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Hello, fellow wayfarers … Why the “Christians shouldn’t criticize other Christians” complaint is not just dumb but dangerous … What AI thinks my Christmas message to you should have been … How a dead atheist prompted me to pray … a Desert Island Bookshelf went down to Georgia … This is this week’s Moore to the Point.

Russell Moore

Evangelicals Shouldn’t Criticize Evangelicalism (Unless the Evangel Really Matters)

A year or so ago, my friend David French and I were speaking to a group of young congressional staffers on Capitol Hill when one young man, a Republican and an evangelical Christian, asked us why we would criticize what’s happening right now on the Right.

“With all the hostility coming toward Christians from secularism and progressive ideology,” he asked, “why not punch Left instead of Right?”

Quite often, one will hear this sort of complaint from professing evangelical Christians—often in response to some conversation-generating book, such as Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne or Tim Alberta’s new work The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory. These objections are often couched in terms of maintaining the “unity of the church,” usually picturing those evangelicals who dissent from Christian nationalism or white identity politics as betrayers, with an unspoken subtext: “The first rule of Born-Again Club is that we don’t talk about Born-Again Club.”

Sometimes this critique will extend all the way to the series of scandals issuing from American evangelical Christianity, at times with the argument that evangelicals “attacking our own side” on such matters will only cause unbelievers to hate us more and Christians to trust their leaders less.

This argument is akin to the “No Enemies to the Left” policy of some sectors of American progressivism in the middle of the last century toward the Soviet Union and Communist totalitarianism. One might whisper that Joseph Stalin is awful, but saying so publicly would only make the case for authoritarian anti-Communists. One might recognize that figures such as Alger Hiss sure seem to be KGB assets, but one could never say so. After all, with McCarthyism at a fever pitch and riddled with false accusations about Communist infiltrators, why would one acknowledge that there actually might be some?

The strategy kind of makes sense in Darwinian terms if a group—whether a labor union, a political party, or a church—is a tribal unit evolved to huddle together around the fire, no matter what, for fear of the saber-toothed tigers in the dark. And yet, even if one were to accept that premise, the strategy doesn’t hold together. That’s especially true in a context of avowed commitment to Christian orthodoxy.

First of all, the talking points are self-refuting. If Christians who criticize other Christians—especially in the hearing of unbelievers—are wrongfully attacking the unity of the church and should instead be speaking mostly of “all the good things we do,” then why is it not wrong for Christians to criticize Christians who criticize Christians? At the root of that argument is the very sort of deconstructionist moral relativism we were taught to reject.

More importantly, though, the “just punch Left” argument is, at best, a revelation of unfamiliarity with the actual text of the Bible and, at worst, a disavowal of the authority of the Bible. Moreover, such an argument reveals an agreement with the enemies of the Christian church—that the church is just another partisan tribe.

Which is worse in Scripture: the pagan idols of the nations around Israel or the golden calves that Jeroboam placed at Bethel and Dan? Throughout the Scriptures, God denounces and ridicules the false gods of the nations—but almost always as a warning to his own people not to do likewise.

The golden calves of Jeroboam, like the golden calf of Aaron before him, are not just wrong; they are also blasphemous. Jeroboam, the king of Israel, used the name of God to carry out a political agenda—to keep people from traveling to Judah for worship—as though he were speaking with the authority of God (1 Kings 12:25–33). The Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures denounces this in the harshest possible terms: “And this thing became a sin to the house of Jeroboam, so as to cut it off and to destroy it from the face of the earth” (1 Kings 13:34, ESV).

Jeroboam’s action is perfectly rational in starkly political terms. Every nation in the world, after all, was united around its gods, around its worship. That’s why treaties and alliances and intermarriages almost always included an importation of someone else’s gods.

All that is bad enough, but it was far worse because God actually exists, because he had actually spoken. Jeroboam was not just personally sinning, nor was he just leading a community to sin. He was leading the covenant people of God to idolatry while telling them it was the worship of God.

This is why the apostle Paul wrote that the hypocrisies of his own people were even worse than the basest rebellion of the pagans. Of those who are to instruct the nations as a “light for those who are in the dark,” who then are committing the very sins they denounce, Paul wrote, “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Rom. 2:19, 24).

Theologically, Jesus had far more in common with the scribes and the Pharisees than with the tax collectors or even the Sadducees. His harshest denunciations, though, are directed toward the Pharisees. Why? It is precisely because these religious leaders “sit in Moses’ seat” (Matt. 23:2). As Jesus’ brother would later write, those who claim the teaching authority of the church “will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1).

In the big scheme of world politics, which matters more: an entire empire given over to sexual and cultural immorality as well as the worship of a whole pantheon of false gods—or one tiny gathering of Christians in a seaport town ignoring their own member’s misbehavior? The apostle Paul wrote that it was the latter.

In fact, he wrote that he was not telling people to disassociate from unbelievers—even the most fornicating, defrauding, idolatrous kind. “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside” (1 Cor. 5:12–13, ESV).

With all the persecutions facing the church, why didn’t Paul “just punch pagan”? It’s not because he takes the church less seriously than he did the world but because he took it more seriously. The church is, he was told by Jesus, the body of Christ himself.

When a generation is more enamored with Values Voters Summits than with Vacation Bible School, the arguments for the prophets who denounced the “enemy” and spoke reassurance to God’s people seem plausible.

To say to Israel, “Behold, the vessels of the Lord’s house will now shortly be brought back from Babylon” (Jer. 27:16, ESV) can sound like building up the unity of the people. After all, isn’t that how confidence is maintained—by focusing on the “good things” and telling us everything is about to get better? Jeremiah, though, said that was a lie. And when he did, they said he was betraying his own people—that he was siding with the Babylonians (vv. 16–22).

Hananiah would have seemed a more loyal “evangelical” than Jeremiah. He punched at Nebuchadnezzar and cheered up those on “our side.” And God said through Jeremiah, “Listen, Hananiah! The Lord has not sent you, yet you have persuaded this nation to trust in lies” (Jer. 28:15). In fact, Jeremiah said, Hananiah’s “unity” was “rebellion against the Lord” (v. 16).   

Even at an infinitely less serious level than that of politics, for those of us who actually care about conservatism, the equation of “conservatism” with authoritarian demagoguery or sexual predation is actually the greatest possible victory for the Left. It leaves the country without principled conservatism and lets an entire generation equate conservatism with white nationalism, anti-constitutional illiberalism, or base misogyny. It makes progressivism, in many people’s minds, the only perceived alternative to insanity or cruelty.

Maybe that doesn’t matter much—unless conservative principles are really true. Even more so, the theological and moral credibility from the inside of evangelical Christianity—of the church that claims to be (imperfectly) the “light of the world,” offering a word of “thus saith the Lord” in an age of deconstructed authority and a call to repentance and faith in an era of relativized morality—is of crucial importance. Evangelical Christianity can only offer to the world what it has not given up on itself.

Baal, Artemis, and Odin will always be better tribal mascots than Christ and him crucified. “Punch at the other side” is always better advice for hacks and pundits than “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” will ever be. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” will always sound more like bad news than good to a faction wanting to win. That’s all self-evidently the case—unless there’s really a heaven, really a hell, really a gospel, really a God.

The gospel does not come with a gag order. The moment we believe it has is the moment we’ve given up on the words, You must be born again.

What an Artificial Intelligence Christmas Message Reminded Me About the Gospel

Over the Christmas holidays, I was talking to a friend about artificial intelligence (AI) and some of the ethical and existential quandaries it will bring. In talking about the differences between the platforms and how far AI has yet to go, I put into Bard, Google’s AI program, a prompt: “Write a short Christmas reflection in the voice of Russell Moore.”

This is what it delivered up:

Remember the manger. That’s the crux of it. God doesn’t meet us in the sanitized spaces of our aspiration, He meets us in the raw, the real, the manure-scented reality of the grime and grit of our lives.

He doesn’t ask us to climb our way to heaven, but lifts us onto his shoulders, carrying us through the muck and mire of our own making. He doesn’t demand perfection, but embraces our brokenness, whispering, ‘It Is Finished.’

So, as the Christmas decorations come down, let’s not pack away the message with them. Let the quiet hum of the Incarnation linger, the light of the manger stoke. Let’s be bearers of that light, not just in December, but every damn day.”

I posted that part on Instagram and Threads, and a friend of mine told me, “You are the least likely person I know to say anything harder than ‘Gosh.’ Maybe Mitt Romney is more so, but that’s about it.” Another texted, “If you don’t write a daily devotional book called Every Damn Day, I don’t even know who you are anymore.”

I laughed about Bard for days after, but then I started thinking about the content of the message. I don’t think it sounds like me (okay—maybe “manure-scented reality” gets close). That wasn’t the uncanny part about it. It was all of the true themes and references embedded in there. This was nothing close to a full presentation of the gospel, but it made all sorts of references—to Incarnation, to grace, to biblical allusions such as Jacob’s ladder and the parable of the 99 sheep and the cry of Jesus from the cross.

All that was from an artificial program trying to imitate a Christian. That reminded me how easy it is to try to live as an AI program, knowing all the ways to say with orthodoxy, “The Word became flesh”—without actually beholding his glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.

Here, I’m not even talking about “fake Christianity” but about how the Scriptures warn us that we can easily sleepwalk our way through life, knowing all the words but not presenting ourselves as living sacrifices.

So much of the New Testament epistles can be summed up as Wake up! As Paul wrote, “‘Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.’ Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:14–16).

As we head into a new year, maybe some of us need to remember that.

Time is short. The days are evil—in some ways, you can even say the days are “damned.” We know that, after all, “the whole world is under the control of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). And yet, we also know that “now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2).

Even when we’re deadened to it, there’s horror and pain all around us—and inside us. Even when we’re deadened to it, “the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining” (1 John 2:8).

Every dang day.

How a Dead Atheist Prompted Me to Pray

Around the same time, I was re-reading Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy. Now, this Russell and that Russell could not be more opposite on everything of ultimate importance. He was a naturalistic materialist who wrote Why I Am Not a Christian. And yet his discussion of philosopher William James articulated a viewpoint that’s too easy for all of us, consciously or unconsciously, to adopt.

James is often thought to be the pioneer of American psychology, and his book The Varieties of Religious Experience is still widely read—and includes some important insights. Russell, though, identified what’s “off” in James’s discussion of religion.

“James’s doctrine is an attempt to build a superstructure of belief upon a foundation of skepticism, and like all such attempts it is dependent on fallacies,” Russell wrote. “In his case the fallacies spring from an attempt to ignore all extra-human facts. Berkeleian idealism combined with skepticism causes him to substitute belief in God for God, and to pretend that this will do just as well.”

What Russell sees here is precisely the problem we walked through at the beginning of this newsletter. Whether from turn-of-the-century modernist Christian liberals hoping through religion to “civilize” the world or from contemporary moral “conservatives” hoping through religion to restore “traditional family values,” the temptation is always there to substitute belief in God for God.

That can happen with any of us too, not at the cognitive level but in our prayerlessness, our refusal to ask that we may receive, to seek that we may find, from a personal God who sees us and knows us.

The question of whether Christianity is “useful” is a devil’s game. The real question is what it’s always been: Is it really true? (1 Cor 15:17–20).

The stories are true. Let’s remember that. Let’s live like it.

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 Glen Wilson, a social services caseworker in Cartersville, Georgia, who writes that this newsletter “has helped me stay grounded in a crazy world.”

Here’s his list:

  • The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller—a convicting book that turns attention to the older brother in Jesus’ parable.

  • The Way of the Cross by Roy Hession (adapted by J. W. McMillan)—big shout-out to your former student Zach Mabry for suggesting this short book back in the day, which has led me to look at the word revival in a new light.

  • Treasure Mountain (The Sackett Series) by Louis L’amour—the L’amour Western fiction series are about brothers and their families tackling the American frontier, the kind of the frontier spirit I will need to survive on a desert island.

  • Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott—if you like historical fiction, this classic of the genre will make you want to go back in time on a Robin Hood–esque adventure.

  • True Spirituality by Francis Schaeffer—I will need reminded by Schaeffer of the “infinite-personal” God even when I am away from all society.

  • The Travels of William Bartram by William Bartram—the journals of a naturalist exploring the wild southeastern United States in the 1770’s, which are interesting and at times awaken the imagination.  

  • Parenting by Paul David Tripp—I’m assuming my family will be with me on the desert island, Swiss Family Robinson style, and I will continue to need this book and its truths.

  • Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966–1996 by Seamus Heaney—I’m not an expert on poetry, but I found this book by the Irish poet at a thrift store, and its poems seem the perfect fit for life on an island.  

  • Every Moment Holy, Volume I by Douglas McKelvey—a book that has taught me to turn everyday moments into acts of worship that is also fun to read out loud.  

Thank you, Glen!

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

“In sin, we strive to be as independent as God, but since God is not independent in the way we imagine, our striving for godlikeness estranges us from him and from our calling to genuine godlikeness. Sin seeks to arrest our self-surpassing in more, and only later do we realize that the achievement of static, self-contained being is death.”

—Peter Leithart in his new book Creator: A Theological Interpretation of Genesis 1 (IVP Academic)

Currently Reading (or Re-Reading)

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Russell Moore

Russell Moore
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