Friday, August 5, 2022
It's Friday, August 5th, 2022.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
We’re Living in Norman Lear’s America Now. But How Did We Get Here? — One Laugh, and Cringe, at a Time
We'll look at several worldview issues then we're going to turn to your questions, great questions as always, from listeners to The Briefing. But as we begin today, we're going to be thinking about the impact of two lives.
In one case, two men. One man who died, the other who is alive, but just celebrated his 100th birthday. We'll start with them. That's Norman Lear, one of the pioneers of network television, and if we understand in reality, one of the most powerful, moral influences in America of the last several decades, most importantly, in the 1960s, '70s and '80s.
During those pivotal decades in American history, decades of vast moral change, Norman Lear was driving a lot of that change. And if you were watching network television, you were probably watching stories told by Norman Lear. You were probably laughing along the way as well, because one of the things we're going to see, is that Norman Lear fully understood that you can transform culture in terms of its morality by a laugh track. If you laugh at something, well, that changes the way you look at it. And if others are laughing with you, that creates a social context, which also can bring about very rapid moral change.
Norman Lear did turn 100 just last week, and he was surrounded by his large family. He turned a hundred, but he also changed the world. And I would argue he might well have been the most influential, liberal figure in American life at a time in this country was turning left, man, as we all know, hard left on many moral issues.
Now, how exactly did Norman Lear by television move American morality so far to the left? Well, the bottom line is that he did so by creating the stories that made America laugh. Sometimes he made America cringe, but he certainly made America watch, and they watched his television shows by the millions of viewership. They could hardly avoid them.
Now, Lear story is personally interesting. He was born in 1922 that's their 100 year mark, to a Jewish couple who traced their families to recent immigration from Ukraine and Russia. How's that for recent headlines? His worldview and his humor had deep Jewish roots and his storylines were often drawn from his own experience.
He based television characters upon members of his own family, those he grew up with, his circle of friends. Norman Lear's viewpoint, his worldview was established as an immigrant Jewish experience through his parents, and the Jewish experience is an experience that has often due to all kinds of circumstances and traditions, been transformed into humor. A certain form of humor. Norman Lear understood how to mainstream that humor and how to use it to drive moral change.
Back in 1983, Norman Lear was to be inducted in the first class of those honored, in what became known as the Television Academy Hall of Fame. He called his elderly mother to tell her the good news, her response quote, "Listen, if that's what they want, who am I to say?" Whether or not that kind of family tradition of humor, destined Norman Lear to be one of the most influential figures in television, well, that might be debatable, but that's exactly what he did become.
Norman Lear stories would transform American society, but first to his credit, along with others in this generation, he had to defend America. He served the country during World War II as a decorated radio operator and tail gunner on a B-17 bomber over Europe. Sadly, many of those crews never returned home, but Norman Lear did, and Norman Lear then went into business writing, and eventually he made his way into the business of television, not only writing, but becoming a dominant influence in the new entertainment enterprise. His name would become synonymous with television and his stories would dominate TV in the 1970s like nothing else.
As Lear would observe, television didn't even exist when he was born, even when he was a boy, and yet he's lived long enough now to see broadcast television lose its place in the American imagination. It had that central place because if you wanted to watch anything, network television is what you were watching for many of those years.
But when television was dominant, Norman Lear was dominant and he had a big agenda. He wanted to change America, he did. Historian Kathryn Montgomery once observed, "In the war for the American mind, entertainment programs have become political territory." But the thing we need to note is that it wasn't always so.
If you go into television during the late '50s and the early '60s, the one thing you will notice, there's basically nothing political, perhaps only in the sense that there was a cold war going on between the US and its allies and the Soviet Union and its allies. And so cartoons and others, would have spies and dark figures, that when it came to comedies and network television, especially during prime time, well, there was virtually nothing political at all.
As a matter of fact, the big television programs in the 1960s, tended to be Southern rural comedies, or comedies or comedic dramas that were based upon something that everyone knew wasn't real, something like Lost in Space. But before we get there, let's think about the fact that during the 1960s, the single most popular program on television was The Beverly Hillbillies, no politics there.
Other rural comedies that were dominating television in that era included The Andy Griffith Show, Gomer Pyle, Green Acres, Petticoat Junction, the list goes on and on. Many of those programs actually had spin-offs or were the product of spin-offs. You look at The Andy Griffith Show and others, you'll notice there was nothing political, allowable in the entire storyline.
Evidently, even viewers in the north wanted to watch programs about people in the south, but only if they were explicitly apolitical, not to mention stereotyped. The second kind of program that attracted so much attention was that oddball comedy, such as Mister Ed, that was a talking horse, My Mother the Car, I Dream of Jeannie, My Favorite Martian, The Munsters and The Addams family, but then came Norman Lear and he changed television by bringing a political agenda and a certain kind of reality that hadn't even been allowed during the television codes of previous years.
Lear was driven by liberal passions and a determination to force political chains through television. He built a progressivist empire, eventually championing causes that range from abortion to sexual liberation, feminism, the welfare state, he pushed boundaries. One of the most famous of his boundaries pushed was that of a toilet. A toilet flushed before his character, Archie Bunker walked in the room, on one episode of All in the Family. It was so controversial, that it became known in television history as, "the flush heard round of the world." And yet it was heard again and again and again.
Lear's iconic program All in the Family debuted in 1971, and I would argue it was the most important weapon of mass cultural influence that he wielded. Based on a winning British comedy, All in the Family became one of the most iconic cultural forces of its time. The comedy broke barrier after barrier, touching explosive issue after issue, with a comedic twist that was irresistible.
Archie Bunker, the central character became Norman Lear's anti-hero, the white conservative male, unwilling to go along with the cultural revolution. His wife Edith was a very important character, but so was Edith's cousin Maude, who became the heroine. She would later become the title character in a spin-off series that would predictably, feature that central character, Maude deciding to have an abortion.
Lear understood something others did not, or at least didn't yet. He understood that television had the capacity for mass influence to change minds, laugh line by laugh line. Author Benjamin Rolsky observed rightly, "What distinguished Lear from other entertainers and writers, was that he wanted to make people laugh about something." Lear himself said, quote, "Comedy with something serious on its mind worked as a kind of intravenous to the mind and spirit." End quote.
Well, his programs became an intravenous mechanism, for bringing about moral change, not only in American culture, but in American homes and American lives. He knew exactly what he was doing. He had many serious things on his mind, pushing abortion, feminism, homosexual rights, and much more.
Rolsky makes that clear in his book on Norman Lear and television and the religious left. The most important point that Rolsky made is this, Norman Lear though secular in his viewpoint had a religious mission. That religious mission was to oppose the religious right. And that meant that he actually functioned on the religious left. While minimizing any personal religious beliefs, Lear's staunchly opposed, conservative theology and conservative morality.
He used his television programs and there were so many of them that you could sometimes virtually watch two at one time, but nonetheless, he used those programs in such a way as to drive that moral change. He also used the money and the cultural leverage from those programs, to start an organization known as People For the American Way, it still exists.
It was established by Norman Lear, to counter the influence of the religious right and conservative Christianity. Norman Lear is a champion of the so-called new morality and used the powerful medium of television to change American hearts and minds.
As I said, he's still living. He turned 100 years old last week. He can look back over those 100 years and understand, he did change America in moral terms. Look at the LGBTQ revolution and so much more, it's not too much to say that we're all in one sense, living in Norman Lear's America now.
Prophet of the Evangelical Left: The Life and Legacy of Ron Sider
The other man, I want to mention, died just a few days ago at age 82, that was Ron Sider. Ron Sider was in many ways the prophet of the evangelical left. The year I graduated from high school in 1977, Ron Sider released a book that rocked and shocked the evangelical world. It was entitled Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. I didn't read the book when I was 17, but I did read it shortly thereafter, and it was one of those books that changed the course of evangelical history, certainly changed evangelical conversation and debate.
In this book, Ron Sider sought to combine liberal politics with his traditional Mennonite theology. He was deeply troubled by what he saw as injustice and he sought to rally, evangelical Christianity into a movement for liberation against poverty and oppression. The problem was, that Ron Sider's solutions based in a mix of liberalism, liberationism and easily falsified economic errors, would actually only add to the problems.
In his book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, Sider called evangelical Christians to abandon what we would basically call capitalism and its excesses and embrace a new economic approach. Predictably, his approach just happened to be a mash of collectivism, state control, income redistribution, and predictably leftist, if oddly arranged in inconclusive economic arguments. His arguments under to some like liberation theology and to others like third world propaganda.
Carl Henry, and Ronald Nash, rightly criticized Sider's argument as Marxist, Sider denied being a Marxist, but as others pointed out that didn't change the Marxist shape of his ideas. Others offered in depth critiques of Sider's unexpectedly influential work. A direct refutation of Ron Sider's approach came from David Chilton in his book, Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulators.
Chilton, dissected Sider's economics, but he also offered a theological critique. Sider would offer several revisions of his book, he often responded to critics and to his credit, he made some corrective comments, but he never actually responded directly to the criticisms of David Chilton. In truth, Ron Sider would admit later that he didn't know much about economics when he wrote the book in the first place, although he ended up writing the book about economics and that's a problem. Whether or not he realized that his ideas were basically inclined towards Marxism, they were.
Later he did make concessions, such as the fact that if he had to choose between some kind of state controlled economy and collectivism on the one hand, and individual economic activity, and private property on the other hand, he would side with private property. But even as he revised his book, he left in much of the argument that was contradictory to where he said he had made those corrections.
Again, some of this could be due to the fact that he didn't know much about economics, but if you're going to write about something, you ought to know exactly what you're writing about and take responsibility for it. There can be no doubt that Ron Sider intended to do good, he intended to help, but of course the Christian worldview reminds us that it's not good enough to have good intentions. You actually have to do good. And this is where Ron Sider, and those who were to his right in the evangelical world often came into debate, and in conflict.
As always, biography matters. Ronald J. Sider was born into an austere Mennonite family in Canada. He later stated that his father never voted, and his cousin who became an influential bishop, identified voting as a sin. Sider's Mennonite background was always a part of his story, and that background sometimes became the foreground.
As a matter of fact, one of the distinctions that you see, even in understanding, the worldview implications of economics is a distinction between the Anabaptist tradition, and the tradition of the Magisterial Reformation. In particular, the Reformation of Calvin and Luther and the English Reformation. The Anabaptists were famously a part of a peace movement, they had a very different understanding of the role of the state and they had a very different understanding of an appropriate Christian lifestyle. Well, the issue of voting is just one example there.
But Ron Sider clearly got over part of that Mennonite background. He eventually went to Yale University, earning graduate degrees, including a PhD. According to his own autobiographical comments, he was quite concerned and troubled, especially as a young man and as a teenager by the theological perfectionism that existed in his culture, that is to say a moral perfectionism, a certain strain of holiness. It was very restrictive to him, but nonetheless, he became very committed to the simple lifestyle of the Mennonites and other Anabaptist.
Eventually after earning his graduate degree, he would go on to teach at institutions, such as Messiah College and Palmer Theological Seminary, and he and his wife Arbutus would actually live in an inner city neighborhood in Philadelphia. They cooked out of the More-with-Less Cookbook and wore used clothing bought at local thrift shops. You can at least say that for the most part, the Siders lived exactly what Ron Sider taught.
But what Sider taught when it came to Christianity and economics was actually pretty hard to make as a guideline. For example, he wrote this quite stridently, "All income should be given to the poor after one satisfies bare necessities." Well, just imagine for a moment that you want to make that a major principle, even something like a command. How exactly would you do that? How do you define bare necessities?
At one point, Ron Sider talked about the fact that he decided that bare necessities would include, running shoes for his athletic teenage sons. Now I think for most people that would make sense, and there could be excess, but the point here is, the thrift store shoes weren't going to work when it came to competitive athletics.
But beyond that, the fact that he struggled with the issue tells us something, and it tells us that what Ron Sider would define as the bare necessities, was determined by Ron Sider or Ron Sider and his wife and his family, or perhaps extending that to his church. But there wasn't going to be any common Christian understanding as to whether or not that principle was A, right and B, workable or C, even how bare necessities would be defined.
Sider also whether he intended or not. He also leaned into guilt as a moral principle, as he tried to translate the Christian worldview, as he saw it into economic life. A more committed Marxist would, by the way, argue that Sider was just making a consumer choice for a simpler lifestyle. But the point is, his father didn't vote, but Sider became a validly political.
As the 2020 election approached, I was called by a reporter for a major newspaper, and asked to respond to the formation of a group known as Pro-Life Evangelicals for Biden, of which Ron Sider was a co-founder. The reporter asked me to comment on the group's public statement, which as you might imagine, called for evangelicals to support Joe Biden as president.
I offered a pretty robust and direct response. The reporter then suggested that the new group was a surprising development. No, I explained, it wasn't surprising at all. Ron Sider had also organized evangelicals for George McGovern in 1972. He did so in his own house, no less. Ron Sider was a big part, he intended to be a big part of trying to move evangelicals toward the political left.
The most important milestone of that effort was a gathering in a ramshackle, Chicago, YMCA in 1973. That produced a document known as The Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern. He and his colleagues were right, that evangelicals needed to be concerned about the culture. That was a good argument so far as it went, but it went much further.
The liberal momentum Sider wanted to build among evangelicals fell apart, for two main reasons, and both of these are instructive. First of all, this was 1973, when the movement released The Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern. Though, what came almost immediately thereafter, was a breakup of the movement due to the emergence of identity politics. There were the accusations that the movement wasn't sufficiently strong on race. The feminists then came along and said the movement wasn't sufficiently strong on ending gender discrimination, and adopting a feminist agenda.
As you can imagine, even though it was not envisionable, really in 1973, before long, what became known as the LGBTQ revolution, would also demand its own influence through identity politics, its own agenda, and eventually within the evangelical movement. Now the evangelical left, divided over this issue to his credit.
Ron Sider never joined the LGBTQ revolution, and furthermore, he still said that he was pro-life. The problem is, like so many on the left, he redefined pro-life to encompass virtually the entire leftist economic agenda.
Ron Sider would later openly if ironically state that what he and others wanted to do was to mobilize evangelicals for politics, but it didn't turn out like he expected. This is what he said, quote, "We called for social and political action, and we got eight years of Ronald Reagan." Ron Sider never approved of homosexuality. He never approved the same sex marriage and he considered himself by his own definition, pro-life and that meant that there was only so far, he could go with the left, but he clearly wanted to go with the left rather than with the right.
And thus his legacy, is of trying to move evangelicalism in a far more liberal direction and eventually in one of what will become the last remembered events of his life, co-founding the group, which was declared as pro-life evangelicals for Biden. The point I would make is this. He would eventually support the most radically pro-abortion presidential candidate and American political history and call upon other evangelicals to do the same. I must say at this point that I'm only glad that a majority of evangelicals did not follow that directive.
But Ron Sider was a gracious man, a serious man who lived a serious life. And to his credit, he avoided any personal scandal. Also, to his credit, he actually lived by the principles that he called for others to join. He did live by a simple lifestyle. He did keep a gracious Christian spirit. He also forced evangelicals into many serious and ethical, theological debates and considerations, and those debates were important.
But if evangelicalism has a future, if it deserves a future, if it has a faithful future, it will have to be a future that resists and rejects the arguments of the evangelical left.
Ironically enough, Ron Sider helped us to see that.
Does Premillennialism Dissuade Christians from Political and Cultural Engagement? — Dr. Mohler Responds to Letters from Listeners of The Briefing
But now we turned to your questions and again, just great questions coming from listers. Remember, you can send them by mail to email@example.com. You can go to the website and leave your question.
First of all, Pablo asked the question, he writes about the Christian worldview and then he says, he's thinking about reconciling involvement in politics and cultural issues, when he thinks about eschatology, a premillennial approach or postmillennial or amillennial, and he says, "Look, the premillennial approach might imply, that Christian shouldn't have all that much to do with cultural issues at all, or politics or life in this world because Jesus is coming soon. And perhaps the other eschatological positions, amillennialism or postmillennialism would be more conducive to cultural engagement." Well, that's good question, Pablo.
Let me just say, by the way, right up front, I'm a premillennialist. I'm also an historic premillennialist, but you actually do raise an interesting point, because there were some during the say, early years of the 20th century, maybe even the last years of the 19th century, committed to dispensational premillenialism, that's the belief that Christ will come and when he comes, he will reign on earth for a literal thousand year reign.
Well, the idea was that Christian institution shouldn't even build grand buildings with expensive architecture, because if Jesus is coming quickly, just build a tabernacle or a tent. That's why so many of the churches at that time, named themselves as tabernacles as in, this building isn't supposed to last very long.
Just as a matter of interesting evangelical history, the Moody Bible Institute was committed to that form of premillenialism, so was the Bible Institute of Los Angeles known as Biola, and at one point Biola advertised against Moody in the early 20th century saying, that Moody was going soft on theology because they built a major multi-story building with stone and brick. That's not very premillennialist. They were suggesting from Los Angeles.
All this of course comes down to your interpretation of Revelation 20. I believe that the rightful interpretation of Revelation 20 is that Christ will come and then he will establish a thousand year reign, in which he will fulfill all the biblical promises and prophecies of that reign. That's historic premillenialism. I hold to that view. I do not believe that it is any impediment to cultural engagement because we do not know when Christ will return, and until then he calls his church to be faithful, and there are plenty of commands from Christ in scripture about what that would look like.
And that would include the Christian being involved through love of neighbor in society at every level, working for righteousness, justice, right laws, all of this, understanding that we are not ultimately building this world, but Christ will come and established his kingdom. But what we do now is important. We are to work even as we wait.
Postmillenialism means that there will not be a literal 1000 year reign, although some would believe it would be a thousand years, but Christ will come at the end of that period rather than at the beginning, which is to say, that postmillennialism has always had a particular impetus towards bringing about the kingdom through politics, culture, the arts, and all the rest. So that when Christ comes, he will not find his kingdom perfected, but he will find it ready.
Now, just to be clear, I don't believe postmillennialism is the right theological position. I don't believe it's the right interpretation of Revelation 20. And the hard horrifying events of the 20th century, pretty much put an end to much of the popular commitment to postmillennialism, which by that point have been pretty much associated with the cultural optimism of more liberal churches, and liberal theology.
Interestingly, most liberal churches move beyond any kind of eschatological concern, they're into politics, pure and simple, pretty much now. But there has been a conservative, resurgence you might say, of postmillennial and there's still minority among evangelicals and not so tied to historical optimism, but very much tied to the importance of a cultural mandate and cultural activity.
Again, I think the problem is the interpretation of scripture and our understanding of the biblical timeline. I'm not saying we should be less involved in the culture, I am saying we should be a lot less confident about the culture.
Amillennialism means literally no millennium, and it means no historic millennium of 1000 years of Christ's reign on earth, and yet that might not be the best language amillennialist can tell us what they might prefer. But this basically is not just an agnostic position. We don't know when Jesus is coming, that's not really the point. The point is that those who hold to this position would argue that the church is in this position now, in the millennium now, in some sense, not necessarily a literal 1000 years, but the reign of Christ through the church until he reigns in his kingdom.
My point is this, eschatology matters, but in this case, premillenialism is no impediment to a robust Christian understanding of cultural engagement. I would argue it's actually an impetus for it but eschatology always matters.
Can a Christian Young Man Join the Military and Serve Under Our Current Commander-in-Chief? — Dr. Mohler Responds to Letters from Listeners of The Briefing
An interesting question came from Jackson about whether or not a young Christian man or young Christian, young person should serve a commander in chief in the military that holds to bad moral positions, including abortion, which he rightly defines here as murder and actively supports the sexual revolution.
Well, the answer to that Jackson is, that the New Testament makes clear that one may serve, a Christian could faithfully serve in Caesar's army. If you could serve in Caesar's army, then you can serve in the American military as well. You look at the political reality of ancient Rome. You come to understand we're not there yet in terms of the moral challenges faced by Christians in the service of the Roman army, but we also understand there were limits then.
The Christian soldier in the Roman legions could serve Rome and serve Caesar, but could not worship him and could not acknowledge him as God, as Lord. Jackson, we need you and so many other Christian young people of that matter, Christian older people, in every branch of the armed services, serving nobly for so long as you can with integrity.
Should Pastors Address the Dobbs Decision from the Pulpit? — Dr. Mohler Responds to Letters from Listeners of The Briefing
Have a question from a listener asking about whether or not pastors should refer to events as important as say the Dobbs decision reversing Roe v. Wade from the pulpit.
I'll just have to say that I think there should be some acknowledgement and I think pastoral help to the congregation and pastoral guidance based upon scripture, and how to understand these things is absolutely crucial.
Should that take over the service? Should it dominate any particular Lord's day? I would say, no. Although, certainly sermons can and should from time to time address these issues. But I am saying that perhaps even in a pastoral prayer, some kind of pastoral comments, something needs to be given to the congregation from the pulpit about how to understand these things as Christians. And also there are times in which we need to weep with those who weep, and other times we need to rejoice with those who rejoice.
That's true when it comes to national affairs, even as it's true when it comes to our neighborhood.
What Kind of Books Do You Like to Read? — Dr. Mohler Responds to Letters from Young Listeners of The Briefing
There's so many good questions.
Next week we're going to deal with more, including a great question about the natural law.
But the final question for today belongs to Lucas and his brothers. Lucas, and his brothers are 10 and eight and six, and they're readers.
Lucas, eight, wanted to ask the question, "What kind of books do you like to read?" Well, here's what I like to read, especially when I was your age, and even when I was older, and even now I like to read biographies and history and historical biographies, stories about very interesting people. I like to read them more than anything else, and books about history that help me to understand the world.
My parents gave me a two volume work, when I was in the third grade or say early fourth grade. One was a volume on geography of the world, the other was the history of the world, and I must have read them dozens of times, both of them, and both of them helped me to understand the world. And I was just fascinated by the books that I was allowed to read.
I also have to tell you that I liked reading story books and especially books about nature and adventure. Eventually, I read all the Hardy Boys' books. They were crime novels of a sort with two brothers who were crime detectives and those books actually reinforced a pretty good idea of what was good and what was evil, and about deductive thinking, interesting characters. They're pretty dated in terms of the language, but you know the story of crime and punishment, it's never actually dated.
I'm so thankful that these particular boys are reading, and I hope that for other children as well. I also have to say to these brothers, I really loved reading about snakes and sharks, and let me let you in on a secret. I grew up, and I still like reading about snakes and sharks. Snakes, and sharks and crooks and heroes, that's a good place to start.
Thanks for asking.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow 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 on Monday for The Briefing.