Culture Friday – The root of sin and brokenness

NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Some of the background the documentary film doesn’t offer.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Yes, I spent a lot of time on the phone, gathering up that background, and I’d like to start with Professor Keith Whitfield, who was co-chair of the resolutions committee responsible for Resolution 9.

Whitfield says the committee chose to revise it from what was originally proposed in order to provide clarity. Committee members hoped to allay concerns, which they felt dealt primarily with the application of the theories not their origination.

WHITFIELD: The challenge is you can’t actually defend it because it takes a level of nuance and you can’t hold the conversation, you can’t hold the attention to be able to help people to see what it is. So that’s the frustrating part.

Owen Strachan is a little frustrated, too. He’s director of the Center for Public Theology at Midwest Theological Seminary. Strachan believes that’s exactly why Resolution Nine shouldn’t have been brought up for a floor vote.

STRACHAN: I don’t think it’s easy to understand these issues that we’re discussing here in a full semester of discussing them. On the floor in front of thousands of people, a convention that’s thousands of people big trying to sort these out as the session’s nearly over. So I think, to be more clear, I think tons of people were confused over what was happening.

EICHER: Strachan thinks the resolution presents critical race theory too positively. But judging from some of the sermon material and video resources available from SBC churches, many church leaders are comfortable with that positive cast.

Have a listen, for example, to Matt Chandler, senior pastor of a megachurch in Dallas.

CHANDLER: What happens in that kind of upbringing, which is fine, is that there were some lenses put over my eyes in which I saw the world through those lenses, not knowing what those lenses are. I have grown up with this sort of invisible bag of privilege, this kind of invisible tool kit that I can reach in there at any given moment and have this type of privilege that a lot of other brothers and sisters don’t have, don’t possess.

But if anything illustrates how divisive discussions over Resolution Nine have become within the SBC, it might be the furor that erupted over the four-minute trailer for the By What Standard documentary.

When it debuted last July, it briefly showed a blurry image of a woman overlapped with Strachan talking about powers and principalities.

Twitter quickly identified the woman as abuse-victim advocate Rachael Denhollander. Denhollander’s husband, Jacob, then accused Founders on Twitter of insinuating his wife is part of a “shadowy vanguard of demonic forces and liberal doctrine.”

The ferocious condemnation and justification that followed ended with several SBC leaders withdrawing from the film.

Strachan’s comments came from a message he gave at Founders and weren’t related to the subject of sexual abuse, generally, or Denhollander, specifically.

BASHAM: Founders president Tom Ascol told me he didn’t intend to personally criticize Denhollander, who is a survivor of infamous sexual abuser Larry Nassar and was his first public accuser. Ascol stressed, he thought her testimony was heroic.

ASCOL: So no, it wasn’t Rachael Denhollander personally. But it was very much the position that she and that panel seem to be advocating that was contrary to what the Bible says about how to handle these kinds of issues.

Ascol says his intention was to convey how the #MeToo movement is being used to impugn the motives of those who maintain that the Bible doesn’t allow women to preach or be elders.

ASCOL: Would we do it that way again? I wouldn’t do it that way again, and nothing we did since then has come close to that kind of edginess. But the response to that trailer was revealing. People screamed about the tone and completely ignored the substance and the content.

Ascol says he apologized for the Denhollander image in the trailer. But when I called Denhollander, she said, that was no apology. In any event, she’s far less concerned with the trailer than her disagreement with messages she believes the film conveys.

DENHOLLANDER: I think there’s a lot of imbalance and misunderstanding happening when it comes to the wisdom and giftings that God has given women and how those can interplay. There’s a lot of equivocation on issues of justice and abuse and automatically perceiving those issues as being part of a “left-wing agenda or an anti-church, anti-gospel agenda. When you have that level of equivocating it just makes it impossible to have any kind of nuanced or graceful discussion.

EICHER: Well, we are hopeful that we will be able to have a nuanced and graceful discussion about it. And joining us now to help with that is Albert Mohler. He’s president of Southern Seminary and host of the daily podcast, The Briefing. Let’s jump right in and if you would, talk to us about why you’re a cautionary voice on the use of critical race theory and intersectionality.

ALBERT MOHLER, GUEST: A part of the problem in all of this is if you deal seriously with ideas, the only really dangerous ideas are the ideas that have a kernel of truth in them. So, if you take intersectionality, the idea that some people are less advantaged in society than others and that some are at the intersections of multiple disadvantage in terms of cultural power, well, of course that’s just basically true. And so, yeah, life for a transgendered person may be more culturally complicated than for even a gay white male by the doctrines of intersectionality.

And so we can understand—if I were not a Christian and I didn’t operate from a Biblical worldview, I can understand why that would be an almost inevitable idea. But Christians can’t go there because the Bible simply does not allow it simply because God speaks authoritatively to what it means to be male and female and how male and female are to relate to one another sexually.

And you talk about the issue of, say, white privilege. Well, I grew up as a white middle class kid, but a barely middle class family. And I went to—I lived in a community with many rich kids and I instantly recognized they were more advantaged than I was.

So, let’s just take that little world. Do I use, then, a Marxist system of class and economic analysis to say that equity is only if I have what they have? Well, then you take it to the next stage. The reality is that any child with two parents, a mother and a father married to each other has significant advantages over a child that does not have two parents married to each other and staying married to each other. But that does not imply that that advantage is somehow an unfair advantage. No, it’s actually faithfulness to God’s plan. And then the cultural Marxists come back and say, yeah, but that’s because of bourgeois values that the entire structure is here to protect. Well, you know what, I want this entire society to support those structures. That’s called moral sanity.

BASHAM: In reading a lot of these arguments, both sides bring up the concept of biblical sufficiency, that the Bible is all we need to equip us for faith in and service to God. 

I read a piece by Owen Strachan arguing that to frame our sin problems in terms of systemic privilege or power is to lose sight of the solutions the Bible offers.

Those who see CRT as potentially useful argue that the Bible maintains its supremacy, CRT just offers a lens—that term we heard Matt Chandler use—that helps us see how to apply biblical principles.

Can you explain why biblical sufficiency has become such a focal point of the discussion?

MOHLER: Well, I think in one sense the sufficiency of Scripture always ends up being the big practical question in the application of the authority of Scripture. And so the statement I keep in mind all the time is that of Martin Luther, the great reformer, when he spoke of the holy Scriptures as “norma normans non normata.” It’s one of my favorite Latin phrases. It’s “the norm of norms that can’t be normed.” So that’s the authority of sufficiency of Scripture. Nothing can norm it. It is the norm that no other norm can norm.

And that is a problem for those who are trying to find some way of explaining the world around us because it comes down to this: So, Christians do not have a lesser understanding of wrongfulness in the world than Critical Race Theorists. We actually have a deeper understanding of sin, which is entirely dependent on Scripture. We understand sin in deeply biblical Augustinian terms and especially those of us who are of the reformation heritage, we have a deeper understanding of brokenness. But we also have no hope whatsoever in any kind of revolution that is going to come in non-Biblical, non-gospel terms.

EICHER: So some proponents of using CRT liken it to Paul referencing pagan philosophers to witness to the Epicureans. I’m not necessarily discounting that position, but I do see a bit of a problem with it. When we’re having this debate, we’re largely talking about it as something within the Church. How brothers and sisters of different ethnicities relate to one another, not how we interact with the wider world. But is it a valid Biblical model to use pagan philosophies for an in-house debate?

As a theologian, do you think the Epicurean example applies here?

MOHLER: Well, no. And we need to note that we’re talking only about the Apostle Paul at the Areopagus in Acts chapter 17 in this case, and the Apostle Paul did not say—let me step out of the Christian Biblical worldview into a stoic critique of contemporary society and apply it. That’s not what he’s saying. He did have conversation with the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers and I’ll tell you, that means missiologically that he had to understand the Epicureans and he had to understand Stoicism. And so there is no reason for intelligent Christians to find justification for not being aware of the rival philosophies around us. But being conversant is a very different thing than being dependent.

BASHAM: I’d like to dig into this idea of systemic or collective sin a little bit more.

It seems to me that this is what CRT is primarily concerned with, as opposed to focusing on individual offenses. And that seems to be a lot of what the people who object to CRT are concerned about. They feel it contradicts principles in passages like Ezekiel 18:20, “The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity.”

What’s your view on that?

MOHLER: Well, you take the category of systemic injustice or systemic structural sin, is that right or is that wrong? Well, it can be both. I mean, there is a sense in which the Bible affirms that of course there are systemic demonstrations of sin. You can have sin that is common to an entire society.

I mean, just consider the way that in the Old Testament, for instance, the Caananites are described. It’s not just individual Caananites, it’s the ideology of being Caananite—idolatry shared by the Caananites. Systemic structural evil is something we come to understand.

The problem with the understanding of structural sin or systemic sin that comes out of Critical Theory is that it is used to explain how an entire society is built upon a project of oppression and the oppressor-oppressed category becomes the only reading of history. And you could understand where this goes.

The Marxist Mandate is to undo the civilization in order to free humanity from the oppressive bounds of all—you have to understand—this means of everything that constitutes Western civilization. And, of course, we as Christians don’t believe that Western civilization is without sin because of the people that inhabit that civilization. But we can’t buy into the idea that the entire project is to oppress and is thus sinful in all of its dimensions.

BASHAM: It was interesting that while researching this, I heard both sides refer to a “chilling effect.” In that same Owen Strachan piece, he connected telling people to “check” their privilege to telling them to be silent.  

On the flip side, one person in the SBC who would only speak off the record told me this debate has in some ways made the subject of racial reconciliation off limits. That if you bring up CRT in any positive way—something he likened to taking the plunder out of Egypt—people become suspicious that you’re a nefarious actor trying to undermine the church.

How do we get to a place of unity on this—or even charity in disagreement—if everyone’s afraid their motives will be misconstrued?

MOHLER: Well, I’ve been at this a long time—both as a theologian and apologist and as a Southern Baptist. And so here’s the thing: I don’t think this conversation progresses in any healthy way on the basis of anything drawn from Critical Race Theory. It also can’t progress if every time someone raises the issue of the sin of racism someone says that comes from Critical Race Theory. That can’t work.

I mean, if you forget that Critical Race Theory ever happened—lamentably it has—but there are rightful Biblical concerns about what it means to love our neighbor and to respect everyone made in the image of God that are, let’s just say, bound in scripture, revealed by the heart of God. So, it takes some time and mutual respect to talk these things through. It’s a conversation we’re going to have to have. It’s a conversation I think Southern Baptists are up to.

EICHER: Well, Al Mohler is the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and host of the daily podcast, The Briefing. Al, thanks so much for joining us for Culture Friday.

MOHLER: You’re talking about important things, as always. Nick and Megan, great to be with you.

(Photo/Albert Mohler)

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