got himself in that position because, as a very young theologian, both on the faculty at Tübingen and as a participant, as a theological expert to the Second Vatican Council, and in particular by his writings and his books, he found himself in the position of decrying official church doctrine, even seeking to deny the infallibility of the pope and many other teachings that are central and essential to modern Roman Catholicism.

So why, as an evangelical Christian, are we talking about Hans Küng today? It is because culturally, if not theologically Hans Küng becomes a very important figure, because we understand that the way to become heroic in the modern cultural moment is to defy the teachings of your church, to seek to undermine the historic teachings and doctrinal claims of your church. In this case, Hans Küng is being celebrated as brilliantly disputatious, his thoughts lucidly expressed not because he was in agreement with the Vatican. That would have been uninteresting, we presume, to the New York Times, but because he was the avowed opponent, not just to the authority of the Vatican and the authority of the papacy, but to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church on issues such as contraception, birth control and issues of the modern sexual revolution. Thus, he is treated as heroic.

And by the way, there’s another interesting aspect to this, and that is the fact that when you have Catholics and Protestants, when you have liberal Protestants and liberal Catholics, they tend to have the same heroes. And oftentimes that heroic stature simply comes down to how much of historic doctrine any one of these figures may deny. Thus, Hans Küng, the liberal Roman Catholic in trouble with the Vatican found himself a hero of liberal Protestants who were seeking to play the very same role within their historic Protestant churches. They were seeking to deny the doctrinal deposit and the doctrinal teachings of those churches and place themselves as a part of the intellectual avant-garde the same way the Hans Küng was among Roman Catholics. And Hans Küng was lionized as heroic.

A couple of fascinating anecdotes from his life. At one point in 1963, he visited the first Roman Catholic President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, who described Hans Küng as a theological new frontiersman. Now, what was that? Well, John Kennedy pointed to what he called his political program of the new frontier. The President, elected in 1960, the first man born in the 20th century to be elected President of the United States, he presented a basically liberal vision on many social issues and social policies as packaged as a part of the new technological age, that included the space race by the way, and the space missions, the manned space missions that would follow with Apollo, but he made very clear that the new frontier, which he labeled his own program, was something that had relevance beyond politics.

And by welcoming Hans Küng to the White House, rather than we might say, a more orthodox Catholic theologian, you had the President of the United States declaring that he had a theological hero, a theological hero who by the way, had placed himself in opposition to the Vatican. Presumably that’s exactly why he was being recognized as a hero.

Called on the carpet by Pope Paul the 6th in the 1960s, Hans Küng reportedly asked the pontiff how he could improve his writings. And the Pope basically said, “By never having written.” There’s also another very fascinating part of the life of theologian professor Hans Küng at the university of Tübingen. As a member of that faculty as a very young man in his early thirties, he suggested as a new member of the faculty, another very young German Catholic theologian, whose name was Joseph Ratzinger.

Hans Küng and Joseph Ratzinger who did join the faculty at Tübingen would attend Vatican II as two of the youngest theological experts invited to the conclave. They were routinely called the teenage theologians. They weren’t teenagers. They just looked like it compared with the older members of the cast. But of course Hans Küng would eventually have his licensure removed by Roman Catholic authorities. And one of those authorities would be Joseph Ratzinger. Later, the Arch Bishop of Munich and Fribourg, and then later the head of the sacred congregation. And then later the pope of the Roman Catholic church, Pope Benedict the 16th.

So again, just trying to understand where we stand in the culture and what this means, as an evangelical, you look at the Catholic controversy concerning Hans Küng, and you see that as Hans Küng, who is lionized and celebrated by the secular culture, declared by John F. Kennedy, the President of the United States to be a theological new frontiersman. Meanwhile, Joseph Ratzinger, the defender of the Catholic faith is dismissed as hopelessly out of date and probably psychologically repressed. The point is this, whether Catholic, Protestant or just about anything else, that’s the pattern we now see in a secularizing society.

Part III

Godzilla vs. King Kong — Who Should Win and Why Do We Care? Why the Moral Imagination Needs Monsters

But next we turn to Godzilla vs Kong. In this case, it is Godzilla vs. King Kong. It’s the movie recently released. It is in the genre of the monster film, a sequel to two movies, Godzilla: King of the Monsters and Kong: Skull Island. It’s actually the fourth film in the Monsterverse series offered by Legendary. It is the 36th film in the Godzilla series, and it is the 12th film of the King Kong franchise. But now it’s not just a Godzilla movie, it’s not just a King Kong movie. It is Godzilla vs Kong. Who shall rule?

So why in the world are we talking about a monster movie and two different fictional monsters on The Briefing today? It is because we are defined as human beings, not only by our heroes and heroines, but by our monsters. And these two monsters are in themselves extremely interesting. Godzilla emerged, first of all, in Japan and a movie that was made in 1954, later released to Americans in 1956. Godzilla, or Gojira as the name is in the Japanese, is a conflation of the words for gorilla and whale. This is a gorilla-like sea creatures surging up from the depths.

The English text for the trailer of the original 1956 movie release in the United States declared that Godzilla makes King Kong look like a midget. The tech said, “See a monstrous sea beast surging up from the ocean, a city of 6 million wiped out by his death ray blast. Giant ships swamped, jet planes swept from the skies, trains ripped from the rails. More, more, more. See every screen shattering thrill. Incredible, unstoppable titan of terror, the mightiest monster, the mightiest melodrama of them all,” but there are some huge issues of worldview significance here when you’re looking at Godzilla. Again dated to 1954 and 1956, it’s in the aftermath, not only of World War II, and it comes from Japan, not by coincidence, in the aftermath of the nuclear blast in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Nuclear technology, nuclear power, the atomic bomb is very much in the background of Godzilla. He is said to kill with an atomic heat beam, which is sometimes also described as his atomic breath. He kills with an atomic nuclear breath blast. The monster known as Godzilla was not just a matter of a metaphor that was addressed to both Japanese and American viewers of the movie. It was also a metaphor for technology that had run out of control, of the powers of the universe in particular of the splitting of the atom that had led to the most terrifying weapons human beings had ever known.

There was also the very real fear, not of a Godzilla surging up from the sea, but of nuclear energies that would be unleashed to the death of humanity and mutations that well could produce monsters beyond our imagination, not just on the screen, but in life, on planet earth as well. But amazingly enough, Godzilla became extremely popular in the United States in that film when it was released in 1956. The diabolical demon of destruction, the mightiest monster of them all Godzilla actually captured American attention, and the American attention to Godzilla and other monsters has run wild.

But basically a generation before Godzilla, you had King Kong who hit the big screen in 1933. You’re talking about the screenplay by Edgar Wallace and the story that was invented by Merian C. Cooper. In this case, King Kong was not the creation of scientists, but rather was a creature that existed with other gigantic creatures on an Island known as Skull Island in the middle of the Indian ocean. It was scientists who found King Kong and brought him back to civilization, advertising him as the eighth wonder of the world.

But of course, when King Kong was brought to civilization, it was a match that was not meant to be, and either King Kong or civilization, it was depicted on the big screen, would survive. Not both, but one or the other, but it was King Kong who died. But oddly enough, the monster died something of a heroic death, dying for the cause of beauty, defending the life of a young woman whom he saved. So one of the things we need to know, whether we’re talking about Godzilla or King Kong. With Godzilla, admittedly, the more malevolent of the monsters, the reality is that the monsters cry out some kind of meaning in a moral universe. They cry out some kind of narrative of the victory of good over evil. And of course you also have the rise of various tyrannies and technologies. You have very real moral evils, and sometimes like Godzilla vs Kong, the question is which evil is actually more evil, which is the greater threat?

But the monsters in the human imagination did not wait until 1933 with King Kong or 1954 and ’56 with Godzilla. Just think about the 19th century, think about 1818, and Mary Shelley’s famous work Frankenstein. And again, that had to do in the early modern age with the fears of science or even medical science unleashed creating a monster. And there is no doubt that Frankenstein was indeed a monster. But at the end of the 19th century, you also had the development of a monster like Dracula invented by Bram Stoker. The interesting thing is that Dracula was at least arguably more malevolent and murderous than Frankenstein. In one case you have a divide between the monsters whose conflict with humanity is just in evitable, given their monstrous powers and size, energies unleashed without human restraint, and those who are actively and more intentionally evil. Our monsters have a certain diversity.

When King Kong was released in 1933, the tagline on its trailer and commercial appeal said that King Kong was the strangest story ever conceived by man. That King Kong, the creature was out leaping the maddest imaginings, out thrilling the wildest thrills. Can you only imagine what those movie goers of the 50s and the 30s would imagine that there would be a series of films that would eventuate in Godzilla vs Kong? Who after all would win? Who after all should win? Why after all, do we care? Why has that movie grossed $48 million just in the United States in one weekend? Why is it expected eventually to gross dollars in the billions, not just the millions?

Well, it is because our moral imagination needs monsters. The developing moral imagination feeds on monsters, and that was recognized by figures such as JRR Tolkien. In his 1936 Gollancz lecture entitled “Beowulf, The Monsters, and The Critics,” Tolkien indicated again that, looking at the literature of humanity, looking at the literature of England, looking at the literature of the medieval age, there was in the classical age, in the medieval age and in the present of fascination with monster figures. They are not just figures of the imagination. They are figures of the moral imagination.

Evil is real. Evil forces are set loose in the world. There are real dangers, and morally speaking, there are real monsters. The fictive monsters become representations of the real monsters that we face. And the Christian worldview makes very clear there are such real monsters. They are not figures such as Godzilla and King Kong. The greatest monster is the reality of sin, and sin takes the form of so many different monsters.

Tolkien was a fantasist of course, but so was C.S. Lewis, and Lewis was famous not only for the Chronicles of Narnia, but for his science fiction works, which offered very dark assessments of the reality of evil, and of course, even scientism and technological evil in the modern world. Lewis was once confronted with the fact that some of these stories scare children, and Lewis responded by saying, “Well, there are two different ways that children are scared. One is by frightening them in such a way that it instills a pathological fear. But the other one he said is actually healthy. It is the way children learn that we really do live in a very dangerous world.”

And this is especially true for Christian parents thinking about the children that they are raising to live in this very dangerous world. As Lewis said, “We must not try to keep out of the child’s mind,” what he said is, “The knowledge that he is born into a world of death, violence, wounds, adventure, heroism, and cowardice, good and evil.” But he went on to say that since they are born into such a world, they need to understand that world and stories, including monster stories are a way of understanding that world.

Lewis actually made the point that children are helped into moral maturity, not by being scared to death in what amounts to a phobia, but being scared by a story into understanding something that is an essential moral truth, a truth about the world into which they had been born and a world in which they are called to be faithful. He said this, “I think it is possible that by confining your child to blameless stories of child life, in which nothing at all alarming ever happens, you will fail to banish the terrors and would succeed in banishing all that can ennoble them or make them endurable. For,” Lewis continued, “in the fairytales side-by-side with the terrible figures, we find the immemorial comforters and protectors, the radiant ones.”

He went on to say, and I quote, “It would be nice if no little boy in bed hearing or thinking he hears a sound were ever at all frightened, but he is going to be frightened. I think it better that he should think of giants and dragons than merely of burglars. And,” said Lewis, “I think St. George or any bright champion in armor is a better comfort than the idea of the police.”

Our interest in monsters, like our interest in Satan and the demons, can get out of hand, but there’s also a healthy knowledge and there is a healthy moral imagination. As to whether or not Godzilla vs Kong is a good movie and whether Godzilla or Kong should win, I take no opinion, but of the reality of monsters, of that, I am very sure. Not in spite of the fact I am a Christian, but because of that fact.

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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