Moore to the Point
Hello, fellow wayfarers. Why Christians shouldn’t abandon exile language … How a billboard for The Chosen can teach us about the American Christian persecution complex … What makes the evangelical conscience still uneasy after all these years … Plus, the Desert Island Bookshelf … This is this week’s Moore to the Point.
Russell Moore
Biblical Exile

A week or so ago, Christianity Today published an essay by Canadian pastor Jacob Birch, arguing that “No, Western Christians Are Not in Exile.”

Birch is exactly right that exile language can betray some of the worst impulses of Western evangelicalism. But at the same time, I believe the language of exile is exactly what the Bible offers us to combat all that.

Birch starts by noting that many white evangelical churches today are accustomed to hearing themselves described as exiles, mostly in light of shifts toward secularization and the marginalization of Christianity. No doubt that is true in certain areas of the country and continent (including his Canadian context).

But alas, in my own Bible Belt context, the idea of “exile” seems absent altogether. Instead, ironically enough, I’ve found the metaphor Birch proposes—that of “occupation”—tends to be the governing analogy, even if not articulated in those words.

Occupation, after all, implies a hostile force has invaded one’s own territory, holding a people hostage in their own land. This is, at several points, a reality in the biblical story of the people of God. It is why, for instance, the religious leaders’ question to Jesus about whether to pay taxes to Caesar was so charged.

According to the mindset of many first-century Jews, saying yes to that question would be to affirm Rome’s occupation of their land—which they believed should rightly be governed not by a puppet government under Caesar but by the house of David. Jesus looked past this temporal occupation toward a deeper, more primal one—that of overtaking the strong man’s house (Matt. 12:29).

The question of occupation, however, was hardly unreasonable or unspiritual. It was a matter of God’s justice (“How could Israel’s God let this go on?”) and of a people’s humiliation. The problem was how to displace the occupiers from their illegitimate rule. In fact, the question of how to deal with Rome’s occupation led to some of the most dangerous rifts among the occupied people—with a spectrum ranging from insurrectionists like Barabbas, to zealots like Simon, to collaborators like Matthew and Zacchaeus.

In an occupation, the “outsiders” (the occupiers) are the ones who are alien to the land. But in exile, it’s the “insiders” who are learning to navigate a strange place.

The language of exile is not the same kind of singular experience. It is part of the Christian story for those of us who are born into or grafted onto the house of Jacob. And the Bible applies that experience to us in an ongoing way, in the time between Christ’s ascension and his return.

Peter addressed the church as “God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces” (1 Pet. 1:1) and told them to “live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear” (v. 17). This was a recognition of how different the first-century church were to be. They were not to find their pattern of life in the “empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors” (v. 18).

The exile of which Peter spoke did not mean that the believers lacked belonging but that they had a different belonging: to “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (2:9). Like Daniel in Babylon, such exile means that the objective is not to remove Nebuchadnezzar from his throne or to govern the Babylonian Empire. Quite the contrary, the goal was for the exiles to avoid becoming like the Babylonians.

In urging the church to be “foreigners and exiles,” then, Peter wanted them to see that their real problem was not the emperor or the surrounding culture. They could still show honor to everyone, including the emperor. Rather, the issue was to “abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul” (2:11).

Being under occupation—in the sense of living in a land of promise dominated by enemies—the believers might seek to assimilate into the larger culture or rage against the occupiers. But Peter admonished that neither should be the case. Instead, they were to both live “good lives among the pagans” and see to it that their obedience was to God, not to that audience (v. 12).

Can exile be used dangerously to convey a sense of resentment at a loss of cultural power? Absolutely it can—in the same way that holiness can be used to suggest self-righteous perfection or that mission can be used to suggest colonization. But those dangerous uses do not reflect their biblical context.

In the original Exile, the people of Israel were constantly reminded that their plight was not the result of the Babylonians and couldn’t be resolved by finding some other power (say, Egypt or Assyria) to combat the Babylonians. God alone was responsible for their exile. That’s why the calling of the Israelites was not to find their own Nebuchadnezzar but to repent and reclaim their own distinctiveness as the people of God.

Moreover, the language of exile makes clear that the issue is not just about returning home. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel clearly spelled out to the exiles that they couldn’t go back home. God’s glory had left the temple—not chased away by external forces but removed because of the sins of his own people (Ezek. 10; Jer. 7).

That’s the bad news. But the good news is that since God was the one who sent his people into exile, he was with them there. They could find him and sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.

They could build houses and have babies and adapt to some of the externalities of Babylonian life (like Daniel’s being called a Babylonian name and serving in Nebuchadnezzar’s court, for instance). All the while, they could refuse to yield to the expected idolatries or to the subtler pull to lose the “strangeness” and distinctiveness of their Abrahamic identity.

In fact, the point of exile language is exactly the opposite of the idea that Western Christians should lament or resent losing a “Christian culture.” The point is that in every place and culture, from the first to the second comings of Jesus, every Christian community is to consider themselves “foreigners and exiles.”

If we look back to a time when we felt we were not exiles, it’s because we had acclimated to and accommodated idolatry—like wishing for a previous Nebuchadnezzar to return. And if we ever look forward to a time when we can finally displace our sense of marginalization and find a cultural “home” in this world, then that too is because we are accustomed to idolatry—just like wishing for a different Nebuchadnezzar in the future.

That said, whenever we use exile language incorrectly to bemoan a darkening or growingly hostile culture—rather than to see our situation as fundamentally the same as every other era before us—then we don’t understand what the Bible means by exile.

Exile language does away with both our sense of entitlement and a siege mentality. We don’t attempt to merge into whatever seems “normal” in the society around us—and we don’t rage whenever we’re not accommodated there. Instead, we see our normal situation as a pilgrimage of faith.

“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth,” the writer of Hebrews told us.

“People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one” (Heb. 11:13–16).

An exilic identity does not say, “Oh no, we’re being marginalized! How can we fix this?” Rather, it asks, “Why am I not more marginalized? Have I adapted to my own appetites such that I can’t feel a longing to dive deeper into the unknown?”

I believe the real danger for us today is not that Christians see themselves as exiled in a far country but that they might see their own country—the United States, Canada, or wherever they are—as the Promised Land. This means they will seek to either embrace everything around them as milk and honey from God or attempt to uproot whichever “Amalekites” or “Philistines” are taking “our country” away from us.

I believe Western Christians are exiles, as are Eastern Christians. Twenty-first century Christians are exiles in the same way as Christians of the previous 20 centuries.

But the resentment, entitlement, culture warring, and Twitter trolling we exhibit today are not the actions of strangers and exiles. Rather, they are signs we are not nearly exiled enough.

The Chosen and the American Christian Persecution Complex

Not a week goes by that someone doesn’t ask me whether I’ve seen The Chosen and what I think of it. I’ve addressed that in an earlier newsletter. But this week, I was intrigued by a piece in Slate about a controversy over an advertising campaign by the television series, which centers on the lives of Jesus and his disciples.

Slate reported that billboards around the country had apparent outbreaks of vandalism. The image of the actor who plays Simon Peter had glasses and a mustache painted on it, with the web address “” scrawled across the sign. Apparently, terms such as “poopy butts” were written on other signs.

The show’s director apologized—because the show itself did all the graffiti.

Now, to be fair, this was not meant to be a Jussie Smollett–style fraud. It was meant to be a publicity gimmick. The devil was presented as the would-be graffiti artist, and went to the show’s own page.

What Slate pointed out, though, was how the campaign simultaneously angered and mobilized some fans of the show. The article quotes one Christian as furious at the blasphemy, another taking the opposition as proof that The Chosen was of God. Still others were irritated, on learning that this was a gimmick, to have been duped in this way.

Slate reported that all of this “either underestimated—or savvily played upon—Christian ideas about religious persecution.” Citing data from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) about white evangelical perceptions of being under cultural attack, the article’s author concluded that “The Chosen’s Christian audience is already primed to believe that any Christian content would be subject to attack.”

Yet this incident does not seem to be the cunning plan that Slate implies. In this very article, Dallas Jenkins, the creator of this very popular streamed show, denies that The Chosen’s lack of penetration into mainstream popular culture is due to “godless” Hollywood. Religious shows, of whatever sort, he argued, tend to be more of a niche audience.

The major parable in this publicity stunt is not that people shouldn’t watch The Chosen. Almost everyone engaged in the public arena has tried and failed in some way to reach an audience, and almost everyone has listened to publicists or social media experts on ideas that should have been left in the break room.

The parable is instead that much of what we see as “persecution” is really about people on our own side seeking our attention for themselves and for their products. Often the world that we are told is so hostile to us just isn’t thinking about us at all.

New Life for an Uneasy Conscience

On May 10, Crossway Books will release a beautiful new edition of Carl F. H. Henry’s 1947 book The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. I wrote the foreword for this edition.

Here’s a sample of what I had to say there:

For Henry, the problem was not one of mere application but of a failure to conform to the defining and unifying theme of the whole Bible: the kingdom of God in Jesus Christ. Social gospel liberalism had replaced the kingdom with a political program, deemphasizing the necessity of personal regeneration as they churned out policy papers on nuclear energy policy and economic stimulus programs.

At the other extreme, Henry warned, the so-called “fundamentalists” had overreacted to the social gospel, speaking of the kingdom of God as though it were wholly future. These Christians embraced a mission of the church as merely “spiritual,” and defined spiritual as evangelism and personal morality. These Christians acted as though Jesus could be received as Savior while not following his command to love neighbor as self. That’s why some of these Christians could speak loudly on some “social issues”—opposing communism abroad or supporting prayer in public schools—while denouncing other issues as “political” and “distractions from the gospel” when they didn’t fit with their preexisting political and economic and cultural interests. And most of those issues that were “distractions” to them—then and now—happened to be about race.

The danger was not just that this sort of chopped-apart kingdom theology would hurt people on the outside (although it certainly did that) but also that it would create spiritual and moral injury in the Christians saying such things themselves. After all, one can ignore the Bible on such matters if one just chooses to concentrate solely on passages dealing with individual justification and atonement—and relegates the teachings of the prophets and Jesus and even some of Paul and James to the Israel of the past or the Israel of the future, with no connection to the church now.

But one cannot put thumb tabs in the conscience, in which is embedded what Henry would call “the criteria by which God would judge men and nations.” That conscience—like the Bible it reflected—pointed to a God of both justice and justification. Rather than searing the conscience, Henry proposed that gospel Christians hear what they were already saying, that “all Scripture is inspired by God, and profitable” (2 Tim. 3:16). That would require Christians to seek a kingdom that speaks both to the cosmos and to the person, both to the community and to the individual, both to the body and to soul, both to faith and to obedience, both to the mind and to the conscience, both to love of God and to love of neighbor.

If only the issues raised by this book were in the past.

You can order the book here.

Desert Island Playlist

This week’s submission comes from reader J Lind in New York City, who is an amazing singer-songwriter. I listen to him all the time. Check out his newest album The Land of Canaan.

J writes, “Here’s the most recent incarnation of my Desert Island Bookshelf—more like an extended-vacation bookshelf, given how often I mix it up.”

  • The Brothers Karamazov, by Dostoyevsky. Your favorite and my favorite, with new layers on each reading. A beautiful onion of a book.

  • Devotions, by Mary Oliver. Being stranded would leave me with plenty of nature time, but hopefully Oliver’s poetry would keep me inspired.

  • Works of Love, by Kierkegaard. Where his philosophy leaves off, his theology begins.

  • The Book of Common Prayer. Beyond being a great way to tally my desert-island days, a liturgical approach might help me feel in sync with the saints at large.

  • Dante’s Divine Comedy. Three books in one, triune and all. Only counts as one…

  • The rest of the Bible, with thick pages and a carbon fiber binding Translation is important, as is island-proofing. It’d double as a cutting board.

  • And my Nalgene and guitar too, obviously—see photo.

Thanks, J!

Readers, what do you think? If you were stranded on a desert island and could have only one playlist or one bookshelf with you for the rest of your life, what songs or books would you choose?

  • For a Desert Island Playlist, send me a list of up to 12 songs, excluding hymns and worship songs. (We’ll cover those later.)

  • For a Desert Island Bookshelf, send me a list of up to 12 books. If possible, include one photo of all the books together.

Send your list to, and include as much or as little explanation of your choices as you would like.

Quote of the Moment

It is as impossible for man to demonstrate the existence of God as it would be for even Sherlock Holmes to demonstrate the existence of Arthur Conan Doyle. …

In the last analysis, you cannot pontificate but only point. A Christian is one who points at Christ and says, “I can’t prove a thing, but there’s something about his eyes and his voice. There’s something about the way he carries his head, his hands, the way he carries his cross—the way he carries me.

—Frederick Buechner, in Wishful Thinking

Currently Reading (or Rereading)

Nancy Guthrie, Blessed: Experiencing the Promise of the Book of Revelation (Crossway)

David Prince, Preaching the Truth as It Is in Jesus: A Reader on Andrew Fuller (H&E)

Matthew Continetti, The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism (Basic)

Andy Crouch, The Life We’re Looking For: Reclaiming Relationship in a Technological World (Convergent)

Jeff Deutsch, In Praise of Good Bookstores (Princeton University Press)

Eric Costanzo, Daniel Yang, and Matthew Soerens, Inalienable: How Marginalized Kingdom Voices Can Help Save the American Church (InterVarsity)

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Ask a Question or Say Hello

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Russell Moore

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