March 1, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Wednesday, March 1, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Echoing Herbert Marcuse, John Irving urges Hollywood to be "intolerant of intolerance"
The culture production industry is primarily bicoastal, that is, concentrated on the East coast and the West coast. And, of course, you have both news and entertainment on both coasts, but news predominates in the Northeast and film and the entire Hollywood complex dominates in Southern California. That’s why so much of the cultural air here as I’m in Southern California right now has been taken up by the Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday night and all that it means to this most famous industry in the city of Hollywood.
There’s a lot to it. Of course there are very deep issues at stake. You might not know that by looking at the current headlines which seem to be consumed with attempts to assign blame one way or the other in terms of the mix-up in the best picture category. But the big issues really have to do with the worldview significance of what was taking place not just on Sunday night, but in the entire industry and its influence in terms of how Americans think, what Americans believe, and how Americans feel.Show Full Transcript
And this leads me to a very specialized periodical unknown to most Americans known as the Hollywood Reporter. It’s a very important periodical, a very important news vehicle for those inside the culture production industry. And in anticipation of the Oscars event on Sunday night, the Hollywood Reporter put out its March 3 edition by date, and included in the addition is an essay by novelist John Irving suggesting how Oscar winners should craft their speech if indeed they do receive the coveted Oscar. The headline of the article,
“You’ve got a global audience, use it.”
John Irving you might remember is the author of the Cider House Rules, that is a novel that got a great deal of attention decades ago. It’s a novel about abortion. John Irving is unquestionably pro-abortion, he styles himself as pro-choice. He won an Oscar himself in the year 2000 for the screenplay for the movie, Cider House Rules, based upon his previous novel. That novel, you may remember, also directly addresses the issue of abortion. But what makes this particular essay in the Hollywood reporter so important is the actual advice that John Irving offers. Just again, remember the headline and the urgency of it:
“You’ve got a global audience, use it.”
John Irving used it in his own way in 2000 making a pro-abortion speech. Now he offers advice for others in Hollywood following the same example, not in effect wasting the opportunity that is afforded them by that microphone after they win an Oscar. But what makes this essay of such worldview significance is the actual advice that John Irving offers, because that advice comes down to a formula, he offers not just once, but twice. He goes on to say that he’s not calling for politics per se in the speeches, he is calling for anyone who wins one of these awards in Hollywood to say whatever is on his or her mind, and clearly it’s intended that that would be political, and the politics very much expected from the left. But all of that pales in terms of the phrase that he uses twice. Irving writes,
“Whatever the protocol for Oscar acceptance speeches is or was, the creative community has an obligation to be intolerant of intolerance.”
Now there’s that phrase “intolerant of intolerance.” I’m going to remind us in a moment we’ve heard that phrase before. But before turning to its past, we need to understand that Irving uses it twice. He ends his advice this way,
“Here’s the opportunity that Oscar winners are given, a brief moment with a global audience. It’s a small statuette, but the first time you hold it you’re surprised by how heavy it is. What might feel heavier to Oscar winners this year is that we do represent, however fleetingly, a community of artists. In our community, tolerance of intolerance is unacceptable.”
Now we need to notice very carefully that here he identifies his audience and what he calls his own community. It is an artistic community and he says in our community, there is an obligation to be intolerant of intolerance.
“In our community of artists,” he says to Hollywood, “tolerance of intolerance is unacceptable.”
Note that he puts this mandate both ways. He says that Hollywood must be intolerant of intolerance and he says that artists must demonstrate that tolerance of intolerance is unacceptable.
Now where have we heard that before? We heard that back in the middle decades of the 20th century coming from the radical philosopher Herbert Marcuse. Amongst others of his very radical suggestions was the idea that the entire moral order would have to be overthrown, that’s the moral order that is the inheritance of Christianity. And he argued that that moral order would have to be overthrown in order for human beings to be morally liberated, and thus he called for a radical imposition of a regime of absolute tolerance. But that raises a profound issue. There is no such entity, there is no such reality as absolute tolerance. Even the most supposedly tolerant are intolerant of something, and Herbert Marcuse understood that at least to this extent, he argued that everyone and everything, that every position was to be tolerated, every belief was to be tolerated, every moral judgment was to be tolerated—except any moral judgment that would not tolerate everything.
Now there you see the conundrum. Nobody is honestly tolerant of everything. Now one of the background issues to this is the very word “tolerance.” Tolerance actually establishes a rather low moral standard. For example, if you equate moral tolerance with moral liberty, you’re making a mistake; or if you confound religious tolerance with religious liberty, you’re making a similar mistake. Religious tolerance simply means that you are tolerated, you’re unmolested, you are allowed to exist and to practice your faith. Religious liberty means, as the Constitution recognizes, the free exercise of religion. So tolerance is a pretty low standard. But when you make it your solitary moral mandate, you take on the form of a moral dictatorship. You are actually claiming the moral high ground in order to impose your own morality on others. Just notice this phrase again, it’s repeated twice in Irving’s essay. “to be intolerant of intolerance.” It has the ring of sounding morally serious. But just think about it for a moment. If indeed you’re going to claim to be intolerant of intolerance, then you’re going to be intolerant of some who disagree with you. You’re going to claim that you’re tolerant, they are not. This is like the phrase that might be the hatred of hate. What in the world does that mean? If indeed you’re hating, hating anyone, then that means that you are not actually hating hatred. You are actually just redefining hate in order to establish what might be arguably a morally superior position in terms of argument, or at least a culturally dominant position, and that’s what Hollywood’s really after.
Herbert Marcuse was honest about this in the middle decades of the 20th century. He was the king philosopher for the hippies, and they and he were arguing for the overthrow of a regime of objective morality and, as I said, particularly the inherited moral wisdom of the Christian tradition. But you’ll notice that no one is as tolerant as he or she may claim. Instead, the left and the right have different columns, different lists of those things that are to be morally tolerated and those that are not to be tolerated. If we’re honest, every morally serious person has such a list, so does every community. And that makes this moral community of importance, because John Irving here is making abundantly clear that when you see the Oscar ceremony as millions of people did on Sunday night, they are watching a community, a moral community, the moral community of those who identify themselves as artists, who are demonstrating their own understanding of the rightful moral order. It’s a moral order that has a different list of those things to be tolerated and not tolerated than many in mainstream America.
But we also have to note the very serious urgency of what is signaled here, and that is that Hollywood intends along with the rest of the artistic community now to proudly say that they are intolerant of intolerance.
On being an "honest hypocrite": Why we dislike hypocrisy and what we should do about it
That leads us to a second article that has to do with morality, also in the news, this time in The Guardian, which is a major liberal British newspaper published in London. And the subject of this essay is hypocrisy, and hypocrisy is not a new problem, but it tells us something that is the subject of a new moral focus, this time coming from a rather liberal newspaper taking a rather liberal view. The great virtue of this article by Oliver Burkeman is that it recognizes the reality of hypocrisy. He writes,
“No one likes a hypocrite – but when you stop to think about it, it’s strange how much we despise them. Sure, it’s bad not to practice what you preach. But at least you’re still preaching: if I’m constantly talking about the importance of humane farming, I’m promoting a worthy message, even if you’ll also find me scarfing dubious burgers from some van in an alley every Saturday. Surely that’s better than nothing? Well, no. Both research and experience tell us it’s worse than nothing: we dislike hypocrites more than people who are straightforwardly awful. There’s a depressing lesson here for politicians, among others, reflected in recent events: if you can’t be perfectly moral – and who can? – you might do better simply acting like a monster.”
Now you’ll realize he’s writing with hyperbole, he’s writing in an exaggerated style for effect, but we do understand what he’s telling us. Both research and experience says that many people are actually in a position in which they would prefer someone who is straightforwardly bad than someone who is falsely and artificially good. In other words, we all detect hypocrisy when we see it, and when we see it we don’t like it. Then Burkeman asks,
“Why this peculiar hostility to hypocrisy? You could argue that hypocrites lack self-discipline, which we think of as a moral failing – but that hardly seems a good enough explanation.”
Then he cites research made by Yale psychologist Jillian Jordan and her colleagues, and they suggest that the real reason that we don’t like hypocrites is because they are guilty of “false signaling.”
She goes on to explain that in evolutionary theory, signals are how we communicate to get what we want from others, they include everything from peacocks’ mating dances to a lizard’s camouflage.
“The person,” says Burkeman, “who loudly condemns other people for condoning cruel farming implies that he or she refrains from such behaviour, without ever saying so. It’s a signal. And it works: moral condemnation, the Yale psychologists show, boosts your reputation even more effectively than bragging about how moral you are. It’s a shortcut to high status. No wonder we’ve evolved, or been socialised, to respond so angrily when we discover it was unearned.”
Now Burkeman here is referring to something that we mention from time to time on The Briefing, and that is the rather modern phenomenon of virtue signaling. This virtue signaling is when someone takes a public stand, makes a public statement, establishes a public policy, mostly to be seen doing so. We’ve seen that in academic institutions that, for instance, just before the last graduation cycle change their policies to make very clear just how affirming they are of the LGBT revolution in terms of bathroom policy.
But Burkeman’s point is that in the end, whether on the right or on the left, hypocrisy is basically very much despised. And by very much despised, it’s annoying and it’s also repulsive. But Burkeman’s article, though written from a secular worldview and to a secular audience, raises some very deep and important issues for Christians to consider. For one thing we need asked honestly, is hypocrisy a sin? The answer to that is absolutely. Jesus himself brought down some of the most severe words of condemnation upon the Pharisees and others who were hypocrites. “Whoa unto them,” he cried. And of course the Pharisees and others in their own day, including the scribes, were often simply morally dismissed by the people precisely because they were understood to be hypocrites and their hypocrisy undermined their moral credibility. At the same time, however, the Bible makes clear that we are all in our own way hypocrites. What I mean by that is straightforward, as the Bible also says,
“The one who says he has no sin is indeed not only a liar against himself, but a liar against God.”
We know that we fall short of the very moral standards we know to be true. We all fall short in terms of what we teach and what we preach. We have to hope that we do not fall short in any disastrous fashion. But if we’re honest, hypocrisy is almost impossible for us to avoid. And that raises a huge question, what then do you do with hypocrisy? Well, of course, the Bible would tell us that we confess it as sin and deal with it.
But what Burkeman argues in this article is that hypocrisy’s at least lessened in its repulsiveness if one becomes an honest hypocrite. Now that’s an interesting category, in one sense it’s an oxymoron. Hypocrisy is based on being dishonest. How in the world do you come up with being an honest hypocrite? The answer for that is actually quite simple. It’s also very interesting. The suggestion here by Burkeman is that what we should do in a situation of unavoidable hypocrisy is simply admit it. We might be for a particular kind of farming, but we might find ourselves on the weekend eating a hamburger because we like that burger and it’s available. We might reason that burger would be there regardless of our own concern, and of course it’s coming from his concern for what he defines as hospitable and humanitarian farming, but the same thing that is found sometimes on the cultural left is also found on the cultural right. We are all prone to hypocrisy. But Berkman raises an important issue, what are we going to do about it? Well, again, from a biblical perspective, it’s good that hypocrisy be laid bare, that the light be turned on and hypocrisy be revealed for what it is, wherever it is found.
But there’s something else, there’s something virtuous to his notion of being an honest hypocrite. That is, we should be honest when we fall short of what we know to be God’s rightful expectation, even when we fall short of what we know and affirm to be true about what is right and what is wrong.
It is certainly easy for conservative Christians to see virtue signaling when it comes from the left, especially when like in John Irving’s essay the left tells us exactly what is doing. But perhaps the greater danger is that we will be involved in our own moral signaling and fail to recognize it. That would be a far greater disaster for the Christian church. Perhaps the take-home value for Christians in all this is the recognition that we must be amongst those on earth who understand the difference between virtue and virtue signaling. They’re not the same thing. To confuse them is downright dangerous.
Citizens stunned as man is charged with blasphemy for burning Quran in very secular Denmark
Next, another really interesting article came in the New York Times, this one datelined from Denmark. Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura reports,
“A 42-year-old man who burned a Quran and posted a video of it on Facebook has been charged with blasphemy in Denmark, a striking decision by prosecutors in a country that is largely secular but has grappled with the role of Islam in public life.”
Now let’s look at that interesting introductory paragraph, because the dichotomy here is between a country presented as largely secular, that’s undoubtedly true, but a country that has “grappled with the role of Islam in public life.”
Notice that this headline has really nothing to do with the importance of the role of Christianity in public life. This is Islam. This is a country that, once overwhelmingly Christian, has become so pervasively secular that the debate about religion in public life isn’t about Christianity at all, but about Islam, and at the center of the story is a public criminal charge of blasphemy. The Times goes on to say that,
“The decision stunned many Danes: No one has been convicted of blasphemy in Denmark since 1946, and the country has a long tradition of free speech; burning the flag is not a punishable crime.”
But The Times goes on to say that,
“Simmering tensions between religious sensitivities and free speech have been a theme in Denmark since 2005, when the newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. The depictions outraged many Muslims, who consider such representations to be blasphemous.”
The Times reminds us that back in 2005 those cartoons led to deadly riots, attacks on Danish embassies in the Middle East and a trade boycott against Denmark. But Danish prosecutors at that time, back in 2005, refused to charge the newspapers editors with blasphemy. That’s what has led to the shock when all the sudden the criminal charge of blasphemy was handed down for a man in Denmark who burned the Quran and posted a video of it in social media. As the Times says,
“The decision to charge the Quran burner was made by a regional prosecutor in Viborg, on the Jutland peninsula, and had to be approved by the country’s attorney general.”
The Times also explains some historical background of importance. The blasphemy law has been invoked only a handful of times since it was adopted by the Danish government in 1866, most recently was in 1971, two people broadcast a song mocking Christianity and they also “stirred a debate over female sexuality.”
But as The Times reminds us,
“They were acquitted.”
They were charged, but they were found not guilty. That last conviction in Denmark on blasphemy was back in 1946 “when a man dressed himself up as a priest and mock-baptized a doll at a masquerade ball.”
But there was a video posted of a man burning Quran on December 27, 2015, and that eventually got attention, and that attention led to the criminal charge that is the subject of the current controversy. One of the attorneys for the man who has been charged in this case said,
“Considering that it is legal to burn a Bible in Denmark, I’m surprised then that it would be guilty to burn the Quran.”
On the other hand, the Danish prosecutor bringing the charge said,
“It is the prosecution’s view that circumstances involving the burning of holy books such as the Bible and the Quran can in certain cases be a violation of the blasphemy clause, which covers public scorn or mockery of religion.”
One of the scholars quoted in the article, who is also involved in Danish civil liberties protection, said that,
“Blasphemy laws protect religious dogma from ridicule, and therefore the feelings of believers, while hate speech laws protect religious groups from degrading expressions.”
He went on to explain,
“Danish authorities are afraid that the Quran burning could spark a new crisis, and if they say that they’ve actually charged this person, this is a way to appease or at least avoid such a crisis.”
That explains the code language inside the prosecutor statement when he said that the burning of what he identified as holy books such as the Bible and the Quran “can in certain cases be a violation of the blasphemy clause.”
That “in certain cases” leads one to believe that the “certain cases” are going to involve the Quran and not the Bible. One political science professor at Aarhus University in Denmark asked the question,
“Why should this all of a sudden be an issue, when everybody agrees that the blasphemy law is a thing of the past?”
And this is a reference to the fact that even as Denmark has a blasphemy law in the books, it is an overwhelmingly secular country that now has a very activist Muslim minority population. Making that point emphatically clear, that is about the secular nature of Denmark, this political scientist said that in the nation,
“The very idea that religion is taken seriously is the antithesis of being a good citizen.This is very important.”
So here you notice a Danish political scientist telling us straightforwardly that the very idea that religion should be taken seriously is actually the antithesis of being a good citizen. I can only hope that readers of that statement are those who feel the shock, the rightful shock, of seeing such a straightforward claim.
But the bigger issue for Christians has to do with the blasphemy charge, and here we need to understand that the Bible is clear that blasphemy is a sin and indeed blasphemy is a sin that God takes extremely seriously. But we should also note that Christians should not look to the government, to any government, to bring blasphemy charges against anyone. And yet we also note that this is routine in the Muslim world. We ask the question, why? And the difference is between Christianity and Islam on the question of honor.
Christianity is not an honor religion. As a matter of fact, Christianity is predicated upon Jesus Christ who himself was despised and rejected of men. The gospel emphatically announces that on the cross Jesus Christ bore our scorn, the scorn that was rightfully directed to us. Christianity is not an honor religion. Faithfulness to Christ does not mean that we have the responsibility to defend Christ’s honor against his enemies. Indeed we preach Christ, Christ himself will defend his own honor. This puts Christianity at radical distinction with Islam where every faithful Muslim bears the responsibility to protect the honor of the prophet Mohammed and the entire structure of Muslim theology and thought. Any scorn towards the Quran is particularly a matter of blasphemous offense. And Muslims also believe that the government should enforce rules and laws against blasphemy and punish those who are found to be criminally blasphemous.
The grand irony in all of this is that this criminal charge was handed down in a country that is so secular, so secular as Denmark, a country where a leading political scientist says that it is basically a contradiction to good citizenship to take religion seriously. They got over Christianity, in that sense, a very long time ago. But you’ll notice that the current flash point isn’t at all Christianity and the Bible or Christ, it is instead Islam and it is the Quran. Therein lies a parable, not only a parable of modern Europe, but the parable of the failure of a secular society.