Home      Podcast      Subscribe
Hello, fellow wayfarers … How the fact that it wasn’t a silent night makes it a holy night ... Why I don’t hate Mariah Carey or “The Little Drummer Boy” … What I want from you for Christmas … A good old English Desert Island Bookshelf from the hometown of Pilgrim’s Progress … This is this week’s Moore to the Point.

Russell Moore

The Baby Jesus Taught Us How to Scream

Before I begin, let me tell you that I hate what I am about to do. That’s because few things exasperate me more than the people who Well, actually Christmas songs. True, there was no innkeeper in the gospel Nativity accounts. We don’t know how many wise men there were, but we know they weren’t there at the same time as the shepherds. But nobody wants to be under the mistletoe with the guy arguing about how much Mary knew.

You no doubt know that the idea of a “Silent Night” is Victorian sentimentalism more than biblical reality. “The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes” assumes that a baby’s cry is a sin rather than part of the good human nature the Son of God assumed. We shouldn’t stop singing those songs, but at the same time, maybe we should ponder exactly why the screams from the manger really do matter for us.

The Gospels reveal that the Nativity scene was in the middle of a war zone. Joseph was trekking to the City of David with Mary to participate in the very thing—a census—for which God had repudiated David himself. And he was doing so at the command of a pagan Roman government occupying the throne of David, seeming to invalidate the promise God made to his people. The puppet bureaucrat warming that seat—King Herod—was so enraged by the Davidic prophecies that would threaten his position that he, like Pharaoh of old, ordered all the baby boys of the region to be killed.

This mass murder was, Matthew reveals, a fulfillment of the words of the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more” (Jer. 31:15; Matt. 2:18). The little town of Bethlehem was, like the Hebrew territory within ancient Egypt, a place of wailing and lamentation.

In the midst of all of this, an infant squirmed in swaddling clothes. And had you been there, you no doubt would have heard not just crying but screaming from that manger.

Part of the reason it’s hard for us to think this way is because it’s difficult for us to imagine the mystery of the Incarnation—that the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us (John 1:14) in every state of human life—from embryo to adulthood. But a big part of our missing this is that we don’t see how crying is an essential aspect of both our created and our redeemed humanity. As J. Gresham Machen, almost a century ago now, put it in his defense of the virgin birth: “To that doctrine it is essential that the Son of God should live a complete human life upon this earth. But the human life would not be complete unless it began in the mother’s womb.”

At some time or other, most of us convert accidentally and haphazardly to a kind of Zen Buddhism. Without thinking about it, we assume that the goal of the Christian life is that of a guru leading us to an introspective and internal tranquility, to detachment from longing into quietude.

The gospel, though, comes with the imagery of the loudest and most tumultuous moments of any life: birth and death. You must be born again, Jesus told us (John 3:3). We must take up our crosses and follow him to die in order to live, he revealed.

That reality is bound up with one of the most important images the Bible uses for the experience of faith—that of the scream.

The apostle Paul wrote that the Spirit prompts those of us who are joined to Christ to “cry ‘Abba, Father’” (Rom. 8:15). In fact, Paul wrote, the experience of the Abba cry is the Spirit of God’s Son, crying out from our hearts (Gal. 4:6). The life of the Spirt means, he argued, that we join the groaning of the universe around us, a groaning that he calls “the pains of childbirth” (Rom. 8:22).

For Paul, prayer is much less like the carefully crafted prayers Jesus criticized from the esteemed religious leaders around him and much more like an inarticulate groping for words, through which the Spirit himself “intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26, ESV).

That Abba cry is a callback to a specific moment in the life of Jesus—a prayer that is not a silent night but a wail of anguish. Looking at the cup of wrath before him, crucifixion under the curse of the law, Jesus cried out, “Abba, Father” (Mark 14:36) in anguish, his sweat like drops of blood (Luke 22:44).

The disciples with him, however, no crying they made, asleep as they were on the hay. For them, all was calm, all was bright. That was the problem, not the solution.

The cross was itself a callback to those days in the manger. Jesus, in the horror of execution, screamed out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). This was a lyric to an ancient song, meant to evoke the whole—kind of like how if I were to say, “It came upon a midnight clear,” most of you would know I was talking about Christmas.

Jesus was here quoting Psalm 22, a song of David. The entirety of the psalm speaks prophetically to the fullness of what happens at Golgotha, “the place of the skull”—from the experience of forsakenness (v. 1) to thirst (v. 15) to pierced hands and feet, the lack of broken bones, and soldiers gambling for clothes (vv. 16–18). The song, though, is not just one of lament but one of hope in the faithfulness of God to his promises.

In the same psalm, David also sings that he learned to face the horrors of death—as a baby. “Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me to trust you, even at my mother’s breast. From birth I was cast on you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God” (vv. 9–10). The dependence of birth and infanthood was tied, David sang, to the experience of the entire people of God: “In you our ancestors put their trust; they trusted and you delivered them. To you they cried out and were saved” (vv. 4–5).

And as Jesus looked out from the cross, he could see the very one who had swaddled him back at the manger—his mother.

Biologists, psychologists, and anthropologists all tell us that the interplay between a baby crying and a parent’s response are foundational to the way they attach to one another. An infant experiences an existential need—for food, for protection, for reassurance—and cries out, finding that, when all is the way it’s supposed to be, the child is not alone in the world; someone who loves him hears him. That’s true in the life cycle for human beings because, ultimately, it’s the even more primal longing we all are created to follow—to trust a fatherly God to feed us and to protect us.

Jesus was the firstborn of the new humanity. Joined with our common human nature, he lived out the life of trust and faith from which we had been broken. When he teaches us to pray “our Father” and “give us this day our daily bread” and “deliver us from evil,” he is telling us what, in his humanity, he was taught from the manger of Bethlehem onward.

Christ calls us to once again be as little children—dependent and vulnerable, attached and loved—not by cooing and gurgling but by screaming and groaning. And, like Jesus, even in those loud cries and tears, we are heard (Heb. 5:7).

All is not always calm. All is not always bright. But because the manger and the cross are our story too, a not-so-silent night is a holy night all the same.

In Defense of “The Little Drummer Boy”

Last week on The Bulletin, my colleagues Nicole Martin, Mike Cosper, and I descended into a controversy that threatened to split the group apart. We had talked about lots of divisive topics—such as the relationship between religious liberty and a Satanist statue in the Iowa state capitol—but the one that brought us to the brink was Mariah Carey. I made the case for why “All I Want for Christmas Is You”—especially the duet with Justin Bieber—is on my Christmas playlist every year.

You can hear about the ruckus, I’m sure, on a future episode of The Rise and Fall of Russell Moore because Mike said, “Okay, I’ve been with you through everything, but this is where I get off.” I said, “Well, if you don’t like that, you’re not going to like this—I will also stand my ground on the greatness of ‘The Little Drummer Boy.’”

Mike is too sanctified to have responded with, “No offense, but go to hell,” the way Matt Damon did to Leslie in the Saturday Night Live sketch about a Christmas table altercation over Weezer, but the vibe was on the same spectrum.

There are certain things you’re not supposed to admit you like—and that’s especially true with Christmas songs. Sometimes the common cringe is warranted—“Santa Baby” and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” are terrible, I agree. But I’m ride or die for “The Little Drummer Boy,” and I won’t pretend otherwise.

Mike’s hatred of “All I Want for Christmas” is, no doubt, because he is a musician and artist, and I’m not. But people who hate “The Little Drummer Boy” usually fit in two categories.

The first are those who find the “pa-rum pum pum pum” lyrics to be corny and sentimental. These people cannot be helped. Their hearts are two sizes too small, waiting for the Whos down in Whoville, the tall and the small, to sing in such a way as to ungrinch their souls.

Other people, though, will object on purported theological grounds to “The Little Drummer Boy,” and these are the people for whom I will summon Linus to give a speech at the Christmas play.

If I were assembling a Desert Island Playlist of Christmas carols, “The Little Drummer Boy” wouldn’t make the cut. “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” pulsates with the gospel: “Born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth.” The only thing better than singing such magnificent words with such an exuberant tune is knowing that they are true. “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” hits the right tone both with the lyrics and with the music—somewhat dark, mysterious, but concluding with “tidings of comfort and joy”—kind of like life itself.

Even so, I’ll admit that few Christmas carols can move me to tears like “The Little Drummer Boy,” especially the moment when the song reaches that height of “I played my best for him.” That points to something almost inarticulable in us. We respond to awe and wonder and gratitude with a need to express all of that. The baby Jesus didn’t need a drum solo, but that wasn’t the point. He doesn’t need Bible teaching or disaster relief work or translating Sunday’s hymns into sign language or writing books or articles either. That he lets us worship by offering our meager little gifts is all grace.

But “The Little Drummer Boy” is also an implicit warning of where all that can go wrong. We can easily come to think that our drum-banging is the admission cost to the presence of the holy, that our performance is how we keep our place in the Nativity set.

Maybe that’s what I really love about that kid. I want to kneel down and whisper to him what the grown-up baby Jesus has to retell me repeatedly: “You know, you really don’t need to perform. You’re loved and accepted without all of that. You’re adopted for life.”

I don’t heed that often enough, but when I do, it resonates in the deepest part of me. It makes me hear the heartbeat of life under all the fragile gifts and the frantic performing. Pa-rum pum pum pum.

My Grown-Up Christmas List

I can’t respond to the vast majority of them, but I read all the notes you all send—along with your Desert Island Bookshelves and Playlists and your questions for me to try to answer on The Russell Moore Show. The theme that shows up almost every day is something along these lines: that the newsletter or the podcasts make a lot of you feel less alone, less crazy in a crazy time.

All that’s because some of you keep this going with your generosity. Some of you are struggling financially and you should ignore what I’m about to say. I want you to enjoy and benefit from whatever you can here. There is no prosperity gospel preacher on the other end of this newsletter, promising or withholding blessing based on whether you give.

But you might be one of those with enough means to bless others. If this is one of the things you would like to keep going into 2024 and beyond, might you consider giving an end-of-year gift to Christianity Today?

If so, you can give it here. If it’s postmarked (or whatever the digital equivalent of a postmark is) on or before December 31, 2023, it is tax deductible for the 2023 tax year.

I hate to even ask for that—it kind of grates against all my Mississippi upbringing and natural temperament to do so. But I just admitted to liking “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” so what face do I have left to save?

Whether you can give or not, I am grateful for every one of you—and look forward to riding with you through the storms of 2024.

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 David Barlett, who says: “I write from the town of Bedford in middle England, the hometown of John Bunyan. Like you, I had to put Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners down—it made me so depressed!”

Here’s David’s list of books that won’t depress him on his desert island:

  1. Cardiphonia by John Newton. These letters have been a lifeline to me. For 35 years I was privileged to work as a family doctor in the town of Olney. It was here that Newton had such an amazing ministry and, with William Cowper, composed his hymns. For many years I lived opposite his Georgian vicarage and almost felt I could hear his warm, wise, and pastoral heart as I read these letters.

  2. Morning and Evening by Charles H. Spurgeon. There is a tenderness that comes out of these brilliant short readings that is less evident in some of his sermons. Spurgeon writes in the introduction, “May the reader hear the still small voice whose speech shall be the word of God to his soul.” Mission has been accomplished many times for me.

  3. Book of Common Prayer. This copy was given to my grandmother in 1914. Although I grew up and was converted in a Pentecostal church, I have grown to love these prayers and readings, especially a daily reading of the Psalms.

  4. Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope. This second volume in the Chronicles of Barsetshire is brim full of acute observation and wonderful characters. The vying for position and “spirituality” on display is at times hilarious and all too perceptive.

  5. The Gates of New Life by James S. Stewart. I could have chosen any number of the various collections of sermons by this Scottish preacher, but this was the first that I read. It’s dated, of course (published in 1938), but brilliantly passionate and crafted. “The essence of Christ’s religion is a personal attachment, a response of love to the most fascinating personality to have ever walked the earth.” There’s a taster.

  6. Middlemarch by George Eliot. I really do try to enjoy contemporary novels, but here is another Victorian novel that is hard to beat. Less witty than Trollope but more brilliant characterizations, especially of the clergy and medical practitioners!

  7. Wild Hares and Hummingbirds by Stephen Moss. I love reading books about natural history, and this reflection through each month of the year from the village where Moss lives on the Somerset levels in the southwest of England is an absolute delight.

  8. Olney Hymns by John Newton. There’s more than “Amazing Grace” here, but many other of these hymns can be pondered and learnt with much benefit.

  9. Genius, Grief and Grace by Dr. Gaius Davies. This eminent psychiatrist is a Christian, and here he reflects upon the challenges some notable Christian believers such as Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Dr. Davies had been a personal friend), C. S. Lewis, J. B. Phillips, and many others experienced in their personal lives. Scars and hang-ups abound in the telling, but so does great grace.

  10. Six Weeks: The Short and Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War by John Lewis-Stempel. I read a lot about the Great War. The pathos never leaves me, and this account of some of the young boys (many who came from Uppingham School, a notable private school in England) who became junior officers left a marked impression on me of sadness and pride.

  11. Extravagant Grace: God’s Glory Displayed in Our Weakness by Barbara Duguid. This wonderful book draws on the pastoral wisdom of John Newton. I can’t express how profoundly it has touched me and given me hope, that despite my years as a believer with multiple failings and “falling short,” God’s grace in Christ is still sufficient for me.

  12. Redemption Hymnal. There have been many great songs and hymns written since this compilation, which I love, but this is the hymn book I grew up with. I know so many by heart, “stored up” in my memory.

  13. The Word in the Wilderness: A Poem a Day for Lent and Easter by Malcolm Guite. I’m fairly late coming to Guite’s poetry. This anthology of some of his poems as well as selections from others is suggestive, beautiful, and uplifting. There’s much depth to plumb too.

Thank you, David!

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 or town from which you’re writing.

Quote of the Moment

“He stilled our secret syllables
And hushed our wisest words

In the silence of the stable there
Was wisdom finally heard.”

—Michael Card, “We Will Find Him”

Currently Reading (or Re-Reading)

Jonathan Gibson, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel: A Liturgy for Daily Worship from Advent to Epiphany (Crossway)

Peter J. Leithart, Creator: A Theological Interpretation of Genesis 1 (IVP Academic)

John Gray, The New Leviathans: Thoughts After Liberalism (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Eckhard J. Schnabel, New Testament Theology (Baker Academic)

Join Us at Christianity Today

Founded by Billy Graham, Christianity Today is on a mission to lift up the sages and storytellers of the global church for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Why don’t you join us as a member—or give a membership to a friend, a pastor, a church member, someone you mentor, or a curious non-Christian neighbor? You can also make a tax-deductible gift that expands CT’s important voice and influence in the world.

Ask a Question or Say Hello

The Russell Moore Show podcast includes a section where we grapple with the questions you might have about life, the gospel, relationships, work, the church, spirituality, the future, a moral dilemma you’re facing, or whatever. You can send your questions to I’ll never use your name—unless you tell me to—and will come up with a groan-inducing pun of a pseudonym for you.

And, of course, I would love to hear from you about anything. Send me an email at if you have any questions or comments about this newsletter, if there are other things you would like to see discussed here, or if you would just like to say hello!

If you have a friend who might like this, please forward it, and if you’ve gotten this from a friend, please subscribe!

Russell Moore

Russell Moore
Editor in Chief

P.S. You can support the continued work of Christianity Today and the PUBLIC THEOLOGY PROJECT by subscribing to CT magazine.


Join Russell Moore in thinking through the important questions of the day, along with book and music recommendations he has found formative.
Delivered free via email to subscribers weekly. Subscribe to this newsletter.

You are currently subscribed as Subscribe to more newsletters like this. Manage your email preferences or unsubscribe.

Copyright ©2023 Christianity Today, 465 Gundersen Drive, Carol Stream, IL 60188
All rights reserved.
Privacy Policy | Advertise | Subscribe to CT | Give Now

Christianity Today is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.