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Hello, fellow wayfarers … What I’ve learned in 30 years of marriage about what I did wrong at our wedding … Why David French doesn’t need a panel but all of us need institutions that can face down mobs … How to read the data about where American religion is headed … Where I’ll be next week … The hills are alive with a Desert Island Bookshelf from Austria … All that and George Jones too … This is this week’s Moore to the Point.

Russell Moore

What I Would Change After 30 Years of Marriage

On Monday of next week, my wife, Maria, and I celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. As I think about those two kids standing at the altar, I would want to say “I do” all over again to everything. One of the very few exceptions would be one decision that had to do with the wedding, not with the marriage. After 30 years, I’ve changed my mind about the biblical text I wouldn’t let us read.

Somebody suggested that we read at the ceremony a passage from the Old Testament book of Ruth, one that we heard read or sung at almost every wedding at the time. In the King James Version (which was what people almost always used), the text reads, “Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God” (1:16). It’s about the young widow Ruth from Moab, pledging to her dead husband’s mother, Naomi, that she would go with her to Naomi’s homeland of Israel.

I believed then, and still do, that all Scripture is inspired and “profitable” (2 Tim. 3:16, ESV throughout), but I didn’t think that particular Scripture was appropriate for a wedding.

“It’s not about marriage,” I said. “It’s about someone taking a trip with her mother-in-law.” I wanted something about the mystery of Christ in Ephesians 5 or about love from Song of Songs or about Jesus at the wedding at Cana. I could even have lived, I said, with 1 Corinthians 13. Of all of the things about the wedding ceremony, I only insisted on two—that we use the traditional vows and that we read some other text than that one. You could say that I was ruthless in my Ruthlessness.

If I can give some unwanted advice to my 22-year-old self, the groom, I would say to him, “You are right about the bride, and right to ask her to marry you. This will be the best earthly decision you will make in the course of your life, but you are wrong about Ruth. That text has everything to do with your next 30 years.”

Thirty years ago, I knew how to preach about the cosmic mystery of Christ and his church, a mystery reflected in marriage. I knew that I loved this woman, and I didn’t want to be with anybody else. And I knew enough to know that the old vows were better, that we needed the words our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents had vowed. How could we describe our commitment better than “for better or for worse … till death us do part”?

I know some people who have had hard marriages. Some marriages I admire greatly have been, I know, a fierce struggle to keep together. Ours is not one of those. We’ve faced far more “better” than “worse,” and even when the worse has arrived, it was always better because of her. That’s mostly because I’m the quirky one and she’s the stable, unshakable one.

In the biblical account, Naomi, grieving the death of her sons, insists that both of her daughters-in-law stay behind in Moab, where they can start their lives over again. Ruth, though, was committing, before God, to walk into a future completely unknown to her. And so were we.

If you had asked those two kids back at the altar in Biloxi, Mississippi—one of us 22 years old, the other 20—what our life story would be, we couldn’t have predicted how much we would laugh together. I’m not sure we could have predicted how—30 years later—we would still want to be around each other all the time.

We wouldn’t have known what it would be like to hold each other after getting the phone call about a father’s death, or what it would be like to feel the other trembling in tears after a miscarriage. We wouldn’t have known what it would be like to trek out together to a Russian orphanage to adopt two little boys, nor what it would be like to see in a hospital room our other three boys who came to us the more typical way.

I wouldn’t have known that the only ultimatum I would ever hear from my wife was about whether we’d ever attend another Southern Baptist business meeting. I couldn’t have foreseen how much the words Donald Trump would shape the circumstances of our lives, or that that year would outlast the seven years of tribulation our Sunday School prophecy charts had promised.

What I really would not have predicted, though, is how—just like the story of Ruth—so much of our story would be made up not in those “big” moments but in the very small, ordinary ones: the fleeting encounter in the gleaning field, the midnight meeting in the threshing place, the birth of a baby.

Naomi said at the beginning that she should rename herself “bitter” (1:20), but the text shows us the turnaround of her now rejoicing with Ruth’s newborn on her lap. The women of the neighborhood said of this old widow, who once thought her story was over, “A son has been born to Naomi” (4:17). Many things that seemed to be coincidences—just the right thing happening at the right time—led up to that.

Last night, Maria and I walked with our youngest son down to the creek by our house, where our son climbed some trees as we walked the dog. The cicadas were buzzing and the fireflies were flashing all around. I stopped and wanted to freeze that moment in time. It was almost as if a future version of myself was time traveling back to whisper, This is the best. This is the sort of thing you will remember on your deathbed. Those are the moments that shape a life, that surprise us with joy.

I didn’t want Ruth at the wedding because I thought I knew how words worked. I was, after all, a preacher and a former political speechwriter, and an aspiring theologian. I wanted our wedding to be focused on the big story of Christ and his gospel—and an out-of-context Bible verse about some women who’d lost their husbands just wouldn’t do. My problem was that I couldn’t see that that little narrative is about the big story of Christ and his gospel. The conversation led to the trip, and the trip led to love, and the love led to a birth for a family from Bethlehem. The story ends with the mention of that baby, Obed, but not as a mere “happily ever after” resolution of the storyline.

The book ends with the words, “Obed fathered Jesse, and Jesse fathered David” (4:22). The setting is cast for what would happen from Bethlehem in the books to follow, 1 and 2 Samuel, of the shepherd-musician who would be promised that one of his sons would sit on his throne: “He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Sam. 7:13).

Naomi didn’t know that her promise to one old woman would end up leading to Israel’s king—nor that Israel’s king would lead to the deliverance of that family line from existential threat, all the way through to another story, that of a worker and a virgin, a story that would end up, again, with a baby in Bethlehem, one in whom the entire cosmos holds together, one whose kingdom will never end.

Your little story, and mine, aren’t quite so messianic in their stakes. But, then again, maybe they are, in some way. The Bible says that everything working around us ends up for good, and then defines what that good is—that we would be “conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Rom. 8:29). All of that comes about in each of our lives through lots of little decisions that ripple out in ways we can’t see. Every once in a while, though, we can look back and see some words—like I do—that were the right words to the right person—words that we can only explain by grace.

Jesus is Lord. All of the story of Scripture—all of the story of the universe, visible and invisible—is his story. He holds the keys of life and death. And sometimes he stops by a wedding (John 2:1–2). Sometimes, in a wedding or, better yet, in a marriage, one can get a glimpse of his glory (2:11).

Thirty years ago, we said to each other that we would love, comfort, honor, and keep each other, in sickness and in health, forsaking all others, as long as we both shall live. I would say those words again. But I might add some other words too—“Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you” (Ruth 1:17).

At either my funeral or Maria’s, people can read any number of Bible passages; I love them all. But, if you’re there, know there’s one of them that I am happy for you to read or to sing or just to remember, because I will mean it then as I do now: “Whither thou goest, I will go.”

Pardon My French

As I said last week on The Bulletin, I have no standing—nor do I want it—to decide who the Presbyterian Church in America—or any other denomination—should invite to its panels. I am a Baptist who belongs to a nondenominational church. Moreover, the last thing David French wants or needs is another panel discussion to have to do. I do, however, have a stake in the fact that institution after institution is falling into the same sort of destructive dynamic, a dynamic that is hardly specific to any one organization.

Here’s how it works: A mob of angry people who demand conformity to their cultural or political vision come after someone in an institution. The “normies” who actually care about the institution and have a sense of responsibility get scared. By nature, the normies value unity and peace and stability—and they think the radicals do too, underneath it all.

The mob yells, “That person is bad!” and invariably say things like, “It’s not what he said but how he said it!” The normies say privately how destructive and anarchic the mob is, but believe the way to settle everything down is just to pretend to “hear” them—usually by distancing themselves from whoever is deemed to be “controversial.”

In the fullness of time, though, the line of the “controversial” grows, not just to include whoever isn’t onboard with the radicals but to the radicals themselves, whenever they get to the point where something they’re expected to say or believe gets too far out there for them.

Who gets sacrificed in this? Well, the institution itself. The radicals now know that the normies are scared of them and are willing to backtrack whenever a mob forms. That now becomes the new and expected way of doing business.

And so you see the pattern at work in an argument about, say, whether religious liberty is wrong or whether the Constitution doesn’t work anymore or whether human slavery was all that bad or whether documented sexual abuse cover-up after cover-up constitutes a crisis. All of that is just good-natured dialogue among brethren of good will. What’s over the line and to be scapegoated? The person who told you there was a problem—a person to be erased from the pictures with all the photo-editing skills of Joseph Stalin.

Those with an unhealthy love for controversy count on the fact that those desiring institutional health and unity will ultimately turn on whoever they’ve targeted—and blame that person for being “so controversial.”

In David’s case, you have someone who has a massive audience—he’s a New York Times columnist—so it doesn’t affect him the way that it does many, many others I have seen. I have witnessed people’s lives destroyed, falsely labeled as “cultural Marxists” or “feminists” or “critical race theorists” or “liberals” just for still believing what they’ve always believed about really basic matters of right and wrong.

Again, that’s not limited to any one church or denomination or institution. It’s happening in countless numbers of them, and will happen in countless more. Once these institutions are gone, there is no bringing them back. That’s everybody’s business.

What Is the Future of the Church?

When it comes to predictions about secularization, demographics, and the future of American Christianity, I find some people to be in unthinking denial and some to be in irrational despair.

Some assume that secularization is a straight line, and that religion is doomed. Depending on where those people are on the cultural or political or religious spectrum, they either then conclude that they need not worry with religious people, since the poor “throwbacks” will evolve out of existence into Norwegians, or that religious people should see persecution and threats everywhere and fight our way to the end. Neither of those are a biblical perspective, nor are either of them backed up by the empirical data we can see around us.

That’s why I wanted to talk on the podcast to a demographer/scholar whose work I trust: Ryan Burge, author, professor, and writer at the Graphs about Religion Substack. I wanted to know, for instance, why some studies seem to show that Gen Z women are more likely to leave the church right now than Gen Z men. I have never seen the phenomenon work that way historically, maybe all the way back to the garden tomb. I also wanted to ask what we should see about where things are going, about how the church of, say, 2054 will be different and will be the same.

You can listen to the conversation here.

Don’t Look for Me Next Week

We’ll be away, celebrating our anniversary next week—and then stopping by to see our United States Air Force son out West. I won’t have a newsletter unless something really, really, really big happens and I can’t help myself. Otherwise, I’ll be back in your inbox in June.

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 Andrew Zimmerman, a pastor with the Bruderhof in Retz, Austria. Pastor Zimmerman writes that we met five or six years ago at a Q conference (the Christian gathering, not the Q-Anon conspiracy theory) and that the newsletter each week “gives me fodder for conversation and occasionally the germ of a sermon.”

Here’s his list, noting that Watership Down and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek just missed making the cut:

  • The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien: Let’s count this as one book, and I don’t think any further explanation is needed.

  • A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean: Spirituality and fishing (not sure which one might be more helpful on the island!).

  • Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Wise and practical, written from hard personal experience.

  • Robert Frost: Any reasonable collection of his poetry will do; I love how he balances the lyrical with the hardscrabble.

  • Lights a Lovely Mile by Eugene Peterson: It’s new, so this may be recency bias, but I can see it being an all-timer.

  • Silence by Shūsaku Endō: Not a fun read but an important one, on faith and persecution and the meaning of Christ’s suffering sacrifice.

  • Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt: Poverty has never read so smoothly, which is a tribute to this wordsmith.

  • Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey: Probably the least “Christian” book on this list, yet the one that speaks most clearly about caring for God’s creation.

  • Inner Land by Eberhard Arnold: Can I cheat again? This is Arnold’s magnum opus recently republished in five slim volumes, but it’s really one book on faith, fire, conscience, community, and how they all connect.

  • Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset: A thousand-plus pages of love, lust, loyalty, loss, betrayal, and forgiveness, it rivals the Russian masters.

  • The New Testament in Its World by N. T. Wright: A supposed “summary” of Wright’s work on the history, theology, and interpretation of the NT, it’s enough for several years of study in its own right.

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

“When our hair is snowy white
Time will prove I’m right;
I put a golden band on the right left hand this time.”

—George Jones, “The Right Left Hand”
Clarence Jordan)

Currently Reading (or Re-Reading)

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Russell Moore

Russell Moore
Editor in Chief

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