The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Monday, August 15, 2022

It’s Monday, August 15th, 2022.

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

Part I

Decades of Fatwa and Last Week’s Attack on Author Salman Rushdie: Theology, Honor Religion, and the Headlines

Lots of headlines over the last several days, but on Friday, one of the biggest headlines had to do with an author who was stabbed in New York state. The author was Salman Rushdie. He was stabbed at the historic Chautauqua Institution where he was addressing a group. He’s one of the best-known writers of fiction and literature in the world today, but is perhaps best known to many people around the world because of a fatwa, a Muslim religious judgment against him that actually as handed down by Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran called for his death because of the publication of his 1988 novel known as The Satanic Verses. That book was considered an insult to the Prophet Muhammad and that led to the fatwa calling for his death.

That’s a convoluted story, but it’s a very sad story. And it’s a tragic story in the sense that not only have there been efforts in the past to carry out that death sentence, but a man who had gone to the Chautauqua Institution, supposedly registering as a guest like any other, on Friday, in front of a large crowd in the amphitheater there at the Chautauqua Institution, stabbed Salman Rushdie something like 10 times. By Friday night, it was clear that the attack could well have killed Salman Rushdie, but by Sunday it was apparent that though grievously wounded, he might actually will recover.

A man by the name of Hadi Matar is now in custody. He was arrested by police, but of course, he was arrested after a vast crowd had seen him undertake the crime. So even as he is the accused in this case, the evidence is incredibly clear just based even upon the testimony of the people who were in the room and video evidence. Hadi Matar will receive a fair trial in the United States because of our commitment to the rule of law. If he wants a jury trial, he may have a trial by a jury of his peers in order to make the case. But that is exactly the kind of trial that was denied to Salman Rushdie, even as the Muslim authorities in Iran, but not just in Iran, elsewhere in terms of Muslim extremism, had ordered his death and basically commanded the Muslim faithful to carry out the sentence.

The fatwa from Ayatollah Khomeini calling for the death of Salman Rushdie was handed down in 1989. And about 10 years later, the government of Iran in a comment to European governments said that it would “neither support nor hinder assassination operations on Rushdie”. Neither support nor hinder. That was supposed to be the assurance of the peaceable nature of the regime. As of Friday and Saturday, Salman Rushdie was reported to be on a ventilator, again with multiple stab wounds. One of them apparently to his face, perhaps even affecting an eye. Some of the people associated with Rushdie, including literary agents and others, spoke of the fact that he was likely now to survive the attack. But nonetheless, this is a man whose life has been under threat from at least some Muslim extremists and from some governments as far back as 1989.

The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board put out a statement on Saturday in the weekend edition of the paper just saying this is exactly what happens when that kind of order is handed down. And what you see is the fact that there are people who are willing to try to carry it out. But all this does raise huge issues of worldview importance, and one of them has to do with why in the world something like this would happen in the first place. What in the world did Salman Rushdie do as an author that would bring this kind of response from Ayatollah Khomeini, from many other Muslim authorities, and evidently filtering all the way down to the attack and the attacker from this past Friday? How exactly did that happen?

Well, Salman Rushdie is a British-American novelist who was born in India. Even as he was born in India, he was close in proximity to Islam, and he has a family history that is involved in Islam. But primarily, Salman Rushdie has claimed for virtually all of his adult life, a secular identity. And as we shall see, sometimes a very decidedly secular identity. He was born in Bombay in 1947, and thus you recognize just before Indian independence. And yet as someone who obviously was born into a family of financial means, he was later educated in Great Britain at both the Rugby School and at King’s College Cambridge University, from which he graduated. He became well known to elite literary circles in Great Britain and in the English-speaking world because of Midnight Children, his novel from 1981. It established him as a literary figure on the London scene, and eventually with a lot of interest throughout the English-speaking world.

His novel, The Satanic Verses, came out in 1988 based upon a certain admittedly rather fringe Muslim opinion having to do with the origin of some of the verses in the Quran. Now this was meant to be controversial, it certainly was controversial, and it became instantly an object of rage throughout much of the Muslim world. And thus, even as Ayatollah Khomeini handed down the fatwa calling for the author’s death, the following year in 1989 on Valentine’s Day, by the way, there were others that were also extremely offended.

Now, one of the things we need to note here is a distinction between Christianity and Islam. And this is not just in historical tradition; this is deeply rooted in the theological belief system. Islam is an honor religion. Christianity is not. That is to say that Muslims, from the very beginning of the movement known as Islam, have believed that it is a part of their sacred duty and devotion to defend the moral honor of the Prophet Muhammad. Now that’s just very, very important, but that is not what Christians are called to do. Christianity profoundly is not an honor religion. The words of Jesus forbid the transformation of Christianity into an honor religion. He bore our shame on the cross. He was not afraid of dishonor in terms of taking on human sin. The New Testament itself says he was despised and rejected of men as when afflicted.

By the way, of course, in the resurrection, when the Father raised Jesus Christ the Son bodily, physically from the grave, he was vindicated. And furthermore, he was vindicated further in his elevation, and in the ascension, and the fact that he’s now seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty. Philippians chapter 2 makes this point very, very clear. Speaking of the fact that Christ emptied himself of things like honor, by the way, in order to fully obey the Father in coming to save us through his substitutionary sacrifice, a substitutionary atonement in which he bore our dishonor and was willing for that time to forfeit his own infinite honor on our behalf and in obedience to the Father. And thus we are saved.

Beyond that, Christians are not called in faithful discipleship to defend the honor of the Lord Jesus Christ. In some sense, that’s at all similar to what is believed to be the duty of Muslims to defend the honor of Muhammad. It is not our job to defend Christ honor. It is our job as Christians to preach Christ crucified, raised from the dead, our savior and Lord. That’s a very different thing, but what is absolutely crucial for us to understand is that Islam is an honor religion. That is the reason why when Western media or Western artists or novelists or actors or actresses in movies or government leaders or anyone else speaks in some ways about Islam that are especially understood to be derogatory or intended to insult Islam, the Quran or the Prophet Muhammad, there is a very, very clear response because it is actually theologically important to Islam to defend honor in that sense. Again, a crucial distinction between Christianity and Islam.

Salman Rushdie is kind of an equal opportunity offender; he doesn’t have much respect for Christianity either. He identifies himself as unbeliever, as an atheist, sometimes as even a hard-line atheist. He has been described in many different ways, but after the fatwa was issued, he actually at one point suggested publicly that he had somehow returned to Islam, but that evidently didn’t last for long because he very quickly, over the course of the next several years, was making statements again of an extreme or radical nature in his secularism and in his unbelief. He’s made statements such as, “My point of view is that of a secular human being. I do not believe in supernatural entities, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu.” He has referred to religion as a medieval form of unreason. So again, he’s very clear about his beliefs.

But Christians also had to be very clear about the fact that it is not our business to defend Christianity’s honor. It’s our business and our responsibility to defend Christianity’s truthfulness. And we do that with arguments. We do that with the preaching of the gospel. We do that with words. We are not to do it with the power nor with the threat of violence.

Part II

‘Intellectual Improvement Should Lead to Moral Improvement’: The Significance of the The Chautauqua Institution and Its Movement

But in a worldview perspective, there’s another very interesting and important dimension to this story. And that’s the where. Where did this happen? It happened in the United States. It happened in the state of New York. It happened in Western New York. It happened at the historic place known as the Chautauqua Institution. And yes, there really is a big story there. The Chautauqua Institution is rather synonymous, at least with those who know in American culture with a certain form of broad mindedness, a certain kind of large mindedness, a certain kind of tolerance, especially in recent years. It kind of represents a certain kind of liberal, progressivist, intellectual culture. Salman Rushdie was there speaking. He was speaking in defense, by the way, of writers who write under threat, but nonetheless, he was speaking there at the Chautauqua Institution, but this also takes us back to something else that I think Christians should find of interest.

The Chautauqua Institution’s history is at least partly religious and theological. It was established in 1874 by two Methodists. And the Methodists established what became known not only as the Chautauqua Institution, but a movement known as the Chautauqua Movement that at one point included something like 10,000 communities across the United States that held some kind of Chautauqua event. Going back to that last quarter of the 19th century in the United States, this was one of the strange products of the Second Great Awakening. Much of the religious energy, the very abundant religious energy involved in the revivals of the Second Great Awakening, that energy was followed by an energy for intellectual transformation.

One of the problems with the Second Great Awakening was its emphasis upon emotionalism and its emphasis upon say the products of revivalism rather than the experience of revival as biblically defined. Some good things came out of the Second Great Awakening to be sure. Emphasis upon prayer, emphasis upon devotion. But there were excesses in the Second Great Awakening that led to pretty significant theological errors, including the rise of various cults, sex and movements. Many of them actually coming from the very same state, the state of New York.

But by the time you get to say 1874 in a place like New York, and by the way, part of the state was called the burned-over district because it had been supposedly burned over by religious fervor. A lot of that religious fervor was transformed or translated into a kind of movement for the improvement of the mind. The Chautauqua Institution became synonymous with that. It was a place for the study. During the summer when families were on vacation, they would go there. It’s a beautiful setting, beautiful lake, beautiful region, and they would stay there in order as families to study things like culture and art and philosophy. And they would have speakers come in and they would have debates.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of being invited by the Chautauqua Institution to one of those debates, so a forum. And I was there with other speakers. I was the representative conservative evangelical at that meeting and it was a very interesting experience. I’ll just say that most of the people there made very clear that they were not identified as conservative evangelicals, but they were very interested in many of the contemporary topics of debate. And the crowd though pointedly often in disagreement was still pretty friendly. That’s a part of the Chautauqua tradition. That’s why what took place there on Friday is such a jarring headline coming out of the Chautauqua Institution. But it’s also a reminder to evangelical Christians that what you see at Chautauqua and at the movement known as the Chautauqua Movement, it tells us a great deal about the transformation of American religion, at least on the part of many, especially in the cultured and intellectual elites from a primarily religious theological doctrinal energy to something like a social cultural and intellectual energy.

There was another basic liberal idea, very common at that time and it’s not entirely foreign from our own times. And that is the intellectual improvement would lead to moral improvement. As people were looking at so many social ills in the United States, and yes, they were very real problems and we still have very real problems. There was a certain secular transformation of religious energy into believing that intellectual progress would lead to moral improvement. And that would actually be a way of kind transforming and changing communities, including the big teaming cities of America, even the inner cities. And this was also a part of the movement that was especially clear in the 19th century for people to get out of the cities in the United States and to go to the country. Now, religious denominations built massive assembly grounds during this time. The Methodists did it, the Baptist did it, the Episcopalians for crying out loud did it. Just about everybody did it.

The idea is that there would be religious assembly grounds, much like the Chautauqua Institution. And some of these are even older than Chautauqua, where people would go and there would be Bible studies. There would be programs for children. There would be camps for young people. And all you have to do is look and see there are a couple of centers that became very important. I’ll just say three of them. One of them would be New York, especially Western or Upstate New York. Those parts of New York got a lot of attention. You see a lot of these assembly grounds. The other was the Great Lakes Region, the second, and this had to do with everything from say D.L. Moody and Ira Sankey, to other groups from the Lutherans and on.

But the third will hit very close to home from many evangelicals, especially in the south. And that was the Smoky Mountains, the Appalachian Mountains, the region particularly of Western North Carolina, starting around Asheville, but going further west. A little bit east of Asheville, the Southern Baptist camp known as Ridgecrest, that assembly ground, but then Lake Junaluska for the Methodist and Montreat for the Presbyterians, all basically around that area. And if you go there today to a city like Asheville, you will note that there are certain places and they’re even names of institutions like colleges nearby that represent something of an intentional identity with classical Greece and Rome. Going right down to the church architecture that often calls forth those classical themes, and going all the way down to the very idea that an exchange of ideas and an improvement of the mind will improve the soul and the moral character of the country as well.

We certainly hope the Salman Rushdie recovers, and we are looking at what is likely to be an ongoing debate about the role of Islam and all of this and huge theological issues. One of the things to watch is how quickly so many in the secular media will drop any kind of theological dimension to this story because they don’t know how to handle it.

And furthermore, they’re afraid that saying anything explicitly clear in theological terms about a belief system like Islam is not going to be politically correct. It’s going to be a very interesting thing to watch in the days and weeks ahead.

Part III

Where Has News Reporting Gone?: Study Shows CNN and MSNBC Make Big Move Left Since 2016

But as we’re thinking about the media, another big story broken recent days, Erik Wemple, the Erik Wemple blog. That’s one of the most important places to see journalists or a journalist, in the case of Erik Wemple, at The Washington Post talking about other journalists and other news sources, other networks, newspapers, and the media as a whole. The headline of the article that is, I think, of great importance to The Washington Post is this, “Opinion Study: CNN, MSNBC took sharp left turns during Trump’s presidency.”

Now this is about a study that was undertaken by academics, and it says that, and this is interesting, during the time of Barack Obama, all three of the major cable networks, MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News were according to their measure, slightly more conservative in response to Obama than they had been under George W. Bush as president. But when Donald Trump was president, they all, according to this study undertaken by these academics, they all moved slightly in a more liberal direction, that is to say at least potentially critical of President Trump. But of course at the same time, they say after Trump became a phenomenon, there basically was a split. CNN and MSNBC splitting to the left, and Fox News splitting to the right. But what’s really interesting in this study is the fact that according to these academics, MSNBC and CNN actually moved further left than Fox moved right.

Now, it’s very interesting that in American popular culture right now you’ll hear people basically just say, look, you have three cable networks and Fox is way over there on the right, but at the same time here you have Erik Wemple… Now, there’s more to the story than this, but there’s not less of the story saying that in terms of movement, in terms of say ideological shift, it was MSNBC and CNN that moved further left, more remarkably left, than Fox News moved to the right. Now you might say this because Fox news is pretty conservative in the first place. And there’s truth in that, but the point is here you have the validation of a judgment you have likely made. And that is that MSNBC and CNN have really gone ideological.

What’s interesting there is that they had tried to sell themselves and build themselves as being, well, more journalistic than Fox News coming from a longer tradition of historic journalism. CNN, of course, has a certain tradition going all the way back in particular to the 1980s. But you look at MSNBC. Remember the key initials there are actually NBC as a national broadcasting company, as in one of the most venerable, the big three broadcast networks. But nonetheless, I think it’s important that this article has run.

The article in The Washington Post said this, “A sharp cable-news divergence opened up during prime-time hours, the study found: ‘Again, polarization was driven by all three channels, but there was a sharper turn to the left in 2016 among MSNBC and CNN than there was a right turn at Fox News.” One of the study’s co-authors and associate professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania had spoken to what had taken place, especially as these issues of ideology and news coverage were measured in the year 2016.

Now I want to be very, very clear. Erik Wemple is very critical of Fox news. He’s not saying that CNN and MSNBC were wrong and Fox News was right. He goes on to make very pointed criticisms of Fox News, but nonetheless, what’s really interesting is the observation backed up with documentation here that the big shift was not a shift to the right at Fox News. It was a shift to the left at CNN and MSNBC.

Now, I’ll just go on and say the big surprise to me over the course of these same years, but particularly beginning in 2016, was what happened at CNN. Because at least in the media ecology of these cable news networks, going back to say the period before the Trump election in 2016, the basic ecology had been MSNBC pretty far to the left, self-consciously to the left. That’s where they saw an opening and they went after it. Fox News, pretty much on the right, pretty clearly on the right, and CNN trying to act as if it is the responsible network that isn’t giving itself to either a left word or a right word direction. They were non-ideological. They were after all CNN. But this study demonstrates what we have seen very clearly. And that is that CNN has become very liberal and shifted very significantly in a liberal direction.

By the way, one of the things that’s also clear is that in general terms, all of this is even more accentuated during the prime-time hours, which makes sense because that’s where these networks are going after their very dedicated core of viewers. And as you probably notice, the selectivity by ideological reasons that say MSNBC and CNN and Fox News, it’s not just that they’re reporting on the stories is very different. It is also that they are covering very different stories. They’re talking about very different issues. They are looking at sometimes the same historical event and space, time and history, and seeing entirely different issues for debate or consideration or coverage. Again, all that just turns out to be important as we think about trying to understand America. And as we try to understand America, the role of the news media is a very important part of that picture.

Well, no doubt it is going to be another very big week, a very busy week, a week with a lot of headlines coming at us. And by definition right now, we don’t even know what some of them are going to be. Nonetheless, there are many headlines from the last couple weeks that will certainly be continuing, and we’ll be talking about those as well.

In the meantime, thanks for listening to The Briefing.

For more information, go to my website at You can follow me on Twitter by going to For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to For information on Boyce College, just go to

I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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