April 23, 2014
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Wednesday, April 23, 2014. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Yesterday, we talked about the controversy in Great Britain over statements made by that nation’s Prime Minister David Cameron. In an article written for The Church Times (that’s a Church of England newsletter) just before the Easter holiday, the British prime minister said that Britain is a Christian country and it should take greater pride in the fact that it is indeed a Christian country. In response to the prime minister’s statement, a group of atheists and agnostics and other skeptics, most of them celebrities within Great Britain, many of them in the entertainment business or major authors, they wrote to the prime minister this open statement saying that his words had been divisive and that, indeed, his statement was erroneous and harmfully so. And that controversy, as we said yesterday, is very revealing of the fact that there is a deep insecurity on the part of secularists. If they are intimidated by the fact that the prime minister of Great Britain had written an article arguing that Britain is a Christian nation, concerning the fact that the nation constitutionally has a state church and that the vast majority Great Britain’s, though operating out of an admittedly secular worldview, still claim to be Christians of one sort or another, if that is so much that it got under their skin that they had to make a public statement about the prime minister’s words being dangerous, well that shows you just how insecure the secular worldview is.
But, as of yesterday, the controversy left over the Atlantic, and the proof of that is an article that appeared in yesterday’s edition of The New York Times. Stephen Erlanger writes about the controversy in Great Britain, but interestingly he makes a point that you didn’t see in the British press, and that is this: Americans, he says, would come to understand exactly what the British prime minister is doing. We are accustomed, he says, to the fact that American politicians tend to get more religious as they tend to get closer to Election Day. In other words, as the British prime minister is now facing a party election upcoming, it’s likely, says Erlanger, that this is what’s going on. He writes in agreement with the critics of Mr. Cameron who say he is “acting like a politician, highlighting conservative values in the hope of undercutting a rival party on the right” (that would be the United Kingdom Independence Party), and, furthermore, just acting in terms of the way we come to understand that politicians act, showing up in church as they run for election when they hadn’t been seen before, showing up speaking, in terms of an overt Christianity, when no one had associated them with Christianity previously.
But there’s more to this story, and we go back to Great Britain in order to understand why this story is getting more interesting by the day. For instance, The Telegraph, a major British newspaper, reports that the attorney general of Great Britain agreed with David Cameron, the head of his government, that Great Britain is a Christian country. He said—and this is Dominic Grieve, by the way, the British attorney general—he said that it is nonsense to argue that a nation with an established church like the Church of England isn’t a Christian nation, but then the British attorney general went on to suggest what he thought the problem really was. He said the problem, if you get right down to it, is that some Christians, however, simply believe too much. He talked about what he called the assertiveness of religious groups across the spectrum. He said, “I do think there’s been a rise of assertiveness of religious groups across the spectrum. That’s why those with softer religious views find it disturbing and say they don’t want anything to do with it.” Well a closer look at the attorney general of Great Britain’s statement indicates that the defining issue is this: if you believe that your faith has any consequence beyond your privatized self, then you are a fundamentalist. And here you have a dichotomy, a very interesting dichotomy, but one that is of great interest to us, in which the British attorney general says that there’s a distinction between those with softer religious views and those, he says, that are assertive. He said in the same interview, “I do think that the rise of religious fundamentalism is a major deterrent to people. It is a big turnoff away from religion generally and it’s very damaging in that context.” So in other words, the British attorney general is saying the real problem, the reason why there are so many skeptics and atheists and agnostics, is because they’re responding to the fact that some Christians are just too Christian, they believe too much. And make no mistake, when the British attorney general uses the term assertiveness and fundamentalism here, he’s not talking about anything that’d be rightly defined as fundamentalism. He’s just talking about Christians who are—now here’s the scandalous thought—actually Orthodox Christians, who believe that the truth of Christianity is something that goes beyond their privatized faith.
In order to understand what in this controversy is actually so revealing, all you have to do is go to The Church Times, that’s the official newspaper of the Church of England, that’s where the prime minister’s essay appeared, in order to understand just how ridiculous, but revealing this entire controversy really is. For instance, as I hold here the Prime Minister’s essay, I read, he says:
Some people feel that in this ever-more secular age, we shouldn’t talk about these things [he means religion]. I completely disagree. I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organizations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference in people’s lives.
Well that sounds interesting, if a bit confused, but as you read the prime minister’s essay, he gets a lot more confused as you go along. In describing the core beliefs and values of Christianity, he comes up with responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, and love. He says, however, that even as these are the core of Christianity, they’re actually shared by people of every faith and people of no faith. In other words, the British prime minister says, we’re a Christian nation, but it obviously doesn’t mean very much. And what moral direction would Christianity give? The British prime minister says, a great deal, except it’s actually not much. This is exactly how he puts it:
Many atheists and agnostics live by a moral code and there are Christians who don’t. But for people who do have a faith, that faith can be a guide or a helpful prod in the right direction, and whether inspired by faith are not, that direction or moral code matters.
That is the kind of sentence that upon closer analysis makes absolutely no sense whatsoever; in other words, the quintessential sentence by a politician. In this case, a politician who wants to sound like he’s saying something, but who wants, when you look at the words, to recognize he’s not saying anything that should actually offend anyone. In other words, he says that atheists are just as likely to hold to a moral code as Christians, and Christians can be helped along by their faith, but so can atheists who have no faith at all, so it all works out in the end. Remember that the strongest statement he makes in that paragraph is that for Christians, Christianity can be a prod forward.
If you feel like you’re wrestling with a butterfly, just consider this next sentence. “I am a member of the Church of England and, I suspect, a rather classic one.” How does he then define that? “Not that regular in attendance and a bit vague on some of the more difficult parts of the faith.” So in other words, he says he is a classic member of the Church of England, and yet he defines that classic member as not a regular attender and one who is a bit vague on some of what he describes as the more difficult parts of the faith, the truth parts.
What he does like is art and architecture and liturgy. He says, “I felt firsthand the healing power of the church’s pastoral care and my children benefit from the work of a superb team and an excellent Church of England school.” He says about what the Church of England offers to the nation, he says, “I care deeply about the liturgy, the architecture, and cultural heritage of the churches.” He says, “My parents spent countless hours helping to support and maintain the village church I grew up next to. And my Oxfordshire constituency has churches, including some medieval masterpieces that take your breath away with their beauty, simplicity, and serenity.” But when it comes to his theological understanding, he makes that very clear in one singular paragraph. He writes:
Some fault the Church of England for perceived woolliness [and that’s a British word for unclarity] when it comes to belief. I am not one for doctrinal purity, and I don’t believe it is essential for evangelism about the church’s role in our society or its importance. It’s important and, as I said, I would like it to do more, not less, in terms of action to improve our society and the education of our children.
So here you have the British prime minister who says, “Britain’s a Christian country, and we should be thankful that it is a Christian country because Christianity can, for Christians, be a prod forward” (whatever that means). And then he says that even as he is an advocate for the Church of England and he is a rather classic member of that church, he defines that as one who is not a regular attender and one who is a bit vague on some of the more difficult parts of the faith. He says he’s glad that the Church of England isn’t very clear about what it believes. He’s not one, he says, for “doctrinal purity.” And as he comes to a conclusion, he says this:
If we pull together, we can change the world and make it a better place. That to me is what a whole lot of the Christian message is about, and it’s a confidence in our Christianity that we can all reflect on this Easter.
Now this was his Easter message, and notice what’s missing: Christ, the empty tomb, the cross—all of it, utterly missing. As he says, he’s not one for doctrinal purity, and that leaves us only to wonder exactly how much is included when he says he’s a bit vague on the more difficult parts of the faith.
One final article that just makes the case for why this controversy is so interesting from a Christian worldview perspective. This appeared not in The Telegraph, which is a more conservative paper published in London, but rather in The Guardian, which is the most influential paper on the British left. And the author of this article isn’t a Christian or member of the Church of England, but Julian Baggini, a very well-known atheist there in Great Britain. And he’s writing to his fellow atheists and agnostics, telling them that they need to chill, they need to calm down, that they don’t have anything to fear from the Church of England or from the British prime minister’s claim that Britain is a Christian country. As a matter fact, he describes David Cameron’s faith as being so absolutely empty of any kind of threat to anyone that no one should be offended. Responding to those very same statements by the British prime minister that I previously cited, Julian Baggini says, “There isn’t much to complain about in such tepid claims for faith.” Remember, he writes that as an atheist to his fellow atheists. Elsewhere in the article, he says,
It’s ridiculous to cry wolf when people like Cameron proclaim a Christianity that is as fluffy and harmless as a lamb. There is a clear enough sense that Britain is a Christian country and we should just get on with it. We have plenty to protest about in the ways in which religion is woven into the fabric of the state, but affirming a religion is not always a problem, and we need to acknowledge that in order to make a convincing case when it is.
So now we’ve come full circle, in which we had this article in The Guardian by an atheist, in which the atheist agrees with the British attorney general; that the real problem here can’t be the Church of England and a tepid faith—recall the fact that Baggini described the prime minister’s faith as “fluffy and harmless as a lamb”—but rather a Christianity that is defined as something that goes beyond a privatized, individualized faith. Something that has public significance, something that is rooted in actual truth claims, something that is announced by angels, in terms of an empty tomb.
Finally, Julian Baggini expands this not only from the British prime minister’s perspective, but to the entire nation. He writes:
But in other respects, the Christian nature of the country is indisputable. In the last census 59% of people still self-identified as Christian. The standard retort to this is that people tick this box almost as a reflex reaction and don’t actually take their supposed Christianity seriously at all. This is a somewhat patronising attitude; sure, most who chose that category wouldn’t know their Acts from their Ezekiel, but nor would they pretend to. They know full well that their Christianity is as much a cultural identification as a doctrinal one. They are locating themselves in a tradition, not asserting the Nicene Creed.
For that statement we can be very grateful to an atheist for understanding far better than many Christians what it actually means to be a Christian and why being the kind of Christian that defines Britain as a Christian nation isn’t the kind of Christian that should be offensive to any kind of non-Christian or any kind of secularist at all. If, indeed, all we’re doing is asserting ourselves as belonging to some kind of tradition, not asserting a creed, well, as Julian Baggini says, we’re no threat to the secular age, and the secular age or at least the smartest of its advocates know it.
Shifting from Great Britain to Italy, one of the things we continually watch is the impact of worldview in terms of the way people live. Or, to put it the other way, why watching the way people live reveals deep changes and shifts in their worldview. Yesterday’s edition of The Wall Street Journal had an article entitled “More Italians Forgo Motherhood.” As Manuela Mesco reports from Milan, an increasing number of women in Italy aren’t having children and don’t ever expect to have children. As she writes:
Italy’s birthrate has been far below replacement rate for years. But now more couples with precarious jobs, low salaries and a late start together are opting to have no children at all. A quarter of Italian women end their childbearing years without children, compared with 14% in the U.S. and 10% in France.
A very interesting assessment going on here. When you look at something as basic to humanity as motherhood and when you look at the fact that a major shift in a pattern related to parenting and to motherhood in specific is taking place, this tells us that something major has changed in the way people understand themselves, understand the institution of marriage, understand the meaning of human life, and understand the blessings or, for that matter, the responsibilities of parenthood. As Manuela Mesco reports, “The average age when Italian women have their first child rose to 31.4 years in 2012—nearly six years older than North American women—from less than 30 in 1995.” In other words, there’s a huge shift going on here and it’s taking place at a very quick pace. She says:
Another reason for the later start is that more Italian women in their 20s and 30s are getting university degrees. By the time they finish and find a secure job, they are often reluctant to sacrifice those gains for children—a phenomenon demographers call “the safety trap.”
And it’s affecting women not only in Italy, of course, but also in other nations, including the United States, but not to this extent. The reporter goes on to say, “The high level of childlessness deepens Italy’s perilous demographic crisis. The country already has around 150 over-65s for every 100 people under 14.” Now just wait a moment. Just consider that. You’re looking at a society in which there are 150 people over age 65 for every 100 under age 14. That is an unsustainable demographic pattern. That simply doesn’t work. It can’t work in a small community; it certainly can’t work in a major industrialized nation. And the problem is getting worse, says Mesco, “It will rise to 263 elderly people for every 100 young people by 2050. And, by the way, that’s not the kind of trend that can be quickly reversed. You can create 14-year-olds and you can’t reverse this kind of pattern very quickly, even if you determine instantly to change the birth rate. She goes on to report:
Italy’s trend toward childlessness has left a raft of would-be grandparents yearning for little ones. Ida Farina, the mother of two women in their 30s who have decided against having children, tries to focus on her niece’s children to make up for the gap she feels not having her own grandkids. But she still finds it difficult to accept.
“I feel so sorry about it,” she says. “I feel I’ll die without passing on the few things I’ve learned in my life. I’m waiting. Maybe things will change.”
And that brings us to the cover story in this week’s issue of Bloomberg BusinessWeek. The cover story shows a woman and the headline is this, “Freeze Your Eggs, Free Your Career.” If there’s an article that has appeared recently that demonstrates what it means to try to have absolute control over one’s destiny while defying the natural pattern of life, this is it. BusinessWeek’s cover story says:
There comes a point in every childless woman’s life, usually around 35, when the larger world becomes very interested in her womb. Friends and family inquire about its health, asking why it’s not being utilized, when it will be, and then: Will it even work? For those who do want children, the pressure can be crushing and counterproductive.
That’s where this article gets very interesting because it deals with the new pattern where many of these women are freezing their eggs when they’re relatively young so that they can have children and, hopefully, healthy children far after the normal childbearing and fertility years.
The article cites Brigitte Adams, age 39, a marketing executive, who said, “Freezing my eggs bought me time and the possibility to have a child in the future. It’s not a sure thing, but a gamble I’m willing to take.” BusinessWeek declares this generation of women “the egg-freezing generation,” comparing them to the latchkey kids of glass ceiling breakers, who were taught “that you create your career and then everything else falls into place.” But, of course, many things aren’t falling into place. As this article makes clear, the two things that aren’t falling into place for many of these career women are the two things identified as husband and children.
As you might expect, BusinessWeek sees an economic angle to this with business booming in the egg-freezing business, especially as the technology has improved, so that the success rate of freezing these eggs has improved over time. And yet, as fertility experts warn, it’s not just a matter of economics, the average cost of this kind of procedure is about seven to twelve thousand dollars. It’s not cheap. As a matter of fact, just two years ago, in 2012, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine moved to change the procedure as it was listed formally as experimental—they removed that label—however, they also warn, in what BusinessWeek calls a slightly paternalistic recommendation, that it’s still is far more effective to have a baby the old-fashioned way.
It’s very telling that BusinessWeek hardly even acknowledges that there is a moral dimension to this issue. It’s not even really recognized in the article at all. But the author does ask this question: “Are we headed towards a future of 50-year-olds who, having reached the corner office, decide they’re finally ready to start a family?” Reporter Emma Rosenblum goes on to say, “Maybe not,” but then she quickly says the next frontier in egg freezing is genetic screening. In other words, these women who are so busy in their careers, now missing husband and babies, they might consider freezing their eggs in order to perpetuate or at least extend the possibility that they can be mothers later. But, as Rosenblum says, the big issue is that by the time they get there, they might also want to avail themselves of another new genetic technology: the ability to screen embryos by genetic tests. In other words, not only to delay having a baby, but once one decides to have it, have a designer baby. Because, after all, this is a generation that thinks it can postpone motherhood, it may also think that it can define motherhood on its own terms.
As is so often the case, when you look in an article like this written in a business magazine, you find there are deep issues of worldview significance. And that’s where we need to look because this is where the cultural conversation is taking place, and the cultural conversation is revealing, not only for what is said, but for what is not said. Sometimes the absence of an argument is the strongest argument of all.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing. Remember the weekly release of Ask Anything: Weekend Edition each Saturday. Call with your question in your voice to 877-505-2058. That’s 877-505-2058. For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com. I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.