Culture Friday – Jumping to conclusions

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: It’s Friday, March 19th. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Myrna Brown.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. 

Well,  big news this week out of the Vatican. At least, big news for most of the media, based on the headline reporting.

Pope Francis issued a statement that the Roman Catholic Church cannot bless the union of two men or two women in marriage. The reason given that gay marriages aren’t part of God’s plan, so the church can’t bless them. 

Here’s what Father Anthony Figueiredo told CBS:

FIGUEIREDO: Nobody likes the terms “sin,” but that’s the business of the Church. If we bless a union we are actually putting them on a par with marriage. That for the church is outside what God intended in creation.

BROWN: Well, it’s Culture Friday and we welcome back John Stonestreet, president of the Colson Center and host of the Breakpoint podcast. Good morning, John.


BROWN: Well, what do you think, John? Big news or much ado about nothing?

STONESTREET: I don’t know. Can the answer be yes at the same time to both? I mean, the reason is that it shouldn’t be big news, you know? It’s always a somewhat amusing thing when the wider press, who have thoroughly embraced an inevitability narrative that these sorts of things, every cultural institution changing their minds about things like gender and marriage and sexuality. Kind of run into an institution that goes back so far and they realize, oh, hey, the Pope is actually Catholic. That’s a pretty intense revelation for some of them. But part of that, obviously, is on the Vatican itself because this particular pope has really struggled in terms of speaking out loud, though I think that many who are trying to thread these needles would say he’s not speaking ex-cathedra in any sort of kind of authority of the church. And, of course, that’s the difference with this particular document is that it actually does carry that sort of weight. And it’s important. It’s important to note. 

On the other hand, one of the things I really appreciated about this statement not only is that it did hold firm but where it grounded this particular decision. It didn’t ground it into tradition or age old teaching of the church, although that is kind of how it’s often pitched. It grounded it very specifically in God’s design. People, for example, who have said, well, the Bible only speaks about homosexuality or things like that in a handful of what’s known as clobber passages, have — and, by the way, many people who hold to traditional morality have also made the same mistake of looking at just a handful of verses, these same clobber passages and saying this is what the Bible says — have missed the point that the Bible offers us this grand story of reality. It tells us where everything came from and where everything’s headed. And so what we get in the first several chapters of the Bible is more than just a creation narrative that stands against the evolutionists. What it gives us is actually a pretty thorough description at least when it comes to sex and gender and marriage of what God intended, what God’s plan was. The sort of creatures we are and what we’re for in terms of our relationships across the sexes. And that’s what this document referred back to. And that’s where a lot of evangelicals, on the other hand, have missed a solid grounding in sexual ethics. And so that’s, I think, a lesson for both sides to learn.

BASHAM: I want to jump in here because I saw that Elton John got involved. You know, the rock star? He tweeted that the Catholic Church was hypocritical because it invested millions of dollars in a movie about his life, called Rocketman. And a big part of that movie dealt with his homosexuality and marriage to another man.

It’s unclear how much Pope Francis knew about this, but he did strip the department within the Vatican that supposedly poured millions into that movie. 

John, what about that aspect? What can evangelicals learn from it?

STONESTREET: Yes, yes. Be consistent. I mean, what was this? A financial decision? We have seen what happens when institutions that are Christian, whether evangelical or Catholic, make pragmatic decisions disconnected from their clear teaching. I mean, good for the pope for stripping this department. I mean, this is insane to do that. This wasn’t just a biopic of a guy who is a remarkable musician. It was an endorsement of a lifestyle as part of his success, which obviously it shouldn’t be connected although it is. In the same approach as we revise history in the same way. Don’t do it? I mean, is that a summary of the lesson we can learn? As, who was it — Bob Newhart, yes! Thank you! How did you know I was thinking about that? Bob Newhart would say in Deep Therapy, just stop it!

BASHAM: Alright, well, John, taking a hard turn now to an upsetting topic—a sickening news out of Atlanta Tuesday night. A 21-year-old gunman opened fire on three spas, killing eight people. 

Asked to speculate about Robert Aaron Long’s motive, President Biden said, very wisely to my mind, that he’s “waiting for an answer as the investigation proceeds.”

But John, that’s not what we’re seeing from some early media reports that are making connections to the church this man attended as he was growing up. I’d like to read you a quote from a Washington Post story that ran Wednesday afternoon, just hours after the shootings:

“On Sunday the church’s pastor gave a sermon on the apocalypse. Christ was coming soon, [the pastor] said, and the world must be ready.”

The reporters then admitted they don’t know if Long was present to hear this sermon, which, from their reporting, was pretty standard stuff about the second coming. In fact, the reporters said it’s not clear when Long last attended this church or any other. Yet the Washington Post devoted nearly 1600 words to exploring church and ministry connections though, at this point, investigators haven’t mentioned faith or religion as a motive.

What do you make of this?

STONESTREET: Yeah, I read that story as well and I don’t understand, at all, what the connection was to the pastor’s sermon on Sunday morning. Not only was it unverified that the young man was there, but, again, there’s no clear connection at all if someone was, for example, going to take that and live that out for argument’s sake, why then the targets would be these particular small little facilities. I thought it was an irresponsible connection, actually, because it didn’t actually make any sense.

What does seem to be emerging is that this was a young man who seemed to be really tormented about his sexual temptation. And I think what this is going to mean is two things. Number one is the church has long needed to rethink how it talks about sexuality. Growing up, we often talked about sexual temptation with a great bit of fear and then it kind of moved to what my friend Gina often calls “princess theology,” which is if you just fulfill God’s perfect sexual plan for your life, then you’ll have a happily ever after. Which is something that the world can’t deliver and no other person can deliver in your life. And, by the way, you’re not a prince or a princess either. So, you know, there’s so many things wrong with that narrative. So I think there has been room for a long time to rethink how we talk about sex, how we talk about sexual morality. To go back to what we said earlier, we talk about it in moral terms when we need to talk about it in terms of God’s intent and design and purpose terms, which we don’t do nearly enough of. So, all of that is at play here. 

On the flip side, we’ve just come out of a year where it’s quite popular to connect all kinds of weird things. For example, the evangelical or the conservative Christian view of sexuality with violence. There was just a book published called Jesus and John Wayne, which replaced history with kind of anecdotes and strung it all together to make that same case. So, I think what we’re going to see is a blame put on the Christian way of talking about this, A) as if it’s monolithic, B) as if this one incident reflects that this has been happening for decades and it hasn’t led to the same kind of violence at any means. So I think we need to do that self reckoning and at the same time there’s going to be a lot of blame. This fits a narrative that’s been building in culture for quite a while and so I suspect we’re going to see more of these kinds of irresponsible connections that are an easy way to frame the narrative. And it’s not going to actually get us to the heart of what we need to think about and what we need to do about it.

Now, as far as this young man’s actions, if it does emerge that his sexual temptation was part of it, let me just say fundamentally this was so awful. And what Jesus said is if your right arm offends you, cut it off. If your right eye offends you, pluck it out. What this young man did instead was blame someone else for his sexual temptation. He absolutely targeted at the wrong person. It should have been internal, not external. And that’s a tragic and awful and evil misreading of scripture.

BROWN: Well John, I’m wondering about the potential impact this shooting in Georgia could have on H.R. 127. 

That’s the legislation sponsored by Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee. It would create a mandatory national registry, making public the names of gun owners, the number of firearms they possess, even where they keep the guns. 

With the recent changes in the Senate, a pro-gun control administration and this latest shooting, is it the perfect storm? What do you think?

STONESTREET: That’s a great question. I mean, one of these incidents is going — we see the national conversation on gun control go in a particular direction and in a culture in which there are two things plaguing especially young men, but across America more broadly, it makes these conversations that much more effective, unfortunately. On the one hand we have what we call the deaths from despair, opium additions, suicides, and so on. On the other hand, we have what I’ve called acts of desperation—acts of mass violence, lashing out, kind of losing your mind over small sorts of things. And, by the way, I’d add to that category the self-mutilation of healthy body parts for the perpetual search for identity. All of this is an act of desperation. And it reflects, obviously, far more about a culture that is not securing the identity and stability of young people more than it can be pointed to that guns are the problem. And people have made this argument before, but this particular legislation will do absolutely nothing about the vast majority of gun crime, which is happening in cities and will not be solved by a registry, will not be solved by the government knowing more about what’s happening. It just won’t. 

I think that can we expect some sort of further legislation to come out of this? To come out of this in particular communities and particular states? Probably.

BROWN: John Stonestreet is president of the Colson Center and host of the Breakpoint podcast. John, thank you.

STONESTREET: Thank you both.

(AP Photo/Brynn Anderson) Law enforcement officials confer outside a massage parlor following a shooting on Tuesday, March 16, 2021, in Atlanta. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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