The Briefing

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WORLD Opinions

Television’s boundary-smashing pioneer turns 100

by R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

The Briefing

Friday, December 8, 2023

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It is Friday, December 8, 2023.

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

Part

A Prophet of Moral Progressivism Dies at 101: The Life and Legacy of Norman Lear

As we begin the briefing today, it's important to recognize the death of Norman Lear, one of the most influential figures in American culture in the 20th century, who died Tuesday at age 101. Now that's newsworthy in itself, the fact that someone of his generation lived to be 101 years old, and by the way, as I reflected when he reached his 100th birthday just over a year ago, he was still very much a part of the national conversation.

By any measure, Norman Lear has to be ranked among the most significant forces of moral change in modern times. I've said before, he might well be the most influential liberal figure in American life at a time when American culture was turning left, and when it comes to many social and cultural issues, many moral issues, turning far left.

So who are we talking about when we talk about Norman Lear? We're talking about one of the most influential figures in television in particular, and the sitcom in specific reference. He revolutionized what was expected of American prime time entertainment and he did so with an ideological agenda. If you go back before Norman Lear, America's primetime entertainment, even the genre known as sitcoms, that is to say situation comedies, they were basically extremely bland, very, very bland. They were intentionally unoffensive. Then along came Norman Lear. But before Norman Lear came the social revolutions of the 1960s and in particular the ideological subversion of so many of the things that seemed to be set in stone. Realities of the 1950s gave way to the revolutions of the 1960s. That included expectations about marriage. It certainly included the sexual revolution with expectations about sexual morality. Norman Lear was a champion of moral liberalism.

He was a prophet, so to speak, an artistic prophet of moral progressivism. He wanted to subvert so many of the conservative moral principles that had shaped American culture, but he also fought in defense of the United States during World War II. He had been born in 1922 to a Jewish couple that had traced their identity to recent immigration from Ukraine and Russia. He had a very deep Jewish tradition behind him and much of the comedy for which he was known, the sitcoms, even the characters, were very well-known types in Jewish literature and Jewish tradition.

During World War II, Norman Lear was a decorated radio operator and tail gunner on a B17 bomber over Europe. That needs to be mentioned. He put his life on the line for the country that he loved. But by the 1970s, his name was synonymous with television and his moral agenda was extremely clear.

He wanted to press the moral revolutions including the feminist revolution, the divorce revolution, the sexual revolution. He wanted to press all of these things and he understood something that many people miss, and there may be a Jewish tie to this in the sense that as you look at Jewish humor and Jewish culture, there has been a certain irony, which has been a very prized part of Jewish self-identity. And Norman Lear was able to turn that kind of irony. And by the way, there was an entire influx of comedic influence into the United States during the 20th century coming from explicitly Jewish sources. And so you had many comedians and others, and especially people who frankly were brilliant at entertainment and in understanding the entertainment industry. They knew how to tell a story well. There was an enormous amount of technical ability, an enormous amount of entertainment genius that was developed here. Norman Lear understood that if you want to change the morality of a civilization, you change the way it laughs or you change the things at which the nation laughs.

Some years ago, historian Catherine Montgomery remarked, "In the war for the American mind, entertainment programs have become political territory." I think it's important to recognize it wasn't always so. As I said, the most watched television programs of the 1960s, they tended to be very bland. The most famous or at least the most watched television program in the 1960s was the Beverly Hillbillies. That's not exactly All in the Family. All in the Family became the paradigmatic Norman Lear production. The rural comedies and the oddball comedies of the 1960s were left behind. Programs like the Andy Griffith Show, Gomer Pyle, Green Acres, Petticoat Junction, Mr. Ed, My Mother the Car, I Dream of Jeannie, My Favorite Martian, The Munsters, and The Addams Family, that was replaced with the Bunkers.

And the scene shifted to a working class neighborhood in New York where there was a working class family with Archie Bunker as the husband and father, Edith his wife, Gloria their daughter, Michael their very liberal son-in-law, and they lived in this small family and in that small house was played out all the moral revolutions of the 1960s into the 1970s. Very interestingly, Norman Lear understood that if you want to change the culture, perhaps the most effective way to do it is by changing the way people laugh, the kinds of stories they find interesting. Norman Lear also understood something else in his genius. He understood that if you can put something on television, you can make it look normal, and you can also press a moral argument by the use of character and characterization and of course drama and narrative, and you can make people laugh and when people laugh, they are vulnerable to having a certain rewiring of their system and that includes a rewiring of their moral system.

That's something Christians need to understand. There's something very true in that assessment. Something about our vulnerability as a matter of fact. When Norman Lear created All in the Family and the character of Archie Bunker played by actor Carroll O'Connor, he did something that in one sense backfired on him. He wanted Archie Bunker to be the butt of the joke basically. He wanted this working class, retrograde American of the World War II generation who was morally backward by the standards of the moral revolutionaries, they wanted him to be unlikable. The problem is Archie Bunker turned out to be imminently likable. That's not to say that all Americans agreed with him. Even a majority of Americans no doubt disagreed with Archie Bunker at times. But the point is they could not hate him because at least for many Americans, it was their grandfather. But the other reason that Archie Bunker tended to backfire on Norman Lear is that Americans not only laughed with him, Americans also agreed with him more than Norman Lear might have understood.

The circles that Norman Lear was running in were the circles that believed an inevitable movement to the cultural left. They just simply thought there's no way these revolutions can be stopped, perhaps not even slowed down. Of course, that's not exactly what happened. At least the liberal progress moving with unbroken speed to the left, that didn't go exactly as the left had planned. But Norman Lear understood that if you can turn this into drama, you can turn it into a sitcom, an awful lot of progress can be made in Hollywood that can't be made in Washington. Now, Norman Lear built an entertainment empire. He champion causes that range from abortion to sexual liberation, the welfare state, feminism. He pushed boundaries.

Now for one thing, you talk about pushing boundaries, there had been virtually no reference whatsoever to a bathroom in American comedies or even dramas in the 1950s and '60s. Norman Lear changed that. For one thing, there was the infamous toilet flush of one episode of All in the Family. When Edith, the wife was calling out for Archie wondering where he was, there was a flush coming from upstairs. That was the first reference in that sense to a toilet in all of American entertainment history. It was the flush that changed history.

It's also important to recognize something else. Norman Lear was not just determined to use entertainment to change American culture. He was remarkably successful in that score, but he wasn't satisfied. Norman Lear was deeply troubled by two things that developed in the '70s and especially exploded in the 1980s. Those two things were the republican resurgence, that is the resurgence of political conservatism that led to the election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980. The second thing was the increased influence of conservative Christians in particular in America's public square.

At that point, Norman Lear was remarkably not just willing to put his entertainment empire on the line. He formed an organization known as People For the American Way. He bought primetime slots on television. He put together massive television specials and funded and helped to facilitate the funding of a massive movement to try to oppose the influence of conservative Christians in politics and in American culture, particularly during the 1980s and '90s. The organization still exists into the 21st century. Norman Lear tried to put together Hollywood's left with the religious left in the United States and to some extent he was successful. Nonetheless, he was not successful in putting an end to conservative Christian influence in the culture. But I think all of us would have to say he was more successful than even he may have understood in moving the culture at large.

By the way, as we end this for today and then turn to questions, I want to point to a central insight from Norman Lear and it has to do with laughter because laughter is something that is reflected in scripture. It's evidently something that God meant for us to do. He gave us the capacity to laugh. Sometimes we laugh involuntarily. One of the most important insights of humor by the way, is just the bottom line of human vulnerability and the emptiness of human pretense. That's just very much a part of what makes us laugh. There's certain situations that make us laugh. There's certain situations that when observed, well, the only natural response to those situations is laughter. But as Benjamin Rolsky, who has written a very important academic work on Norman Lear and his influence says, "What distinguished Lear, that is Norman Lear, from other entertainers and writers however, was that he wanted to make people laugh about something." Lear himself had said, "Comedy with something serious on its mind works as a kind of intravenous into the mind and spirit."

Christians need to understand that that is true and it works this way in a moral equation. When we begin to laugh at something, we become more comfortable with it. That's just a moral fact. It's something we need to know about ourselves. Norman Lear understood that if he can make us laugh at something, he would make us less outraged at something. But when you tie this together with what we talked about yesterday in terms of the necessity of outrage, at times you understand that laughter can subvert the moral order. Norman Lear was counting on that and in one lifetime he was enormously successful in reaching his aims. Norman Lear died just Tuesday of this week at age 101.

Part

How Can We Trust the Bible is Inerrant If We Say That Only the Original Manuscripts Are Inerrant? — Dr. Mohler Responds to Letters from Listeners of The Briefing

All right, now we're going to turn to questions and out of urgency, the first question I'm going to take is coming from Nathan. Nathan writes, "I'm a senior at a small Baptist Bible college and I'm deeply worried about my faith. I'm doubting the Bible, God, and just about everything else that I've been taught. I'm having a hard time with inerrancy. How can we say that the Bible we have is inerrant, but then we say only the originals are inerrant. If our translations today could have small errors over time, then can we really say that the Bible's perfect? Isn't there a possibility that maybe we have a bad translation of some event or someone's name? Please help me out. I'm really struggling with my faith in the Bible. Thank you, sir."

Well, thank you, Nathan, for writing this very candid, very honest question and posing it to me. First of all, I want to say that I'm very glad that you're at a Bible college and I'm glad you're honest about some of the struggles you're having. I want to tell you you're not alone and you're hardly the first, but I do want to tell you that I think this is a crucial point for you. The questions you're asking are so deep and foundational. They're so fundamental that they're going to shape the rest of your life. And even as I'm talking to you, I'm going to be praying that God will secure your heart and your mind in the faith and that he will give you reassurance about his Word and the absolute truthfulness and perfection of his Word.

But Nathan, I also want to just give you a little bit of a shake, and I mean that in a very friendly way. Hope you hear this. I just want to say, "Okay, now wait just a minute, Nathan. Here's a little bit of assurance for you that may sound like something other than assurance when I say it. Okay, so hold on. I'm warning you. This is what I got to say." You are not the first person to have these questions. You're not the first person to experience some of this shaking. And I want to say that in order for you to understand. Not one of us I believe is up to figuring all these things out on our own. I want to tell you, I'm thankful you addressed this question to me, but I also want to tell you I am not able to think through all these things on my own authority, standing on my own two feet. I need far more than, as one church historian said, the church under my own hat. I need the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. We believe together.

Now, every one of us individually has to take responsibility for these questions, but I just want to be kind to you as a friend by saying I need to take a little of the pressure off of you. You need to find confidence in the fact that the Christian church has been thinking through these questions for a matter of centuries and has stayed true to the faith of the Lord Jesus Christ and has continued to understand that the Bible is God's Word written.

So Nathan, something else I want to tell you is, I have absolute confidence that the Bible is the Word of God. That also means by the way, that when I pick up a good translation, I have absolute confidence that when I teach or preach from that text, I am teaching or preaching the Word of God. And it's because frankly the closer you look at this, what you find is greater assurance, not greater shakiness. That's one of the things about the Christian faith. I do not want to tell you, "Nathan, stop asking these questions. It's impertinent to ask these questions. It's subversive to ask these questions." That's not what I'm telling you. I'm telling you, "Look, the Christian church is not threatened by you asking these questions." These are legitimate questions." And yet I think as you look at the history of how the Bible came to us, you look at the understanding of how, for instance.

You're in a Baptist Bible college. Hopefully you're studying the scriptures and perhaps you're already studying it in the original languages. And the most amazing things that you will find in so doing is not problems in interpretation, but incredible clarity in interpretation. You're going to be finding not new questions to ask that will vex you, but rather new assurance that will come. So I simply want to tell you that the Christian church rightly looks to the Bible as the Word of God written, every word inspired, every word fully inspired. Now, if God wanted us to have the original autographs, if we had the parchment on which the apostle Paul was writing, the problem is we would still have to translate the words. Now, God is not surprised by that. The Christian church is not surprised by that. It's one of the reasons why that where you find Christian faithfulness, you find a great investment in translating the Word of God into the languages of the people who can read it. It's one of the great achievements of the reformation.

Now, Nathan, I would also wish to convince you of the inerrancy and infallibility of the Word of God, that it does not err and that the Bible never fails to do what God sends it to do. And by the way, God says that about his own Word. And I also want to tell you that I want to amp up your question just a little bit and say I think the stakes are greater than you might imagine. And that is that if the Bible isn't the Word of God, then we know basically nothing about God. We know nothing determinative. We know nothing with content. We're just lost. And I mean really lost. And you know, Nathan, I wouldn't say that if I didn't immediately say, but I have full confidence that the Bible is God's Word. I have full confidence in the fact that the Holy Spirit inspired every word of scripture.

I have full confidence in the power of God's Word and the truthfulness of God's Word. And if I could convey from one heart to another that confidence, I would do so and give it to you as a gift. Nathan, a part of what I have to do regularly, as long as I've been dealing with these things and dealing with them frankly as a scholar and as a theologian and as a preacher, I have to come back to the fact that I am really not capable of thinking all these things through and bearing the full weight of these questions on my own, which is why I need to hang around with faithful people. And it's why it's really important that we be taught by faithful teachers and it's important that we be unafraid of asking the questions, but we also understand that there's not one of us who can answer all these questions adequately, faithfully, comprehensively.

That's why we need Christians together thinking through these things on the basis of God's truth. So Nathan, I just want to tell you, if I were with you right now, if I were in a personal conversation with you, I would want to convey to you affection and confidence. I want you to know that you should not feel that somehow you're committing treason against the church of the Lord Jesus Christ by asking these questions. We can take the asking of these questions. And I also want to tell you on the other hand, that you should not have full confidence that you'll be able to think through all these things on your own just in a solitary situation. You need to surround yourself with faithful people from whom you can kind of get even by Christian, Holy Spirit-led osmosis, a certain confidence of your own. So please hear me when I say the last thing you need to do is to dig a deep individual hole into which you simply dig yourself.

Because I got to tell you, you dig that hole, I don't think you can get yourself out of it. But you know, I believe God's people can get you out of it. And I would suggest you hang around with God's faithful people and those people are going to love you and they're going to love you despite your questions, maybe even because of your questions and it's questions like this that can lead us into a deeper faith and confidence in the Lord Jesus Christ, in the one true and living God and in God's Word. And so I hope at least Nathan, even if we're not meeting face-to-face, you can hear in my voice confidence for you and prayer for you and urgent advice for you to hang around with faithful people among whom you can learn to be faithful together. God bless you, Nathan.

Part

Why Does Jude Reference the Book of Enoch? — Dr. Mohler Responds to Letters from Listeners of The Briefing

Next, an interesting question from Emily. And Emily asked this question, "Does Jude reference the Book of Enoch in his book? If so, why does God's Word reference a book that we consider to be outside the canon of inspired scripture?" Now, Emily goes on, but I want to take that last part of the question here. Why does God's Word reference a book that we consider to be outside the canon of inspired scripture? Emily, great question. And it relates not only to Jude with the question of the reference to the Book of Enoch. Jude's in the Bible, Enoch not. But it also has to do with the Old Testament where you have in the historical writings, references to historical works we don't have. For instance, the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel. We don't have that. We do have 1st and 2nd Kings. But we also have in the New Testament further evidence that there are things we don't have that are not in the Scriptures.

It's really clear in the historical context. It's real clear in the words of 1st and 2nd Corinthians, that Paul wrote at least four letters to the Corinthian church. But only what we have in the scripture is 1st and 2nd Corinthians are there. And I have to believe that's because the Holy Spirit intended for it to be so. And so evidently there are other books that might have truth in them that aren't in the canon of Scripture. The historical writings concerning the kings of Israel that we don't have, there's no reason to believe it was entirely false. There's every reason to believe the Holy Spirit didn't intend us to have that book or those books in the canon of Scripture. Because if the Holy Spirit had intended for us to have them, then we would have them. And the church in the 1st century would've had them and they would've been even in the canon of Scripture that we now call the Old Testament that the Jewish people had by the time we get to the birth of Christ.

You also have the same thing if you're dealing with the Book of Enoch. And even in the Bible itself, there are references to prophets and prophecies that we just don't have elaborated in the Bible, but they may well have written books or letters or writings that we simply don't have and reference to that I don't think is inconsistent at all. And I think one of the most important things to say is, one of the affirmations of Scripture that's necessary is the scripture sufficient, it's not just that it's inspired and every word of it inspired and every word fully inspired, not just that it's true and totally true and trustworthy, but that it's also sufficient. So we're not missing anything. And Emily, it's a great question to ask. It's a smart question. I appreciate you sending in that question today.

Part

How Can I Tell If God is Calling Me to Be a Pastor? — Dr. Mohler Responds to a Letter from a 12-Year-Old Listener of The Briefing

Now we're going to turn to a question from a 12-year-old, and boy, this one is just a sweet question. A young man named Shepherd. And Shepherd asks, "How can I tell if God's calling me to be a pastor?" He says, "My father's a pastor and I'd like to make sure I'm doing it because God is calling me and not simply because my dad is a pastor. I'd really like to hear what you think." Again, Shepherd's 12. Well first of all, I think I'm incredibly privileged to get a message like this from a 12-year-old. And I'll also tell you, Shepherd, that I believe God calls 12-year-old boys to be preachers. I'll just tell you that. I think I was about your age when I first began to consider the very same thing.

So first of all, let me just say, and I'm going to have to give you a short answer, but I think I can answer this faithfully in a short amount of time. I think you have to say there are objective criteria. So in other words, if there was something that is required of a preacher, a pastor in the New Testament and you don't meet that, then you shouldn't be a pastor. But I'm pretty sure that as a boy of 12, that's not a problem. And as you look at the specific criteria given for instance in 1st Timothy and in Titus, you'll understand there are things that come, like the husband of one wife and some other things, a reputation in the community. You've got time to earn that among Christ's people. And the ability to teach. It'll become evident over time if God's given you the ability to teach the Word of God and a fire and a hunger to teach and preach the Word of God. That will become evident.

But you know what? I just want to encourage you, Shepherd. I think one of the ways it becomes evident is in the heart of someone your age. And I'll tell you how it kind of came to me. I would hear the preacher preach. I'd be there in worship and I'd see and hear the preacher preach, and I would think, I would love to do that. I think maybe I was made to do that. That points to the second set of issues. That's the subjective issues. And frankly, God doesn't kidnap us into the Christian ministry. He calls us into the Christian ministry. And you know, Shepherd, I believe that God is absolutely sovereign and I believe that's evident in our salvation. God makes us desire Christ. We don't desire Christ on our own. God works in our heart to call us to Christ. That's a part of how the gospel comes to us.

And I think the calling to the Christian ministry for a young man is very similar. I think God makes us want what he wants us to want. And the apostle Paul said to Timothy to desire to be I'll just say a pastor, is a good thing. That desire is a good thing. Now, again, you have to go back to those objective criteria. Does a young man fit the criteria found in 1st Timothy and in Titus? And then the second thing is, is that call evident not only to the individual, not just to you, Shepherd, but to those who are around you. If you're called to be a pastor, there are going to be people around you who will see that calling in you. All right? What an incredible privilege to receive questions like this. And by the way, Shepherd, I can't leave this. You were named Shepherd, which is the central picture of the word pastor. So I'm just going to say that I take that as an encouragement. And so Shepherd, all you have to do is follow God in faithfulness and grow up to your name.

I am so thankful for the questions that people send. I'm so thankful for the trust that is represented there and let's pray together that we'll be faithful to that trust. My heart goes out especially, to those who send these letters and the three letters today in a very special way. And I want to thank you for listening. And it's a stewardship we all bear to think about these questions together and to seek to answer them from the full wealth of conviction found in the Word of God. And I think we're all, we're all made more faithful by thinking through these issues together.

So 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, go to boycecollege.com.

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

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

I am always glad to hear from readers. Write me using the contact form. Follow regular updates on Twitter at @albertmohler.

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