March 28, 2014
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Friday, March 28, 2014. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
We had sincerely hoped that the world was becoming a safer place, but as we have learned in recent days, in geopolitical terms, the world is actually becoming a more dangerous place, an ominously and threateningly more dangerous place. That was made abundantly clear when you look at the actions taken by Russian President Vladimir Putin. In recent days, he has stolen an entire strategic region of the world. He stole the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine and he got away with it. On the geopolitical stage, he got away with what can only be described as grand larceny, but back on March 19 of this year, President Obama said, “What we’re going to do is mobilize all of our diplomatic resources to make sure that we’ve got a strong international coalition that sends a clear message.” Well the coalition, we now understand, doesn’t exist and the clear message certainly has not been sent. Speaking this week in the European theater, the president was very clear in trying to say all the right things to President Putin and to our European allies about Ukraine. And, yet, as the president said the right things, President Putin is actually not listening or even if he’s listening, he’s not paying attention. He’s unconcerned with what President Obama says or President Obama thinks, and you can add to President Obama, the European nations as well.
Furthermore, he’s learned several very dangerous lessons (that is, President Putin) in recent days. He has learned that America understands, at least in terms of its president, that it is in a weaker and not a stronger position in the world. As David Sanger of The New York Times writes, “Mr. Obama acknowledges, at least in private, that he is managing an era of American retrenchment.” Sanger went on to write, “History suggests that such eras [of retrenchment]— akin to what the United States went through after the two world wars and Vietnam — often look like weakness to the rest of the world.” As the editors of The Weekly Standard said, “Retrenchment looks like weakness because it is weakness, and the consequences of such eras of weakness aren’t happy.” Well, indeed, they’re not. They’re not happy at all, but that’s the world we are now entering. We had thought, even in recent years, that we were living in a period of relative peace and that we were bequeathing to our children and our grandchildren an even safer and more stable world, but the world has not cooperated. Several incidents have brought this to our attention, but none more graphically than the grand larceny of Vladimir Putin and the fact that, even as he got away with stealing the Crimean Peninsula, he now threatens in a very real sense all of the Eastern region of Ukraine, perhaps the entire nation of Ukraine, and, as George Will warned in yesterday’s papers, perhaps even Poland as well. The geopolitical ambitions, the geographical ambitions of Vladimir Putin are not yet fully understood, but his aggression is itself clear. As many people around the world now recognize, a part of the problem is that America’s retrenchment, to use President Obama’s understanding, or our retreat in terms of power and influence has left a very nasty void, and as nature abhors a vacuum, so does the geopolitical scene. Someone will fill that void and Vladimir Putin intends to be, at least in terms of his theater of operations, the power that fills that void.
Speaking in Europe in recent days, President Obama has at least said the right things. Speaking to European leaders, he said, “We must not take for granted the progress made here in Europe. The contest of ideas continues. That’s what’s at stake in Ukraine.” The president is profoundly right that what is at stake is a battle of ideas, a contest of ideas: Western democracy over against Eastern autocracy. The kind of liberty that Americans understand and had hoped that was being recognized by other nations around the world and the denial of liberty in the name of nationalism that marks the leadership of Vladimir Putin. The president went on to say to the European leaders, “We live in a world where our ideals will be challenged again and again. We can’t count on others to meet those tests.” As The Financial Times of London reports, indeed, European leaders made clear by their own behavior that we can’t count on others to do this, to fill this void, to demonstrate to the aggressors of the world that they won’t get away with their aggression. But, as is becoming increasingly clear, we can’t even count on ourselves. President Obama is not part of the solution in so much of this, but rather part of the problem. He has sent a very uncertain sound and he has made the situation worse by saying things such as, “We will not accept such things as Putin’s annexation of Crimea,” but we have basically accepted and that’s the problem. The president has had the habit in this dangerous world of saying things that he hopes will deter aggression, but, as he has discovered, saying things doesn’t make them so. The president drew what he himself called “a red line” that Syrian President Bashar Assad must not cross. He did cross it using chemical weapons against his own people, and he too get away with it. Saying that something is unacceptable when you’re president of the United States and saying it in terms of the world diplomatic context used to mean that the president of the United States intended to do something to demonstrate that we were not accepting whatever the president said was unacceptable. Just think of someone like Teddy Roosevelt or, for that matter, not only George W. Bush, but Franklin Roosevelt or Richard Nixon or even Bill Clinton. But when President Obama says that something is unacceptable, the reality is people around the world know that the pattern is he will accept it.
In its editorial published in yesterday’s edition, The Wall Street Journal said that the lessons sent by the White House comes down to this: Mr. Putin can keep Crimea as long as he stops there. But then the editors asked, but why would he? The US and its allies had promised to exact a cost for his land-grab in Ukraine. Instead, the response has been anemic, as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates put it, and Mr. Putin can logically conclude that the price also wouldn’t be high for an incursion elsewhere in Ukraine or his continuing campaign to destabilize the new government in Kiev. As the editors say, the message that Kiev will understand in all this is: You’re on your own. And, indeed, they are on their own.
What we’re looking at here are some very serious and real constraints on American power, but when it comes to American influence, this is where the president of the United States seems not to understand just how dangerous the world is and, furthermore, how unpersuaded aggressors of the world are by his words and his rationality. The fact is, as President Woodrow Wilson understood during and after World War I, rationality has its limits when you’re arguing with aggressors. Aggressors, as it turns out, are impervious to Western rationality, to moral logic. They crossed those bridges long ago, and when they crossed them, they burned them.
By the way, Thursday’s edition of The Wall Street Journal had a business story that makes a very similar point and it’s very much filled with worldview implications. William Boston, writing for the business pages of The Wall Street Journal, writes about the CEO of Siemens AG. That’s a major European Corporation. The leader of Siemens went to Moscow to meet with Vladimir Putin, and, remember, this is a business based in Europe supposedly standing for democracy. But as Boston writes:
Siemens AG Chief Executive Joe Kaeser met Mr. Putin at his official residence outside Moscow on Wednesday. The men posed for the cameras and talked up Germany and Russia’s special economic relationship. Siemens began conducting business in Russia 161 years ago, when it built the czar’s telegraph network.
The leader of Siemens AG, the CEO John Kaeser, said:
Siemens has been present in Russia since 1853—a presence that has survived many highs and lows. We want to maintain the conversation even in today’s politically difficult times.
In other words, the CEO of this major German-based corporation went to Russia to say, Come whatever, come war, come peace, come Putin the aggressor or Putin the peacemaker, it doesn’t matter. We want to do business with you. We did business with the czars back over 160 years ago. The czars were autocratic, cutting off the heads of serfs and taking their policy. The czars were themselves notoriously evil, taking the property of peasants and executing people with impunity. Vladimir Putin annexes Crimea—no problem, says this capitalist, we’ll simply make sure our business continues. As he said, “We want to maintain the conversation even in today’s politically difficult times.”
In a fallen world, our economic issues are very revealing. The economic incentives for doing business with Russia are not going to keep many European companies and, perhaps, many American companies as well away from the moral problem of doing business with a dictator. It is often said that the Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin said that when the time comes to hang the capitalists, the capitalists will actually negotiate and bargain over who gets to sell the rope. It isn’t actually historically verifiable that Lenin said any such thing, but it sounds like him and, furthermore, the point that is made in the aphorism seems to be hauntingly true. And one of the things we need to recognize when we think about living in this fallen world, a world that is explained only by Genesis 3, not only in terms of the individuals who make it up, but the geopolitical realities we read about in the headlines, the one thing that becomes clear is this: every part of our society, every part of our lives, every dimension of our society is affected by sin. That gets down to the economy as well, where there are people who are right now lining up to do business with Vladimir Putin, perhaps hoping even to take the places of those who might not do business because of moral scruples. It reveals a great deal. It reveals a part of why it is so dangerous to live in this world because the dangers are more subtle and more numerous and all the more threatening than we often want to think they are.
Speaking of living in a dangerous world, a very ominous news report came out on the front page of yesterday’s edition of USA Today. The reporter is Mahi Ramakrishnan, and as he reports:
The pilot of the missing Malaysia Airlines jet is believed to be solely responsible for the flight being taken hundreds of miles off course and there is no evidence of a mechanical failure or hijacking by a passenger, according to an law enforcement official involved in the investigation.
A high-ranking officer attached to a special investigative branch of the Malaysia police force told USA Today on Wednesday that investigators are pressing relatives of the pilot, Capt. Zaharie Ahmad Shah, for information on his behavior leading up to the March 8 flight.
This is one of those stories that tells us of just how much evil can be concentrated in one single individual. This affirms the importance of the morality of human action and the fact that so many incidents in this world are only explained by the actions of human actors, the sinful actions of human moral agents. This also points to the moral context of the disappearance of this jetliner. As it turns out, at least according to this investigator, the reality is that this isn’t something that happened to this plane. It isn’t something that merely happened to the 239 souls aboard. One of those souls aboard, the captain of the airliner, is now suspected of committing suicide and mass murder by diverting the plane from its path and leading to its eventual crash in one of the most remote spots on earth—in the Indian Ocean.
Even as that was reported, other reports were coming that satellite images from France and China and other nations have revealed over 300 different items floating on the surface of the Indian Ocean, but cyclonic winds and other currents have so distributed these materials that even if they are discovered to have come from the Malaysian airliner, it may give no indication whatsoever of where the rest of the plane may be, certainly now, on the bottom of the Indian Ocean.
One of the things the becomes clear here is not only the limits of human rationality and human research, the limits of human technology, the limits of our own investigative ability, but we also come to terms with the fact that there are parts of this planet—not just outer space, but of this planet we inhabit—that are so remote and so unknown to us that it is almost impossible now to believe that there will be any intellectually and morally satisfying end to this investigation. It’s hard to believe that the plane will ever now be found in any reasonable amount of time, and it’s going to be something that will test to those who have lost loved ones on this plane. It will add injury to the great hurt and grief of their loss, and that points out the fact that, again, as we are made in the image of God, God made us rational creatures and our rationality cries out for the demand of an answer. We want to know why, but one of the most haunting and painful realizations of our human existence in this fallen world is that sometimes we actually never get the answer to that haunting question why.
There’s a great deal of conversation in this country about the release this weekend of the new film entitled Noah. It’s by director Darren Aronofsky and it’s getting a lot of attention not so much because of how it tells the story of Noah, but by how it mistells that story. Russell Crowe is starring in the movie and it tells the story of Noah, but it’s not the story of Noah so much as is found in the book of Genesis, but the story of Noah as it was envisioned by Darren Aronofsky, who, in terms of a paraphrase, said that this movie is going to be the least biblical, biblical movie ever made.
There are a lot of problems with this movie. The way it tells the story is actually, well, it’s explained by the fact that if you’re going to make a movie about Noah as Noah is actually described along with the narrative about him in the historical events in the book of Genesis, there isn’t enough there for a major motion picture. The Bible gives us all we need to know about Noah, all we need to know about God’s judgment, all we need to about the ark and God’s purpose in Noah and his descendants, all we need to know about the Noahic covenant (that is the covenant that God made with Noah), but we are not given the kind of dialogue that you will have to have in a movie. We’re not given the details and, furthermore, in the Scripture, we do not find many of the interpersonal dynamics, not to mention the big world conflicts, that’s supposedly are necessary for telling a Hollywood epic. And Darren Aronofsky isn’t deterred by that. He’s filled in the gaps with his own version of the story, a narrative that mixes ecological concerns and animal rights with a retelling of the story that involves conflict and themes that are not found in the biblical narrative.
Now one of the interesting parts of this controversy is that many Christians are debating whether or not the film should have been made since it isn’t true to the Bible, but what’s even more interesting is how many Christians were involved in some sense with the movie, at least early on, and have been champions of the movie, suggesting that Christians should not only go, but should take others to see the movie as well. What we have here is a basic conflict about how to understand the entertainment industry and Hollywood as a subset of that. Christians, I would argue, tend to get far too excited about some things and far too disappointed in others. When it comes to telling stories from the Bible, I need to point out emphatically that the Bible is infinitely better at telling its own story than anyone else, including and especially Hollywood. One of the things this controversy makes clear is that many Christians need to think far more deeply and seriously about our engagement with the products, that is the consumer products, of an entertainment culture and Hollywood is a subset of that culture. Christians often get far too excited about some products and then far too concerned and worried about others, but we need to point out very emphatically that when you’re thinking about Hollywood, we need to keep in mind one fact, one central fact, and keep this ever in our focus. When it comes to telling the story of the Bible, the Bible is infinitely better at telling its own story than anyone in Hollywood, and, furthermore, we need to recognize that Hollywood, at its best or its worst, is always a commercial enterprise and that’s very clear too.
That was made very, very clear in an article that appeared in Bloomberg BusinessWeek on the fact that Hollywood is increasingly discovering Christians and those who are interested in Christianity or a part of the larger culture of cultural Christianity who will buy tickets to go and see these movies. And so even as this movie may be, as its own director states, the least biblical, biblical movie ever made, they’re trying to sell it to Christians as far more biblical than it actually is. Scott Bowles, writing in USA Today, also reveals this fact. He cites Jeffrey McCall, a professor of media studies at DePaul University in Greencastle, Indiana, who said:
Hollywood has the same corporate and relativist values it has had for many years. The producers have, however, identified a market that is underserved and won’t come to the movie theater to watch crazy violence and sex-drenched pots.
Well, it will be interesting to see how the Christian community responds to Noah and to many other movies that are now going to be marketed to Christians, but what we must recognizes is this: we cannot count on Hollywood to tell the story that is ours to tell; the story that the Bible tells infinitely better than anyone else can tell it. And if people are looking for the story to be different than what is found in the Bible, then they’re not actually looking for the Bible story, but for a story of their own imaginative invention. We are well warned by a director who said of this product, this movie is the least biblical, biblical movie ever made. If he’s saying that before we see the movie, we can only imagine what we’ll think once we’ve seen it.
On the other hand, we need to point out that as our friends and neighbors may be seeing this movie, it does give us an opportunity if nothing else to set the record straight. Oh, and as we’re setting the record straight, let’s set it straight in terms of the biblical metanarrative. And that is the reminder that the Noah account, the historical facts related to Noah and the universal flood that took place and the salvation that was pictured in the ark, that all this points to the gospel of Jesus Christ. And the Noahic covenant points to the shift within the book of Genesis from dealing with humanity at large to dealing with what would become the nation of Israel. This is a very important historical chapter not only for the book of Genesis and the Bible, but in human history. It’s a good thing, at least, that many in our culture will be talking about it. Let’s help them to talk about it in ways that are most biblical and that get to the gospel. After all, that’s our point. Let’s keep that in mind.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing. Remember tomorrow’s release of another edition of Ask Anything: Weekend Edition. Remember to call with your question in your voice. Just give us a call at 877-505-2058. That’s 877-505-2058. For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com. I’m speaking to you from Albany, New York. Today, I’ll be delivering lectures at Mid-American Baptist Theological Seminary’s New York Campus. Tomorrow, I’ll be speaking to the Northeastern Regional Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, also meeting here in the Albany area. Perhaps, I’ll have the opportunity to see some of you there. I’ll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.