Moore to the Point
Hello, fellow wayfarers. Why “just talk about all the good things the church is doing” leads to despair … What Hank Williams and Leonard Cohen knew about light and darkness … How the Transfiguration might have transcended the space-time continuum … Desert Island books too … This is this week’s Moore to the Point.
Russell Moore
You Can’t Show the Glory Without Telling the Truth

“People don’t trust their leaders anymore,” the man said to me. “I think The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill is the problem.”

He was referring to the documentary podcast series by my colleague Mike Cosper. I said, “I actually agree with you, as long as we take the italics out of that statement.” The problem is the situation that led to the rise and fall of Mars Hill and other incidents like it—not those who told the story about what happened.

This man’s lament is not unreasonable. Who among us is not exhausted by the constant revelations of scandals and abuses and griftings and cover-ups within the church, especially its evangelical wing? In that weariness, some would say, “Why don’t we talk about all the good things the church does instead of the bad?” The problem with this approach is that it leaves us with no Good News left to tell.

“The church is glorious,” someone might say. “Why don’t we show that glory instead of bashing the church by talking about all these bad things?” I agree that the church carries the glory of God and that we should make this known so the world might behold his glory. But the glory showing and the truth telling are one task, not two.

To the church at Corinth, the apostle Paul wrote extensively about glory, specifically referencing Moses’ encounter with the radiance of God’s glory on the mountain. It was a glory so brilliant that Moses put a veil over his face afterward so the people wouldn’t be overwhelmed by it. What we have now in the gospel, Paul argues, is even greater: “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory” (2 Cor. 3:18).

Paul went on in that letter to say that the “light of the gospel” we carry is, in fact, “the glory of Christ” (4:4). He wrote, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ” (v. 6).

Now notice what Paul included right in the middle of that thread about light and glory: “We have renounced secret and shameful ways,” he wrote. “We do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly, we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (4:2).

In the middle of describing the glory of Christ, which Jesus has since entrusted to his church, the apostle renounces deceptive, “secret and shameful” ways. He contrasts these negative things—which he denounces in almost all his letters—with an open proclamation of the truth that addresses the human conscience.

Paul wrote this way because showing the glory of the church does not negate telling the truth about it. This is especially the case, as Paul tells us elsewhere, when it comes to those who manipulate God’s Word to satisfy their own appetites for power, position, or pleasure—and at the expense of vulnerable, easily silenced, and seemingly expendable people.

The twofold task of glory showing and truth telling is no more contradictory than the message that brought us to Christ in the first place—a message of both judgment and mercy, a message that reveals sin and offers mercy.

Can this message be unbalanced? Undoubtedly. We all know the type of person who, after embezzling from his business or cheating on his spouse, will say, “That’s what God is here for—to forgive.” And we all know the kind of person who preaches hellfire and brimstone to such a degree that sinners cannot hear the message that God sent Jesus into the world not to condemn but to save (John 3:17).

For those of us who describe ourselves as “evangelical,” this ought to be especially clear. After all, we are the heirs of those who emphasized that the gospel of glory isn’t the rote, dead institutions into which a person is born. We must be—and really can be—“born again.” We are the people who preach a gospel emphasizing that God really does love the world and that he really will judge sin.

Over a century ago, in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience, the pragmatist philosopher William James contrasted the “healthy-mindedness” of the “once-born” with the “sick souls” of the “twice-born.” For years, before I read the book for myself, I thought this framing suggested that those of us who are born again are unhealthy people who need a psychic crutch. But in some ways, his point was just the opposite.

To him, the “once-born” are those who see mainly the harmony and goodness of the world and of the human heart. The “twice-born” have a darker view—both of nature and of themselves—and can’t be reassured by a simple message that the world’s a happy place and that everything will be all right in the end. They know better. Their only consolation is not to ignore the bad news of the darkness but to offer the kind of Good News that sees things as they do—and responds accordingly.

I reject, of course, James’s naturalistic concept of religion. But on this one point, he was on to something important. Nearly a generation ago, the social theorist Christopher Lasch argued that acknowledgment of the darkness is precisely what is missing.

“Having no awareness of evil, the once-born type of religious experience cannot stand up to adversity,” Lasch wrote. “It offers sustenance only so long as it does not encounter ‘poisonous humiliations.’”

In other words, as Jesus shows us in John 9, the problem lies not with the blind person crying out for sight but with those who won’t even acknowledge their blindness: “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains” (v. 41).

For those who really pay attention—to the world, to the church, and to themselves—the portrayal of only the “good things” doesn’t do much to reassure or build trust. People for whom religion is just a vehicle for consolation and flourishing might be totally oblivious to this, but their kind of religion offers nothing for those who wonder whether anyone can see what’s killing them.

A word that doesn’t speak to that isn’t proclamation but propaganda. Propaganda might work for public relations, but it doesn’t come with the authority to drive out the darkness.

Yes, these are cynical times. The way institutions have misused power can make some people wonder whether every institution is that way. That cynicism isn’t accurate, but it’s also not crazy, given what we’ve seen.

Arguments about the facts of institutions and persons are not only legitimate but necessary. Making the case that an accused murderer wasn’t at the scene of the crime is different from saying, “Talking about murder here hurts tourism, so if you talk about it, you are disloyal to our city.”

For the church, our responsibility is to rebuild credibility by being credible—by being those who recognize what’s gone wrong even as we rejoice in what’s gone right.

To show the glory, we must also tell the truth.

Hank Williams and Leonard Cohen See the Light

This past New Year’s Day was the 70th anniversary of the death of singer-songwriter Hank Williams in the backseat of a Cadillac somewhere in West Virginia. Williams was 29 years old. He gave voice not only to loneliness and longing in such songs as “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” or “Your Cheatin’ Heart” but also to the sort of gospel exuberance heard in his song “I Saw the Light,” with these lyrics:

I wandered so aimless, life filled with sin
I wouldn’t let my dear Savior in
Then Jesus came like a stranger in the night
Praise the Lord, I saw the light.

The chorus testifies, “No more darkness, no more night / Now I’m so happy, no sorrow in sight / Praise the Lord, I saw the light.”

Williams’s biographer Colin Escott writes that “if gospel composer Albert E. Brumley had been a litigious man,” he would at least have cowriting credits, since “I Saw the Light” so closely resembles Brumley’s “He Set Me Free.”

The song draws on clear biblical allusions and echoes—from Jesus standing at the door in Revelation 3:20 to the gospel changing blindness to sight. And, of course, there’s the light itself: “God is light; in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).

Escott contends that the song’s inspiration wasn’t an altar-call experience at a revival but Hank’s wife’s attempt to wake her “higher than a kite” husband from a drunken stupor. Seeing the beacon light near Dannelly Field Airport in Montgomery, Alabama, Mrs. Williams said, “Hank, wake up; we’re nearly home. I just saw the light.” Williams wrote the song by the time they arrived home.

Grand Ole Opry star Minnie Pearl told about the time she drove Hank around between shows in El Paso, when he was too drunk to perform, as an attempt to keep him from getting even more intoxicated. She said Williams started singing “I Saw the Light” but suddenly stopped, and with a downcast face, he said, “Minnie, I don’t see no light. There ain’t no light.”

The poet James Francis Ford picked up on this sad account in a poem that pondered whether Hank Williams might have been right “just as he was about other important things, like weeping robins and midnight trains.” Ford wrote:

But if it’s true that there ain’t no light,
not even the smallest, sanguine spark,
we’re wandering aimlessly in the dark.
And I believe Hank Williams was afraid of the dark.
I am too.
How about you?

Obviously, I think Williams was wrong about the Light not being there, but no wonder it felt that way to him. After all, the song’s lyrics testify of something he could never see: “No more darkness, no more night / Now I’m so happy, no sorrow in sight.”

Maybe he couldn’t see that because that’s not how this Light comes.

Decades after Williams, another songwriter Leonard Cohen wrote an almost equally famous stanza in “Anthem.” Cohen sang,

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

“The light is the capacity to reconcile your experience, your sorrow, with every day that dawns,” Cohen explained when asked about these lyrics. “It is that understanding, which is beyond significance or meaning, that allows you to live a life and embrace the disasters and sorrows and joys that are our common lot. But it’s only with the recognition that there is a crack in everything. I think all other visions are doomed to irretrievable gloom.”

What Cohen recognized was that summoning light without acknowledging darkness leads to despair. We know better.

And that’s why in Ford’s poem the idea that maybe “there ain’t no light” is so scary. Perhaps that’s exactly why the song filled its own writer with such dread. Williams knew that to resonate with culturally Christian audiences, he needed to have a simple testimony: then darkness, now light; then sorrow, now happiness.

Yet the Christian gospel tells us a different story: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). The darkness is here. The darkness is real. The darkness just doesn’t win. As a matter of fact, “the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining” (1 John 2:8).

Far from the idea of “sweetness and light” as we too often see the metaphor, the shining of Light is disruptive, even painful. “Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil,” the apostle wrote in John 3:19.

Light exposes us, draws us out of our hiddenness. The Light doesn’t just come in through the cracked places—it cracks those places open in the first place.

Maybe Hank Williams, even in his darkness and brokenness, could see something of that truth. After all, his own lyrics seemed to recognize that Jesus comes not as something expected but as a “stranger in the night.”

Seventy years later, we don’t really know what happened in the backseat of that Cadillac. Maybe even in the deepest darkness of addiction and self-destruction, the songwriter could realize that the beacon was still shining for him. Maybe in his brokenness he was finally cracked enough for the Light to get in.

Two Prophets and a Poet See the Light Too

This past week I talked to Malcolm Guite, one of my favorite living poets, on the heels of a magnificent profile of him done by my colleague Kara Bettis in the January/February issue of Christianity Today. As he puffed away on his pipe, Guite offered—as always—one mind-blowing insight after another. But one thing he said caused me to gasp momentarily, just as I did the first time I read his thoughts on the subject.

In his book Lifting the Veil: Imagination and the Kingdom of God, Guite explains why, in his poem about the Transfiguration of Jesus, he writes of “that one mountain where all moments meet.” We know, of course, that in this incident (one of my favorites in all of Scripture), Jesus led Peter, James, and John to the mountaintop, where he was mysteriously illuminated with a cloud of glory. With him, the Gospels tell us, were Moses and Elijah.

Guite points out that both Moses and Elijah had encountered God on a mountain where they saw his glory. (The “shining face” of Moses that I discussed above is the result of this encounter.)

But Guite wonders whether more was happening in that moment than what we see at first glance. Maybe, for Moses and Elijah, this was “not a repetition of that first experience or a re-visiting of this world by these Old Testament figures, who represent between them the Law and the Prophets, but rather that the disciples were witnessing the truth that in the light of heaven, in heaven’s time as it were, those three separate moments: Moses’ on his mountain in his time, Elijah in his, and Christ in this Gospel moment were all moment!”

Millennia before Einstein taught us that space and time are relative, the Bible told us that eternity is more than just endless time. It is something altogether different. What if Moses, seeing the glory of God on the mountain, and Elijah on his, were actually transcending their times and appearing, at that very moment, with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration?

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 Amanda Patchin. She writes:

  • Till We Have Faces helped me become a human being as I struggled through the difficulties of growing up isolated in a chaotic and alcoholic home. Orual taught me that self-pity is as destructive as abuse.

  • The Problem of Pain, of course, taught me to live in a broken world without succumbing to cynicism.

  • The Lord of the Rings continues to help me through the small heroism that daily life requires. (I know that my work as a writer is incredibly easy physically, but sometimes it feels like walking into Mordor.)

  • Jane Austen wrote of the beauty and drama of self-awareness and personal growth—something we all need to remember more often. Pride and Prejudice is charming and challenging in equal measure.

  • Josef Pieper offers pithy and dense insights into the nature of existence and reality. I cannot get enough of him. Happiness and Contemplation seems most appropriate for the desert island, but any of his many essays are worthwhile.

  • What can I say about St. Augustine that hasn’t already been said? All I know is that I will never learn everything he has to teach!

  • Likewise, I don't know what I can say about Silence that Shusaku Endo hasn’t said better, but it is a rich book whose conclusion turns itself inside out. God is silent, but that does not mean he is not speaking. Your own failure is the beginning.

  • Jo Walton is likely unfamiliar to you if you are not a big fantasy reader, but Lent is heartbreakingly beautiful and unexpected. It’s Groundhog Day meets Thomas Aquinas’ metaphysical speculation meets the grind of the daily exercise of free will. Who doesn’t want to consider the weight of choosing to trust and to love God more?

  • I do lean quite heavily on fiction for joy as well as philosophical and theological reflection, and Piranesi by Susanna Clarke is complex and rich in all three categories. Consider what it might mean for the worst thing to ever happen to somehow become the best in some absurd and heartbreaking way.

  • Reading about food on a desert island might be a bad thing, but Robert Farrar Capon’s The Supper of the Lamb did make me love onions. And so I think whatever I’m eating on that island, I should be doing so while rereading this meditation on the gift of food, flavor, and the art of hospitality.

Thanks, Amanda!

Readers, what do you 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 5–12 songs, excluding hymns and worship songs. (We’ll cover those later.)

  • For a Desert Island Bookshelf, send me a list of 5–12 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.

Please tell me where you’re writing from when you make your submission!

Quote of the Moment

I’d love to wear a rainbow every day
And tell the world that everything’s okay.
But I’ll try to carry off a little darkness on my back.
’Til things are brighter, I’m the man in black.

—Johnny Cash, “Man in Black”

Currently Reading

Hannah Arendt, On Lying and Politics (Library of America)

Joseph O’Neill, Good Trouble: Stories (Pantheon)

Richard Lints, Uncommon Unity: Wisdom for the Church in an Age of Division (Lexham)

C. S. Lewis, On Writing (and Writers): A Miscellany of Advice and Opinions (HarperOne)

Jordan Daniel Wood, The Whole Mystery of Christ: Creation as Incarnation in Maximus Confessor (University of Notre Dame)

Nancy Marie Brown, Looking for the Hidden Folk: How Iceland’s Elves Can Save the Earth (Pegasus)

Marius Kociejowski, The Serpent Coiled in Naples (Haus)

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Russell Moore

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