Monday, July 22, 2013

Has Al Mohler Gone Soft?

Has Al Mohler Gone Soft?

With the muddling done by several longtime conservative pastors in recent years, and the seeming loss of Evangelicalism’s ability to draw lines between Church and Culture, it’s encouraging to be able to look toward a few staunch teachers and hope that they continue to remain unshaken. There’s a big temptation for high-profile leaders in the Church to capitulate in the realm of language in order to appear less offensive to whoever’s listening. But as has been abundantly demonstrated by watchdogs such as Answers in Genesis and Wretched, once the door of compromise has been cracked, it isn’t long before it’s pushed open further, and eventually thrown wide. Walking back “offensive language” comes before walking back “offensive convictions.” It may begin with good intentions, but it never ends the same way. Similarly, making non-doctrinal compromises—social, political, etc—precedes compromises on theological doctrines, and that’s what I want to speak about today.

                One of the ‘big guys’ in American Christendom is Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and his blog is located here. He’s one of the pastors of the Church who’s visible on the national level and has a large online presence as well. Most of his writing is powerfully on-point and not theologically wishy-washy in any sense. And as I indicated at the end of the opening paragraph, I didn’t read anything that looked like theological compromise. Nevertheless, a recent article he wrote, commenting on the Zimmerman trial verdict, gave me cause for concern.
“[T]he editors of The Washington Post got it exactly right when they declared that “the central tragedy of this case—the death of a 17-year-old boy who had been on a simple errand to get snacks—remains.” ”
                Something about this bothers me, and it’s not that Dr. Mohler lauds a liberal publication. In fact, he frequently comments on headlines from the New York Times, and I don’t see anything fundamentally wrong with that. I imagine he does so to “keep his finger on the pulse of the culture,” as one might say. You can’t communicate with the world you’re in if you don’t know what the world is saying, and the NYT is one of the more widely-read papers in the US, so I understand that. But I hope that Dr. Mohler doesn’t only get his news from the Washington Post, New York Times, and similar outlets, for the same reason that I understand the purpose in reading them in the first place—they belong to the culture. They can’t be considered reliable sources of information by Biblical Christians, because the entire worldview from which those publications operate is hostile to Christianity and the Bible. Indeed, how to get reliable news in a world like this is a question worth spending more time on, so I anticipate writing a future entry on that subject.

                What bothers me about what Dr. Mohler wrote is that he seemingly unquestioningly goes along with the main-stream media narrative, namely that of the “innocent victim sweet little boy who was mercilessly gunned down for doing nothing wrong,” that I’ve become nauseated by hearing from the broadcast television that I have access to, day in and day out. Now, obviously Dr. Mohler didn’t say that, but the phrase “simple errand to get snacks” implies an agreement with the underlying narrative of Trayvon’s utter innocence. Stop for a minute, and question whether I’m overreacting or reading things into this. I do not believe I have. Consider how thoroughly the abovementioned narrative has permeated the “news” coverage of the trial, and one must realize that if you are saying the same things as the media has been saying, then the only way to demonstrate that you are not agreeing with the implicit unspoken premise is to distance yourself from those statements by making contrary statements, to establish a concrete difference of viewpoint. Otherwise one would reasonably conclude that by the absence of such, Dr. Mohler is agreeing wholeheartedly with whatever opinions have been published in the Post since the story became news a year and a half ago.

                In support of the view that the WP and NYT have not been forthcoming with accurate details about the trial is Dr. Mohler’s paragraph that I have reproduced below.
“I do not want to become one of [the pundits]. This nation needs a deep and intensive conversation about racial profiling, self-defense laws, and a range of issues related to this tragic case. It is dangerous to be a young black male in America. It is true that a young black man is far more likely to be killed by another young black man in this country. Trayvon Martin was killed, however, not by another African-American young male, but by a man who in a 911 call declared Trayvon was suspicious and out of place and then rejected the police dispatcher’s order to stop following him.” [emphasis added]
                Two things: one, Dr. Mohler makes two neutral statements followed by one that brings some perspective, but has not received airtime except by conservative pundits, incidentally. I say this not to criticize Dr. Mohler and suggest that he’s being a pundit—I’m saying it to balance out my concern over whether he’s trying to please a certain audience by going along with the culture current. This statement that black men are “far more likely” (I believe the numbers are 94% or higher) to be killed by other black men than by any other sex or ethnicity, is a politically incorrect statement, and I’m glad Dr. Mohler made it here. It indicates his continued willingness to speak unpopular truths and not be cowed by, in this case, race-hustlers.

                The other thing is this: that statement is essentially the only place in the entire article where one might get a hint of whether Dr. Mohler actually disagrees with the agitators like Al Sharpton, because in the rest of his article, he speaks much the same language as those on Al Sharpton’s side have been speaking in interviews for weeks on television. I’m worried that Dr. Mohler unfortunately underemphasized the “pushback” to the media narrative, and overemphasized an attempt at sympathy, to the point of possibly appearing to completely agree with the race-hustlers, if one of them were to read his article.

                Dr. Mohler states as fact that Zimmerman “rejected the police dispatcher’s order to stop following him.” This is sadly impossible to know for sure, at best, and quite possibly completely false. According to the recorded call Zimmerman made, he was asked if he was following Martin. He replied that he was, at which point the dispatcher said, “okay, we don’t need you to do that.” Zimmerman responded, “okay.” This means that Zimmerman was already out of the car when he was told not to follow Martin, and according to his own testimony, was returning to the car, in compliance with the dispatcher’s statement, when Martin attacked him. NOT that he blatantly disobeyed an order and left the car to pursue, after being told he should not. A further point of note, one is not legally obligated to comply with a 911 dispatcher’s requests, even if this particular operator’s statements could be parsed as an “order.” This is what alarmed me the most, because it seemed to me upon reading this that Dr. Mohler has also, as many of us have been before, become a victim to a deceitful media establishment and failed to be aware of the facts of the case due to their omission in reporting. **

                I want to make a very clear statement, here, and it is that I am not motivated by the idea that I could ‘make a name for myself’ by ‘challenging’ one of the big theological leaders of the day. I know that delusions of glory can drive a person to become a persistent critic who never seeks resolution, only conflict, for the purpose of gaining attention, or a following, for himself. I’ve seen it before, and am well acquainted with being on the “criticized” end of that game. My twofold purpose in writing this post is to express my concern about ‘the way we talk about things,’ in general, hopefully giving readers something beneficial to think about, and secondly to ask Dr. Mohler to be more clear—like he usually is—in how he writes about “hot-button topics,” so that he doesn’t waffle about the issues. In keeping with this purpose, I’ve sent Dr. Mohler a courtesy email to inform him that I’ve written a blog post “critiquing” him, so that he can read it if he wishes. I doubt my little blog would make him feel the need to publish a response, but then again, that’s not my decision to make for him. I just would like for him to hear my voice. I realize that pastors don’t exist in a vacuum, they’re men like the rest of us. I’ve heard a political slogan that goes, “who watches the watchers?” It refers to government without oversight. When there are no checks or balances, the whole system becomes unbalanced. In a similar vein, “who helps the helpers?” Aside from God, there’s no one on a theological level above shepherds of the flock. So the pastors can either get feedback from other pastors, or otherwise “the little guys,” members of their church, denomination or the Body of Christ generally. Therefore, though it may feel insolent—whether it is or not—I believe it’s my responsibility to give feedback to church leaders when I think I have something worth saying, and so I make the attempt to do so. The worst thing that can happen is that I’m not listened to. 1 Timothy 5:1 says, “Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father.” It is my hope that this is what I have accomplished, here. Church leaders need our encouragement and exhortation, too. I hope this rationale doubles to serve as a motivation for others to do likewise, responsibly.

                Now to finish up. I have to quote this next part as a section, because it wasn’t any individual word that was out of place, simply that the thing as a whole makes me think after reading it, “what was that about?”
“The central tragedy remains. A smiling 17-year-old boy who had gone to a convenience store to buy a soft drink and a snack was shot to death, and we will never know exactly how or why. We just know that it is an unspeakable tragedy. It is a moral tragedy that even the best system of justice cannot remedy, much less restore. It is a political tragedy, a cultural tragedy, and a legal mess. But far more than these, it is the tragedy of a boy now dead, of parents and loved ones grieving, and of a nation further wounded, confused, and tormented by the color line.
I think of the young black men on the campus I am honored to lead. I think of the faithful black parents whose families I so know, love, admire. I think of what they have to worry about that I never have to think about. I think of the conversations that must come for our nation and for our churches.But most of all I am thinking of those parents who have to have that talk I never had to have with my son. I pray and yearn for that day when those conversations will not be necessary. May God watch over every single one of them, for they, starting with Trayvon Martin, belong to all of us.”
                It just seems…airy. A lot of feeling words that don’t seem to be making a coherent point – which wouldn’t be a problem, if it weren’t for the fact that the article implies that it’s intended to make some sort of point… I’m so used to seeing this sort of vacuousness in heretical writings like “A New Kind of Christianity” and Rob Bell’s ‘I have no idea what I’m doing, so follow me’ mental vomit, and it bothers me that the writing style of the above paragraph mimics theirs—moving around and hard to nail down as being “for” something concrete. I’m super thankful that this isn’t about theology and doctrine, but it’s about a sensitive cultural issue that could sure use clarity rather than…whatever this is.
                I should also mention that I thought a similar way when I listened to Dr. Mohler’s radio interview with Jimmy Carter, within the last year. Despite Carter having very unorthodox views, Dr. Mohler didn’t challenge him on any of his beliefs, and they appeared to be chumming it up over how Carter’s been teaching Sunday School in his particular congregation. I can’t help but wonder if Dr. Mohler was a bit wary of questioning Carter’s inconsistencies – remember, this was an interview! – simply because he carried the label of Baptist. This is in the back of my mind as I’ve been writing about this recent article.

                What would have been better? Instead of being an antagonist, I’ll offer an alternative so that my criticism is constructive: I think it would have been good if the article had included something to the tune of saying that yes, there is a real sensitivity about race among many people in this country, but drawing a distinction and saying that the focus should be taken off the Zimmerman trial totally, so that we can focus on the real issues that contribute to this problem in the culture. There is an obvious attempt by many to use Zimmerman as a scapegoat, as a target for the release of rage over race, and as if by destroying him, the problem can be fixed. It can not. It would have been great if Dr. Mohler would have said something to this effect, though with the much better tact that he has. He did say that the legal issue of guilt was distinct from the moral issue of race, but I would have hoped that he’d gone farther, and said that the moral meta-conflict of racism in this country is distinct from the side question of whether Zimmerman or Martin (ironically, no one in the popular media seems to be questioning the latter) were racially biased in any of their actions that night. The bottom line is that the Zimmerman trial has been a media side-show from the very beginning, intended by political and media elites to as a diversionary enterprise to distract minority blacks in America from questioning what the real source of their difficulties are. I don’t expect Dr. Mohler to necessarily agree with my political view on this issue, but he seems to at least understand where I’m coming from when he implies that the problems for the ‘black community’ are mostly internal (that most black murder victims are victims of other black males). However, I would hope that he wouldn’t, in the future, allow racially-motivated grievance-mongers (sorry, I couldn’t think of an unoffensive way to say that) to interpret his statements as indicating that he’s “on their side.” As a final reiteration, Dr. Mohler’s article is far from being even close to a “bad” article, but in case his emphasis on sympathy and lack of emphasis on drawing clear lines to define the discussion are indicative of hesitance on his part to confront the culture in one arena, I wanted to write this to make clear whether or not that is or will be the case. “Set the story straight.” “Nip it in the bud.” I hope I haven’t come across as rude or insolent, but deeply desire for any readers to consider how they use words to communicate with the gamut of people in the potential internet audience.

Thank you.

~ Rak Chazak

**Any inaccurate information is solely the result of a personal failure to recall correctly, or fact-check the details before publishing, and is not an attempt to sway public opinion by being deceitful or misleading. I welcome corrections to the summary I gave, if a reader is willing to leave a link to an authoritative source of information in a comment on this post.

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