An Author Interview from Books At a Glance
Greetings! I’m Fred Zaspel and welcome to another Author Interview here at Books At a Glance.
I think most of our listeners and readers are aware that Dr. Albert Mohler of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has been one to keep his finger on the pulse of our culture and offer counsel to Christians accordingly. That’s what we have yet again in his new book, The Gathering Storm: Secularism, Culture, and the Church, and we are very happy to have him with us to talk about it today.
Al, welcome, and congratulations on another very helpful book!
Thank you, Fred. It is great to have a conversation with you.
First, let’s just talk in broad terms with regard to your title: just what kind of “storm” is gathering? Highlight for us the kinds of issues that will make up this storm. Take your time here if you like and sketch it out for us.
The title is intentionally and strategically borrowed from Winston Churchill. I have had a fascination with Churchill since I was thirteen years old. One of the aspects of Churchill’s leadership and statesmanship that most fascinated me was his ability to see what was coming when others refused to see it when the evidence was there. The title, The Gathering Storm, is actually the first volume of his memoir on World War II. The whole theme of that first volume is of Europe, especially Britain, refusing to see Hitler for what he was and understand the militaristic, imperialistic aims of the Third Reich. It is horrifying now to read on the other side of history and recognize how many people just would not see it for what it was, a true gathering storm. Churchill was trying to draw the nation’s attention to it.
I am using that same title because we are living in a similar kind of time. not against a political militaristic enemy like the Third Reich, but instead we are in a situation in which I’m afraid most Christians are not aware of a gathering storm that is going to reshape our society. It indeed has to a great deal. It is going to present the Christian church with an entirely different context of ministry and in mission.
To look at the storm, it is secularism. The larger reality is that secularization is a fundamental reshaping of the entire society. When you look at the aspects of it, of a given particular storm front, whether it be sexuality, religious liberty, marriage, the dignity of human life, etc., we are in a situation in which the average Christian is the hard-pressed to deny this massive reshaping of the entire moral structure of the universe around us. Most Christians do not yet connect the dots between these various storm fronts and in terms of what is happening. It is a fundamental change in the way the majority of people in Western civilization think. To be clear, that does not mean that a majority of them are secularist. The majority are not secular. But what people do not recognize is that the society itself is being reshaped in a secular fashion.
Peter Drucker referred to a similar phenomenon in the business management world. As reality changes, people have defense mechanisms against recognizing changes. In the Christian world, Christians often do not recognize how the presuppositions of this new secular worldview are becoming rather commonplace in many churches. Christians are unintentionally becoming secularized without even being aware.
I want to ask you about that in a second. Those issues that you mention, particularly things like the dignity of human life, the very meaning of marriage, etc. These are basic, fundamental kinds of issues. For there to be a massive shift like there is on those kinds of issues, there must be some deeper kinds of shifts happening as well, right?
I have tried to read deeply and widely in these areas my entire adult life. I can still remember the first time I read works by Pitirim Sorokin, a widely unknown name today. He was a Russian immigrant who suffered greatly under tyranny of the Soviet Union. He came as a refugee. He ended up on the faculty at Harvard, where he started the first department of Sociology at Harvard.
He wrote a book in which he made the argument that all successful human societies recognized that marriage and the natural family are at the very center of civilization. It had been defined in such a way that every child knew who his father was, and every man had to take responsibility for his offspring through an entire social system depending on marriage and family. He made that point in the middle the 20th century. He said an exception to this rule will not be found, and it will not work. Unfortunately, we are living in that exception. This change happened very quickly in our time, such that it could not be thought of even at Harvard in the middle of the 20th century. Now no one who believes anything like Pitirim Sorokin believed could get hired at Harvard—much less the chair of the Sociology department.
You point out that our culture, although shaped by Christian values, has become increasingly intolerant of Christianity. That’s the cultural side of the equation, and it’s not as surprising to many Christians to hear that our culture has become increasingly secular. But you also argue that Christianity itself has become increasingly secular – and you add that it has become “noncognitive.” To Christian ears that sounds awfully strange. Explain all that for us.
Peter Berger is the most incisive observer of religion in the United States in the 20th century. He died just a couple years ago, He was still writing in his tenth decade of life. Fred, I aspire to that, by the way. Maybe the Lord will allow the two of us to continue writing that long. He lived long enough to have to correct some of his previous writings, like Augustine did. He said that one of his fundamental mistakes was believing that secular and Christian were dichotomies. He thought they were antagonistic as two separate categories, but he had to redefine secularization in that evidently, someone could remain Christian in their mind, in their self-consciousness even say “I’m still Christian,” and yet in their thinking, what Berger called your plausibility structures/cognitively ordering, can be basically secularized. People may not even be aware that that is happening.
To give an example, back in the 1990s, I was doing research and discovered that an enormous number of American evangelicals, including some pastors, spoke and thought about human problems in psychological in terms with any reference to theology. It was as if they had just read it out the latest psychotherapeutic bestseller. They did not claim to be secular, but when asked, “Why is someone depressed?” the next thing is something that one might expect from Phil Donahue, a dated reference. People were just giving popular psychological answers.
Karl Menninger talked about this in the 1970s. If people are asked to define sin, Christians oftentimes do not give a theological or biblical answer, at all. Now, it is much more insidious than that. The threat outside and inside come together when you consider the fact that the secular world doesn’t care at all about what might be called Christian spirituality. They are not threatened at all by Desmond Tutu or Joel Osteen or anyone else are you get to show up in and pray anywhere. They could care less.
Yeah, they are no threat whatsoever.
Absolutely, they are no threat whatsoever. But there are a lot of Christians who do not understand that when they talk to other people, even those who identify as Christians oftentimes, these people may have just some vague sense of Christian spirituality. There are no cognitive truths or doctrines. There is no Jesus Christ crucified and raised from the dead on the third day. No cognitive truth claims are present whatsoever. They are gone on.
Let’s be thankful there is a very strong core of the of genuine Christian Orthodox belief in the United States. People who are self-consciously holding the biblical model of doctrine and faith, if we are honest, we understand that we are what Berger would call a “cognitive minority” in the midst of this culture. The closer you get to a city, the coast, or to a campus, the more obvious it is that we are a cognitive minority. Frankly, you can probably find that out at any decent size family reunion—whenever we can have those again.
That is right; there is a spectrum of it, isn’t there? Even within what would be self-professing evangelical Christianity, it is becoming less explicit and less life-shaping.
I can still remember as a teenager meeting Francis Schaeffer and reading his works. I am thankful for both the man and his writings. He was the first person I ever heard, and I was around 17 years old, that said that Christianity is a comprehensive claim upon all of your experience, all of your thinking, all of your behavior, and all of your hopes. This was a comprehensive game-changer for me.
I do not think the average Christian today thinks of Christianity as a comprehensive claim. It is just their religious life. Although they may claim to believe the gospel, they do not understand that Christianity is a faith that makes a total claim upon every dimension of life in every dimension of ourselves.
Theology has had a category for that for a long time. We call it “practical atheism.” James even addresses that when we ought to say, “If the Lord wills”, but we don’t think that way as we should. It has become more and more pervasive of a problem, such that Christian values are simply forgotten in terms of being life-shaping.
I was born in 1959, I was in college in the late 70s, and graduated in 1980. That is my timeline. I can remember in a psychology class learning about cognitive dissonance. The understanding that people make one statement over here, another statement over there, and any fair-minded person would understand that to be incongruous, or contradictory. The whole point of the psychology professor was to say that we need to recognize cognitive dissonance because the human mind generally tries to find a way to resolve cognitive dissonance.
The problem today is that most Christians are living in cognitive dissonance and do not even know it. When I was a young Christian, that meant that I believe that God created the heavens and the earth. Thus, that also means that I cannot make a statement elsewhere that is contradictory to that. But now, I hear Christians doing that sort of thing all the time.
I think there are an enormous number of Christians who bought into the idea of complete contingency in the universe. That is another research project. I just try to listen to people talk. I actually had a Christian, evangelical pastor respond to me when I said something about this. He said because I said if there is a single atom or molecule in the cosmos that is not under God’s sovereign control, then we are doomed. He responded, “Do you really believe that?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “What you’re saying is that there is no hidden use or contingency or randomness anywhere?”
In my view, to our eyes, it is randomness, but not the Creator’s eyes. I can still remember that pastor looking at me as if say what I said was simply crazy. But it is what Christians have believed for two thousand years, and it was shocking to him that any Christian would think that. I just spoke to him honestly and said, “From where is your view of the cosmos coming?”
You’re not a prophet, but what do you expect this storm to look like on the local church level and with regard to religious freedom in America generally?
I can tell you one a real-life incident that happened when I was writing the book. It had nothing to do with writing the book, but I was talking to a pastor of a major church of very stalwart evangelical pastor with a big ministry with thousands of people on Sunday morning listening to this preacher preach. He was really taken back by what happened in the previous Sunday, and he called to tell me about it. I asked him what happened, and he said, “I was just preaching through Romans in my third sermon in Romans 1. I just read the biblical text where Paul deals with the homosexuality repeatedly in Romans 1. Paul diagnoses it as sin.” He went on to say, “I didn’t even thoroughly preach it because I’m coming back to it next Sunday. I just vaguely read the text and made some statements. I was met by teenagers in the course the next several days who were saying that they fundamentally disagreed with me. Some of their parents called me and were very upset with me. They thought the preacher ought to know that he had said some upsetting things on Sunday morning.”
That is a wake-up call because many of our listeners would know that church. The pastor has pulled no punches for years, but he did not know that the teenagers in his church are not the teenagers that were in his church just twenty years ago. Their psychological, cognitive/intellectual world is just completely different. They are on the other side of political decisions on homosexuality/same-sex marriage.
The Pew Center and other research centers have demonstrated that this is a major change occurring within a seven-year timeframe. A majority of Americans went from saying that same-sex marriage is wrong and should not be legal to saying, of course, it’s not wrong, and of course it should be legal. Pew and other researchers are saying this is the fastest transformation of moral values that anyone has ever witnessed.
Your average 18-year-old is on the other side of that at school, in the entertainment culture, and the rest of the world in which everyone is way past that. Thus, when all the sudden on Sunday morning Romans 1 is read from the pulpit, they are scandalized. The coming storm is in the church too because pastors will now get in trouble just for reading the Bible aloud.
What will that mean in a few years when the pastor needs to be replaced and they vote on another pastor. What will they take well?
Exactly, that is going to be an issue.
On a related note, I had some parents who had three kids who became distraught after homeschooling their kids and then decided missiologically to put them into public schools in the LA district. They said it was “a complete wreck. We found out over dinner one night on Friday night that our children decided that we are homophobes.” That is definitely some of the storm-fronts.
Other storm-fronts are going to be more political and even professional. Young people who hold to a biblical worldview will find it increasingly difficult to get into many the professions because the professions regulating themselves. The American Bar Association (ABA) is openly discussing in at least some of its committees reframing the Code of Ethics for attorneys, such that they have to make a positive statement, not only nondiscrimination, but of affirmation. In Canada there are open arguments that applicants to medical schools should be required to say that they will perform abortions. Otherwise, their spot in medical school needs to go to someone else. This is all coming to the US.
The political process is in a very temporary moment in the United States because there is no long-term evidence in the United States of either political party standing apart from a basic change in morality for long. A historical perspective indicates that both of the two major parties run a very similar train. Abortion is one of the counter-arguments that is fascinating. This infuriates the Left because they thought they won that 1973. It will be interesting to see if the Republican Party will make any kind of defense of the natural family and marriage.
Pressures are becoming enormous.
Absolutely. Most Christians do not understand how moral change takes place in the society. They think it takes place by the ballot box. Although voting is extremely important, moral changes take place elsewhere. Moral change in society takes place more through the hiring policies of corporations, the hiring and advancement policies of US military, admissions standards, faculty hiring policies, the intellectual atmosphere of colleges and universities, and in the engines of cultural production like Hollywood. The fact is that orthodox Christianity does not even have like a fingerprint of presence in the decision-making levels of almost all those arenas.
What does all this mean for Christians today? How might we best respond? Surely we must protest – in fact, you’ve written before, We Cannot Be Silent. But what kind of protest?
Before getting even to protest, I would say we have got to be clear and convictional. We cannot possibly be faithful if we do not know what Christianity is. Our children need to know what Christianity is. They are not even taught enough of the Scriptures. Yes, we need to protest. Frankly, preaching is protest, and it always has been. But we must start with that, but we must remember that Christianity is not going to matter on the ground. If a Christian college student at the University of California does not speak up in a conversation, it will not matter.
The reason I brought up the University of California Berkeley is because it is a very liberal campus. I have done public events at UCLA, USC, and other colleges over the last several years. One doctoral student at Cal Berkeley came to me, and we got into a discussion about human dignity because of a doctoral seminar. It was basically all about abortion rights and how to defend abortion rights. He said, “When I simply turned to one of my colleagues and asked, ‘When did you become a human person?’” He said, “I was written out of the room as an extremist for asking the question.” We are living in a time of insanity. We as Christians are a cognitive minority in a culture that is transforming fast. We must band together. We must find those the islands of authentic deeply committed Christianity. We need to present a united front.
That is not to say that we compromise theologically; the whole point is that we do not. But, we are going to have to understand that we face a common challenge, and that also means a common set of lawsuits. I was contacted by parents in a Southern state. Someone from Child Protective Services (CPS) came to their home because their first-grader had told another first grader that he sometimes received corporal punishment. They were threatened that if this is true, they could have their parental rights terminated. It did not go any further at this point, and there is no accusation of abuse. There is also no accusation of harm to the child. It was simply that the new regime says, “If your 6-year-old mentioned something like that at school today, then there will be a knock at your door.”
The shift has been so fundamental, so basic, and so pervasive, and it is affecting Christians so deeply that it requires more strategic thinking on the part of pastors in terms of what we are preaching and how we how instruct our people.
I made a suggestion to a large group of preachers, “Here is one of the most important things you need to do, if you’re not doing it right now. Your ministry may well depend upon it, especially the fruitfulness of your ministry. You need to read the text you are preaching at the onset of every preaching moment/every preaching event.” You need to read the text because people have to know that you are talking about what God has said before you get to what you are saying about what God said.” Right now, people are predisposed to disregard what you say. If they don’t agree with, at least make clear from the beginning that they have to disagree with God himself from His Word. It is just like that pastor I mentioned in the big church that got in trouble with his teenagers for reading Romans 1. Their problem is with the Bible.
That is right.
We are talking to Dr. Albert Mohler about his new book, The Gathering Storm: Secularism, Culture, and the Church. It is another very helpful contribution from Dr. Mohler, directing Christians to a discerning awareness of our surrounding culture. And we encourage you to get a copy for yourself and one for your pastor.
Al, many thanks for your another helpful book and for talking to us about it today.
Fred, I am thankful for the conversation, am thankful for you, and I am thankful that there are still Christians out there that still read books like you do. It is encouraging.