August 10, 2015
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Monday, August 10, 2015. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Liberal Canadian denomination faces conundrum in discipline case of atheist pastor
Atheism has been very much in the news in recent days. The first news story comes from Canada brought to us by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The headline is this,
“Atheist minister vows to fight removal from United Church due to her beliefs.”Show Full Transcript
Protestant liberalism or what remains of Protestant liberalism in terms of the mainline Protestant denominations is a continuing theological circus. This news story from the CBC is exhibit A. According to the news article,
“An ordained United Church of Canada minister who believes in neither God nor Bible said Wednesday she is prepared to fight an unprecedented attempt to boot her from the pulpit for her beliefs.”
The minister’s name is Gretta Vosper and according to her, the congregants of her church known as the West Hill church at least those that remain, support her view,
“How you live is more important than what you believe in.”
Now one thing the Christian worldview makes abundantly clear is that eventually what we believe is how we live, we live out the ultimate consequences of our worldview. But back to the story, the CBC tells us that this minister, now age 57, was ordained in 1993 and she said,
“The idea of an interventionist, supernatural being on which so much church doctrine is based belongs to an outdated world view.”
A worldview clearly she intends to leave behind. She was called as minister of her Toronto congregation in the year 1997. In 2001, she preached a Sunday sermon in which she said that she doesn’t believe in God, but the controversy really emerged in her church seven years later in 2008, when she decided to do away with the Lord’s Prayer. According to the CBC, that prompted,
“About 100 of the 150 members to leave. The rest backed her.”
So here you have a congregation that was evidently ready to put up with absolutely rank heresy, but when the minister suggested that she was going to do away with the Lord’s Prayer that was too much. Two thirds of the congregation left. That’s only leaving about 50 people, according to the CBC. Recently, Pastor Vosper has become much more ardent and open about her atheism and that has led to a possible conflict with her denomination. That’s what makes this story worthy of our attention. It’s actually not so much the minister, but the denomination that is the news story here.
The United Church of Canada goes back to 1925 when four major mainline Protestant denominations gathered together and formed a union church, the United Church of Canada, another denomination joined in 1968. Like most of the more liberal denominations, it has been in fast decline in recent years. Current statistics indicate that only about 5.7% of all Canadians are actually members of the United Church of Canada. But what makes this story interesting is that when now the issue of this pastor’s atheism has raised the question as to whether she can remain in her pulpit, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, when the denomination decided to ask how they might eject her from the pulpit they had to lookup processes and policies they hadn’t considered for any number of decades. As one minister said,
“We’d never done it before.”
Nora Sanders identified as the general secretary of the United Church of Canada’s General Council issued a ruling in May in which she laid out what was identified as a review process that according to the CBC could ultimately lead to Vosper’s defrocking. The general secretary of the church said that essentially what’s at stake is whether or not this pastor, now an avowed atheist, can be
“Faithful to her ordination vows, which included affirming a belief in “God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
If that sounds like a ludicrous question, well that’s indicative of what this news story really reveals to us. This is a very liberal denomination that is asking the basic question as to whether it has found with this atheist pastor a limit beyond which it isn’t willing to go, but according to the CBC, it’s not at all clear that this denomination can even draw the line at atheism. The pastor at the center of this controversy, the avowed atheist says that she is going to appeal the ruling setting up the process because according to the CBC,
“It puts any minister at risk of being judged and found wanting.”
At this point, the most interesting quotation from the entire article appears and it comes from the Rev. David Allen identified as executive secretary of the Toronto conference of the church. He’s the one who brought this pastors atheism to the attention of the national body, but he said,
“What we don’t want is to limit the scope of beliefs within the church, and yet what was being questioned here was: Has she gone too far?”
That sentence is so important because in essence, it sets out the dilemma of liberal Protestantism of so-called liberal Christianity. Let me repeat the sentence, here this minister said,
“What we don’t want is to limit the scope of beliefs within the church, and yet what was being questioned here was: Has she gone too far?”
Well there’s the quandary. You really can’t put those two clauses together. You can’t honestly and coherently say we want a church in which there are no limits whatsoever to the scope of beliefs and then on the other hand ask the question, has this minister gone too far? If you have no limitation upon the scope of beliefs, then by definition, no minister can go too far. No limit means no limit. As you might expect, the story has been headline news in Canada. Colby Cosh, writing for the National Post, that’s another major newspaper in Toronto, says that as an atheist you never really considered that she would have support for her argument coming from within a church. But what she hasn’t really been paying attention to is the fact that atheism, whether it’s this explicit or not, has been welcomed within many liberal Protestant denominations for a very long time.
Going all the way back to the 1960s, the Episcopal Church had a famously atheistic Bishop, Bishop James Pike and then of course there have been others, such as the now retired Bishop of Newark, New Jersey of the Episcopal Church, John Shelby Spong, who also declared whether he uses the word atheist or not that he no longer believes in theism, much less even monotheism. Not to mention the fact that these churches have routinely allowed the denial of doctrines ranging from the virgin conception of Christ to the bodily resurrection of Christ from the dead to just about anything and everything and that’s the point, having allowed all of those heresies and being determined to draw no theological boundaries whatsoever, how does this church now find the will or even the means by means of policy to remove an openly atheist pastor from the pulpit? The lesson here to us all is clear if you’re going to have no theological confessional requirements, then you will have no theological or confessional requirements. If you’re going to say there’s no doctrine that is outside the scope of our church, then there will be no doctrine outside the scope of your church. If you insist that you have no Creed and no confession of faith, then be honest, you have no Creed and you have no confession of faith and the ultimate result is the Reverend Gretta Vosper in Toronto, Canada. This is where Colby Cosh, the atheist reporter for the National Post sees what many in those liberal Protestant denominations will not see or admit. Speaking of Gretta Vosper’s theology or non-theology, Cosh writes,
“It surely constitutes a sort of final reductio ad absurdum [that is a reduction to the absurd] — an epitaph, perhaps, for polite mainstream religious faith in the Western world.”
That’s exceedingly well said. If what you’re looking for is nothing more than a polite mainstream religious faith, then what’s left in the highly secularized Western world is an atheist in the pulpit.
Arian Foster's decades-old atheism proclaimed in effort to promote secular worldview
The other headline news story on atheism gaining a great deal of attention this time in the United States is coming from ESPN in its annual College Football Preview issue. The magazine has a feature on Arian Foster, its title,
“The Confession of Arian Foster.”
Foster is a running back with the Houston Texans, formally with University of Tennessee, but what reporter Tim Keown is writing about in this news story is that Arian Foster has come out himself as an atheist. As Keown writes,
“Arian Foster has spent his entire public football career — in college at Tennessee, in the NFL with the Texans — in the Bible Belt. Playing in the sport that most closely aligns itself with religion, in which God and country are both industry and packaging, in which the pregame flyover blends with the postgame prayer, Foster does not believe in God.”
Now let’s be clear, according to this very article, Foster’s atheism isn’t something new, it’s traced very far back in terms of his own spiritual beliefs. This is not a recent development. What is more recent is the fact that this has become more well-known and now has reached this college preview issue of ESPN magazine. What the magazine’s news story really represents is the fact that Arian Foster is now willing, perhaps even eager to serve as something of a public symbol for atheism. According to the magazine,
“Moved by the testimonials of celebrity atheists like comedian Bill Maher and magicians Penn and Teller, Foster has joined a national campaign by the nonprofit group Openly Secular, which plans to use his story to increase awareness and acceptance of nonbelievers, especially in sports.”
Then there is a very interesting editorial statement and I quote,
“The organization initially approached ESPN about Foster’s willingness to share his story, but ESPN subsequently dealt directly with Foster, and Openly Secular had no involvement.”
So what’s really revealing about that is that the magazine’s telling us that they only really know about the story or they really only gained interest in writing the story when the group, Openly Secular came to them and said that Arian Foster was willing to tell his story as something of a coming out in terms of nonbelief for atheism. The group Openly Secular told the magazine,
“This is unprecedented. He is the first active professional athlete, let alone star, to ever stand up in support of gaining respect for secular Americans.”
Behind the openly secular movement is a movement to try to get people in terms of the larger mainstream culture, celebrities in particular, to come out as nonbelievers, atheists or secularists of one sort or another. This is their first big score, so to speak, in terms of the world of sports, professional sports in particular, the NFL specifically. Arian Foster was raised as a Muslim, but he moved into the secularist’s camp and according to this article has been there for a considerably long time. The magazine cites Foster’s abilities on the field indicating that in his NFL career,
“Foster, who has run for more than 6,000 yards and been named to the Pro Bowl four times, understands the sensitivity of the topic and how telling his story might be perceived negatively within the conservative, image-obsessed league. “They’re going to stay away from anything taboo, which makes sense.”
The magazine notes that Foster is playing in heavily evangelical Houston, Texas and then quotes him as saying,
“I don’t want an atheist representing my team.’ Now, though, I’m established in this league, and as I’m digging deeper into myself and my truth, just being me is more important than being sexy to Pepsi or whoever. After a while, what’s an extra dollar compared to the freedom of being you? That’s the choice I made.”
Interestingly, the article goes back to his college football days at the University of Tennessee, indicating that if anything he was a more argumentative atheist and nonbeliever during those days. He acknowledged this himself as the magazine writes about his days in Tennessee quote,
“He wielded his defiance like a sword, reveling in the discomfort it generated. If he alienated teammates with his willingness to be different, all the better. His verbal ferocity was all rawness and sharp edges, and it allowed people to project upon him their worst fears.”
So here you have an open acknowledgment that Arian Foster’s atheism isn’t at all new, what’s new evidently is that the newly, more civil Arian Foster the atheist intends to become a public celebrity, a symbol of atheism in America in cooperation with the group Openly Secular. According to Foster, his approach now is different than when he was at the University of Tennessee to quote him,
“I used to try to argue people down and show them the fallacies in their own religion,” Foster says. “That used to be a big deal to me, but now that doesn’t serve my ethos at all.”
Now what all this really indicates is the fact that there is really no news here. That’s what makes the story actually more interesting. That’s what makes it even more interesting that ESPN magazine decided to give this story such attention. It’s a massive very long story. What we have here is the acknowledgement all throughout the article that there is no news here. There is no new atheist in our midst. If anything, Arian Foster, though continuing in his atheism is decidedly milder in his approach to atheism than he was years ago when he was at the University of Tennessee, much less now that he is with the NFL in Houston. No, what this tells us is that the group Openly Secular has decided to make a symbol of Arian Foster and he’s cooperating in that, perhaps even eagerly cooperating and that’s the real news story. There’s a lot of interesting information in this news story about Arian Foster, his story and his current life, not to mention his career in the NFL. There are also some hints in this article of some important issues about the intersection and perhaps even integration of sport and religion in the United States, but if you distill the entire story down what it really represents is something of a press release for the secularist movement in America. And that’s what makes it really interesting that this appeared in ESPN magazine.
It is not an accident; of course, that Arian Foster is a professional athlete, but it’s also not an accident that a group like Openly Secular is looking for a celebrity athlete as a standout to become something of a symbol for the increasing public acceptance of atheism and nonbelief. But what we have here is a story that actually if it’s looked at more closely has the opposite effect. We’re talking here about one player, both at the University of Tennessee at first, and now with the Houston Texans who isn’t even a new atheist that is to say atheism is not at all recent for him and he was an even more vociferous atheist years ago at the University of Tennessee when evidently ESPN didn’t find the story interesting. But Openly Secular, they’ve acknowledged in the story came to them and said, there’s a story here and as the magazine now demonstrates that’s why there’s a story in the magazine.
But the larger issue here for Christians is to understand that there is a public relations campaign on behalf of atheism, agnosticism and other variants of nonbelief in secularism and this is just one indication. Biblically minded Christians have known that we are in a battle of worldviews, but we also know that’s always been true. This isn’t a new development. What’s new is that it appears in a story like this that ESPN magazine’s college football annual edition that does tell us something. It tells us about the challenges we face in an increasingly secular America, and that battle of worldviews is going to show up around virtually every corner and in every aspect of the public square, including now we know the sporting world as indicated in this article in ESPN magazine.
Target stops distinguishing between boy and girl toys in concretization of gender confusion
Next, chalk this up as one hallmark event in America’s Cultural Revolution, a headline in the Washington Post yesterday,
“Target will stop separating toys and bedding into girls’ and boys’ sections.”
Jessica Contrera, writing for the Washington Post says that two months ago, an Ohio mom’s tweet went viral when she called out Target for separating building sets and girls building sets. Now, according to the Washington Post the retailer is fixing the problem for building sets and all toys plus bedding, home décor, entertainment and more. Target’s press release said,
“We never want guests or their families to feel frustrated or limited by the way things are presented,” Target’s press release said. “Over the past year, guests have raised important questions about a handful of signs in our stores that offer product suggestions based on gender. In some cases, like apparel, where there are fit and sizing differences, it makes sense. In others, it may not.”
According to the Post, the biggest makeover is going to come in the toy section,
“Along with grouping all toys together, the aisles will no longer have colored backdrops to indicate gender, such as pink and yellow for girls or blue and green for boys.”
One sure sign of the increasing secularization of our culture is the blurring of distinctions between men and women, boys and girls, the whole issue of sex and gender. The biblical worldview tells us that it’s a part of God’s gift to humanity that we are made male or female and that this is a part of the goodness of God’s creation and it’s a part of our identification in terms of being formed and created by God as an individual, as male or female, determined by our creator and not by ourselves. While Christians understand, operating out of a biblical worldview that culture can distort and corrupt the differences that are inherent being male and female, the essential issue that there is a difference is a sign of the confusion of the secular age, and that is a confusion that is now being celebrated and concretized into policy and procedure just about everywhere you look. Now evidently, that includes the toy aisle and the bedding department at Target.
The incredible confusion our culture is now embracing is demonstrated by the mom identified as the one who sent that tweet complaining about the fact that there were girls building sets in the target aisle according to signs, but it turns out she doesn’t have a daughter at all, instead she is the mom of three boys, ages 7, 9 and 12. And according to the Washington Post, these boys,
“Used to have no problem picking out or playing with dolls.”
The next sentence, remember coming from that mom about her three boys, ages 7, 9 and 12 is this quote,
“These days, they’ll say “Eww, I’m not going in that aisle, that’s girl stuff.”
She goes on quote,
“And we just have to have those conversations, that you can play with anything you want to and there’s nothing wrong with girl stuff.”
Well, you look at this article and what you have are three boys, 7, 9 and 12, who aren’t living up to their mothers understanding of how open they’re supposed to be with going into the girls toy aisle and playing with what they perceived to be girls toys, specifically identified here as dolls. As the article makes clear, her real problem in terms of her worldview isn’t what she finds in the Target store but what she finds in her own house and let’s just state the obvious, changing the signs at Target isn’t going to change those three boys, in terms of their willingness or eagerness to play with dolls. It’s not a signage problem, mom.
In terms of what’s behind this in terms of worldview and agenda the Washington Post is pretty clear that what it identifies as an increased openness to the transgender agenda is at least part and parcel of it, but there’s more of course in terms of the larger intentional confusion about gender and what’s behind that is indicated in a recent article that appeared in Bloomberg BusinessWeek. The title of that article,
“The End of Boys and Girls: These Companies Are Going to Change How Your Kids Dress.”
Now what’s really concerning about that headline is that it doesn’t say ‘The End of Boys and Girls Clothing’ or the ‘The End of Boys and Girls sections in stores’, it says I read it again explicitly,
“The End of Boys and Girls.”
What the Bloomberg article really reveals is that there is an organized effort to bring pressure on companies to change their policies so as to blur the gender distinctions to give up what’s identified here as gender stereotypes but at least one of the authorities cited within the Bloomberg article makes very clear that merely relabeling or even recoloring issues isn’t going to solve the problem when it comes to the children themselves and furthermore, most parents who clearly even now intend for boys to look like boys, girls to look like girls and who still will be looking for a boy section and a girl section whether or not the retailers intend to continue that pattern or not. And as most of the experts cited in the Bloomberg article indicated it’s going to be consumer pressure that will determine this and right now what’s abundantly clear, even in the announcement from Target is that when it comes to clothing, well Target’s said it’s still going to have a boy section and a girl section. When it comes at least to clothing right now, that’s where the Cultural Revolution on gender has met something of an impasse, the question is, of course, for how long? The toy department first, the bedding department with it, clothing we just have to wonder, how long will it be until clothing is next? The Bloomberg article makes very clear that these organized groups have set as their next Target, pun unintended, the clothing section to follow the toys.
One year later, Michael Brown's death symbol of ongoing challenge of racial reconciliation
Finally, yesterday, August 9, marks the one-year anniversary of the death of Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri, after an altercation with police. This led, of course, to weeks, indeed months of unrest in the United States and brought to our attention as a nation and as a church, structural issues that continue to vex us in terms of justice and equality, righteousness and inclusion and the larger and continuing issue of race. Christians are called to be ministers of reconciliation and we are being tested even now a year later, perhaps even now, especially a year later in the aftermath, understanding just how much is at stake here.
A year later, it’s clear that as a nation we still have a very long way to go. Not only in terms of racial reconciliation, but also the larger question of the implications of the gospel, and Christian responsibility in the face not only of Ferguson, Missouri, but in light of our own neighborhoods and our own churches as well. This one-year anniversary should not pass without our notice, it underlines and affirms once again, just how much work remains to be done.