Moore to the Point
Hello, fellow wayfarers. Why our quest to end division might lead us to more of it … What forgiveness means in a shame culture … How imposter syndrome works … And a Desert Island Playlist … This is this week’s Moore to the Point.
Russell Moore
Fragmentation Is Not What’s Killing Us

I’m quite sure that I’ve never interacted with one article for two weeks in a row here, but few issues are as important as those raised by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his Atlantic essay on the Tower of Babel and the fragmentation of American life.

The essay uniquely summarizes the fractures facing virtually every church, denomination, business, think tank, neighborhood association, and family I know. And in almost all those settings, someone will inevitably ask, “How did we become so divided?” followed by “How do we get back to unity?”

Those are important questions, but there are good and bad ways to answer them.

As I mentioned in my conversation with Haidt on the podcast this week, I agree with him largely on where he identifies the problem and with many of his proposed solutions. At the same time, we should pay careful attention to how we interpret the text that holds together his thesis: the Tower of Babel account in Genesis.

The analogy works, even for people who (like Haidt himself) aren’t believers. Technological hubris leads to an inability to communicate—which leads to a society breaking apart into little pieces. That does indeed sound like now. But the lessons we learn will be wrong if we don’t see the primary point of the Babel story:

The problem wasn’t the fragmentation. The problem was the unity.

As I noted here last week, Haidt is right in saying that American culture is facing a loss of social capital, of a shared story, of healthy institutions. This has grave implications for the future of democracy and—more importantly in my view—of the church itself. We can feel as adrift and fractured as those whose languages at Babel were confused.

Yet the fragmentation at Babel was from God.

Genesis tells us that the builders of Babel, seeking to make a name for themselves and to keep from being scattered, constructed a building that could reach to the heavens. Most biblical scholars see this as a kind of ziggurat, a staircase leading to communion with the divine. Because the people’s unity meant that “nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them,” God confused their language so they could not understand one another (Gen. 11:6–7).

That’s a crisis—a painful one—but it was necessary if God was to save the world. What could bring more unity than a metaphysical infrastructure project carried out by people who shared bonds of natural and national affection?

But this unity was in the wrong thing—and was a unity that would lead them to death. In the same way that God exiled Adam and Eve from the Tree of Life so that they would not eat of it and continue in their state of spiritual death forever, God here tore apart the unity of the people … in order to form a unified people.

After all, the scattering of the Babel builders was a prelude to what immediately followed: the call of Abram out of Ur. Oddly enough, God promised Abram exactly what the text said the builders wanted: a great name, a unified family, and a future of blessing. It is through Abraham, the Bible says, that all the nations will be unified and blessed.

But if unity alone were the goal, God could have left them alone. Instead, the pattern was one of order, followed by disorder, followed by a reordering.

In the New Testament, the great undoing of Babel is seen at Pentecost, where people from all over the world were gathered and, when the Spirit was poured out, started to hear the message in their own languages.

Yet this was not a Babel-like unity. This was something quite different. This was God coming down, not humanity building up.

One easy way to gain unity—if that’s the only goal—is simply to find whatever is disrupting such unity and stop talking about it. Ironically, that’s the very dynamic that Haidt (rightly) identifies as the problem. Most people are, as Haidt demonstrates, more or less “normal” and mostly exhausted by the sort of troll culture we see on the extremes. That’s true in the church as much as anywhere else.

A small minority of people are able to set the agenda in countless congregations or denominations—as well as within political parties or universities or almost any other institution—by wielding “darts” so ruthlessly that the exhaustion causes the “regular people” to stop discussing certain matters just to keep arguments from breaking out. Sometimes that’s exactly what should happen.

Jesus refused to get caught up in many of the controversies swirling around first-century Galilee and Jerusalem. Paul warned us not to get diverted with “foolish and stupid arguments” (2 Tim. 2:23) and to avoid “foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels” (Titus 3:9).

At the same time, the Bible consistently cautions against the very thing many of us define as unity: the sort of risk aversion that calculates what will upset those who are currently most powerful and tries to censor oneself so as not to “set them off.” After a while, the distinction between seeking unity and evading risk is lost. That seems to relieve tension for the moment, but it doesn’t create unity.

The extremes are specific, while the “normal” people get more and more generic. The extreme minority identifies with tension, while the exhausted majority tries to bypass it. That means the extremes win—not because they are right but because they understand human nature.

Jesus could have told us, “Be kind to strangers,” but instead he gave us the tension of the parable of the Good Samaritan. He could have just said, “God forgives sin,” but he told us the very tension-filled tale of a prodigal son who went to a far country and came home.

We need a shared story, but a story without tension is no story at all. Our story is of a God who brought us out of the land and slavery of Egypt (Ex. 20:2), of a God who “raised Jesus from the dead” (Rom. 8:11, emphasis mine). Our story is so repugnant that the apostle Paul had to keep reiterating that he was not ashamed of it (Rom. 1:16).

Pentecost brought about unity, but it was a unity that kept ratcheting up the tension. That day, Simon Peter preached that the Spirit had been poured out on all flesh. But he soon faced a crisis when Jesus appeared and told him that the Gentiles were joint heirs and that he shouldn’t call unclean what God had pronounced to be clean (Acts 10–11). As the Spirit moved outward—from Jerusalem to Samaria to the ends of the earth—each stage created a new crisis: What should we do with these controversial outsiders who have received the same Spirit as we (Acts 10:44–48)?

Even that would lead to a series of other crises. When he avoided eating with the Gentiles in Galatia, Peter had to face a confrontation from Paul (Gal. 2:11–14). No doubt, Peter’s motive was, in his own mind, “unity.” If Peter had stuck with the custom of separate tables for the in-group and the out-group, there would have been no tension. The people with a (literal) place at the table would never have raised a question, and those harmed wouldn’t have been heard from at all.

Yet Paul recognized that this was not in step with the gospel and withstood Peter to his face. That was fragmentation. Two pillars of the church at odds with each other! But it was the reverberation from Pentecost. God was keeping his promise that “the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles” too (Gal. 3:14).

Fragmentation is indeed an awful problem. I grapple with the pain of it every day as I think of name after name of those I love who will no longer speak to me, after the earthquake that has been the past five or six years in this country and in whatever the evangelical movement is or was.

The gospel confronts fragmentation. God gathers up all things in Christ—things in heaven and things on earth (Eph. 1:10). But how does he do that? Through the very thing that scattered the unity of the first disciples: the Cross.

Fragmentation is a crisis. God has called us to unity. But the way we get there is not by finding a better technology to start rebuilding the tower the way we did in the first place. Sometimes God fragments what we were doing because it was killing us.

For the kind of unity we need, we must be unified in doing what’s right and pleasing in the sight of God. Sometimes that means a future that looks nothing like the one we planned—seeking unity with people we never thought about.

Finding our way back to Babel won’t get us there.

Forgiveness in a Shame Culture

This week I’ve been out in the Pacific Northwest with our Christianity Today board of directors. One of them showed me Alan Jacobs’s post about an essay by Ezra Klein of The New York Times. It reflected on the problems—on both the Left and the Right—of a kind of shame culture that seeks to resolve every question with anything from social media swarms to actual physical violence.

Whatever one thinks of Klein’s broader analysis, I found this intriguing. Klein wrote that the answer to this sort of societal viciousness might be found in Christianity.

“As an outsider to Christianity, what I’ve always found most beautiful about it is how strange it is,” he wrote. “Here is a worldview built on a foundation of universal sin and insufficiency, an equality that bleeds out of the recognition that we are all broken, rather than that we must all be great. I’ve always envied the practice of confession, not least for its recognition that there will always be more to confess, and so there must always be more opportunities to be forgiven.”

Klein understands what too few people—whether outside or inside Christianity—do: that a Christian view of grace and forgiveness is indeed strange.

There’s nothing strange about an honor culture in which people try to ward off any possibility of insult through an intimidating show of potential retaliation. And there’s nothing strange about a licentiousness that offers forgiveness without accountability. That’s self-consumed too: “I won’t hold you accountable, so you won’t hold me accountable. I overlook your sins and injustices so you will overlook mine.”

But neither of these is a Christian vision of forgiveness. Forgiveness is rooted not in the absence of judgment but in the presence of it.

Jesus’ command to “judge not” did not stem from a “who’s to say what’s wrong or right?” view. He meant that we aren’t to judge precisely because God does—and because we too will stand before the judgment seat of Christ.

If that leads us to think we now have a free pass to sin, we don’t understand the gospel, as Paul points out in the opening chapters of Romans. If we think it means that we can get to the point where we no longer need forgiveness, 1 John 1 tells us that we don’t understand the gospel.

And if we think that forgiveness means a lack of accountability, meaning those with power of whatever sort can keep using it to hurt vulnerable people, Jesus, the apostles, and the prophets all tell us we don’t understand the gospel. To view it this way is to turn the best news in the world into just another Darwinian strategy for domination. In fact, the problem with the Corinthian church was that they were tempted to be too judgmental with the sins of the outside world and not judgmental enough with their own sins (1 Cor. 5:12–13).

When rooted in the Cross, in the God who is “both just and the one who justifies” (Rom. 3:26), forgiveness is indeed strange.

This sort of forgiveness doesn’t deny judgment but goes through it to the other side. This sort of forgiveness doesn’t negate accountability but amplifies it.

Much of what goes by the word grace is either harsh and legalistic or enabling and apathetic. A truly Christian view of grace is neither. That’s the kind of grace that is (still) amazing.

Imposter Syndrome and the Man on the Moon

Several issues back, I briefly mentioned something about imposter syndrome—about why it’s so hard for a person to see his or her own gifts, especially in comparison to others. Several of y’all wrote in and said something along the lines of “Wait! You have imposter syndrome too?” Of course. Everybody I know does to varying degrees.

As a matter of fact, anyone I’ve ever known who never had at least some imposter syndrome turned out to be … well … an imposter. Everyone grapples with this.

I think often about an anecdote from the legendary author Neil Gaiman (American Gods, Neverwhere, The Sandman, etc.). He talked about being at a gathering of successful people from many walks of life and feeling as though he didn’t belong there.

He stood at the back of the hall and started chatting with an elderly man who happened to have the same first name. The old man pointed to all the talented guests and said, “I just look at all these people and think, What the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.

Gaiman responded, “Yes. But you were the first man on the moon. I think that counts for something.”

Gaiman concluded, “And I felt a bit better. Because if Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did. Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for.”

Desert Island Playlist

This week’s submission comes from reader Keith Regehr, a Mennonite reader in Canada.

Keith writes:
“At the start of the pandemic I knew that I needed a playlist to get me through. Over a hundred songs later, I had a list that I have listened to dozens of times in the last two years. It has sustained me. These twelve songs are a subset.” (His playlist is on Spotify here.)

  • Mary Gauthier, “Mercy Now”: This song breaks my heart almost every time I listen to it. Because, as she sings, “every single one of us could use a little mercy now.”

  • Bruce Springsteen, “Land of Hope and Dreams”: It is a train song, and no playlist is complete without a train song. A lovely reminder of the ways that we carry each other on the journey.

  • The Avett Brothers, “The Once and Future Carpenter”: A reminder to actually live our lives. “And when the black cloak drags upon the ground / I’ll be ready to surrender, and remember / Well, we’re all in this together / If I live the life I’m given, I won’t be scared to die.”

  • Bob Dylan, “Lay Down Your Weary Tune,” cover by Billy Bragg: This captures the heart of my spirituality: lay down “my” weary tune and rest under the song of Another.

  • Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, “Teach Your Children”: A necessary reminder of my work as a parent but also, as my kids are now adults, that I need to learn from them.

  • Leonard Cohen, “Come Healing”: When I took my wife to hear Cohen on his last tour, she turned to me in the middle of this song and said, “We’re in church, aren’t we?” What else needs to be said?

  • Martyn Joseph, “Clara”: A true story about the life of the spiritual writer Morton Kelsey. A reminder that the painful past is not necessarily as we believe it to have been.

  • Runrig, “Hearts of Olden Glory”: Runrig was, until their recent retirement, one of the most popular groups in Scotland. I played this song at my father’s funeral. “There must be a place / Under the sun / Where hearts of olden glory … will be renewed.”

  • U2, “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own”: This is simply true.

  • Jackson Browne, “Alive in the World”: As someone who tends to live in my head, this has become something of an anthem for my life: I really do want to be alive in the world.

  • Bruce Cockburn, “In the Falling Dark”: “Such a waste don’t you know that / From the first to the last we’re all one in the gift of grace.”

  • Carrie Newcomer, “Betty’s Diner”: On the common grace that comes to us in surprising places. “Let her fill your cup with something kind / Eggs and toast like bread and wine.”

Thanks, Keith!

Readers, what do y’all think? If you were stranded on a desert island and could have only one playlist or one bookshelf with you for the rest of your life, 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 to, and include as much or as little explanation of your choices as you would like.

Quote of the moment

For nothing is so deadening to the divine as an habitual dealing with the outsides of holy things.

—George MacDonald, in Thomas Wingfold, Curate

Currently Reading

Tremper Longman III, Revelation Through Old Testament Eyes (Kregel)

Steve Paulson, Atoms and Eden: Conversations on Religion and Science (Oxford University Press)

Terry Teachout, The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken (HarperCollins)

Gal Beckerman, The Quiet Before: On the Unexpected Origins of Radical Ideas (Crown)

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Russell Moore

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