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Hello, fellow wayfarers … What Alexei Navalny can teach all of us about moral courage … Why a book moved me to a weird experience the other day … What politics has to do with, of all things, spiritual formation … A vinyl-based Desert Island Playlist … This is this week’s Moore to the Point.

Russell Moore

What a Murdered Russian Dissident Can Teach Us About Moral Courage

Russian president Vladimir Putin murdered another Christian this week. It was just another day in Putin’s supposed project of protecting "the Christian West" from godlessness. After all, they tell me, one can’t create a Christian nationalist empire without killing some people.

Before the world forgets the corpse of Alexei Navalny in the subzero environs of an Arctic penal colony, we ought to look at him—especially those of us who follow Jesus Christ—to see what moral courage actually is.

Navalny was perhaps the most-recognized anti-Putin dissident in the world, and he is now one of many Putin enemies to end up "suddenly dead." He survived poisoning in 2020, recuperated in Europe, and ultimately went back to his homeland despite knowing what he would face. Speaking of his dissent and his willingness to bear its consequences, Navalny repeatedly referenced his profession of Christian faith. My Christianity Today colleague Emily Belz discovered a 2021 trial transcript at Meduza, in which Navalny explains, in strikingly biblical terms, what it means to suffer for one’s beliefs.

"The fact is that I am a Christian, which usually sets me up as an example for constant ridicule in the Anti-Corruption Foundation, because mostly our people are atheists, and I was once quite a militant atheist myself," Navalny said (as rendered by Google Translate). "But now I am a believer, and that helps me a lot in my activities because everything becomes much, much easier."

"There are fewer dilemmas in my life, because there is a book in which, in general, it is more or less clearly written what action to take in every situation," he explained. "It’s not always easy to follow this book, of course, but I am actually trying."

Specifically, Navalny said, he was motivated by the words of Jesus: "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied" (Matt. 5:6, NASB).

"I’ve always thought that this particular commandment is more or less an instruction to activity," Navalny said. "And so, while certainly not really enjoying the place where I am, I have no regrets about coming back or about what I’m doing. It’s fine, because I did the right thing."

"On the contrary, I feel a real kind of satisfaction," he said. "Because at some difficult moment I did as required by the instructions and did not betray the commandment."

These words may seem a bit too easy. After all, an unbeliever might respond, most of the people in the pro-democracy, anti-tyranny movement of which Navalny was a part did not, in fact, believe "the instructions" of Scripture. And Putin himself is backed by key leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church, where some are as willing as any court prophets ever were to baptize his murder in the language of Christian virtue and Christian civilization. (Though there are examples of faithful dissidence too.)

But that response would miss Navalny’s point. He was not saying that Christians are courageous while unbelievers are not. There is ample evidence to the contrary—in Russia and other places too—to put such notions to flight.

Navalny recognized, though, that the allure of moral cowardice when standing in courage means standing alone. A conscience can always reassure itself that being quiet right now is the right thing. Navalny recognized the terror in the thought of being left outside a field of belonging—being branded as a traitor by fellow countrymen and a heretic by fellow churchmen.

To resist the pull of that mob requires a different motive than a better-than-even chance of political "success." Navalny recognized that one must, as the evangelical missionary Jim Eliot once put it, embrace "strangerhood."

"For a modern person this whole commandment—‘blessed,’ ‘thirsty,’ ‘hungry for righteousness,’ ‘for they shall be satisfied’—it sounds, of course, very pompous," Navalny said. "Sounds a little strange, to be honest."

"Well, people who say such things are supposed, frankly speaking, to look crazy," he recognized. "Crazy, strange people, sitting there with disheveled hair in their cell and trying to cheer themselves up with something, although they are lonely, they are loners, because no one needs them."

"And this is the most important thing that our government and the entire system are trying to tell such people: You are alone," he continued. "You are a loner. First, it is important to intimidate, and then, prove that you are alone."

In this, Navalny not only identified his own motives for conscientious strangeness—he also contradicted the very nature of the Putinist conception of Christianity. To be "Christian," in such a regime, is to be a Russian (or whatever the local blood-and-soil equivalent is). To be "Christian" is to be a "regular" person—unwilling to step out of line, to expose one’s conscience to any thought that might bring hardship.

After Navalny’s killing, The Free Press published letters between Navalny and the famed former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, who served time in the same Artic penal colony during some of the most dangerous years of the Communist regime. Biblical passages are quoted throughout, including Navalny joking about "where else to spend Holy Week" than in the prison complex the older man called his "alma mater." 

This was the root, I believe, of Navalny’s moral courage, his willingness to stand alone, his willingness to die. It’s not just that he knew Bible verses; the pro-Putin patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church no doubt knows more. It’s the way he seemed to know Scripture. He seemed to recognize not just the bare "instructions" from Jesus about hungering and thirsting for righteousness, about being blessed in persecution, but also the story behind and around them. He knew these words seem strange. He knew they sound crazy.

In the introduction to his collection of poems on joy, the poet Christian Wiman notes that early audiences of the New Testament message, offended by the strangeness of what they heard, "might very well have made their way home past rows of crucified corpses designed specially to eradicate all cause for any insurrectionist hope or joy." The strangeness was the point. No one can actually hear what Jesus is saying when he calls the forgotten, the persecuted, the poor, and the reviled "blessed" unless we feel why his own family thought he was insane (Mark 3:21).

This is probably why Navalny recognized so clearly the Putin regime’s methods of making dissenters feel strange and crazy and alone: Navalny had seen it before, in a Roman Empire that did the same thing with crosses.

Those of moral courage of all faiths and no faith have all kinds of motivations for their convictions. But—whatever the motivation—one cannot maintain moral courage if one is unwilling to be sent away from whatever one calls "my home," from whomever one calls "my people." That’s the joyful irony: One never stands alone when one is part of a bigger story, when one belongs to a bigger body.

The cloud of witnesses includes Elijah and Jeremiah, Peter and Paul, Maximus and Bonhoeffer, and countless others who died seemingly abandoned, who seemed crazy in their day (Heb. 12:1). It’s people like this—not from the "German Christian" Reich bishops or the Putin-cheering Orthodox patriarchate—from whom the next generation of our faith is born.

The very point of "hungering" and "thirsting" is that one is prompted to see that something’s missing—that the satisfactions on offer aren’t enough. The very appetite for such things is a sign that what one is hungering for, thirsting for, is really out there.

A person can see that, sometimes, even from a gulag. That’s strange. That’s crazy. But that’s what at least one Person I know would call "blessed."

A Book That Shook Me Up

The other day I read a little book that left me shaken. As a matter of fact, I have to think hard about the last time a book affected me like this.

The book A Shining is a short little novella by the Norwegian novelist Jon Fosse. It’s not even 75 pages long, even with unusually large text font. If I were to explain to you what the book is about, you would probably not see the point, from my description, of even bothering to read it. Very little "happens."

A man drives up on a deserted road too late in the Scandinavian autumn or early winter to find that his car is stuck in the snow. Fearing that he will freeze with no one to find him, he walks out into the woods and gets lost. There he sees and hears some things, and can’t tell whether they are mind tricks he’s playing on himself or maybe hypothermia seizing his neurological faculties.

The imagery is straightforwardly from Dante’s opening canto in The Inferno: "Midway on our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself in a dark wood" (Ciardi translation). I won’t write "spoiler alert," because this will spoil nothing: The book is really about death.

The book’s power is partly the way it’s worded, similar to the way Fosse does it in his (much) longer Septology, as close to exact mimicry of real thought-by-thought internal monologue as I’ve ever seen. This means it’s rambling, repetitive, unsure of itself, running from sentence to sentence, sometimes with periods but never with exclamation points or question marks. The effect is to get the reader into the mind of the character, without ever seeing the hypnotic tools at use.

While in the woods, the character encounters what seems to be a shining presence—just for a glance before it disappears. Fosse writes:

Just like that. It came slowly and was suddenly gone. What’s happening here in the middle of the forest, in the black darkness of the trees, where there’s white snow on the branches and on the ground between the trees. That’s what’s here. That and me. And then this shining presence, but it’s not here anymore, or maybe it is but I just can’t see it, maybe the presence is gone and I say: are you there—and I get no answer and I think of course the presence isn’t answering, because whatever it was it wasn’t a person, but, yes, well, it wasn’t a ghost either …

The narrator keeps asking into the darkness, "Where are you?" and "Are you there?" all while telling himself he’s imagining things. When he asks, "Is anybody there?" he thinks he hears a little whisper saying yes. The lost man then thinks:

… well, I guess I do hear it but it’s probably just something I’m imagining, because it wasn’t a clear voice in any case, and then I hear a voice say: I’m here, I’m here always, I’m always here—which startles me, because this time there was no doubt that I’d heard a voice, and it was a thin and weak voice, and yet it’s like the voice had a kind of deep warm fullness in it, yes, it was almost, yes, as if there was something you might call love in the voice. Love, now what do I mean by a word like that, because if there’s any word in the world that doesn’t mean anything it’s that one. But now I’m just talking nonsense, it must be the cold that’s making me think like this, and the fear of being trapped in the dark forest. But then again I’m not trapped."

The thinking goes on like this, until I found myself saying out loud in the room where I was reading it, "Where are you?" I promise you I never do anything like that; I was so swept up in this story that, for just a second, it was like I was really in it. "Where are you?"

No sooner had I asked that question than my mind flashed instantly with the words: "Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down) or ‘Who will descend into the deep?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? ‘The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart’" (Rom. 10:6–8).

No sooner than that happened did I think, Well, that was just because of all these years of Scripture memorization and reading and teaching. Something in my subconscious recognized a theme here and provided that Scripture reference before I could even think about it.

And then I realized I was literally and exactly, in that moment, acting out the very theme of Fosse’s story.

Fosse writes:

And then it’s silent. Totally silent. Yes, so quiet that it’s like you can reach out and touch the silence, and I stop. And then I stand there and listen to the silence. And it’s like the silence is speaking to me. But a silence can’t speak, can it. Yes, silence can speak in its way, and the voice you hear when it does, yes, whose voice is it. But it’s just a voice.

I closed the book for a moment, and realized my room was silent too. But behind all that silence, there sure seems to be a voice. And even in the dark woods, I can’t shake the fact that I saw a light.

In this season leading up to Easter, we can hear that voice and see that light every day.

Michael Wear and I Talk About Political Weariness and the 2024 Election

The first time I ever met Michael Wear was way back in the first Obama administration, when he was serving President Obama there in the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. In the years since, we’ve found ourselves working together on far more projects than I can count. I admire both his intelligence and his character. This week on the Russell Moore Show we got together to talk about something on almost everyone’s mind: the brain-numbing dread of another presidential election (probably with the same cast of characters as the last one).

The background to our talk is Michael’s just-released book, The Spirit of Our Politics: Spiritual Formation and the Renovation of Public Life (Zondervan). We discuss why Christians find themselves landing on opposing sides of political issues and candidates, how someone can engage politically without messing up his or her spiritual formation, and whether pastors ought to address politics from the pulpit (and if so, how to know when and how much).

You might like this conversation if you’re looking at the political calendar in front of you and wondering, Are we really going to do this all over again? You can listen to it here or wherever you tune in to podcasts.

Desert Island Playlist

Every other week, I share a playlist of songs one of you says you’d want to have on hand if you were stranded on a desert island. This week’s submission comes from reader Rick Kleine from Flowery Branch, Georgia, who writes:

Greetings, Dr. Moore! Thank you for being a reasoned, intelligent and winsome voice for the gospel in a world too often given to scandal and bombast. Having grown up in the analog era of vinyl, to now have a multi-thousand song playlist on your phone almost feels indulgent—but I digress.

Here is my list of 12 songs (in no particular order), with mini-liner notes:

  • "Where Have You Gone?" by Alan Jackson: A plaintive lament of how pop and bro-country has taken over the genre (sweet country music, where have you gone?) without saying so directly. I wonder how the "greats" would fare today in Music City. Just a thought.

  • "Joy to the World" by Aretha Franklin: No matter the month, this gospel version of the well-known song will lift your spirits.  

  • "Hang ’Em High," Booker T. & the M.G.’s: The Hammond B3 organ with Steve Cropper on guitar—a most soulful combination.

  • "Darkness on the Edge of Town" by Bruce Springsteen: With solid backup from the E Street Band—raw and unpolished—isn’t life like that sometimes?

  • "Early Morning Rain" by Gordon Lightfoot: Canadian songwriting brilliance with 12-string accompaniment.

  • "Bible Verses" by Blake Shelton: Not your typical country song.  

  • "Heaven South" by Brad Paisley: As a former long-time resident of Los Angeles County (over 60 years) to now being a 4+ year transplant to the Southeast, a daily anthem.

  • "The Cost of Living" by Don Henley with Merle Haggard: There is a cost to living/that everyone pays.

Readers, what do y’all think? If you were stranded on a desert island for the rest of your life and could have only one playlist or one bookshelf with you, 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 (or both lists!) to, and include as much or as little explanation of your choices as you would like, along with the city and state from which you’re writing.

Quote of the Moment

"And darling, our disease is the same one as the trees
Unaware that they’ve been living in a forest"

—Vampire Weekend, "This Life"

Currently Reading (or Re-Reading)

David Whyte, Seven Streams: An Irish Cycle (Many Rivers)

Kingsley Amis, The Alteration (New York Review Books)

Landon Loftin, and Max Leyf, What Barfield Thought: An Introduction to the Work of Owen Barfield (Cascade)

Lionel Adey, C. S. Lewis’s "Great War" with Owen Barfield (ELS Editions)

James Traub, True Believer: Hubert Humphrey’s Quest for a More Just America (Basic)

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Russell Moore

Russell Moore
Editor in Chief

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