The Briefing 06-20-17

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Did Christians start the wedding wars? It isn't Christianity whose definition of marriage changed.

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Digital age parenting: Do we really have to be told Amazon's 'Alexa' doesn't make a good parent?

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The New Yorker discovers St. Augustine: Sex and the priority of theology in Augustine's thought

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Transcript

The Briefing

June 20, 2017

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Tuesday, June 20, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Did Christians start the wedding wars? It isn't Christianity whose definition of marriage changed.

Who started the so-called wedding wars? Recently writing at Reason magazine, Stephanie Slade said it was evangelical Christians who started the wedding wars, and at the center of the first skirmish was the issue of polygamy and the question of Mormonism. Slade points out, talking about the great moral shift that has taken place, not so much amongst evangelical Christians or even in the larger secular culture, but simply in one newspaper, the New York Times. She writes,

“A man who lived with more than one woman was anathema in the 19th century; the media called polygamy an ‘act of licentiousness’ that deserved to be categorically denounced, its adherents disenfranchised. In 1885, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a federal law making plural marriage a felony, declaring that ‘the union for life of one man and one woman in the holy estate of matrimony [is] the sure foundation of all that is stable and noble in our civilization.’”

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Remember, that’s 1885, the United States Supreme Court. Then she writes,

“A New York Times editorial celebrated that result, observing cheekily that ‘we had not supposed there had ever been any serious question.’”

Even if the article ended right here, this is pretty spectacular. Here we are reminded that in 1885 none other than the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that marriage is and could only be the union of one man and one woman in the state of matrimony, and we had the editorial board of the New York Times not only endorsing that Supreme Court declaration, but as Slade says, “cheekily,” indicating that the New York Times could hardly believe that there had ever been any serious question. Slade then says,

“Today, it’s the old-timey view that marriage is between one man and one woman only—and that sex should be reserved to that union—that raises the Grey Lady’s ire. When Californians sought to ban gay marriage in 2008, the editors of the Times called the initiative a ‘mean-spirited’ effort ‘to enshrine bigotry in the state’s Constitution.’”

So here you have the New York Times back in 1885 happily declaring that marriage is and can only be the union of one man and one woman and then in the 21st century turning around to say that that very belief was mean-spirited and enshrined bigotry. All that’s merely the introduction to Slade’s article, and the article is really interesting. And it’s important because here you have the very clear declaration that Christians started the very wedding wars, as she has said, that have now led to the fact that you have Christian photographers, bakers, florists, and others who are finding themselves forced by power of law over against sanctions, including criminal sanctions, to participate in same-sex marriage ceremonies or to bear the full weight not only of society’s disapproval but of these very sanctions.

Stephanie Slade is making the very interesting and furthermore the important argument that Christians are now just on the receiving end of what we dished out in the 19th century. Back then, the Mormons were claiming religious liberty rights as part of their right to engage in plural marriage or polygamy. By the late 1880s, the federal government was actually moving to criminalize polygamy and even to seize the assets of the Mormon church if they did not abandon the doctrine. As Slade then tells us,

“On October 6, 1890, LDS President Wilford Woodruff published a manifesto reversing the institution’s position on polygamy: ‘I now publicly declare that my advice to the Latter-day Saints is to refrain from contracting any marriage forbidden by the law of the land.’”

It was, as Slade says, an act made necessary by the political pressure. Writing in his journal, Woodruff said the next day,

“I am under the necessity of acting for the temporal salvation of the Church.” speaking of the Mormon church.

The encounter of Catholic missionaries with polygamous practices elsewhere in the world led to the declaration a decade earlier that would be in the 1880s by the then Pope Leo XIII,

“marriage, from its institution, should exist between two only, that is, between one man and one woman.”

So by the time you come to the last decade of the 19th century, you have both the United States Supreme Court and the Pope, and for that matter overwhelming Protestant evangelical conviction, indicating that marriage is and can only be the union of a man and a woman. Who knew that that argument, that very definition, would make headline news a century later in a very different moral age and for a very different reason.

So let’s look at Stephanie Slade’s argument. Let’s take it seriously. She’s saying that the Christians who now feel that their religious liberty is infringed upon by the moral revolution should simply understand that Christians started the wedding wars in the first place and that we’re on the receiving end of what we had done to others, going back to the 19th century, specifically the Mormons. That’s a very interesting argument.

But what is lacking in this Reason magazine essay is an understanding of marriage itself as an institution not always a matter of controversy in the United States or elsewhere in the 19th century, not only as a controversy in terms of the arrival of same-sex marriage on the scene, but that marriage as an institution has existed throughout human history and that every single society in one way or another eventually has gotten to the privileging of a unique union of one man and one woman in terms of the entire society and its structure. Christians understand that this is entirely explicable by general revelation and common grace. We believe that God has embedded within the creation he has made not only his glory, but also the patterns by which we should live. There’s a moral law that is embedded within the very structures of creation, and it’s accessible to all peoples. That explains why every society has found its way to marriage as the union of a man and a woman. The very process of human reproduction and the necessary structuring of society has pointed every civilization to this fundamental truth.

What the Reason magazine article lacks is an understanding that evangelical Christians, for that matter Pope Leo XIII and the U.S. Supreme Court, were not in the late 19th century coming up with a definition of marriage. They were acknowledging a definition of marriage that they believed—that they rightly believed—was given in creation. The very definition that the editors of the New York Times celebrated way back then is the definition that has been common to humanity for a very good reason. Considered in this way, taking her argument at face value, it turns out upon reflection that the historic biblical Christian argument concerning marriage has been, if anything, stunningly consistent, so consistent that it has always meant the union of one man and one woman in the institution of holy matrimony for a lifetime.

What becomes evident in this article is even how relatively recently the entire society agreed. They didn’t just agree, the whole society emphatically agreed with that very understanding of marriage, so much so that the editors of the New York Times would sarcastically say they didn’t even know the issue was possible in terms of a question.

Stephanie Slade has written a really interesting article at Reason magazine. She makes a very interesting point. I don’t think, however, her point really survives closer scrutiny. I don’t believe it was Christians who started the wedding wars, but today’s generation of Christians must understand, even as this article reminds us, that the wedding wars really are not all that new. The article also serves as an indicator that the wedding wars themselves are not going away anytime soon.

Digital age parenting: Do we really have to be told Amazon's 'Alexa' doesn't make a good parent?

Next, there’s been a great deal of attention over the last several years to the emergence of the so-called helicopter parent, the parent who is accused of over-parenting when it comes to the lives of their children and sometimes not only their children and teenagers, but young adults. This has been pointed out as one of the problems in terms of emerging adulthood. One of the reasons we are told—and there’s a lot of evidence for this—that many young adults aren’t actually taking on adult responsibilities is because they have been over-parented. Parents continuing to make decisions and to take on responsibilities that children should have developed, skills they should have acquired, and responsibility they should have assumed at far earlier stages of life.

But there is also a problem of course of under-parenting, and in one sense the two just might be the coming and the going of one pattern that parents ought to think about. And that is this: in the digital age it is certainly possible to over-parent, but it is equally possible and dangerous to under-parent. One of the evidences that should come to our mind here is the fact that the pervasiveness of pornographic exposure on the part of American children and teenagers, and add to that young adults, is now so overwhelming that we are looking at nothing less than an epidemic. And we’re also looking at something that has a massive moral impact upon not only a generation at large, but the individuals, the boys and girls and the young people, both young men and young women, whose lives and whose expectations about sexuality and about marriage and relationships are inevitably warped by exposure to pornography.

And one of the things we now know is that much of that exposure could have been prevented—indeed we must say should have been prevented by parents. But a recent story in USA Today points to another dimension. It’s a headline story,

“‘Alexa, are you turning my kid into a jerk?’”

Josh Hafner writes that virtual aids don’t care about manners. He describes what he calls “the Alexafication of all things,” and by that he’s referring to the fact that these voice-activated digital assistants are starting to turn up just about everywhere. And as this article also indicates, children are beginning to become accustomed to demanding information or even actions from these digital assistants. But one of the interesting things that is documented here is not only that these digital assistants do not insist upon courtesy language and politeness such as saying please and thank you, they are actually thrown off by that very language. So here you have USA Today asking whether or not Alexa is turning our kids into jerks because they not only do not learn to say please and thank you and to show the kind of politeness that is essential in order for children to understand how to make their way in the world as polite human beings, but furthermore these digital assistants make it almost difficult to develop those kinds of habits.

But here’s the problem of course from a Christian worldview perspective. Where are the parents? Who is expecting that these digital assistants are somehow going to either teach or reinforce good manners on the part of our children? Where in the world are the parents when these children are demanding information access and action from Alexa or some other form of digital assistant? Hafner tells us that Amazon told the paper in a statement that its technology is designed for family use, and Amazon said, “We work to ensure Alexa’s responses are appropriate for all ages.”

We are then told,

“‘Echo,’ ‘Amazon,’ or ‘Computer,’ but not niceties like please or thank you.”

You gotta love where USA Today turns at this point. It cites Peter Kahn, a psychologist at the University of Washington, who said,

“Parents shouldn’t worry that their tyke will treat a classmate like they do Alexa.”

The psychologist said,

“It’s more complicated than that.”

Later in the article USA Today says one solution, according to the psychologist, is for families with smart speakers to deepen “their relationships through intentional, loving interactions.”

Have we become the kind of people who actually have to be told this? Josh Hefner continues in his article,

“Alexa can already sing lullabies to children and read them bedtime stories. But a machine can’t know a child the way a parent does.”

Seriously? We need to be told this? But as we have just discussed, evidently we do need to be told this, and that’s why I bring this article to our attention on The Briefing. If USA Today has to write an article asking, “Alexa, are you turning my kids into a jerk?” well parents, especially Christian parents, must immediately consider why in the world does my child spend time talking to Alexa. And it just might be that if indeed we have to be told that families just might want to respond to this by deepening “their relationships through intentional, loving interactions,” well, it just might be that we’ve already lost the war, not just the battle.

The New Yorker discovers St. Augustine: Sex and the priority of theology in Augustine's thought

Next, we turn to an even more important article, this one appearing in the current issue of the New Yorker. We need to set the stage for just a moment. The New Yorker is in many ways the most influential literary magazines in terms of East Coast culture. It has an outsized influence in what is rightly called the intellectual elite. In terms of literature and music and politics, and especially in terms of morality, the New Yorker has often been a harbinger of things to come. It’s one of the places you go to look to see the direction of the culture. It’s also not the kind of place where you would expect readers to confront theology, much less Augustine.

But that’s exactly what happens in this article by Stephen Greenblatt in the current edition of the New Yorker. The headline of the article,

“The Invention of Sex.”

The subhead,

“St. Augustine’s Carnal Knowledge.”

Now you’ll remember that Augustine is the single most important of the church fathers, the most influential theologian of the first centuries of the church. He lived between 354 and 430, and between the years 395 and 430 he was the Bishop of Hippo, a very important regional city in North Africa, a very important city of the Roman Empire. So in the end of the fourth century and the beginning of the fifth century, at the very time that Rome was falling as an empire, Augustine was the most important theologian of the church. All of Western theology—and that would include by the way not only Catholicism but also Protestantism—looks back to Augustine as the very fountainhead of the modern discipline of theology, and in so many ways of the foundation of the Christian worldview that is based in Scripture.

It was Augustine who thought so carefully through so many of these issues, including the relationship of the Christian church to the culture, at the very time that that was an inescapable question because of the collapse of the Roman Empire. That may sound like dry history but just remember that the Roman Empire, its laws, its customs, its way of life, the Roman Empire was the only political reality that most people had known. Its sudden fall, its calamitous collapse was such an overwhelming and frightening reality that many Christians wondered if the church could survive the fall of the Roman Empire.

Augustine in his great book The City of God made exceedingly clear that the church not only could but would survive. He made clear the distinction between two cities, the earthly city and the heavenly city, each driven by a love: the earthly city driven by the love of man, the heavenly city driven by the love of God. Even though in this life by God’s good pleasure we are all put within the city of man, and that for God’s glory, those who come to know the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior and find salvation also become citizens of the city of God. And as Augustine made clear, the distinction is absolutely infinite. It is the distinction between the earthly city that is passing and will ultimately pass away and the heavenly city that is eternal and will never pass away. Understanding those two citizenships, said Augustine, is the most important and foundational issue to understanding the relationship between Christ and the culture.

But that wasn’t the only theological contribution that Augustine made. He offered in the early church its most massive defense of the doctrine of the Trinity, and Augustine was also a controversialist. He stared down the heretics of his day, most importantly the heretics known as Pelagians. The Pelagians held to an understanding of basic human innocence, and they argued that Jesus Christ had come in order to assist human beings in our salvation. The very idea of total depravity or of original sin was rejected by the Pelagians in view of a far more optimistic and not to say a biblical understanding of humanity. And you simply have to reason from the fact that if you have an unbiblical notion of human beings in sin, you also have an unbiblical notion of Christ and the Gospel.

And Augustine was also—and this is what has interested the New Yorker—very concerned about questions of marriage and, yes, questions about sex. And as Stephen Greenblatt, who is a professor at Harvard University, well recognizes, there is often a biographical reason behind this. As a very young man born to a pagan father and a Christian mother coming into adolescence and young adulthood, Augustine was a very promiscuous character. He joined the non-Christian cult of the Manicheans, and by the time he was into his 20s and early adulthood, he had taken a woman to live with him who even became the mother of his son but not as his wife. Later Augustine came to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. It was one of the most historic conversions in the history of Christianity, and of course he not only became a Christian, he also became a leading theologian and a leader in the church, the bishop eventually of Hippo and throughout human history just about the most famous bishop in the history of Christianity.

But what’s important to us is the fact that in a very elegant essay published in the current edition of the New Yorker, a Harvard professor, in this case Stephen Greenblatt, has come to rediscover Augustine and in so doing to decide, ‘Oh, this is where all the Christian concern about sex, marriage, and sexuality comes from.’ The reason is easy to understand. If you are looking at Augustine, you are looking at a towering Christian genius struggling with the questions of sex. Augustine’s incredible concern to come to a biblical understanding of sexuality was rooted in his own experience whereas in his own sexual awakening, he had come to terms with the fact that there were issues, there were ideas, there were urges that came to him that he had not sought but nonetheless had clearly sought him. He understood in himself his early promiscuity and sought to understand how the Christian could live a life as a man and as a woman faithful to Christ with understanding the necessity of human reproduction and the goodness of the institution of marriage and the reality of all that God had given us in creation, trying to put that into a Christian frame of reference.

And at the same time, the very important thing to understand here is that Augustine also had a profoundly biblical understanding of sin, and he understood by means of that biblical theology of sin that affects everything and that our sexuality inevitably is affected by the fact that we are sinners, we are rebels against a holy God, and thus we are in desperate need of restraint. And eventually Augustine came to understand that restraint can only come externally to us, that left to ourselves we will never regulate our sexual lives adequately. We are in need of the church, we are in need of the gospel, we are in need of Christ, we are in need of the Scripture in order to regulate our own sexual lives in a way that will please God.

This essay by Professor Greenblatt is not only fascinating, it’s also very elegantly written, and it actually is very respectful towards Augustine. It deals with some of the complicated twists and turns of Augustine’s views concerning sin, the gospel, the church, and yes, marriage and sexuality. It’s fairly amazing to open the pages of the New Yorker knowing what this magazine is and find an extended article on Augustine and his theology, to find respectfully and rather accurately presented his engagement with the heresy of the Pelagians, and yes, his understandings of sexuality and marriage. Professor Greenblatt also seems to understand and to respect the fact that Augustine was clearly seeking to ground his understanding of sexuality and marriage within the doctrine of creation and even in what Augustine understood to be a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis.

The most important thing for Christians to understand is that Augustine understood that the sexual passions are so much a part of what it meant to be fallen humanity that we could never fully escape them. That’s why Christians have to look to the God-given institution of marriage as the union of a man and a woman and to the gospel of Jesus Christ as the only means of being faithful to the utmost to Christ even in our sexual lives. Augustine also understood that from the very beginning to be faithful to Christ in terms of sexuality would be saying no more often than saying yes, saying no, indeed, to everything other than the God-given institution of marriage and sex within that context. It’s fully evident that Augustine’s convictions on these issues are absolutely, indeed stunningly shocking to a secular society.

But what came to me more than once reading this article is that the main stumbling block here is not just Augustine on sex, it’s Augustine on sin.Faced with the monumental reality of Augustine and the influence he still has in the Christian church, especially on these issues, a secular society, in this case a Harvard professor, seemed to want to say that it was Augustine’s preoccupations with sex that led him to his doctrine of sin. I think actually on reflection, even though you can’t separate the two evenly, it becomes clear that it was Augustine’s concern with the doctrine of sin that led him to his very deep thinking on the questions of sex.

Finally, Augustine would’ve insisted that these ideas did not come to him in the late fourth and the early fifth centuries. Rather, they are rooted in Scripture itself, even as Greenblatt recognizes Augustine arguing all the way forward from the book of Genesis. So our secular society says that theology is only an issue in the distant past. It’s a dead science with no relevance to the present, and yet here in the very pages of the New Yorker is a theological treatise reviewing the contribution of a Christian theologian who has been dead for 1500 years. So much for theology being left safely in the past.

Dr. Mohler recording The Briefing