The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Friday, August 20, 2021

It’s Friday, August 20th, 2021.

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

Part I

The ‘I’m Spiritual but Not Religious’ Moment for Generation Z? Where You Find Human Beings, You Will Always Find Worship — Even Worship of Rock Crystals

One of the most misused words in contemporary culture is the word spirituality, and by this time it’s become something of a brand, something of a commodity, something, frankly, of a giant misunderstanding. But one of the things we note is that in the recession of theology, there has been a resurgence of what is described as spirituality. Now, we also have to understand that through the history of the Christian Church there have been temptations in this direction for a very, very long time. You see references even in the New Testament to the Apostle Paul making clear that Christianity is not a mystery cult. It’s not a mere spirituality. It’s based upon specific truth claims, objectively true truth claims, upon what God has done in space and in history, how God has revealed himself in specific words. Christianity hangs upon a theological superstructure.

The spirituality has to follow from the theology because it never works the other way around. And one of the temptations we see throughout the history of Christianity is that people will sometimes trade Biblical Christianity for some kind of false spirituality. And you’re going to find a lot of cultural interest in it at this moment, that’s for sure. For example, Religion News Service recently ran an article by Heather Green. The headline is this, “Generation-Z Doubles Down on Spirituality Combining Tarot,” that is as in tarot cards, “and Traditional Faith.” Now, let’s just stop for a moment and say, “No, they’re not actually combining tarot and traditional faith.” Traditional faith insofar as it’s biblical truth cannot be so combined. But nonetheless, we have a confusion of terms here, both traditional faith and spirituality.

The story by Heather Green begins, “A new survey released by Springtide Research Institute confirms what metaphysical store owners and veteran tarot readers have known since the term Gen-Z was invented younger Americans known for fashioning their own spirituality the way they curate their social media feeds are doing so using well-established alternative practices.” Now, when you look at this organization, you look at the study, it’s telling you something that they want to be true, that there is this massive surging market in spirituality among younger Americans and they’re finding a way to combine their spiritual impulses in a way that fits them. Now, one of the things you need to note is that it least insofar as I’ve been alive just about every decade there are a flurry of articles and a lot of analysis trying to argue that younger Americans are rejecting traditional Christianity, biblical Christianity, and are looking for some more relevant, more exciting religious expression. So this isn’t a new story. That’s told over and over again and sometimes by the same people who seemed to forgot they wrote this same story 10 years ago.

Much of this comes with the suggestion that Christian churches are going to be in decline and all of a sudden there’s going to be this burgeoning market in spirituality. Well, this article again is pointing to something that we have already seen. Jesse Brodka, a 22-year-old Roman Catholic is cited in the article as saying, “There’s such little ownership over a religious belief system that you’re just told all the right answers to. These other spiritual ways have a more personal connection, those personal aha moments.” And that’s what life is all about, finding those personal aha moments. The article goes on to tell us that the research report tells us that 51% of its sample population aged 13 to 25 engage in tarot cards or fortune telling. Of that percentage, 17% practice daily, 25% once a week, 27% once a month, 31% less than once a month. Now, I don’t know where the 13 year old in your house is getting any access to tarot readings but nonetheless, these are the numbers as reported in this report.

We’re told that the organization Springtide “works with partners to develop a random sampling adjusted to reflect national demographics and relies on comprehensive quality answers, not simply bots.” While interests, we’re told, in tarot and other forms of divination “often corresponds to a complete rejection of traditional religion,” that’s not a given. “Many young readers continue to identify with a traditional faith while looking beyond established structures for spiritual growth. Interesting quotes coming from this just from a worldview perspective. Lots to think about here. Zaina Qureshi, identified as a 16 year old who identifies as both Muslim and spiritual said, “Our generation has already been distancing ourselves from a lot of institutions. The main three Abrahamic religions leave little to our own interpretation of scripture.” Now, again, even if you go back to the 1960s, there were cogent analyses of American popular religion suggesting that there was a new religious impulse that was becoming evident in which the center of the religion was the self. It was the religion of me.

So one thing you see in this report is that, that impulse is being now directed by this newer, younger generation that also has access to social media and to the digital world. But you’ll notice that this young Muslim who identifies as simultaneously spiritual, and that means not traditionally Muslim, goes on to say that traditional Islam leaves little to “our own interpretation of scripture,” meaning the Quran. This young person went on to say with tarot and other similar practices, “We’re open to interpret what we want to think for ourselves and make our own guidelines when it comes to spirituality, which is why I think a lot of young people resonate with it.” Well, I just want to say to this 16 year old Muslim, it’s not just about you and it’s not just young. Fallen humanity wants to create a religion that is all about the guidelines that we would put on ourselves, the structures that we would invent for ourselves. If it’s a religion of me, well set at it, your own rules, your own guidelines, your own doctrines.

What’s being referred to here as spirituality is often coming down to something like old fashioned fortune telling. This kind of a cultic practice we are told in this report that, that phrase fortune telling is “a phrase often considered by modern tarot readers to be antiquated but also largely open-ended by its definition.” Blake Newborns in the article, identified as a 21 year old who is spiritual but not religious, “For me, I’m a very spiritual person, but I go based off my daily horoscope. I’m a Leo. So I look at my horoscope to see, is it going to be good or is it going to be bad? I live by that religiously.” Well, there’s a 21 year old who lives daily by his horoscope, but you have to wonder if there’s any really serious claim being made there. Abby Miserendino, 18-year-old non-denominational Christian said, “Sometimes I feel silly for engaging with crystals, but there they are on my nightstand.” The phrase “engaging with crystals”, no further defined in the article.

Matthew Blasio, a 22 year old, who is identified as religiously unaffiliated and “also works with crystals”, told the organization, “I think crystals are like saints for young people and spiritual. Sometimes you just need something or someone that is rooted in courage.” Oh, I’d like to unpack that. How in the world a crystal is rooted in courage can only be explained by someone who is, let’s just say, redefining all terms, and that includes engaging with crystals, courageously presumably. The organization identifies Generation-Z as “spiritual explorers”. As the article says, “They are seeking to enrich and personalize their religious experience through various metaphysical practices.” The 22-year-old young man who identifies as religiously unaffiliated and also works with crystals told the organization, “Whether it’s a stone in your pocket or a pendant in your hand, there is something that gives you energy from within. If you believe that and you put your faith in whatever it is, it will get you where you want to go.” You just have to wonder, does he really mean that?

Any report like this makes me think of Isaiah 44, that great passage in the Old Testament in which the prophet Isaiah gives the parable of the man who cuts down a tree. With half of it, he does what is sensical. He makes himself a fire. He bakes bread. He roasts the roast. But the other half of it, he carves into a God and then he falls down to this God he has made and says, “Behold, you are my God.” Isaiah says he feeds on ashes because he is diluted. He doesn’t even have the sense to say, “What I hold in my hand is a lie.” And it’s a lie because it didn’t make him. He made it. And when you look at the crystals and the pendants and the stones and all of this, you just have to recognize it’s Isaiah 44 showing up in a different generation. But you have to wonder again how serious this is, how much of it is simply consumerism meeting capitalism, meeting branding opportunities.

Part II

What Sells When Modern Day Spirituality Meets Capitalism? Primarily, the Self

And that takes us to a pretty brilliant article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal this week. Ellen Gamerman tells us, “The wellness industry is getting some uncomfortable treatment.” This article is basically about television series, books, and other forms of media now coming out to Lampoon the business of the so-called wellness industry, and it is a big business. As Gamerman writes, “The wellness industry is either a savior of lost souls or a force slimier than nail serum, perhaps a little of both,” that according to a new lineup of TV series, podcasts, and books “the business of self-care estimated to be a $4.5 trillion industry by nonprofit research group Global Wellness Institute has taken the wellness lifestyle from the yeasty confines of health food stores to glossy global brands and to artists it’s ripe for skewering.”

Jonathan Levine’s director of what is known as “Nine Perfect Strangers.” We’re told us an eight-episode series based upon a Liane Moriarty novel with a cast that includes Melissa McCarthy and Michael Shannon. The statement is this, “We’re all looking for that easy, quick fix that’s going to make us all better people, happier people, and the inherent ridiculousness of that quest is very interesting and amusing to me.” Again, that was Jonathan Levine. I just have to say, Jonathan, it’s interesting to me too. It’s very telling. Yeah, people like Gwenyth Paltrow, who had been known as an actress but is now basically known as a wellness marketing brand that largely goes under the label of Goop. We are at an interesting cultural moment when you have cultural products that are put out basically to make fun of this kind of wellness industry that tells you it has to be a very, very big thing. Otherwise, you would not have Hollywood turning the tables and actually making that big thing a big subject of entertainment.

It’s not just podcasts. It’s not just TV series. We’re told also this “Novels cast the wellness industry as consumerism bathed in essential oils.” “How much can you trust a company that is promising to make you better when they also have a vested interest in taking your money?” That being asked by Sheila Yasmin Maricar, whose novel The Goddess Effect is about an exclusive Los Angeles fitness studio with hints of Get Out. Lee Stein wrote a 2020 novel entitled Self-Care, which we’re told “explores the dark underbelly of an online wellness community called Ritual”. “I see the extreme so much more often than I see the moderation. Extreme thinness, extreme fitness, extreme indulgence. I think that’s a function of the internet. I don’t see moderation because it wouldn’t do well with the algorithm,” she said.

But this week, the Wall Street Journal also ran an article with the headline, “Spirituality In The Lens Of Science,” this by Elizabeth Bernstein. And this tells us about a clinical psychologist named Lisa Miller. We’re told that she’s also the Director of the Spirituality Mind Body Institute at Teacher’s College, Columbia University and she studies the “intersection of spirituality and mental wellness.” Her new book is entitled The Awakened Brain: The New Science of Spirituality and our Quest for an Inspired Life. What is claimed here is that there’s a way to scientifically study what’s defined here as spirituality. We’re told that “Dr. Miller conducts brain scans of people as they’re thinking spiritual thoughts and analyzes large mental health studies. Her research,” and I’m reading this, “has found that spirituality helps protect us from depression and helps make us more resilient and make better decisions.” The report goes on, “Studies also show that these benefits typically occur regardless of what religion we are or whether we’re religious at all.”

The point I want to make here is that by the time you define what you call spirituality in this way, it has become everything. It’s become nothing. It’s become whatever you want it to be, whatever you want to sell somebody that it is. And if you’re saying it’s not even tied to any kind of religious experience, then again, it comes full circle to the fact it basically is just about some kind of intuitive connection to the cosmos and it comes back to revolving everything around the center of the isolated human self. You at the center of the cosmos. Now, remember, this is being presented as if it is a scientific study, but in the interview with this person identified as a clinical psychologist who claims the mantle of science this is one of her answers. “Spirituality is innate. Some of us are more predisposed than others to feeling spiritually connected and how a child is engaged shapes and forms his or her spiritual core. But we could all cultivate this natural capacity and build our spiritual muscle.” Yeah, that’s science.

But as we bring these considerations to a close, just consider what from a biblical worldview this tells us. It tells us that we are spiritual beings. In some sense, we are inescapably such. There’s no way that even those who identify as being irreligious or anti-religious can cease being in some sense, spiritual. And we as Christians have a biblical answer for that. We don’t need brain scans. We have Genesis. It tells us that God has made us in his image and at least a part of what it means to be made in God’s image, every single human being, is that we were made to know him. Now, one of the ways that Christians have understood this is the fact that a part of what it means to be human is to know that we are known. That’s a very important biblical principle. Christians often don’t think about it. It’s actually a principle of Christian apologetics. There’s this basic knowledge to us that we cannot escape. We cannot deny. We cannot put it forever out of mind. We are known.

That means that even when we’re alone, even when we’re in the dark, even when no one’s around, we still know that we are known. But the Bible tells us that even that impulse that is a part of what it means to be made in God’s image is affected by sin. It’s corrupted by sin. And that means it is misdirected. And by the way, that doesn’t mean in some people it’s misdirected. Here’s the amazing radical nature of biblical Christianity. Biblical Christianity tells us that, because of sin, it is misdirected in every single one of us. I’m going to go back again to the prophet Isaiah. You remember Isaiah’s prophetic indictment of human sinfulness? “All we like sheep have gone astray. We have gone each one to his own way.” That’s exactly what we see reflected in these news articles. This really isn’t news. This could have been told at any point the human beings were east of Eden. To be outside of Eden means we’re in a fallen world in which the human species is going to be misdirected corporately and individually.

We have to be rescued and that’s exactly what God does. First of all, by revealing himself to us in his word. That’s how we’re rescued from endless cycles of our own fallen, confusing speculation. God speaks to us. He speaks to us truth. And then, of course, you have God’s saving acts in history. Most importantly, as the writer of the book of Hebrews begins by telling us that in times past God has spoken to our fathers through the prophets, but now he has spoken through his son. So when we look at these articles in the Wall Street Journal or this study reported in Religion News Service, it is very easy to look at that and say, “Wow, some human beings are just horribly confused in their quest for some kind of spirituality.” Yes, and that’s true. It’s true not only for those people who are described in the story, but for every single one of us, and it is our story until we are rescued. But that’s the power of the gospel and the gospel alone explains why spiritual people headed for hell become redeemed people headed for heaven.

Part III

The Mailbox — Dr. Mohler Responds to Letters from Listeners on This Friday Segment of The Briefing

But now we’re going to turn to The Mailbox segment weekly. We’re going to look at the mail coming in from listers and again we’re going to have primary attention to those that are addressed to issues we’ve discussed on The Briefing. Michael wrote in asking about a theological justification for natural rights. We talk about rights a lot. We talk about human rights, natural rights. And on The Briefing I’ve given extensive discussion to the debate that is taking place right now. In one sense, it’s between the right and the left. In a larger sense, it’s even among conservatives, between traditional conservatives based in a self-consciously Christian identity and more secular conservatives. The big issue has to do with whether or not rights are granted to us in a natural sense merely by being human. And then the question comes, from whom did those rights come?

And that’s where the Christian worldview alone, by the way, offers a comprehensive and true and satisfying answer to why human beings, and we understand by that all human beings throughout space and time and human history, will have these rights and those rights are to be respected. The founding idea of the United States and its constitutional form of government was made clear even in the Declaration of Independence, and, of course, you see it in the constitutional debate as well. And that is the fact that government doesn’t exist to create rights or even to invent rights, to declare rights. Government exists to defend rights and to respect rights because those rights are pre-political. That’s a big thing. That’s one of the reasons why the word “natural” here is important. Anyone who knows American history knows that there’s been a long debate over natural rights. But throughout most of American history, it was not as to whether or not rights were natural. That was such a widespread assumption that it’s just declared in the Declaration of Independence. You’re talking about the rights that are conferred by the creators, certain unalienable rights.

In our national language, you have rights that are conferred by nature and nature is God. It’s the understanding that natural doesn’t mean they’re not supernatural. It means that they’re not created by a legislature. They’re not created by a government. They are not invented and just applied to humanity. Rather, they’re a part of what it means to be human. Our job is to come to know those natural rights and then to respect those natural rights. They’re natural because they are simply a part of our nature. Now, when did you have this idea arise and become pretty significant in our culture that rights aren’t natural, but they’re positive rights, you declare them, a government says, “Okay, there’s now a right to this”? The answer to that would be, in the early part of the 20th century, the idea began to gain a lot of traction, and then by the time you get to, say, the end of the Second World War, you look at Franklin Delano Roosevelt with his Four Freedoms. You look at the UN Declaration on Human Rights.

It’s a mish-mash. I’m not saying that so much about Roosevelt, but about the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, what basically does is try to say, “Hey, we think these rights exist and we think they ought to be respected everywhere,” but they made such a confusion of things. They said that human rights included not only, say, a right to life and of a right, say, to freedom of speech, but also a right to an adequate vacation with pay. That tells you the entire train is off the tracks. But Michael asks a good question. He says, “How do we know from the Bible or nature what is a right and what is not?” Well, that goes back to what we were talking about earlier, and that is the fact that, without the Bible, there’s going to be an enormous amount of confusion about what the rights are. The rights are made clear in scripture. And by that, we don’t have a list of rights.

Rather, we have a declaration of what it means to be made in God’s image and we have laws and statutes that God gave his people and they tell us how we are to respect one another, what we are to respect in one another. The right to life, that doesn’t come out of some declaration of a government that somehow life is to be respected. It comes out of the recognition that human life is sacred because God has made us in his image. And without that, all you have is some human government saying, “We think this person has rights, but maybe that person doesn’t.” Even a right to life. It’s a good question. This is an ongoing debate. It is a direct and relevant debate between the Trump administration and the Biden administration. Under Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the State Department actually put together a commission to give serious considerations to unalienable rights.

But then along came the Biden administration and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, who evidently doesn’t believe in natural rights, but only in positive rights. And he said, “All rights are equal.” And he made very clear that means LGBTQ rights as well as a right to life. That’s the kind of modern confusion, by the way, that isn’t in the long-term survivable.

Thomas wrote in to say that he is looking for a good conservative leaning but trustworthy newspaper to subscribe to. Now, I assume you mean by that a daily newspaper, a daily national newspaper. Indeed, that’s embedded in your next sentence. Well, here’s the bad news. There really isn’t a national newspaper that I would say, “I just trust this paper.” But I will tell you this, most of the major media and the most influential newspapers are overwhelmingly in the hands of the cultural left. There’s just no question about that.

Indeed, at the New York Times, what you’ve had is the fact that you’ve had the old left that is now being replaced by an insurgent radical, even more radical new left so that the people who were pretty much on the left wing cutting edge 10 years ago are now on their way out. But if you’re looking for one national newspaper that I would say is the most reasonable, I don’t have to hesitate I would say the Wall Street Journal. Now, when you look at the Wall Street Journal that doesn’t mean you’re going to agree with everything in it. It does mean this. They have a pretty accountable system of both news and opinion. And here’s the thing, news and opinion are completely separate. Now, you’ll notice that in the Wall Street Journal the opinion page or the opinion pages, and depending on the edition that can be two or three pages, three pages on the weekend, you’re really looking at a far more conservative voice than you’re going to hear from any other national newspaper, hands down.

The news department is not as clearly conservative as the opinion pages are, but you’re also going to see a newspaper that does represent pretty much an old school journalism understanding of the kind of accountability and editorial responsibility that a newspaper should have. So you’re not always going to agree with it, and it’s not written from a self-consciously Christian worldview. But for conservatives in the United States looking for a daily newspaper, the Wall Street Journal is about the only paper that you are likely to continually at least respect.

But finally, a question about Abraham Lincoln. It’s a good question. And the question comes from Joe. Joe asks a very good question, listening to two different episodes of my program Thinking In Public saying he’s a little bit confused because in one Lincoln was described as something like a Calvinist, whereas in the other, he was described as an anguish, theistic rationalist, which is it? Well, actually, there’s very good evidence that he was basically both. But he was not in any sense an orthodox biblical Christian, and Lincoln made that clear.

There was a progression in Lincoln’s life. Early in his life, he was far more anti-theological than he was at the end of his life. Perhaps even the experience of leading the nation through the war helped to focus this in Lincoln’s mind. Lincoln became very, very convinced of three things. Number one, divine wrath, number two, divine providence, and number three, the fact that a human beings made in God’s image were incredibly complex and often very dangerous creatures. Those three things became quite central to Lincoln’s mind and thinking. You see this most quintessentially in his second inaugural address in which he used theological language. But what Lincoln will not talk about is anything related to orthodox Christianity. So when he’s referred to as a Calvinist, that has to do with the fact that he came to this overwhelming sense of God working out his purposes in history as in Providence. But he doesn’t really ascribe any kind of particular personal identity to the God he references. So that’s why some historians will refer to Lincoln as in one sense, say Calvinist, but they don’t mean Calvinist as in John Calvin and his Christian Calvinism.

They mean by that the sense that God’s providence is being worked out in history. Lincoln was a rather tortured figure in his own heart and in his soul, and we simply aren’t able to interrogate him. He does not take us in any, say, self-consciously personal language into exactly what he believes. But we do know that he basically rejected any kind of traditional Christianity, but this just points to something, by the way, and that is the fact that the intellectual world in which Abraham Lincoln lived, and not he alone, but just about everyone in Western civilization at that point of the 19th century, the major intellectual tenants, the structures of thinking for just about everyone were shaped by Christianity to the extent that when Abraham Lincoln saw the horror of what human beings could do and when he saw the workings of history that could only be explained in a moral sense, he had to come to the conclusion that even if he did not know who God was, there was a Providence being worked out.

And here’s the other thing, and this is quite haunting, I’ll leave us with this, Abraham Lincoln had no sense of the gospel insofar as we can tell it all. But he did have an overwhelming sense of the coming of the wrath of God. That tells us something. And it should cause us, if nothing else, to lean evermore into the gospel of Jesus Christ, which does affirm indeed the wrath of God to come, but tells us of the rescue through Jesus Christ our Lord.

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

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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