January 13, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Wednesday, January 13, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Secular worldview unable to cope with irreducibly theological challenges presented by Islam
A fast secularizing society—especially the level of its cultural elites—finds theology very easy to dismiss, almost as a reflex. And furthermore, it’s very difficult for many secular intellectuals to believe that theology can really matter, anytime, anywhere, to anyone. That’s one of the reasons that the Western secular elites are having such a difficult time coming to terms with the reality of Islam, not only the reality of Islamic terrorism, but the reality of Islam itself. One reflection of this came in yesterday’s edition of USA Today when Oleg Svet, an international specialist, wrote an op-ed piece for USA Today in which he made the point that the majority of Muslims around the world do not support ISIS. So good so far. But what almost no one in the secular press does is actually go to the math. The very surveys and research estimates cited in articles like this—again their point is the vast majority of Muslims around the world say that they do not have a highly favorable view of ISIS—those very reports indicate that there are something like at least 100 million Muslims who say that they do. That’s big news. That’s big trouble. But it’s a big gap in terms of the media’s understanding, and in this case, the secular media are simply mirroring the other secular elites.
Furthermore, no one in the secular media seems to be able to go to the next step, and that is to ask the obvious question: then what is the understanding of Islam that is held by most of the Muslims around the world today? Where does it come from? How do they understand their faith, and what would that look like in the modern world? Those are necessary questions, but it seems that very few, if any, in the secular elites are ready to ask those questions or to answer them honestly. That’s one of the reasons why another article that appeared yesterday, this time in the Wall Street Journal by Dorothy Rabinowitz, is especially important. The headline in her article,Show Full Transcript
“Denying the Obvious About Islamist Terror.”
She writes about the fact that in the United States, or for that matter also in Western Europe, these days, whenever there is a horrifying incident of Muslim terror, terror undertaken by a Muslim in the name of Islam, the Western secular elites respond almost immediately by insisting that this has absolutely nothing to do with Islam. For example, in recent days there was a man who attacked a police officer in Philadelphia. That’s well known. It was well documented. As Rabinowitz writes,
“Clear security video images showed the assailant in his flowing white dishdasha—a robe favored by Muslim men—running toward the patrol car, shooting, sticking his hand in the window, and racing speedily away. Pictures too of the police officer lurching out of the car to give chase.”
The would-be assassin had emptied his gun of 13 shots hitting the police officer three times. As Rabinowitz reports,
“The wounded shooter, Commissioner Ross revealed, told police after his capture that he had mounted the attack in the name of Islam, that he believes that ‘the police defend laws that are contrary to Islam.’ The man apparently wanted to talk only about his devotion to Islam.”
But then Philadelphia’s Mayor said, as Rabinowitz says,
“Undaunted by anything he’d heard so far, Mayor Kenny then came to the microphone and declared: ‘In no way, shape or form does anybody in this room believe that Islam or the teaching of Islam’ had anything to do with the attack. ‘This was a criminal with a stolen gun.’”
As if that settles the matter. As Rabinowitz makes clear, this is a massive example of theological evasion. It is political evasion to be sure; it is a form of modern political correctness. But what we’re looking at is a pattern that Rabinowitz documents is happening over and over again. Western secular elites respond to all of these incidents by saying this has nothing essentially to do with Islam. As Rabinowitz writes,
“Americans have learned to expect, after every Islamist terror attack, lectures instructing them that such assaults should in no way be connected to Islamic faith of any kind.”
Rabinowitz calls this “the sermonizing reflex,” and she discusses this as, “a quintessential element.”
In terms of the secular elites. this “secular sermonizing reflex” as Rabinowitz calls it is not limited to the United States. Not hardly. She writes,
“Much of Germany is, today, still in shock over the coordinated assaults that took place New Year’s Eve, when bands of young men surrounded, sexually molested and robbed women in the streets of Cologne—molesters unanimously described by eyewitnesses to have been of Arab and North African origins. For four days following the mass assaults, Germany’s ZDF public TV station reported nothing about the attacks.”
In Cologne, the city where the attacks took place, the police chief,
“…would soon stand accused of concealing that the assailants were Middle Eastern males.”
Also, the Mayor of Cologne went on to say,
“…that it was ‘absolutely impermissible’ [those are her words] to suggest that the perpetrators could have been part of the recent refugee flood into Germany.”
However, Rabinowitz writes,
“Within days investigators were able to report that most of the 33 suspects rounded up were asylum seekers.”
Rabinowitz is onto something very important here. She is outraged and she expects the readers of her article to be outraged as well. But much of the outrage will not go far enough. It will be directed towards someone who misses the obvious, but not towards the reason why. And the reason is that the secular elites, including the political elites, in so many cases have adopted a secular worldview that simply doesn’t allow for theology to play any important part. That means that theses secular elites are voluntarily, unilaterally disarmed when it comes to understanding a true issue of theological conviction, and that’s exactly what the West is facing in the challenge of a resurgent Islam. While it is true—we must say that it is true and be thankful that it is true—that the vast majority of Muslims in the world are not launched upon a jihad against the West and are not involved in terrorism, the reality is that Islam is driven by a theological dynamic of conquest and of sharia law, one that is fundamentally at odds with the entire project of the modern age in the West, of Western civilization, and it has been so, we should note, for hundreds of years.
A similar article appeared also in yesterday’s edition of the Wall Street Journal. Bret Stephens, writing in the Global View column points out the very same thing. Stephens writes with particular criticism of German Chancellor Angela Merkel saying that Merkel and so many other German political leaders simply failed to tell the truth in the aftermath of the Cologne attacks. The Christian worldview reminds us that as creatures made in the image of God, we are inherently theological. We are theological by structure. As spiritual beings, we may deny the importance of theology, but even that makes an emphatic theological point, and that is the ability of human beings, fallen human beings in our fallen state, to lie to ourselves, even the big lie that God does not exist and that theology does not matter. But as the Bible makes clear, God does exist and every single human being at some level has a knowledge of it, even if it’s a knowledge they do their very best to deny. And the Bible emphatically makes the point that theology is always significant and it is always in play.
In a very interesting controversy that erupted just over the last couple of days, the oddest angle of testimony to the importance of theology has come from the world’s most famous atheist, Richard Dawkins. For the better part of the last two decades, Richard Dawkins has been the world’s most famous, and arguably the world’s most influential, atheist. His book The God Delusion was a bestseller, and he has been in the public square for the better part of 20 years arguing assertively for the elimination of religion from public life. But all of the sudden in just the last couple of days attention has been drawn to a comment that Richard Dawkins made back in 2010, a comment very clearly to the effect that, after all, theology does matter. The interview that Richard Dawkins gave to The Times of London back in April 2010 was not noted by most because it was in the context of a larger story that did not draw attention to Dawkins himself. But there it is. And I’m holding my hands right now the text of the interview he gave back in 2010, where he said,
“’There are no Christians, as far as I know, blowing up buildings,’ Dawkins said. ‘I am not aware of any Christian suicide bombers. I am not aware of any major Christian denomination that believes the penalty for apostasy is death.’”
Dawkins went on to say,
“I have mixed feelings about the decline of Christianity, in so far as Christianity might be a bulwark against something worse.”
Those last words are fascinating. Here you have the world’s most famous atheist, saying that Christianity, though he wants it to disappear may actually be something of a, well, let’s just use his words,
“…a bulwark against something worse.”
The article by Ruth Gledhill—again, originally published in 2010 when she was the paper’s religion correspondent—included these words,
“In Britain religious belief is in a freefall according to the most recent figures from the National Center for Social Research. Over the past two decades, the number of people describing themselves as atheists or agnostics has risen to 37%, while those identifying themselves as Christian has dropped from 66% to 50%.”
“Even among the world’s most famous atheists, the crisis of faith among Christians in Europe has been met with concern.”
When Richard Dawkins was, here in 2010, saying that, even though he opposed Christianity and its influence in public life, he was concerned of the decline of Christianity because it,
“…might be a bulwark against something worse.”
He was saying in his own inescapable way that theology really does matter, that theological beliefs have consequences, and when Richard Dawkins looks around the world he sees a theology and a set of theological consequences that, in his view, would be something far worse than Christianity. That tells us a very great deal. And Dawkins’ comment also reveals the specific set of theological beliefs that he is quite concerned would be worse than Christianity, far worse. Remember that in this statement he says,
“There are no Christians, as far as I know, blowing up buildings. I am not aware of any Christian suicide bombers. I am not aware of any major Christian denomination that believes the penalty for apostasy is death.”
—very clearly references to Islamic terrorism and to the basic structure of sharia law and its sanctions, including the death penalty against what is perceived to be blasphemy.
Record low attendance in Church of England indicative of lack in theological substance
Next, speaking of the process of secularization and the declining influence of Christianity in the Western world, particularly in Great Britain, yesterday’s edition of The Telegraph included an article by John Bingham in which he reports,
“Attendance at Church of England services has plunged to its lowest level ever as the Archbishop of Canterbury warned it was battling to maintain its place in an increasingly ‘anti-Christian’ culture.
“Official figures – based on an annual pew count – show that only 1.4 per cent of the population of England now attend Anglican services on a typical Sunday morning.
“Even the Church’s preferred “weekly” attendance figures, which include those at mid-week or extra services, has slipped below one million for the first time ever.”
This is an astounding report, and we’re growing accustomed to seeing increasingly dire statistics coming from Great Britain. Britain has become a text-case example of a nation, a modern, industrialized, information-age nation that has been plunging into secularism, so fast, as a matter of fact, that it has been hard to measure. For example, the numbers that were reported just yesterday, the percentages of Britain’s attending Church of England church services fell so fast, even just since 2004, that it is in the double digits. As Bingham writes,
“Overall average attendances at Sunday services across England fell by 22,000 to 764,700 in 2014 – a fall of seven per cent in just five years.”
He went on to say,
“The proportion of the population attending Sunday services now is only around one third of that in the early 1960s.”
Just as Christmas was approaching at the end of last year, Bingham had offered another extremely insightful article that ought to have our attention. In that article ,published on the 13th of December, Bingham wrote,
“The Anglican Church in the northern hemisphere could face ‘catastrophic’ decline within 10 years.”
—not only because the average attendance has been steadily falling, indeed the word plummeting comes to mind, but because the people who are most active in Anglican churches are elderly women. Bingham wrote,
“The bleak assessment of the future of Anglicanism emerges in a unique study of the role of older women in congregations by Dr. Abby Day, a sociologist and expert on religion in society at Goldsmiths, University of London.”
“That the full extent of the contribution of the ‘silver ladies’ of parishes, has been consistently underestimated and overlooked, she argues, going far beyond filling the pews on Sunday mornings to organizing and facilitating the day-to-day-life of most parishes.
“Their absence will, she concludes, trigger an ‘inevitable acceleration’ in the long-running decline in numbers.”
Now putting all this together, you would think that where growth is found in the Church of England church leaders and other observers would find this to be a good thing. The article published yesterday by John Bingham in The Telegraph points to the fact that, even as the Church of England has been facing a precipitous decline, there are exceptions, and those exceptions are almost exclusively churches that are identified as evangelical—Anglican parishes that are clearly evangelical, pastored by evangelical ministers and preaching with evangelical conviction. But if you think that the Church of England’s leadership would be universally happy about this, the only place where growth is right now found in the Church of England, you would be wrong, and the most shocking example of that comes in this week’s edition of The Economist in an article about the meeting of the Primates of the Anglican Communion I discussed yesterday on The Briefing. But in this article in The Economist, the Anglican Bishop of Buckingham, Alan Wilson, says,
“What about the people who would rather stick their head in a food mixer than become an evangelical?”
Now just think about those words coming from a sitting Bishop of the Church of England. Here you have the bishop of a church that is in precipitous decline where the only signs of life are found amongst evangelicals who says, let’s just use his word, that there are liberal Anglicans,
“…who would rather stick their head in a food mixer than become an evangelical.”
According to The Economist,
“He worries that the increasing number of people who affiliate only loosely or not at all with the Church of England will be alienated.”
That has to rank among some of the most ill-mannered—not to say ludicrous and atrocious—statements I’ve ever seen made by a church leader of any denomination of any church anytime. Here you have a church leader who is afraid that the evangelicals in the Church of England—the only group representing churches that are attracting new members—might alienate the larger society. Well, let’s just consider for a moment, the larger society is clearly already alienated from the Church of England. It’s a bit late for liberals there to worry about alienating the culture, but this is one of the central issues that those who think from a Christian worldview should keep very much in mind. Theological liberalism always comes with the urgency that the Christian faith, in terms of its doctrines and moral teachings, must be accommodated to a new secular reality or there will be an alienation of that society from the church. Theological liberalism in Germany and in Europe first, and in the United States later, and in much of North America, theological liberalism came with the promise. If you’ll just adjust Christian theology to a new age, the new age will be attracted to Christianity. Not only is that what the Bible describes as apostasy, an abandonment of the faith, that is furthermore a recipe for denominational disaster, and the Church of England is exhibit A of that very disaster.
By the way, this article also introduces a new theological category that should also have our attention. One of the researchers discussing the secularization of Britain in general, and in particular the spiritual condition of Britain’s 18 to 34-year-olds, describes an incredibly large number—that is about 67%—who may hold no religious identification with any church, but who still,
“…occasionally or regularly pray.”
That new theological word: “the fuzzies.”
This church researcher says that those who hold to this kind of new spirituality without any connection to historic Christianity, their doctrine-less spirituality means that they have been designated “the fuzzies.” Frankly, I think that’s an incredibly apt and appropriate term. Our secularizing world is thus more and more populated by people who are “the fuzzies”—not only in Europe, Great Britain, but also in the United States. But this much is clear, and it’s clear from the pages of Scripture, and it is clear from the pages of church history, it’s clear from even this recent research reported about the Church of England, a fuzzy church preaching a fuzzy faith doesn’t even draw fuzzy people—“the fuzzies,” as this sociologist described them, who hold to a fuzzy faith. It turns out, in other words, that those who hold to this kind of fuzzy faith aren’t even attracted to a fuzzy church. God bless those who are preaching the gospel, and preaching the Word wherever they are found. And as this report makes clear, it is these evangelical parishes in the Church of England that are the only churches that are growing. And as we’ve also seen, they are the very churches that are now facing opposition from bishops within their own denomination.
German publication of annotated 'Mein Kampf' a testament to the tenacity of evil ideas
Finally, it was on April 19, 1951 that General Douglas MacArthur spoke to a joint session of Congress and offered the memorable lines,
“Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”
Keep that in mind as you also remember that bad ideas never die, and sometimes they don’t even fade away. As a matter of fact, in a fallen world, bad ideas have a remarkable tenacity, and the worst, most evil ideas seem to have a remarkable tenacity. Keep this in mind as the New York Times reported in recent days, Melissa Eddy is the reporter,
“At a time when nationalist and far-right politics are again ascendant in Europe, a team of German historians presented a new, annotated edition of a symbolic text of that movement on Friday: ‘Mein Kampf,’ by Adolf Hitler.”
“The Nazi leader’s manifesto, which first appeared as two volumes in 1925 and 1927, was banned in Germany by the Allies in 1945 and has not been officially published in the country since then. A team of scholars and historians spent three years preparing a nearly 2,000-page edition with about 3,500 annotations in anticipation of the expiration on Dec. 31 of a 70-year copyright held by the state of Bavaria.”
The article goes on to make very clear that this republication of Mein Kampf in Germany is coming with annotations and footnotes that are supposed to explain what Hitler was up to and to detail the effects of his thinking in order that those who read this new edition would be deterred from agreeing with Hitler in terms of his evil, horrifying and murderous arguments. But this raises a very interesting point from the Christian worldview. Is it possible to reproduce an evil text, a text so demonstrably evil as Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf and think that somehow we’ve taken the sting out of its evil by adding annotations and footnotes? Upon reflection, that’s a pretty ludicrous idea.
You can draw very easily and rightly a direct line from Hitler’s Mein Kampf to the atrocious Holocaust undertaken by the Third Reich under Adolf Hitler’s leadership. You can draw a direct line from this text to the murderous concentration camps of the Third Reich and the horrifyingly named “final solution” whereby Hitler and his regime sought to rid the world of its entire Jewish population. No amount of footnotes, no amount of historical or other commentary is going to remove the evil from those words written by Adolf Hitler, and that’s the problem. And that’s a crucial insight from the biblical worldview. The worldview of the Bible reminds us that evil has a horrifying tenacity. Evil ideas have a horrifying endurance, and there is simply no way you can remove or mitigate the evil of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf simply by adding commentary and footnotes. But in itself, that becomes a parable of our age. The biblical worldview also affirms the fact that words matter. And evil words like the words of Adolf Hitler have an evil and an evil power, even though Adolf Hitler himself has long been dead. Ideas do not die so easily.