Moore to the Point
Hello fellow wayfarers. How we can confuse theological precision for the renewal of the church … Why our kids need to get lost (and we do too) … What my son the airman reminded me about God and country … a Desert Island Playlist that’s more classical than usual … This is this week’s Moore to the Point.
Russell Moore
Don’t Confuse the Map for the Territory

Once when I was a youth pastor, a woman pleaded with me to let her rebellious son go to youth camp, despite the fact that he missed the deadline to sign up. “I just want him to get tired enough that he’s moved to walk down the aisle one time,” she said. “Then, I’ll know that no matter what he does after that, at least he’ll be in heaven.” I sighed at the cultural Christianity I’d come to know all too well—one that substituted a momentary repetition of words for the gospel. The problem was that I thought theology was the answer. Many of us did.

The folk-religion and “man-centeredness” of much of American revivalism was contrasted with a “big God” theology and a focus on fidelity to confessions of faith. This makes sense. A thoroughgoing pragmatism can lead quickly into a “whatever works” mindset. And a kind of anti-creedalism doesn’t lead to the absence of creeds but to the proliferation of unwritten and unspoken creeds.

At the same time, what many of us thought could solve the problem was the rootlessness and overemphasis on novelty in American evangelicalism. That could be addressed, we thought, by connecting to an older theological tradition. Again, I still think that’s right. A church that learns from John Calvin or John Wesley are tied to a deeper stream, since Calvin and Wesley are themselves connected to Augustine and Irenaeus, etc. And yet, that quest for novelty and for narrowing parameters turned out to be often just as present in theologically focused evangelicals—maybe even more so. It’s easy, after all, to skip straight from the Apostle John to John Calvin to Jonathan Edwards to the guy with the Jonathan Edwards portrait as his Twitter avatar.

And, many of us thought, a more theologically robust evangelicalism would keep us from fragmenting. After all, unlike those who think that doctrine divides, we knew that a people who share deep and abiding convictions would be united, come what may. That’s not exactly how it worked.

The divides in American evangelicalism—and in various denominations—did not end up splitting along the lines we all thought they would: Calvinist vs. Arminian or complementarian vs. egalitarianism or revivalist vs. “emerging church” or traditionalist vs. “seeker sensitive.” People my 2007 self might have dismissed as “pragmatists” have ended up showing some of the most grit and conviction of anyone in the past several years. And we saw some who were theologically precise do the opposite.

To imagine telling one’s younger self, ten years ago, who would now be friends and allies and who would no longer speak to one another might be jarring. To see some who emphasized the necessity of the sufficiency of Scripture now aligning with activist atheists to critique—theologically!—evangelicals in what we thought was the exact same tribe would not have been, as the cliché of the moment goes, on my 2007 bingo card. And a lot of what we thought was “Christian worldview” from some evangelicals turned out to be the same tribal loyalties and political rhetoric they would have employed even if Jesus were still dead.

Some of that has to do with what we’ve discussed here before—the idea of “revealed preference,” mentioned in a political context by writer David Frum. Over time, we start to realize that even people who held the same views held those views for different reasons. And often the differences were between what one saw as central and what one saw as peripheral.

There’s a huge difference between the complementarian who believes the Pauline epistles prescribe, in a very limited number of callings, some differentiation between men and women and the complementarian for whom gender is the grid through which almost every cultural happening is read. There’s a difference between the egalitarian who thinks 1 Timothy 2 is addressing a contextually local problem in Ephesus and that God gifts both men and women for pastoral leadership in the church and the egalitarian who thinks that “Father, Son, Holy Spirit” are patriarchal words that must go away.

One Calvinist might see unconditional election as an explanatory doctrine, meant to undergird what all Christians already believe—“He sought me and bought me with his redeeming blood.” Another might see predestination as a central theme of the Bible. A charismatic who believes that all of the gifts of the Spirit still operate for the building up of the church is radically different from one who believes that speaking in tongues or prophecy distinguishes “anointed” Christians from lifeless ones.

Sometimes theology has led us to just another kind of pragmatism—“seeker sensitivity” in which the “seekers” are defined as angry Christians looking for a fight for the sake of fighting. Some forms of revivalism have confused a heightened emotional experience for conversion. And that has led to some Christians holding on to that felt experience for assurance, others despairing that their felt experience wasn’t dramatic enough, and still other Christians faking the emotion, hoping that if they emote long enough they’ll find the real thing.

That can happen with the emotions, but also with the mind. A confession of faith can become a revival testimony for cold people who can’t cry at an altar or speak in tongues.

Theology matters. Obviously, I still believe that, or I wouldn’t give my life to connecting Christian theology to culture. But if we’ve seen anything in the evangelical meltdown of the past five years, it’s that theology is not enough. And, left on its own, theology can become just as much of a prop for a cultural, politicized Christianity as anything else.

We cannot, as one commentator put it about a very different matter, confuse the map for the territory, just as we cannot confuse our weather app for what’s actually happening outside. Theology is a word about God—pointing us always back to the Word who became flesh and dwelled among us. There’s a kind of theology that can illuminate for us how to worship God better, how to better be on mission in the world. And there’s also a kind of theology that becomes defined by winning debates in whatever current controversy is trying to separate the Christian wheat from the Christian tares.

A theology as defined by the Bible will see itself as the map, not the territory. That sort of theology refuses to yield to the idea that faith is amorphous and without content. God has spoken, and spoken in words. But it also will acknowledge that God has given us both clarity and mystery and speaks to us as whole persons—minds, hearts, consciences, intuitions. The God of the Bible cannot be reduced to a syllogism. When it is, we can easily replace a confession of faith for faith itself, ideology for the gospel, a theological tribe for the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, or, worst of all, Christology for Christ Jesus.

When Jesus said that he was going away, he told his disciples, “And you know the way to where I am going. Thomas said, exactly what I would have said, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” What he wanted was an abstraction, a map. Jesus said, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father but through me” (Jn. 14:1-6). We need truth and life if we are to follow the Way. That’s because the voice we’ve heard hasn’t told us, “Here, memorize this.” He told us, “Come, follow me.”

Theology is necessary, but theology is not enough. Let’s not confuse the map for the territory.

Life Is Not a Highway

In thinking about this distinction between map and territory, I keep coming back to a book that defines navigation as a key to what it means to be human. M. R. O’Connor, in the book Wayfinding: The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the World, argues that one gaping problem for modern children and adolescents is what’s on every smartphone in the world—a global positioning service (GPS).

This technological shift matters, O’Connor contends: Human beings—across time and cultures—have learned through getting lost and figuring out how to find one’s way. I had that experience as a child, out in an unfamiliar part of the woods or the swamps in my coastal Mississippi homeland. Some of you had the experience finding your way through a bustling cityscape. Digital natives, though, never have to be lost. They can always identify where they are, by satellite, and have step-by-step directions during which they can listen to music or talk to friends or record TikTok videos.

This experience of finding one’s way, O’Connor argues, triggers something unique in the human mind. We have no homing mechanisms, as some animals do. Instead, navigation for us fosters a kind of knowing, a sense of attachment to places. “For us, navigation is not pure intuition, but process,” O’Connor concludes. This means that it’s through marking out familiar places and by finding our way through unfamiliar places that our minds learn how to orient us. That’s about more than geography. We learn “record the past, attend to the present, and imagine the future—a goal or place that we would like to reach.” Through this, we learn how to organize the narrative of our lives and of our cultures.

When I read this, I immediately thought of y’all. Every week, echoing Walker Percy’s contention that “wayfaring” is central to humanity, I address you as “fellow wayfarers,” and that’s what I believe we are.  The Bible often pictures the Christian life as a pilgrimage—as a “walk,” as “following,” as “a way.” That requires familiarity with the geography of the past. That’s why the Old Testament is filled with so many memorial stones, reminding the people of what God once did there. And it also requires mystery, the sense of walking by faith and not by sight. The pillar of fire, leading Israel out of the wilderness, only gave enough light for the next steps of the journey.

The way of Christ requires familiarity—“My sheep know my voice, and they follow me” (John 10), Jesus tells us. “Remember how God brought your fathers out of Egypt,” the Bible repeatedly echoes. And yet, the way of Christ also requires mystery. Abraham obeyed God by leaving his homeland, “not knowing where he was going” (Heb. 11:8). And so do we. If we expect to know the future exhaustively in order to follow Christ, we will never step out to where he is, from which it is sometimes a very scary place to look down (Matt. 14:22–33).

In Christ, we have a lamp for our feet, a light for our path, but we don’t have a GPS.

Of Orphanages and Air Forces

This past week my family and I were in San Antonio, at Lackland Air Force Base, to watch our son Ben graduate from basic training. Watching him marching out there onto the field, singing “Wild Blue Yonder” and swearing his oath to preserve and defend the Constitution of the United States of America, has to be the proudest moment of my life.

And all I could think of was the first time I ever saw that little face—in a Russian orphanage, standing as though at attention when we walked through the door. Now he’s serving his country, against all enemies foreign and domestic, and that country is the United States of America.

Sometimes those of us who oppose Christian nationalism are thought to be warning the church against patriotism. That is as wrong as suggesting that opposing fertility goddess worship means that one is against pregnancy.

In my column at Christianity Today this month, I wrote about what how sending my son off to the US military reminded me of some important truths about how to love my country. You can read it here, if you are a subscriber (and if you’re not, what are you waiting for? Do that here. If you can’t afford a subscription and want one, let me know, and I’ll see what I can do).

Looking over this issue, I’m realizing that this whole newsletter is just variations on a theme: Off we go into the wild blue yonder, in more ways than one.

Desert Island Playlist

This week’s submission comes from reader James C. Pakala at Covenant Theological Seminary. He writes that, if he were to choose one group of songs for life on a desert island, here would be his picks:

Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus

Bach’s the “Kyrie,” “Crucifixus,” and “Resurrexit” from Mass in B Minor

Mendelssohn’s “Cast Thy Burden upon the Lord” and also his “For He Shall Give His Angels Charge over Thee” both from the oratorio Elijah

“How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place” from the Brahms Requiem

Any number of chorales from Handel’s Messiah, but I’m not sure they would count.

Thanks, James!

Readers, what do you think? Send me your Desert Island Playlist (of songs) or your Desert Island Bookshelf (of books). If a playlist, as Rebecca did, choose between five and fifteen songs, excluding hymns or worship songs (we’ll do those later)

If a bookshelf, ask yourself if you could have one bookshelf with you to last you the rest of your life, what volumes would you choose? Send a picture to me with as much or as little explanation of your choices as you would like.

Send either or both to

Quote of the moment

“The minute somebody joins a committee, they immediately suffer from committee brain. They become wildly over-enthusiastic, over-optimistic, over-pessimistic. Committees turn people into idiots, and politics is a committee.”

—P. J. O’Rourke, who died last week. RIP.

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Russell Moore

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