Moore to the Point
Hello, fellow wayfarers. What it means that a survey suggests many Christians are accidental heretics … Why Rich Mullins still matters, 25 years after his death … How I rank Mullins’s songs … And a Desert Island Playlist from a Mississippian … This is this week’s Moore to the Point.
Russell Moore
TheRise of the Evangelical Heretic

As my colleague Stefani McDade reported earlier this week, Lifeway Research released a survey conducted for Ligonier Ministries. It concludes that a shockingly high percentage of American evangelicals hold beliefs about Jesus and salvation that every wing of the Christian church would define as heresy.

If these results are accurate, what does that mean for where American evangelical Christianity is headed?

To recap, the survey showed that evangelical respondents expressed a confusing and sometimes incoherent mix of beliefs. Most affirmed the Trinity, but 73 percent at least partially agreed with the statement that “Jesus was the first and greatest being created by God the Father,” which is, of course, the teaching of the heretic Arius.

I’m generally a little skeptical of these sorts of surveys, since they often seem to filter out those who believe but can’t articulate their beliefs in abstract terms. I’m not sure that any of my childhood Sunday school teachers would have agreed with a survey statement that “justification is by faith alone,” even though they all believed that. That said, Lifeway seems to have accounted for and filtered through many of those research problems.

I suspect most of us, though, are not surprised by the results. Today’s American evangelical Christianity seems to be more focused on hunting heretics internally than perhaps in any other generation. The difference, however, is that excommunications are happening not over theological views but over partisan politics or the latest social media debates.

I’ve always found it a bit disconcerting to see fellow evangelicals embrace Christian leaders who teach heretical views of the Trinity or embrace the prosperity gospel but seek exile for those who don’t vote the same way or fail to feign outrage over clickbait controversies.

But something more seems to be going on here—something involving an overall stealth secularization of conservative evangelicalism. What worries me isn’t so much that evangelical Christians can’t articulate Christian orthodoxy in a survey. It’s that, to many of them, Christian orthodoxy seems boring and irrelevant compared to claiming religious status for already-existing political, cultural, or ethnonational tribes.

Several years ago, a combative atheist wrote that his fellow atheists should drop the word atheism because it gave too much weight to theism. The ultimate goal, he argued, was not to spread atheism but to emphasize that belief in God is so lacking in credibility that it doesn’t deserves to be seriously entertained. His arguments included no little sarcasm about the perceived stupidity of Christianity, along with strategies to move people away from their supernatural “myths” toward what he saw as realism—a world without God.

That same atheist spoke at a recent pastors’ conference. He has appeared in videos by evangelical groups to accuse other evangelicals of being “woke” and—in an unacknowledged, dizzying irony—of denying the sufficiency of Scripture. In his view, the dividing line between the “sheep” and the “goats” is the “correct” view on political causes, not belief in Christ or fidelity to the gospel.

I suppose the atheist’s strategy works in the long run. There’s no need to talk people out of believing in God or in preaching Christ and him crucified when the focus has shifted to politics. In that sense, theism—and Christianity itself—indeed cannot be taken seriously enough to oppose.

Interestingly enough, the Lifeway survey shows no such lack of orthodoxy when it comes to ethical questions about human life or sexuality. Is that because churches do a good job of catechizing people in a “biblical worldview” in those areas? Maybe. Or maybe these issues are at the forefront because they’re often discussed in a political or cultural context rather than a strictly theological one.

Some who (rightly) see troubling trends in surveys like these would argue that we need more theology books and conferences, along with more small groups, on systematic theology in our churches. I wonder, though, if the problem is bigger than that. Maybe rather than an information problem, we have an affections problem. Maybe before we have a theology problem, we have a priorities problem.

The missing piece right now is not so much the ability to articulate doctrines but a more fundamental literacy of Scripture. My fellow systematic theologians often chafe at “we need to get back to the Bible” talk, pointing instead to an ignorance of the Christian creedal tradition and of church history.

We saw that kind of imbalance in evangelical scholarship a few years ago, when interpreting the Bible without reflecting on the Council of Nicaea led some theologians to reject basic Christian doctrines such as the eternal generation of Christ.

That concern is fair, but it doesn’t go far enough.

New Testament scholar David Nienhuis makes the point that we have a generation of “Bible quoters, not Bible readers.” Sometimes even the most theologically inclined people know how to use the Bible in debate both inside and outside the church over controversies on gender, predestination, and so forth. But they don’t know the difference between Melchizedek and Mordecai, between Josiah and Jehoshaphat. They see the actual storyline of Scripture as a “minor” detail.

The Bible does far more than answer questions posed to it by current controversies, and far more than just undergird doctrine. The Bible shapes and forms its hearers. The Word of God does not return void. It reorients our priorities and our intuitions—even before we know they need adjusting. We as the church and as families need many different ministries and gifts—but maybe Awana Bible memorization classes or Sunday school “Sword drills” are more important than worldview conferences.

When Jesus was tempted by the Devil in the wilderness, he responded with Scripture. But he was not just using proof texts against false teaching. By citing those particular passages from Deuteronomy, Jesus showed that he knew what the Devil was up to—tempting him to seek food, protection, and glory from somewhere other than God, just as the Israelites had been tempted to do in the time of Moses.

The people of God had failed in the wilderness before; the Son of God would not.

Jesus—the only Son of God, begotten not made, Light from Light, true God from true God, of the same essence as the Father, incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary—knew his Book and knew what mattered. If we don’t follow his lead, we might have our “values” right-side up and our theology upside down.

What American Christianity Can Learn from Rich Mullins

This week marked the 25th anniversary of the death of Rich Mullins. In the background as I worked, I played Mullins’s songs and thought about how his music stayed with me all my life—from my teenage years, hearing Amy Grant’s version of a song he had written, all the way to when his posthumously produced song “Hard to Get” helped me through the most difficult time of my life.

As I pondered all of that, I realized I was not just experiencing nostalgia for someone who happened to come of age when I did. In many ways, something like what Rich Mullins carried is exactly what American Christianity needs right now.

Several years ago, I chafed when I heard a Roman Catholic acquaintance ridicule the vapidity of evangelical praise and worship songs. Some of you know that half my family line is Roman Catholic (and probably at least a plurality of my favorite authors are too). A bit too defensively, I shot back, “Well, we all have problems. I’ll take some kitschy songs over the Inquisition any day.”

This was, of course, not fair and just my irritation speaking since (a) I don’t blame those of you who are Roman Catholics for the Inquisition and (b) I’ve since confirmed that evangelicals can sometimes have inquisitions too. I’ve been invited to a few of them.

What set me off, though, was the specific example this man used. He pantomimed a hand-waving, rapturous caricature of a suburban megachurch attendee and said, “Our God is an awesome God.”

I’m quite sure he didn’t know who Rich Mullins was, and I’m even more certain he’d never heard the lyrics beyond the title. But it was clear this critic assumed that “awesome” here was the sort of adjective often joined with “totally” in 1990s-era buddy movies to mean “really cool.” It seemed as though, for him, the title alone evoked everything that was wrong with evangelical worship—an ephemeral novelty matched with a range of emotions that could go only from “applause” happy to “tears in eyes, hands aloft” happy and back again.

Lord knows, I’m not denying that we have such problems, but the song this man threw out there—“Our God Is an Awesome God”—is not an example of them. The man’s critique of Rich Mullins and his music wasn’t just inaccurate; it was the polar opposite of what he was trying to say.

In their collection of essays and interviews, Winds of Heaven, Stuff of Earth: Spiritual Conversations Inspired by the Life and Lyrics of Rich Mullins (Worthy Inspired), Andrew Greer and Randy Cox note the tension Mullins felt within the evangelical establishment of his time.

“Rich chafed against the paint-by-numbers parameters of the gospel music industry,” they write. “From his ragamuffin perspective, his choice was clear: he could either appease the mass-market demands of a religiously ‘right’ constituency by softening his creed and diluting his dialogue, or he could appeal to people’s hearts through honest and human exchanges.”

And that’s what he did. From everyone who knew him, I hear a similar assessment. Mullins was flawed and broken, every bit the ragamuffin he claimed to be or more. But he told us the truth as best he could see it. He pointed to joy and to sorrow—and to the longing for home that all of us feel but none can quite put into words. As he put it in “Land of My Sojourn”:

        Nobody tells you when you get born here
How much you’ll come to love it
And how you’ll never belong here.
So I call you my country
And I’ll be lonely for my home
And I wish that I could take you there with me.

In the end, 25 years later, he has kind of taken us there with him. Those who weren’t even alive in 1997 when he died are listening to his songs and hearing the same word of testimony. He could have made a lot more money if he had been who the market wanted him to be. But he wouldn’t have reached us as well.

And thanks to Rich Mullins, we see just a little bit more clearly that our God is an awesome God.

My Favorite Rich Mullins Songs

Via social media this week, some of y’all asked what the best Rich Mullins songs are. Short answer: I don’t know. I don’t know how to read music, play an instrument, or carry a tune. I just know what moves me and lingers with me. Here are my favorites:

Desert Island Playlist

This week’s submission comes from reader Matt Clark from Vicksburg in my home state of Mississippi. Matt writes that he’s “a 30-something middle-class bureaucrat father of two,” so writing this list helped him imagine he’s a music journalist for a minute. Here’s Matt’s list with his commentary:

  • “When the Man Comes Around” by Johnny Cash—This is technically breaking your “no sacred songs” rule, but I had to include a Cash song and this is my favorite: Bible prophecy riding a stark acoustic locomotive. Someone on Twitter referred to it as a “rebuttal” to John Lennon’s “Imagine,” and I loved it.

  • “Twist and Shout” by The Beatles—Speaking of Mr. Lennon, he supposedly wrecked his vocal cords recording this one in a single take. I believe it. I love later, more pretentious Beatles records, but this is my number one track from the fab four, perhaps due to my kids’ enthusiastic dancing a la Ferris Bueller.

  • “Lake Marie” by John Prine—This is such a strange and haunting song. Prine, with trademark wit, weaves together disparate story snippets about Indian tribes, his own failing marriage, and grisly murder. The pieces all fit together somehow with no explanation. “You know what blood looks like in a black and white video?”

  • “Wakin’ on a Pretty Day” by Kurt Vile—I doubt I would want to hang out with Kurt much in person (like many artists in my record collection), as he would probably find me a drag and I would probably tell him to cut his hair and grow up. But I love his laid-back, smirky, trippy sound. This one is my favorite and is perfect for a quiet drive when the sky’s a pleasant gray.

  • “Guerilla Radio” by Rage Against the Machine—RATM are a little juvenile in their outlook, and I don’t think their fantasies of violent revolution are healthy in large doses, but man, they’re good at what they do. And man, the fire de la Rocha was spitting in 1999 still resonates over this past decade. “As the polls close like a casket…”

  • “Your Sweet Love” by Lee Hazelwood—This is from 1966 but is the track newest to me on this list. I heard it not long ago as the theme for Netflix’s Untold documentary series and was absolutely floored. Polished pop country at its absolute eeriest beauty, this one drifts into my head involuntarily all the time. 

  • “Gimme Shelter” by The Rolling Stones—By and large, I’m more a Beatle than a Stone, but this is the greatest rock-and-roll song of all time. Visions of social unrest cloud the imagination as Mick warbles about creeping darkness and soul singer Merry Clayton upstages him, bellowing of the nearness of war, murder, and other nightmares.

  • “Sadie” by Joanna Newsom—Joanna is an acquired taste reserved for the sophisticate, and by that I mean my wife (along with many others) hates her bizarre voice, which is suited perfectly to her bizarre music. Her first record is her most out-there, shaking up a cocktail of freaky classical folk. “Sadie” is a very sad song, with (seemingly) non-Christian Joanna struggling with God and mortality through the lens provided by a dead beloved dog.

  • “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” by Bob Dylan—I could fill this list with all sorts of Dylan, but since I’ve got some goofiness elsewhere here, I’ll just stick to one of his most straightforward. It’s about falling in love and is simultaneously joyful for the falling and mournful for the inevitable end. Bob belongs in the same bucket as Keats and Shakespeare.

  • “Pancho and Lefty” by Townes Van Zandt—I adore Willie and Merle’s version, but for this list I have to go with the desolate, tragic original by the desolate, tragic composer. It’s a story song with a vague ending about two characters with a vague connection, but what is amazing is how vividly those characters are drawn. Pancho tears across the desert on his steel-fast mount more fleshed out in a few lyrics than many characters who live in entire novels or films.

  • “What’d I Say” by Ray Charles—Ray claimed he wrote this song accidentally while improvising to fill up the last few minutes of a set. You could guess that from the track’s blithe, impulsive feeling. Nothing better manifests the Genius’s charisma and fiery talent.

  • Honorable Mention to “Over the Hills and Far Away” by Led Zeppelin—My favorite song (and favorite band) in high school eons ago. Its scent of Tolkien still makes me want to go questing for my Lady Fair.

“Thanks for all that you do, Dr. Moore, and particularly your open appreciation for ‘nonreligious’ art as an incredible evidence of common grace.”

Thank you, Matt!

Readers, what do you 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 (or both lists!) to, and include as much or as little explanation of your choices as you would like.

Quote of the Moment

How can we begin to assert and defend our freedom of attention? One thing is clear: it would be a sad reimposition of the same technocratic impulse that gave us the attention economy in the first place if we were to assume that there exists a prescribable basket of “solutions” which, if we could only apply them faithfully, might lead us out of this crisis. There are no maps here, only compasses.

—James Williams, Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy (Cambridge University Press)

Currently Reading (or Rereading)

Dante Alighieri, Inferno, trans. Mary Jo Bang, illus. Henrik Drescher (Graywolf)

Gene L. Green, Vox Petri: A Theology of Peter (Cascade)

Emma J. Wells, Heaven on Earth: The Lives and Legacies of the World’s Greatest Cathedrals (Bloomsbury)

Beth McCord and Jeff McCord, More Than Your Number: A Christ-Centered Enneagram Approach to Become A.W.A.R.E. of Your Internal World (Thomas Nelson)

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Russell Moore

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