Friday, August 12, 2022
It's Friday, August 12th, 2022.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
‘In Short, People are Exhausting’: The Relationship Deficit of the Digital Age
We're going to turn to questions from listeners in just a moment, but first, I want to look at a very interesting argument that has appeared. The argument suggests that human beings are not just more dependent upon social media. They are actually far less involved in social interaction. Beyond that, they are really failing at relationality.
The argument appears in today's addition to The Wall Street Journal in an essay by Jeffrey A. Hall, who is a professor of communications. Now, it doesn't take a professor of communications to tell us that we're looking at a communications problem. Nonetheless, he makes a very interesting argument. He has been looking at timed diary data from three countries. Here's what he found, "Time spent talking to other people, both inside the home and outside of it, has been in decline for nearly 30 years." He goes on to say, just in case you wondered, "Telephone and video calls haven't made up for that loss."
Now, I think most of us have probably perceived that intuitionally and observationally. We've simply noted that there's been a decrease in the amount of interpersonal communication and relationality. We know it comes with a cost. Christians, as we shall see, especially understand that comes with a cost. But it is interesting to see that now you have a secular perspective, and it's being issued in a secular alarm. People just aren't as relational as they should be, and perhaps even were meant to be. Professor Hall makes a distinction between interiority and sociability. Now, again, I think we can understand that. It's something like a seesaw, at least in part, an emphasis upon the interior life, well, that's one end of the seesaw, and an emphasis upon relatability, relationships, nurturing those relationships, building ever more intimate relationships, well, that's the other side, the other end of the seesaw.
But, of course, humans aren't seesaws. It's not just that easy. You just can't say, "Here's a moment of interiority. Here's a moment of relatability." But we do understand the distinction. We also know that to be a full, healthy, human being is actually to be capable of both relationality or sociability on one side, and interiority on the other side. Professor Hall also makes an interesting argument, which is that there are particular cultural moments which tend to celebrate or to elevate interiority or sociability. When he made that argument, I thought immediately of the early 19th century and the rise of the Transcendentalists, for example, in the American Northeast, figures such as Thoreau and Emerson and others, who were being celebrated, basically, for being new monks of a nature religion, by the way. It has also been made clear that neither one of them, and Thoreau in particular, was quite so isolated as Thoreau would've indicated. Nonetheless, that interiority was very much en vogue, in season, in the early 19th century among the intellectual elites, especially in New England, but you could say in the early United States.
Then there are moments that simply hearken to relatability or dissociability. You think about something like a common effort. Just think of the greatest generation as it is described, the World War II generation, famously labeled that in American history. It was a time in which people got to know one another because of a shared cause, because of a shared effort, and because of shared sacrifice and shared trauma. That was coming on the back of the shared experience of the Great Depression. So we do understand that these things wax and wane. They tend to be emphasized one way and the other. But again, I just simply want to say that even secular psychologists and others understand that a healthy balance is what is necessary. What we're looking at right now is a very severe imbalance. According to the research of Professor Hall, we're growing even more imbalanced, more towards interiority, less towards relatability.
Now, you're thinking immediately of social media. You've probably seen something on social media about it. One of the symptoms of our age is that people, insofar as they think about social media, often do it on social media. It has become so ubiquitous. It has become so common. So many human beings are now basically shifting all of their data collection, all of their eye interest, all of their attention, time, and increasingly, even their entertainment time, to social media. That's at the expense of relatability. It's at the expense of building relationships. It's at the expense of sociability.
We're looking at this coming at a pretty high cost, but it's interesting that Professor Hall has an argument about why this is so. Here's what he says. He says, "There's another way to look at this to see that this social trait is only part of the equation. In short, people are exhausting. Humans have an innate desire to conserve our energy in social interactions, and interacting with others takes work. It's tiring," he writes, "to act in a certain way for the benefit of others. Sometimes people have disagreeable opinions or talk about uninteresting things." He concludes, "When given a choice, people often prefer to just not deal with all that." Now, in one sense, you could look at that and say, "Well, that defines early adolescence. It just defines the period in which young persons all of a sudden discover they have an interior life. They withdraw into that interior life, and every once in a while, condescend to come out with the rest of God's human creatures."
Nonetheless, we're looking at an entire society that is now trapped in something like an electronically, digitally-driven, early adolescence. Thus, everyone's just retreating, and relatability, sociability is now itself in decline. That's a big problem. It's a big problem for what the sociologists call social capital. Professor Hall doesn't deal with this, but we should. Social capital is the understanding that human beings not only have bank accounts in which they put money. They also have social accounts in which they invest time and trust. As you have a decline in that social capital, and that includes respect and a certain kind of understanding about one's role in society, you only get that if you're actually interacting with people. The bank of social capital for many people is increasingly bare and increasingly not part of the picture, not even part of the individual's concern. Looking at this, we understand that, just as we think about a secular understanding of our society, there is a problem when people are less social. There is a problem when communities begin to thin out, simply because people are no longer contributing to the building of the community.
The fact is, you are nicer to your neighbors, you care more about them, you will act in more positive ways toward them and towards their good, if you know them. That requires the expense of time. Professor Hall was absolutely right when he says, "People are exhausting." Aren't they? As a matter of fact, we exhaust people. That's the cost of having a relationship. There are times in which, well, here's a clue, none of us is absolutely exhilarating. But I'm going to shift further away now from Professor Hall's analysis and make a point that is, I think, most important in terms of the Christian worldview. The Christian worldview reminds us that we are not accidentally, we're not incidentally social creatures. We were made to be social creatures. By the way, it's really, really important to the very most foundational level of Christian theology to understand that the most distinctive Christian doctrine from the beginning is the doctrine of the Trinity.
The doctrine of the Trinity reminds us that within the Trinity, within the relationship with the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, there is relatability. There is sociability, so much so that this is gloriously infinitely a part of the perfection of God. The one true and living God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. But when God made human beings, it was God himself. It was the creator who made the declaration, "It is not good for man to be alone." That was not Adam's self-designation although God had revealed that to Adam by giving him the opportunity to name the animals who came two by two. But when it came to Adam, it was one. So the Lord, having made the declaration as creator, "It is not good for man to be alone," made for Adam a helper, a compliment to him.
Then he created the family by creating and establishing marriage. "Therefore, man shall leave his father and mother and shall cling to his wife, and they shall become one flesh." He gave to that couple and to all married couples who would follow the command to be fruitful and multiply and fill the Earth. He established the family. Out of the family comes a family of families, and beyond, a family of families, families who live among families. That establishes neighborhood. It establishes community. Eventually, it establishes civilization. Yes, you find that in the Bible. Very quickly, you find empires. You find nations. You find pharaohs, and you find kings, and you find society. You find blacksmiths.
For example, I've just been teaching through the book of Leviticus, word by word, at our church. The reality is, you look at this, and you look at the order, for example, the construction of the tabernacle. One of the things you note is that there are already so many different professions. Those who do this are given that responsibility. The artisans with fabric, they're to do this. It just tells us that, at the very beginning, from the very beginning, God intended for us to be relational, social creatures. That is to his glory. He intended for that to begin in the family, which is most important, and then in the community around us. We look at that, and we recognize this isn't a biological accident. This is actually a theological necessity.
The second thing to think about is that what God has created and he declared to be good, it's not just that we should see that it's good as in, well, we should be thankful for that. We need to understand that there is an ought in that good, which is to say, if God has created us this way and it is for our good, then our obedience means leaning into that good, not away from it.
The final point I want to make in this analysis is something that's completely outside of this article. Perhaps you've noticed it. Perhaps even as I've been talking for the last couple of minutes, you've thought, "Well, there's one big thing left out." Yes, by the Christian worldview, there is one big thing left out that we now have to put in. That is the fact that God has created an eternal society, the Church of the Lord, Jesus Christ. Thus, as you think about a biblical theology of relatability, yes, it begins in creation where God made us capable of relationship, capable of knowing one another, capable of using language, for example, to communicate with one another. He made us necessarily social because you look at a human infant. That infant can do basically nothing for himself or herself. It takes relationability and sociability in order for that child actually to grow and to thrive.
Yes, through the different stages of human life, that just becomes even more important. As the child, becoming a young person, becomes more and more engaged with the world outside the home, only because of the security of the relationability that the child has experienced inside the home. Then there is the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, which is forever the body and bride of Christ, and where relatability and sociability is written into God's purpose for the church, as is made clear, as Jesus speaks to his disciples, but also as we have, for example, the Epistles, the letters of the Apostle Paul in the New Testament, making that abundantly clear.
When Christians look at this kind of argument and this kind of research, we have to say, "Oh, we really have to share this concern." It is really important to look at this kind of argument and recognize there's an awful lot of truth in it. But for Christians, it's not that we could ever see something like this and say, "Oh, there's less of a problem there than people see." No, we understand there's actually much more of a problem here than many people see.
Research on Social Media Use Among Teens Reveals the Seemingly Impossible: They Are Spending Even More Time On Apps — With Perilous Results
But then, just before moving to questions, I want to raise the most interesting question I have heard from the media in recent days. This is from The Economist, which you know is one of the major news sources coming out of England. The headline asks a question. Does Gen Z spend too much time on social media? Now, wait just a minute. How could you even ask that question? This is one of those articles, by the way, that points to research indicating that younger people around the world, this is coming from England, but it's about research that includes America and most other nations as well.
We're being told that Generation Z is spending even more time than that same generation did seven years ago on social media. Again, sometimes that just appears to be almost physically or spatially or temporally impossible. Nonetheless, we are told by The Economist, "A new report by Pew Research Center sheds light on how often kids use the internet and social media. In April and May, Pew surveyed 1,300 young people ages 13 to 17 about their digital media use. The survey found they happily fritter evermore time online and are fast deserting once popular platforms." What's the most popular platform? It is YouTube. 95% of these teenagers say they go to YouTube. It's not so good for some of the other platforms, but there's an ominous issue that appears even here. For example, this is an article from The Economist just in recent hours. Listen to this line: "Teens now shun text heavy apps such as Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter."
We're told only five percent of teens have ever used Tumblr, and Twitter's used by less than a quarter, about 23%. Far more popular, we are told, are sites like Snapchat and Instagram. But the big winner is TikTok." Now, I told you there's something embedded there, and I hope you noticed it. You have Twitter. Yes. What is that now? 280 characters? Not 280 words. 280 characters. You're talking about Facebook? These are being described as out of date because they are text heavy? 280 letters or characters is now text heavy? The summary about these young Americans is that they are "online much more than their counterparts were eight years ago. The share of youngsters, we are told, who are almost constantly online, has roughly doubled from 24% to 46%." Now, much of this is self-reporting. If you've ever been a teenager, or if you know a teenager, if anything, these are likely to be under-reported numbers.
While you're thinking about that, and I hope troubled about that, it's also interesting to note that The Telegraph, another major London news source, put out an article yesterday about the dangers of TikTok. By the way, it's not just the dangers of social media use. It's not just the influence on teenagers. It's not just the flight from text to image. It's not just the videos and the ephemeral brain candy that they represent. It is China. This is a Chinese-owned company. You have major national and international law enforcement agencies, governments, and others who are very much concerned about what's being collected from the users of TikTok, as well as what is being packaged and directed at them. There are also dangers about the platform's misuse.
One of the saddest things is something that came up last week, the tragic story of Archie Battersbee, a 12-year-old boy who died after life support was turned off. It is believed that, even as he was found in a state that greatly imperiled his life, he had been following a behavioral suggestion that had been made by someone on a TikTok video. It ended up costing him his life. I'm not going to go into the detail here. I'll simply say this isn't exactly new. What's new is that 12-year-olds now have routine access to this kind of material outside the view of their parents. That's a problem with the parents.
But the other thing is that much of this is far deadlier than many people imagine. Instead of it being just something that's suggested on a middle school playground, now it's something that is broadcast potentially to millions by means of social media.
Is Natural Law Theory Useful to Christians? — Dr. Mohler Responds to Letters from Listeners to The Briefing
Next, we now turn to questions from listeners to The Briefing. Always great questions. I wish I could deal with all of them. Some of them follow some familiar themes. Some of them tend to recur over and over again. Sometimes a big picture question lands. I think we need to spend a little bit of time on that. That's the case today. A question about the natural law. Chandler wrote in to say that he is teaching in a classical Christian school. He says that in that world, "people often refer to natural law theory." He says, "I don't know right now what to think about natural law theory. How much can we really know about the world without revelation? Do you think natural law theory is helpful or productive for Christians?" Wow. Great questions. I really appreciate this being sent in.
I want to make one clarification immediately. That is that any Christian use of the natural law is not independent of revelation. That means, first of all, that we understand that natural law is a part of natural revelation, which is to say God has revealed himself in nature. But I think I know exactly what's being implied here. That is that human beings, all of us, will end up in hell if all we have is natural revelation. We need special revelation. We need the holy Scriptures. We need the word of God. Most importantly, we need God's incarnate word, our resurrected savior, the Lord, Jesus Christ.
Now, one of the issues here is that we would be lost trying to think through these issues if we didn't have the scripture, the special revelation, even to understand how we are to understand the natural revelation. But to answer your basic question here, Chandler, yes, Christians, biblically-minded Gospel Christians, Protestant Evangelicals believe in the natural law. We will find ourselves increasingly referring to it one way or the other. The reason is because we're now in a culture, a civilization of revolt against not only the revealed law of God and Scripture, but also against the revealed law of God in nature. All you have to do is look at the LGBTQ revolution. Look at many other aspects of the modern revolt. You can see that clearly.
I do want us to turn first and foremost to Scripture, to the special revelation of God, the scriptural revelation of God. In Romans 1, the Apostle Paul makes clear that every one of us as human beings has enough revelation we received from God in nature, and we've rebelled against it, to deserve God's everlasting punishment. Now later, he will put it this way. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But in Romans 1, he says this. He says, "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth." That's verse 18. Well, where's the truth that they suppressed? Well, Paul answers that in the next verse. "For what can be known about God is plain to them because God has shown it to them for his invisible attributes, namely his eternal power and divine nature have been clearly perceived ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse."
The remainder of Romans 1 is about the universal human rejection of the knowledge that God has implanted about himself in creation. That goes right down to rebelling against the law of God, revealed in creation as well. But here's the big thing. The Bible never says that Bible-believing Christians should abandon the natural law. No, we should understand that the natural law should be compelling even to our lost neighbors who've never heard a word about the gospel. The natural law means that in creation, God has actually given us adequate instructions to know much of what we have to know for life in this world, and implying also, in the age to come.
Now, let's put it this way. Here's the simplest way I can say. As you think about what God has created and who God has created, there is a very clear indication of the creator's purpose in the things that he has made. That is revealed in ways that can be naturally comprehended. Now, let me just point to something that right now is so much a matter of controversy and confusion in our society. Yet, as I often say, I don't even think the people who are sold out to the transgender revolution actually believe all that they're saying. Let's put it this way. When you think about creation, God made human beings, male and female. There's a way for a man and a woman to come together that is productive and unitive. It includes the unity of the goods in such a way that the possibility of pregnancy and of gaining a child is actually in the very structure of the relationship, which is also in the very structure of the male body and the female body.
This means that nature alone, because nature isn't alone, in the sense that the creator reveals his glory and his purpose in nature, nature tells us a very great deal. It also says that all things should be directed towards their proper end. In other words, the glory of God and the right functioning of the cosmos is seen, just to give an example, in a raccoon being a raccoon. There's a distinction between a raccoon and a beaver. One of them builds dams, and the other one doesn't. Each lives and should be directed towards his own nature. The entire functioning of the cosmos depends upon beavers knowing they're not raccoons and raccoons knowing they're not beavers. Actually, I'm playing with that. They do not know that they are raccoons. Simply by nature, they raccoon.
Now, there are many Protestant Evangelicals who are concerned that using natural law as a form of argument is in risk of abandoning Scripture. I've actually made that argument myself in certain context because it can be. It can represent that danger. That danger comes when Christians, knowing that the ultimate truth is revealed in Scripture about, say, this issue, are reluctant to invoke Scripture because of some kind of embarrassment, or they're afraid that argument will simply be unpersuasive. Well, if you're turning away from Scripture to anything, that's a problem. But the Scripture itself--that's why I turn to Romans 1, the Psalms over and over again--the Scripture as a whole actually uses natural revelation as a display of what is made even more clear, and savingly clear, in God's special revelation in holy Scripture.
The other thing we need to keep in mind is that the Protestant Reformers, in particular Martin Luther and John Calvin, also demonstrate a proper, theologically healthy way to incorporate nature and the natural law. For Luther, you see his references, and this is the term I actually prefer. I prefer it even over John Calvin's references to nature. I prefer Luther's references to creation order. I think that's exactly what we're looking at. There's an order in creation. We should be unhesitant to point to that order in creation and say, "That's as it ought to be."
Understanding the natural law in this, I will say, Protestant context achieves two things. Number one, it just reminds us of the Romans one teaching, that everyone knows enough to know a very great deal about how human beings are to act, who human beings are by nature, what God's purpose is for human beings. There are certain oughts that are just so universally known that every civilization in its own way has found its way to that ought without the necessity of anything beyond nature.
The other thing the natural law makes clear is that there is a plausibility, a truthfulness, a compelling nature to certain arguments because, well, you probably beat me to it. They have that compelling and convincing nature because they correspond to nature. Chandler, as an evangelical theologian, I want to say we should never be reluctant to talk about the natural law in an age of confusion. In the secular context, we end up talking about it more and more, necessarily so. But we do have to put it in a gospel context. The natural law cannot, on itself, save. But the knowledge of the natural law often does, in a secular, earthly sense, preserve. To put it bluntly, even an individual living in accordance with a natural law is going to live longer than one who does not.
This is one of the questions that recurs over and over again. I spent this much time on it today in hopes that it will be helpful. This is a down payment because this is a huge issue. It's not about to be covered sufficiently in any number of minutes of conversation.
I’m Getting Married Today. Can You Give Me Advice For Our Future Together? — Dr. Mohler Responds to Letters from Listeners to The Briefing
Next, I want to turn to another question. This comes in from Kyle. Kyle and his fiance are getting married today.
First of all, congratulations to you and to your new bride, Kyle. You said that you're hoping I'd be able to provide us some advice for our future together. Well, first of all, thanks for listening to The Briefing. But again, happy wedding day. May the Lord bless the two of you together, and may you know just a hint of the happiness in this life that God intends for you in the next, and may you know the full joy that comes in faithfulness in God's wonderful institution of marriage, so central, by the way, that it is God himself who determined that the picture of marriage would be the picture of the relationship between Christ and of the church, between the bride, the church and the bridegroom, the Lord Jesus Christ.
You ask if I could provide some advice for your future together. There's one word of advice I would give. That is live married big time. What I mean by that is live married loud. That is to say, one of the first things you need to learn, and you will learn this, Kyle, you are already undoubtedly on the way. You and your new wife together, you are no longer just I and I, but rather we. So just in common conversation, no matter where you are, the conversation is going to be transformed by the fact that it is no longer what you think or what you're doing, but what we are doing, what we are thinking. That's one of the greatest testimonies to marriage. The two shall become one. That does not mean in this age, in marriage, absolute total agreement and the absence or impossibility of disagreement. It does mean that the we is indissoluble. It is not only a private affair. It is to God's glory to be lived large and lived loud.
A godly wedding, by the way, is a good first step in living that loudly. May your wedding day be a day of great, great joy.
By the way, Kyle, one of the signs of God's glory and marriage is how instantaneously after the wedding you're going to want to meet people, point to your bride and say, "I'd like to introduce my wife."
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.