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Hello, fellow wayfarers. How Rainn Wilson convinced me that Dwight Schrute explains our current cultural moment … When religious pluralism trivializes religious conviction … What’s slouching toward Bethlehem to be born? … A Desert Island Bookshelf from the “Wild Blue Yonder” … This is this week’s Moore to the Point.

Russell Moore

The Dwight Schrute Theory of American Culture

Yesterday on my podcast, I talked to actor/comedian/writer Rainn Wilson, who famously played Dwight Schrute on The Office. (This was the first episode of The Russell Moore Show that my kids insisted on being there for.) As we talked, I started to realize how Dwight Schrute just might explain how we arrived at this scary moment in American life.

In his (amazingly good) history of the television show, The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s, journalist Andy Greene recounts a fierce debate among the writers and producers after Steve Carell, the lead actor who played Michael Scott, left the show after seven seasons. At issue was what character would replace Scott as the “World’s Best Boss” at Dunder Mifflin Scranton.

Aaron Shure, one of the show’s writers, didn’t think Dwight should be the boss because “Dwight is not as benign as Michael Scott. He’s like this weird amalgam of Mennonite and Star Trek nerd.”

“I also didn’t want Dwight to be empowered because I was afraid he wouldn’t be funny anymore,” Shure said. “It’s funny if he sets the office on fire and blowtorches all the doorknobs. But if he did that all day long without any sort of check on his behavior, it would be terrifying.”

Danny Chun, on the other hand, argued that the responsibility itself would change Dwight’s character. “To me it felt like he was going to do some insane, inappropriate, horrible, and cruel things, but he may now suddenly be forced into a position to contemplate what he was doing a little more, and that seemed intriguing.”

That may have been an in-house dispute among television writers on a set in Sherman Oaks, California, several years ago—but I increasingly find it to be one of the most fundamental issues in American culture right now.

One reason our culture seems especially precarious and anxious at the moment is not just because so many of our institutions are failing. It’s because our institutions seem scary.

Whether we are talking about Congress, the tech industry, public health authorities, the press, law enforcement, the church—or almost any other institution in American life—we’ve seen two almost equally terrifying realities.

In some cases, institutions lose trust because of their highly competent but morally evil leaders. (Think Robert California when he’s sober.) No one questions whether the scientists and engineers working on artificial intelligence programs in Silicon Valley are skilled at what they do. The fear is that they are as skilled as the people who gave us a social media ecosystem that’s turned out to be highly effective at isolating and enraging people with algorithms and disinformation. No one wonders whether the pharmaceutical marketers who sold entire populations of people into opioid addiction know what they’re doing. We worry that they know all too well and all too much.

The little nub of truth at the root of this fear is where conspiracy theories thrive. Anxious people start to assume that there are all sorts of highly competent, morally depraved people running everything around them. That can be scary.

But then there’s the Dwight Schrute problem—and it is even scarier.

The episode Shure referenced, where Dwight staged a fire drill by torching the doorknobs, sending the office into a frenzy (and triggering one character to have a heart attack), was one of the most popular in the series’ run (helped by the fact that it aired just after the Super Bowl). But, as Shure noted, the story line was a Dwight limited to some degree in his ability to carry out mayhem. He was just the assistant to the regional manager.

The series’ lead character, boss Michael Scott, was an idiot, to be sure. But his idiocy was hemmed in by a certain kind of sweetness and sincerity. Michael was a delusional narcissist in many ways, yet what he ultimately wanted was to be loved and accepted by a family of friends. He wanted to sing karaoke with Jim, to be invited to parties by Ryan, to be the godfather of Jim and Pam’s baby. Even when he did objectively awful things (like attempting to frame human resources director Toby Flenderson for a crime), there was a check on how far he could go.

When Dwight did, in fact, become manager, the audience loved it because it was so obviously temporary. They could deal with the dictator-style portrait of himself he installed and the desk modeled after that of Saddam Hussein’s son because both things were short-term.

In any institution—or in our culture at large—people start to worry when they realize their leaders have neither the expertise to navigate through difficult challenges nor the brakes to restrain their worst impulses. What could be funny in a situation without power can be terrifying in a situation with actual authority.

Perhaps that’s why people find ways to mythologize institutions or leaders when things start looking scary. Maybe it’s why some think that a political leader who no one can pretend has a moral compass is playing brilliant “four-dimensional chess” that only looks chaotic because he’s too smart to let “them” know what he’s doing. And maybe it’s why we tell ourselves it’s okay for a pastor to scream uncontrollably because he’s a church-growth ninja who can take the congregation “to the next level.”

Behind it all is the assumption, as some Office writers put forth with Dwight, that responsibility itself will transform character and competence. The thought is that, yes, Dwight might put Sprinkles the cat in the freezer to euthanize her—but once he’s manager, he will step up to the burden of the task. The stakes are too high, after all.

This is magical thinking that helps us sleep through the night, but it isn’t true. While Dwight does end up being the manager at the end of the series, it’s only after a long character-altering arc.

The idea that private character doesn’t matter to public leadership is not only morally corrosive but also ultimately fear-inducing. Any office or position—be it regional manager of a midlevel paper company, bishop of a church, president of the United States, or even spouse or parent—doesn’t transform someone into an individual capable of holding it.

The same dynamic is true for being a disciple of Christ. Jesus told us, “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much” (Luke 16:10). What’s internal to a person eventually shows itself.

A diseased tree cannot yield good fruit (Matt. 7:18), even if the whole community is counting on it to combat starvation. Dwight Schrute might be right that nitrogen is the most essential element for “above-ground leafy growth.” But all the nitrogen in the world can’t grow anything out of a dead root.

Any mythology needs a chaos figure: a Loki, a Joker, a Dwight. But when such figures are in charge, the results are bleak. We then start giving up on character and competence and look for an even more chaotic figure to put checks on the first. That way leads—in an office, on a film set, in a country, or in a church—to “Threat Level Midnight,” and deep down, we all know it.

When Religious Pluralism Trivializes Religion

An interesting part of the Rainn Wilson conversation, for me, had to do with the question of religious pluralism. Wilson and I, of course, come from two completely different theological starting points. He’s a follower of the Baha’i faith who wandered away and came back to it. I’m a Southern Baptist in the federal witness relocation program. Those differences showed up in how we frame even what religion is.

In one sense, we both believe in religious pluralism. I believe the state should not establish a church or coerce people’s consciences or restrict or mandate any religious belief or worship. We should have a public square in which Muslims are free to be Muslims, Buddhists are free to be Buddhists, Christians are free to be Christians, atheists are free to be atheists, and so on. That’s not despite but because of the fact that I’m a very conservative evangelical Christian.

In my view, the New Birth can occur only through heart persuasion of the truth of the gospel and through heart allegiance to Jesus Christ. That can’t happen by handing out religions like driver’s licenses or by threatening people with social scorn, fines, or worse.

For some, then, the phrase religious pluralism refers to taking the claims of religion so seriously that the state or the culture does not interfere or play referee in ultimate questions.

For others, though, religious pluralism refers to something along the lines of a more secularized version of Baha’i. After all, the Baha’i faith holds that Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism are all true, at least in the most important ways. In our conversation, Wilson returned to this point several times as a way to demonstrate that he respects Jesus and Christianity.

My question was “How does this not turn religion into Recyclops?” As those of you who are fellow “Office stans” will remember, Recyclops was a character Dwight Schrute played on Earth Day to encourage recycling. Everyone knew he wasn’t real; he was just a metaphor for the actual important issue—getting people to behave in an environmentally responsible way. As the show’s narrative demonstrated, the imagery of Recyclops started in banality but quickly turned dark. By the end, Recyclops was spraying ozone-depleting aerosols and vowing to destroy the planet he once pledged to save.

What I was trying to get at is that this metaphysical kind of pluralism ends up doing the opposite of what it intends: to respect and honor various religions.

To say to a Muslim friend and to me, “You should respect each other and love each other” is exactly right. But to say, “Your disagreements aren’t that significant; you have kind of the same religion when it comes to what’s really important” is a different matter.

Both Muslims and Christians would agree that questions about God being triune and Jesus being the incarnate Son of God are crucial issues. Telling my Muslim friend that those questions are minor compared with a more generic monotheism is a failure to take Islam all that seriously.

Rainn articulated his position well by saying he sees Jesus as a “lamp” that carries the “light” of spiritual truth. For him, Jesus is a great teacher who communicates what’s ultimately at the root of all the major world religions. But that’s where I disagree.

The more one pays attention to what Jesus said about himself and to what the apostles claimed about him, the more one realizes that C. S. Lewis was right: either this man named Jesus was delusional and a scammer, or he was actually who he claimed to be—the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

I see Jesus not as a lamp carrying a more general light but as the actual Light himself—the Light that shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it (John 1:5).

The kind of “big,” overarching religious pluralism that tries to flatten Rainn’s and my views to the same thing—in other words, to stop conversation and persuasion—doesn’t work. Instead, we need the “smaller” religious pluralism that says, “These conversations are massively important, which is why you should talk to each other about them as friends and not as enemies.”

The Test for How Bad Things Are

Sometimes any one of us can wonder, Am I misreading things around me? Are things as bad (or as good) as they seem? This week I came across a test that I will probably find myself using from here on out. The test for whether things are dire and devolving or good and improving is simply this: What poem is repeated so often as to become a cliché?

Now, I know some of you don’t like poetry. Some of you wish you did but say that you just can’t understand it. But you don’t have to understand it to apply this test. You just have to pay attention to certain phrases you hear from leaders and pundits.

The test is from a 2018 commentary by Irish essayist Fintan O’Toole. He calls it “the Yeats test.” He wrote, “The proposition is simple: the more quotable Yeats seems to commentators and politicians, the worse things are.”

Specifically, O’Toole references William Butler Yeats’s “magnificently doom-laden” 1919 poem “The Second Coming.” You may have heard many parts of this poem all your life without realizing it: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold,” “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

Yeats wrote this poem at a time when it indeed seemed, as his poem says, that “mere anarchy” had been unleashed on the world—with the seismic catastrophes of the 1918 flu pandemic and, of course, World War I. O’Toole argues that when speeches repeatedly cite this poem or when Google searches magnify looking for its phrases, times often feel especially chaotic.

The reverse is true, he says, if we see a spike in quotations from another Irish poet, Seamus Heaney—such as his phrase “hope and history rhyme.” When we hear leaders use lines like that, times may feel more stable.

We hear phrases from “The Second Coming” a lot right now—maybe especially because no one has more brilliantly captured a phenomenon we can see almost anywhere, whether in politics, business, churches, or denominations: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Even so, O’Toole argues, in all its bleakness, “The Second Coming” is kind of a sign of hope.

“It reminds us that we’ve been here before, that the current sense of profound unsettlement is not unique in modern history,” he writes. “Perhaps especially on social media, where everything exists in a continuous, frantic present tense, the insertion of Yeats might do something to provoke a wider reflection on the big things that are happening around us and where they might lead.”

I wonder whether churches could apply a kind of “Yeats test” to Bible quotations too. Maybe the more we hear Ecclesiastes quoted, the worse things seem, and the more we hear Proverbs quoted, the better?

Regardless, even when it seems the “center cannot hold,” we can remember, as the hymn teaches us, “In every high and stormy gale / My anchor holds within the veil.” Things fall apart, yes. But Christ “is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17).

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 Megan Davidson, who is stationed at Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea.

Megan says that she agrees with Kris from last week’s Desert Island Playlist, who protested that 10 to 12 songs are not enough. She writes, “On average, I would guess they would cost me 10 days, and very likely my survival, since I would be reading them instead of doing things like, say, building a fire.” Here’s her list:

  • The Complete Book of the Flower Fairies, by Cicely Mary Barker—This book was for me what Squirrel Nutkin was for Lewis: a glimpse of Beauty and of Wonder. I came across it at a very young age and have loved both nature and the magical ever since.

  • The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (not pictured), by C. S. Lewis—Speaking of Lewis, this one is my favorite from the Chronicles and quite apt for being stranded while voyaging. It is not pictured because my family and I are on military assignment to Korea and I didn’t bring it with us. Big mistake.

  • Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O’Dell—This is one of my most-read novels from childhood. It is a lonely and haunting story, with the bonus of having many helpful tips for surviving on a deserted island.

  • Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien—I am never surprised to see this on others’ island bookshelves, because really, who has time ordinarily to fully appreciate the story Tolkien told, much less the appendices? A great, long, escapist read; perfect for those long nights under the stars. Shoot. Just realized I should’ve added an astronomy book. I don’t know anything about constellations. I suppose I will have to create my own.

  • A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle—I love Madeleine L’Engle’s blend of fantasy and science fiction. This has long been one of my favorites and another great “journeying” novel to keep me company.

  • The Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri—Moving on from various, comforting pilgrimage novels, I have included two intellectual books, meant to stimulate the mind and stave off atrophy. I have always wanted to read this but have never had the time and/or understanding to actually do it. I’m not sure if being on an island would change that, but I’d like to think all the boredom would somehow propel me to hitherto unreached intellectual heights.

  • The Second World War, by Winston Churchill—This is cheating because it’s six books, but what better way to reflect upon the benefits of my own situation than reading the inspiring triumph of good over evil and freedom over tyranny? A classic.

  • Prayer, by Timothy Keller—Once one has spent time training the mind, one needs to tend to the soul. Actually, I’m pretty sure Edmond Dantes would say I put those backward, but in any case, a Christian needs the support of the cloud of witnesses to manage solitude like this. This book on prayer is the best I’ve read. I go back to it again and again and again to remind myself how important and rich it is to commune with God.

  • Practicing the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence—What better way to learn acceptance, humility, and finding God in all things than learning from a 15th-century monk on dish duty? I love this book for its simplicity. You don’t have to be imprisoned or in charge of a massive organization or a valiant prayer warrior to find fulfillment. God’s presence can be experienced anywhere. As all of my adult life has been spent following my husband around the world, this has been a critical lesson.

  • Miracles, by C. S. Lewis—Lewis is my favorite author, and this is the book I have found hardest to understand. Both a comfort and a challenge, with plenty of material to both ponder and pray over as I am chopping up palm fronds for firewood. Assuming I have an axe. Or a knife.

  • The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass Aged 37¾, by Adrian Plass—Consider this addition a gift to all the readers of this newsletter. Every Christian needs to read this book. Being on a deserted island would very quickly become lonely and depressing, so one would need humor! Adrian uses a so-called “sacred diary” to record important spiritual truths for the world. What he does instead is to describe the Christian life as it actually is: a series of stumbling, embarrassing failures that reveal how God has been working all along in spite of our best efforts. This is one of the only books that makes me laugh out loud.

  • Calvin and Hobbes anthology, by Bill Watterson—Calvin and Hobbes has been my go-to comfort reading for as long as I can remember. Funny, witty, sometimes poignant, and always true; I could not be left in a place without this masterpiece.

Megan concludes, “That list takes care of 10 days. What to do with the rest of the time?”

Thank you, Megan! (And as a USAF dad, let me add, “Go Air Force!”)

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 5–12 songs, excluding hymns and worship songs. (We’ll cover those later.)

  • For a Desert Island Bookshelf, send me a list of 5–12 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

    As a poet, Jesus is maybe at his best in describing the feeling you get when you glimpse the Thing Itself—the kingship of the king official at last and all the world his coronation. It’s like finding a million dollars in a field, he says, or a jewel worth a king’s ransom. It’s like finding something you hated to lose and thought you’d never find again—an old keepsake, a stray sheep, a missing child. When the Kingdom really comes, it’s as if the thing you lost and thought you’d never find again is yourself.

    —Frederick Buechner, “Kingdom of God”

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