Monday, May 23, 2016

Russell Moore's "Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel"

I haven't had a ton of interaction with Russell Moore: a handful of essays on public policy and adoption. He's always seemed somewhere between reasonable and really solid. But apparently, he's been pushing some unfortunate buttons in this "Year of Trump", so maybe I would judge his work differently. 

(For example, Moore has seemed stronger to me than Al Mohler on potentially-unorthodox Christian literature and a Christian worldview of politics and public policy. On literature, see his reviews of The Shack and esp. Joel Osteen vs. Rob Bell.) On politics, Mohler seems to have moved a good bit-- as evidence in this blog post and from his interaction with Cal Thomas in April at SBTS. Then again, I don't have enough data on either of them to get too excited.) 

Anyway, I read Onward as a resource for a forthcoming journal article. I enjoyed the book-- from little blurbs to bigger points-- and will outline some of that below. 

The American Civil Religion
Moore is really strong "the American civil religion". I don't know how such things can be measured. But it seems clear that a good chunk of American Christianity-- say, in the 1950s-- was "civil religion rather than biblical Christianity. Among other things, as I've pointed out for a long time: the parents of the 1950s gave us the children of the 1960s, so they could not have been too impressive spiritually. 

And so Moore observes: "That's why one could speak of 'God and country' with great reception...but would create cultural distance as soon as one mentioned 'Christ and Him crucified." (6) Or as I usually put it, try making reference to "the Triune God" rather than just "God" or "god". Alternatively, the civil religion's vision was not "to be about Christ and Kingdom, just God and country." (12)

I thought Moore was helpful on the "Christian nation" / majority vs. minority idea: Ironically, "The temptation is to pretend to be a majority, even if one is not...a profoundly Darwinian way of viewing the a frightened animal puffing out its chest in order to seem larger and fiercer..." (29) And then some balance: "If we see ourselves as only a minority, we will be tempted to isolation. If we see ourselves only as a kingdom, we will be tempted toward triumphalism. We are, instead, a church. We are a minority with a message and a mission." (35)

Moore plays with one of my pet peeves: the ridiculous confusion about II Chronicles 7:14-- as if that refers to America as a country rather than "the Church" or perhaps "the American church" in some contexts. But then Moore goes a hilarious and ironic step further, in comparing this line of thinking to the prosperity gospel! This is "precisely what the prosperity gospel preachers do" along the lines of invoking Deuteronomy's physical/material blessings if we obey (75-76)

Moore rips "non-sectarian prayer" as "the state establishment of various forms of Unitarianism" (148); "A Christless civil religion of ceremonial Deism freezes the witness of the church into something useless at best, pagan at worst. Government-run doxology cannot regenerate a soul, or resurrect a corpse." (150a)

The good news, given recent cultural changes: "The Bible Belt marrying parson who weds whosoever will show up and rent his church; his day is over. The gelatin-spined neighborhood pastor who hitches the cohabiting couple and hopes to see them at church when their children are old enough for Sunday School; his time is up...laissez-faire wedding policies and the nominalism that foes with them are done for, and good riddance to them. For too long, we've acted as though the officers of the Christ's church were Justices of the Peace." (179)

The Kingdom is "Now and Not Yet"
Moore is also strong in talking about eternal life beginning now, for the believer-- and the "now and not yet" of God's Kingdom. I picked up these themes (and "God can only bless you where you're at"), most forcefully, from Dallas Willard. 

Moore says he "cringes when I hear Christians talk about the lists of things they want to do before they die" (52). Instead, "my sojourn in this interval is shaping and preparing me for what is ultimate, so I cannot shirk off the person I am becoming by the habits I am learning." (54) Again, we must be careful with the tension here. If not, we risk one of two errors. First, we can be "too near" (now) and, as a result, "fall for utopianism" and coercive means of reaching presumed-godly ends. Second, we can be "too distant" (not yet) and end up with "prophecy chart fixations or cultural apathy or failed attempts to withdraw from society" (58).

Moore makes a number of other, nice points: 
-He describes another Rapture as nominal Christians vanishing from churches in a post-Christian culture (24)-- a real-life version of “the Rapture” (a la LaHaye’s Left Behind): “Cultural Christianity is herded out by natural selection. That sort of nominal religion, when bearing the burden of the embarrassment of a controversial Bible, is no more equipped to survive in a secularizing America than a declawed cat release in the wild. Who then is left behind? It will be those defined not by a Christian America but by a Christian gospel.”

-He quotes Buechner on "Jesus saves" as far more painful-- "cringingly, painfully personal"-- than "Christ saves", with its "objective, theological ring" (68).

-"She probably didn't think of herself as a proponent of white supremacy. The point is that she didn't think at all." (113) Man, how often do we see that line in action: people who are blind through idolatry and contentedness with good intentions!

-"Sanctity of Human Life Sunday" ought to be as unnecessary as a "Reality of Gravity Sunday". Some day! (115)

-In comparing Romans 13 to Revelation 13-- and the move from the "minister of God's wrath" to the Beast: "The Beast oversteps its bounds, sets itself up as a god, and seeks to regulate worship through threat of violence..." (143)

-A really nice point on how "legislating morality" on marriage can cause trouble. In a word, an "almost-Gospel" promotes "a divorce culture": "Nominal Christianity incentivizes divorce by, for example, giving social pressure to early marriage without an accompanying accountability to the church for the keeping of the vows. The ideal of Christian marriage without a strong community of discipleship and discipline is a dangerous combination." (172)

-Moore discusses persecution, but also the Christian propensity for anger against culture, in some circles. He compares it to the correlation of bumper stickers with "road rage": a "temptation for our public become an ecclesial version of a bumper sticker, identifying who we are and expressing outrage at the culture around us." (187-188)

-On tattoos and the evolution of culture, churches, and new forms of church leadership: "Tattoos don't mean what they used to." (213) "He might have tattoos, yes, but they aren't of Che Guevara. they're of Hebrew passages of Deuteronomy." (21)

-Moore makes the most compelling case I've seen against cremation (61-62). He says it's a matter of conscience, but that it paints "a false picture of the body. Burial signifies a Christian hope, that the deceased is 'sleeping' and thus, will be 'waked' at the coming of the Lord. Cremation signifies a perspective found in Buddhism and other religions, that the body is consumed into nothingness...'Can't I be resurrected from an urn as easily as I can from a casket?' they ask. Of course. That's not the point. God can resurrect me if my body is eaten by alligators but I wouldn't dispose of Aunt Gladys that way..." (I wonder if this connects to Haidt's research at all?!) Moore also cites the women who (properly?) cared for Jesus' body pre-burial. And he points to the ancient Egyptians as an extreme in making "the body ultimate". 


At May 24, 2016 at 8:44 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks Eric. Check out Dr. Moore's interview with Phil Vischer (creator of Veggie Tales) here:

At May 26, 2016 at 12:17 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

in the form of 1980s televangelists and pre-Mill end-timers-- without any pretense of the Gospel...ouch!


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