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Hello, fellow wayfarers. How we shortchange the role of emotions in the way we actually change our lives … What I’m grateful for on book-release week … Why I’m going to do better at taking your advice about stuff to watch … Plus, a Desert Island Bookshelf … This is this week’s Moore to the Point.

Russell Moore

How People Really Change

Once when I was preaching in a church that’s more on the “decently and in order” side of Christian liturgy, my host warned me that one woman there was a lot more demonstrative than the rest of the congregation. “There are certain songs we sing that make her start crying and waving her hands,” he said. “And that’s fine. We just want to make sure that we don’t move into a kind of emotionally driven worship.”

I know what he meant. I wonder, though, whether that woman’s “emotionalism” might just be closer to biblical application than the to-do list of action items at the end of the Bible study she’d just attended.

Whether it means starting out at a new church or Bible study or signing up for a gym membership or yoga class, most people at some point sense a need to change their lives. Most of us in ministry want to see “changed lives” or “transformed” people. The question is, How do people actually change?

That question has lingered with me since I read an article by Simeon Zahl in The Mockingbird magazine on the reigning “theories of change” at work in American church life. Zahl outlines several of these theories. Most start with an assumption about where the actual problem is before offering a way to “fix” that problem.

The theory Zahl sees as most typical in evangelical congregations is a “Christian information” approach. Some would question just how widespread this model is, given the constant (and real) concerns about anti-intellectualism and the “scandal of the evangelical mind” in American Christianity.

To be sure, a Christian information theory of change could include highly cerebral, abstract lectures on theology or philosophy. But more often, this approach is highly practical. Seeing a lack of knowledge as the root problem, it seeks to argue through a particular biblical passage or worldview, followed by a time of “application” that suggests ways the listeners can put the new principles to work in their lives.

Zahl contrasts this theory with a model of “sacramental participation.” Here, the primary driver of change is not the information embedded in the sermon but the practices embedded in the Lord’s Table or in baptism. A third model involves gearing a worship atmosphere toward a highly cathartic emotional experience, by which one leaves transformed.

In contrast, Zahl argues for what he calls an “Augustinian theory of change.” This one assumes that “human beings are driven not by knowledge or will but by desire. We are creatures of the heart, creatures of love.” He further argues that the human heart is highly resistant to change, often blocking direct attempts to alter it.

To make his point, Zahl asks us to recall a time when we’ve tried to change someone’s mind about politics through rational arguments or—even worse—to talk a person out of pursuing someone he or she has fallen in love with.

Very early in my ministry, I was taken aback by a man who could recite all the relevant biblical passages about the dangers of adultery and the importance of marital fidelity but who sat in my office—with his wife and new baby—waving all of that aside as he told me he was leaving his marriage for someone else. “I’ve fallen in love,” he said, with a shrug that seemed to imply, What is there left to say?

That’s why, Zahl argues, “extracting practical advice for Christian living” won’t overcome fallen human resistance to judgment and law. It’s also why, he contends, Pentecostals—whatever shortcomings they may have—tend to be more effective at seeing lives turned around. “The intransigence of the human heart is the fundamental problem of Christian ministry,” he writes. “The Spirit of God traffics in emotion and desire.”

While I probably wouldn’t agree with all the specifics of Zahl’s Luther-like law/gospel framework, I believe he’s completely right that actual transformative change happens at a much deeper level than intellect or willpower. That’s why much of the criticism of “overly emotional” worship services can miss the point.

Some with a more cynical bent may conclude that tears flowing from people’s eyes and hands aloft in a crowd of singing worshipers are just emotional fluff—what sociologists might call “collective effervescence,” akin to singing “Sweet Caroline” at a Red Sox game or crowd surfing at a nightclub. But what if God actually designed us to connect to one another—and to the deeper places of our own hearts—that way?

Zahl’s larger argument entails the idea that spiritual practices, Bible reading, scriptural sermons, Christian service, the sacraments, and so on are indeed shaping people—including at the level of desire and emotion. But he says that “we can do all this only once our hearts have already changed enough that we desire to engage in the practice.”

“No one will develop a transformative and durable new practice of prayer unless they fundamentally want to and want to enough to carry them through life’s inevitable obstacles,” he writes. “As Jesus told us, you must change the tree first, then the right fruit will follow (Matt. 12:33–35). Focus on the heart, and the practices will follow; focus on the practices alone, and we’re back to the brick wall.”

Instead of practical tips, doctrinal axioms, or syllogisms, Zahl recommends that we embrace “technologies of the heart” that speak the “strange electric language” of the psyche. He asks us to consider how much more powerful stories and art and music are than ideas alone. The Bible is all of this and more—stories, psalms, poems, parables, arguments, reasons, and exclamations of wonder.

C. S. Lewis famously wrote that he planned Narnia to “steal past those watchful dragons” that we put around our hearts. We try to protect ourselves by numbing our hearts to the familiarity of the Christian story. And yet there are moments when our defenses drop—and we are jarred by hearing in the words of Scripture sung, recited, taught, or just read the Voice that summons, “Come, follow me.”

At the most cynical time of my life, I found myself undone just by hearing the words of “Jesus Loves Me.” This I know. And I could give a thousand reasoned arguments why the Bible tells me so—and why the Bible can be trusted to tell the truth.

But the deeper part of me had forgotten it—couldn’t really believe it to be true. When I heard it again that day, it hit with a different force. I was overwhelmed, just for a moment, with the truth of the words. “Jesus really loves me.”

Only sometimes do we truly perceive how God is reaching us at that deeper place of the heart. We can’t engineer it or manufacture it. But we also shouldn’t ignore it or squelch it.

Maybe the recovering drug addict in the pew in front of you sobs when he sings “Amazing Grace” because he knows how lost he once was. Or maybe singing “Amazing Grace” is what changed him enough to want to be found.

Maybe the Christian whose emotion embarrasses her church in worship is just seeking an emotional dopamine hit. Or maybe what she’s doing is losing all the self-censoring image maintenance that keeps her from crying out “Abba, Father!”

Maybe underneath all of that, there’s a Holy Spirit who still changes lives.

Losing Our Religion Book Launch

Thank you all for your prayers this week as my little book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America is released out into the world.

Some have asked whether the release time is exciting for me. I’m always a little anxious when a book I’ve been working on is finally out in the public. I would rather keep changing it and second-guessing whether to include this sentence or that one. When it’s released, it’s done, and I don’t have control of it anymore. That’s a little nerve-racking for me.

I am grateful for all your kind words of encouragement. You can order it here. Or if you prefer audiobooks, you can get it here.

Movie and TV Recommendations

Thank you also for all the recommendations you sent in for movies or television series that were lighter than the super-dark ones I’d been watching. Several of the ones you suggested are on my watch list now.

Over the summer, I streamed the whole series of For All Mankind on Apple TV+, which was its own kind of dark. The series is set in a universe in which the Soviets beat the United States to the moon—and how that development changes everything else, from Watergate to a manned Mars mission.

Some parts of it were riveting, and others made me cringe. I don’t know anything about aeronautics or engineering, so I can completely suspend disbelief on those sections. But I do know about congressional hearings and committee meetings—and some of those were laugh-out-loud unrealistic.

Plus—and this was my same complaint about the old West Wing series—why do so many films and series picture the Oval Office as a dark, moody room with lamps lighting the shadows here and there, when the actual place is always completely illuminated? I suppose it better sets the mood to show brooding and contemplation in a darker room, but still.

Desert Island Bookshelf

Every other week, I share a list of books that one of you says you’d want to have on hand if you were stranded on a deserted island. This week’s submission comes from reader Jim Pile from Chesterland, Ohio. Here’s his list:

  • Till We Have Faces, by C. S. Lewis—One of Lewis’s last and arguably greatest books; if I could only take one book other than the Bible, this might be it. A retelling of the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche, the novel subtly but powerfully underscores the fact that God’s plans are perfect, even (especially?) when they’re beyond our understanding.

  • Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh—A spare, elegiac novel looking back on the narrator’s complex relationship with various members of a wealthy English family during the years between the World Wars, from the bleak vantage point of World War II. Like all of the books on the list, it has stood the test of rereading.

  • The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro—For my money, the best novel from one of the greatest writers of the past half century. Set in immediately post-Arthurian Britain, The Buried Giant muses on the related themes of aging and memory as it gently builds to a devastating conclusion.

  • A Severe Mercy, by Sheldon Vanauken—Vanauken beautifully weaves three stories into a cohesive whole: first a compelling love story, followed by one of coming to Christian faith in the shadow of C. S. Lewis, and finally one of loss, the “severe mercy.”

  • The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien—Although perhaps veering dangerously close to the clichéd, it would be disingenuous not to include LOTR on this list. I gained new understanding of Frodo’s and Sam’s travails upon rereading the books after serving in combat, and I suspect that reading these as a castaway might yield additional insights.

  • Streams in the Desert, by Lettie Cowman—A lovely devotional that has stood the test of time, both in its original as well as updated versions.

  • The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame—The classic anthropomorphic tale of Badger, Mole, Rat and Toad, The Wind in the Willows never grows old. My daughter and I read the book at bedtime multiple times as she was growing up, and I hope to read it to grandchildren someday.

  • Christian Counter-Culture, by John R. W. Stott—An easily accessible but virtually inexhaustible examination of the Sermon on the Mount, which presumably would be just as important on a desert island as off!

  • The Roads to Sata, by Alan Booth—One of two favorite books in one of my favorite genres, travel writing, The Roads to Sata is the story of British expat and long-time Japan resident Alan Booth’s walking trip from the northern to the southern tip of Japan in 1976. The book is both poignant and laugh-out-loud funny; as a former resident of Japan myself, I have to say that Booth gets under the hood of Japanese life better than any other Westerner I’ve read.

  • A Winter in Arabia, by Freya Stark—My other favorite travel book, A Winter in Arabia describes in elegant and understated fashion Stark’s almost unimaginably intrepid journeys as a woman through the rural areas of what is now Yemen in the 1930s.

  • One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez—As is true for other books on the list, One Hundred Years of Solitude has seemed richer with each rereading. Although Love in the Time of Cholera also has a case for inclusion, I’d bring Solitude for its exuberant and ultimately mind-blowing creativity.

  • Watch for the Light, by various authors—This collection of essays by authors ranging from St. John Chrysostom to Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Annie Dillard has been a daily companion during Advent for many years now, and presumably I’d still celebrate the Advent season on a desert island!

Thank you, Jim!

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.

Quote of the Moment

Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void.

—Simone Weil, in Love in the Void

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Russell Moore

Russell Moore
Editor in Chief

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