The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Friday, May 12, 2023

It’s Friday, May 12th, 2023.

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

Part I

Disney’s Super Fans with Super Fortunes: Golden Oak and Attempted Escape From Reality

The literary critic, Robert Benchley, decades ago said that there are two kinds of people in this world, the kind of people who divide people into two kinds of people, and those who do not. No doubt you catch the irony, but the fact is that in America today, we understand that there are a lot of ways to divide up people into two kinds of people, sometimes more than two kinds of people. But identity politics, the controversial issues of the day, all of this has created a context in which even the kinds of issues that would not have divided Americans in the past now do.

Just take as example one, Disney. In Florida right now we have a face-off, a face-off between the governor of the state of Florida and the company as Disney, and we note that this is coming in such a way that it will have national and even international consequences. But I’m not talking about those giant moral issues into which Disney is involved itself and the open controversy with the governor there in Florida, Ron DeSantis. I’m looking instead at Disney as a symbol of something in our society, and The Wall Street Journal’s been taking a very interesting look in a major essay that has just appeared, the headline, “The Disney-Obsessed Shell Out Millions for Homes Inside This Exclusive Florida Community.”

Now, Disney’s been behind a great many developments on both sides of the country, near Disneyland in Anaheim, California, and then Disney World in Orlando, Florida. But as you look at Disney, you recognize it’s been about many different things, not only its iconic characters and its narratives, its animated movies and its other productions, but the reality is that Disney has also been about these massive theme parks, and at least in Florida, it has also meant vast experiments, projects such as the town of Celebration there in central Florida which has been held up by many is a model of the new urbanism.

But what you don’t see at Celebration is a lot of Disney iconography. What you see is a lot of American nostalgia and fairly expensive real estate and architecture. But this article in The Wall Street Journal points to another residential project there that’s very much a part of Disney, and in this case we mean very much a part of Disney, in such a way that it becomes an illustration of larger cultural trends in the United States. So, again, we’re not primarily looking today at the face-off between Disney and DeSantis.

That’s not the point, not today. The point today is to look at this development at Disney and understand it tells us something about the fact that Americans are or are not growing up in so many ways in the United States. It also tells us that Disney as a set of brands, as a brand itself actually represents something which is a stand-in for other forces that have been at play in the larger society, and in particular in some ways even for religion and culture and neighborhood and meaning.

Katherine Clarke wrote this very interesting essay for the Wall Street Journal beginning with a bedroom. The bedroom is in the house owned by Janis Scaramucci, and according to Clarke, it is, “decorated with paintings of Disney castles.” In her office, the article tells us, “A recessed ceiling in the shape of a Mickey Mouse head is painted in black glitter. The feet of her dining room table are made from coffee mugs featuring Mickey and Winnie the Pooh, and in her closet hangs a series of colorful Disney outfits, including a red skirt applique with characters from the movie Ratatouille.” And then Katherine Clarke tells us that all of this is taking place and this bedroom is located in a community known as Golden Oak, “the only residential community in the world located on Walt Disney Company resort property.”

Now, if you didn’t know about Golden Oak, well, you might be interested to know that it was named after Disney’s ranch in Santa Clarita, California, but in this case, we’re not talking about a ranch, we’re talking about a residential project, and the individual homes are not inexpensive. According to this article, the houses begin in the several million dollar range and they escalate all the way up to a current record of about $19 million. That’s an awful lot of money.

The article tells us more about Ms. Scaramucci. We’re told that she’s a divorce 63-year-old Disney enthusiast and art collector who, “bought a 2.52 million home in the Orlando Florida community a few years ago after feeling dissatisfied with her life in her suburban neighborhood in Edmond, Oklahoma. Now, she spends her days riding roller coasters, attending nature conservation programs at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park, and traveling to destinations such as Antarctica on Disney cruises.” Her house, “is filled with Disney memorabilia including a figure of the witch from Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs. At Golden Oak, Ms. Scaramucci says “she has found the best life imaginable.”

Now, I just want to step back for a moment because this is a very significant essay published by The Wall Street Journal and the journal’s interest in this is cultural. As the Journal is looking at this community known as Golden Oak, it sees something of a deeper cultural significance, and as Christians, here’s the point, as we try to think through these issues from a Christian worldview, we see even deeper significance to this story.

Now, as I said, Disney can divide people. If you are one of those people who divides people into two kinds of people, going back to that Robert Benchley line, well, you’re likely to be either a Disney person or not a Disney person, and this is not just about the current controversies, it’s about your response to all the Disney characters and the Disney brand and the Disney narratives from decades past, and there is no doubt that there are people who are much more enthusiastic about the Disney brand and the Disney characters and all, let’s just say all things Disney, and those who are, at least less interested in those things.

But the point in this article is that when you look at this community known as Golden Oak, you’re looking at people willing to plunk down multiple millions of dollars as adults just to live right across from the theme parks, able to go in just about any time of the day, thinking all things Disney and having the Disney fireworks at night basically visible from your front yard.

But it’s the language in this article that should have our attention, including this woman who describes the life that she has now found living at Disney, “the best life imaginable.” When these folks are into Disney, let’s just say they are into Disney in a whole new way beyond the imagination of most middle class Americans.

One of the games being played by residents there at Golden Oak is an effort to, “subtly add Mickey Mouse images into larger designs so they are barely noticeable.” Among plates in the kitchen or rocks in the yard, for example, these are known at Golden Oak as, “hidden Mickeys.” Another couple bought a house in Golden Oak, they paid 5.5 million in 2019, and by the pool there was already a statue of Lumiere from Beauty and the Beast. This woman “added her own touches too. She turned a sitting room into a Beauty and the Beast themed library filled with Disney figurines, movies, and books.” A large Belle doll, meaning the Disney character, “which had been discarded in a closet by the home’s previous owner,” we are told, has now been rehabilitated and disinfected and now reclines on the furniture in the house.

Another woman cited in the article, this woman is an heiress of a vast liquor fortune, according to the article, she paid just under $7 million for her home in Golden Oak in 2018. That’s the property that is currently listed for about $19 million. But of course, there are fans and there are superfans, and then there are superfan with super funds, and that appears to be something rather prerequisite for living in this community.

But the point I wanted to make is this, people aren’t moving there because of the architecture and the investment value. They’re moving there because they want to be a part of Disney and they want Disney to be a fantastically large part of their lives. They’re looking to Disney for a lot more than entertainment. In some cases, they’re looking almost for meaning in life, and the statements made by some of the residents and homeowners make that fact very clear, and that’s a very deep cultural and worldview significance. There are people with a lot less money who have no less desire to join some kind of alternative reality and try to find some meaning in a world in which evidently they’re not finding enough meaning.

A real estate agent who does business in Golden Oak says it’s just like other markets, except it’s not. He admits that one of the issues is this extremely limited inventory, and he compares it to Malibu California or Aspen Colorado, “When he listed a Golden Oak house for $10 million last year, he had 50 showings and sold it for close to the asking price. It’s Disney front property. It’s like getting that prime spot on the mountain, but it’s manmade.” So, it’s just like getting that prime spot on the mountain except there is no mountain. Instead, there’s Disney.

But this real estate agent also got to the deeper point when he answered the question, what’s behind Golden Oaks appeal, and in this case, Mr. McKee said, “I don’t want to say it’s like delayed adulthood, but it’s like another version of the fountain of youth.”

That tells us something. You have so many people who are indeed looking for the fountain of youth. One of the reasons why many Americans, or for that matter, many human beings are drawn to some version of an alternative reality is because in the actual reality, the real reality, people do grow up. They grow out of childhood into adolescence, out of adolescence into adulthood, and into increasing decades of adult experience. There is a sense in which, however, what we see right now in an increasingly secular America is an increasing sense of an urgency to try to return to an earlier age and to do so conceptually, if not physically.

But it’s also important that we recognize that the very language about delayed adulthood is a very, very modern language. It’s a very recent concept because in previous centuries of human experience, people didn’t get to decide not to grow up. Adulthood was a requirement of the realities of life. You didn’t have young adults back in previous centuries saying they just didn’t feel good about this, they just weren’t ready for this. There was no question that they had to be ready for it because the world was not waiting for them to be ready.

But we now live in an egocentric world in which personal autonomy is supposedly king, and so we have people who are delaying adulthood. They’re adults on the calendar, but they’re not adults in terms of the assumption of responsibility and roles. We have the delay of marriage, another central part of the delay of adulthood. We have the delay of parenthood, and in some ways, you have many people just avoiding marriage and parenthood all together, and we’re looking at a redefinition of adulthood, and I guess one way to redefine adulthood is to go live in Golden Oak and try to live rather permanently at Disney.

The heiress to the liquor fortune said, “If you’re a Disney lover, you have it in your blood. It’s about holding onto innocence and having fun and not taking life too seriously.” Well, you know, if you have enough money and you’ve inherited a large enough fortune, you can pretty much at least fool yourself into thinking you have created an alternative existence in which you don’t have to take life too seriously.

The sadder part is where there’s a discussion here about the goal of holding onto innocence. You know, that is something you have to understand can only as conversation and as conceptualization makes sense on the other side of escaping innocence.

Let’s put it another way. The innocent do not know they’re innocent. It is only those on the other side of innocence who know the difference between good and evil, and they know both good and evil, who have a yearning for innocence. The innocence have no yearning for innocence. They don’t know anything different. This is a kind of false innocence. It is an innocence that might be explicable when you look at all the broken lives, all the broken families, all the brokenness in the culture around us. But if you say you are about holding onto innocence, you’re already past innocence.

Part II

‘We Worship the Mouse’: Secularization Does Not Mean an End to Worship

Another rather revealing comment came from one of the homeowners who said he wasn’t really concerned to talk about politics and that the residents of Golden Oak really didn’t talk about politics. Instead, they talk about Disney. He said this, and just listen to these words, “Disney is more of a religion. We worship the mouse.”

Now, what you can’t tell by reading this article is whether or not this homeowner meant those words to be taken literally, but nonetheless, it tells us something that the language that he grabbed ahold of in order to describe this intense interest in Disney is the language about religion and in a way that may have exceeded his own awareness of what he was saying, he’s telling us a lot when he says Disney is more of a religion, we worship the mouse.

It’s good when Christians sees something like this, that we ask ourselves some questions. In what world does it make sense that there are people willing to spend multiple millions of dollars to live permanently at Disney World? What does that tell us? What does it tell us that so many people in this article are actually talking about far deeper yearnings than anything you might have attached to Disney or any other entertainment complex ever in your imagination? What does it tell us that people are describing what’s going on here as an attempt to live in a fountain of youth? What does it tell us that at least one of the residents says this is really more like a religion than anything else?

Well, what I fear is that there will be some people who will hear this and say, “Well, you know, I am not tempted in that way. I would not give myself to any such escapism like this. These people are nuts.” And of course, they’re nuts with millions of dollars to spend on this nutty kind of idea. But the point I want to make is that there are people with a lot less money who show no less confusion over this kind of question. What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? Where should we find our meaning? Where do we find our identity? Do we have to grow up and be adults or not? And what in the world is supposed to secure meaning and truth in our lives?

This is where Christians understand to be made in God’s image as a religious being is to be incapable of not asking these questions, but in a fallen world, it also becomes very clear, especially when you add that fallen world with the pattern of secularization and the decline of Christianity in this culture, there are more and more people who are now demonstrating greater and greater efforts to try to find meaning just about any way they can, even if that means plunking down several million dollars to buy a little real estate next to the mouse.

I think most of us know that there are people out there who are absolute fanatics about Star Wars and that entire universe of narratives. There are others who are Trekkies, very much invested in Star Trek, they’re likely getting a little older these days, and there are those who are attracted to Disney and the list will go on. It’s also true that there are many who enjoy those narratives and go to those movies but aren’t actually invested in trying to find deep meaning there at all, but that means they likely know deep meaning from some other source.

What we do see here is what becomes inevitable when a secularized society tries to say it doesn’t need God. Well, if it doesn’t need God, guess what it needs. It needs some substitute for God, and look how pathetic that can appear. Just look at Golden Oak. And I’m not saying that all the people there are pathetic. I’m saying that the description in this article demonstrates a genuine pathos. This article is just about people with an awful lot of money to invest in pathos.

Part III

What Do You Do When a Same-Sex Couple Invites You to Join Them for a Meal? — Dr. Mohler Responds to Letters from Listeners of The Briefing

Now, turning to questions, a really, really urgent question came from David, and it’s a big enough question. I think it really compels our attention.

He says he serves as pastor in a small town outside a major city. “Over the last few months, I’ve been able to engage the mayor of my small town numerous times. However, the mayor is an openly homosexual woman. She’s attended some of our church events and extended an invitation for me and my wife to come to her home. This has put me into somewhat odd situation. I’m not sure how best to handle it. I have been fortunate to have prayed with the mayor and even talked about my faith with her, yet it is clear that she does not believe her homosexuality is sinful. How would you advise me as a pastor to respond in this situation?” Later, he asked this, “Is it acceptable to respond to her invitation by joining her for a meal or even hosting her and her partner in my home?”

What a good question, and let’s face it, this is a pretty urgent question, and I think it’s really important that we talk about this out loud and try to reason on the basis of scripture towards understanding this. Now, a couple of issues right up front.

Number one, the most important thing you can do as a pastor is preach the word in season and out of season and make very clear what the scripture teaches about gender, about biology, for that matter, about sexuality, about marriage, about sexual morality. You can’t back off that at all, and if you feel some kind of pressure to back off, you need to ask yourself where that pressure is coming from. It’s not coming from the Holy Spirit. So, the first thing to say is that one test is whether or not this kind of relationship leads one to be less committed to biblical preaching and to upholding the entirety of what the scripture reveals. We would know that that would be a problem.

The second thing I want to say, and I’ve said this often on The Briefing, is that I believe strongly that on biblical grounds Christians cannot, must not attend same-sex marriage ceremonies because the whole point of the ceremony is to sanction the relationship that is being there formalized and recognized, and that’s the one thing above all Christians can’t do. But then in this case, you have the specific question about table fellowship and opportunities for conversation, and in this case rather informally over a meal.

Now, biblical scholars for years have discussed the New Testament issue of table fellowship. It’s also an issue of course in the Old Testament. First of all, in the New Testament, you have the issue of table fellowship front and center in the life of the church, both through the Lord’s Supper, so much about that but that’s restricted to baptized Christians, particularly members of the congregation, and then of course you have the table fellowship that Christians enjoy, not the Lord’s Supper, but just in fellowship meals that Christians also enjoy together, also mentioned in the New Testament, but those are meals shared by Christians as Christians within the fellowship of the body of Christ.

But there’s another example in the New Testament, and that is the example of table fellowship set by our savior, the Lord Jesus Christ himself because in the New Testament, one of the issues of criticism hurled against Jesus is that he eats with sinners. Now, you have to recognize the Jewish logic of the day. That logic was that in order to be holy, you basically just had to separate yourselves, not only from sin but from sinners. Now, there’s a sense in which there’s also a New Testament theme that tells us that we are not to associate with sinners, but association and conversation are two different things. The point is that there’s simply the evangelistic fact that we’re never going to lead people to faith in Jesus if we don’t have a conversation with them, and that conversation is going to require and imply some context.

Now, even looking at the table fellowship of Jesus with sinners, it’s really interesting that the liberal trajectory in the church is often said that that represents Jesus’s non-judgmentalism. The fact is, however, the New Testament gives us no such option because in the New Testament, Jesus is emphatically clear in his moral judgment, but Jesus is also quite universal in his moral judgment, and that judgment falls against both the Pharisees and those who are involved in publicly known sin.

Here you have a pastor and it’s a very kind pastor question. It’s a very urgent question. What do you do when say a same-sex couple, one of them is the mayor of your town, invites you to dinner? Let me say, I think in most situations here the right thing to do is to go to the dinner. And then you ask the question, could you invite this couple to your house, and I think the answer is yes, so long as you do not have to violate biblical truth and your own moral principle by saying, “I believe that your sexual relationship is legitimate and I believe that your marriage is real and honorable before God,” but in most situations, a meal does not insinuate that kind of statement.

But a meal does insinuate something. So, what does it make real? What it makes real is relationship and conversation, and if it’s real, that means it can go well or it can go badly. The gospel imperative in the New Testament tells us that we are to build relationships and to establish context with people who are not already Christians and they do not live as Christians, but we’re not to associate with their sin and we are not to live ourselves as non-Christians. We are not to sanction or validate what can’t be sanctioned or validated by Scripture.

But here’s one thing to recognize, the dignity and humanity of every single human being is emphatically affirmed by scripture. So is the fact that every human being is a sinner and Jesus is the only Savior, and salvation comes to all who call upon the name of the Lord, who come to Christ by faith.

It’s also just important we underline that human relationships are complicated and they’re messy. It’s sometimes very difficult for human beings to communicate honestly and adequately with one another, and this is a situation in which the gift of some conversation over a meal over time might lead to a deeper understanding of what is at stake and an opportunity to share the gospel and tell the truth as Christians.

I think it’s also true that many Christians are afraid of establishing friendships, even in just a neighborly friendship with those in the LGBTQ community because they’re afraid they’ll like them, that is that they will like their neighbors who may be deeply involved in, say, a same-sex marriage. Indeed, the imago Dei explains that given enough time, we’re likely to find something genuinely and rightly to like in just about every single human being. That’s just a part of what it means to be made in the image of God and to be fellow image bearers.

Life in this particularly confused world is more complex and it’s more perplexing all the time. I’ve spoken to Christian parents about the fact that I do not believe that they should allow their LGBTQ offspring to share a room with a same-sex partner over a holiday or something like that because that implies a recognition of the relationship in marriage. But at the same time, table fellowship does not necessarily imply that same kind of endorsement or moral agreement.

I think if the LGBTQ-identified mayor of your town invites you to her house for a dinner, I think under normal circumstances you should go. You should go as who you are, as a Baptist Evangelical pastor full of conviction. You should go as you are, someone who’s just been invited to dinner, and it’s to dinner that you’re going and you’re taking a risk in the conversation, but without taking some risk in the conversation, you’re never going to have that kind of conversation, and that can’t be, in biblical terms, right.

One final thought I want to share with this pastor, I’ll generalize to all Christians, I believe that we’re to live out faithful, obedient Christianity within the context of a gospel congregation, and I would say to this pastor, this is something I would discuss with the elders or the leaders of our church just in order to make sure there’s accountability here and that you’re thinking through these issues in a way that is as biblical as brothers can exhort each other to be.

And again, I would expand that to all Christians. As a part of a gospel congregation, this is the sort of thing that I would bring up with elders and others in the congregation and just say, “I want to make sure I’m thinking about this thing rightly and biblically, and I want you to pray with me and for me as I go to this dinner, pray that there will be an opportunity for gospel witness.”

One last thought about this, if the line that is rightly drawn says that you have no conversation with people who are known to you to be involved in this kind of sin or any other kind of pattern of sin, then that means that increasingly you’re not going to have gospel conversations except with people who are already Christians and that can’t be faithfulness as defined by the New Testament. The way this society is going, given enough time, there is no Christian and there is no congregation that will not have to grapple with these questions.

It’s a good thing for Christians to think together and sometimes just honestly to think ahead about how faithfulness requires that we answer these questions.

Thanks for listening to The Briefings.

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

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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