Friday, December 15, 2023

It is Friday, December 15, 2023.

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

Part I

The Cult of Celebrity and Moral Revolution Enshrined in the Smithsonian: National Portrait Gallery Unveils Portrait of Oprah Winfrey

Well, Oprah is now in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. I don’t mean Oprah, I mean a portrait of her. And that’s no small thing because, of course, as you look at all the people who live and have lived in the United States of America, you think of an institution as elite as the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery, and you recognize that the unveiling of this portrait, which took place just this week, it turns out to be a really big story. And the big story is, of course, that someone like Oprah Winfrey, who after all came from a very poor background and then was catapulted into fame and also into fortune, she is now on the walls at the National Portrait Gallery. Her portrait is on the walls.

The age of Oprah is over, announced the Washington Post, but her vision is now framed in Washington. The artist was Shawn Michael Warren, and the unveiling came with a great deal of appreciation. There seemed to be a general consensus that this was a portrait that indeed very much resembled Oprah Winfrey and also caught her essence, her personality. But Philip Kennicott writing for the Washington Post, there for the occasion mentions this, “There is no single standard by which one’s image is deemed worthy of inclusion in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Politicians including presidents are represented simply because they held power no matter how they used or abused it. Celebrity is the reigning currency recently, and the museum is widely agnostic about what kinds of fame are honored. Great wealth is celebrated too, though usually cows to more palatable terms such as influence, public service or philanthropy.” And this particular report goes on to say, “Oprah Winfrey could come through any of those doors, wealth, power, influence, even political sway given her endorsement of Barack Obama for president in 2006.”

Let’s just step back for a moment. What’s really going on here? Why is the story of the unveiling of a portrait in Washington DC a matter of national consequence? Well, we have all kinds of angles we could think about here, but one of them, I think, that’s most important is exactly what’s addressed in the opening paragraph of this Washington Post report on the unveiling, and that is that there is no single standard which would determine whose portrait would or would not hang in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. But you’ll notice the statement that right now celebrity is the reigning currency. That is the actual phrase used. Celebrity is the reigning currency, which is to say that in an age that is increasingly unsure of which political figures to put up on the wall, when we are confused about statesmen on the world stage and which one’s worthy of inclusion or not, you’ll notice the celebrity right now trumps just about anything and that tells us a great deal about our society.

I think it’s important to go back to a definition offered by Daniel Boorstin, a very insightful American historian who was the librarian of the Library of Congress years ago. He said that when it comes to celebrity, a celebrity is famous for being famous, not famous for necessarily doing anything, simply famous for being famous. When it came to Oprah Winfrey, there is no doubt that she built an entertainment empire. Between the years of 1986 and 2011, her show, which for most of those years was simply her first name, Oprah, it dominated daytime television and frankly created an entire new dimension of industry and syndicated television. At one point, Oprah Winfrey was not only classified as being wealthy, but by some press reports was the wealthiest African American person ever. And central to that was the fact that Oprah Winfrey was not only a major celebrity and was not only a media star, but Oprah Winfrey was an author.

But not only that, Oprah Winfrey was a brand. Just to say the name Oprah was enough to evoke an entire brand line. It was enough to name a magazine, it was enough to create all kinds of commercial enterprises. And of course, as this article makes clear, it was enough to translate into some form of political power. Oprah Winfrey in the context of the 2008 Democratic presidential race threw her weight behind Barack Obama. And that weight was not necessarily the deciding issue, but it was not an insignificant issue. And you can just ask Hillary Clinton about that.

The Washington Post article goes on to say that to make this point, there are a lot of portraits in the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, that never have a formal unveiling, much less a formal unveiling with the portrait subject very much present and holding court. That’s exactly what did happen, however, this week in Washington DC where Oprah Winfrey was there for the unveiling of the portrait of Oprah Winfrey.

As Kennicott writes, “It’s one thing to have your portrait in the National Portrait Gallery. It’s entirely another to have your portrait formally unveiled there in the grand central atrium with a crowd of adoring onlookers.” Now, given her impact on the culture, I’m not questioning in any sense the appropriateness of Oprah Winfrey’s portrait hanging in the National Portrait Gallery. I do want to talk about her cultural influence because it was not neutral when it comes to so many of the issues that are most controversial in our age. I think what a lot of people miss is that Oprah Winfrey became a brand that pushed the idea of identity politics and frankly pushed the idea of the LGBTQ revolution and frankly pushed the idea of a couple of things that need to be remarked upon here.

For one thing, she was very much a champion of children claiming LGBTQ identity and she actually used her program in order to shame parents who did not enthusiastically endorse the LGBTQ identity claims of their children or teenagers. The other thing is is that she was very much a proponent of mainstreaming the moral revolution, the sexual revolution, every dimension of society, and that includes everything in LGBTQ and in all likelihood doesn’t stop there. That is to say she was basically very much offering what we would describe as a celebrity authority with an emotivist argument. An emotivist argument is one that doesn’t so much seek to convince in terms of, say, rational thought. It instead seeks to change hearts by realigning emotion, realigning the kind of emotional response one might have to a picture, say a picture of a same-sex couple united in marriage.

Oprah Winfrey didn’t so much make an explicit argument in favor of same-sex marriage. She sought, and quite effectively achieved, having a role in moving the way America felt about the issue. When it comes to, say, theology, by the way, Oprah Winfrey was pretty much committed to what you would call a new age model of religion. She considered herself very spiritual and she presented a model of a certain kind of spirituality, but it was severed from, say, any kind of Orthodox Christian foundation or the formal strictures of any kind of organized religion. She herself, I think, actually became something of a new age guru without naming herself that. She simply functioned in that way and is a major proponent of new age thought. And what makes that so interesting is that there were so many people watching the program and her program had a predominantly female audience, although there was a significant sizable portion of males who were watching the program as well.

But it was very much tilted in such a way that it meant to move you and to offer some vague veneer of spirituality, but it was in more of a new age context. Just to make the point of how celebrities like Oprah and this kind of new mode work, I think it’s important to look at this Washington Post article in one particular section. Lonnie G. Bunch III, who’s the secretary of the Smithsonian, he was also formerly the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, he, according to the post, acknowledged that Winfrey’s support for that fledgling museum helped propel him to his current position. He said, speaking to Oprah at the unveiling, “We, the country, are in your debt.” And then the paper says a full 10 minutes before Winfrey and Smithsonian officials took the stage, a reverential hush fell over the argument. One woman in the crowd said simply, “It’s like church.” In an odd, but I think we would all acknowledge very revealing way, that really does tell us something.

Part II

How Should Christians Think About Accepting Private Tax Credits From States for Public Schools? — Dr. Mohler Responds to Letters from Listeners of The Briefing

Now we’ll turn to questions. I always appreciate the questions sent in by listeners. We’ll get to as many as possible. Tim wrote in saying he’s a high school teacher at a Christian school in Tulsa. He says, “My wife is also a teacher at the school. My kids go to the school.” He speaks about the fact that I’ve made very clear that Boyce College and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary do not cooperate with federal funding. And then he says this, “Oklahoma just passed a tax credit for private schools. This is different from a voucher system. What do you think the concerns are for the school in relation to the government having a say in how things are run? Are the concerns different from the federal financial aid program for colleges?”

Well, Tim, very, very good question and I want to start at the very end of what you’re asking about here, when you ask, are the concerns different from the federal financial aid program for colleges? And I want to say yes, I think upfront there probably are significant differences. And the most important is that federal funding comes under the omnibus federal rules and that includes enforcement of issues under federal regulations including Title IX, and that’s a non-discrimination. And, of course, this extends now by action of the federal government to LGBTQ issues, any number of other issues. And so I think any Christian school that participates in those programs, even those that file for an exemption, they have to recognize they are filing for an exemption, the rule is going to be conformity to this government demand, and that means that the schools have to be approved on a list. They have to be qualified. And that’s what we refuse to do.

And there are a handful of other schools that refuse to do the same thing because we think it threatens the autonomy and independence of our institutions. When you ask about a tax credit system or even some voucher systems, those do tend to operate differently, especially at the state level. I think from a Christian perspective, the most important issue is who gets to make the determination of where the money goes and what would be the deciding criteria. And if that’s an individual taxpayer in Oklahoma, I’m pretty good with that. I’m pretty happy with that. If it requires a credential from some kind of, say, government organization or even some kind of quasi government organization in Oklahoma, well I’m quite concerned about that.

But if it’s up to, say, Christian parents to decide to use these tax credits or in another context, something like a voucher, it’s not exactly the same thing as you point out, but they’re to use this tax credit and in order to be able to send children to a Christian school, a classical Christian school, or to use those funds in order to obtain an education for children in any kind of school that would be the parent’s choice, so long as the state is not qualifying the school or using a quasi government agency to qualify the school in a way that quite frankly could impinge upon the autonomy and independence of the school and the convictions of the school, I don’t really see a problem. As a matter of fact, I’m pretty much in favor of many of these programs.

I think giving citizens the economic power that’s very different than creating institutions or schools that are dependent directly upon any support from or involvement by the state. I hope that makes sense. And so I think many of these state efforts are quite positive, but I think the issue is does the agency, which is to say the power of agency, the decision, is it returned to the citizen who’s qualified to make the decision or does the state try to qualify the recipients? Those are two very different things because once the state qualifies recipients, it decides which is the sheep and which are the goats, and that’s a very dangerous thing. That’s exactly the kind of thing I think we need to avoid giving the power to do in that we just say if that’s the system, we’re not cooperating in it period.

Part III

In Christian Ethics, Is Something, Like the Sale of Organs, That Has the Potential of Being Unethical Considered Unethical? — Dr. Mohler Responds to Letters from Listeners of The Briefing

Okay, next, very interesting question sent in by a young man writing a paper. Cameron is his name. He says, “He is writing a paper, is curious on your thought on organ sales.” This means human organ sales. He then goes on to ask, “Is something that has the potential of being unethical considered unethical, for example, from the Christian worldview, the selling of organs as unethical as it devalues human dignity through the exploitation of the poor, partiality towards the rich and potential to open a door to other unethical activity?” In other words, human trafficking. So he’s saying is it unethical simply because it might be unethical?

And that’s a very interesting question, Cameron, and it reminds us of a distinction in Christian ethics between things that are inherently wrong in the act itself. They’re just objectively wrong, and those that might be wrong depending upon the context. And the Christian worldview, the traditional way of doing Christian ethics, it’s very concerned with the fact that too many things will be put in the second category, not recognized as belonging in the first. And so I just have to say that I think I’m unwilling to accept the premise that it’s only a misuse of organ sales that would be unethical. I simply don’t think that God, the creator, gave us our bodies as resources to be sold. I simply don’t think that’s the way it works. Now, I don’t want to rob someone of the opportunity of having a donor organ. The question is how is it ethically procured and then ethically distributed? I think once you bring the incentivization of sale into the commodification of, say, human organs, then what you create is going to be an unethical market, period.

Even if you can’t prove that this particular organ came from a particularly unethical context, the entire system becomes very much contorted by commercial sales of what I think should not be a commercial item or a commercial product. Now, there might be, I would say, some other ethical ways of, say, creating an incentive for certain kinds of organs to be made available. And this takes us back to the question, which is why I wanted to take it in this sequence. It takes us back to the question that was raised from Oklahoma about the difference between, say, taking federal tax money and allowing citizens to claim a tax credit. I think something like a tax credit could be ethically applied when it comes to persons who make a pledge of the availability of organs at a certain point after their death. I think that’s something that could be arranged ethically.

For one thing, there wouldn’t be a market for these organs. There would be some kind of staple amount. Just as in the tax credit, there’d be some kind of staple amount that would be recognized. And, of course, you have all kinds of issues here in terms of whether the agreement could be revoked and all kinds of things. So I’m not saying it’d be easy. I’m not saying that under all circumstances it would be ethical from a Christian worldview. I’m just saying it certainly lowers the ethical risk. And that’s another aspect of Christian moral reasoning. Sometimes you’re not looking at a situation in which you can say, “Okay, A is absolutely right, and B is absolutely wrong.” There are situations in which, especially in biomedical ethics or in medical practice, you have to take responsible action to lower the ethical risk. Now, Cameron, you’ve raised some of the most obvious arguments against just creating a market and human organs, and I appreciate the way you laid that out, the exploitation of the poor devaluing human dignity.

I just want to say that in some sense, many of those issues are so central to the idea of creating a market of human organs that there is no honest way to avoid those complications. And so the only way to avoid that rather unacceptable moral risk is simply by saying, “We’re not going to allow the commodification of human beings.” And yes, when you mention the potential, by the way, of human trafficking, you can see the way this would work. If you create a commodification of human organs, then you create a market and just think of how that works with stolen cars, stolen guns, or for that matter, illegal drugs. They don’t cease to operate. They operate with even greater evil in the context of darkness and the hidden.

I was in a store the other day in another country in which I saw a sign that said, “All of this meat is ethically sourced.” Now is that true or false? Well, it depends upon how you’re going to define what it means to be ethically sourced. But furthermore, are you going to take the assurance of the store selling you this particular cut of meat that it was as ethically sourced as they say? And who comes up with that definition? It’s a far greater problem, a far higher moral risk when you talk about the commodification of, say, a human being or a human body or parts of a human body. That moral risk just escalates. And I think there is, honestly speaking, no way to avoid it.

Part IV

Who Says That Abortion Cannot Be the Intended Purpose of Any Procedure? — Dr. Mohler Responds to Letters from Listeners of The Briefing

Next, I’m going to make reference to a question that was sent in something of a hostile context, and I won’t mention the name. I’ll simply say that this hostile question was sent in very much taking issue and the writer said, “Time for another cathartic email you will delete and ignore.” Well, I didn’t delete it and I’m not ignoring it. We’re talking about it right now. This writer said, “Your take on the Texas abortion case is so awful. You say the Christian biblical worldview position is that abortion can never be the intended purpose of any operation or any procedure.” He then. “Says who? I’m a Christian and I’ve never heard this. You should say this is the SBC’s worldview or your personal worldview. I do not give you permission to speak on my behalf to unbelievers.”

Well, I’m not sure exactly what this man means by believer in this sense, but I’m just going to answer the question as it’s asked. No, that’s the position of historical Christian moral reasoning. And if you’re going to put a label on it, you can say that it comes from primarily Christian ethical thinking that is deeply rooted among both Catholics and Protestants. And then explicitly, in Christian moral reasoning, that’s pretty common among, say, Catholics and Protestants who are pro-life for sure, going back for at least, say, the period from the second half of the 20th century until the present. But it’s based upon a rather consistent body of Christian moral reasoning that goes back to the early church and certainly was presented in very sophisticated form throughout to the intervening centuries between the early church and, say, the emergence of the modern pro-life movement in the last half of the 20th century. There’s a lot more in this. And what’s reflected in this question is a lot of hostility towards, I think, what comprehensively could be described as biblical Christianity.

But nonetheless, this letter concludes, “So keep shaking your fist old man. You are not persuasive to your opponents.” Well, I guess, time will tell. Consider the fist shaken.

Part V

Should Christians Read the Great Works of Western Literature? — Dr. Mohler Responds to Letters from Listeners of The Briefing

On a happier note, next, a question from Connor who’s a junior in university. And by the way, thanks for listening Connor to The Briefing and Thinking in Public. He says, “I’ve become more interested lately in reading the great works of the Western canon, namely Aristotle, Plato, Homer, Kant and others.” And he writes, “I was wondering if you would advise Christians to read these books or not.” And he talks about his desire to understand the culture and all the rest. Hear me emphatically to say, Connor, I think it’s a good thing to read those books. I think it’s an even better and more important thing to read those books as a Christian. And so just given the way you have written this, I’m quite certain you are capable of both, which is to say no one reads a book without some kind of worldview that we bring to the book.

And that’s certainly true for Christians. And I just think we need to be very explicit, and I think we need to understand that when you’re talking about some of these figures, certainly from classical antiquity, there’s very good biblical evidence that people like Paul had read them and that their thought is very much in the background. And I think it’s also important to recognize there is a canon of Western literature in Western thought, and I unapologetically want to champion the preservation of that. That doesn’t mean I agree with all these classical or medieval or modern authors, certainly not. But they are a part of the Western canon. They’ve been a part of the shaping of the Western mind. And Christians need to learn how to read those works and read them critically and read them as Christians, but also with the understanding of the impact these books have had on the history of Western civilization and not by accident.

Part VI

How Does Prayer Differ Between the Old and New Testaments? — Dr. Mohler Responds to Letters from Listeners of The Briefing

Very interesting question sent in by Tara about prayer. She says, “I’ve been studying the Old Testament and wondering about prayer. We definitely see people praying, but my question is whether praying in the Old Testament is different from praying as a New Testament believer?” Tara has obviously been thinking about this and with a lot of biblical background, and she makes this basic distinction between prayer and the Old Testament and prayer and the New Testament with Jesus being our intercessor as we think of Christians praying. And I simply want to say, Tara, you’re onto something I think very important here. I think one of the things we also need to recognize and we just need to remind ourselves over and over again is that the doctrine of the Trinity doesn’t talk about what happened, only, say, since the incarnation of the Son, and that means the coming of Jesus Christ.

And so the Trinity didn’t just then happen. When you talk about the Trinity, you’re talking about God in three persons eternally. So the distinction between the Old Testament and the New Testament is not the existence and inner workings of the Trinity. And so even as the New Testament makes clear, you can’t take Christ out of the Old Testament. And so I would not say that Christ was not in an intercessory or mediatorial sense involved in the prayer of the Old Testament saints. I will say, specifically, I think on very clear biblical authority that the church of the Lord Jesus Christ purchased by the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ in his atonement, who is promised the Lord Jesus Christ as our intercessor and great high priest, we are in the new covenant, absolutely assured and promised that Christ is our mediator. And that’s not just to identify our mediator and our intercessor. It is to promise us that indeed the only one who can be our mediator, a great high priest, is exactly that.

So Tara, I think you’re right to make a categorical distinction in God’s plan and purpose and promise of salvation in terms of the before and after, meaning the coming of Christ and the accomplishment of his saving work on the cross and in his resurrection. And I think Christians are in a very different position because of the fact that we’ve been bought by the Lord Jesus Christ, and we are promised the fact that he is our mediator, our intercessor and great high priest. I think there’s some questions that scripture simply doesn’t answer in terms of, say, exactly how the economy of prayer worked in the Old Testament. I simply think we need to affirm everything that scripture teaches, everything that scripture says, and it’s very clear there are Old Testament saints who prayed.

But that takes us to another issue and that is that when you get to the book of Hebrews and a text like Hebrews chapter 11, or you deal with some of the central chapters in the book of Romans, it is very clear that there will be those from Israel who are in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, who having not yet seen him, believed in him. And that is to say that one of Paul’s points is that it is Christ who was the mediator of salvation for Abraham, and just as Christ is the same mediator for all to come to him by faith either in the promise or in the fulfillment, I think we need to understand that there’s no biblical basis for considering anyone other than Christ to be our mediator, and intercessor, period.

Part VII

Why was Cain So Jealous of Abel’s Sacrifice That He Killed His Brother? — Dr. Mohler Responds to a Letter from a 7-Year-Old Listener of The Briefing

Okay, I always love questions sent in by children, and sometimes these questions are just stunningly intelligent and humbling to us all and very encouraging to us all. So a little boy named Daniel who is seven wrote in and a parent kindly phrased this, “Why was Cain so jealous about Abel’s sacrifice that he killed his brother?” What a great question, Daniel. And I just need to make really clear what God’s word tells us in Genesis chapter 4. For example, we’re told that Abel brought a sacrifice of the firstborn of his flock and also the fat portions. That’s exactly what God evidently wanted.

Cain brought a sacrifice of grain and offering of the fruit of the ground. And what we are told in Genesis chapter 4, verse 4 is this, “And the Lord had regard for Abel in his offering, but for Cain in his offering, he had no regard.” The next thing we are told is that Cain was very angry and his face fell. So Daniel, what a great question. I simply want to say what the Bible tells us here in Genesis chapter 4 is not so much that Cain was jealous of Abel’s sacrifice, he was jealous about the fact that God regarded Abel’s sacrifice. That is to say he liked Abel’s sacrifice, he accepted Abel’s sacrifice and not the sacrifice of Cain. It was God’s favor that made Cain so jealous. Not the sacrifice itself. It was the fact that God had favor on Abel’s sacrifice and not on Cain’s sacrifice.

And Daniel, it’s really important for us to recognize that the reason that God looked at favor on Abel’s sacrifice is that Abel did what was right and what God wanted him to do, even what later in scripture is made a command. And Cain did not. He came up with his own less expensive, less faithful, less obedient sacrifice, and the Lord had regard for Abel’s sacrifice and not for Cain’s. That’s what made Cain so angry, and that’s why he responded with such violence against his brother, so sadly.

And Daniel, I know your parents were very glad to send this question along, and I want to tell you, you and so many other children like you make us very much encouraged by the fact that you ask such good questions about what God tells us in the Bible. To all of you, thanks for listening and keep the questions coming. Just send them to

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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