May 13, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Friday, May 13, 2015. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
United Methodists divided over LGBT issues at General Conference in Portland
In terms of major American denominations, it is the United Methodist Church that is likely to dominate headlines over the next several days. That’s because every four years, this large American Protestant denomination holds what is known as its General Conference. As Religion News Service reports, in this general conference, 864 delegates, half of whom are clergy, are expected to meet at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland. Note one very important fact: about 40 percent of all these delegates will come from outside the United States. Now this points to the likely headlines to come that have to do with the LGBT issues. And as Michelle Boorstein at the Washington Post reports, there’s a particular history to the United Methodist Church that explains why this, one of the more liberal Protestant denominations, still declares that homosexuality is sinful and still does not approve of same-sex marriage or of same-sex marriage ceremonies. As she writes,
“Disputes over human sexuality appear to many to be most pressing. This is in part because United Methodists have not changed their stance on homosexuality, whereas much of mainline Protestantism has in some way. The United Methodist Book of Discipline – the group’s book of law and doctrine – calls homosexuality ‘incompatible with Christian teaching.’”Show Full Transcript
She also states,
“The church has also seen huge controversy in recent years as pastors have begun openly bucking the ban on officiating at same-sex weddings, and high-profile disciplinary trials have embarrassed many Methodists.”
Now those last words are particularly important. Michelle Boorstein says that the recent trials have embarrassed many Methodists. But what is really embedded in that is that the embarrassment has gone both ways. Conservatives in the church, the more evangelical members, are embarrassed that the church is even considering revising its position on homosexuality and they are infuriated, not to say embarrassed, that their church has refused to exercise discipline against ministers and even bishops who have openly defied the teaching and law of the church. The liberals in the church are also embarrassed by the trials. They’re embarrassed that they are a part of the only mainline Protestant denomination in the United States that has not fully joined the moral revolution.
This explains why there is so much at stake when the General Conference of the United Methodist Church takes place this past week and into this week in Portland, Oregon. It also explains why there are many who are wondering if United Methodist can hold together, since at this point they include those who insist that the discipline of the church must not be changed and those who absolutely insist that it must. Both sides are claiming that they must define the future of the United Methodist Church, and behind all this is the huge story of American Protestant liberalism.
The United Methodist Church is usually classified with other more liberal Protestant denominations; those denominations include the mainline Lutheran and Presbyterian churches, the Disciples of Christ, the so-called United Church of Christ, and others that are classified in the more liberal wing of the American Protestant tradition. During the early decades of the 20th century, every single one of those denominations took a significant lurch to the left, abandoning what in the case of every one of those denominations have been an Orthodox and evangelical tradition and instead embracing a revisionist interpretation of the Christian faith that forfeited much of the classic Christian teaching found in the New Testament, and replaced it with a more liberal version of what was repackaged as Protestant Christianity.
At the same time, even as those denominations—almost every single one of them—reached the apex of their membership during the 1950s and 60s, shortly thereafter almost every one of them began a dissent into the hemorrhaging of members by the millions. This would include, most particularly, the Episcopal Church in the United States, which as the Wall Street Journal famously said some years ago is likely now to go the way of the dodo. In case you don’t remember, that means extinct. Over the course of the last 20 years, the LGBT agenda has moved through most of these liberal denominations and, having abandoned the inerrancy and authority of Scripture, most of them have found themselves in no position to make any coherent or consistent argument against the LGBT push; but the resistance has come in the United Methodist Church. As Michelle Boorstein of the Washington Post pointed out, the United Methodists are the only one of these major Protestant liberal denominations that has not yet joined the moral revolution. At the same time, the explicit language of the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church declares, let me quote it once again, that homosexuality is,
“Incompatible with Christian teaching.”
That’s the kind of statement that liberals in the church cannot now abide. That’s the real embarrassment. And in the weeks leading up to the General Conference, much-anticipated since it happens only every four years, there were those, especially on the left, who decided to draw attention to their cause and to effectively draw a line in the sand. For example, 111 United Methodist clergy came out in the days before the General Conference as gay, and they did so even as media have reported that upwards of 80 percent of them had not yet come out to their supervisors in the church. These 111 openly gay clergy released a letter in which they charged that their church is forcing clergy to hide their sexual identity. They stated,
“While we have sought to remain faithful to our call and covenant, you have not always remained faithful to us.”
—addressing themselves to their denomination and demanding a change in the book of discipline. A typical headline came on Monday, the day before the Portland meeting began, this headline comes from the Columbus Dispatch in Ohio, and I quote,
“A United Methodist pastor in Reynoldsburg is calling for the suspensions of three fellow clergy members in the wake of Saturday’s same-sex wedding of a minister in violation of church rules.”
Just days before in Charlotte, headlines had ricocheted through the press when a retired bishop and a current pastor of the church also conducted a same-sex wedding in defiance of the teaching and discipline of the United Methodist denomination. Now there are several crucial issues that are at stake here. In the first place, there is the question as to whether the United Methodist Church will stand by its historic scriptural teaching on homosexuality and on the definition of marriage. The second is whether or not it will enforce its own doctrine and law on its own ministers. The bottom line in all of that is that if the church does not enforce its own discipline with its own ministers, it effectively is abandoning that faith that it confesses, whether or not it officially changes its discipline or not. Third, the question is whether or not discipline will be extended throughout the denomination so that it speaks with one voice. Right now it is clearly speaking with more than one voice.
But the fourth issue is also very, very telling. As I said in the beginning of the segment, 40 percent of the delegates who will be present for the meeting in Portland will come from outside the United States. Here’s what’s really, really crucial. The United Methodist Church made a decision decades ago to allow the membership of churches outside the United States. And that’s the source of most of the resistance for calls for the revision of the church’s teaching on sexuality. This is a very interesting turn. When we saw the liberal direction of the Episcopal Church, going all the way back to 2003 when the denomination elected an openly gay bishop and continuing through the church’s absolute capitulation to the homosexual on LGBT issues, one of the things we saw is that an apparent division was quickly made clear between the American Episcopal Church, mostly extremely liberal, and the Anglican churches to which they were related around the world, most of them, especially in so-called developing nations, very, very conservative. This has led to an inevitable contrast between two different visions of Anglican identity. Now there are two rival visions of Methodist identity and as the delegates to the General Conference will be meeting in Portland, at least one major division will be between the majority of those who will be representing churches and districts inside the United States and those that will be representing churches outside the United States.
By the end of next week, a great deal will be clarified and we’ll be looking very carefully at the developments as they eventuate from this General Conference at the United Methodist Church. But there are huge lessons here already. Even as the Methodists are now conducting their business and will be into next week, it is very, very clear that we are looking at a church that is going to be defining its sole and its substance in terms of its teaching and its faith as we look not only to the next four years, but to the generation to come. And we also need to recognize that this is a church that is historically linked to the Wesley brothers, John and Charles Wesley—John Wesley in particular, who is often honored and credited as the founder of what became known as the Methodist movement. We simply need to note that John Wesley, committed as he was to classical Orthodox Christianity, could not have imagined that a church that would be known by his name or a movement that would trace itself to his influence would adopt any radical position such as that now demanded by the moral revisionists on the issue of homosexuality.
One of the interesting things to ponder is this: the Discipline of the United Methodist Church states clearly that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. We need to note this: that is exactly what John Wesley would’ve believed back in the 18th century and that is exactly what is now at stake in the debate going on in Portland. What the liberals are calling for is not just a change in the church’s teaching, but a repudiation, an absolute reversal, of what the church has taught on the basis of Scripture for over 2000 years.
From debates in Islam to Yelp reviews for psychics, a secular society can't escape theology
Next, we often observe that in this secularized age it is increasingly difficult for secular authorities to come to terms with any kind of legitimately theological argument. That’s what draws attention to a couple of stories that have recently run in the New York Times, both of them dealing with theology, but in most cases without really recognizing what is at stake. In the first of these articles, the word theology actually and shockingly appears in the headline. The story is by Laurie Goodstein, the headline is this,
“Muslim Leaders Wage Theological Battle, Stoking ISIS’ Anger.”
It’s a truly important story because it tells us of a division within Islam having to do with holy war and having to do with the jihadist aims of the group known as the Islamic State. The article in the New York Times tells us of Muslim theologians who are pushing back in terms of the ISIS agenda claiming that ISIS or the Islamic State is not actually following in accord with historic Muslim teaching, but is instead following an aberrant theology. Now as the article makes clear by both explicit statement and implication, the imams or the Muslim leaders involved in pushing back theologically against ISIS represent a minority, but a very important minority. The interesting thing for us most particularly is that the New York Times in this article has to take theology seriously.
Now, I’m not in the first place arguing that the New York Times explicitly has an animus against theology. Rather as an indication of a secularizing age, you can no longer depend upon the fact that even the New York Times would have someone on staff who would actually know much about theology and be able to make theological judgments in a news story of this scale. Christian readers of an article like this can only hope, on the one hand, that those who are making this kind of theological argument in Islam can gain some traction. That would be good for the entire world. On the other hand, we simply have to note that you’re looking at a society increasingly in terms of Western nations that is incapable of honestly or accurately dealing with any kind of theological claim or evaluating any kind of theological teaching.
The New York Times, in terms of this article, seems to hope that these Muslim authorities are right rather than the Islamic State. They clearly are hoping that these Islamic authorities would gain influence at the expense of the Islamic State. But now in a society that is growing more and more secular, we see that it is also growing more and more incompetent, even of dealing with theology as a discipline or as a mode of thought and, furthermore, even as the historic shaping force in Western civilization.
The theology that appears here is in the context of a debate within Islam, but if this were a theological debate inside Christianity, say between two Christian denominations, you wouldn’t count on most secular newspapers in this country knowing much how to evaluate that discussion or debate either. The big lesson in terms of this news story is that a secular society really doesn’t have a very strong argument theologically speaking in any direction. And what we’re now seeing in the West, especially in many Western European nations, is that a resurgent Islam is filling the space left by a retreating Christianity. What is not stable in its place with Christianity being marginalized is any kind of secular vision. As we should not be surprised as Christians, that kind of secular vision represents a vacuum that will be filled by something.
To the great surprise of those living in Europe in the 20th century, it turns out that the force filling that vacuum is increasingly Islam, and that’s why even the New York Times has to pay attention to a theological debate inside Islam. But tellingly, the second series of articles in the New York Times dealing with theology doesn’t acknowledge theology at all. Instead, both articles are written by Michael Wilson in the “Crime Scene” column in the New York Times, and both of them have to do with crime; but actually both of them have to do with theology as well. And in this case, it is the theology of paganism or the New Age movement. And in both cases, it has to do on the one hand with tarot cards and with psychics.
It turns out the law enforcement authorities in New York are cracking down on operations related to fortunetellers or tarot cards or psychics who are giving false readings in order to bilk people out of their money. That’s why this shows up in the “Crime Scene” column and, interestingly, Michael Wilson tells us that even tarot card readers, fortunetellers, and psychics in New York City are now being evaluated on the website and app Yelp. As Michael Wilson writes,
“The reviewers on Yelp — where everyone is a critic with up to five stars to bestow or withhold — were not complaining about the usual staples: an overcooked steak, or poor service, or a botched pedicure. They were writing about a woman named Samantha, whose business on East 59th Street is more personal in nature. She is a psychic.”
He goes on to report,
“Yelp reviews of psychics apply a modern lens to an age-old practice. People have claimed for centuries to have psychic powers, and their methods — and, for some, their schemes — have not changed appreciably over time. Nor has a business model that has gotten by on word of mouth and storefronts and signage that seem exotic.”
It turns out there are entire store front sections of New York City in which there are competing spiritualists, fortunetellers, tarot card readers and others, and Yelp is the app which is trying to help those finding credible service in those lines, to find those who are more credible than others. They are actually rating psychics. One psychic cited in the article complained about her own customers and the rating saying that,
“They have delusions of grandeur.”
The psychic said,
“They say, ‘If I don’t like my reading, I’m going to give you a bad review.’”
Now comes a really interesting section,
“Several New York psychics have been reviewed by the same person, Vinny Pinto, 65, a clairvoyant connoisseur of sorts who lives in Maryland and visits the city several times a year. A self-described “mystic, spiritual healer and spiritual guide,” Mr. Pinto seeks tarot card readings and turns to Yelp to pass judgment.
“‘Hopefully they may eventually be of some use to someone.’”
In August 2013, according to the Times,
“Mr. Pinto visited a psychic on West 43rd Street who called herself Cristina. ‘Cristina did try an upsell attempt,’ he wrote on Yelp. ‘She told me that my aura was full of negative energy, and offered to clean it for an additional fee of $450, which I politely but firmly declined.’”
But readers of Mr. Wilson’s column in the New York Times would have recognized that psychic name because the previous week, he had run an article on the fact that she is in jail, he explains, as in the second article saying that the psychic had taken more than $550,000 from one man to clean evil spirits from his past and to unite him with a dead woman. It turned out, shockingly, that she could not deliver on these promises. In the first article in the column by Michael Wilson, he refers to this woman’s arrest and says that when police came back after her arrest and when she was in jail, they discovered that her psychic sign was back on and sitting at her desk, also continuing the services, was none other than the psychics mother-in-law.
All these stories taken together, just from a few recent days in the New York Times, demonstrate that even a society that prides itself on becoming more and more secular, theology never fully recedes into the background. Inevitably the New York Times has to deal with the theological debate inside Islam and, furthermore, it has to deal with theological issues, even as it is dealing in the “Crime Scene” column in successive days with the determination of New York law enforcement authorities to weed out the good psychics from the bad, and the fact that the users of psychics and other fortunetellers and tarot card readers are now rating their experiences on Yelp. One of the things we see repeatedly is that when a society abandons Christianity, rejecting it in order to claim a more modern identity, it is swiftly accompanied by a return to ancient paganisms. Now that return is all too clear on the streets of none other than New York City.
Sexual morality is out; food morality is in—but having a "moral" diet is harder than you think
Next, one of the other things we often observe is that in a society that is increasingly morally confused, moral energy that had been addressed to something like sex instead gets addressed to something like food. And we are watching a society that is growing more and more uncertain about the morality of sex but is growing more and more certain, at least among some, when it comes to food ethics. And that raises an article that recently appeared, it was written by Andrew Smith, an assistant professor of English and Philosophy at Drexel University. The title of his article,
“Why it’s impossible to actually be a vegetarian.”
And that’s the entire point of his article. He concedes the fact that there are those human beings who only eat vegetation and would not eat any form of meat. But his point is this: that vegetation doesn’t grow in the oxygen of the atmosphere, it grows in the ground, and that ground is filled with nutrients that are directly drawn from the decomposing matter of animals, not from just other plants. And thus if one is eating plants, one is indirectly, to be sure, also eating animals. And he points to a very modern quandary. Those that have translated so much of their moral energy into their diet may find that being a food Puritan is indeed a lot more difficult than being a sexual Puritan, which is to say when it comes to matters of ethics concerning food, things get a good deal more complex than they do, at least in terms of the Christian worldview, when it comes to matters of, say defining marriage, or the appropriate boundaries of human sexuality.
Another thing we increasingly note is that as a society is growing more unsure about where to draw boundaries on something like gender, it seems to be drawing more confident boundaries when it comes to matters related to food. There are not only vegetarians, there are vegans, there are those who eat only eggs, those who eat only fish, those who eat only this or that and each now has its own dietary guidelines and, increasingly, its own sections in the food store and perhaps even its own restaurants right down the street. I’ll let the vegans and vegetarians argue as to whether Andrew Smith is right when he points to the fact that it’s impossible to be a vegetarian, but it is at least interesting to note the argument. God made a world in which there are both plants and animals, and it’s not so easy to separate them when it comes to one’s diet.
Game on: Boys perform better than girls in reading when it's presented as a game, not a test
Next, there’s one final word and it has to do with children and reading, in particular boys and reading, Ann Lukits reports for the Wall Street Journal that when it comes younger boys if you want to get them to read more, don’t tell them it’s for their good, tell them it’s a game. Lukits reports,
“A new study challenges the notion that girls are better at reading than boys.
“The research, in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, showed that boys outscored girls on reading tests if they were told the tests were a game. But boys scored significantly lower than girls when told the tests were assessments of their reading skills.”
The children tested, both boys and girls in the study, were in the third grade in France and as it turned out, there was a pattern easily detectable in these studies. If you told the boys it was a game, they outperformed; if you told them it was a test, they underperformed. As we note, we’re living in a society that is increasingly refusing even to use the word boys and girls, but the Wall Street Journal and the social psychologist in France couldn’t avoid it, because they noted the difference between boys and girls and a difference that they understand tells us something. If you tell boys that reading is a game they do better; if you tell them it’s an educational experience they do worse. The lesson for parents in all of this, when it comes to boys and reading, game on.