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Hello, fellow wayfarers … What Toby Keith taught us about the right way to channel your anger … Why you don’t make baseball fans with baseball stats … How one of America’s greatest poets started with an altar call at a Southern Baptist megachurch … A combo Desert Island Bookshelf/Playlist … This is this week’s Moore to the Point.

Russell Moore

What Toby Keith Taught Us About the Songs We Need

He should’ve been a cowboy. He should’ve learned to rope and ride. But he didn’t. Toby Keith learned instead how to sing and to write and to perform.

He was so good at it that when he sang “How Do You Like Me Now?!” (about how an old girlfriend who never thought he would make it gets to hear him every morning on the radio), one couldn’t help but feel there might be a real story behind it. After decades of playing on country stations around the nation, Keith died this week of cancer. Lots could be said about his life and craft, but what strikes me is that he just might remind us of why we need the Psalms.

When people think of Toby Keith—especially those who don’t actually listen to his kind of music—they typically think of one song: “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),” which went to the top of the charts after the jihadist terrorist attacks on the US on September 11, 2001. Keith sang:

Now this nation that I love has fallen under attack
A mighty sucker punch came flyin’ in from somewhere in the back
        Soon as we could see clearly through our big black eye
        Man, we lit up your world like the Fourth of July.

The song builds in defiance:

Hey, Uncle Sam, put your name at the top of his list
        And the Statue of Liberty started shakin’ her fist
And the eagle will fly, man, it’s gonna be hell
        When you hear Mother Freedom start ringin’ her bell
        And it feels like the whole wide world is raining down on you
        Oh, brought to you courtesy of the Red, White and Blue.

I was embarrassed by how much I loved that song. After all, though I was as hawkish as one could get on an American response to al-Qaeda (and I haven’t changed my mind on that at all), the song does not fit easily—if at all—with a Christian vision of reality.

But I’ll bet I played the song a thousand times, and I couldn’t help but sing it out loud, at least when I was in the car by myself.

I realized this when that song found itself once again on my personal playlist. I never stopped listening to Toby Keith, and his songs filled my playlist in the years following 9/11: “Old School,” “New Orleans,” “My List.” Even though I was the chief policy lobbyist for the Southern Baptist Convention, I couldn’t help but sing along with “I Love This Bar” (also alone in my car). When I left the SBC, I told friends, quoting Toby, “I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.”

But “The Angry American” didn’t make my list. Even so, I heard myself humming it—almost reflexively, and to the surprise of my conscious mind—on January 6, 2021, watching the US Capitol being attacked by a lawless mob. I realized then that the song wasn’t really about foreign policy or counterterrorism. It was about anger.

By anger, I mean a specific kind—the kind that is mixed with a sense of powerlessness but also with a confidence that this is still the country that gave us Washington and Lincoln and Eisenhower, the country that could give the world words from We hold these truths to be self-evident to We have nothing to fear but fear itself to Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall. Uncle Sam—black eye or not—always gets up.

One of the things a new Christian encounters in reading through the Bible for the first time is how comforting and reassuring the Psalms can be. There’s a reason, the new Christian might think, that people want Psalm 23 recited to them on their deathbeds. There’s a reason, she might realize, that so many of these words are sung in celebrative praise and worship songs. But then that new Christian might come upon other Psalms that never show up in the songs, songs that seem disturbingly angry.

C. S. Lewis, I feel quite confident in saying, would have hated Toby Keith songs had he ever heard one. But he did know the Psalms, and in the middle of the last century he tried to explain those angry psalms of cursing enemies and calling down the judgment of God.

I don’t agree with all of Lewis’s thoughts on the Psalms, but there’s one thought in particular we need to consider right now.

Lewis gave the example of some British soldiers he knew in World War II, all of whom had fallen for conspiracy theories that the government was making up the atrocities reported from Nazi Germany to “pep up” the troops. The conspiracy theories were bunk, of course, and the soldiers Lewis knew were dutifully serving their country—fighting on the right side of morality or justice. But they thought they were being lied to, and they felt not the slightest bit of anger.

“If they had perceived, and felt as a man should feel, the diabolical wickedness which they believed our rulers to be committing, and then forgiven them, they would have been saints,” Lewis wrote. “But not to perceive it at all—not even to be tempted to resentment—to accept it as the most ordinary thing in the world—argues a terrifying insensibility.”

Sometimes, Lewis wrote, we think we are not tempted by something because we are above the temptation when we are, in fact, below it. We do not have to wrestle with our passions—to channel them in the direction God intends—because we have no passions at all. We don’t feel the pull to wrath or lust or greed not for the reasons a wise old desert monk might no longer feel them, but for the reasons a refrigerated corpse in a hospital morgue would not feel them.

The Psalms are not merely reassurance or celebration (though many Psalms are that). They also include the full range of human emotions—not just displaying them and putting them in the context of redemptive history but also calling the expression of a right form of them from us. “Deep calls to deep,” the Psalms say (42:7), and the depths of the Word of God do just that to us.

Jesus commands us to love our enemies, to bless those who persecute us (Matt. 5:44). He does not do this the way a Zen Buddhist might—with a word that our “enemies” are just an illusion or that our anger should be replaced with passionless tranquility. Instead, the Bible calls out the sense of injustice and wrongness that we perceive and feel, and directs us instead to the judgment of God as expressed at the Cross. “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all,” the apostle Paul wrote. “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Rom. 12:18–19).

The way of Jesus does not dismiss anger but transfigures it by the way of the Cross. In conforming us to Christ, God is not making us less human but more. We are hidden in a Lord who is not un-angry or un-sad or un-happy but who is angry in the right way, sad in the right way, happy in the right way.

Could reading only the line My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Ps. 22:1) without the rest of the psalm it starts, much less the rest of the canon, lead to an ungodly despair? Of course (the devil quotes Psalms, remember). But these are holy words, words of life, not just because the Spirit sang them through David but because Jesus repeated them as he went—physically, spiritually, mentally, and emotionally—through the valley of the shadow of death, for us.

Songs like “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” or Merle Haggard’s “The Fightin’ Side of Me” can evoke some of the worst impulses. They can be jingoistic, vindictive, prideful—all that’s true. But the fact that we seem to need, from time to time, songs like that might remind us of something.

We have better songs—psalms of anger and of awe, of lament and of elation, of disappointment and of gratitude. We shouldn’t be embarrassed of them. We need them.

Most of the rage we see all around us isn’t really anger. It’s not alive enough to be anger. The adrenaline jolt of hating somebody can give a little jolt to the limbic system, but it’s as distant from genuine anger as pornography addiction is from intimacy. When you step into a different world—the one you enter through the Psalms, all of them—you might be surprised by anger. But it’s real, and it’s not the last word. That other kind of rage? That ain’t worth missing.

You Don’t Make a Baseball Fan with a Baseball Encyclopedia

The other day I was out walking in the woods, catching up on some podcasts I’ve had queued up for a while now. I should have known better than to listen to an interview with Seth Godin. That’s because he is one of those people I always want to pause, rewind, and listen to line after line again. Once about every ten minutes, he says something that changes the way I see something. This interview on Tyler Cowen’s Conversations with Tyler was no exception.

At one point in the conversation, Godin explained why he uses the word learning instead of the word education for what he’s trying to do. Education is an abstraction, he said; it’s about certificates and accreditation. Learning is different. From comments earlier in the show, Godin picked up that Cowen loves, or used to love, baseball.

Say you wanted to make a baseball fan, Godin proposed, how would you do it?

“You don’t teach them the history of baseball, give them the baseball encyclopedia, quiz them about Abner Doubleday, and if they do well on the test, let them go to a game,” he said. “What you do is get them enrolled in the journey of being a baseball fan because five minutes of it was fun, and they want it again. The next thing you know, they’re learning statistics because they want to. They’re learning facts because they want to, not because there’s going to be a test.”

This rings true with me. I’ve met lots of people who know baseball stats and lore that could keep them talking for hours. Not one of them learned that stuff out of obligation. In most cases, they didn’t even know they were “learning” at all. They just loved baseball, and that meant they loved baseball stories and baseball facts.

Discipleship isn’t baseball, but there’s a parallel here. When it comes to learning—whether about the Bible, Christian doctrine, church history, or how to do evangelism—I’ve noticed at least two different ways to do it. The way I’ve seen work is that these learning Christians don’t tend to see the faith once for all delivered to the saints as a set of data to master. Someone introduces them to life in Christ or helps them wade out into the waters of the Bible, and they find the figure of Jesus so compelling they want to follow him everywhere. They want to look for him in Genesis and Leviticus and Revelation, to see what older brothers and sisters in the last two millennia have said about him, to talk about him to people who if they knew where Nazareth was might ask whether any good thing can come from there.

Godin said that when he hears the words Will this be on the test? he knows what kind of classroom he is in. The same is true in the church or on the field.

At First Baptist Dallas, a Poet Emerges

This week over on the podcast, I talked to poet Christian Wiman about his new book of essays, Zero at the Bone: Fifty Entries Against Despair (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). You will immediately hear the surprise in my voice when Wiman talked about how he came to write his first poem.

I thought of Christian Wiman in a very distinct category—as a brilliant poet who has written perceptively about suffering, doubt, faith, and multiple other issues. I didn’t know that he grew up in Texas Baptist churches—including for a while at the First Baptist Church of Dallas. Those who didn’t grow up in the kind of Southern Baptist world that I did might not recognize how important that church was, not just because of its size but because of two of its titanic 20th-century pastors—George W. Truett and W. A. Criswell, both of whom elicited very strong feelings on all sides. Whatever one thinks of either man, they were both, though very different, world-class pulpiteers.

When Wiman was eight, he wrote a poem, while sitting in church at First Dallas. Here it is: “I love the Lord and he loves me. / I will not forget, and neither will he.” During the invitation, Chris walked down the aisle and gave the poem to Criswell, before running back to his seat without saying a word.

As we talked about that, I thought about the paragraph in Chris’s new book that I found maybe the most compelling of them all. He writes that he wanted for years to write a poem that started with the line Are you only my childhood?

“By ‘childhood’ I meant not only the encompassing bubble of Baptist religiosity in which I was raised, but also that universally animate energy, that primal permeability of mind and matter that children both intuit and inhabit,” he writes.

By ‘you’ I meant ‘You.’ … Years passed. Then recently, in a half-dreaming state in the middle of the night, I heard myself ask the question again: ‘Are you only my childhood?’ And from deep within the dream a voice—it was me, but the voice was not mine—said, with what seemed to be genuine interest and puzzlement: ‘Why do you say only?’”

You can listen to our conversation here.

Desert Island Bookshelf and Playlist

We alternate weeks here between asking for a Desert Island Bookshelf—the books you’d want to have on hand if you were stranded on a deserted island—and a Desert Island Playlist, the songs you’d want in the same circumstances. This week a reader sent both, which is always welcome.

Reader Jim Killam from Rockford, Illinois, writes:

First, thank you. I’ve latched on to your work and thought over the past several years, and you have been an incredible encouragement during dark times for the American church. So glad you are with CT now. I’m the managing editor for the Wycliffe Global Alliance, meaning I get a front-row seat to God’s work around the world. It’s an incredible privilege and responsibility.

Here’s Jim’s list:

  • Ruthless Trust, by Brennan Manning: Manning’s raw, humble honesty strips away much of what we’ve made our faith and boils it down to this: “Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is illusion. God’s love for you and his choice of you constitute your worth. Accept that, and let it become the most important thing in your life.” This book helped me through one of the darkest times in my life and faith.

  • Finding God in Unexpected Places, by Philip Yancey: Journalism amounts to a search for truth worth relating to others. Yancey’s insightful reporting led him to places and people that illustrate the heart of God. As the title suggests, it’s full of surprises.

  • Courage, Dear Heart: Letters to a Weary World, by Rebecca K. Reynolds: I’ve given this book to several friends over the past several years. It’s written to Christians weary of a broken world and broken lives. In the mess of American church/political culture, Reynolds’s wonderful and insightful writing reassured me that I’m not crazy. If you’re disillusioned by it all, read this and you’ll feel hope.

  • The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe: The story of the early days of space flight and America’s Mercury astronauts. This book not only pulled me back into the fascination with space that I had as a kid, but it also showed me the kind of true storytelling a great journalist can do.

  • Letters from a Nut, by Ted L. Nancy: Glorious, twisted lunacy. The first time I read this book I laughed so hard I couldn’t breathe. Mr. Nancy, later revealed to be comic Barry Marder, writes bizarre letters to companies, governments, entertainment entities, you name it. Example: A letter to the president of the Czech Republic, bestowing membership in the Thousand Oaks Vacuum Club. What’s even funnier is that the targets of these letters take them seriously and often write earnest replies.

  • Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer: After reading a news blip about a missing young man found dead in Alaska, Krakauer dug deeper. Way deeper. His great reporting unearthed the sad-yet-hopeful story of a man who rejected materialism but realized too late that he had rejected too much.

  • The Road Trip That Changed the World, by Mark Sayers: I try to read everything this humble Australian pastor writes, but this is the one that first hooked me. It’s about Jack Kerouac, the novelist and beat poet who influenced our culture—including church culture—more deeply than most people realize. Sayers unlocks that culture better than almost anyone I’ve ever read, and in his more recent work he’s incredibly hopeful about the future of the global church.

Since I left the book list short, I’ll add a short Desert Island Playlist to make 12 total items:

  • You’ll Find Your Way by Andrew Peterson: A dad’s letter to his son who’s becoming a man. “And I love you so much, and it’s so hard to watch / But you’re gonna grow up, and you’re gonna get lost / Just go back … Go back to the ancient paths / Lash your heart to the ancient mast.” It’s okay to cry on a desert island, right?

  • Calling Out Your Name” by Rich Mullins: Any of Rich’s songs would do just fine for this list. This one vividly celebrates the wonder of creation.

  • Homeward Bound” by Simon & Garfunkel: Number one on my playlist for the flight home alone from every international trip.

  • Find the River” by R.E.M.: The older I get, the more I love this song about life’s long journey. Musically it’s wonderful and deep. Mike Mills and Bill Berry recorded emotional backing vocals independently and the mix was a beautiful accident. Michael Stipe’s lyrics are melancholy and thoughtful without feeling hopeless.

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

“Bad times! Troublesome times! This men are saying. Let our lives be good; and the times are good. We make our times; such as we are, such are the times.”

—Augustine of Hippo

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Russell Moore
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