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Review: "Losing Our Religion" by Russell Moore [fixed]
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Reading Russell Moore’s newest book had the unexpected effect of making me think of one of his older books. There are moments in Losing Our Religion that reminded me vividly of Onward, his 2015 manifesto that was published not too long after Moore was elected president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. I have many sweet memories of Onward, not least because Moore hired me as a communications specialist just a couple months before the book released. I remember reading Onward as a new employee, someone who had admired Moore from afar and felt genuinely privileged to be working for him now (a feeling I still have). Onward left a deep impression on me; it was perhaps the first time I had truly internalized an evangelical articulation of politics and culture that was simultaneously exegetical, prudent, and culturally respectable. It left an impression on those around me, too. To this day, Onward is a book that my father and I talk about gratefully.
I spent just over two years at the ERLC, during which Moore’s posture of humility and concern for the church’s long-term witness were driven deep into my conscience. To this day, I relish telling people that the Russell Moore I worked for and the Russell Moore that published books, appeared on TV spots, and headlined conferences were and are the same person. For this reason I have always thought of my Dad and Russell Moore in similar ways—men of deep integrity whose private conversation and un-broadcast prayers reveal one, whole person.
Losing Our Religion gestures toward another way in which Moore and my father are alike: they have both experienced serious and frequently undeserved hardship in ministry. Over twenty years Dad pastored two Southern Baptist churches, both of which struggled to rise above the culture of a blue-collar country club. Dad’s gospel preaching, which emphasized the necessity of a transformed Christian life, was sown with sweat and tears, and too often reaped opposition. Perhaps because I know at least that much about watching someone with genuine integrity become worn down, I read Moore’s Losing Our Religion with a pang of grief. This is a book coming from a place not just of pastoral concern, but of personal exhaustion.
This is made clear from the book’s introduction, which I very much wish had been moved to the book’s ending. Moore’s narrative of his separation from the ERLC and from the Southern Baptist Convention writ large is powerful and will resonate with many people who have, like he and my father, found themselves on the most isolating kinds of islands.
What surprised me was that this vitriol came from even some I had counted as mentors. “It was nothing personal,” they told me. They just wanted to maintain ‘influence’ with the most rightward fringe of the denomination. These populists would eventually win, they reasoned, and only those who could “stay at the table” would be able to lead long-term.
Hurt is embedded into the grammar here. The past tense, “had counted as mentors,” tells a painful story by itself. But perhaps more important is the use of the third person plural. One of the reasons I read Losing Our Religion but kept thinking the whole time of Onward is how the word “we,” nearly omnipresent in the older book, has now disappeared and been replaced especially by the words “they” and “them.” There’s an otherness that permeates Losing Our Religion’s language.
The easiest way to success is to erase nuance, to seem to be leading the crowds while actually following them. The same is now happening in churches that become seeker-sensitive worship services, except for angry people and conspiracy theorists…To gain attention, spectacle is the way to be noticed, which is why ambitious but hollow young men on social media often are looking to be denounced, so that they can gain a niche audience.
This is correct. But whose problem is this—is it our problem, as an evangelical family that has a spotty historical record when it comes to doing the Lord’s work in the Lord’s way? Or is it their problem—the hollow young men, the conspiracy theorists, the angry mobs?
I have read reviews of Losing Our Religion that depict its author as a charlatan, a liberal-in-sheep’s-clothing, and a cultured despiser of true Christians. This depiction is false on its face, and generally comes from people whose relationship to the church of Jesus is instrumental rather than personal. Yet there are passages in Losing Our Religion that seem to invite a dismissive response, and this matters—not because those responses are true, but because it was Moore himself who taught me (and many others) that we must always make sure that scoffers are scoffing because of Christ, and not because of us. “The gospel makes us strange,” he writes in Onward, “but the gospel doesn’t make us actually crazy.”
Two examples of this from the book. On page 80, Moore writes, “The evangelical culture of the past half century has focused comparatively little on judgment for the hearer, and much more on a different kind of fear—the imminent threat from one’s neighbors or culture.” There are a couple issues here. First, this is the kind of critique that lacks enough specificity to be helpful, but contains just enough specificity to elicit pushback. The “fear” of one’s neighbors or culture seems to be code for right-wing angst over public schools or even immigration. Because this sentence lacks texture, it invites the accusation that Moore’s attitude toward complex questions of education and economics—both topics that touch Christians’ lives in very direct ways!—is cliche.
The second issue with this sentence is that it seems at odds with what Moore says later in the book. On page 199, Moore makes an extremely valuable observation that I wholeheartedly agree with. He writes, “When talking with younger Christians, I almost never encounter people who want to justify their sins and deny the need for repentance as much as I encounter those who think they’re failing, and that they’re bad Christians.” Amen. This is my experience too. But this doesn’t seem to comport well with the idea that evangelicalism writ large has been ignoring rhetoric aimed at sinners in the pews and instead has targeted outside scapegoats. These young people who feel a constant guilt and sense of despair have gotten this from somewhere, and it’s not from Fox News. If someone were to follow this thread of observation, rather than the one on page 80, they might conclude instead that evangelical culture is complex, contains multitudes, and could use the application of the gospel in more directions than one.
Secondly, on page 190, Moore appears to seriously mischaracterize James Wood’s essay “How I Evolved on Tim Keller.” I say “appears to” with intention, because Moore does not name Wood or anyone else. Instead, he writes that “it has become popular…to mock the idea of winsomeness in Christian witness. As I was writing this page, one figure did so, attacking a revered elder evangelical, as he was in the hospital being treated for terminal cancer.” Contrary to some reviewers who have seen no reason at all to doubt that Moore is referring to Wood, I can easily imagine Moore confusing some other social media interlocutor who shared Wood’s essay with Wood himself (I watched in real time as people shared Wood’s essay with grossly uncharitable comments about Keller, and I still wish Wood would have gone more out of his way to distance himself and his argument from some of those people).
Nevertheless, this is another example of inviting a dismissive response unnecessarily. If Moore isn’t referring to Wood himself, the paragraph is worded confusingly. If Moore is referring to Wood, he has mischaracterized his essay as an attack. But perhaps worst of all, Moore misses an opportunity to actually engage the substance of the argument. Wood’s essay was not an attack on Keller, but it did contain a few contestable claims that someone with Moore’s acumen could easily have addressed compellingly. Moore declines this opportunity. In the process, he makes a few very good points—that winsomeness is not a strategy for victory but an expression of obedience to Jesus—but the conversation is already a non-starter.
Two paragraphs above, when I quoted Moore’s comments about Wood, I used an ellipsis. What does Moore actually say there? He writes, “[i]t has become popular—especially among a certain kind of fundamentalist Calvinist on social media—to mock the idea of “winsomeness….” That clause is significant. Moore is describing people like Wood and in a way that places them outside the evangelical household. Gone are the We’s and the Us’es of Onward. Losing Our Religion signals early and often that it is a book for a particular kind of reader—truthfully, a particular kind of Christian.
There is a version of Losing Our Religion that I can see in my imagination. It is a book that talks very nakedly about the seduction of cultural power, but sees that seduction in both right-wing strong men and left-wing accommodation to homosexuality. It is a book that laments the failures of many evangelical churches to catechize its members, whether they’re called First Baptist or Hillsong. It is a book that acknowledges the church’s long, complex history of bringing theology to bear on policy. It is a book neither haunted by Donald Trump nor beholden to The Atlantic. I would very much like to read this book.
This is an inadequate review. I have not taken the time here to summarize the parts of Losing Our Religion that I agree with. There are many. Nor have I responded carefully to the points that I think are good but incomplete, and there are many of those too. But I came away from Losing Our Religion not primarily agreeing or disagreeing, but feeling sad. Sad for the way that evangelical Christians have turned on each other. Sad for the way that our institutions have buckled from pressures to accommodate worldly impulses. Sad for the way that some believers have walked away from the church or from relationships for little more than a sensation of being an activist. And, perhaps most of all, sad for men, like my Dad and like Russell Moore, who have labored for the flourishing of Jesus’ church amidst much hardship.
What comforts me now is not the decline of Donald Trump or the defeat of wokeness. What comforts me is the risen Jesus, whom death could not hold and whose church hell cannot break. And I find myself primarily wanting to go onward with him, and with men like my Dad, and yes, like Russell Moore.
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