Moore to the Point
Hello fellow wayfarers, How social media has turned us all into Hollywood child actors…What Donald Trump taught me about criticism…Plus, why I’m wrong on the death penalty…Why I was wrong about the effect of COVID-19 on campus ministries…This is this week’s Moore to the Point.
Russell Moore
Social Media as a Quest for Kindness

You probably don’t know who Kieran Culkin is; I certainly didn’t. But, regardless of how old you are, I’d wager you know who Macaulay Culkin, his brother, is. And probably the first image that comes to mind is the elder Culkin’s hands on his face in the iconic Home Alone scream. According to The Hollywood Reporter, that’s just the way the younger brother wants it.

Kieran—now, in his 30s, starring in the television series Succession—had multiple opportunities to be, like his big brother, a “child star,” and he turned them down. “I was definitely not ready,” he said. “I would not have been able to handle it, and I think I knew that. So I literally ran away from it.” He described seeing a woman stalk his brother on the street, pull off his hat, and yell, “Yeah, it’s him! You’re not that cute.” The younger Culkin knew that was not the life he wanted, and that if he went down it, he might end up the stereotypical child star—maybe substance abuse, maybe court guardianship battles, and who knows what else.

Maybe there was a time when we could look at the life choices of the two Culkin brothers from a distance—as though we were looking at someone else. Maybe, though, we are looking in a collective mirror. “Fame” is not just what happens to “stars” now—child or otherwise. Fame is what happens to everybody—with the only question being the size of the audience. Maybe the social media age is turning us all into child stars—with no way to run away.

This is why, for instance, the leaked “Facebook Files” about the inner workings of Facebook reference ongoing data about what Instagram usage does to the self-image of adolescents, especially teenage girls. Every child or adolescent faces a fear of judgment of peers, of exile from the group. That’s why very few of us would want to time travel back to middle school. The social media age seems though to heighten this, to where almost everyone faces a kind of paparazzi of approval or disapproval from complete strangers.

The philosopher Alain de Botton argued in his The School of Life that one way to gauge whether one’s parenting is going well is to ask whether one’s child aspires to be famous. That’s because, he argues, the quest for fame is different than other (also dangerous) aspirations to wealth or power or pleasure. The quest for fame is a desire for kindness.

“Fame seems to offer impressive benefits,” he writes. “The fantasy unfolds like this: when you are famous, wherever you go, your good reputation will precede you. People will think well of you, because your merits have been impressively explained in advance.”

“The desire for fame has its roots in the experience of neglect and injury,” he argues. “No one would want to be famous who hadn’t also, at somewhere in the past, been made to feel extremely insignificant.”

If I’m famous, the subconscious argument goes, I am free from rejection and judgment, my parents will admire me, and I will have an instant and safe community. The philosopher tells us that this is, of course, nonsense. He writes: “Fame makes people more, not less vulnerable, because it leaves them open to unlimited judgment.”

“Psychologically, the famous are of course the very last people on earth to be well equipped to deal with what they’re going through,” de Botton contends. “They will be exposed to the fact that people they have never met, people for whom they have nothing but good will, actively loathe them. They will learn that detestation of their personality is, in some quarters, a badge of honor.”

Fame has always been a draw for at least some human beings. Look no further than the pyramids to see that. But for most people, for most of human history, people started out learning who they were with a very limited “audience” of family, extended family, tribe, and village. There was still a possibility, of course, that someone might rip your hat off and announce disappointment that you’re uglier than they thought. But it was far less likely that this would be a group of strangers.

The reason studies show that adolescent psychology finds so much peril on Instagram is not simply because people are bullied online (although that does happen). It’s because even when one is receiving affirmation from this collection of strangers, one is always looking to maintain that status. Even if one is “succeeding,” the fear of falling is all that more intense—like a child star who worries that he will not be cast anymore when he’s a gangly adult instead of a cherubic dimpled wunderkind. That’s bad enough if one is looking at a film career; far worse is one is looking at a life.

This is not just an adolescent problem—especially in a culture where adolescence is the default stage of life, whether in junior high home room or the senior assisted living home.

The danger is not just for those people who are crushed beneath the judgment of others, but maybe even more so for the people who learn how to protect themselves from it when “fame” inevitably fails to do so. Some end up as trolls who want to preemptively lash out at those who might hurt them. And others become almost sociopathic in their numbness to other’s opinions, by building an exoskeleton of cynicism that filters out not only the judgment of online strangers but even the counsel of real-life friends.

There are no easier answers, especially as we move toward the next phase of connectedness in a “metaverse” or its equivalent. But as with most things, it seems to me that the answer is both individual and communal.

We need, each of us, the sense of a rightful biblical individualism. God receives us not collective by collective or nation by nation or peer group by peer group but one by one. The message “You must be born again” is not just directed generically to humanity or to the Pharisees, but to one particular Pharisee, Nicodemus—so fearful, it seems, of losing his status in the tribe that he comes to Jesus by night (John 3). When we realize that we stand—personally—before the face of God, that we will each give an account before the
judgment seat of Christ, only then can we be freed of the countless little judgment seats all around us every day.

And what frees us is not just a judgment seat but who is seated on it. It’s the judgment seat of Christ. This is someone who doesn’t judge us on our impressive achievements or our curated images or our status in some social system. He is the one who came looking for us in the woods—and then throws a party of rejoicing when he found us (Luke 15:3–7). That’s why Paul could write to the Corinthians that he found it “a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court”—even his own judgment of himself (1 Cor. 4:3, ESV). He could entrust himself to the judgment of a Christ who truly knew him—a serial killer with religious zeal—and loved him anyway.

The communal side is realizing that kindness and community cannot be found universally and generically. Instead we must look for—as Seth Godin puts it from a marketing perspective—the “smallest viable audience.” That’s why Jesus put us into a church—a church that actually gathers around a table. Alain de Botton rightly notes: “There is no shortcut to friendship—which is what the famous person is seeking.” Indeed there is not. That happens around bread and wine and confession and repentance and mission and service—together with a tangible group of people one can learn to be loved by and to love. There is no shortcut to that.

And maybe that’s what the church uniquely has to offer the world right now. You do not have to be famous to be known. You do not have to be perfect to be loved. You do not have to be proven right to be justified. Even child stars can become as little children again—maybe for the first time. Even in a metaverse, we are not home alone.

What Donald Trump Taught Me About Criticism

This past week marks the fifth anniversary of what would turn out to be an unexpectedly defining moment in my life: the 2016 presidential election. Someone asked me not long ago about how I dealt with what they assumed must have been a crushing hurt to me, when then-future President Donald Trump tweeted that I am a “nasty man with no heart” and a “terrible representative for evangelicals.” This must have been traumatic, the person asked, so how did you cope with it? I don’t think he believed me when I said that not only was that not traumatic but that I have the tweet blown up to poster size and hanging on the wall right here in my library.

That is emphatically not because I am invulnerable to criticism (far, far from it) and it’s emphatically not because I did not face genuine trauma as a result of what happened in that year, and in the years since. It’s just that that tweet wasn’t a part of it. I genuinely found it funny. I know some of you don’t agree with my perspective on the former president, and that’s okay. Those of you in that category who read this newsletter model grace and charity and treat me kindly anyway. Still, you will understand how surprising it would be that I found it kind of endearing. And maybe it brought up some of my Generation X-ness since I found myself singing around the house, “No, my first name ain’t ‘Baby,’ it’s ‘Russell.’ Dr. Moore if you’re nasty.” Most of you are too young to get that reference, and you are missing nothing.

I’ve never really stopped to wonder why—until this interviewer showed some skepticism that this didn’t really hurt. Part of it is because these tweeted insults were so common that they hardly seemed stinging or personal. Later on, similar tweets would be directed at his own cabinet members and vice president. I was actually crushed by an email from a childhood Sunday school teacher calling me a traitor after I criticized the Access Hollywood tapes. Why? Probably because she actually knows me. She is part of my story. Her opinion of me mattered in a way this didn’t.

Part of it is because, while I have disagreements with Trump, we are in perfect alignment on my nastiness and lack of a heart. I sing worse things about myself in hymns on Sunday morning. He didn’t call me a “wretch” or a “worm,” but I’ve sung that about myself. Criticism doesn’t really hurt usually when it’s completely off the mark, but it also doesn’t really sting when it is dead-on accurate and already acknowledged and seen.

In his new book Letters from the Mountain, a collection of advice to his daughter, Ben Palpant writes that he asked his father how he endured all the criticism he received during his years as a doctor. The grandfather relayed the account of David’s interaction with Shimei in 2 Samuel 16. Shimei was cursing David and literally throwing stones. Abishai, one of David’s warriors, wanted to cut off the cursing drunk’s head. As Palpant notes, David was, after all, the anointed one of God.

David’s response here is in line with Jesus in Samaria with James and John or with Simon Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane: a call to put away the sword. What’s fascinating, in this case, is what Palpant rightly observes as the reason. David said that maybe Shimei was right in his views of David, so why spend time contradicting him? Moreover, David said, Maybe God will use his cursing for good in my life.

That counsel is, of course, easier to read than to carry out, easier to apply in the abstract than in the middle of a situation. But it’s good counsel nonetheless. The physician grandfather who observed this seems wise and loving to me—for what that’s worth coming from someone certifiably nasty and heartless.

Why I’m Wrong on the Death Penalty

Several years ago, a group of us were on a panel at (I think) The Gospel Coalition, and someone asked each of us to say what some of our blind spots are. I remember nothing about that panel except for Tim Keller saying, “If we knew what our blind spots were, they wouldn’t be blind spots,” and, as with most things from the sage of Manhattan, that settled that. By definition, we don’t know what questions we aren’t asking, what assumptions we aren’t questioning.

On this week’s episode of the podcast, I start a new feature called “Tell Me Where I’m Wrong.” Once a month or so I will talk to someone who disagrees with me on an issue. These will usually not be about matters of existential or central importance. I don’t think I’m likely to talk about something that no one will ever, in any alternate universe, change my mind about, so probably don’t expect “Marcus Borg Tells Me Where I’m Wrong on the Resurrection of Jesus” or “David Duke Tells Me Where I’m Wrong on Racial Equality” or whatever. But every one of these dialogues will have strict rules of engagement that don’t bind my guest but bind me.

I have to ask questions for information, to help me understand a position. I can’t argue or debate or slip in debate in the form of a question (“First question: How dare you?”). Afterward, I will reflect, in the moment, on how the conversation helped me understand the issues better (if it did); what, if any, aspects of the conversation I found compelling or not compelling; and what points of conversation I would have to mull over more.

The point is to learn along with you how to better have these conversations at a time when almost everything seems polarized and people seem to be sorted into silos that never even engage with one another.

The first of these is with Shane Claiborne about where I’m wrong on the death penalty (and a little bit on war too). I told Shane that the only rules for him is that he could not tell me where I’m wrong in every area he thinks I am, because this couldn’t be a 12-part docu-series. And I told him I expected him to hold me accountable if I started to break my own rules. I think I did a time or two and veered off a little too close to debate territory, but he didn’t call me out. What did I expect? He’s a pacifist.

Anyway, tune in to the episode whether you think either of us or neither of us is right on capital punishment. It might change your mind one way or the other. And I hope it helps us all to approach one another with kindness and curiosity, in a world where we can hold strong opinions and still genuinely like one another.

COVID-19 and Campus Ministry

This week I was talking to a leader in a campus ministry at the University of Chicago in preparation for speaking to a joint gathering of the various evangelical campus ministries there next week. One thing he said was fascinating, and I can’t stop thinking about it. He said that, by far, the largest cohort in his and every other campus ministry he knows is second-year students. “There are more sophomores participating in campus ministries this year than all the other year-groups put together,” he said. “These are students for whom there first year of college was COVID year.”

I found this cheering and might have expected the exact reverse. People who spent their first year disconnected on Zoom would, one might think, be the least likely to show up at campus ministries, since their habits haven’t been established to do so after a first year of Zoom classes.

Are any of y’all seeing this too? If so, why do you think that’s the case?

Desert Island Bookshelf

For those of y’all new here, normally in this spot we would have a photo submitted by a reader of their ideal bookshelf to take with them, for life, to a desert island. This week, though, we have, instead of that, a suggestion.

Rachel Walser writes this: “Thanks for the newsletter! I look forward to it every week. I’ve got a suggestion for the newsletter—how about a Desert Island Playlist? People choose five songs they would have with them while they are stranded on an island (could pretend it’s 2005 and they have some kind of magical iPod that doesn’t run out of charge but only lets you play five songs. Or, you could bring back The Cross and the Jukebox! Broaden those non-southern folks’ horizons a little bit!”

Okay, I’m game for this. Rachel should send her list in right away—and the rest of you too. Let me set a couple of rules first. Five seems too arbitrary a limit. Why don’t we say between five and 15 songs?

Second, let’s make these, for now, excluding hymns and worship songs. I say that because of my memory of the time when teaching an adult Sunday school class I, as an opening icebreaker, asked folks to say their favorite song. The first person said, “Brad Paisley’s ‘Ticks,’” and then as we went around the room people were saying, “Come Thou Fount of Many Blessings” or “Amazing Grace,” and I was sure this brother was thinking, Let me redo that, so I don’t look so unspiritual. We’ll do hymns and worship songs later, but right now, what would you have in addition to an unlimited set of hymns?

What do you think? 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 to

Quote of the moment

“That’s the difference between pragmatism and grace. We don’t do the next gospel thing to get an intended result. We do the next gospel thing because we are loved.”
- Scotty Smith


Currently Reading (Or Re-Reading)

Justin Whitmel Earley, Habits of the Household: Practicing the Story of God in Everyday Family Rhythms (Zondervan)

Jonathan Franzen, Crossroads (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Italo Calvino, Mr. Palomar (Harcourt)

Currently Watching

After hearing a recommendation from Charlie Sykes over at The Bulwark, Maria and I are two episodes in to the British crime series Unforgotten, about investigators looking into a 40-year-old cold case. We loved Broadchurch (recommended by Karen Swallow Prior on Twitter, when I was asking for things to stream while recovering from surgery five years ago). In fact, I streamed the whole series before the recovery was complete. So far this is likewise riveting (caveat: some occasional profanity and, while no gore or violence that we’ve seen yet, a skeleton or two shows up).

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Russell Moore

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